Are There Two Types of Popes: Good and Bad?

Are there two types of Popes, one type which is truly evil and corrupt, and another type which is good and faithful? The good Popes would include not only Saints, but also Popes of ordinary faith and holiness. They teach truth, and correct error. They love God and neighbor. They have the best interests of the faithful and the Church in mind. They seek to do the will of God. They are a blessing to the Church and the world.

The good type of Pope exists! Many Popes are canonized Saints. Peter, the Apostle and first Pope was holy and faithful. Throughout the history of the Church, the Popes have frequently been Saints, and if not, at least they were more holy than the ordinary believing and practicing Catholic.

But are some Popes bad? Every Pope is a fallen sinner. As Peter said to our Lord: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8; CPDV). And some Popes have been not very good at certain types of tasks, such as administrative decisions. The inability to manage the affairs of the Church is said to have caused Pope Saint Celestine V to resign.

However, the question is whether some Popes are truly evil, thoroughly corrupt — whether they have no good in their hearts, and only evil purposes in their minds. The Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, sought to put Jesus to death, by false testimony (Mt 26:59), and perhaps with the knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah (Lk 20:14). Jesus chose all Twelve Apostles, including Judas Iscariot: “Have I not chosen you twelve? And yet one among you is a devil.” (Jn 6:71). So I suppose that a modern-day Apostle, i.e. a Cardinal or Bishop, can be truly evil and corrupt, so much so that Christ himself would call such a man a figurative devil. But can a Pope be like Judas Iscariot or like Caiaphas?

The bad Popes, if it were true that such a category of Popes exists, would be accurately called evil or corrupt. They commit actual mortal sins without repentance. They do not have the theological virtues of love or hope. They must have the virtue of faith unceasingly (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4, n. 7), but they are not truly faithful to Christ in their behavior. They abuse the power of the Papacy. They would harm the Church while in office, if God did not prevent it. They are not trustworthy, though perhaps God prevents them from teaching heresy.

The above is a hypothetical. It is not established yet, whether God permits evil men to become Pope, or whether He permits a Pope to become evil while in office. There are two ways to consider the question: theologically and historically. Does it make sense, theologically, for God to prevent evil Popes? Does the history of the Church suggest that God has in fact made such a choice?

Theologically, God could prevent evil men from being elected Pope, by His Providence. And He could prevent a good Pope from becoming evil, while in office, by grace.

In fact, many Church documents state that the Pope is chosen by divine Providence.
* The Council of Trent, Decree of Justification: “Paul III, by divine providence Pope”
* “Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pius XII by Divine Providence Pope”
* Documents of the Holy See often use the wording in this example: “The Most Holy Father by divine Providence, Pope John Paul II, approved the above mentioned responses at an Audience granted to the undersigned Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and ordered that they be published.”

So perhaps providence prevents evil men from becoming Pope.

And God can prevent anyone from sinning, if He so wishes. For prevenient grace acts prior to free will; it is God operating, not cooperating. And no one can refuse prevenient grace.

This would not be contrary to free will. The Blessed Virgin Mary was prevented from committing any personal sins for her entire life. The holy souls in Purgatory are prevented from sinning any more. Even the souls in Hell are preventing from committing new sins, that would require new and increasingly severe punishments. By the mercy of God, the souls in Hell cannot sin anymore. And each Pope is prevented by the grace of God from teaching heresy, and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism — for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church. This point was taught by the First Vatican Council (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4, n. 7).

So it is possible that God prevents evil Popes from being elected, by providence, and prevents good Popes from becoming evil, by prevenient grace. And theologically, it does make sense that God would prevent evil Popes. What are the theological implications, if God were to permit evil Popes to take office and rule the Church?

Authority: If some Popes are evil and others good, would not the evil Popes have lesser authority? The faithful would rightly resist a Pope who was truly evil, refusing to cooperate with him, refusing to pray for his evil intentions. The Bishops would accept look with suspicion on any teaching from an evil Pope, even if it was found in Tradition and Scripture. They would have no trust in his guidance. His authority would therefore be diminished. But that would contradict the teaching that each Pope has the same authority as Peter.

Each Pope has a direct and immediate authority over each and all the faithful. This primacy of jurisdiction does not permit review of the Pope’s teaching by Bishops first. So the faithful would be required to trust and be led by an evil person. Or they would be required, morally, to resist their own Shepherd.

Then, too, who would decide which Popes were evil? Any Catholic who found a teaching difficult to accept would attribute that teaching to an evil Pope, or a set of evil Popes. Every Catholic could find ready justification to reject any decision of doctrine or discipline. The result would be that every member of the Church would be constantly judging every Pope, looking for some indication that he might be evil. No Popes would be trusted by the Church, not even the good ones, since, in this hypothetical, good Popes could become evil.

Schism: Would not the faithful be required to oppose the evil Popes? But then refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff, that is, schism, would seem to be justified. The law of the Church does not permit the faithful to give submission of mind and will to the teachings and decisions of the Pope only if they judge the Pope to be good and holy. Many schisms would result from groups of Catholics accusing one Pope or another of being evil, and therefore departing from communion with him.

Ark of Salvation: How can the Ark of Salvation guide souls to Heaven if the navigator and pilot of the ship is an evil and corrupt man? Would non-Catholic Christians be justified in rejecting the Church? How could the Church save souls by bringing them into a ship led by an evil captain? What would the “sales pitch” be to non-Catholics to join the Church? “Sure, the ship is led by an evil captain, who is constantly trying to run his own ship aground. But God will prevent him from doing that, probably. And eventually he’ll be replaced by a Saint.” Not very convincing. Far fewer souls would be saved, if this is the plan of God.

Essentially, the indefectibility of the Church would be lost, if the Pope were an evil and corrupt man. For the Pope is the head of the Church. When the head is evil, then the body cannot be good. Jesus said “if your eye has been corrupted, your entire body will be darkened.” (Mt 6:23). The same could be said if the entire head of the Church on earth had been corrupted. The Church herself would be darkened. But such a situation is not tenable under the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church.

It seems clear, theologically, that God does not, or can we even say, should not, allow evil Popes. He has the ability by providence and grace to prevent evil Popes. And it seems entirely in the Church’s best interests that God so intervene. But has God preserved the papacy from evil, historically?

There is no shortage of accusations against various Popes, so severe in nature that they accuse the Roman Pontiff not merely of error or personal faults, but of being evil and corrupt. And many of the faithful take these claims at face value. “There have been evil Popes, but that was so long ago that it doesn’t matter,” they seem to say. Well, it does matter. With the controversy over Pope Francis, some Catholics are now saying that he is another example of an evil and corrupt Pope. Francis has been called an anti-pope, evil, the worst pope in history, a dictator pope, a lost shepherd, a heretic, and similar expressions. The Filial Correction stated not only that Pope Francis was guilty of propagating seven heresies, but that perhaps he did so with a substantial degree of awareness that these ideas are heresy.

So we cannot brush off the conclusion that some Popes are evil by saying that the harm done is in the distant past. If God has permitted evil Popes in the past, there is no reason He will not permit them in the future, or the present.

Since, theologically, it seems contrary to the plan of God to permit evil Popes, perhaps the history records are mistaken, to some extent. I notice that Pope Francis has been falsely accused many times of teaching ideas he never actually taught, such as that Hell does not exist or the error of gradualism. And there have been accusations against other recent Popes, including Pope Paul VI (an accusation he was gay and sexually active) and Pope Benedict XVI (accusations related to his brief stint as a brown shirt during World War 2). What if the accusations against Popes in the distant past are also exaggerated?

When the question is whether any Pope has taught heresy, many are quick to say “Yes.” But Saint Robert Bellarmine defended every Pope accused of heresy, and concluded that none have ever taught heresy, historically, and that, theologically, God does not permit Popes to teach or commit heresy. So perhaps the Popes accused of doing evil are the victims of false or exaggerated accusations.

In a previous essay, I explored the question as to whether God might prevent every Pope from every actual mortal sin. But there is no way to ascertain whether an objective mortal sin is also an actual mortal sin, with a few exceptions for certain acts that cannot be committed by a person in their right mind with a sincere but mistaken conscience. And there would be no reason for God to prevent a situation where a Pope sins gravely, privately, and promptly repents. So while God probably does not prevent every Pope from every mortal sin, objective or actual, He must protect the Church from being led by anyone who is truly evil and corrupt.

What, then, can we say about the several Popes in history who were accused of grave sins? Many of these accusations undoubtedly arise from enemies of the particular Pope attempting to discredit him. Saint Athanasius was driven into exile three times, by false accusations, because he defended the Church against the errors of Arianism.

Saint Jerome was driven out of Rome by false accusations, by his enemies. Jerome had benefactresses, several wealthy women, who provided the money he needed for his work with Sacred Scripture: blank parchments as well as editions of the Bible on scrolls were very expensive in his day. He was therefore accused of having relations with all these women.

Most of the more severe accusations made against the Popes are likely fictitious or at least exaggerated. Pope John XII was accused of various grave sins by a representative of Emperor Otto I. But these claims were likely motivated by the rivalry between the Emperor and the Pope. For in those days, Popes had much political power, and their political enemies were not above making false accusations against the Pope.

Pope Benedict IX was accused of serious sins by Saint Peter Damian. However, there is good reason to think that he may have been an antipope. It is a serious problem that he had three different reigns as Pope. Once a Pope validly resigns, he cannot simply retake the papacy by will; he would have to be reelected (which does not seem to be the case). Also, the Popes who reigned in-between the three terms of office of Benedict are held to be valid Popes. There is not sufficient evidence of valid resignations and valid elections to make all of these men valid Roman Pontiffs. So it may be the case that Benedict was an antipope, at least in his last two terms. What a man does before or after his reign as Pope is irrelevant to our consideration here.

Claims of simony in buying the papacy are leveled against some Popes. However, strictly speaking, this act occurs before the man becomes Pope. And, again, we have to consider that this may be a false claim made by persons who do not want a particular candidate to be elected. It should also be noted that, under current Church rules for papal elections (Universi Dominici Gregis) simony does not invalidate an election. A papal candidate who buys the papacy, by offering enticements to Cardinals, remains validly elected.

Sexual sins are leveled against more than a few Popes, often allegedly taking place during the papacy. However, we have no way to ascertain the veracity of such claims. I doubt that God would permit someone who commits these types of sins, especially on a continuing basis, to lead the Church, which is the body of Christ. So I believe, piously, that these accusations are fictitious.


God, by prevenient grace, does not permit any Pope to teach heresy, nor to commit the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism. This conclusion is certain, since it is implied by the teaching of the First Vatican Council:

“This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.” [Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4, n. 7]

Moreover, God does not permit any truly evil or corrupt man to become Pope. He prevents this event by both providence and grace. Does God choose the Roman Pontiff? Yes, He certainly does. And why would God choose those Popes who are called bad or evil? They were not as evil as history claims. But God may have chosen some men to lead the Church who were flawed, to show the Church Her own flaws, and He may have chosen some men who were harsh in judgment, because the Church, filled as it is with sinners, needed a strong hand to keep Her on the right path. Jesus chose Judas Iscariot to be an Apostle, for reasons which made sense before Divine Wisdom. And Jesus sometimes chooses less holy men to be Roman Pontiff, though none are truly evil or corrupt as Judas was.

Does God allows the Roman Pontiff to commit private actual mortal sins? Perhaps, perhaps not. We have no way to determine this answer, since the sins proposed here are private, and the knowledge and deliberation needed to be actual mortal sins are seen only by God. In any case, God does not permit any Pope to commit a public objective mortal sin, as the scandal would harm the Church. And He does not permit any Pope to fall from grace so thoroughly that he would remain in a state of unrepentant actual mortal sin, and so become truly evil and corrupt. The indefectibility of the Church and the salvation of souls requires God to keep each Pope from sinning to that extent.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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