It seems that there's been no real single standard throughout history
for "pontifical onomastics" (e.g. the reasoning behind papal names.)
Motives have ranged from honoring those who have helped a new pope, to
recalling those who have helped the new popes' families, or even to
reinforcing "political interests".
This last motive can be seen most prominently during the Great Schism
when the Roman Pope-names recalled prior Roman names, and the Avignon
Popes chose the names of Popes partial to France.
In an article by Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller for "The Papacy: An
Encyclopedia", we find the following regarding "recent" Popes:
From the 16th century, the name chosen has invariably been inspired by
the principle of pietas: PAUL IV, GREGORY XIV, CLEMENT X, INNOCENT XI,
XII, CLEMENT XII, CLEMENT XIII, BENEDICT XIV, CLEMENT XIV, PIUS VII,
PIUS VIII, and PIUS XII took the names of those predecessors who had
raised them to the cardinalate.
JULIUS III, PAUL V, and GREGORY XV chose the name of the pope who had
launched them on their curial CAREER.
CLEMENT VIII, LEO XI, INNOCENT X, ALEXANDER VII, and INNOCENT XIII
chose the name of the pope who had actively supported their family.
PAUL IV, PIUS V, SIXTUS V, and ALEXANDER VIII adopted the names of
those predecessors whose nephews had contributed to their election.
Taking a predecessor?s name not only was a way of giving symbolic
thanks but also implied the wish to be faithful to a spiritual
heritage. Hence the stereotypical, conservative character of
pontifical names in the modern era. Julius, Marcellus, and Sixtus were
chosen once; as for the others, the choice of names over the roughly
four centuries from the council of TRENT to VATICAN II boils down to
nine: Paul, Pius, Gregory, Urban, Innocent, Clement, Leo, Alexander,
and Benedict. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the name Clement takes
the lead, and then, until 1958, the name Pius.
John XXIII (A. Roncalli, 1958) was the first to take the name of a
medieval pope, thus symbolically emphasizing the end of the ?papacy of
the Piuses.? His successor PAUL VI?s choice was a subjective one,
inspired primarily by a theological consideration. John Paul I was the
first pope in history to adopt a double name, but his choice still
obeyed the principle of respectful pietas toward his predecessors. The
pontifical name of JOHN PAUL II invokes the memory of his three
For volumes of more detail on this topic, please see the following URL:
-- scroll down to the second page where the notable article begins
-- please note that you will need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader
Please let me know if you have any more questions.
1. papal names choose john paul pius gregory
2. pontifical onomastics