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According to Wikipedia, Pope Stephen I was elected to the papacy in March of 752 A.D., but died a few days later, prior to being installed. As I understand it, Catholic teaching indicates that God's will is accomplished through the voting of the papal conclave.

This, however, brings up a question with regard to Pope Stephen I. Why was he elected as pope if was going to die prior to taking office? What purpose did God have in working through the conclave to elect him? What is the Catholic understanding of this? Did he, after being elected, somehow become unworthy?

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I don't see the problem, and the Church sees no problem worth explaining, because:

  • Unlike some groups, Catholics don't think that death is a sign from God that a person is unworthy.
  • Being elected pope makes a man infallible under certain conditions. It doesn't make him sinless or immortal.
  • It was God's plan to have a man unanimously elected, and then to have him die of a stroke. I don't understand what the problem could be. For all I know of God's plan, which is nothing, Stephen died so that you could ask and learn the answer to this question. We try not to speculate on God's will, because we can't, and we don't need to. We just trust God.

Man elected unanimously, dies like everyone else. What's the problem? The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord! There is no problem.

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Also to add to the Good answer, In Luke 13:1-5 even Jesus doesn't think that death was a sign that a person is unworthy. –  Jayarathina Madharasan Apr 25 '13 at 17:50
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The problem is that God worked through the conclave voting to elect him to serve as Pope. However, would not God have known he was going to die prior to taking office? –  Narnian Apr 25 '13 at 18:07
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The election of a pope only requires a 2/3 majority, as I understand it. Also, I understand that Catholic doctrine does not teach that he becomes infallible, but is infallible in that he won't lead the church astray, when he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair). –  Narnian Apr 25 '13 at 18:14
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He died a couple days after his election, before he took office. So, why would God have him elected if God knew he would never take office? I'm not saying God's plan was thwarted. I'm asking why this happened? –  Narnian Apr 25 '13 at 18:15
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Only God will know reasons for His acts: this act and so many other acts for which we could find no answer. If a baby dies within hours of its birth, can we ask God "why" He allowed that baby to come in this world if he/she were to die within hours of his/her birth? –  Seek forgiveness Apr 26 '13 at 17:06
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As far as I know, the Catholic Church teaches that a man acquires the power of the papacy as soon as he has been duly elected and has accepted the office (provided he is already a bishop; otherwise he'd have to be consecrated a bishop first), even before any official installation, coronation, or even public announcement. So a pope who died before his official installation would still have been a pope and have ruled the church briefly.

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I shall pose a counter-question. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? I see no issue with the death of Stephen.

As to "God's will is worked through the conclave", well, I will agree but only to a point. God's will is also worked through the US general election. The fact that God's will is worked through a process is neither informative, nor useful, not particularly significant and I see little ability to draw conclusions based on such a premise.

The conclave is supposed to elect the man best suited for the job, and it is supposed to be something done with much prayer and discernment. But anyone who has an even cursory understanding of how conclaves have worked in the past will know that often this is not the case.

However, as the saying goes "God does not call the qualified, but he qualifies the chosen." Even though the outcome of a conclave can be very human (though often it is far greater than human), the papacy remains protected.

As to Stephen's qualities, well, by an accident of history we simply are not privy to that information. Perhaps his election was something which was not prayerfully done. Perhaps he was intending on driving the Church of Rome into heresy and God felt the best way to stop that was killing Stephen off. Perhaps God thought it better if he served as an active intercessor in heaven. We don't know.

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This is very similar to another question.

In addition to Alypius' answer here, what I wrote in that other question is also valid:

There remains the possibility that the cardinals will fail to discern the will of the Spirit. However, that can no more be determined by the faithful than it can be by the cardinals themselves. So yes, we must believe that the right person has been chosen.

Even if the wrong person is elected, his ministry is not invalidated. God will find a way of making everything good.

Perhaps that conclave was mistaken in its discernment and God found a method of putting things right. Much the same thing has been said of the election of Pope John Paul I. However, as Alypius has said, "there is no point in speculating on God's will, because we can't."

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