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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 03 Apr 2002

Popes QUESTION from Carl R. Carraway Jr December 10, 1999 Who was the youngest Pope in history and how old was he when he became Pope?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin on December 12, 1999 Dear Mr. Carraway,
The youngest pope of all time is John XII. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was elected at the age of 18, while Philip Hughes says he was consecrated at the age of 16. Since we don't know the date of his birth, we can't be certain.
Pope John XII was almost certainly one of the worst popes who ever sat on the throne of Peter. His Father, Alberic, Prince and Senator of all the Romans, had used his influence to get some decent popes elected, but in an astounding break from tradition, just before he died, he made the Roman nobles promise they would elect his son, Octavius, as pope. Alberic had great aspirations for his family. He wanted to keep the papal states in the family, and to check the power of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor. who aspired to rebuild Charlemagne's Empire. When Alberic died, John became both the spiritual and temporal ruler of Rome.
John XII had little taste for religion, and, according to Hughes, the older he got, the less he seemed to care. He loved hunting and fast women, many of whom were paid for through the church's treasury
His political skills were also completely lacking. He betrayed his alliance with Emperor Otto I of Germany to side with the enemy they had been fighting, Berengar of Italy. Furious, Otto marched on Rome, elected an anti-pope, and John fled. Eventually, Otto left, and John returned to take bloody vengeance on those who had betrayed him.
This pope's life story is rather complicated, therefore, if you're interested in furthering you knowledge, I recommend the Catholic Encyclopedia article on him, as well as Chapter 5 of Volume 2 of Philip Hughes' A History of the Church to the Eve of the Reformation (Warning-- the file is over 3 MB long! You might have to be patient.)
We should remember that a pope's personal character does not disprove the doctrine of papal infallibility. Papal infallibility is only exercised when a defined doctrine is issued. And the personal character of the pope, his ability to reason, and all his other psychological dispositions are not what protects the doctrine from error. It is the Holy Spirit who protects the doctrine from error. Many do not have faith in the Spirit and wonder how can the Spirit prevent a pope from issuing error? How can the Spirit stop a pope from being wrong? This shows a profound lack of faith in God. Our Lord promised that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and that the Gates of Hell, that is, of error, would never prevail against it. If we truly believe that God cannot deceive nor be deceived, and that he can do anything, then we must conclude that he has mysteriously preserved the Church from error-- in spite of popes like John XII. If the pope is wrong about a matter of faith, we can be certain that the Holy Spirit will not allow this error to be promulgated, nor will it distort the teachings of the Church. Time and again, history shows that the personal errors of the popes have never been issued by the Magisterium.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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