The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that:
It is also important to note that the "main stem" of the Church need not necessarily be a majority of those who were once its members. But this minority of Catholics would still form part of a visible hierarchically governed Church, even if they were receiving neither leadership nor example from the Roman Pontiff. This is far from a hypothetical possibility. During the Arian heresy the weak Pope Liberius capitulated under pressure, signed a formula of doubtful orthodoxy, and excommunicated the heroic Athanasius. But at no time did St. Athanasius claim either that Liberius had ceased to be Pope or that the hierarchy had ceased to exist, even though most of the bishops had either succumbed to the Arian heresy or had condoned it through cowardice. St. Peter did not forfeit his office even though he compromised the faith through cowardice and was justly rebuked by St. Paul (Gal. 2: 11). No Catholic historian has ever suggested that Honorius I ceased to be Pope even though he was eventually condemned by the Council of Constantinople (681), and by a number of his successors. The profession of faith to be taken by a new pope, as set down in the Liber diurnus, included the name of Honorius among a list of heretics whose views were to be repudiated. Pope Leo II (681683), in a letter of approbation for the acts of the Council, pointed out that it was for inexcusable carelessness and negligence that Honorius had been condemned: "He did not put out the fire of heretical teaching at its outbreak, as befitted papal authority, but fanned it by his negligence (sed negligendo confovit)." Honorius had certainly been complaisant of a dangerous formula which was open to misunderstanding in an heretical sense, but fell short of formal heresy.
There have been times when two or more men claimed to be the legitimate pope, and there was great confusion among the faithful, particularly during the Great Schism (13781417) when the Church was divided by the creation of antipopes. It should be noted that an antipope is a person set up as Bishop of Rome in opposition to the person lawfully elected to the see. A lawfully elected pope who became a formal heretic would not become an antipope but would cease to be pope (see below). There have been about thirtyfive antipopes in the history of the Church, but in not one instance was there any question of there being no pope or of the hierarchy having ceased to exist. A true pope had always been elected, the problem was to identify him.
What of the interregnum between pontificates when the Chair of Peter is
vacant? Some of these interregna have been very long, the longest being a
vacancy of two years nine months between the death of Clement IV in 1268 and the
election of Gregory X in 1271. In such cases the visibility of the Church is not
impaired in any way as the Holy See is administered by the Cardinal Camerlengo
until a new pope is elected. The Camerlengo, or Chamberlain of the papal court,
administers the properties and revenues of the Holy See, and during a vacancy
those of the entire Church. Among his responsibilities during a vacancy are
those of verifying the death of the Pope and organizing and directing the
conclave. Thus, even when the Chair of Peter is not occupied, the visible,
hierarchical nature of the Church is maintained.
© 1997 Michael Davies.
Last modified 27th October, 1997, by David Joyce.