The Papal Claimants Among Traditional Catholics

Scattered among the various sects loosely styling themselves as traditional Catholics are to be found over a dozen men claiming to be the true Pope. Many laugh at these claimants and dismiss them as being a little off; but they also have their adherents who are absolutely convinced that they are who they claim to be, i.e., the true Pope of the Catholic Church.

It is the intention of this article to examine the applicable doctrines of the Catholic Church concerning the valid means of obtaining the papacy and then to see how our papal claimants measure up against these doctrines. But first, a clear understanding of just what a pope is is essential.

I. Whoever is the Bishop of Rome is the Pope

Vatican Council I (1870) defined that:

"If any one shall say… that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this same primacy - let him be anathema."1

The “primacy” of St. Peter is the diocese of Rome and the “Roman Pontiff” is the Bishop of Rome. Therefore, whoever is the Bishop of the diocese of Rome is by virtue of that office the successor of St. Peter, i.e, the Pope of the Catholic Church.

Contained within this decree is an important distinction to be kept in mind and one misunderstood by many – namely, that a pope is not elected and as a consequence of his election he also becomes the Bishop of Rome. Rather, the Cardinals elect the Bishop of Rome and in virtue of the newly elected accepting this office as Bishop of Rome, he becomes the Pope.

“[T]he pope becomes chief pastor because he is Bishop of Rome: he does not become Bishop of Rome because he has been chosen to be head of the universal Church.” (Papal Elections – Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)

So whoever is the Bishop of Rome is the Pope of the Universal Catholic Church. Therefore, any one claiming to be the Pope, must establish that he is, in fact, the Bishop of Rome.

It should be noted that the above cited decree of Vatican Council I concerning the primacy of the Roman Pontiff is an infallible decree and must be believed by all Catholics for salvation.2 If anyone refuses to believe this decree, he thereby ceases to be a member of the Catholic Church. If any of our papal claimants refuse to believe this decree, they cease to be a member of the Catholic Church; and of course, as a non-member of the Catholic Church, they certainly can not be its head, i.e., the Pope.

“The non-Christian cannot in any way be Pope, as Cajetan himself admits. The reason for this is that he cannot be head of what he is not a member.” (St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, II, 30.)

Assuming that none of our papal claimants would be so rash as to openly deny this decree, the remaining question regarding them therefore can be reduced to this simple one: Are any of them the “Bishop of Rome”?

II. Are Any of Our Claimants the Bishop of Rome?

To be a bishop of a diocese means that a bishop has a flock in that diocese that he governs to the exclusion of all other bishops.3 Now the Bishop of Rome is not an exception here, he too must have a flock in Rome (Rome being a diocese) that he governs, just like any other bishop, i.e., he must be the Bishop of living, breathing Catholics who are residents of Rome:

“No man, according to the prevailing teaching of scholastic theology, could be the successor of St. Peter and thus the visible head of the universal Church militant unless he had particular episcopal authority over the Christians of the Eternal City… the successor of St. Peter, the vicar of Christ on earth, could not possibly be other than the Bishop who presides over the local Christian community of the Eternal City.” (American Ecclesiastic Review: The Local Church of Rome, Msgr. Joseph Fenton, 1950)

Now, is this the case with any of our claimants regarding the diocese of Rome? Are any of them governing a flock in Rome? Do any of them have even so much as one Catholic who is a citizen of Roman that claims them as their bishop?

Personally, I am unaware of any of these claimants being able to give a “yes” to any of the above questions; so on what possible grounds therefore do they claim to be the Bishop of Rome? They don’t live there; they have no flock there; nor do they exercise jurisdiction there. So just exactly what is it that makes them the Bishop of Rome? Some of them may indeed be bishops, but none of them have established the fact that they are the Bishop of Rome.

III. Must the Church in Rome Always Endure?

An argument is sometimes made that because we are living in the time of the Great Apostasy, that Rome no longer possess any true Catholics to govern, and therefore an exception must be made here.

Most theologians, however, including St. Robert Bellarmine, deny that Rome could ever entirely fall away from the Faith:

“[T]he Roman clergy and the Roman laity, as a corporate unit, could never fall away from the faith.”4 And that “the infallibility of the Roman Church is much more than a mere theological opinion. The proposition that ‘the Church of the city of Rome can fall into error’ is one of the theses of Peter de Osma, formally condemned by Pope Sixtus IV as erroneous and as containing manifest heresy.”5

If the Church of Rome must therefore endure, as most theologians teach, do our papal claimants have certain knowledge that there is not already a traditional Catholic bishop quietly functioning in Rome today? A Bishop of Rome in the “catacombs,” so to speak? And if there is one, what would that do to their claims? Something for them to ponder.

IV. Can the Primacy Ever be Separated from Rome?

Some argue that due to the extraordinary circumstances of our times that the bishopric of Rome can be transferred to another location, and therefore one does not necessarily have to literally be the “Bishop of Rome” to be the Bishop of Rome. This notion that the diocese of Rome can be transferred to another location was condemned by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors, which condemned the following proposition:

“There is nothing to prevent the Supreme Pontificate from being transferred from the Roman Bishop and the city of Rome to another bishop and another city by the general decision of some Council, or by the decision of all of the people.”6

Even though Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus does not exclude the possibility of a pope transferring the Primacy from Rome to another location, the truth of the matter is that no pope has ever attempted to do it. In fact, it is the common teaching of theologians that even popes themselves lack the capacity to do this.

“[T]he most probable opinion holds that not even the pope himself, nor an ecumenical council together with the pope, could effect such a separation, but that the connection of the primacy with the see of Rome is absolutely indissoluble…” (Christ’s Church, Vol. II, 1957, Monsignor Van Noort, p. 274)

Theologians also teach that this incapacity is due not to Church Law, but rather to the Divine Law itself; which of course, is forever unalterable.

“[T]he more common opinion holds that the connection between the primacy and the see of Rome does not stem merely from the bare will of Peter… rather it holds that in some way or other this setup is by divine decree.” (Christ’s Church, ibid.)

V. How the Bishop of Rome is Chosen – Ordinary Means

Both historically and doctrinally, the right of choosing the Bishop of Rome belongs to the Roman clergy:

“[A]n election to the papacy is, properly speaking, primarily an election to the local bishopric. The right to elect their bishop has ever belonged to the members of the Roman Church. They possess the prerogative of giving to the universal Church her chief pastor…” (Papal Elections, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)

In fact, with the sole exception of St. Peter, who chosen by Christ Himself, every pope has obtained his office by election from the clergy of Rome.7

In the early Church, the clergy of Rome and Rome’s neighboring bishops elected the Pope - more often than not the laity of Rome had a role in these early elections as well. This mode of election has since been altered from time to time by various popes, but not so altered that a pope has ever been elected without the input of the Roman clergy.

In more recent centuries, it has become the exclusive right of the Cardinals of the Church to elect the Pope. This, however, in is conformity with tradition and doctrine because the Cardinals are members of the Roman clergy, in fact its highest ranking members, and in this capacity representative of them all at the time of a papal election. Whenever a pope makes a non-Roman a cardinal, he gives him a church in or around Rome, thereby incardinating (incorporating) him into the Roman clergy or a neighboring bishopric. So when the College of Cardinals elects the Pope, it is still none other than the clergy of Rome electing the Pope.

So the right and prerogative of choosing the Bishop of Rome belongs to the Roman clergy. Historically this has always been the case and doctrinally it must always remain the case. The Romans decided who will be their bishop.8

VI. How the Bishop of Rome is Chosen – Extraordinary Means

Now as we are living in a time in which the Church has no known valid cardinals to elect a pope, our papal claimants argue that under such circumstances the Church must have the capacity of selecting a pope through some other means, and that it was through one of these alternative means that they ascended to the papacy. They are correct inasmuch as they argue that the Church, being a perfect society, must always have the capacity of choosing her popes, even by extraordinary means if necessary, as was the case during the Great Western Schism (see endnote 8). But these alternative means must, of course, be theologically sound.

Alternative Methods of Papal Election

As to these extraordinary means, theologians teach that in the absence of cardinals to elect a pope, the power to elect falls upon the next highest authority in the Church – the Council of Bishops. This Council would have to permit “the neighboring bishops” and the “clerics of the Roman Church” to elect the next Bishop of Rome.

“[A]fter the Pontificate of the world was joined to the bishopric of the City [i.e., Rome by St. Peter], the immediate authority of electing in that case would have to be permitted by the bishops of the whole world to the neighboring bishops, and to the clerics of the Roman Church.” (St. Robert Bellarmine, De clericis, bk. I, ch. 10)
“Should the college of cardinals ever become extinct, the duty of choosing a supreme pastor would fall, not on the bishops assembled in council, but upon the remaining Roman clergy. At the time of the Council of Trent, Pius IV thinking it possible that in the event of his death the council might lay some claim to the right, insisted on this point in a consistorial allocution.” (Papal Elections, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)

And in the truly extraordinary case where the above is not possible, the right to elect falls upon the whole Church.

“In case of doubt, however (e.g. when it is unknown if someone be a true cardinal or when the pope is dead or uncertain, as seems to have happened at the time of the Great Schism which began under Urban VI), it is to be affirmed that the power to apply the papacy to a person (the due requirements having been complied with) resides in the Church of God. And then by way of devolution it is seen that this power descends to the universal Church, since the electors determined by the pope do not exist.” (Cajetan, Tract.1 de auctoritate Papae et Concilii, c.13).
“[W]hen the provisions of the Canon Law cannot be fulfilled, the right to elect will belong to certain members of the Church of Rome. In default of the Roman clergy the right will belong to the Church universal...” (Church of the Word Incarnate, 1955, Journet, citing Rene Grousset, Histoire des croisades et du royaume franc De Jerusalem, Paris, 1934-1936)

But do the personal claims of papal acquisition advanced by our claimants pass the test of being one of these two legitimate alternative means of attaining to the papacy?   That is, have they been elected by the Roman clergy or by the Church universal?

VII. How Our Papal Claimants were “Chosen”

Our papal claimants assert three different modes of their elevation: election, succession, and Heavenly appointment.


Firstly, none of the claimants who assert that they have been elected to the papacy even pretend to have been elected by the Roman clergy, so their claims certainly fail on this issue.

This leaves us with the only other alternative, i.e., election by the whole Church. But the tiny handful of participants who were actually involved in these “papal elections” (sometimes as few as six “electors”) are considered by no intelligent person to be representative of the whole Church. No argument is necessary to demonstrate the patently absurd; i.e., that these tiny groups of self-proclaimed papal electors, and they alone, represented the entire Universal Catholic Church at the time of these “elections.” Our papal claimants fail here too.

Furthermore, Rome, the principle city and diocese of Catholicism, can not be left out of the equation of the “whole Church,” which is exactly what happened here as well.

Therefore these elections lack the necessary elements for validity and must be rejected.


As to our succession claimants, none of them have been chosen by a universally acknowledged Pope, but they were rather chosen by predecessor “claimant popes.” All other things set aside, the best that a doubtful claimant pope could do would be to select a doubtful successor pope, for one cannot give that which one does not have. One lacking a certain papacy could not give a certain papacy to another.

Furthermore, it is commonly held by theologians that even a true pope would be prohibited from choosing his successor, and that by virtue of Divine Law itself.

“It is certain at present, that, according to ecclesiastical law (c. "Episcopo", 3; c. "Plerique", 5; can. "Moyses", 6, caus. 8, Q. 1), the pope cannot elect his successor. It is commonly held also that he is prohibited from doing so by Divine law, though the contrary has also been held by canonists.” (Papal elections – Catholic Encyclopedia)

So it is improbable that popes can choose their successors and historically, with one possible exception (as noted above in endnote 7), it has never been attempted. This improbability is, of course, greatly magnified when the predecessor pope choosing his successor is himself a doubtful pope. We must therefore reject those claiming to be pope by means of papal succession.

Heavenly Appointment

The majority of our claimants fall under this category, i.e., that God, Mary, St. Peter… appeared to them and made them pope.

Firstly, such a concept is an absolute novelty in the Catholic Church, both historically and doctrinally; for nowhere is to found any authority supporting or even addressing such a theory. On this ground alone it is to be considered a highly dangerous proposition and until such a time as a legitimate Church authority were to embrace it, it should be rejected.

In addition to this, a further problem arises due to the impossibility of verifying such a claim. It would be one thing if such an event were authenticated by numerous witnesses, such as what happened with the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, but the fact of the matter is that authentic witnesses are wholly wanting here. All we have to go on is the word of the various claimants that it did indeed happen as they alleged. That of course is insufficient for many reasons, not the least of which is that one of the Notes of the Church is that she is a visible society. A visible society cannot have for its head someone invisibly selected, for if it did, then it would of course cease to be visible.

“The Church is a visible society with a visible Ruler. If there can be any doubt about who that visible Ruler is, he is not visible, and hence, where there is any doubt about whether a person has been legitimately elected Pope, that doubt must be removed before he can become the visible head of Christ’s Church.” (The Defense of the Catholic Church, 1927, Fr. Francis X. Doyle, S.J.)

Furthermore, this visibility must be universal:

“Above all, it is absolutely necessary that the Supreme Head, that is, the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, be visible to the eyes of all, since it is He who gives effective direction to the work which all do in common in a mutually helpful way towards the attainment of the proposed end.” (Mystici Corporis – Pope Pius XII)

Therefore, invisibly selected “popes” and invisible reigning “popes” are not popes at all.

Also worthy of consideration is the fact that many of these “heavenly appointments” also overlap one another. Now the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, cannot have two heads any more than a human body can have two heads; so we can most certainly dismiss these overlapping claims as all being the work of God. The best case scenario for these claimants would be that among these various overlapping claims, one and only one could be possibly valid; the rest would obviously be bogus.

On this score, whatever the sources of these overlapping “papal appointments” were, the end result of these various claims was to create a cloud of confusion over all of them. Now God is not the author of confusion, for His works are perfect: “The works of the Lord are perfect,” (Deut. 32:4). If God chose to personally make someone a pope, as He did with St. Peter, He would not leave behind a wake of confusion over His appointment. Catholics everywhere would know that the work was God’s work and unanimously accept such a person as having been chosen by God. This unanimous acceptance, in itself, would be sufficient to make a true pope out of anyone who otherwise might have been doubtfully selected.

“It is of no importance that in past centuries some Pontiff was illegitimately elected or took possession of the Pontificate by fraud; it is enough that he was accepted afterwards by the whole Church as Pope, since by such acceptance he would have become the true Pontiff.” (Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, Verita della Fede, in Opere, Vol. VIII, p. 720, No. 9.)

But this, of course, is not the case here. The entire Church most certainly does not accept any of our papal claimants as the Pope.  Their claims fail here as well.

VIII. A Doubtful Pope is No Pope

Even if we were to construe everything in the best possible light in favor of our papal claimants, the very best that can be said regarding them is that their claims are “doubtful.” In fact, if there is to be found any certainty at all in their claims, it is that their claims are certainly doubtful.

Now according to Catholic theology, “a doubtful pope is no pope.”9 This of course is self-evident, for whether he acted as teacher, sanctifier or legislator, none of his acts would be accepted by the Universal Church and therefore they would be rendered useless. Why? Because everything that he would attempt to do would divide the Church in two camps, those who accepted his actions and those who rejected them, and instead of being a source of unity, he would, in fact, be a source of division. So even if a pope is validly selected, he is utterly useless as a pope if the whole Church does not accept him as such. For this reason, a doubtful pope, even if properly elected, cannot be acknowledged as Head of the Church:

“A doubtful pope may be really invested with the requisite power; but he has not practically in relation to the Church the same right as a certain pope - He is not entitled to be acknowledged as Head of the Church.” (The Relations of the Church to Society - Theological Essays, Fr. O’Reilly, 1882, p. 287)

So what we wind up with here is not only highly doubtful papal claims, but also the certain knowledge that none of our claimants are accepted by the Universal Catholic Church.

IX. Concluding Remarks

Anyone claiming to be the pope has the burden of proving their papacy and of proving its universal acceptance by the Catholic Church.  Clearly, none of our papal claimants have met this burden of proof.  The conclusion, therefore, is beyond the dispute of reasonable minds – according to Catholic doctrine, all of their papal claims must be rejected.

It may be wholly possible that each and every one of our papal claimants is acting with the best interests of the Church in mind. They see the Church in an unprecedented state of crisis and believe that they can help. I have no desire to judge their intentions or to cast aspersions on them, but I do ask them to seriously consider this: Are they helping?

One of the very purposes of the papacy is Church unity; but the clear fruit produced by our papal claimants is not unity at all, but rather division and dissension. Whenever and wherever they surface, division and disagreement always follow in their wake. This can hardly be described as the work of God. Surely, they must be able to see this.

In his book The Relations of the Church to Society, Fr. O’Reilly taught that a doubtful pope “may be legitimately compelled to desist from his claim.”

I hope and pray that all of our papal claimants, for the love of the Church and of souls, would indeed desist from their claims, for surely God cannot look kindly at beholding what is left of His Church being further torn asunder by them. I hope that our claimants also consider the accounting that they will have to render to God on the day of judgment as a result of their divisive claims and take corrective measures while they still have the opportunity to do so.

An Aside: Papal Authority Does not Descend During an Interregnum

At least one of our papal claimants teaches that whether he be pope or not is inconsequential. He asserts that because his predecessor in office was the last orthodox bishop on earth, in virtue thereof he obtained extraordinary powers, i.e., he became a “super bishop” of sorts, whereby he obtained powers beyond which bishops normally possess. He believes that these extraordinary powers were inherited by him through succession when his predecessor died.

This proposition fails for many reasons.

For one, this bewildering claim is a gratuitous one which has obviously not been proven. There has been no evidence presented whatsoever supporting the claim that his predecessor was the last orthodox Catholic bishop left on earth. Opposing this gratuitous claim is an axiom common among Catholic scholastics which states: “That which is gratuitously assumed, may be gratuitously denied.” Therefore his claim can be denied on his gratuitous assumption of it alone.

Furthermore, his claim that his predecessor was the last valid and orthodox bishop on earth is not sound theology. Individual bishops are not individual successors of the Apostles, but rather the “college of bishops” as a whole is the successor of the Apostles collectively.

“[T]he present proposition does not assert that each single bishop is the successor of an individual apostle, but rather that the apostolic college was succeeded by the college of bishops or the episcopate.” (Christ’s Church, Vol. II, 1957, Monsignor Van Noort)

Now considering that the Church in indefectible, which means that nothing in Her constitution can ever be notably altered or changed, it is not possible for the college of bishops to altogether cease to exist.

“‘He (Christ) wishes that there should be pastors and teachers in His Church to the end of the time.’ These pastors and teachers are the bishops, the successors of the Apostles.” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ott, citing Vatican Council I)

But if the Church’s bishops were ever reduced to one, her college of bishops would cease to exist, for the simple reason that “one” does not constitute a college. So we know that this can never happen. The Catholic Church can never be reduced to only one valid and orthodox bishop.

“[I]t was Christ’s will that the apostolic college should continue forever, in such a way that there will always be in the Church a body of men invested with that threefold power which the apostles enjoyed. This thesis is a dogma of faith, as we know, e.g., from the Council of Trent, Sess. 23, Ch. 4 (DB 960).” (Christ’s Church, Vol. II, 1957, Monsignor Van Noort)

As to his claim to extraordinary powers (i.e., the capacity to do whatever is necessary for the Church because of the unique situation of the Church today); this too is in opposition to Church doctrine.

“The plentitude of papal power… and it alone, is equal to every social demand of the Church. This implies that the ordinary jurisdiction of the subordinate or residential bishop is insufficient for every need that qualifies as diocesan in the widest sense of the term.” (Principals of Episcopal Jurisdiction by Fr. Gerald Ryan, JCL, 1939, citing Pius VI in Actorem Fidei)

Furthermore, because the episcopacy is of Divine Institution, it cannot be altered in any notable way under any set of circumstances, just as the Sacraments can never be altered in any notable way. But a bishop acquiring super powers, under any circumstances, would in fact be altering the episcopacy in a very notable way and consequently prohibited by Divine Law itself:

“The Episcopate is an office established by Divine Institution insofar as the power of the office is concerned. In this regard it can not be suppressed or supplanted, substantially changed or limited…” (The Privileges of Bishops, Fr. McElroy, J.C.L., 1951)
“The episcopal office and power in general cannot be altered; the episcopate cannot be either augmented or abridged by the Church as to its ordinary potential capacity…” (Ryan, ibid., p. 53.)

Also worthy of consideration is the fact that while in the United States we have a Vice-President, who assumes presidential powers upon the death of the President, the Catholic Church has no “Vice-Pope.” When the Pope dies, the Church enters upon a period of interregnum and many papal powers simply remain dormant until the election of the next Pope. There is no mechanism whereby these powers descend to the lesser clergy.

“[T]he highest power itself, together with its rights and prerogatives, which can in no way exist except in the one individual heir of Peter, now actually belongs to no one while the See is vacant.” (Vacancy of the Apostolic See, Cardinal Franzelin, p. 222)

So it can be seen that the College of Bishops must always continue to exist, but under no circumstances does the papal power descend upon any of them, individually or collectively. The only “super bishop” the Church can ever possibly possess is the Pope.



1(Vatican Council I, Session 4, Ch. 2.)
2(Vatican Council I, Sess. 4, Ch. 3)
3(Council of Trent, Decree on Reformation, Ch. 9)
4(American Ecclesiastic Review: The Local Church of Rome, Msgr. Joseph Fenton, 1950, citing St. Robert Bellarmine - De Romano Pontifice, De controversiis christianae fidei adversus huius temporis haereticos, col 812)
5(American Ecclesiastical Review, ibid., citing Denzinger, 730)
*An interesting aside, the Denzinger (1954 - 1957) edited by Vatican II progessive and Ratzinger associate, Karl Rahner, is missing citation #730. The original Denzinger (Enchiridion Symbolorum , 1854) however contains it just as cited by Msgr. Fenton  – “Ecclesia urbis Romae errare potest” damnatae a Sixto IV.

6Denzinger, 1735
7Pope Boniface II (530 – 532) was not elected, but was rather appointed by his predecessor, Pope Felix IV (526 – 530). Some argue that this proves an exception to the rule that a pope cannot be elected without the input of the Roman clergy. Others argue that Boniface II was only legitimately made pope when the Roman clergy later ratified his appointment. But neither argument disproves the necessity of the involvement of the Roman clergy; for even if Boniface II acquired the papacy by appointment from Felix IV, the Roman clergy equation is still present, because the Pope is, after all, a member of the Roman clergy - he is the Bishop of Rome. Therefore, however Boniface attained to the papacy, he did so via the Roman clergy; either through Felix IV or through the approval of the other members of the Roman clergy. Furthermore, it is clear that Pope Felix IV was certainly a Pope, that he certainly appointed Boniface II as his successor, and that Boniface II was eventually certainly approved by the Roman clergy; whereas none of our succession claimants can claim any of the above certainties.
8The sole exception of a papal election that was not exclusively done by the Roman clergy was during the Great Western Schism (1378 – 1417); a period in the Church’s history in which there were either two or three different claimants to the papacy at the same time. The Schism ended when the extraordinary means of electing a Pope was done by way of a General Council choosing the papal electors from various countries. Nevertheless, all of the Cardinals (many of whom were Roman) participated in the election as did also some other members of the Roman clergy.
9(St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, De Cancil, bk. 2, ch. 19)

Bishop Joseph Marie @