How does a new pope decide what name to take?


SHARE How does a new pope decide what name to take?

Dear Straight Dope: How does a new pope decide what name to take? I mean, Pope Benedict XVI? Where do they come up with these names, anyway? Neil Holverson

SDStaff paperbackwriter replies:

OK, so this question has been sitting in the inbox awhile. It’s still worth answering.

Each pope decides on his own papal name. The announcement of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio’s elevation to the papacy acknowledged this self-selection:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam! Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio, qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum. I announce to you a great joy: we have a Pope! The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord, Lord Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio of the Holy Roman Church, who has conferred upon himself the name Francis.

The new pope said he’d selected Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the champion of the poor. Notwithstanding St. Francis’s renown, the current pontiff is the first to have taken this name. However, he’s just Pope Francis, not Francis I; he’ll be given a regnal number by posterity if and when a subsequent pope decides to become Francis II.

All quite simple and straightforward, as befits the current occupant of the chair of St. Peter. Your question wasn’t prompted by Francis, though, but rather Benedict XVI. The story behind that name is more complex.

One might suppose the most recent Benedict took the number XVI because there had been fifteen Benedicts before him. Not so. Actually, eighteen men claiming the papacy chose to call themselves Benedict, but four are now officially considered “antipopes” – someone who claims the chair of St. Peter but is later rejected by history as illegitimate.

Antipopes are just one of the complications of the naming and numbering of popes. Take the case of the tenth Benedict, elevated to the papacy through the machinations of secular nobles and deposed by a conventionally elected pope in less than a year. Since this Benedict was removed from the list of official popes, the next pope to take that name should have re-used the number. Instead, he styled himself Benedict XI. The result is that there is no “real” Pope Benedict X and the sequence jumps from IX to XI. There are also two Benedict XIIIs and three Benedict XIVs (including antipopes).

With such confusion, it’s no wonder that for over 150 years the name lay dormant until Giacomo Cardinal Battista della Chiesa became Pope Benedict XV in 1914.

In his first address as pope, the former Cardinal Ratzinger explained he chose his new name in part to honor Benedict XV: “I wanted to be called Benedict XVI in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War.” The earlier Benedict twice attempted to mediate an end to the war and in addition promulgated the Catholic Church’s first code of canon law.

Fine, but who was the first Pope Benedict? He was obscure and reigned only briefly at a time when a barbarian invasion of the late Roman Empire reduced his authority to the city of Rome itself. As Benedict XVI acknowledged, the name became popular with later popes because it honored the founder of the Benedictine monastic orders: “The name Benedict also calls to mind the extraordinary figure of the great patriarch of western monasticism, St. Benedict of Norcia” (c. 480 – 543 or 547).

The name Benedict comes from the Latin word for a blessing or praising. The first Pope Benedict called himself that because it was his given name, but this practice soon fell out of disfavor.

The first pope known to have selected a different name was a priest named Mercurius, who was elected in 533 AD. He felt it was inappropriate for head of the Christian religion to retain a name praising a pagan god, and so changed it to John II. Once the precedent was set, it continued with rare exceptions until the present day. The last pontiff to keep his given name was Pope Marcellus II in 1555.

Still, nothing in canon law requires the new pope to change his name. When the dean of the college of cardinals informs the new pope of his election, he asks: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” The next question is: “By what name do you wish to be called?” The new pope would be within his rights to retain the name he was given at birth. Had Cardinal Ratzinger bucked tradition and done so, he would have been the first Pope Joseph.

There’s no system for the choice of papal names. Previous popes, parents, mentors, saints, and more have been inspirations. There are no official restrictions either, although no pope has taken the name Peter II. Popular belief attributes this to Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland in the 12th century. Malachy supposedly had a vision called the “Prophecy of the Popes,” which ended with one Peter the Roman. The election of this second Pope Peter would herald the destruction of Rome and the Final Judgment. This prophecy has no official standing but superstitious types believe a Peter II would have apocalyptic implications. In fact, the tradition predates Malachy by more than a hundred years. The first of the 11 popes who had a variant of Peter as a given name, Pietro Canepanova (983-984), changed his name to John XIV to preserve the uniqueness of the name Peter. The next, Pietro ‘Bucca Porci’ (1009-1012), changed his name to Sergius IV for the same reason and also to recall a previous well-liked pope. I should note that “Bucca Porci” approximately means “pig’s nose” in Italian, so poor Pietro may have had ulterior motives for a name change. At any rate, popes have respected the tradition ever since.

Other than that self-imposed restriction, the new pope can choose whatever name he likes. Perhaps the best recent demonstration of this was in 1978, when Albino Cardinal Luciani became John Paul I, an innovative name in several respects. For starters, its bearer was the first pope to be known as “the first” during his lifetime; all other Pope Somethings the First were designated historically only after there was a Something the Second. He was also the first to choose a double name and to name himself after multiple immediate predecessors.

So there you have it: There are no official rules but instead a practice guided by history and tradition. Nothing strange about it, really. Now, if you really want to know about something strange, next time ask about the Cadaver Synod.

SDStaff paperbackwriter, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via