Providence and Grace in the Election of the Pope

1. Faith in the Roman Pontiff

I utterly reject the claim that some Popes are “corrupt” or “evil”. The Roman Pontiff is the head of the Church. Not only Peter himself, but each successor is the Rock on which the Church is founded. And this is true of both the person and the office of the Pope.

There never has been, and there never can be, a corrupt or evil or truly bad Pope. Otherwise, the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church would be false.

There are not two types of Popes, the bad ones and the good ones. Every Pope is a fallen sinner, who goes to Confession, and who relies on grace and providence to lead the Church. But no Pope is truly bad, or evil, or corrupt.

2. Eschatology

The eschatological idea that, eventually, there will be an evil Pope who is either the Antichrist or the false prophet who assists the Antichrist or something similar is false. The Antichrist will want to be worshipped as if he were a god, and that is not compatible with the role of Pope. Also, the indefectibility of the Church applies at all times, even during the end times.

3. Prevenient Grace

In order to be a valid Roman Pontiff, three conditions are necessary:
A. validly elected
B. ordained a Bishop (before or after election)
C. freely accepts the office (and he can freely resign whenever he wishes)

Due to the third condition, God can use His grace to prevent the Pope from certain acts, without doing violence to the personhood and free will of the Pope. God prevents the Pope from ever teaching material heresy, even inadvertently. God prevents the Pope from committing the sins of apostasy, heresy, and schism. Since the Pope freely accept his office, and can freely resign, his free will is not harmed by this intervention of God’s grace.

It is the intervention of prevenient grace. So the dichotomy is false, which some have presented, saying that either the Cardinals are free to elect whomever they wish, or God would be doing violence to their free will. For the sake of our salvation, and because the Cardinals freely choose to participate in the election of the Roman Pontiff, God can so guide the Cardinals in their choice of Roman Pontiff with his prevenient grace, in a way that they cannot resist.

We are all subject to prevenient grace. We have all received prevenient grace many times. And none of us can choose to cooperate or resist that grace. This is true of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the Saints, and also true of the worst sinners. So if God wills that a person make a certain choice, His grace can accomplish that purpose. Our free will is a gift from God, and it has limits.

Some Catholic authors seem to have no idea what prevenient grace is, or how it works.

4. How many Cardinals are in the state of grace?

In addition to prevenient grace, which can cause even very sinful secular leaders to do the will of God, there is subsequent grace. For Cardinals who are in the state of grace, which is most of them, is it so hard to believe that they would prayerfully ask God to guide their choice, and would freely cooperate with grace? Is not the majority of Cardinals who vote for the Roman Pontiff in this category? So when they vote, they are willingly led by the Holy Spirit. Free will and grace cooperate together to accomplish the will of God.

Why are commentators on this subject speaking as if Cardinals are all trying to resist the will of God?

5. Are the apparently bad Popes are chosen by God?

It is not the case that God’s grace fails to lead the Cardinals to make the “right” choice for Pope, and so God is left merely allowing a bad choice. Where is your faith?

I see very clearly that God choose Francis to be Pope from the very beginning of this man’s life. God chose him to be a future Pope, God guided his whole life with that end in mind, and God led the Cardinals to choose him. And God’s purpose is to put the conservatives Catholics to the test, to see if they are truly faithful to the Church and the Magisterium, or only faithful to those who have the same opinions and attitudes as they themselves.

Francis is not a bad Pope. He has faults, like every Pope, including Peter. But he may well be a Saint. Recall that Pope Saint Celestine V resigned because he made many mistakes in administrative decisions. But he was a Saint, not a bad Pope.

The supposedly worst Popes are accused of so many exaggerated claims, I have no doubt but that much of what they are accused is false. It is believable that some Popes committed certain sins, just as Saul, David, and Solomon committed some sins. But would you really say that they were corrupt or evil? No, they simply sinned more than some other Popes.

I believe that every Pope is guided by the grace and providence of God, including prevenient grace, which he cannot resist, and much subsequent grace, with which he cooperates willingly. I would not be surprised if every Pope died in a state of grace and went to Heaven, though some after a long stay in Purgatory.

So I also believe that every Pope was chosen by God. He chose Pope Alexander VI (sometimes said to be the worst Pope). And He had a purpose in mind for that choice. Perhaps some of these “bad” Popes were needed because the Cardinals and Bishops needed a harsh hand to keep them from ruining the Church. Perhaps some Popes who were more sinful were chosen to show the faithful what their own faults are like — so that the most religious in the Church could not pretend that they are without faults.

Yes, God specifically chose each and every Pope, including the supposedly bad ones. But none of them were truly corrupt or evil, and none ever will be, because the Church is the body of Christ with Jesus himself as its Head, and the Pope is the Vicar appointed by Christ.

6. Each Pope has the same authority as Saint Peter

If there were truly bad Popes, then those Popes would have less authority. For the people could then say, just as some are saying about Pope Francis, that because the Pope is bad, they should oppose him, rather than be led by him. This greatly diminishes the authority of the Pope.

But the Popes are not divided into two types, with two different types and degrees of authority, the good and the bad. Rather, each and every Pope has the same full authority as Peter. And therefore, each and every Pope is chosen by Christ himself.

For if some Popes were chosen by Christ, as Peter was, and others were the mistakes of the Cardinals, then those latter would have less authority. Since that cannot be the case, then each Pope is specifically chosen by God, through grace and providence, without doing violence to the free will of the Cardinals.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

1 thought on “Providence and Grace in the Election of the Pope

  1. I have heard the claim that “since some Popes were really bad, therefore, God did not choose them” but it is clear that St. Peter was chosen by God and he had his failings.

    As I mentioned in the previous article “Does God Choose the Pope?”, the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis plainly states that God has selected the visible rulers of his Church (# 15, n 3). So, no one can say that the Church has not taught about this. By God’s Providence, rulers such as the body of Bishops, were also selected by God. Now, only the Pope has the gift of truth and never-failing faith (Vatican I, (Luke 22:31-32)) but not the other Bishops; therefore, an individual Bishop can depart from the faith even though he was chosen by God. No one can claim that “since Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, he was not chosen by God to be one of His Apostles” without being easily refuted.

    And as you explained in the above mentioned article, yes, the Church has also mentioned in Magisterial documents that Popes have come to be by Divine Providence.

    In addition, Pope Francis’ motto “Miserando atque eligendo” based on Matthew 9:9–13 clearly teaches that he was chosen by God. So this is something that the Church authoritatively believes and is not a random Joe’s false piety or tale.


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