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I was checking out the list of pope names by frequency on Wikipedia in search of minutia to defend my assertion that Pope Francis was the first new Pope name a long time and noticed that there were two popes named Pelagius I and II but there's also a Pelagian heresy that predates their pontificate.

So, what's so cool about Pelagius? Or didn't the Popes think that hard about their names back then?

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That really is strange, and rather keen of you to notice. I hope someone can dig up a reason for why they didn't become John III and John V like their predecessor, but I suspect that sort of record has been lost to time. – Alypius Mar 17 '13 at 6:40

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That's interesting! Catholics tend to avoid using heretical names. In fact, I believe that it's in canon law that baptismal names cannot be the names of heretics, and that it is the priest's duty to prevent such a name from being used. So it is very strange that any pope would the name of a known heretic.

So why do we have two popes with the name of a heretic, and a very recent one, at that? Perhaps it is because Pelagius of the heresy himself might have denied important aspects of that heresy:

This theological theory is named after Pelagius, although he denied, at least at some point in his life, many of the doctrines associated with his name. (Wikipedia)

Still it is strange, because the name would still have been associated with the heresy. So let's look further. From Wikipedia:

Beginning in the sixth century, some popes adopted a new name upon their accession to the papacy; this became customary in the 10th century, and every pope since the 16th century has done so. [...] During the first centuries of the church, the bishops of Rome continued to use their baptismal names after their elections. The custom of choosing a new name began in AD 533 with the election of Mercurius.

It is because "Pelagius" is the original name of both popes! 1

  • Mercurius becomes Pope John II in 533 (first change)
  • Pelagius becomes Pope Pelagius I in 556
  • Pelagius becomes Pope Pelagius II in 579
  • Practice becomes customary circa 1000

It's still a question exactly why neither chose to follow the example set by Mercurius (named after the Roman god Mercury), but I suppose the practice was only taking root around that time.

1: This is not certain, but seems very probable: the name-changes of other popes around that time are well-recorded but no change is recorded for either of these popes, and I can find no record of either Pelagius being called by a different name before becoming pope.

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Do you actually mean heretical names or names associated with heresy? The first part of your post implies that names themselves are heretical because a known heretic was called such. – fredsbend Mar 17 '13 at 6:15
I did dig a little deeper and there are some early church saints named "Pelagia". It might be like saying you can't name yourself Pope Damien after St. Damien because of "the omen". – Peter Turner Mar 17 '13 at 18:32

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