Stephen was a priest of Rome elected Pope in March of 752 to succeed St. Zachary; he died of apoplexy (stroke) three days later, before being ordained a bishop. He was a cardinal presbyter, with the titulus of San Crisogono (the same titulus as Cardinal Frederick of Lorraine, later Pope Stephen IX), chosen by Pope Zachary in 745.

Papal numbering controversy

In those times, the pope was chosen from among the priests and deacons of Rome and never from among bishops from other dioceses [1]. At the time, the Pope - by definition the bishop of Rome - was considered as such only from the day of his ordination. Since Stephen was never consecrated as a bishop, he was not considered a legitimate Pope and therefore, omitted from all lists of popes. His immediate successor, also called Stephen, is as a rule numbered Stephen II, since the name Stephen had already been borne by Pope Stephen I (254-257).

From 752 to 942, seven popes reigned bearing the name of Stephen. Originally, they were not otherwise distinguished, as regnal numbering was not applied to popes until the 10th century. They were named Stephen II to VIII respectively after their death. The next Pope to take the name Stephen in 1057, however, after numbering had become a custom, was called Stephen IX during his life and signed all his documents "Stephanus Nonus Papa".

Approximately from the beginning of the 13th century, the election to Papacy (in contrast to episcopal consecration) was more often considered the beginning of the pontificate, not only because nearly all popes were now already bishops when elected [2], but especially to ensure a clear transition of the very great Papal powers, not subject to other forces. The papal office, which was not a sacramental order, thus began with the election of a Pope, even if still before his coronation. According to this new point of view, when Pope Celestine IV (1241) or Pope Urban VII (1590) died just after their election, before their papal coronation, they were still considered Popes. The most extreme case is Pope Adrian V, who was elected Pope in 1276 without even having been ordained to the priesthood, and died one month later, still not ordained, but was considered Pope. In the 16th century, at the time of the Council of Trent and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the church emphasized that the Pope owed his election only to the Holy Spirit and thus became Pope from the moment of election.

Therefore Pope-elect Stephen was now counted as a Pope. He had then to be called Stephen II and the following Stephens had to be requalified from Stephen III to Stephen X — even if the last one was called officially Stephen IX during his life.

During the reign of Pope John XXIII, Stephen was again erased from the lists. The Annuario Pontificio, which gives the authorized list of popes, was modified in its 1961 edition, and the regnal numbers of the subsequent Stephens reverted to II to IX. Pope-elect Stephen has not been listed among the Popes in the Annuario Pontificio since 1961, followed by other sources.

The matter of Stephen's legitimacy is of no theological or historical consequence, as he died without having made any decisions. Thus, the only aspect affected by his recognition, or lack thereof, is the list of Popes. Today, theologians say a man becomes Pope whenever both conditions are met: both valid election AND episcopal consecration, whichever comes second. If a man already a bishop accepts a Papal election, he is Pope immediately. Otherwise, he is to be immediately ordained, on the spot, as a bishop by the cardinal-bishops and becomes Pope at that point.

See also


  1. Pope Marinus I was in 882 the first bishop from another diocese elected bishop of Rome.
  2. Pope Gregory XVI was in 1831 the last man thus far elected Pope who was not already a bishop.


  • Bishop of Rome, Patrick Saint-Roch
  • Onomastics, Pontifical, Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller
    in Philippe Levillain (editor), The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, 2002, 1780, p. ISBN 0-415-93752-3

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