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Pope Fiction: Answers to Five Myths and Misconceptions About the Papacy
As apostles for Christ, we have work to do. The myths and misconceptions that form the vast body of “Pope Fiction” are widespread and pernicious, but like other ills, they can be counteracted and cured with a healthy dose of the facts.
Fiction 1 - Peter was not the first Pope
Fiction 2 - The Pope cannot be the Successor of Peter
Fiction 3 - The Papacy is a medieval invention
Fiction 4 - Pope Joan
Fiction 5 - The Pope is the Beast of Revelation 13
As my friend Rita pulled to the side of the road to check her map, she noticed the car that had been behind her for the last mile or so also stopped, and pulled alongside.
Thinking the middle-aged woman in the other car had stopped to offer assistance, Rita rolled down her window and smiled. “Could you help me with some directions, please?” she asked through the rolled up window of the other car. The woman couldn’t hear her through the glass, but she understood the question. Staring hard at Rita, she shook her head and scowled.
Perplexed, Rita asked, “Could you roll down your window, please?” pantomiming the motion of turning the window handle. The woman shook her head again and her scowl deepened.
Then, leaning across the front seat of her car, her face inches from the window, she mouthed slowly and clearly: “I HATE THE POPE.” Then she made an obscene gesture with her finger, pulled back onto the road, and drove off.
Rita was dazed and wondered what could have provoked such a bizarre expression of hostility. Then it dawned on her: The bumper sticker on her mini-van read, “Follow me, I’m behind the pope!” and included a picture of a smiling Pope John Paul II. Apparently it so offended the woman that she had to go out of her way to let Rita know.
Was she an anti-Catholic Evangelical Protestant? A Jehovah’s Witness on her way home from a meeting at the Kingdom Hall? A secularist of no particular religion? Perhaps she was a “pro-choice Catholic” who hates the pope because his efforts to defend the sanctity of unborn life clash with her agenda to “Keep Abortion Legal.” Maybe she’s mad that he won’t compromise Catholic teaching that the sacrament of holy orders is reserved to men. Who knows?
There is one thing we do know. A lot of people dislike, even hate, Pope John Paul II, not because of his personality or ethnicity or whatever, but because they don’t like the Catholic Church. The pope is the flesh-and-blood reminder of that Church and its teachings — he personifies Catholicism — and for some this is particularly offensive. Some make their dislike for the papacy felt in articles, tracts and videos, calculated not merely to refute Catholic teaching, but to undermine the trust Catholics have in the Church and the pope.
Millions believe myths and legends and historical inaccuracies about the papacy, almost all of which were concocted centuries ago by critics tics of the Church. Many labor under the twin burden of ignorance and an unwillingness to be shown the truth, heirs of a generations-old anti-Catholicism handed down from family, friends, social circles and nearly 300 years of subtle, American, Protestant propaganda.
But there’s hope. John Henry Newman, a Protestant scholar who converted to Catholicism in 1845 and became a leading apologist and later a cardinal, said in his book Apologia Pro Vita Sua, “When I was young ... I thought the pope to be the anti-Christ. At Christmas 1824 I preached a sermon to that effect.” If Newman could be brought to see the truth, so can that angry woman driver who HATES THE POPE.
As apostles for Christ, we have work to do. The myths and misconceptions that form the vast body of “Pope Fiction” are widespread and pernicious but like other ills, they can be counteracted and cured with a healthy dose of the facts. Let’s examine five of the more common ones.
Peter was not the first “pope.” He didn’t have any special primacy or jurisdiction over the other apostles or other early Christians. In fact, he denies this by referring to himself as merely a “fellow presbyter” )1 Peter 5:1) — an office lower than an overseer (bishop). If anything, Paul had a greater authority than Peter.
Although St. Peter never called himself “pope” in Scripture, he did indeed have a special apostolic primacy and jurisdiction. The Scriptural evidence for this is substantial and explicit.
Of the Twelve Apostles, St. Peter is by far the one mentioned most often in Scripture. He appears 195 times. The next most often mentioned Apostle was St. John, who comes in at a whopping 29 times. St. James the Greater is mentioned 19 times, St. Philip 15, and the numbers dwindle rapidly for the others. Does this in itself prove St. Peter’s primacy? No, but it does shed considerable light on his importance. What does that light reveal?
Among other things, we see that when the Twelve Apostles are listed by name (Matt. 10:2-5; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-17, and Acts 1:13), St. Peter’s name is always first — and Judas Iscariot is always listed dead last. Far more commonly, though, the New Testament refers to simply “Peter and the Twelve,” as if to say that the tempestuous fisherman signified in himself the unity of the whole apostolic college.
There are many other biblical signs of St. Peter’s preeminence among the Apostles. He is the only one who receives a name change from Christ. He was Simon, but Christ calls him “Rock” (Matt. 16:18). Name changes given by God that we read about in Scripture have huge significance and imply an elevation in importance and a special mission given to that person by God (e.g. Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel). He is also singled out by Christ to receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven and is promised, “Whatever you (singular) bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you (singular) bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).
St. Peter is the lone Apostle Christ calls out of the boat to walk on water (Matt, 1:28-29). At the tomb of Christ, St, John waits to allow St. Peter to enter ahead of him (John 20:6). It is to him among the Apostles that God first reveals the Resurrection (Mark 16:7). The risen Christ appears to him first, before the other Apostles (Luke 24:34). Christ preaches the gospel to the crowds from St, Peter’s fishing boat (Luke 5:3). St. Peter is told by Christ, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your (singular) faith may not fail. And once you (singular) have turned back, you (singular) must strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Christ makes St. Peter the shepherd of His Church (John 21:15-17). In Acts 1:13-26, St. Peter leads the other Apostles in choosing Matthias as successor to Judas, and he leads the Apostles in preaching on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). He performs the first Pentecost miracle (Acts 3). He speaks in the name of all the Apostles and for the whole Church when the Twelve are brought before the Sanhedrin for a trial (Acts 4). It is to St, Peter alone that God sends the revelation that gentiles are to be allowed into the Church (Acts 10), and he is the Apostle who first welcomes them into the Church (Acts 11). St. Peter’s dogmatic pronouncement is accepted, and causes all disputes to cease at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). After his conversion and healing from blindness, St. Paul visits St, Peter to have his teachings confirmed by him (Gal. 1:18).
Having said that, what should we make of St, Peter’s reference to himself in 1 Peter 5:1 as a “fellow presbyter” ? Does this signal that he was unaware of his special role as chief of the Apostles? The answer is found in the same passage, “Clothe yourselves in humility in your dealings with one another,” he says, “for God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5). Since he was cautioning his Christian audience to be humble, it makes perfect sense that he would take his own advice and, setting an example for them, speak of himself in humble terms. And in doing so, he was following Christ’s command, “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt, 20:26-27). But this humility shouldn’t blind us to the substantial body of biblical evidence showing that he did receive a special apostolic preeminence and authority from Christ — evidence that critics of the papacy often ignore or strain to explain away.
St. Paul, like St. Peter was also humble when referring to himself. He was by far the most prominent and prolific New Testament writer, responsible for about half of the New Testament, but he said, “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor. 15:10), and, “To me the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given” (Eph, 3:8). On numerous occasions he called himself a mere deacon, the very lowest level of ordained ministry in the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5, 4:1; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25). But clearly, St. Paul had an authority far greater than that of a deacon.
As with St. Peter, these examples of St. Paul’s humility are balanced St. Paul had an authority far greater than that of a right to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love” (Phil, 8-9), and, “Although we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ. Rather, we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children” (1 Thess. 2:7).
St. Peter’s calling himself a “fellow presbyter” doesn’t disprove his primacy any more than St. Paul’s habit of calling himself a “deacon” proves he had no authority greater than a deacon’s.
The bishop of Rome can’t be the “successor to Peter,” since Peter was never in Rome. The Bible nowhere says he went there, and Paul, who did go there, never mentions Peter being in Rome. If Peter were the “pope,” he certainly would have mentioned it.
Trying to prove St. Peter did not go to Rome and die there is a lot like trying to prove that St. Matthew didn’t write the Gospel of Matthew. True, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say he went to Rome, but the surrounding historical evidence is more than sufficient to prove that he did.
But first, we should ask, “If St. Peter didn’t go to Rome, where did he go? Where did he die?” We’d expect to find plenty of evidence in the writings of the early Church telling us where this prominent Apostle carried out his final years of ministry, if it were some place other than Rome. But the historical record contains no hint that he ended his days anywhere but Rome. No other city except Rome ever claimed to possess the site of his martyrdom or his tomb (and early Christians were extraordinarily diligent about making and proving such claims). No other city — not even Antioch, where he resided for a time during his apostolate — claimed he ended his days among them. No Church Father or Council or any other early Church record indicates that he finished his days anywhere but in Rome.
That’s the lack of evidence side of the coin. The flip side is the mountain of evidence proving he did go to Rome. Everyone everywhere in the early Church agreed that St. Peter went to Rome, ministered there for more than two decades, and suffered martyrdom by inverted crucifixion in A.D. 65, under the persecution of Emperor Nero. Given the grave danger to the early Church from a hostile Roman government, it makes perfect sense that St. Paul would not mention St. Peter’s whereabouts in his letters. He didn’t want to draw unfriendly attention. It’s also quite possible that St. Peter had not yet arrived in Rome when St. Paul was writing. We even see St. Peter himself making what seems to be a cryptic reference to his presence in Rome when he says “The chosen one at Babylon sends you greetings, as does Mark, my son” (I Peter 5:13). “Babylon” was a commonly used code word for Rome among Christians, because its pagan decadence and opposition to Christ was reminiscent of the idolatrous wickedness associated with ancient Babylon.
But once St. Peter had been martyred, the testimonies of his sojourn in Rome with St. Paul poured forth in a flood from the early Christian writers. Perhaps the most detailed of these early accounts came from St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 200) in his apologetics work, Against Heresies. He gave a detailed account of succession of the bishops of Rome, from St. Peter down to his own day. He referred to Rome as the city “where Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel and founded the Church. “Other notable early examples were St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107), who referred to the Church at Rome as “the Church of Peter and Paul” (Letter to the Romans); St. Cyprian (d. 251), who described Rome as ’The place of Peter” (Epistle 52); and St. Jerome (d. 420), who called Rome “the See of Peter” (Epistle 15, to Pope Damasus). Around A.D. 166, Bishop Dionysius of Corinth wrote to Pope Soter, “You have also, by your very admonition, brought together the planting that was made by Peter and Paul at Rome ….” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2:25).
Besides the vast amount of historical evidence showing that St. Peter went to Rome, modern archaeology has cinched the case even tighter by a definitive scientific demonstration that his bones (studies showed that they are of a powerfully built elderly man who died of crucifixion) are interred directly beneath the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several levels down, where the original first century Vatican hill sloped away toward the Tiber River, This was just outside the walls of what was once Nero’s Circus — precisely where all the early Christian and even non-Christian records say St. Peter was crucified and buried.
The papacy is a medieval Roman invention. The early Church knew nothing of a “supreme pontiff.” Other bishops didn’t regard the bishop of Rome as having special authority to operate the way modern popes do.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “It is easy to find truth; it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it.” This is certainly true for some when it comes to facing the historical evidence for the papacy in the early Church. The hard-core purveyors of pope fiction refuse to believe that the papacy was established by Christ. But if the equivalent of the modern a Roman invention of the eighth or ninth century, how do we explain the fact that for the preceding 700 years, the bishops of Rome were regarded (and regarded themselves) as having a special, unique authority and responsibility for the whole Church? Here are a few of the hundreds of examples that could be given.
The earliest account we have of a bishop of Rome exercising authority in another diocese comes from St. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians. It was written by Clement, bishop of Rome, around the year A.D. 80. In it he responds to the Corinthians’ plea for his intervention. The entire letter is written in a fatherly, kind way but it, is also clear that Clement was quite aware he had a special authority. Two key phrases stand our as testimony of this: “But if any disobey the words spoken by Him [Christ] through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in sin and no small danger” ; and “For you will give us joy and gladness if, obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit, you root out the lawless anger of your jealousy” (59, 63). Clearly, this early bishop of Rome wrote as one who expected his words to be obeyed.
Pope Victor I (reigned 189-199) worked to settle a dispute among the bishops of the East and West over when to celebrate Easter — known as the Quartodeciman controversy. The other bishops recognized his unique authority when they followed his directive to convene local and regional synods to deliberate on the issue. Most of the bishops decided to adopt his proposal that the whole Church celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after Passover. Those who didn’t, he threatened with excommunication. The fact that no bishop in the world — not a single one — disputed his authority as bishop of Rome to carry out such an excommunication is a powerful piece of evidence that the early Church recognized the unique authority of the bishop of Rome.
Shortly before his death in A.D. 200, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote to Pope Victor asking him to relent and allow the Eastern bishops to maintain their celebration of Easter according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, evidence that he recognized the pope’s authority to threaten excommunication. Pope Victor did not in fact relent, but it’s important to note that St. Irenaeus, like most of the bishops, submitted to the pope’s ruling. After all, it was Irenaeus who wrote of the Church at Rome: “For with this church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree; that is, all the faithful in the whole world, for in her the apostolic tradition has always been preserved for the benefit of the faithful everywhere” (Against Heresies 3:3).
Around the year 220, Pope Callistus wrote, “Callistus, archbishop of the Church Catholic in the city of Rome, to Benedictus, our brother and bishop, greetings in the Lord. By the love of the brotherhood we are bound, and by our apostolic rule we are constrained, to give answer to the inquiries of the brethren, according to what the Lord has given us, and to furnish them with the authority of the seal of the apostles” (First Epistle 1). Clearly he was well aware of his special role and authority in settling problems in the Church, even in other dioceses.
Later, the same pope wrote a letter to all the bishops of Gaul, saying, “Callistus to our most dearly beloved brethren, all the bishops settled throughout Gaul ... We beg you not to permit anything to be done in those parts contrary to the apostolic statutes; but, supported by our authority, you should stop what is injurious, and prohibit what is unlawful…. Observe this law, which has been laid down by the apostles and fathers, and our predecessors, and has been ratified by us ... We have replied to your interrogations shortly, because your letter found us burdened overmuch, and preoccupied with other judgments” (Second Epistle, To All the Bishops of Gaul 2, 6).
In the year 382, Pope Damasus wrote about his authority as bishop of Rome, anchoring it to the fact that he was the successor of St. Peter, He said the Church at Rome “has been placed at the forefront, not by the conciliar decision of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelistic voice of our Lord and Savior Who says, ’You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ . . . The first See, therefore, is that of Peter the Apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish” (Decree of Pope Damasus 2-3).
In A.D, 404, St. John Chrysostom wrote to Pope Innocent, “I beseech your Charity to rouse yourself and have compassion, and do everything so as to put a stop to the mischief at this point” (First Epistle to Pope Innocent 1). Note that Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, a powerful diocese, recognized the need to appeal to the bishop of Rome to resolve a controversy.
Many other examples of the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the early Church could be added. Even from the earliest years, the bishop of Rome had — and everyone recognized that he had — a special authority in the Church. Those who say the papacy is a “medieval Roman invention,” are either ignorant of history or dishonest.
In the middle ages, there was a “Pope Joan,” a woman who hid her gender and rose through the ranks of the Church, became a cardinal and was elected pope. No one knew she was a woman until, during a papal procession through the streets of Rome, she went into labor and gave birth to a child. She and the baby were killed on the spot by the mob, enraged at her imposture.
A lot of things are said about the alleged “Pope Joan.” Depending on who is telling the story, she was a courageous feminist, a clever opportunist, a brilliant scholar who couldn’t make it as a woman in a man’s world. She is said to have been a wise ruler and an astute theologian, though, oddly, no decree or theological teaching purporting to have come from her has made its way down to our day.
In any case, the fact is, there was no Pope Joan. She exists only as pure legend, but one that makes for a sexy story. And when it comes to sexy stories, you know Hollywood will try its hand at making a blockbuster out of this piece of pope fiction. New Line Cinema (that’s right, the same good folks who produced The Last Temptation of Christ) has reportedly bought the movie rights to Pope Joan, the best-selling 1996 novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Her book is couched as an historical “novel” — embellishing on a grand scale the rather sparse details that have clung to the legend of a brilliant, plain girl who rises to the highest levels in Church service, culminating in her being elected pope by an unsuspecting college of cardinals. The way the book is written and the way it’s being promoted support my concern that it will be seen by most of its historically ignorant readers, not as a novel, a fiction, but as a real biography of the one woman who “made it to the top.” When the movie comes out, this problem will certainly grow in proportions.
It’s important to remember that even if there had been a female impostor pope, this would just mean that an invalid election had taken place, nothing more. Other invalidly elected claimants to the papal office have come and gone over the centuries, and the fact that a woman made that list would simply mean that a woman made that list, She would not have been pope — no one invalidly elected would be. And nothing in the Church’s teachings about the papacy would be injured or disproved.
But in reality, the Pope Joan story is all sizzle and no steak. The basic outline of the main legend (actually, there have been several competing legends over the centuries) has it that in the ninth or tenth century, a plain but extraordinarily brilliant young woman contrived to enter the university disguised as a man. Her intellect outstripped her male classmates and she shot to the top rank of students. Talk of her prowess in law, science, rhetoric, philosophy and languages was widespread.
In another legend, popularized by several 13th century works such as the Chronicle of Martin Polonus, the Universal Chronicle of Metz and Wonders of the City of Rome, she traveled first to Greece with her boyfriend (why he wanted a girlfriend who disguised herself as a man is unknown), made a name for herself in the university there, then traveled to Rome.
Here all the legends converge into the main one that has come down to our day. Once in Rome, Joan managed to enter religious life (although no legend is able to say which order she entered), was ordained a priest and earned a high reputation as a notary in the papal court. Eventually, she was noticed by the pope and made a cardinal. You can guess what happens next. She is eventually elected pope, takes the name John, and sets about skillfully ruling the Church, It’s at this point that the most dramatic scenes of the story unfold.
The legends vary as to how Joan’s gender and identity were discovered. One holds that she was granted a vision by God in which she was shown two options for her fate, being discovered and disgraced by the world or roasting in hell for her crime. She chose the former. Another version says she got pregnant by one of her curial advisors and somehow was able to maintain the charade until she gave birth to the baby. At that point her secret was discovered and she was deposed as pope and sent to a convent to do penance for the rest of her life. According to this legend, the child she bore went on to became the bishop of Ostia, about 30 miles southwest of Rome, and when she died, he had her body buried there. Of course, no evidence exists to support this.
The main detail these legends have in common is that Joan was discovered because her hanky panky with a cardinal or secretary resulted in pregnancy, and the childbirth exposed her fraud. The main legend is the most gory on this point. In it, Pope Joan goes into labor while riding in her sede gestiatoria — the portable throne in which popes were carried — as her procession passed the Coliseum on its way from St, Peter’s Basilica to St. John Lateran Cathedral. The procession halted, the baby was born, and the confused and angry onlookers killed Pope Joan and her baby on the spot. Most accounts say she was killed by stoning, another says she died in childbirth as the mob watching the spectacle shouted and insulted her. Still another says she was dragged to death behind a horse as punishment. Either way, the legends agree that the Romans didn’t appreciate the unpleasant discovery.
Several odd historical details gave weight to the legend, including the fact that among the carved busts of the popes in the cathedral of Sienna was one of an unnamed woman, No one knows who created it or how it was put there, but when Pope Clement VIII (reigned 1592 — 1605) discovered it, he ordered it reworked enough to represent Pope Zacharias, whose image had not previously been included in the collection. This is not surprising, though, given the widespread belief in Europe in the Pope Joan legend during the 13th through 18th centuries. Versions abounded, and many credulous folk, Catholics included, were sincerely convinced that there had indeed been a female pope.
But the facts of history show otherwise. The primary proofs that this is all just a fable are these: First, the earliest point that we can trace the legend to is the mid-13th century, but the legend didn’t really gain wide currency until the late 14th century. No evidence of any kind exists from the ninth century (when Pope Joan was alleged to have reigned), nor do we see any in the 10th through 12th centuries. None of the annals or acts of the popes that were written between the ninth and 13th centuries (and none after that, either) mention her.
Church historian J. P. Kirsch wrote that “Not one contemporaneous historical source among the papal histories knows anything about her, also, no mention is made of her until the middle of the 13th century. Now it is incredible that the appearance of a ’popess,’ if it was a historical fact, would be noticed by none of the numerous historians from the 10th to the 13th century. In the history of the popes, there is no place where this legendary figure will fit in. Between Leo IV and Benedict III, where Martinus Polonus places her, she cannot be inserted . . .” (Article on Pope Joan, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913).
So where did the legend come from? There are two likely possibilities, The first is that the Roman population became disgusted with the corrupt influence wielded over Pope Sergius (reigned 904-911) by the powerful and wealthy Theodora Theophylact, and more specifically by her young daughter Morozia, a cunning and exceptionally attractive woman. It appears that Morozia was Sergius’ mistress and bore him at least one son (the future Pope John XI). The fabulously wealthy and prestigious Theophylact family wielded immense power in Rome during the 10th century, even, sadly, over several popes. This is a sorry episode in the history of the Church, one which displayed a decadence and immorality that even popes, at times, could fall prey to — a reminder to us all that men, even the holiest of men, are not invulnerable to temptation and personal weakness. Despite their sins, Christ’s promise that the Church would be protected from error was not, nor has it ever been, broken.
From the details of Sergius III’s pontificate, it seems clear that he was a vain, violent and sensuous man. It’s quite possible that the disgusted faithful took to mocking him or one of his immediate successors because he was perceived to have been under the influence of the Theophylact women. Some historians trace the legend of a female pope to Morozia, saying the people called her “Pope Joan” to mock the weak popes she controlled, in the same way some American first ladies have been called “president” to mock their perceived weak husbands.
Another possible explanation for the Pope Joan legend lies in the conduct of the much maligned Pope John VIII (reigned 872-882). He appears to have had a very weak personality, even perhaps somewhat effeminate. Cardinal Baronius, in his Church history Annals, suggests that John VIII’s reputation as effeminate gave rise to the legend. Indeed, it would seem that over time, the common folk added ever more lurid embellishments until the vulgar jokes about the hapless (and certainly male) pope ballooned and metamorphosed into a female “popessa.”
The pope is the beast spoken of in Revelation 13. Verse 1 says that he wears crowns and has “blasphemous names” written on his head. Verse 18 says that the numerical value of his name adds up to 666. The pope’s official title in Latin is Vicarius Filii Dei (Vicar of the Son of God). If you add that up using Roman numerals, you get 666. The pope’s tiara is emblazoned with this title, formed by diamonds and other jewels.
I wasn’t very good at math in school, but even I can follow this argument and run the numbers well enough to show it’s bogus. (Besides, answering this question is apologetics at its most fun!) The charge that the pope is the beast of Revelation 13, because his tide adds up to 666, is especially popular with Seventh-Day Adventists, but it’s also widely repeated in some Protestant circles.
Vicarius Filii Dei does have the mathematical value of 666 in Latin. Here’s how it works. Like many ancient languages, such as Greek and Hebrew, some Latin letters are also used for numbers: I = 1, V = 5, X = 10, L = 50, C = 100, D = 500 and M = 1000. The letter “u” is rendered as V and the letter “w,” which doesn’t exist in the Latin alphabet, would be rendered as VV. So this title would read in Latin as VICARIVS FILII DEI.
When calculating the value of a name or word, letters that don’t have a numerical value are ignored. For example, drop out the no-value letters in my name, PATRICK MADRID, and you come up with 2102 — 1 (i) + 100 (c) + 1000 (m) + 500 (d) + 1 (i) + 500 (d) = 2102. By the way, this is one reason why, as far as I know, no one has yet accused me of being in league with the anti-Christ. The numbers just don’t add up.
But in the case of VICARIVS FILII DEI, they do add up to 666. Isolate the numbers and this is what you get: 5 (v) + 1 (i) + 100 (c) + 1 (i) + 5 (V) + 1 (i) + 50 (L) + 1 (i) + 1 (i) + 500 (d) + 1 (i) = 666.
But there are problems with this. The first is that Vicarius Filii Dei, or “Vicar of the Son of God,” is not now, nor has it ever been, a title of the bishop of Rome. The second problem is that virtually no one, including many unsuspecting lay Catholics, knows that this papal “title” is a fabrication. To an untrained ear, it sounds enough like one of the pope’s real titles, Vicarius Christi (Vicar of Christ), to pass the test. Unfortunately for those who traffic in this particular piece of pope fiction, the real title, Vicarius Christi, adds up to only a measly 214, not the infernal 666. In fact, none of the pope’s official titles, such as Servus Servorum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God), Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Pontiff), or Successor Petri (Successor of Peter), will add up to 666. That’s why you never see any of them used by anti-Catholics.
If the person making this claim disputes these facts, ask him to furnish even one example of a papal decree, ecclesiastical letter, conciliar statement, or any other official Catholic document in Which the pope calls himself or is referred to as the “Vicar of the Son of God,” He won’t be able to find one, because none exist. Vicarius Filii Dei has never been a title of the pope.
Poof! That part was easy, but some people, especially Seventh Day Adventists, will ignore the evidence (or lack of it) and hold tenaciously to the notion that “Vicar of the Son of God” is an official papal title and therefore identifies the pope as the Beast of Revelation. What else can be said in response?
Using the same math exercise we did above, point out that the name of the woman who started the Seventh-Day Adventist church, Ellen Gould White, also adds up to 666 in Latin. (L + L + V + D + V + V + I = 666). Then ask if this proves that she is the Beast. I can assure you the answer won’t be “yes.” If the answer is “no,” ask how this numbers game could possibly prove the pope or anyone else is the Beast. If you’re answered with silence, it’s a good bet that you’ve made some progress with the person.
The main fact to impress on someone who uses this argument is that a papal title had to be invented, one that could produce the magic number, in order to give this argument legs.
But we’re not quite finished cutting it off at the knees. The charge that the pope is the Beast because he wears a crown, and Revelation 13:1 says the Beast wears crowns and has “blasphemous names” written on his head, must also be answered. This we can do more quickly.
Since about the year 708, many popes have worn at non-liturgical ceremonial events a special papal crown called a tiara, but the stylized beehive-shaped papal crown of three diadems that we have come to know as a tiara emerged only in the early 14th century. Although it was customary for tiaras to be encrusted with jewels and precious ornaments, there is no evidence — no statue bust, painting, drawing or even written description of any of the many tiaras that were crafted — that any papal tiara ever had the name or title of a pope emblazoned on it.
This is significant, because there have been medieval and Renaissance popes whose extravagant vanity prodded them to have lavishly ornamented, jewel-encrusted tiaras made for themselves. And we possess paintings and statues and other representations of them produced during their lifetimes that show these tiaras (we even possess some of the actual tiaras). If any popes in history would have been tempted to succumb to the bad taste of spelling out “Vicarius Filii Dei” in diamonds across the front of their tiaras, these men would have — but they didn’t. No pope did, One particular anti-Catholic tract I’ve seen shows a plain metal tiara with Vicarius Filii Dei written in diamonds across it. But it was a drawing — not a photograph of a museum piece or even a photo of a painting of a tiara.
It had to be drawn, of course, because the “666 papal crown” — as with all the other pope fictions — has only ever existed in the minds of those who perpetuate this fantasy.
Patrick Madrid “Pope Fiction: Answers to Five Myths and Misconceptions About the Papacy.” Envoy (March-April, 1998)
Reprinted with permission of Envoy magazine and Patrick Madrid. (To subscribe to Envoy: call 1-800-55-ENVOY)
Patrick Madrid is the editor-in-chief of Envoy Magazine. He has written many books including Where is That in the Bible?, The Catholic Book of Character and Success, Catholics and the Rapture: Will You Be Caught Up Or Left Behind?, Search and Rescue: How to Bring Your Family and Friends Into — Or Back Into — The Catholic Church, Surprised by Truth, Surprised by Truth 2, Surprised by Truth 3, Any Friend of God’s Is a Friend of Mine, and Pope Fiction.
Copyright © 1998 Envoy