The Papal Coronation Oath

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


The "Papal Coronation Oath"

ROME, 28 FEB. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have a brother who is a Franciscan sedevacantist priest. Among other objections he has to the post-Vatican II era is that the rite of coronation of a pope has been replaced with the rite of inauguration or installation of the bishop of Rome. More importantly, they place great importance upon the fact that the coronation oath that was pronounced by every pope from the sixth to the 20th century was also abolished. Do you have any information on this? In particular, do you know if it has been replaced by any sort of profession of faith or oath of fidelity like the one required of future priests and bishops? At first sight, it does seem appropriate that, upon undertaking such an office, the elect make some sort of public commitment to his charge. — P.N., Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, France

A: This alleged Papal Coronation oath has been used by several such groups as "proof" that the Church has abandoned the true faith.

The text of this supposed oath, usually given in English with very imprecise references as to the original source, is the following:

"I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; To the contrary: with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort; To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order that may surface; To guard the Holy Canons and Decrees of our Popes as if they were the Divine ordinances of Heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, Whose place I take through the grace of God, Whose Vicarship I possess with Thy support, being subject to the severest accounting before Thy Divine Tribunal over all that I shall confess; I swear to God Almighty and the Savior Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared. I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church. I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I. If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou willst not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice. Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone — be it ourselves or be it another — who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction to this constituted evangelic Tradition and the purity of the Orthodox Faith and the Christian Religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture."

A Wikipedia article on this topic points out, "The only historical source claimed for this 'Papal Oath' is Migne's Patrologia Latina, referring, it can be supposed, to volume 105, columns 40-44. Patrologia Latina, 105, columns 9-188 reproduces, with notes and commentary, the full text of Garnier's 1680 edition of the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum. The article in The Catholic Encyclopedia on this book states that Garnier's edition 'is very inaccurate, and contains arbitrary alterations of the text'; it describes as the first good edition the one published by Eugène de Rozière in 1869. Later editions have been able to take into account not only the oldest surviving manuscript, which is preserved in the Vatican but also two other manuscripts of slightly later date, which were rediscovered, one in 1889, the other in 1937. The Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum is in fact a 'miscellaneous collection of ecclesiastical formularies used in the papal chancery until the 11th century.' It then fell into disuse and was soon forgotten and lost, until a manuscript containing it was discovered in the 17th century. Its rediscovery in the 17th century caused surprise precisely because the text declared acceptance of the condemnations of the Sixth General Council, which were directed also against Pope Honorius I. In the opinion of one writer, the oath had the effect of confirming that an ecumenical council could condemn a Pope for open heresy and that Honorius was justly condemned."

This same article also points out that the English version is very different from the original, adding the most crucial concepts including the paragraphs: "I swear ... defined and declared" and "Accordingly, without exclusion ... blasphemous venture" and the phrase "I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I."

However, this discussion regarding the text of the oath is somewhat moot because it is highly unlikely that this oath was ever used at all in papal coronations and certainly not from the sixth to the 20th centuries given that the earliest recorded papal coronation ceremony is that of Pope Celestine II in 1143.

The use of some form of papal crown is slightly earlier. Originally the miter and tiara were the same vesture, also called a "camelaucum" or "phrygium." A small circle of gold was added in the ninth century with the rise of the pope's temporal power. The triple tiara probably originated in the early 14th century and was first recorded in an inventory of papal goods in 1316.

Nor is there much evidence that the oath existed in recent times. A detailed description of the coronation of Pope Leo XIII in 1878, plus freely available video footage of the coronations of Pius XII and John XXIII, all show the total absence of any coronation oath. In all cases a cardinal recites a brief formula before crowning the new pope. Immediately after the coronation the pope imparts the blessing urbi et orbi, adopting the formula still in use today.

From a different perspective we could also point out that it was always understood that while the coronation was a splendid ceremony, it did not affect the pope's spiritual authority. The pope has full authority from the moment he accepts election as bishop of Rome.

In a way, we could also say that it would be incorrect for a pope to pronounce such an oath as it would cast doubt on the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Unlike earthly kings and other authorities who must promise to uphold some authority higher and greater than themselves — such as the constitution or the laws and customs of the realm — the pope's fidelity regarding the essentials of faith and morals is guaranteed by the highest authority itself. In other words, a pope cannot make an oath of fidelity to God when it is God himself who has assured the Church that the "gates of hell" will not prevail against the one chosen as Christ's vicar on earth.

* * *

Follow-up: The "Papal Coronation Oath" [3-13-2012]

After our Feb. 28 comments on the supposed "Papal Coronation Oath" a reader inquired: "I was somewhat surprised, not to mention a little bit puzzled, by your response to the inquiry about a Papal Oath upon the formal inauguration of a new Supreme Pontiff. Are you saying, in effect, that no such thing ever existed? Or, is it because of the actions taken by the Second Vatican Council, many of which were heavy-handed to say the least, none can be acknowledged?"

Although I am not a formally trained historian, from what I have been able to investigate I think that it is safe to affirm that in all probability this oath has never been taken by any pope.

As mentioned in the previous article, this oath is presented by some small groups as evidence in support of the claim that the See of Peter has been vacant for more than 50 years or so depending on which recent pope is not to their liking.

The oath seems to be always presented in an alleged English translation and not the original Latin. At least one traditionalist source honestly admits that it doesn't know where to find the original text.

The sources I checked to examine the rite of papal coronation, where nary a trace of a coronation oath is to be found, were all earlier than the Second Vatican Council. One was an article from an American review published in 1878.

I think it is going a bit far to say that somehow the evidence has been expunged by the Vatican.
Since papal coronations were public affairs, a qualified historian would be able to quickly find the proofs of its existence and use from a host of contemporary sources ranging from eyewitness accounts to diplomatic dispatches. Indeed, we could say that the burden of proof for the existence and continued use of this oath falls upon those claiming its authenticity.

Those of us who live near the Vatican know that it is run on a comparatively skeleton staff and a budget that is smaller than that of some major U.S. dioceses. If some Vatican offices cannot even manage to upload their own documents to the Internet, they are hardly capable of scouring libraries and archives around the world to remove obscure references to the coronation oath.

And all that presumably would be to remove a supposed oath that no pope would ever be obliged to take after election. The only authority that could install such an oath would be a pope. And no pope can bind a successor in such disciplinary matters as this.

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