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On Papal Heresy

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This article will draw from John of St. Thomas (who follows Cajetan): On the Deposition of the Pope


I have often encountered those who argue thus from the writings of St. Bellarmine, “A Pope that is a heretic is ipso facto deposed by Christ from the Papacy, the Pope is a heretic, ERGO, Pope Francis is an anti-Pope and ought not to be followed.” While the minor premise (the Pope is a heretic) must be utterly repudiated with utmost severity and disgust, there are other errors in play.

First, the consequent is faulty, for, St. Bellarmine argues that the heretical Pope would be “judged and punished by the Church” for his heresy. “A non-Christian who is such in itself AND in relation to us (quoad se et quoad nos) cannot be Pope; however, if he is not in itself a Christian, because he has lost the faith, but if in relation to us he is not legally declared being infidel or heretic, as obvious as it may appear in a private judgment, he is still in relation to us (quoad nos) a member of the Church and therefore the head. Accordingly, a judgment of the Church is required through which he is declared (proponatur) as being a non-Christian and to be avoided, and then he ceases in relation to us to be the Pope, consequently, previously he did not cease to be himself (etiam in se) [Pope], because all what he did was valid in itself.”

There must be that judgment before our separation occurs, we cannot (even on the supposition that the Pope is a heretic) separate from him until those properly tasked (the Bishops of the world) judge him. Before this judgment, he is to be regarded as Pope to us, even if he is a heretic and thus (for Bellarmine) deposed in actu. This seems to be more in line with the Dominical example Our Lord gives regarding the leaders of Israel during his day, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:2-3) We too ought to follow this same example of the recognition of remaining jurisdiction in regard to a heretical Pope, for “he sits in Peter’s seat.”

Second, the major premise is not certain, for, the Thomistic tradition of the commentators has always rejected such an idea. This article will focus on this issue (while the first must certainly be investigated, perhaps in a different article).

Can a Deposition Occur?

First, the question of whether such a deposition can even occur must be treated. There are several authorities that John of St. Thomas quotes that argue for such.

First, Gratian (Pars I, D 40, c. 6), “On earth, no mortal should presume to reproach any faults to the Pontiff, because he who has to judge others, should not be judged by anyone, unless he is found deviating from the Faith.”

Second, Hadrian II, in the 7th session of the 4th Council of Constantinople, wrote a letter wherein he wrote, “We read that the Roman Pontiff has always possessed authority to pass judgment on the heads of all the Churches, but nowhere do we read that he has been the subject of judgment by others. It is true that Honorius was posthumously anathematized by the Eastern churches, but it must be borne in mind that he had been accused of heresy, the only offense which renders lawful the resistance of subordinates to their superiors, and their rejection of the latter's pernicious teachings.”

From these authorities, two truths must be reconciled, first, the ancient maxim that “the first See is judged by none.” Second, the truth that the Pope may be judged in cases of heresy. These two truths are reconciled in two ways, first, the way of St. Bellarmine, and, second, the way of the Thomists.

Second, a theological argument may be given. For, St. Paul writes, “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.” (Titus 3:10) In this, there are two options, first, that one should avoid the Pope. Now, this is irrational, for, the Roman Pontiff is the earthly head of the church and ought to be communed with. Therefore, one ought to depose him from the position as to not go out of communion with the office of the Pope.

One may posit that we ought to stay in communion with a heretical Pope, but, this too would be against the faith. For, first, this is against the words of St. Paul. Second, this would “lead to the obvious destruction of the Church, and has inherently a risk that the whole ecclesiastical government errs, if she has to follow a heretical head.”

Further, we may argue from natural law. For, one has the right to defend oneself, a heretical Pope is attacking the church, ERGO the church has the right to defend herself.

From these arguments and many others, the principle that “a heretical Pope must be deposed” is confirmed.

Conditions of Deposition

Now, we must ask the question of the conditions of deposing a Pope. Is it in any case of heresy (material, formal, etc.), or a particular species of heresy? John of St. Thomas (and Cajetan) give two conditions.

First, that the Pope is not an occult (secret) heretic, but “public and legally notorious.” Some argue that the Pope even with an occult heresy is deposed ipso facto. The more probable opinion (according to Cano, Soto, Cajetan, Suarez, Bellarmine, etc.) is that “the heresy must be external and proved in the external forum.” The Thesis is proved by the fact that in the case of occult heretics not condemned by the church, while they are not a part of the soul of the church, are members of the body of the church. With the case of Priests, this is also confirmed by the fact that even outwardly heretical priests can administer the sacraments in cases of extreme necessity.

Second, that he does not repent, but is “incorrigible and pertinacious in his heresy.” For, those who are heretics, and repent after being corrected are “not considered to be heretical.” This is confirmed by the words of the Apostle quoted above, for, we only avoid after “the first and second correction.”

Unless these two conditions are met, the Pope cannot be deposed.

Who Deposes the Pope?

Next, we must ask the question of who deposes the Pope. For, as we have established beforehand, “the first See is judged by none” therefore there seems to be a difficulty.

Some have answered that the declarative sentence should be given by the college of Cardinals. But, this is false. First, the practice of the church has never been to call the College of Cardinals. First, a synod was called when Pope Marcellinus offered incense to idols. Second, concerning the case of Pope Symmachus, a council was called. Third, during the Great Western Schism, the council of Constance was called.

Second, there is a theological argument to be made. For, deposition belongs to the church, this authority is represented by an ecumenical council, therefore deposition belongs to an ecumenical council. Cardinals, on the other hand, are merely electors.

As we established above, the church has the Divine right and duty to separate herself from a heretical Pope, now, it is a principle of nature that if one has the right and duty to do something, then all the necessary means will be given. The most fitting means is an ecumenical council, as has been proved above, therefore…

Suarez gave the opinion that a provincial council could judge the Pope, but the universal church is not represented by a provincial council, therefore the opinion is false.

On What Authority is a Pope Deposed?

The question that was raised above of how such an authority can be had will now be treated. There are four opinions on the matter, Cajetan labels two “extreme,” and two “moderate.”

The first “extreme” position is that of St. Bellarmine who argues that the Pope is deposed ipso facto by his heresy. He bases this argument on the premise that “one who is not a member, cannot be the head.” Yet, we would reject this premise. As Billuart (De Incarnatione, diss. IX, a. II, § 2, obj. 2) writes, “There is a difference between being constituted a head by the fact that one is influencing on the members, and being made a member by the fact that one is receiving an influx in itself; this is why, while the pontiff [who] fell into occult heresy keeps the jurisdiction by which he influences the Church by governing her, thereby he remains the head; but as he no longer receives the vital influx of Christ‘s faith or charity, who is the invisible and first head, he cannot be said to be a member of Christ or of the Church.”

The second “extreme” position is that the Pope truly has a superior who can judge him on earth, which is also false by the principle that “the first See is judged by none.”

The first “moderate” position argues that “the pope has no superior [on earth] in absolute terms, except in case of heresy.” This position is probable, but it seems to fall into the same errors of the second extreme position.

The second “moderate” position argues that the Pope “has no superior on earth, neither absolutely, nor in the case of heresy, but only in a ministerial way: just as the Church has a ministerial power to choose the person [Pope], but not to give power, as this is done immediately by Christ, in the same manner, in the deposition, which is the destruction of the bond by which the Papacy is attached to such person in particular, the Church has the power to depose him in a ministerial manner; but it is Christ who deprives [his power] with authority.” This is the most probable opinion and is the opinion of the Thomists.

The Position Explained

This position, the “second moderate position” is formed from three theses.

  1. “The heretic pope is not deprived of the Pontificate and deposed by the mere fact of heresy, considered separately.”

  2. “The Church has neither power nor superiority over the Pope about his power, even in the case of heresy; never is the Church’s power above the power of the Pope, and consequently above the Pope absolutely.”

  3. “The third is that the Church’s power has for its object: A. the application of the papal power to such person, in designating him by the election, and, B. the separation of the power with such a person, by declaring him heretical and to be avoided by the faithful.

The first thesis is said in contradiction to St. Bellarmine. It is obvious on two accounts. First, the fact that a penitent Pope before the 3rd admonition would not be deposed, for, how can such be if he is already deposed ipso facto? Second, this is reflected in the case of lower Bishops, who, as John of St. Thomas notes, “no matter how visible is his heresy, and although he incurs an excommunication, does not lose ipso facto the Episcopal jurisdiction and power until he is declared [such] by the Church and deposed.”

The second thesis is said in contradiction to the second extreme and first moderate position. It is evident on Faith (de Fide) that the Pope has received his power directly from Christ our Lord, and submitted the entire Church to him. Therefore, it would be incoherent babbling to say that there could be an earthly power higher than him to judge him on that supposition.

The third thesis is where the entire crux of the theological argument stands, and it solves the difficulty frequently cited between the absolute power of the Pope and the duty of the Church to judge. Rather than acting upon the Pope and judging him, rather, the Church acts upon the link between the man and the office. In declaring the Pope a heretic, the church acts ministerially and dispositively to dissolve that link. While it is Christ who is deposing, the Church is His minister in this task, thus retaining the hierarchy of authority present. That this is possible is seen in the very election of the Pope, for, the Church as a minister forms the link between the man and the office, while Christ immediately gives the power of the Papacy, so also can the Church dissolve that link, while Christ immediately takes that power. Concerning the specific mode of the exercise of this power, it is said to be dispositive. That is, a certain disposition is being placed in a subject (the man), wherein the form (the Papacy) cannot exist in that subject. John of St. Thomas gives the following illustration, “It is clear in the case of an agent who corrupts a man: he does not destroy the form [the soul], but it induces the dissolution of the form, by putting in the matter a disposition without which the form cannot subsist.” In this, the loss of the Papacy is not directly effected by the church (which would cause issues in the absolute authority of the Papacy), rather, it is a consequence of the action of the church. When the church declares that the Pope is “a person to be avoided” that disposition is placed between the church and the Pontiff “without which the pontificate cannot stand,” and thus “the pontificate is so dissolved ministerially and dispositively by the Church, by the authority of Christ, in the same manner as the Church, in choosing the pontiff by the election, she ultimately disposes him to receive the collation of power by Christ the Lord.”

Objections Considered

Objection 1: St. Bellarmine teaches that a Pope who is a heretic has lost his office, a layman can judge one who has lost his office, ERGO, any layman can judge a heretical “Pope.”

Ad Primum, I distinguish the major premise, St. Bellarmine teaches that he has lost his office quoad se (in itself), conceded, he teaches that he has lost his office quoad nos (in relation to us), denied. Therefore, I contradistinguish the minor premise, a layman can judge one who has lost his office quoad nos, conceded, can judge one who has merely lost his office quoad se, denied.

Further, in the Thomistic view, we may merely deny the major premise. In either case, the conclusion does not follow.

Objection 2: Bishop Purcell addressed Vatican I, writing, “If he denies any dogma of the Church held by every true believer, he is no more Pope than either you or I,” ERGO…

Ad Secundum, I deny the hidden premise, i.e., that the speech of a certain Bishop at a certain ecumenical council has the binding force beyond that certain Bishop’s individual, ordinary, episcopal magisterium. Further, concerning the antecedent, it is to be taken in the same sense as St. Bellarmine’s words are taken above, as is clear from his preceding words, “the Council of Bishops could depose him for heresy.” Further, the council fathers at the First Vatican Council explicitly refused to answer such a question, i.e., Papal heresy. Further, I can merely negate the words of a Bishop with that of a Cardinal (Cajetan).

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