Apostolic Succession, Donatism, and the Hidden Pope

We got a weird one this week, folks! This time, we’re going to look at the principle of apostolic succession in the Catholic Church, how it underpins the authority of the pope, how that triggered a revolt in the fourth century, how it impacted the Western Schism of 1378-1429 when there were three rival popes (including a hidden pope), and how all of this can be used to make strange and memorable RPG adventures. Buckle up, because this ramble is going to get bizarre!

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The clergy of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches derive their spiritual authority from a theological principle called ‘apostolic succession’. We’re going to focus on the Catholic version. The idea is that since all bishops are ordained by other bishops, it’s (theoretically) possible to trace an unbroken chain of succession from each bishop to the bishop who ordained him, all the way back to the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. In practice, things get muddy the farther back you go. There’s not a lot of documentation about what exactly was going on in the very early church. But nonetheless, that’s the idea: all Catholic clergy are heirs of the Twelve Apostles by virtue of an unbroken chain of succession.

Apostolic succession is particularly important for justifying the authority of the pope. By definition, the pope is simply the bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church recognizes Saint Peter as the first bishop of Rome. According to tradition, he founded the church there, served as its bishop, and was executed there. Peter was foremost among the Twelve Apostles, having received the Keys of Heaven from Jesus. Thus Peter’s successor – the current bishop of Rome – is foremost among all the other bishops. He is the pastor of all Catholics and the monarch of the entire Church.

Peter receiving the keys. The kneeling posture deliberately recalls the ordination of priests and bishops.

But apostolic succession has some interesting implications. One of these was explored by the Donatists, a Christian/heretic religious movement in 4th-century North Africa. During Roman persecutions of Christianity, it was not uncommon for local governors to go easy on bishops. For example, Mensurius, bishop of Carthage in the early 300s, got called up by the proconsul and told that Rome had mandated that all copies of the Bible be destroyed. “But,” explained the proconsul with a wink and a nudge, “as a good Roman, I don’t know the Bible from any other text. So if you bring me a bunch of books, I’ll have no choice but to take your word for it that they’re Bibles.” Mensurius hid his diocese’s Bibles in his house and returned to the proconsul with a bunch of other texts and everything was fine. 

Other governors might call up the local bishop and say, “Rome requires I get all Christians to renounce their faith. You, a public figure, are the only Christian I know. So if you tell me you renounce Christianity, I guess I won’t have anyone to purge.” The bishop would agree, both parties would wait until the next emperor came to power, and then the bishop would go right back to being the public face of an otherwise somewhat-underground religion. A figure named Heraclius who was active in 310 may have been an example.

But the Donatists would have none of this! Any bishop who participated in this sort of anti-Christian chicanery, even for the good of the Church, had forfeited their authority in the eyes of the Donatists. And if that bishop wasn’t a bishop anymore, he wasn’t an heir of the apostles. Of course, this was a minority view (except in some parts of North Africa), so most of these bishops went around performing bishop duties anyway – including ordaining other bishops. In the eyes of the Donatists, those new bishops weren’t then really bishops, since their chain of apostolic succession was broken. And any priests those new bishops ordained were themselves also illegitimate. It was an existential crisis within the Church!

The Donatists set up a rival church in North Africa, run by bishops and priests who had untainted lines of apostolic succession. The Donatist church didn’t last long. St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo Regius (modern Annaba, Algeria), campaigned against them. By the mid-400s, the Donatists were little more than a handful of bandit gangs living in the desert. Today, their complaints are largely forgotten. The official Catholic line is that bad behavior on the part of a bishop doesn’t strip him of his apostolic inheritance, and that those bishops didn’t do much wrong anyway. But the Donatist heresy is a great example of how seriously a lot of people took (and still take) the principle of apostolic succession.

St. Augustine debating the Donatists

Fast-forward to 1378, where apostolic succession was about to get complicated. The pope died in Rome. As was the tradition, a subset of bishops called ‘cardinals’ met to elect a new pope. For reasons outside our scope, this election was contentious and there was a howling mob outside. The cardinals elected a compromise candidate and fled into the night. The compromise candidate proved less tractable than expected and, under the justification that the previous vote had been performed under duress (thanks to the mob), the cardinals met again and elected a new pope. The first pope refused to step down and maintained his court in Rome. The second pope established his court in Avignon, in France. This may sound deeply weird, since the pope is the bishop of Rome, but for most of the 1300s, the papacy had actually been based out of Avignon, so it made more sense at the time than it does now. Both popes were backed by different kings, emperors, and powerful European warrior-aristocrats. Each pope declared the other an ‘antipope’ (false pope). And for 30 years, there were simply two supreme rulers of the Catholic Church. When one died, the subset of the cardinals loyal to him met to elect a successor. The other pope did the same.

From 1378 to 1409, the Roman papacy had four successive popes and the Avignon papacy two. That year, a Church council met in Pisa to settle the affair. It only served to complicate matters. The Council of Pisa ordered both popes deposed and elected another. But both sitting popes ignored the order, so now there were three popes: one in Rome, one in Avignon, and one in Pisa, all with their own political backers! A year later, the Pisan pope died and his loyal cardinals met to elect his successor, who took the papal name John XXIII.

In 1414, Sigismund, a very powerful lord in central Europe (at the time King of the Romans and the Hungarians, but not yet Holy Roman Emperor), pushed for another council to resolve the schism. A bunch of cardinals met in Constance, on the German-Swiss border, with Sigismund present. These cardinals agreed all three popes should resign and the cardinals should elect a new pope. John XXIII was present at the council, but he didn’t like what he was seeing: it looked likely that this one might actually work. So he fled, disguised as a mailman. Sigismund’s men caught up with John in Austria and brought him back to Constance, where they forced him to resign.

The Council of Constance

The Roman pope sent a message to Constance that he agreed to resign, provided the council jump through some legal hoops to demonstrate that the pope (any pope) still governed the cardinals, not the other way around. The council did so, and the Roman pope abdicated. The Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, still hadn’t stepped down, so the council declared him a heretic and excommunicated him. You might think that this would anger Benedict’s supporters among the warrior-aristocracy. But by this point, most of those guys had abandoned Benedict. It was pretty clear which way this was going. Benedict wasn’t even in Avignon anymore; he was holed up in the ancestral castle of his Aragonese noble family, near Valencia. Only Aragon stood by Benedict in this time of military and spiritual defeat. With Benedict XIII effectively sidelined, the Council of Constance elected Martin V. At last, there was a single heir of Saint Peter for all Catholics (except in Aragon).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that amidst all this multi-pope business, the Council of Constance found time to address our old friends the Donatists. Jan Huss, a popular Czech theologian, had been causing no end of trouble for the Church all through this period, demanding that the Church live up to its professed moral standards. His enemies accused him of being a Donatist and worse. The Council of Constance invited Huss to appear and explain his grievances. When he did, he was arrested, tried, and burned at the stake.

What of Benedict XIII, the Avignon pope holed up in a castle in Spain? He had with him four cardinals. When he died in 1423, three of those cardinals met and elected Benedict’s successor, who took the papal name Clement VIII. The cardinal who was left out was so grumpy that he ‘elected’ (can a single person acting alone constitute an election?) a rival successor, who adopted the papal name Benedict XIV. This Benedict went into hiding, and came to be called “the hidden pope”. For all that Clement VIII and Benedict XIV were pretty trivial, the existence of three popes was enough of a concern to prompt the Count of Armagnac to write to Joan of Arc in 1429 asking which of the three he should follow. He describes them thus: “One dwells at Rome and is called Martin V, whom all Christian Kings obey; the other dwells at Peñiscola, in the kingdom of Valencia, and is called Clement; the third dwells no man knows where, unless it is [that single outcast cardinal] and a few folk with him, and is called Benedict XIV.” Joan wrote the count to say she’d get back to him. When Benedict XIV died in 1429, the outcast cardinal then elected himself pope and for some reason also chose the name Benedict XIV. He died in prison. Clement VIII cut a deal with Martin V and the king of Aragon, abdicated, and had his cardinals elect Martin as his successor in 1429.

Jan Huss at Constance

I haven’t talked much yet about how the principle of apostolic succession plays into the multi-pope business, so let’s look at that. In the centuries since this schism was resolved, the Catholic Church has spilled considerable ink over determining retroactively which of these popes were the real heirs of Saint Peter and which were antipopes. Since the spiritual authority of the pope is derived from apostolic succession, having a good understanding of that chain of succession matters. Since 1958, the word has been that the Roman line of popes was the real one. The papal names Clement VIII, Benedict XIII, Benedict XIV, and John XXIII have all been reclaimed by real popes (elected in 1592, 1724, 1740, and 1958, respectively). But what if, in your fictional setting, they’re wrong? What if, at your table, the ‘hidden pope’ was the real one? If so, God would presumably have kept the line going. A few cardinals loyal to Benedict XIV might elect his successor, and so forth and so on down through the centuries: a minuscule, unknown sect that exists only to perpetuate itself.

It’s easy to add a line of hidden ‘real’ popes to your campaign. Even if you’ve got a long-running game going, you can pop in a hidden pope without disturbing anything. Remember, in real life the hidden Benedict XIV didn’t impact anything. He had almost no parishioners or followers. So in any setting with a centralized religious authority, feel free to add a hidden pope (or his analogue). Don’t be shy about jamming him in there mid-campaign and revealing it to the players at the right time. This could be a bombshell. If your setting has something like apostolic succession, if there is a rival line of pope-analogues and they are the real heirs of the Apostle-analogues, this calls into question the whole Church, just as the Donatists did.

In a campaign with a monster-of-the-week framework, finding the secret real heir of Saint Peter (or his analogue) and getting blessed by him might be the power-up the PCs need to defeat a particularly nasty demon or vampire. In such a game, finding him is a matter of spending a few weeks in the right library (and maybe doing a favor for the right librarian). The real trick is reaching him in his distant mountain fortress and convincing him you’re legit. You’ve got to get him to drop the charade that he’s just a weird old hermit so he will bless you. Before he’ll trust you, maybe he’ll ask you to do him some weird favors that will not endear you to your setting’s version of the Catholic Church.

In a mystery game, the hidden pope might be a great twist ending. In the process of investigating a mystery, you come into contact with a secretive band of do-gooders. They want nothing to do with the party, but tenacious PCs might discover this group is the cardinals of the heretofore-unknown hidden pope! What does the party do with this information, given that it might bring down the whole Church?

In a political campaign, an NPC based on the hidden pope would make a great pawn for malcontents within the Church. Anyone who doesn’t like the current pope-analogue or his power structure would love proof that there’s a rival line of pontiffs – maybe one that can perform flashy miracles! That would give them justification to tear the whole thing down and start over. PCs might be tasked with finding the hidden pope or, barring that, masquerading as him.

Check out my book Making History: Three One-Session RPGs! Three awesome historical one-shots with pregenerated characters and a very simple rules system designed specifically for that story. Norse Ivory is a game about heritage and faith in the Viking Age. A Killing in Cahokia is a murder mystery in the Native American temple-city of Cahokia. And Darken Ship is a horror adventure starring junior sailors on a U.S. Navy warship who wake up one morning to discover they’re alone on a ship that should carry three thousand.

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