Papal Authority amidst bad Popes


Short version:

I’m in a dialogue with a friend (was Evangelical and has recently become Pentecostal) and he does not believe in the authority of the Pope over the Church in large part due to the actions of bad Popes that have existed. I’m trying to learn as much as I can so I can defend their authority despite their bad actions but am having a tough time. Any help?

Tolstoy version:

So my best friend from home and I have recently rehashed our religious discussion. He is now Pentecostal (formerly Baptist/Evangelical) and I am a convert to Catholicism (came into the Church 3 years ago, was previously nothing).

Recently he has found a series of audio lectures from a Protestant minister named David Guzik

There are 20 lectures in all, each about an hour and he looks at history from the Apostles until the 20th century. So far I am up to part 5 which discusses the Papacy and the more powerful Popes up until about 1300.

Now my friend’s biggest issue deals with Popes that had people persecuted and burned at the stake during the Protestant Reformation. I have not gotten to this part of the lecture yet and can’t name the Popes that did this, but I have no doubt it and many other bad things occurred. He claims that such unchristian actions prove that the Pope has no special authority and is just a mere man with power. He does not believe that God would allow such men to preside over His Church and therefore the Popes do not have any sort of Divine election and are merely men.

I have begun to look up Catholic historical sources for reference. I recently found A Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas Bokenkotten at my parish library. I am also considering purchasing a copy of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine by Jaroslav Pelikan. It is 5 volumes and there are one or two I may get. While not a Catholic author, I have heard that Pelikan gives a great pluralistic view of the development of the Church’s theology.

So my question then is: how can I answer his question about the Popes having Divine appointment and Authority despite the failings some of them showed? And also, what other resources should I consider in understanding this era better for myself and perhaps to show to him. The lectures by Guzik are very one-sided and I would like for him to at least read a more balanced history that is less biased.

I would be especially interested in the comments of Protestant converts to Catholicism who also wrestled with these issues.

Thanks for your help and I will be actively watching this thread.




Well you might want to make the obvious point that even the first pope was very human and was not exempt from sin. Of course I am speaking of St. Peter who denied Christ 3 times but later repented with 3 expressions of love to Christ - and went on to finish as a martyr. This is the most difficult thing to get through to people. They expect everyone to be impeccable simply because they are servants of God and hold everyone to a higher standard than they hold themselves and when they see less than perfect behavior in leaders immediately assume “the office” is invalid rather than the leader is human. This judgement comes from an emotional, immature and irrational perspective - but again a very human reaction. Adults, who should know better, use this excuse of imperfect human behavior when they simply want to justify their own abritrary reasons for chosing other faiths.

All you can do is chip away at the silly assumption that the pope and bishops are somehow exempt from being human by being chosen to be leaders. Not even David, Solomon nor Moses was perfect. All proved to be sinners. All repented and all still served and executed their offices to the best of the their human abilities with God’s help.

Good luck,


Yes, I believe that is the best approach to take, and I have said that to him. He of course refuses to believe that and also refuses to believe that Christ gave a special charge to St Peter that made him “first among equals.” He reads Mt 16:18 as Christ addressing Peter only because he was the first to speak up when asked who they thought he was. I tried to tell him that it was only Peter whose name was changed and that he was given a special charge. But he just flat out refuses to accept it.

I think it will be wise to take to heart what the anonymous Bishop said to Augustine’s mother when she wanted his conversion: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.”




If he is claiming to have superior insight into scripture then he has already been “gotten to” by someone else’s false teaching. No one can read the bible from a neutral and unbiased perspective and naturally form a defensive anti-Catholic position around the Protestant doctrine of anti-authority without having been taught it externally. So he is already predisposed to doctrinal bias and has formed his opinions based on somone else’s opinions. What this resolves to is a contest of relationships - yours vs. the person(s) who influenced him most in forming his currently erroneous opinion. So, in a sense, Christ working through you or through other Catholic friends must bring him to the greater truth if he to change. Only the Holy Spirit can change hearts when hubris has overshadowed the rational facilities and committed bias is present.

I am true believer in prayer - I’d do a novena for Him and see if he doesn’t soften up.



With the sin of David, the extreme sinfulness of Solomon, and the craven debauchery by the like of Manasseh, did God release his Covenant with the House of David?


No :smiley:


You might find this book to be extremely helpful:

Pope Fiction: Answers to 30 Myths and Misconceptions About the Papacy by Patrick Madrid

It starts with a more general explanation of why the infallibility of the pope does not rise or fall on the holiness of a particular pope. It then proceeds to address many of the most common historical (and sometimes not-so-historical) examples that you are likely to encounter.


Of course not.

And of course those that want to dismiss the few bad bad popes we have had want to hold a double standard and ignore the severe depravity of many of the reformers - who simply wanted a secular head of state rather than the pope - the king.

I never quite understood the thought process of how anyone could reject papal authority but then entrust their souls to follow the bizarre theological theories of Luther when the man had such a dubious personal character himself. Here was a man who was willing to throw out 1500 years of apostolic teaching and ecclesial authority to curb some abuses while living a lifestyle that was in stark contradiction of Christian virtue. I mean the man was known for his robust drinking, womanizing and Jew hating; and even wrote and encouraged Jewish persecution. How Christ like and worthy of leadership. :rolleyes:

So, there is most definately a double standard at work in the world. If people want to reject the entire office of the pope for a few bad ones to follow the teachings of a man who “sinned and sinned boldly” as an expression of his faith in God’s saving grace then its clear to me that the issue is well beyond appealing to reason. It comes down to following the person who one most identifies with.



Yes, this is another book I was thinking about reading, actually. Although it’s hard to know which books are worth reading without getting recommendations from others.

I don’t think it would be useful to give it to my friend, but it may be good for myself to learn about the argument for the infallibility of the office of the Pope despite certain men who have held the position.

Thanks :slight_smile:



Oh no, I certainly wouldn’t recommend giving it to your friend, unless he was as the point where he was open to learning more about the Catholic Church (which, from your post, does not seem to be the case). It is an excellent resource to draw from for yourself, though. I definitely think it is worth reading.


To me the existance of bad popes helps the case of papal authority at least at a theological level. The fact that even when a less than savory individual sat on Peter’s Throne and yet doctrine stayed orthodox, and moral laws were not lessened for their individual excesses suggests that something more than a weak a man was in control.

If that makes sense.


Here goes some great link that have some of the best free Mp3 on Apologetics.

Episode Seven : The Papacy

Patrick Madrid Pope Fiction

Patrick Madrid Bad Popes

Ronald Rychlak Hitler, War, and the Pope

Walter Martin vs. Fr. Mitch Pacwa on Peter and Papacy

Steve Ray 1 on Peter and the Papacy, author of Crossing the Tiber and Upon This Rock

Norm Dahlgren on the Papacy


If I am correct, we may have had some bad Popes in the past, but in the matter of faith and morals they never strayed form Catholic teaching.


This “objection” to the authority of the papacy always reminds me of Matthew 23:

1 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, 2 Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. 3 All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not. 4 For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them.

Here, Our Lord is clearly telling us that those who sat in the chair of Moses are not very good men. However, the disciples were still to follow what they say, because their authority was not diminished by their character - the authority of the chair of Moses comes from God, not those occupying it.

Exactly like the authority of the chair of Peter.


Excellent quote, but it seems that in the context of what follows he is exhorting them not to be like the Pharisees. And in the case of certain Pontiffs, that is exactly what they have done. But I guess that proves the point even further, that despite their actions, they still retain authority…




You can give your friend a list of ALL THE POPES from Jesus Christ to St.Peter to Benedict XVI.

Then ask, from his/her vantage, for a similar list of his/her faith.
Always, it will fall short, if it exists at all.

On the Popes List, point out the ones that ARE SAINTS and the ones that are NOT, yet they still existed and continued The Faith as we now enjoy. In all the failings of the saints and NON-saints, the teachings of The Church have remained UNWAVERED.

How do we know?
It’s not hidden! It’s NOT accessible only to a select number. It is open to ALL who seek Christ.
Examine her Traditions
Examine her Magisterium
Examine Scriptures

God is not “here” in His Seat, as it were. He ‘left’ a fisherman in His stead. That fisherman remained and remains human until his death. The Fisherman is NOT Divine!

The issue is not only of authority but of free will both for the Pope and ALL of the faithful. This is why at every Mass, Catholics pray for The Vicar of Christ, amongst all that we continually pray for. Not just for his health, but also that The Holy Spirit be always with him, to strengthen and guide him.

If there were no “bad Popes” then every soul would be able to deduce, from physical evidence of the “holy lineage” that Catholicism MUST be the true faith. The choice then to be Catholic, would NOT BE FREE!, but an obvious absolute.

To choose God, from all else, is freedom of choice exercised.
The same MUST be for His Church.



Yes, they were too busy doing, uhum…, other things.


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