When and Why Did Popes Start Changing Their Names?

One Roman Catholic correspondent criticized my list of popes that denied the immaculate conception (link to list and discussion) on the basis that some of the statements were made by the popes before they took office.

He actually went so far as to claim:

Men who become Pope change their names precisely to show that what they taught before, which may be erring, is of no account to their pontificate.

Of course, my correspondent was just trying weasel out of the evidence that was stacked against him, but it did make me wonder: when did the name changing begin?

The obvious answer of “Simon’s name was changed to Peter” isn’t correct. First of all, “Peter” was Simon’s surname (see the discussion here). Second, many of the early bishops of Rome (and alleged bishops of Rome) did not take on a pseudonym.

I’d love to have a more definitive answer, but EWTN reports this:

Papal Names – Most of the early Popes kept their own names upon election. However, when the Roman priest Mercury was elected in 533 he took the name John II, so the Church would not have a Pope named after a pagan god. Thus began the practice of taking a new name which today is taken for granted.

which seems like a reasonable explanation (source). The practice seems to have stuck, although I’m not aware of any canon law that absolutely requires a name change.

The last pope not to change his name was Marcellus II (crowned in 1555). Ironically, his name is the name of a pagan god (Mars, like his name sake and like pope Mark). It’s also worth noting that while he would have been the first recorded bishop of Rome with the name “Mercury,” the official list of popes also includes among his predecessors not only those named for the major god Mars, but also those named for some of the lesser gods: Dionysis, Anterus, and Zephyrinus. (source)

John II did not get the trend to catch on immediately. The next several popes maintained their birth name, though John III (originally Catelinus) followed suit (he may have changed his name before becoming pope). (source) Indeed, the next few name changes were to be called “John” (Octavian became John XII in 955 and Pietro Canepanova became John XIV in 983) (source). However, by 1503, when Julius II retained his birth name he was disrupting a 494 year tradition spanning 72 popes (source).

So – what is the real reason that popes change their names? It’s a tradition. If you like it, thank Johns II, III, XII, and XIV for paving the way – but don’t make the facile assumption that they do it for theological reasons, or that this is a tradition that comes down from the apostolic era.



6 Responses to “When and Why Did Popes Start Changing Their Names?”

  1. Matthew Bellisario Says:

    "The obvious answer of "Simon's name was changed to Peter" isn't correct. First of all, "Peter" was Simon's surname"No, Simon was changed to Peter. Not his surname. Are there any Church Fathers who agree with you?

  2. Turretinfan Says:

    a) The correct place to dispute that point would be at my post which discusses that issue. There's a link to it in this post.b) Yes, I believe that I can find some fathers that agree with me. What difference does that make to you? First consider the arguments and Scripture I presented at the other post.

  3. misterkellywilson Says:

    Your Catholic source, TurretinFan, doesn`t know what he`s talking:The Pope errs before become Pope, and doesn`t cease too after becoming Pope.Everyone knows this. The second thing is while your lists might be of interest they have little to do with the truth or the falisty of the claim of the Immaculate Conception.

  4. Turretinfan Says:

    "The second thing is while your lists might be of interest they have little to do with the truth or the falisty of the claim of the Immaculate Conception."They have to do with the truth or falsity of statements about the historical record made in the document that defined the dogma.But, as you know, even within Ineffabilis Deus, the only thing that is allegedly infallible is the statement defining the dogma – not the reasons for doing so, or anything else in the document. So, for some people, it does not matter if I.D. misrepresents the historical record – at least it does not matter as to whether or not they are going to accept the dogmatic definition.-TurretinFan

  5. john Says:

    So if the statements quoted against the IC are said to be made by Popes, yet these statements are made by men before they became Pope, then the claim is falsified.Claim – seven Popes made statements against the IC.Counter fact – the statements were made by men not in the official capacity as Pope.If the Counter fact is true, then the claim is false. Is the counter fact true?JM

  6. Turretinfan Says:

    JM:The issue of whether these men said it while wearing a Roman mitre is not the issue. The issue is that the men were popes and held the view.-TurretinFan

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