The Catholic Church claims to be the church established by Christ, and that her reigning pope is the latest link in an unbroken chain of popes stretching back to the Apostle Peter..
881. The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the 'rock' of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock.[Cf. Mt 16:18-19 ; Jn 21:15-17 .] 'The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its Head.'[LG 22 # 2.] This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.–Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.
936. The Lord made St. Peter the visible foundation of his Church. He entrusted the keys of the Church to him. The bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter, is 'head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth' [CIC, can. 331.].–Ibid.
The mythology of the Catholic Church identifies this fantasy line of authority as the Apostolic Succession
Q. What is meant by the Apostolic succession?
A. By the Apostolic succession is meant that priests and bishops have received the Apostolic authority through an unbroken line of Popes from St. Peter to Benedict XV.–Roderick MacEachen, Complete Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition, Catholic Book Company, © 1911, p.81 -- . The catechism bears the Nihil Obstat of Joseph Mullen, V.G.; the Imprimitur of Patrick J. Donhue, D.D., Bishop of Wheeling; and the Cum Permissu of James J. Hartley, D.D., Bishop of Columbus
(Note: Benedict XV was the reigning pope when this revised edition was published. The current pope, Benedict XVI, is the seventh since Benedict XV died in 1922))
Establishing her pope as the latest in an unbroken line of Peter's successors is crucial to validating the hodge-podge of doctrines, dogmas and utterances for which the Catholic Church claims the very authority of Christ.
862. 'Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops.'[LG 20 # 2.] Hence the Church teaches that 'the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ.'[LG 20 # 2.]–Ibid.
Given the importance of the papal office to the operation and teaching of the Catholic Church, and the claim that the occupant of that office is the latest in an unbroken line of successors that can be traced all the way back to the apostle Peter, one would think that Mother Church would keep good records pertaining to her popes. And she certainly does keep records, as one researcher mentions at the opening of her book on Vatican archives:
This book is an attempt to give readers some idea of the treasure that humanity—not only the Church, but all mankind—possesses in the Secret Archives of the Vatican, and to tell a little of how this vast collection of knowledge came into being, how the letters of Saint Peter and Saint Paul grew into twenty-five miles of shelved documents.–Maria Luisa Ambrosini, The Secret Archives of the Vatican, ©1996 Barnes & Noble Books, p. 2
With all those records to call upon, it seems reasonable to expect that Mother Church has identified—infallibly, of course— the successors to Peter's throne. On this issue, as on just about any other issue pertaining to Catholicism, the information available is vague and confusing. Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of excuses to cover the gaps or conflicts in the list of those who have sat on Peter's Throne.
Owing, chiefly, to the fact that during what is called the Great Schism of the West, there were sometimes several claimants to the Holy See, only one of whom could be the lawful successor of St. Peter, authorities differ concerning the correct list of the Popes. Some reckon that Pius XI is the two hundred and sixty-first successor of St. Peter. –Joseph Deharbe, S.J., A Complete Catechism of the Catholic Religion, Sixth American Edition, © 1912/1919/1924 Scwartz, Kirwin & Fauss, p. 68; Book has Nihil Obstat of Very Rev. Edmund T. Shanahan, D.D., Catholic University of America; and Imprimitur of John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Note: Papal chronology in this book lists Pius XI as the 266th pope.)
From the death of Pius XI to the present, there have been six popes. If Deharbe's list is accurate, that would make Benedict XVI the 267th link in Peter's chain—or the 272nd in that other list in Deharbe's book.
The well-respected Catholic Encyclopedia provides a list of those who ruled the Catholic Church. In this list, Pius XI is the 260th pope and Benedict XVI is pope number 266. To add to the confusion, Benedict IX, whose papal career was a stormy one, is listed as pope numbers 146, 148 and 151.
A well-known Catholic educator and historian provides yet another list of the legitimate occupants of Peter's throne. In this list, Pius XI is in position 257, while John Paul II is number 262. (Richard P. McBrien, Chronological List of Popes in Lives of the Popes, © 1997 HarperSanFrancisco, pp. 443-50)
In a report on the conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul I that appeared in the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, a priest informs:
Finally, the ninth scrutiny voiced loudly: Karol, Cardinal Wojtyla, from Krakow, had obtained 96 votes. The news was announced by white smoke. Pope John Paul II had become the 266th successor of the Fisherman!–Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo,Conclave showed election of John Paul II not easy, in the March 27, 2000 edition of The BC Catholic, © 2000. The BC Catholic. All Rights Reserved.
A highly regarded Anglican priest and historian gathered information about the papacy into a volume that is considered by many to be a definitive work on the subject. At the beginning of the book, the researcher lists the names and reigns of 269 popes, John Paul II being pope number 269, and 39 antipopes. (J.N.D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press (1987), pp. 1-4)
What do we have thus far? Depending upon which source one uses, we are informed that Benedict XVI is the 269th successor to Peter. Or the 270th. Or the 268th. Or the 266th. Or the 263nd. Or the 267th. After looking at the variety of numbers in this admittedly small sample of sources, one comes away with the thought that even when it comes to identifying her leaders, the Catholic Church has shown herself to be a sower of confusion and misinformation. Perhaps looking at the sources for some of these figures will help us work our way through to a reliable figure for the total number of popes claimed by Rome.
Deharbe explains how the list he provided was compiled and the source he obtained it from:
The foregoing list is taken from a series of portraits, painted in medallions, on the nave walls of the Basilica of St. Paul, on the Ostian Way, near Rome. This magnificent church was built over the tomb of the great Apostle, under the reign of Constantine the Great, by Pope St. Sylvester, about the year A.D. 320. The portrait of that Pope, and of Marcus, his successor, and of the thirty-three Popes who had preceded them, were all painted apparently by the same hand. The portraits of the succeeding Popes were generally added, one by one, by different hands, probably soon after death, and by the care of their successors. This, however, seems to have been omitted in some instances, possibly on account of the troublous times; for we find that the series has been continued by medallions of two or three Popes evidently executed by the same artist. The most considerable interruption of such a character was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when seven medallions seem to have been painted during the reign of Martin V.
This is the largest and most interesting series of historical portraits in existence. Artists are able to read, as it were, recognize the work and painter as easily and as surely as ordinary mortals read and recognize the varying handwriting of individuals. Even in the case of the earlier Popes before St. Sylvester, they see evidences that the artist was in possession of such knowledge as enabled him to give to each face the marked individuality of a portrait. For the subsequent Popes down to the present time there is no difficulty. However imperfect the workmanship, even in the medieval centuries, and although the fading colors may have been retouched by equally unskilful hands, it is always evident that the painter originally presented the features of a real face—not an ideal or fancy sketch.
The Basilica of St. Paul was destroyed by fire in 1823 and this series of portraits unfortunately perished in the flames. But half a century before all these portraits had been carefully engraved on copperplate and published. From these engravings Pope Pius IX. caused the portraits to be reproduced in imperishable mosaics, and they again decorate the nave of the splendid Basilica of St. Paul, which has been rebuilt, and which he consecrated a few years ago. From the copperplates other copies have been made in copperplate, steel, lithograph, and photograph, of various sizes, and may be easily obtained. Under each medallion in the Church was an inscription giving the name of the Pontiff, and the length of his pontificate. Ordinarily, in the case of contemporary Popes, this is testimony of the highest character. Where, as in the case of the earlier Popes, the inscription could only give the judgment of the painter as to dates long past, it obviously cannot claim the same high value. It might be, and in some cases has been, held to be uncertain, and in others erroneous. Some Popes, also, have been inserted in this list, doubtless in deference to the claims urged at the time by their adherents, and perhaps for the sake of peace. A more critical and impartial spirit has doubted or denied their right to such honor, and classed them as Antipopes. In these two points we find the explanation of the difference between this list of popes and those found elsewhere. We give the list as published in the Gerarchia Cattolica, Rome, 1875, with a few corrections, which were evidently typographical errors.–Joseph Deharbe, Op. cit., pp. 68-69 (Emphasis not in original)
And what is the Gerarchia Cattolica? The very helpful Catholic Encyclopedia informs:
…Attention may briefly be called, also, to two Roman handbooks of a character somewhat analogous to our Directories, which supply names and details regarding the Catholic hierarchy throughout the world and especially regarding the cardinals, the Roman Congregations and their personnel, the prelates and camerieri, etc., in attendance upon the papal court. The first of these, called since 1872 "La Gerarchia Cattolica e la Famiglia Pontificia", was first published in 1716 and was long familiarly known as "Cracas" from the name of the publisher…--Herbert Thurston & Thomas F. Meehan, Catholic Directories in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V, Copyright © 1909 by Robert Appleton Company Online Edition Copyright © 2008 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
Time to check with Mother Church to get the official papal head count. I found a list of names and the dates of their reigns of all the links in the chain of alleged apostolic succession from Peter to John Paul II at a Catholic website. The information in the list was taken from the Annuario Pontificio, published by the Vatican Secretary of State and printed by the Vatican's official printing house, which is a complete directory of the Hierarchy, and all dioceses and the Roman Curia. The list, which does not include Benedict XVI, names 262 popes and 37 antipopes.
So much confusion. Think about it. If the Catholic faithful can't be certain of how many popes have led their church and who these popes were, how can they be certain of anything of greater importance, such as the dogmas to which they are expected to assent?
But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.--2 Peter 2:1-3