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The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption



The fact that a number of popes have been bad in the sense that they did not even meet minimal standards of moral integrity and sincere piety poses a serious problem for Roman Catholicism. After surveying a gallery of these infamous popes, I hone in more exactly on just what the problem is. I then argue that the problem remains on both a weak providence view and a strong providence view. According to the former, there is no guarantee that the man chosen pope is God’s will. According to the latter, deploying the resources of middle knowledge, God can make sure that popes infallibly avoid error and teach only truth by making sure the right man is chosen pope. Neither view satisfactorily explains how the papacy can be as important as Rome says it is while so many popes have been such unworthy holders of the office.
Volume 18.5 (2020): 87104
DOI: 10.2478/perc-2020-0030
Houston Baptist University
ABSTRACT The fact that a number of popes have been bad in the sense that they did not
even meet minimal standards of moral integrity and sincere piety poses a serious problem for
Roman Catholicism. After surveying a gallery of these infamous popes, I hone in more exactly
on just what the problem is. I then argue that the problem remains on both a weak providence
view and a strong providence view. According to the former, there is no guarantee that the
man chosen pope is Gods will. According to the latter, deploying the resources of middle
knowledge, God can make sure that popes infallibly avoid error and teach only truth by mak-
ing sure the right man is chosen pope. Neither view satisfactorily explains how the papacy can
be as important as Rome says it is while so many popes have been such unworthy holders of
the office.
KEYWORDS: infallibility, conspicuous corruption, Duffy, Ratzinger, Flint
There have been many good popes as well as some truly outstanding ones.
Gregory the Great was not called that for no reason, and more recently
pope John Paul II was widely and deservedly admired and loved by Chris-
tians all over the world, Protestants as well as Roman Catholics. This is as it
should be. Given the critical role the pope serves in the Roman Catholic
church, one would expect that popes would not only be persons of exem-
plary Christian character and reputation, but also men gifted with outstand-
ing theological understanding, spiritual maturity and practical leadership
skill. This is the sort of profile for any bishop in the New Testament (1 Tim-
othy 3:1-7), so anyone chosen to be the bishop of bishops, the Vicar of
Christ, the Supreme Pastor, the Chief Shepherd of the Church should cer-
tainly be expected to fit this profile.
As anyone with even a casual knowledge of church history knows, how-
ever, the expectation of consistently good popes is shattered by the brutal
truth that many popes fell far short of the New Testament qualifications for
* JERRY L. WALLS (PhD 1989, University of Notre Dame) is Research Professor at
Houston Baptist University. Email:
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
bishops. And it is not a story of predominantly good or excellent popes with
only a handful of bad actors that slipped through, but rather, there have
been quite a few popes who not only fell short of the New Testament pro-
file, but were notorious scoundrels.
These bad popes are an embarrassment to Roman Catholics, but they
are often dismissed as irrelevant to the claims of Rome. They have no evi-
dential significance when assessing the claims of Rome, we are told. I want
to argue otherwise. To get a preliminary idea of what I have in mind, con-
sider a similar argument from the opposite direction, namely, the argument
from conspicuous sanctity’. This is a classic argument for Christianity that
appeals to reality of the notable saints Christianity has produced. The fact
that persons who have embraced Christ and his gospel have often been
morally transformed is suggestive evidence for the power and truth of
Christ and the gospel. Indeed, if Christianity is true, we should expect such
sanctity to be exhibited. Of course, such evidence is hardly sufficient to es-
tablish the truth of Christianity by itself, but the fact that conspicuous sancti-
ty is exhibited is one piece of evidence for Christianity. In a parallel way, I
want to suggest that bad popes provide material to construct an argument
from conspicuous corruption against the claims of Rome.
To get a better idea of what I mean, let us consider some concrete cases
of papal mischief. More specifically, I want to consider several characteristic
cases of popes behaving badly. This material is common knowledge among
historians, but these particular snapshots are drawn from Eamon Duffys
authoritative work tellingly titled Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. It
is worth noting that Duffy, a distinguished Roman Catholic historian, was a
member of the Pontifical Historical Commission. Before sharing these snap-
shots, it is important to emphasize that many of these stories cannot be fully
understood without taking into account the broader historical and political
factors influencing the papacy at the time. Indeed, the context of many of
these cases is a power struggle between popes and emperors and kings over
whose authority was greatest. Readers who want the larger story are en-
couraged to read Duffys book.
After our quick stroll through the gallery of bad popes, I shall state more
precisely just what is the problem raised by these notorious bishops of
Rome. Then I shall consider and assess two different strategies to account
for bad popes, and argue that both of them face serious difficulties. As we
shall see, there are a number of parallels between the problem of bad popes
and the more general problem that evil poses for theism.
A Gallery of Impious Popes and Dubious Politics
Snapshot One: A Son of a pope versus another pope. Let us begin with
Vigilius (537-555), a classic case of a pope whose unbridled ambition drove
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 89
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him to seek the papacy, and whose story is filled with characteristic political
intrigue. We begin our story with the death of pope Agapitus whose papacy
lasted only one year (535-536). Vigilius immediately set to work to get him-
self appointed pope by currying the favor of the wife of the Emperor of
Constantinople, a sexually adventurous woman who wielded considerable
power. At this time, orthodox Chalcedonian Christology was controversial
in the east, and was not favored by the Emperors wife, so Vigilius assured
her that he would repudiate Chalcedonian Christology. Taking bags of
money for a bribe, he rushed to Rome with the dead body of pope Aga-
pitus, anxious to claim the papacy for himself. But alas, he was too late, for
when he got to Rome, a king who was a rival to the Emperor had already
appointed a new pope, namely Silverius (536-537), who was the son of an-
other previous pope, Hormisdas (514-523). Undeterred however, and de-
termined to achieve his goal, he managed to trump up false charges against
Silverius, and got him demoted and banished. With his rival out of the pic-
ture, Vigilius was finally elected pope. But the power struggle was not over.
A bishop in the town where Silverius was banished took up his defense, and
persuaded the Emperor to bring him back for a fair trial. But again Vigilius
triumphed, and had Silverius arrested and banished again, this time to an
island, where he died of malnutrition. Summing up this rather convoluted
tale, Duffy writes: To all intents and purposes, one pope, and he the son of
a pope, had been deposed and murdered by another (Duffy 2014: 55).
Snapshot Two: Matronly Mafioso Maneuvers. For hundreds of years, the
pope had not only vied for power with the Roman Emperor, but had also
formed an uneasy alliance with him and been protected by him. When the
Roman empire was dissolved, the papacy was left vulnerable. It was not a
pretty picture, as Duffy explains.
Deprived of the support of the empire, the papacy became the possession of the
great Roman families, a ticket to local dominance for which men were prepared
to rape, murder and steal. A third of the popes elected between 872 and 1012
died in suspicious circumstancesJohn VIII (872-82) bludgeoned to death by
his own entourage, Stephen VI (896-7), strangled, Leo V (903) murdered by his
successor Sergius III (904-11), John X (914-28) suffocated, Stephan VIII (939-
42) horribly mutilated (Duffy 2014: 103-104).
John X was one of the few popes who tried to resist aristocratic domination,
but he was murdered by the Theophylacts, the powerful family who been
his patrons in getting him appointed pope. Duffy fills in the details as fol-
The key figure in both John Xs appointment and his deposition was the notori-
ous Theophylact matron, Marozia. She also appointed Leo VI (928) and Ste-
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
phen VII (928-31), and she had been the mistress of Pope Sergius III, by whom
she bore an illegitimate son whom she eventually appointed as Pope John XI
(931-936) (Duffy 2014: 104).
Snapshot Three: Is this kid old enough to be pope? Marozias son, Alberic
II was the secular ruler of Rome and appointed a number of popes, some of
whom were at least decent. His legacy as pope maker is mixed however, as
Duffy explains, because he persuaded the clergy and nobility to make his
own son Octavian pope when Agapitus II (946-955) died. Octavian was du-
ly elected Pope John XII (955-64) at the ripe age of eighteen. He was to die
at the age of twenty-seven, allegedly from a stroke while in bed with a mar-
ried woman (Duffy 2014: 105).
Snapshot Four: A meteoric rise. Pope John XIX (1024-32) perhaps wins
the prize for the most rapid rise to the top. He was a typical representative
of his age. He had bribed his way to the papacy, and had been elevated
from the status of layman to pope in a single day (Duffy 2014: 108).
Snapshot Five: A bewildering number of ways to become pope. The cur-
rent practice of electing a new pope by the College of Cardinals goes back to
the year 1059 when it was decreed that the seven cardinal bishops should
choose the pope. This was controversial at first, and the rules remained
murky for some time. The number of cardinals who elect the pope has in-
creased over the years. Popes in the past had been appointed in a bewilder-
ing variety of wayselected by assemblies of clergy and people, hailed by
acclamation at the funerals of their predecessors, nominated by local gang-
bosses, appointed by emperors (Duffy 2014: 118).
Snapshot Six: Spiritual weapons for political ends. From Innocent IV
onwards many of the popes forfeited moral credibility by using some of the
most solemn spiritual weapons of the reform papacy for purposes which
were blatantly political. Innocent, for example, preached crusade against
Frederick and his successors, and Martin IV (1281-5) and Honorius IV
(1285-7) supported as a crusade what was blatantly a dynastic war waged
by France against the kingdom of Aragon… In the hands of these lesser
men the lofty spiritual claims of Gregory VII and Innocent III came in-
creasingly to look like a cloak for cynical political manipulation (Duffy
2014: 156).
Snapshot Seven: A pope in hell. Boniface VIII (1294-1303) achieved a
certain literary distinction by being one of the popes that Dante consigned
to hell in his monumental poem, The Divine Comedy. Boniface was a complex
figure who was accused by his critics not only of sodomy, but of being a rank
unbeliever who even denied the resurrection. With more than a little irony,
Duffy observes: But whatever Boniface did or did not believe about God,
sex, or the afterlife, he believed passionately in the papacy (Duffy 2014:
161). Believing in the papacy meant believing in supreme papal power,
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 91
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
which included power over kings and earthly rulers. King Philip of France
was not willing to accede to these claims, and had plans of his own to extend
the range of his empire. Boniface was having none of this, and in 1302 he
issued the bull Unum Sanctam, the culminating blow in a propaganda war
against the French crown. In it the pope notoriously claimed that it is alto-
gether necessary for salvation for every human creature to be subject to the
Roman pontiff (Duffy 2014: 162).
Snapshot Eight: How many popes? One, two, or three? It is a complicat-
ed story, but one of the most infamous episodes in the history of the papacy
is what is called the great schism’. We can begin the story with the fact that
for several reasons, mostly political, the papacy was located for seventy years
in Avignon, France. As yet another example that the popes very much re-
flected regional interests, all the popes during this period were French. The
last of these, pope Gregory XI (1370-8) returned to Rome, the historic seat
of the papacy. When he died, there was fear that the cardinals, many of
whom were now French, would elect another French pope. The citizens in
Rome loudly protested this idea, and the cardinals, fearing their wrath,
elected an Italian, pope Urban VI (1378-89). Unfortunately, he turned out
to be violent, domineering and paranoid. In less than six months, the car-
dinals who had elected him declared his election invalid, and fled Rome
and elected another pope, namely, Clement VII. Clement then returned to
Avignon with the cardinals who had elected him, while Urban appointed
twenty-nine new cardinals, from all across Europe. There were now two
popes, two papal administrations, two self-contained legal systems. The
countries of Europe would have to choose which Pope they would obey
(Duffy 2014: 168).
Cardinals from both sides recognized this to be a problem, and in 1409,
a council at Pisa attempted to resolve the matter. They deposed both the
Roman pope and the Avignon pope, and elected a new pope, Alexander V
(1409-10). The two popes who were deposed rejected the authority of the
council, so there were now three men who claimed to be pope. The matter
was finally resolved later by the Council of Constance. So, who was really
pope during the great schism?
Even saints were confused about the rights and wrongs of the situation. St Cath-
erine of Siena supported Urban. St Vincent Ferrar supported Clement. Nations
tended to choose their allegiance along dynastic and political lines… The popes
excommunicated each other and placed their rivals supporters under interdict.
In the long perspective of history, the Roman Catholic Church has accepted
that the real popes were Urban and his successors elected by his cardinals and
their successors. At the time, however, and throughout the thirty-nine years dur-
ing which the schism persisted, this sort of clarity was hard to come by. Certainly
there is no getting around Urbans near insanity, and his brutal treatment of op-
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
ponentsat one point he had six cardinals under torture, five of whom eventu-
ally simply disappeared (Duffy 2014: 168-169).
Snapshot Nine: Renaissance Rakes. Renaissance popes are among the most
colorful and infamous. Patrons of the arts, they typically lived lavish and
extravagant lifestyles. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), for instance, spent 100,000
ducats on his coronation tiara, more than a third of the papacys annual
income (Duffy 2014: 185). The most notorious of these Renaissance popes
was Roderigo Borgia, who became Alexander VI (1492-1503). He fathered
at least nine illegitimate children, one of whom, Cesare, was the model who
inspired Machiavellis political classic, The Prince. Magnetically attractive to
women, he had a succession of mistresses with whom he lived quite openly,
the last and youngest these, Giulia Farnese, even after he became pope, in
his sixties (Duffy 2014: 189).
Snapshot Ten: A barely teenage cardinal grows up to be pope. Innocent
VIII (1484-92) having married his son into the Medici family, obligingly
made Lorenzo the Magnificents son Giovanni a cardinalat the age of
thirteen… this Cardinal Medici would be elected Pope Leo X… When in
1517 Leo X discovered a plot against him among the cardinals, he executed
the ringleader and swamped the Sacred College by creating thirty-one new
cardinals in a single day (Duffy 2014: 191-192).
Refining the Problem
This gallery could be extended considerably, but these ten snapshots are
enough to raise the issue I want to discuss. In short, how do we explain the
actual history of the papacy with all of its raw ambition, scandal and sordid
corruption? Were all these man chosen by God to occupy the office of pope?
What, if anything, does Providence have to do with choosing the popes?
One might think a great deal, given the singular importance of the papacy
according to Rome. Consider these lines from Vatican I, from the First
dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ. It was this document that
formally defined and affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870.
After stating that the papacy was founded by Christ for the permanent ben-
efit of the Church, the document goes on to make the following claims.
Therefore, whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of
Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole Church. So, what the truth
has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength
he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the Church which he
once received.
For this reason, it has always been necessary for every Churchthat is to say
the faithful throughout the wordto be in agreement with the Roman Church
because of its more effective leadership (Vatican One 1869-1870: session 4, chap-
ter 2).
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 93
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
Notice, Peters rock-like strength is said to reside in his successors, and to
empower succeeding popes to guide the Church. And this is why all faithful
Christians should be in agreement with Rome, because of its more effective
Now then, consider this conditional statement. Given the strong claims
Rome makes about the pope, one might find it to be very probable.
(P): If (A) Peter was indeed given authority over the whole Church, if his succes-
sors, the bishops of Rome, have the same authority; if God has providentially
preserved an unbroken succession from Peter to the present; if the pope is the
Supreme pastor of the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and he has the singular role
of preserving the church from error and preserving unity; then (B) it is reasona-
ble to expect that all popes would meet the basic New Testament standard for
bishops, or at the very least be persons of sincere faith in Christ, and basic moral
I emphasize that this is a very minimal standard. If the New Testament cri-
teria for bishops is too high a standard for the bishop who has jurisdiction
over all bishops, then perhaps the less stringent standards for deacons
might be expected (1 Timothy 3:8-13). The standard is not perfection.
These persons might have various flaws and blind spots, and weaknesses.
They might have some embarrassing sins in their past. But still, a sincere
faith in Christ and the gospel, and some discernible evidence of sanctifica-
tion should be expected.
The sad truth, of course, is that several of the popes have not lived up to
even these modest expectations. And this poses a problem for anyone who
is inclined to judge this conditional statement to be true. That is, if one is
inclined to think (B) is highly probable given (A), then the fact that (B) is
not true makes A) highly improbable. Roman Catholics have little option
but to deny (P). That is, since (A) is essential to their faith, they will want to
deny that (B) is highly probable, given (A). (For a more formal version of
this argument, see Collins and Walls 2017: 251-255.)
It might be objected that even such modest standards should not ex-
pected if we consider a biblical example, namely the actual history of the
kings of Israel and Judah. While some of those kings were godly men who
led with integrity, many others fell far short of this ideal. Moreover, consider
that some of the authors of the Bible, such as Moses and David committed
murder. In light of this history, we should hardly be surprised at the unsa-
vory history of the papacy.
While this objection might have a certain initial plausibility, it is not con-
vincing for a couple of reasons. First, the Old Testament monarchy was in-
stituted at least partly due to a rejection of God as King, and a concession to
Israels preference for an earthly king so they could be like other nations. A
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
major lesson to be learned from the story is the inevitable failure that results
when Gods leadership is rejected. The bigger lesson yet is our need for
Christ, Davids greater Son.
Second, the Old Testament monarchy was a genetic dynasty, in contrast
to the papacy, which is a charismatically chosen succession of bishops.
Again, the Roman claim is that God has providentially assured an unbroken
succession beginning with Peter, to the present. God, through the Holy
Spirit, directed the choice of the popes. So, the better comparison is not
between the Old Testament kings and the papacy, but between the Old Tes-
tament prophets and the papacy. When we consider the Old Testament
prophets, all of them who are recognized as true prophets were indeed men
of basic moral integrity and genuine love for God, even prophets like Jo-
nah, who were less than perfect in reflecting Gods love and grace. If all the
prophets that God called were men of integrity and true faith, it hardly
seems too much to think all of the chief shepherds of the Church would
meet the modest standards of our conditional statement. The papacy, after
all has the advantages not only of the coming of Christ, but also the re-
sources of Pentecost. So much more should be expected of the papacy than
Old Testament kings, whose history is marked by greed, treachery, political
intrigue and lust for power.
Third, as for the fact that some of the authors of the Bible committed se-
rious sins, including murder, we should note that they repented of those
sins. There is all the difference in the world between sinners who are sin-
cere lovers of God who repent of their sins, and charlatans who show no
evidence of genuine faith and love of God. Moses and David were both lov-
ers of God whose sins should be viewed in light of the larger story of their
Another objection might come from a different direction. It might be
suggested that this argument proves too much. Given this argument, per-
haps we should expect all clergymen to be persons of basic moral integrity
and a sincere faith in Christ. While initially plausible, this is unrealistic, and
indeed, the New Testament contains warnings that would hardly lead us to
expect this. When Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders, he emphasized that
part of their role as overseers, and shepherds of the church was to guard
against false teachers. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in
among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men
will arise and distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them (Acts
20: 29-30). Given the reality of sin and imperfect human discernment, it is
not surprising that ambitious and dubiously motivated persons should
sometimes enter the ranks of the clergy, or that some would be corrupted.
But it is another matter to think that the chief shepherd who is uniquely
chosen to lead the church, and who represents a providentially guaranteed
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 95
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
succession beginning with Peter, should be as vulnerable and given to cor-
ruption as the history of the papacy shows it has been.
Now then, recall Duffys observation, above, that popes have been ap-
pointed in a bewildering variety of ways’. Still, if all of these popes have
been successors of Peter, if they are part of the unbroken chain of succession
from Peter to the present, it is natural to assume they were all providentially
chosen in some sense. Here it is worth emphasizing that more recently
popes have been chosen in a more orderly fashion. Here is Duffys account
of some of the procedures in the election of popes.
In preparation for the enclave the cardinals are addressed by two preachers,
chosen for their orthodoxy and wisdom, who reflect on the churchs needs and
the considerations which the cardinals should bear in mind in making their
choice. The conclave begins with a solemn mass invoking the aid of the Holy
Spirit in St Peters, and takes place within the Sistine Chapel within the Vatican
palace itself, into which the cardinals process while a hymn to the Holy Spirit is
sung (Duffy 2014: 452).
Duffy goes on to observe that for over 800 years, the normal method of
choosing a pope is by secret ballot. The following is a description of a par-
ticularly significant part of the voting process.
Taking the folded form [the voting ballot] between thumb and index finger of
the right hand, the cardinals then approach the altar of the Sistine Chapel in or-
der of seniority, each one announcing in a clear voice I call as my witness Christ
the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one whom, before
God, I think ought to be elected (Duffy 2014: 453).
Given that the men who make this declaration are indeed outstanding men
of God, and given their sincerity in their invocation of the aid of the Holy
Spirit in the whole process, one should be inclined to have great confidence
in the outcome and its providential direction.
Now let us consider a much more recent example that illustrates the
problem I have been focusing on in this section. I refer to the pope who is
in office as I write, namely, Pope Francis. The current pope has many ad-
mirers, to be sure, but he has also come increasingly under fire the past few
years, especially from conservatives. The following lines come from an arti-
cle by R. R. Reno, the editor of the conservative journal, First Things. The
article is tellingly entitled A Failing Papacy’.
The current regime in Rome will damage the Catholic Church. Pope Francis
combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his
church politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this pontifi-
catemercy, accompaniment, peripheries, and so forthbut no theological
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
framework… This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that
will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already…
The tendency of this pope is to undermine the Churchs most loyal servants.
This is surely galling. His lack of interest in theologyin ideas generally
reduces his pontificate to the raw exercise of ecclesiastical power…
Pope Francis seems to regard the uncertainty and instability as desirable…
I have the impression that the majority of the cardinals and other churchmen
in positions of responsibility are increasingly aware the Francis pontificate is a
failure (Reno 2019).
As scathing as this criticism is, it is not only fairly typical of the sort of criti-
cism leveled against Francis, in some ways it is even mild, comparatively
In particular, Francis has been criticized for undermining traditional
Roman Catholic theology in the controversial encyclical Amoris Laetitia.
Many see that document as compromising Roman Catholic theology on di-
vorce and remarriage, homosexuality and other moral issues. He has been
sharply attacked for covering up the extensive sexual abuse in the ranks of
the clergy, including bishops and cardinals, by an Archbishop, among many
others. Indeed, some theologians and clergy have even gone so far as to
accuse him of heresy (Weinandy 2019). And recently, his predecessor, Pope
Bendict XVI issued a letter on sexual abuse that was perceived as a correc-
tive to Francis (Harlan and Pitrelli 2019). All of this has contributed to the
confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that Reno laments in his article.
All of this poses an acute problem not only for cradle Catholics’, but
perhaps especially for Roman Catholic converts. Indeed, many converts
have gone to Rome thinking that the Roman authority structure, headed by
the pope, would provide security against the confusing conflict and divi-
sions they encountered in Protestantism. And now the controversy and divi-
sion surrounding Pope Francis may seem as bad, or even worse, than what
they experienced as Protestants.
Jeff Mirus bluntly observes: A common question among Catholics today
is: What was the Holy Spirit doing during the enclave that elected Jorge
Bergoglio as Pope Francis? (Mirus 2017). Mirus has an answer to that ques-
tion as we shall see. In the next sections, we shall examine his answer, as
well as another option Roman Catholics might embrace in response to this
The Weaker Providence View
I call this view the weaker providence view because it makes very few guar-
antees, and emphasizes the limits of Gods control over papal selection.
Mirus offers this response to the question he says many Catholics today are
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 97
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
The answer, of course, is that the Holy Spirit was doing what He is always doing,
prompting all involved to cast their votes for the good of the Church, just as He
has prompted all involved to form a proper understanding of the good of the
Church. But the Holy Spirit does not choose the pope; that is left to the vagaries
of men, and the vagaries of their response to grace.
In other words, the Holy Spirit does not arrange the votes so that the best
possible candidate is elected… To put the matter succinctly, the promptings of
the Holy Spirit are as certainly real as they are frequently resisted (Mirus 2017).
In a nod to the obvious corruption that has frequently marred the history
of the papacy, Mirus acknowledges that the Holy Spirit does not prevent the
electors of the pope from succumbing to other influences: Ignorance,
falsehood, personal partiality, ill-conceived goals, and temptations of every
kind, including those that are political and financial’.
Mirus does not cite any official documents in support of this view, so I
dont know whether it is official Roman Catholic orthodoxy, but at the least,
it is a popular view. Indeed, Pope Benedict affirmed a similar view when he
was Cardinal Ratzinger. He said the following in 1997 when he was asked
by a Bavarian television station whether the Holy Spirit chooses the pope.
I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope… I would
say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather, like a
good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely
abandoning us. Thus, the Spirits role should be understood in a much more
elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Proba-
bly the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined…
There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would
not have picked! (cited by Martin 2013).
Ratzingers final line here is telling. Any account of the how the Holy Spirit
is involved in papal elections must come to terms with the actual history of
the papacy.
The main strength of the weaker providence view is that it can more
plausibly explain the many instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously
would not have chosen’. So long as the Holy Spirit does nothing more de-
finitive than acting like a good educator who leaves much room for free-
dom; who prompts, but finally leaves the choice to the vagaries of men, and
the vagaries of their response to grace’, we should not be surprised if the
best possible candidate is not elected. Indeed, we may wonder if he is ever
elected! In short, we have here a sort of free will theodicy for the papacy.
Perhaps we could even coin a phrase and call it a free will papodicy’. Bad
popes and failing papacies are entirely due to the fact that papal elections
are done by free agents, and they may follow the promptings of ignorance,
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
partiality, and other temptations, rather than the prompting of the Holy
While this appeal to free will may easily explain why the best possible
candidate is not always, if ever, chosen, it does not so easily explain why so
many obviously bad candidates have been chosen. Not a few of the popes
have been so egregiously bad that it is hard to see how they could have been
chosen without indicting the larger system that elected them. It would not
take much spiritual discernment or even sincere faith in Christ and love for
the church to see that openly immoral, transparently greedy and unscrupu-
lous men should not have any sort of position of church leadership, let
alone that of Supreme Pastor and Vicar of Christ.
The larger problem for this view is that it creates confusion and uncer-
tainty about which popes should be trusted and followed. If there is no
guarantee that the Holy Spirit providentially guides the selection of popes,
how are faithful Roman Catholics to know who to believe? Some popes have
been clearly good, and some have been obviously bad, at least with the ad-
vantage of historical hindsight. But some cases are much more ambiguous.
Is there a clear criterion for sorting out the good and the bad popes? If
there is, what is it? What is the advantage of having a Supreme pastor if he
may not be Gods choice, may set a grievously bad example by his own con-
duct, and may turn out to have led a failed papacy?
Consider again Pope Francis. Who should the faithful believe? The pope
and his supporters or First Things magazine, Archbishop Vigano, and others
who have labeled him a heretic? Should they look to Francis for guidance,
or to cardinals who have openly criticized him? Or should they look to his
predecessor? Consider Roman Catholic theologian Bryan Flanagans obser-
vation about Pope Benedicts letter addressing sexual abuse: Its not good
for the church to have two voices. If this is seen as Benedict attempting to
give more context for his decisions, maybe this can be a helpful way to un-
derstand his mind-set. But this raises the specter of his voice being seen as
an alternative to the papacy of Pope Francis. And that is bad for the unity of
the church (cited by Harlan and Pitrelli 2019).
When these sorts of questions are raised, Roman Catholics often respond
by retreating to making very modest claims about the papacy. When they
are making claims for the authority of the pope, and the vital nature of his
office, and how his authority underwrites the claims of Rome to be the one
true church, they make very exalted claims. Consider the following:
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peters successor, is the perpetual and visible
source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and the whole company
of the faithful’. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ,
and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 99
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered (Catechism
of the Catholic Church 1995: paragraph 882).
But when we talk about historical reality and the numerous holders of the
office who have made a mockery of these exalted claims, Roman Catholics
remind us that there are actually very few guarantees with the papacy. Re-
call Pope Benedicts claim when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger: Probably
the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. To
put it mildly, there is quite a stepdown from the exalted claims to the actual
assurances. But notice also that Ratzingers claim is quite general. He does
not define more specifically what would count as the papacy being totally
ruined’. Having scoundrels appointed pope who make a mockery of the
office apparently does not totally ruin it. Having two or even three compet-
ing popes, and generating enormous controversy and confusion all across
the church over who is the actual pope does not totally ruin it.
Indeed, when we press for specifics, perhaps the only guarantee is that
the pope will not err when he speaks ex cathedra about morals or doctrine.
Consider this official account of infallibility in light of our previous discus-
sion. After stating that infallibility extends only as far as divine revelation,
we read the following.
This is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bish-
ops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of
the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf Luke 22:32), he pro-
claims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore, his defini-
tions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled ir-
reformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an as-
sistance promised to him in blessed Peter (cited by Flint 1998: 181-182).
Now this raises obvious questions. How is this assistance of the Holy Spirit
different from the assistance of the Holy Spirit in papal elections? If the
promptings of the Holy Spirit may be ignored and resisted in favor of more
carnal consideration in papal elections, then why cannot the assistance of
the Holy Spirit be ignored or resisted in ex cathedra proclamations? Does
God override freedom to preserve infallibility if necessary? If so, then why
not do so in the case of disastrous papal elections? After all, cannot bad
popes lead their followers into serious doctrinal error and moral confusion
even if they are preserved from error in ex cathedra pronouncements?
The Stronger Providence View
These questions, at least some of them, have been given an ingenious an-
swer by Thomas Flint, who appeals to Molinism to resolve them. In short,
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
Flints aim is to explain how papal infallibility is perfectly compatible with
papal freedom.
Molinism, of course, is named after the sixteenth century philosopher
Luis de Molina, whose famous theory of providence hinges crucially on the
idea of middle knowledge’. Middle knowledge, roughly speaking is Gods
knowledge of what all possible persons would freely do in all possible cir-
cumstances and states of affair. The knowledge applies not only to actual
persons, but also to persons who will never exist, and to circumstances and
states of affairs that will never actually exist. For instance, suppose I had
followed Alexander VIs example, and had numerous children by numer-
ous women. God knows, say, what my sixth son would have chosen for din-
ner for his eighteenth birthday. More interestingly, he also knows what he
would have done with respect to all the morally significant choices he would
have made. Molinas basic theory is that God providentially governs the
world by drawing on his middle knowledge and creating people in circum-
stances in which they will freely choose as he prefers.
Before giving us his Molinist solution it is worth noting that Flint
acknowledges another way to maintain both papal freedom and infallibility,
namely, by affirming the compatibilist account of human freedom, accord-
ing to which freedom and determinism are compatible. If one affirms com-
patibilism, one can preserve infallibility by saying God determines and
completely controls what the pope will pronounce ex cathedra, and thereby
preserves it from error.
Flint wants to preserve a stronger libertarian account of freedom, how-
ever, and he thinks Molinism points the way. The essence of his proposal is
captured in the following lengthy quote.
It is here the concept of middle knowledge seems to come to the rescue. For if
God has middle knowledge, why cant he arrange things in such a way that the
pope always freely follows his guidance? How, one might ask, can he do so? By
seeing to it that the right person becomes pope. If God has middle knowledge,
then he knows how any candidate for the office would actwould freely actif
elected pope. Using this knowledge, God would then direct the cardinals to se-
lect as pope one of those men who God knows would freely cooperate with his
guidance and thereby safeguard the church from error; he would also lead them
away from selecting any of those men who he knows would not freely cooperate
with his guidance and consequently lead the church into error. By then guiding
the man selected in the ways that, as his middle knowledge tells him, will elicit a
free but positive response from him, God can insure that the pope is infallible
even though he respects his freedom. This respect for human freedom would
presumably extend to the cardinals as well. Gods direction of them toward cer-
tain candidates and away from others would most likely be accomplished, not by
Gods determining their actions, but by his arrangement of circumstances which
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 101
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
he knows via middle knowledge will lead to the result he desires (Flint 1998:
Flint gives us a concrete example to make all this more concrete. Suppose,
he says, that the two leading papal candidates are Cardinal Elfreth and
Cardinal Filbert. Moreover, suppose the vote will be heavily influenced by
the support of the elderly and highly respected Cardinal Rotundo. Finally,
suppose that God knows by way of middle knowledge the following two
If Elfreth were elected pope at time t in a world with history h, he would freely
follow divine guidance and keep the church safe from error.
If Filbert were elected pope at time t in a world with history h, he would freely
reject divine guidance and proclaim ex cathedra a falsehood (Flint 1998: 185).
The story proceeds as follows. While Rotundo is praying and seeking the
guidance of the Holy Spirit, God causes him to dwell on the many virtues of
Elfreth. This causes him, as God knew by middle knowledge would surely
happen, to come freely to the settled conclusion that Elfreth would make
the better pope. Acting on this conviction, Rotundo enthusiastically throws
his considerable weight behind Elfreth. As a result, Elfreth is indeed elected
and the Church is saved from the errors that Filbert would have pro-
claimed (Flint 1998: 185).
The whole idea of middle knowledge is deeply controversial, of course,
but has been ably defended by Flint, and other proponents of Molinism.
For our purposes, let us assume middle knowledge is possible and Molinism
is a coherent account of providence. My concern is to assess whether Molin-
ism provides help with the problem of bad popes.
In the first place, I am inclined to think Molinism does indeed provide a
persuasive account of how popes could be fully free in the libertarian sense,
and yet infallible in the restricted way Roman Catholic theology teaches.
The scenario Flint describes for us clearly shows how this could happen.
Matters are perhaps simplified by the fact that clear cases of the pope speak-
ing ex cathedra are relatively rare. The two most famous cases that clearly
qualify are the proclamations of the dogmas of Marys immaculate concep-
tion and bodily assumption. Of course, the doctrine of infallibility assumes
these doctrines are true, a claim that is itself controversial. Most Protestants
reject these dogmas, and the Orthodox Church denies the immaculate con-
ception, at least as Rome teaches it. So, for many Christians, the doctrine of
papal infallibility has in fact been shown to be false by these two times the
pope has spoken ex cathedra. But leaving that aside, Flints Molinist scenar-
io shows how, in principle, infallibility is compatible with libertarian free-
dom, and the one clear guarantee of papal theology could be true.
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
However, while Molinism shows, in principle, how infallibility is compat-
ible libertarian freedom, it may raise more questions than it answers. In
particular, we might be more than a little curious to know how the Molinist
accounts for the bad popes. Recall the heart of Flints answer to the ques-
tion of how God can use his middle knowledge to arrange things so the
pope always freely follows his guidance and avoids error: By seeing to it
that the right person becomes pope. Moreover, he applies the same essential
claims to the cardinals who select the pope. Gods direction of them toward
certain candidates and away from others would most likely be accom-
plished, not by Gods determining their actions, but by his arrangement of
circumstances which he knows via middle knowledge will lead to the result
he desires (Flint 1998: 185).
So here is the question clamoring for an answer: are we to believe that
all the popes, including the notoriously bad ones, were the right person to
become pope? Did God arrange things through his middle knowledge and
providential direction so that each of these men would be appointed pope
through the free choices of those who chose them? Is Ratzinger mistaken in
thinking it obvious that the Holy Spirit would not have chosen some of the
popes who have been picked? Or have all the popes in fact been picked by
the Holy Spirit, in something like the way Elfreth was picked in Flints sce-
nario, contrary to what we might think?
An ingenious Molinist is not without possible replies. One possible move
he might make is to suggest that there unfortunately were no better candi-
dates available to be selected pope when the various bad popes were cho-
sen. Reminiscent again of the theodicy parallel, perhaps God was faced with
a situation of trans-papal depravity in which all the viable candidates for
pope were depraved, and the one chosen was actually the best one available
at the time. So, when Octavian was made Pope John XII at the age of eight-
een, for instance, there was simply no better choice at the time for the papal
office. I must say I find this suggestion wildly implausible. Surely out of all
possible candidates there were better choices to be made. However, we must
concede to the determined Molinist that it is at least possible that no better
choice was to be had, however improbable that may seem.
Another variation on this suggestion, inspired once again by the theodi-
cy literature, is to suggest that we are simply not in any position to judge
what providential reasons God may have for picking some of the popes he
has. The theodicy parallel is skeptical theism’, the view that finite human
beings cannot possibly understand the reasons God may have for permit-
ting the terrible evils that he does. There may be goods we cannot conceive,
and connections between terrible evils and these goods that we cannot
begin to fathom. Similarly, the skeptical papist may say that there may be
providential purposes for choosing the bad popes that we cannot begin to
The Problem of Bad Popes: The Argument from Conspicuous Corruption 103
PERICHORESIS 18.5 (2020)
imagine or understand. While there may have been any number of papal
candidates who were spiritually and morally much more suited to the papa-
cy than Roderigo Borgia was, God may have had reasons entirely beyond
our comprehension for arranging things so that he was elected Pope Alex-
ander VI.
Once again, I find this suggestion highly implausible, even though it
may still be possible in the strict sense of the word. It is worth noting, how-
ever, that Protestants might find it plausible for their own reasons. More
specifically, Protestants might think the bad popes play the providential role
of exposing the falsity of Roman papal theology. The numerous bad popes
are a vivid demonstration that the pope is not the Vicar of Christ, or the
Supreme Pastor of the Church. These popes demonstrate just how hollow
are the claims of Vatican I, such as this one, cited above: For this reason it
has always been necessary for every Churchthat is to say the faithful
throughout the wordto be in agreement with the Roman Church because
of its more effective leadership. Indeed, perhaps the providential purpose
of the bad popes was to inspire the Protestant Reformation.
I conclude that the argument from conspicuous corruption has considera-
ble force, and the problem of bad popes is a serious one for Roman Catholi-
cism. While there are possible moves to make to mitigate the problem, I
find them rather implausible, whether of the weaker or stronger providence
Indeed, I judge the reality of bad popes and the numerous instances of
conspicuous corruption to be better explained on the assumption that the
Roman view of the papacy is human, all too human in its ultimate origins.
The papacy, marred as it has often been by greed, violence and the quest
for power and pleasure is perfectly explicable in terms of merely human,
even sinful, desires and aspirations. Given this reality, the actual history of
the papacy is only to be expected, but it is far from what we should expect if
the papacy is indeed a divine institution ordained by God to play the vitally
important role Roman Catholics claim it does. All in all, this evidence pro-
vides another reason to reject the claims of Rome.
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