ASK FATHER: Can a Pope name his own successor?

popes_posterFrom a reader…


If a Pope wanted to ensure that the next holder of his office would be of like mind and continue his policies, is there any moral or theological impediment to his naming his own successor before his death?

Interesting theoretical question.  I am unaware of any opinions by good, specific writers on the topic, though it is possible that someone like St Robert Bellarmine has already worked through the issues.   I’ll take a stab anyway, animi caussa.

So, can a Pope do this, or has a Pope done this, or should a Pope do this?

There are a couple things to be held in tension.   First, the Pope has from God full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, which he can always exercise unhindered. The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls. Next, we mustn’t exaggerate or overestimate what the Pope can do. He is still bound in some ways.

The way by which Popes, Bishops of Rome have been chosen has changed over the centuries, though for a long while now it has been pretty standardized: he is elected by the body or college of “hinge-men” or Cardinals, who are technically the special clergy of Rome.   Keep in mind that Peter was, yes, the first “Pope”, but he also wasn’t.  The office of “Pope” who is the Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter is a reality that has taken on more manifest work and institution than what Peter concerned himself with.  While scholars are divided, it is probable that Peter chose his successor – probably Linus – by consecrating him.  It is possible that Pope may have consecrated others.  However, we generally go with Linus.  So, Peter seems to have designated the one he wanted to succeed him and it seems that the Church of Rome followed his wishes.  I don’t know if that is the same as choosing your successor or not, since the historical circumstances were entirely different. As the Church grew in number and in freedom and became more institutionalized, the method of choosing the leader changed.   We must avoid anachronism problems.

Later, however, when the Pope really had become Pope in the more modern sense, I think there is the case of Felix IV who tried to designate his successor, a Boniface II.  However, the secular state, the Senate forbade discussion of a successor and Felix was thwarted as the clergy of Rome objected and another was elected.  As it turned out they sort of shared the role for a bit and then Boniface was duly elected in his own right.   So, yes, Felix IV named his successor, but, no, it didn’t work… until it did.

Today, Popes are the Legislators in the Church.  They literally lay down the law for how Popes are elected.  Also, the state is completely out of the picture since the odd events of the conclave in which St. Pius X was elected. Now, every Pope can change his predecessors laws and procedures, though in fact they have remained pretty much the same for a long time, so long that it is nearly unthinkable to do it otherwise.   Hence, Popes have a kind of moral bond, at least, to follow the same.

That said, the Pope, who has full authority, could theoretically step by step abrogate the laws of election of a Pope.  He could, I suppose, even reprobate those laws, that is, abolish them in a such a severe way as to make it impossible to appeal to custom.  Say a Pope did that and then completely wiped out the College of Cardinals, forbidding it, etc.  Then I suppose he could establish a new office of Coadjutor Bishop of Rome with right of succession.  That Pope could say, “Upon my death, Coadjutor Bishop of Rome John Zuhlsdorf will immediately succeed me and you shall prostrate yourselves three times as you approach him and then kiss his right shoe.”  On the death of that Pope, I would take new name “Father Z I” or else “Clemente XIV Ganganelli I”, but I would defer the foot kissing thing for a while for reasons which should be obvious: by the time I get done with my first acts, many fewer people would have to kiss the sacred slipper.

But you asked if there were moral or theological impediments.  I think there is certainly a moral impediment, unless the circumstances were so dire for the Church that something had to be done as the End Times drew to a close.  But then, ironically, the Church of Rome might be more like it was in the beginning than it has become. Theological impediment?  I don’t see one, given how the very earliest Bishops of Rome were chosen, or at least strongly indicated. However, it could be that the length of time and the association with the papal office of elections by a College of Cardinals is, by now, so deep, that that method could even have become its own theological locus.

So, yes, I think that a Pope cannot do this.  Popes don’t have the moral authority to wipe out aspects of the Church’s life which are so deeply part of her marrow.   I’m sure you can think of a few of those aspects (HINT: liturgy).  It hasn’t clearly been done in the past and it would go directly contrary to how Popes have been chosen for a very long time.  It would be an exercise of raw power that would not go unchallenged.  No Pope would be stupid enough to try and I suspect that even the Holy Spirit could be bothered to intervene against a move like that.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. tgarcia2 says:

    Still waiting for the tiara and ostrich feather fans like here

    [That was a really weird show with occasional good moments. Mostly strange.]

  2. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I remember looking at this question from a different vantage point 12/13 years ago. For several pontificates in a row, the Holy Father had raised his successor to the College of Cardinals in the last consistory before his death.

  3. Andrew says:

    No one has authority to legislate beyond the day of his death. Not to mention that the very uncertainty of human affairs would make it highly injudicious to attempt such a thing.

  4. Andrew1054 says:

    One thing I’ve always wondered is what gives the Pope his full authority. Is it that he’s a successor of St. Peter? If that’s the case then so is the Patriarch of Antioch so why aren’t they considered successors of St. Peter with the power to bind and lose etc.? or is it because he’s Bishop of Rome? Or a combination of both? It’s a strange problem when one considers that the Patriarch of Antioch is a full successor of St. Peter as well yet doesn’t have the full powers of Peter…or does he? If not, why not?

  5. Ultrarunner says:

    Almost a thousand years ago, Pope Benedict IX sold the papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI. Bizarrly, Benedict, who initially ascended to the Papacy through bribery, went on to became Pope not once, but twice afterwards. The nephew of Benedict VIII, he was a three-time Pope.

  6. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    But Father, but Father…er…Coadjutor Bishop of Rome…didnt you mean they would “kiss your /red/ right shoe”??

    You dont want to deprive the Wiley Coyote MSW and his ilk the opportunity of commenting about the color of your blessed and supple red velvet slippers…

    [You raise an issue that I, not nearly as interested in shoes as Wile E. and other libs, had not considered. However, on further reflection, I think the business end would be clad in steel. That’s all they’ll have to pay attention to. As for the color, why, yes, I would use the red shoes. ]

  7. WesleyD says:


    The key (no pun intended) is that Peter was the leader of the Church from Christ’s ascension (although presumably without infallibility until Pentecost) until his death.

    It’s true that Peter lived in Antioch for several years, and he is considered the first bishop of that city. However, Peter then went to Rome, and Evodius became bishop of Antioch. So at that point, Evodius was in charge of the Church in Antioch, while Peter was in charge of the entire Church. No doubt Peter, at the time of his death, could have declared that his authority would pass to Evodius (or whoever had succeeded him by then), but instead he appointed Linus.

    Besides, for the first several years of the Church, Peter was in Jerusalem. So they, too, could claim Peter’s authority if they were so inclined.

    The pope is the successor to Peter. (In some old texts, the Pope is called “the successor to Peter, in the Church of Peter and Paul” — emphasizing that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome.) I suspect that it was providential that the First See was located in such an important city, as it facilitated communications, and perhaps some worldly Christians would have offered less respect to the pope had he lived in some tiny village. Nonetheless, the reason that the Bishop of Rome is the visible head of the Church Militant is not due to the merits of the city of Rome itself.

  8. WesleyD says:

    Andrew wrote:

    No one has authority to legislate beyond the day of his death.

    It depends on what you mean. It’s true that neither Pius IX nor Abraham Lincoln can enact new legislation today. However, legislation duly enacted by Pius IX or Abraham Lincoln in 1864 remains valid today, unless duly revoked or altered by their successors.

    When a pope dies, the Church has no one who can issue legislation. So all the previous popes’ legislation remains in effect, including their legislation regarding how the election of their successor will take place.

    Thus in 1621, Gregory XV issued the bull Aeterni Patris Filius, which stated that papal elections require two-thirds of the college of cardinals. This remained in effect for hundreds of years, until Pius XII raised it to two-third plus one. John XXIII made it two-thirds, rounded up if the number wasn’t divisible by three. Paul VI restored Pius XII’s rule. John Paul II revoked this rule again, but most strikingly, issued legislation that an absolute majority was sufficient if no one had received two-thirds by the 34th ballot. Benedict XVI removed this exception, again requiring two-thirds in all cases.

    Each of these popes’ legislation was completely binding on the conclave following his death (or resignation, in B16’s case). Their successors are free to change it or allow it.

    So there are two possibilities: (1) A pope can change the procedure for selecting his successor in any way he chooses. (2) A pope can change the procedure somewhat, but after a thousand years of tradition, the College of Cardinals is such a part of tradition that no pope can radically change it. Like Fr Z, I lean to #2.

    If a pope tried to designate his successor — or if he took away the red hats from every cardinal except one, allowing that one cardinal to pick the next pope — I suspect there would be such a negative reaction that (Deus avertat!) schism would result.

  9. Geoffrey says:

    A Pope could certainly try to maneuver things to make his chosen successor appear more favourable or accessible, etc. And, of course, there is prayer.

    I recall following the death of St John Paul the Great and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, some opined that Cardinal Ratzinger may have been the great pope’s choice, as he refused to let him retire, keeping him in Rome, close to “the action”, etc.

  10. TonyO says:

    However, it could be that the length of time and the association with the papal office of elections by a College of Cardinals is, by now, so deep, that that method could even have become its own theological locus.

    I am curious about how long it took in the early Church before the selection of the new bishop, in most dioceses (and, especially, in the patriarchal sees) settled down (more or less) in form to that of an election by the pertinent body of men – by the whole people, by the presbyters of the diocese, by the other bishops of the province, by the canons of the cathedral, etc. While I have no qualms that the current practice, appointment by the Pope, is theologically permissible, I wonder whether it is – from the standpoint of longevity, tradition, and general common sense – really that sound a method. (For example, the pope can hardly be a good judge of a person he has never met – it devolves to the actual choice of some other (bureaucratic) set of men anyway.) As a result, I wonder whether an election of the next pope by the “pertinent set of men” is, is the long run, something of a naturally preferred method, something of a “default setting” on how the Church ought to operate, and would require a specific need to justify having a different rule. Not that the Pope hasn’t the authority to lay down new particular law about it if he chooses.

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  12. Kathleen10 says:

    It is my simple understanding that the pope is the pope as long as he defends and passes along the Catholic faith intact, including all dogma. He does not have the right to tinker with it, change it, then pass along his mangled version. He can’t cherry pick out the bits he doesn’t agree with, then inflict the contrary on the poor flock. Somebody correct me please if necessary, but if he does these things, he is no longer the pope and his “recommendations” for the next pope, like everything else he said, would be null and void.
    What am I missing.

  13. pseudomodo says:

    “In 954, Pope Agapetus II administered an oath to the Roman nobles in St. Peter’s, that on the next vacancy of the papal chair his only son, Octavius, should be elected pope. After his death, Octavius, then eighteen years of age, was actually chosen his successor on 16 December, 955, and took the name of John XII. The temporal and spiritual authority in Rome were thus again united in one person — a coarse, immoral man, whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general odium. (Catholic Encyclopedia)”

  14. William Tighe says:

    In response to several comments on this thread:

    We know little or nothing about the journeys of the apostles beyond what we can learn from the Acts of the Apostles. In the case of St. Peter, we do not know anything about the sequence of his journeys after “he went to another place” in Acts 12:17.

    In particular, we do not know that he went to Antioch first, and Rome afterwards. The English Anglican scholar George Edmundson (1848-1930), in a wok that has been largely neglected since its publication, probably because of what seemed at the time its outrageously early dating of most New Testament books, The Church of Rome in the First Century: The Bampton Lectures for 1913 (Oxford, 1913) makes what to me is a compelling argument that he made for Rome immediately after the events of Acts 12:17, and that his sojourn in Antioch was at a later period. The book can be read online at various sites, one of them this:

    It is one thing to claim that St. Peter may have appointed the first bishop of the Church of Antioch, but quite another to claim that a particular see and its bishop “inherited” Peter’s unique “headship” of the apostles – and, thus, of the Church. Rome makes this claim for itself; Antioch has never done so. Greek (Orthodox) Christianity has come to reject the idea that any bishop of any see can claim to be the successor of any particular apostle; all bishops are successors of the apostles generally, and so all bishops are equally “successors of St. Peter;” which is not to deny that some episcopal sees may have a certain primacy or preeminence due to their apostolic foundation, such as Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, due to their connections with St. Peter (via St. Mark in the case of Alexandria) and, as Fifth-Century latecomers, Constantinople (due to its purported foundation by St. Andrew) and Jerusalem (due to its connection with St. James the Just, the “Brother of the Lord” – but belatedly, because until the Council of Chalcedon the Church of Jerusalem was regarded as a new gentile foundation of the 130s/40s, the original Jewish-Christian church having been destroyed in the course of the two great Jewish Revolts against Rome in 66-73 AD and 130-135 AD) – but they regard this as a thing established by Church custom, not the “statutory will” of the Lord or of St. Peter.

    Rome has claimed, explicitly since the Fourth Century, and implicitly by its actions (e.g., Pope Victor in the Quartodeciman Controversy in the 180s or 190s) that it is, uniquely, The Apostolic See, and that its bishop has “inherited” – cf. Pope Leo the Great’s lapidary description of the Bishop of Rome as indignus heres Beati Petri the (personally in himself as a man) unworthy heir (who nevertheless inherits the position and authority of St. Peter as an apostle) of St. Peter.

    Interested readers may find it worthwhile to track down and read two articles bearing on this subject by the late great historian of “papal political and legal thought” Walter Ullmann (1910-1983), “Leo I and the Theme of Papal Primacy” and “The Significance of the Epistola Clementis in the Pseudo-Clementines,” both of them published in Journal of Theological Studies , new series, XI (1960) on pp.25-51 and 295-317, respectively. Both of them are “dense” articles, written in a milieu and time when it was not deemed necessary to translate passages quoted in Greek, Latin, or German, particularly the latter of the two.

    Underlying those articles is the problem of the “juristic succession” of the Bishop of Rome from St. Peter. This is not (for Ullmann) a matter of episcopal consecration per se : the Bishop of Rome becomes “Peter’s heir” immediately upon his acceptance of the office, not upon his subsequent episcopal consecration (assuming that he is not already a bishop when elected) – which means, among other things, that the origins of the See of Antioch with St. Peter is irrelevant to the question.

    (to be continued – with the permission of Fr. Z., of course)

  15. William Tighe says:


    The key text in this question comes from St. Irenaeus Against Heresies Book III, Ch. 3; I have tried to italicize the key passages:

    “2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
    3. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles Clement was allotted the bishopric . This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes …”

    Some scholars argue – and a few Church Fathers state explicitly – that St. Peter elevated Linus, (Ana)Cletus, and Clement to the episcopate while organizing the Church of Rome, and that there three acted as bishops “in” Rome rather than bishops “of” Rome during his subsequent journeys (to Bithynia, to Antioch, and at least one or two returns to Jerusalem). Edmundson – an Anglican, remember, so not a believer in papal primacy, as Catholics believe it – for example argues that after St. Peter’s martyrdom Linus, then Cletus, then Clement were, successively, bishops “of ” Rome. Ullmann focuses in the passages which I have italicized in the passage from St. Irenaeus. The “blessed apostles” (Peter and Paul) enecheirisan (ordained, appointed) Linus to the leitourgeian (office, “liturgy”) of the episcopate; Anacletus diadechetai (succeeded) him (in it). After that, in the third place from the apostles Clement kleroutai (received as an inheritance, an allottment) the episcopate. Ullmann thinks that a reader of the passage might well read it as implying that what Clement received was in some (unknown or uncertain, so far as we can tell from Irenaeus) way something different from, or additional to, what Linus and Cletus held; and that those who succeeded Clement received successively whatever it was that had been bestowed upon Clement as an inheritance.

    The Epistola Clementis of Ullmann’s article is neither what we know today as the “First Epistle of Clement,” an anonymous letter (universally attributed to Clement of Rome, usually dated ca. 96 AD but which Edmundson argues was written in the earlier part of AD 70, before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in September of that year) or the anonymous homily traditionally termed the “Second Epistle of Clement,” but a letter purportedly from Clement to St. James of Jerusalem reporting the martyrdom of St. Peter and, as one of St. Peter’s last acts, appointing St. Clement as his apostolic successor. The Pseudo-Clementines, dating to the early Third Century, are a strange farrago of dissenting “Jewish-Christian” stuff, treating St. Paul as a betrayer of the faith who distorted Jesus’s teachings and regarding St. James as “apostle of apostles and bishop of bishops” and the Head of the Church. Ullmann thinks its prefatory Epistola Clementis to be independent of, and earlier in date than, the material to which it survives as a preface. In it Peter, expecting his imminent arrest and martyrdom, summon an assembly of Roman Christians, and confers at it the fullness of his apostolic authority on Clement after his death, appointing him as his successor to it. Ullmann thinks we cannot get at the historical truth, or events, underlying this claim, at least with the evidence available to us, but believes that something like it has always underlain the claim of the Roman See to be “the Apostolic See” in a unique and exclusive sense, and the way in which popes were addresses as Apostolicus , sometimes sarcastically (e.g., by Tertullian), in early centuries.

  16. WesleyD says:


    You brought up the idea that a pope is pope only “as long as he defends and passes along the Catholic faith intact.”

    As far as I know, there has never been any theological authority who suggested that a pope might cease to be pope merely because he fails to defend or fails to transmit the entirety of the Faith. If this were the criterion, many popes would have failed, since there have been many popes who paid no attention to dogma but merely focused on politics or their own selfish pursuits. Moreover, Pope Honorius failed to combat the Monothelite heresy, and the Council of Constantinople III and his own successors condemned him for it. But none of them said he had ceased to be pope. (Note that he did not teach heresy — he merely failed to combat it, and when asked about the Monothelite views, he seemed to say they were no big deal.)

    However, there have been several major theologians who held that a pope might be deposed or lose his office if he teaches heresy. However, these theologians fall into two categories: Some say that if a pope becomes a heretic, he could be deposed by the bishops. Others say that a pope loses his office the instant that he becomes a heretic — but this fact has to be established by a public ruling that his views are indeed heresy. None of them suggest that an individual Catholic may decide, on his or her own, that the current Pope is no longer Pope! For details, see the excellent study True or False Pope? Refuting Sedevacantism and Other Modern Errors by John Salza and Robert Siscoe.

  17. William Tighe says:

    One last remark:

    The “Liber Pontificalis,” a compilation of disparate traditions concerning the early popes, said to have been put together in the pontificate of Damasus (d. 394) but which scholars now for the most part think was compiled a century later, has this to say about Peter, Linus, Cletus, and Clement:

    “Peter ordained two bishops, Linus and Cletus, who in person fulfilled all the service of the priest in the city of Rome for the inhabitants and for strangers ; then the blessed Peter gave himself to prayer and preaching, instructing the people … He consecrated blessed Clement as bishop and committed to him the government of the see and all the church, saying: ‘As unto me was delivered by my Lord Jesus Christ the power to govern and to bind and loose, so also I commit it unto thee, that thou mayest ordain stewards over divers matters who will carry onward the work of the church and mayest thyself not become engrossed with the cares of the world but mayest strive to give thyself solely to prayer and preaching to the people’.”

    See this article from 1998 by Karl Keating on the subject:

    I do not understand, however, why Keating (in paragraph 8) insists that St. Peter could not have appointed Clement his successor; it seems highly anachronistic to claim, based on later canonical practice, that “No pope can make another man his successor; the most he can do is make him a bishop, which is what Peter did to Linus, Cletus, and Clement” so as to rule out the obvious meaning of the text of the LP, that Peter appointed Clement his successor.

  18. Kathleen10 says:

    Wesley D., we could solve this if somebody would kindly write it in the rules now.
    Kidding. Thank you for the information. It seems there as many opinions on this as stars in the sky, so nothing is liable to come of anything in this area.

  19. Boniface says:


    Next question.

  20. Daniel W says:

    A pope can change the rules so as to appoint a successor.
    HOWEVER, once he is dead or resigned, his papal powers are no longer supreme, and so an ecumenical council would be supreme after the death of a pope until the new pope accepts his office.
    So if the transfer is not done properly, an ecumenical council could appoint a different pope, who of course would have to then confirm the council’s decision to appoint him (etc, etc).
    SO, a safe way around this would be for a pope to appoint a successor, and then resign, making this resignation effective from the moment that his successor accepts his office.

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