Strange But True: The Misnumbered Pope

I’ve been reading Bob Curran’s book Unholy Popes, an extremely amusing chronicle of papal misbehavior over the centuries and the more infamous scandals and shenanigans attributed to the various men who’ve held the seat. There have been periods of decades when Rome was rife with corruption, nepotism, bribery, and at times, open warfare and murder over the papal succession. There have been times when no one was pope and times when there were multiple contenders, each one claiming to be the true pope and threatening the others with excommunication. There have been popes who were so depraved that the Catholic Church itself has retroactively denounced them, declared them antipopes or attempted to erase them from the history books.

It’s one of these stories that lies at the root of a bizarre but true fact: The current pope is misnumbered. By the church’s own reckoning, Benedict XVI has the wrong number – and by so titling himself, he’s tacitly acknowledged the reign of a heretic!

The explanation of this dates back to the 11th century. At that time, the German emperor Henry III had the power of choosing the pope and had installed a series of German bishops in the office. In 1057, his previous pick, Pope Victor II, died. Under the terms of a treaty, Rome was obliged to consult with Henry to nominate a successor, but they failed to do this. Several powerful Roman families instead chose their own candidate for the papacy, Stephen IX, who reigned less than a year before dying of illness. Before his death, he expressed a wish that one of his advisers, Hildebrand, should select the next pope.

But the Roman noble families ignored this wish. They chose another candidate: John Mincius, the cardinal-bishop of Valletri, who took the title Benedict X. A number of cardinals claimed the election was unjust and had been determined by bribery; they were forced to flee Rome by Benedict X and his supporters.

When word reached Hildebrand, who was at the German imperial court, he decided to take action. Together with the cardinals who’d fled Rome, they met and chose Gerhard of Burgundy, bishop of Florence, as the next pope. Taking the name Nicholas II, the new pope pronounced Benedict X an antipope, declared him to be excommunicated, and proceeded to Rome backed by an army organized by sympathetic noblemen. After several inconclusive battles with Benedict’s supporters, Nicholas was victorious in a 1059 clash at Campagna, and Benedict surrendered and renounced the papacy. Nicholas allowed him to go free, but when Hildebrand returned from Germany in 1060, he had Benedict arrested and imprisoned until his death sometime between 1070 and 1080.

Hildebrand himself became pope in 1073, taking the name Pope Gregory VII. During his reign, he declared that Benedict X was not only excommunicated but had never been pope, and that any acknowledgment of him as such would be treated as heresy and punished with automatic excommunication. But the next pope who took the name Benedict, in 1303, declared himself to be Benedict XI – implicitly acknowledging his predecessor, despite the pleas of the Curia – and all subsequent Benedicts, including the current one, have followed suit.

If you look at official records, it’s obvious that the church is embarrassed by the whole affair. The New Advent Catholic encyclopedia’s entry for Benedict X says in its entirety, “The bearer of this name was an antipope in the days of Nicholas II, 1056-61.” But this terse note can’t disguise the problem: If Benedict X was an antipope, why is it that the next pope who took the name was Benedict XI? Shouldn’t he have been Benedict X, since the “first” Benedict X was an illegitimate pretender to the throne? And doesn’t this mean that every Benedict since, including the one that’s now pope, have perpetuated this error and acknowledged the legitimacy of a man earlier denounced as a usurper, an antipope and a heretic?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andrew Hall

    That was a great post. I wasn’t aware that the current pope was both evil and misnumbered.

  • FuzzyDuck

    I rather like the concept that by numbering himself such, the current pope has technically excommunicated himself

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Very interesting! I don’t know too much about the papal numbering, but are the numbers really that important? Or is skipping Benedict X kind of like retiring a jersey number? I doubt any pope would want to share a name and be associated with an anti-pope.

  • Infophile

    While Benedict XI could be accused of legitimizing Benedict X, after that point, it’s understandable to me that each successive Benedict wouldn’t want to be confused with the previous one, even if they knew about this story.

    But that’s not the real point here. The real point is that this just illustrates that popes are chosen by men, not God. The sordid history of scandalous popes and antipopes makes this abundantly clear. It’s just a matter of getting people to realize what a charade it all is.

  • lpetrich

    In fairness to Benedict XI, he may not have wanted to be confused with the bad Benedict X, so he bumped up the number for himself.

  • paradoctor

    How about Pope John XX? There was none, you see; the twentieth of that name had himself numbered XXI; apparently a mistaken attempt to correct a previous (nonexistent) numbering error.

    James Branch Cabell used this odd fact in his fantasy novel “Jurgen”.

  • LindaJoy

    The history of the catholic church reads like a bad soap opera. Unfortunately that bad soap opera was the cause of the deaths and murders of millions, the theft of half of Europe’s wealth, if not more, AND the corruption of several governments. And not a single indictment by the world for any of it.

    The Vatican was given state status among world counties, the Pope gets to call and bless the astronauts and Matt Lauer goes to the Vatican kissing rings and fawning over all of it.

    The world is absolutely nuts.

  • Robster

    I have a washing machine with “Pope” on it and my dad had a lawn mower with that on it too. Do they count?

  • other scott

    Is this even really worth posting? OoOoooOoooooh, the Pope is named wrong. That is way more damaging to the church than the fact that he was a Hitler youth, spreads lies and falsehoods and has helped cover up priest molestation.

    He might be named wrong, but really; What’s in a name? Garbage smells like garbage no matter what.

  • Alex Weaver

    Other scott: I bet you would have thought “The Moon is Down” was a terribly wishy-washy name for a propaganda tract, wouldn’t you?

  • Alex Weaver

    …while I’m at it…

    You know those “your porn star name,” “your pirate name,” “your dwarf name,” etc. generators?

    Has anyone thought to make a “your pope name” generator? :3

  • Modusoperandi

    lpetrich “In fairness to Benedict XI, he may not have wanted to be confused with the bad Benedict X, so he bumped up the number for himself.”
    Yes, but now he gets confused with himself which, given current events alone is just as bad.

    paradoctor “How about Pope John XX? There was none, you see; the twentieth of that name had himself numbered XXI; apparently a mistaken attempt to correct a previous (nonexistent) numbering error.”
    Lies! He was InvisiPope!

    other scott “…than the fact that he was a Hitler youth…”
    In fairness to Ratzinger, so was everybody else.

    On a side note, when an anti-pope and a pope collide, they both disappear.

  • Dark Jaguar

    The easiest way to avoid this is to never have another pope named Benedict. How do pope names work anyway? Do they go alphabetically? Is there some order? Or, is it literally just whatever takes that pope’s fancy when, uh, poperized.

  • paradoctor

    Modusoperandi: “…when an anti-pope and a pope collide, they both disappear.”

    … with a large explosion of hard radiation.

  • Alex Weaver

    How do pope names work anyway?

    I think you concatenate the name of your first pet to the name of the street you grew up on.

  • p4limpsest

    I don’t know if this has always been the case, but in modern times the new pope chooses their own papal name. Recently, this just amounts to taking the name of a pope you have particularly admired and plan to emulate to some degree. In the past, there were considerably more pointed political issues to contend with as well.

  • Modusoperandi

    paradoctor “… with a large explosion of hard radiation.”
    That’s how they made Pope Hulk.

  • Allogenes

    As long as we’re doing papal trivia: the 15th century antipope John XXIII was reportedly a real piece of work; it always amuses me that his number was repeated by one of the better popes of recent years. – In 1978, after the death of John Paul I (after 33 days in office) and before the coronation or whatever they call it of John Paul II, a parody of the New York Times printed an article “Pope Dies Yet Again” in which the next pope, the Cardinal of Liverpool, combined the names of his three predecessors to make “John Paul John Paul.”