The claim that the popes are the successors of the apostle Peter is the cornerstone of Roman Catholicism, without which that Church would lose its uniqueness and could not function. We must therefore spend further time to examine this claim carefully. Is there actually an unbroken line of 262 popes succeeding Peter?
For apostolic succession to occur, each pope must choose his own successor and personally lay hands on him and ordain him. This was the procedure when Paul and Barnabas were sent forth by the church at Antioch on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3). Timothy's appointment to the ministry was also by the elders laying hands upon him (1 Timothy 4:14), as did Paul when he imparted a special spiritual gift to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:6). This biblical procedure, however, has never been followed with regard to successors of the bishops of Rome or the popes. A pope's successor is chosen not by him, but after his death by others; and it has most often been done in the most ungodly manner, as we shall see.
Furthermore, there is no record that Peter was ever Bishop of Rome, and therefore no Bishop of Rome could possibly be his successor. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (178-200), provided a list of the first 12 Bishops of Rome. Linus was the first. Peter's name does not appear. Eusebius of Caesaria, the Father of church history, never mentions Peter as Bishop of Rome. He simply says that Peter came to Rome "about the end of his days" and was crucified there. Paul, in writing his epistle to the Romans, greets many people by name, but not Peter. That would be a strange omission if Peter had been living in Rome, and especially if he were its bishop!
Missing Links in the "Unbroken Line"
The Vatican puts out an official list of the popes, arbitrarily beginning with Peter and continuing to the present. There have been several such lists which were apparently considered accurate at one time but subsequently had to be revised-and now conflict with each other. The earliest lists come from Liber Pontificalis (Book of Popes), presumably first composed under Pope Hormisdus (514-23), yet even the Catholic Encyclopedia casts doubt upon its authenticity, and most scholars today agree that it mixed fact with fiction. Who the actual Bishops of Rome were cannot be known with any certainty at this late date. Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia, published by the Catholic University of America, acknowledges this fact:
But it must be frankly admitted that bias or deficiencies in the sources make it impossible to determine in certain cases whether the claimants were popes or anti-popes.2
The simple truth is that the Roman Catholic Church itself, with all of its archives, cannot verify an accurate and complete list of the popes. The alleged "unbroken line of succession back to Peter" is therefore a mere fiction. Anyone who takes the time to seriously attempt a verification of its accuracy will conclude that the Church has fabricated an official list of popes in order to justify the papacy and its pretensions. Nor was the Bishop of Rome considered to be the pope of the universal Church until about a thousand years after Pentecost!
For centuries the citizens of Rome considered it their right to elect the Bishop of Rome. This custom is proof that the Bishop of Rome had jurisdiction only over that territory, for if he had had jurisdiction over the whole Church, then all of the Church would have been involved in choosing him, as it is today. When at times the right to elect their own Bishop was denied them, the citizens of Rome revolted and forced their will upon the local civil and religious authorities. How could such pressure by mob violence be called apostolic succession by the direction of the Holy Spirit?
Feuds were carried on between powerful families (Colonna, Orsini, Annibaldi, Conti, Caetani, et al), who fought wars for the papacy for centuries. For example, Boniface VIII, a Caetani, had to battle the Colonna to remain in power. At the height of his success he had all of Western Christendom coming to Rome for the great Jubilee in 1300. But in 1303 he was seized by emissaries of Philip the Fair of France, and Rome fell into French possession. As a consequence, the papacy was moved to France, and from 1309-77 the popes were French and resided at Avignon. Such political maneuverings could hardly constitute apostolic succession!
Popes were both installed and deposed by imperial armies or Roman mobs. Some were murdered. More than one pope was executed by a jealous husband who found him in bed with his wife-hardly apostolic succession. Money and/or violence most often determined who would be "Peter's successor." No wonder that in the Concordat of Worms (between Pope Calixtus II and the Emperor Henry V, September 23, 1122) the pope was made to swear that the election of bishops and abbots would take place "without simony and without any violence,"3 which all too often decided Church affairs.
At times there were several rivals each claiming to have been legally voted in by a legitimate council. One of the earliest examples of multiple popes was created by the simultaneous election by rival factions of Popes Ursinus and Damasus. The former's followers managed, after much violence, to install him as pope. Later, after a bloody three-day battle, Damasus, with the backing of the emperor, emerged the victor and continued as vicar of Christ for 18 years (36684). So "apostolic succession" by an "unbroken line from Peter" operated by armed force? Really?
Ironically, Damasus was the first who, in 382, used the phrase "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church" to claim supreme spiritual authority. Bloody, wealthy, powerful, and exceedingly corrupt, Damasus surrounded himself with luxuries that would have made an emperor blush. There is no way to justify any connection between him and Christ, yet he remains one link in that chain of alleged unbroken succession back to Peter.
Violence, Intrigue, and Simony
Stephen VII (896-7), who exhumed Pope Formosus and condemned the corpse for heresy at a mock trial, was soon thereafter strangled by zealots who opposed him. His party promptly elected a Cardinal Sergius to be pope, but he was chased out of Rome by a rival faction which had elected Romanus as its "vicar of Christ." Of the strange manner in which popes followed one another in an "unbroken line of apostolic succession from Peter," one historian writes:
Over the next twelve months four more popes scrambled onto the bloodstained [papal] throne, maintained themselves precariously for a few weeks-or even days-before being hurled themselves into their graves.
Seven popes and an anti-pope had appeared in a little over six years when ... Cardinal Sergius reappeared after seven years' exile, backed now by the swords of a feudal lord who saw a means thereby of gaining entry into Rome. The reigning pope [Leo V, 903] found his grave, the slaughters in the city reached a climax, and then Cardinal Sergius emerged as Pope Sergius [III, 904-11 ], sole survivor of the claimants and now supreme pontiff.4
Attempting to establish stability in selecting popes, in 1059 Nicholas 11(1059-61) "defined the role of the cardinals in the [papal] electoral process. During the Third Lateran Council in 1179, Alexander III (1159-8 1) restricted papal elections to the cardinals."5 It was hardly an improvement. As one nineteenth century historian pointed out, "Few papal elections, if any, have been other than simoniacal [bought off for money].... The invention of the Sacred College [of cardinals] has been, on the whole, perhaps the most fertile source of corruption in the Church. Many cardinals went to Rome for the conclave with their bankers."6
Much insight into such corruption comes from the diaries of John Burchard. Master of Ceremonies at the conclave that elected Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI [ 1492-1503]), Burchard concludes that only five votes were not bought in that election. "The young cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, who had refused to sell his vote, thought it prudent to leave Rome immediately."7 In those days a cardinal's hat sold for a king's ransom, so it took a fortune to enter the polluted stream of "apostolic succession." Money flowed in from all over Europe to back favorite candidates. Borgia bought the papacy with "villas, towns and abbeys ... [and] four mule-loads of silver to his greatest rival, Cardinal Sforza, to induce him to step down." Peter de Rosa remarks facetiously:
It is instructive to see, by way of Burchard’s diaries, how the Holy Spirit goes about choosing St. Peter’s successor.8
Sex and Succession
Some popes were put in office by their mistresses-six by a mother-and-daughter pair of prostitutes. Theodora of Rome (wife of a powerful Roman Senator) was most successful at this strategy. She manipulated Roman politics by exploiting the fact that her daughter, Marozia, was the mistress of Pope Sergius III. Known as "the mistress of Rome," Marozia did not hesitate at murder to accomplish her ambitions. Theodora herself was mistress to two ecclesiastics whom she maneuvered in quick succession, after Sergius's death, onto "Peter's throne"-popes Anastasius III (911-13) and Lando (913-14). Falling in love with a priest from Ravena, she maneuvered him also onto the papal throne.
That prostitutes determined who would be pope could hardly be "apostolic succession"! Of this remarkable mother and daughter Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
The influence of two prostitutes, Marozia and Theodora, was founded on their wealth and beauty, their political and amorous intrigues. The most strenuous of their lovers were rewarded with the Roman mitre.... The bastard son, the grandson, and the great grandson of Marozia-a rare genealogy-were seated in the Chair of St. Peter.9
Alberic, another of Marozia's sons, with his armed thugs, literally controlled Rome. He made the Roman leaders swear to elect his son (Marozia's grandson), Octavian, not only as his successor to the Imperial throne but, upon the death of the pope, to that supreme religious office as well. And so it happened that Octavian called himself Pope John XII, while at the same time retaining the name Octavian as prince. Thus both the civil and ecclesiastical thrones were joined in one man.
John XII (955-63) was obsessed with illicit sex even more than he was with power. Though he had many regular mistresses, they were not enough. It was no longer safe for any woman to come into St. Peters! Bishop Liudprand of Cremona, papal observer and chronicler of that time, tells that the pope "was so blindly in love with [one mistress] that he made her governor of several cities-and even gave to her the golden crosses and cups of St. Peter himself." Roman mobs that had supported him and cared nothing about his amorous affairs were angered by the loss of properties which Romans had looked upon as part of their heritage.
Surrounded by mobs who were now eager to remove him, and besieged by the new King of Italy with his armies from without, Octavian abandoned his position as civil ruler but would not give up the even more lucrative and influential papacy, though he made no pretense of being a religious man, much less a true Christian. The papacy still had the power to crown emperors, so the pope summoned Otto, King of Germany and Europe's most powerful monarch, to Rome to be crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto came in haste with his army to the aid of the besieged pontiff.
After his coronation by John XII, Otto attempted to lecture the young pope about his dissolute life. John XII pretended to heed the advice. But after Otto and his armies had left, the pope, unwilling to abandon his sexual exploits, offered the Imperial crown to Berenger, the very enemy whose armies had plundered northern Italy and because of whose threats he had appealed to Otto.
Tempted by the prize that was now dangled in front of him, Berenger nevertheless declined, knowing that his forces were no match for Otto's army. The frantic pope then appealed to everyone from Saracens to Huns to rescue him from the man he had just crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and with whom he had sworn to revive the ancient partnership between crown and papacy that had once worked so well between Leo III and Charlemagne!
Papal Musical Chairs
When Otto returned with his army to settle accounts, John XII fled from Rome to Tivoli with what Vatican treasures he could carry. Otto opened a synod to decide John's fate. Bishop Liudprand presided in the emperor's name and recorded the proceedings. Witnesses were called and the crimes of the pope established, from fornication with numerous women who were named, to blinding Benedict, his spiritual father, to the murder of a Cardinal John, to toasting Satan at St. Peter's altar. But before Otto could execute justice, Pope John XII was killed by a husband who found the unrepentant pontiff bedded with his wife. Yet John XII is on the official Roman Catholic list of popes, each known as "His holiness, Vicar of Christ."
Not long after Otto's death in Germany, the papacy fell under the control of a powerful family of warlords in the Alban hills. The leader of the clan, Gregory of Tusculum, through wealth and the power of the sword succeeded in placing two of his three sons and a grandson (one succeeding the other) on the supposed throne of St. Peter. The Alberics of Tusculum could eventually boast of 40 cardinals, 3 antipopes, and 13 popes issuing from that one family. It would be a mockery to say that the wealth and power that produced this remarkable familial network of popes had anything to do with apostolic succession.
Of this period, Church historian von Dollinger, himself a devout Catholic, writes:
... the Roman Church was enslaved and degraded, while the Apostolic See became the prey and the plaything of rival factions of the nobles, and for a long time of ambitious and profligate women. It was only renovated for a brief interval (997-1003) in the persons of Gregory V and Silvester II, by the influence of the Saxon emperor.
Then the Papacy sank back into utter confusion and moral impotence; the Tuscan Counts made it hereditary in their family; again and again dissolute boys, like John XII [age 16 when he became Pope] and Benedict IX [at age 11], occupied and disgraced the Apostolic throne, which was now bought and sold like a piece of merchandise, and at last three Popes fought for the tiara, until the Emperor Henry III put an end to the scandal by elevating a German bishop to the See of Rome.10
Chased by mobs from Rome in 1045, Pope Benedict IX (1032-44; 1045; 1047-8) fled to the protection of his uncle, Count Gregory, whose army controlled the hill country of Tusculum. In his absence, John, Bishop of the Sabine Hills, entered Rome and installed himself as pope under the name Sylvester III (1045). He occupied the "throne of Peter" a mere three months until Benedict stormed back with more swords than Sylvester could summon and ruled as pope once again. Yet both of these men are on the official Vatican list of those considered worthy of the titles "His Holiness" and "Vicar of Christ."
Tiring of the burdens of his office and eager to devote himself entirely to his favorite lover, Benedict sold the papacy for 1500 pounds of gold to his godfather, Giovanni Gratiano, archpriest of St. John's Church at the Latin Gate. Giovanni took over the papacy in May 1045 under the name of Pope Gregory VI (1045-6). With fresh resolve, Benedict returned to Rome in 1047 and set himself up as pope once again. So did Sylvester III. Now there were three popes, each ruling over that portion of Rome which his private army controlled, each claiming to be the vicar of Christ and possessor of the keys of heaven by virtue of apostolic succession.
Growing weary of the charade, the disillusioned and angry Roman citizens appealed to Emperor Henry III. He marched into Rome with his army and presided over a synod that deposed all three "popes" and installed the emperor's choice. He called himself Clement II (1046-7). But Benedict was not sc easily dispatched. As soon as the Imperial army withdrew, he returned to Rome and managed by force of arms to rule as pope for another eight months (1047-8), until Henry returned and chased him back to the Alban hills for the last time.
One would think the Roman Catholic Church would be ashamed of such fiascos and blot out the memory of evil popes and their fraudulent and often violent means of gaining and losing and recovering the papal throne. Yet in spite of such godless rivalry and in spite of the fact that their papacies overlapped (at times all three claimed to be pope), each of these adversarial claimants to Peter's throne is found on the Vatican's official list of popes today. (For further history of the popes see Appendix_D.)