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19 May 2016updated 12 Oct 2023 10:43am

There have been five Pope Felixes, only three of whom were actually Pope

2,000 years of administrative screw ups in the Vatican.

By Jonn Elledge

Admin’s always a nightmare, isn’t it? Trying to keep track of your finances. Casually wondering where you filed your warranty documents, as the toaster ignites yet again. 

And you only need to worry about the last couple of years. The Catholic Church has got nearly 2,000 years of poor record keeping to contend with: centuries of paperwork, from before computers, before even paper, and covering a period including at least five different sacks of Rome.

Consider: the list of Popes on Wikipedia includes no fewer than 266 holders of the title Bishop of Rome, from St Peter (1 April 33 – 29 June 67) to Francis (13 March 2013 – date). It includes important figures in European history, like Urban II (1088-1099; launched the Crusades) and Gregory XIII (1572-1585; he of the calendar). It also includes thoroughly unimportant figures, like Urban VII (the shortest reigning pope, who took the job and almost instantly expired; he lasted a whole 12 days – useless git never even had a coronation).

As enjoyable as it is trawling through a list of 266 identical men in silly red hats, though, the real fun is to be found in the errata. The “notes on numbering of popes” speak volumes about the poor quality administrative skills of the medieval church: it’s a veritable treasure trove of insight into quite how many mystifying screw ups any institution can make, if only it’s allowed to continue for 2,000 years. 

Some quotes follow, with my commentary. 

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A number of anomalies in the list given above need further explanation:

Felix II (356–357), Boniface VII (974, 984–985), John XVI (997–998), Benedict X (1058–1059) and Alexander V (1409–1410) are not listed because they are all considered antipopes.

Disappointingly, “antipopes” are not, as the name suggests, a type of evil, mirror universe pope – the sort that, if they ever came into contact with the actual pope, would wipe out the space-time continuum. Rather, there were, at times, rival popes, invested by different factions of the church, who were later snipped out of the official list of Popes once their faction, well, lost. “Antipopes” is the name applied to these pretenders.

The problem is – the Church didn’t always reset the numbering. So the official list of Popes has a Boniface VI and a Boniface VIII, but Boniface VII is lost to history. By the same logic, there’s an Alexander IV and an Alexander VI, but no Alexander V.

That makes some sort of sense, except that sometimes the Church does try to reset the numbering.

The numbering of popes named Felix has been amended to omit antipope Felix II; however, most lists still call the last two Felixes Felix III and Felix IV

So the official list includes nightmarish entries like “St Felix III (Felix II)”, or, to give him his Latin name: “Papa FELIX Tertius (Secundus)”. He ruled for nine years in the late 5th century; 30 years later came “St Felix IV”, who is also known as Felix III. 

Additionally, there was an antipope Felix V.

So, for those keeping count, there have been five Pope Felixes, only three of whom were actually Pope. Glad we got that straight. 

It gets worse. There’s never been a Pope John XX. That’s not because he was later labelled an anti-pope, it’s “as a result of confusion of the number system” – which is a high-minded and clever-sounding way of saying that they literally lost count.

To balance this out, there are in fact two different John XXIIIs – an antipope in the early 15th century, who hovered around the edge of the lists for four centuries, before finally getting bumped off by a different Pope John XXIII in 1958.

By the same sort of logic, in 1281 some bloke called Simon decided to be Pope Martin, and when someone checked the lists for Martins past they found three. But the time someone noticed that two of them were actually called Marinus (damn joined up writing), it was too late. So there’s a Martin I, a Martin IV and even a Martin V, but Martins II and III never existed and are actually called Marinus I and II.

Then there’s Pope Elect Stephen II, whose papacy began on 23 March 752 and ended three days later when he died, before even being consecrated. Despite this minor hiccup in his papacy, the Vatican included him on its official lists for the next 1,209 years, before unceremoniously dropping him in 1961, and promoting Popes Stephen III (752-757) through Stephen X (1057-1058) to Popes Stephen II (752-757) through Stephen IX (1057-1058).

Then there’s this gem:

Pope Donus II, said to have reigned about 974, never existed. 

Misreading of “dominus”, apparently.

And then there’s this:

Pope Joan also never existed; however, legends about her may have originated from stories about the pornocracy.

…which, since nobody actually believes the myth of Pope Joan, looks suspiciously like a shameless excuse to print a woman’s name in the same sentence as the slightly worrying term “pornocracy”. (A period in the 10th century in which the Church was thought to be particularly corrupt; the name translates, roughly, as “rule by prostitutes”.)

Last but not least:

Those who believe in Sedevacantism say that there have been no legitimate popes since Pius XII

That only happened in 1958, though, so only eliminates six popes.

Part of the explanation for this mess seems to lie in the fact that regnal numbering wasn’t imposed until the 10th century: that implies a lot of minor cardinals, frantically counting recurrences of particular names in centuries old lists of popes in an attempt to make sure they weren’t about to misnumber the new guy.

Partly, though, it seems simply to reflect the poor quality of the lists in question. And partly, too, blame must be laid at the feet of those endless unavoidable rows of who actually counts at all: a form of interminable canon debate, only with men in big red hats instead of written texts.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that there have been somewhere between 260 and 307 popes depending how you count, including two John XXIIIs, two Victor IVs (both anti popes), three Benedict XIVs (only one counts), but absolutely no Pope Joan.

If I’m honest about this, I’m struggling to come up with a conclusion to this except “admin is hard”. Which is basically where we came in.

The warranty for that toaster is down the side of the fridge, by the way.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.

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