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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 20 Mar 2002

Authenticity of papal succesion QUESTION from Patsy L. Winter February 28, 2000 During a discussion, a Southern Baptist minister denied the unbroken succession of Popes, stating that the list as we have it is corrupt. Are there historical sources (non-catholic if possible) that confirm unbroken papal succesion?
Thank you.
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on March 4, 2000 Dear Mrs. Winter
It would be too tedious to go through the whole history of papal succession to demonstrate the validity of each pope. Suffice it to say that the list of succession has been recreated using reliable documents. If this pastor makes the claim that the documents used were corrupt, it's up to him to defend his position. He should know which documents were tampered with and should have sufficient evidence for his argument. Anti-Catholics frequently make this sort of claim without historical evidence. It is assumed since the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon of the Book of Revelation, whatever documents affirm her claim to be the True Church must be tainted in some sense. That's not history; that's intellectually dishonest theology.
That being said, there are common tactics which anti-Catholics use to disprove the apostolic succession of the Bishop of Rome. Naturally, they all fail. The most common tactic is to point to the Great Western Schism, a dark moment in the Church's history, when, because of an unfortunate misunderstanding, there were two, and sometimes three, rival claimants to the Throne of Peter. This occurred from 1378 to 1417. Anti-Catholics reason that since both candidates can't be pope, neither must have been. They fail to take into account the events of the election of Urban VI (reigned 1378-1389), the rightful pope. The cardinals who chose him were heavily pressured by the Roman mob to select either a Roman or an Italian. In the preceding decades of the Babylonian Captivity (1307-1377), the bishop of the Romans had been French, lived in Avignon, and was perceived to be a puppet of the French Monarch. The cardinals eventually chose an Italian, but one who was favourable to French interests. Soon after his election, Pope Urban VI became a completely different person. Whereas before he had been demure, he now openly castigated cardinals for their behaviour and, in the eyes of those who elected him, behaved like a complete jerk. His lack of diplomacy was compounded by the fact that he himself engaged in nepotism and other unseemly behaviour. The Cardinals had second thoughts about their choice and elected a rival pretendent, Clement VII, on the grounds that the first election was invalid due to the pressure of the Roman mob. Whatever their motives, it's clear that they validly elected at least one of the two candidates, and their respective supporters elected successors.
Another approach to disproving papal succession is pointing out the long periods between certain popes. Of course, this does nothing to disprove papal succession because the space of time between reigns does not affect the validity of an election.
The most sophisticated way to disprove papal succession is by pointing to the alleged confusion surrounding the order of the reigns of the first three successors of Peter. The testimony of the Fathers does not concord on this matter as there were nominally six different lists of succession. They are as follows:

Linus, Cletus, Clement (according to Hegesippus, Canon of Mass).

Linus, Anencletus, Clement (according to Irenaeus and Africanus)

Linus, Anacletus, Clement (according to Jerome).

Linus, Cletus, Anacletus, Clement (Poem against Marcion),

Linus, Clement, Cletus, Anacletus [Hippolytus (?)].

Linus, Clement, Anacletus (Optatus, Augustine).
The argument then is: how can we know which is the real pope?
Even if we could not reconcile all these lists, the universal Church definitely acknowledge that there was a succession from Linus to Clement. The order is not important. The fact that the writers of the first centuries were able to narrow it down to a few individuals shows that they were not inventing these lists, otherwise there would be great variety from one list to another.
I said that there were nominally six different lists, because in reality there were only four. The first three lists are easily accounted for, as Anencletus, Anacletus and Cletus are the same person. Anencletus is thought to be a spelling mistake. Cletus is a diminutive of Anacletus. Therefore, the first three lists are essentially the same.
If you examine the list of the Poem Against Marcion, you get further indication that Cletus and Anacletus could have been the same person. Linus and Cletus were thought to have reigned 12 years. If Cletus and Anacletus ruled the same number of years, that would have meant that 36 years had passed since the death of the apostle Peter, and it was universally acknowledged that Clement was a contemporary of Peter, and that Peter had ordained Clement. Pope Clement then would have ascended the Chair at a ripe old age, which is not impossible, but relatively unlikely (about 103 A.D.) This is probably why Hippolytus, who treats Cletus and Anacletus as two people, reckons Clement as the second successor of Peter, right after Linus. He realizes that the Clement would probably not have been a contemporary of Peter if he had become pope so late. Optatus and Augustine, probably relied on Hippolytus for their information and knew that Cletus and Anacletus were not the same person, hence their chronology.
Hegissipus (2nd century) created a chronology to account for the succession of the pope, and as his list provides dates, it is considered more authoritative. St. Irenaeus, also follows Hegissipus' order, confirming the antiquity of that particular succession.
For more information, please see the article on St. Clement of Rome in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Thanks for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne

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