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New System Elects a Pope

Imaginary portrait of Pope Alexander II, the first elected under the system of cardinals.

IN MARCH OF 2013 the world watched with wonder and curiosity as the Roman Catholic Church followed its age-old traditions for electing the next pope.  But those traditions, marked by pomp and ceremony, were not always in place. 

There were church leaders in Rome from the earliest days, when a bishop was the overseer of the church in any given city. By Christianity’s fourth century, the office of bishop of Rome was a prize to fight for as the street battles between the factions of Damasus and Ursinus demonstrated  The more powerful the papacy became, the more furiously Italian political factions vied to place an ally on the papal throne.  By the tenth century, gold might change hands and blood might flow when a pope died. Rival factions might even create rival popes. When Pope Stephen X died in 1058, two prominent Italian families chose John Mincius, Bishop of Velletri to be pope—allegedly with violence and corruption—and he called himself Benedict X. 

Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII), already a powerful player on the European stage, did not want Benedict as pope. With skilled diplomacy he assembled a coalition to support his own candidate—Gerard of Burgundy. He pried loose some of Benedict’s supporters and, in a meeting at Siena, a group of cardinals selected Gerard, who took the name Nicholas II. New pope Nicholas held a synod at Sutri which deposed Benedict. In January, Nicholas accompanied the army of Godfrey of Lorraine against Rome. Friendly Romans opened the city gates, at which point Benedict and his supporting nobles fled. Benedict was captured and imprisoned for twenty years. 

In April, 1059, a meeting of bishops at the Lateran issued new rules for the election of popes. From now on, elections could only be conducted by authorized cardinals and required the final approval of the people. The rules reduced the power of emperors to approve papal elections. To ensure that this new system was not simply ignored, Pope Nicholas gave it some military punch. He cut a deal with the Normans who occupied Italy. They got the church’s recognition of their conquests and the papacy got their backing in elections. 

On this day, 1 November 1061, Alexander II became the first pope elected by a college of cardinals under Nicholas’s new rules. However, powerful factions, who could not abide the loss of Roman and German power over the elections, advanced a rival, resulting in  another schism.

Alexander’s party prevailed. After that, popes were usually elected by the college of cardinals, but that did not end instances of two and even three rival popes at a time until the fifteenth century. Felix V, who ruled 1439-1449, is considered to be the last “antipope.”

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