In history, there have been many times when there was such a mess in the Church that there were two or more Popes on the go at any one time. There are lists of universally recognised Popes and those called anti-popes. A few left the historian in some degree of confusion.
Is the Pope really the Pope? This question has usually been asked, since the death of Pius XII in 1958, by traditionalist Roman Catholics called sedevacantists. They are not all agreed about which of the line of Popes beginning with John XXIII to Francis are false or why in theological or canonical terms. The general theory is that John XXIII was a Modernist and a Freemason, and therefore could not be elected Pope validly. If this is so, the Cardinals since the consistories of after October 1958 are all bogus. Theoretically, the sedevacantists could get together and elect their own Pope. Some extremely marginal groups of “conclavists” have tried it. The results are without any credibility whatsoever.
Sedevacantism would be the logical way of solving the cognitive dissonance between Ultramontanist infallibilism and the reality of the modern Church which has embraced positions it previous condemned as heretical such as religious liberty and ecumenism. Unfortunately, when taken to the extreme of its logic, it leads to a fairly similar situation as that of the “Petite Eglise” of the Deux-Sèvres and the Raskol in seventeenth-century Russia.
Since the election of Pope Francis in March 2013 with the previous Pope still alive, living in the Vatican and wearing a white cassock, there have been doubts as to the reality or validity of Benedict XVI’s abdication. Ratzinger himself has affirmed that he intended to step down to allow the election of his successor. Fair enough, the Pope is Bishop of Rome and has a primacy of honour over the college of bishops of his Church – but such an idea contradicts the quasi-divine image of the Papacy cultivated by Boniface VIII, Pius IX and others. One would think that doubts would be allayed, but questions do continue to be asked by men who are embarrassingly mainstream.
This came up at the end of last month: “Two Popes”: Has the Papacy become a Diarchy?. It raises new questions, given the fact that Benedict XVI did not give up the Papacy entirely to retire to a monastery (or some other form of private life) and never be seen again in public. The argument is disturbing: if there is ambiguity in the abdication of Benedict XVI, he is still the Pope and Francis was invalidly elected in canonical terms.
The question doesn’t concern me, since I am no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Church, but we as Anglicans do insert the names of the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch in the Canon of the Mass because we pray for the visible human unity of the Church that is already One ontologically and sacramentally. We would like to get the name right – una cum famulo tuo papa nostro Benedicto – as I was used to before March last year or – una cum famulo tuo papa nostro Francisco – as I say now, still having to remind myself of the change!