According to Wikipedia the longest papal election in the history of the Catholic Church was from November 1268 to September 1, 1271.

How long can the Catholic Church be without a pope so that we can say that the succession was broken?

If there is defined no length of time, then if simply we don't need a pope for three hundred years, we can wait that long to elect one and papal succession would remain unbroken.

  • 3
    Please give me a reason why this question is a bad one so I can correct it. Don't just down-vote.
    – Grasper
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 14:00
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    As long as there are enough (three?) bishops to ordain a new bishop of Rome, I think continuity would be established.
    – bradimus
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 14:33
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    @bradimus It only takes one bishop to consecrate a new bishop. Tradition has it that there are three : the consecrator and two assistants.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 22:28

4 Answers 4


You would have the succession, since the Pope would be the valid successor to his predecessor. So there is no break in succession. But the Church would be limping, as it were, until its proper order is restored. You don't need a Pope to be Catholic; it's just that Christ instuted the Church with a Pope, and so it is definitional to the heirarchical structure of the Church that He wanted (it's therefore not negligible). A flock can only remain on course for so long before it scatters. cf. John 21:16; Matthew 26:31; Luke 22:32.

If you were born and died during Sede Vacante ('vacant Seat') period (meaning a valid Pope yet to be elected; and there is no current Pope), you are no less Catholic because of that, for example. All Popes, virtually without exception, die before there is a new Pope—it is the normative process of election. Pope Benedicts XVI's recent resignation is extremely, extremely rare.1

There were (disciplinary) rules put in place by Popes to minimize the amount of time it takes for the bishops (cardinals) to elect a new Pope. A striking instance was the Papal bull (or document) issued by Pope Gregory X called Ubi Periculum (papal documents are named after the beginning sentence or a beginning sentence in the Latin document—here, 'Where [there is] danger' ("...of a long vacancy"). But the stringent measures (deitary in nature) prescribed therein, to prevent long periods of sede vacante, were done away with by his successors (being a disciplinary matter, not a doctrinal one, Popes can, and do, undo what their successors judge to be right for the time).

We now have a working system, and trust that God will provide for His people in difficult situations for these, and rectify them before too long, just as He has in the past. He won't allow the gates of Hell to prevail against His Church. Matthew 16:18.

"If there is no time set up then simply we don't need a pope for let's say 300 years and elect one then and say we still have a succession of the popes"

This is just speculative, and not really realistic, nor productive. Not to mention that it would be true that succession is retained in such a scenario. If another valid Pope is elected, then he is Pope. It doesn't rely on the proximity to the last Pope's death or election.

It has more to do with the Church being without a head (earthly, I mean), contrary to the institution of the Church as such. Matthew 16:18-19b; Isaiah 22:22-23. A lengthy period in which there is no "a father to the inhabitants of" the Church, is indeed a danger or risk ("periculum") to the Church's health as a society. Much like a family can exist without a "father," but is severely detrimented if he is not there for whatever reason.

1 The last 'resignation' of a Pope was six centuries ago. It is estimated that only 10 or so (at most) Popes have ever done so, under quite different and varying circumstances.

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    This answer seems focused on explaining why the OP's hypothetical situation can't occur rather than focusing on the actual question.
    – bradimus
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 14:37
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    The God of who instituted the papacy is a provident God. He won't allow sede vacante to remain as long as would injure the Church too badly, otherwise the gates of Hell would have prevailed then. There is no number, no fixed length of time. We expect the Church to sooner vanish (the gates of Hell to prevail), than for it to remian without a leader for a ridiculous amount of time. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 14:43

There must be a perpetual line of successors of St. Peter.

The First Vatican Council defined (Pastor Æternus ch. 2) the dogma that there will be a perpetual line of successors of St. Peter, the first pope:

If, then, any should deny…that blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the Primacy over the universal Church…: let him be anathema.

Si quis ergo dixerit, non esse … ut beatus Petrus in primatu super universam Ecclesiam habeat perpetuos successores…: anathema sit.

However, the Church put a limit on the length of an interregnum.

Nor has the Church defined that there must be a pope when the world ends, so conceivably the end of the world could occur during an interregnum. In fact, Antichrist himself will probably be a false pope (antipope).

Interregnums can and have lasted a long time.

Showing that there have been decades-long interregnums, "How Long Can the Church Exist Without a Pope?" (February 4, 2019) by Steven Speray quotes Rev. M. P. Hill, S.J.'s 1915 The Catholic’s Ready Answer pp. 342-3:

The Great Western Schism, as it is generally named by historians, furnishes an interesting illustration of succession established with absolute certainty after a period of what was considered in some quarters as doubtful succession. The schism lasted thirty-nine years. The first of the Popes whose title was questioned was Urban VI (1378) […] There can be no doubt that a lawful successor to the See of Rome was appointed in the person of Martin V, by whose election the schism was healed. The point we insist on is that there has been a succession of legitimate pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XV. If during the entire schism there had been no Pope at all — that would not prove that the office and authority of Peter was not transmitted to the next Pope duly elected.

Speray shows that the Great Western (Papal) "Schism" lasted somewhere between 39-51 years, during which "it could have been that not one of them was the true Pope, and in that case, there was no Pope at all" (Francis Doyle, S.J., The Defense of the Catholic Church p. 259).

  • are you suggesting that the current pope is the antipope?
    – Grasper
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 18:48
  • 2
    @Grasper How would that follow from what I said here?
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 22:29
  • In your Latin quotation from Pastor Aeternus, the first ellipsis involves "non", which is essential for the meaning. The full quotation begins "Si quis ergo dixerit, non esse ex ipsius Christi Domini institutione seu iure divino, ut beatus Petrus ..." (The English translation, though not literal, expresses the meaning accurately enough.) Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 2:59
  • @AndreasBlass Thanks for pointing that out. I've added the missing "non esse".
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 18:41

How long can the Catholic Church be without a pope?

There must always be a perpetual line of successors of St. Peter, validly elected by the members of the college of cardinals.

One can speculate on many things and this question is also one of them.

Let us start with the basics before going on into a little more detail about this subject.

In Pope St. John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis (February 22, 1996) we read who exactly can vote in a papal conclave.


The right to elect the Roman Pontiff belongs exclusively to the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, with the exception of those who have reached their eightieth birthday before the day of the Roman Pontiff's death or the day when the Apostolic See becomes vacant. The maximum number of Cardinal electors must not exceed one hundred and twenty. The right of active election by any other ecclesiastical dignitary or the intervention of any lay power of whatsoever grade or order is absolutely excluded.


Since the forms of election known as per acclamationem seu inspirationem and per compromissum are abolished, the form of electing the Roman Pontiff shall henceforth be per scrutinium alone.

I therefore decree that for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff two thirds of the votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present.

Should it be impossible to divide the number of Cardinals present into three equal parts, for the validity of the election of the Supreme Pontiff one additional vote is required.

Pope Benedict XVI added a few changes to the election process before resigning his office as Supreme Pontiff in his Moto Propria, De Aliquibus Mutationibus In Normis De Electione Romani Pontificis]2 of June 7, 2007.

Pope Benedict XVI has changed the rules that will decide his successor after his death, returning to a traditional method requiring a two-thirds majority. - Pope alters voting for successor

As long as there enough cardinal electors alive to elect a pope and providing that Papal Conclave rules are not altered by legitimate authority, the greatest length of time the Catholic Church can remain without a Supreme Pastor would be (taking into account the age of the youngest cardinals) 15-30 years (perhaps a little more, but it is only a guess), depending on the variables at that time. How long it takes for Cardinal Electors to die off is a variable we can only guess at!

I cannot find any Vatican document stating a minimum number of cardinals to make a papal election valid, but there are some who think that this number could be reduced to 4. But again I cannot find any further documentation, although years ago, I read that this as being the fewest number of cardinals necessary to vote for a pope.

Cardinals that reach the age of 80 before the day the Holy See becomes vacant may not vote in a conclave. If they turn 80 after Sede Vacante has already commenced, they are still eligible to vote!

A list of Cardinal Electors may be found here.

As long as there are 4 cardinal electors an election can be held!!!?

  • Hmm, I'm not following the logic... where does the 15–30 years come from? Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 20:49

Try the 1918 Code of Canon Law which states that only this law applies to papal elections: Apostolic Constitution: Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis. This election law by Pope Pius XII automatically negates any actions done contrary to his law making it impossible to elect another pope unless ALL the canon laws are followed.

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