A HERETICAL POPE?
by Michael Davies
Claims have been made that one or more of
the "conciliar popes", that is to say Pope John XXIII and his successors, were
heretics and therefore forfeited the papacy. Those who include Pope John Paul II
in this category claim that we have no pope and that therefore the Holy See is
vacant, sedes vacante, which is why such people are referred to as
"sedevacantists". They claim that this poses no theological problem as the Holy
See is vacant during the interregnum between pontificates. Some of these
interregna have been very long, the longest being a vacancy of two years nine
months between the death of Clement IV in 1268 and the election of Gregory X in
1271. In such cases the visibility of the Church is not impaired in any way as
the Holy See is administered by the Cardinal Camerlengo until a new pope is
elected. The Camerlengo, or Chamberlain of the papal court, administers the
properties and revenues of the Holy See, and during a vacancy those of the
entire Church. Among his responsibilities during a vacancy are those of
verifying the death of the Pope and organizing and directing the
Thus, even when the Chair of Peter is not occupied, the
visible, hierarchical nature of the Church is maintained.1 Thus the situation
during such an interregnum cannot be compared to the situation that the Church
would be in if Pope John Paul II is not the legitinmately reigning pontiff as
there would be no visible source of authority capable of convoking a conclave to
elect a new pope.
The theological weakness of sedevacantism is an
inadequate concept of the nature of the Church. Without realizing it, they
believe in a Church which can fail -- and such a Church is not the Church
founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church that He founded cannot fail, for it
is indefectible (i.e. it cannot fail). It will continue to exist until the
Second Coming as a visible, hierarchically governed body, teaching the truth and
sanctifying its members with indubitably valid sacraments. To state that we have
no pope is to claim that the Church is no longer visible and hierarchically
governed, which, in effect, means that it has ceased to exist. Catholic
theologians accept that a pope could lose his office through heresy, but it
would have to be such notorious heresy that no doubt concerning the matter could
exist in the minds of the faithful, and a statement that the Pope had deposed
himself would need to come from a high level in the Church, most probably a
general Council. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre warned in 1979:
The visibility of the Church is too necessary to its existence for it to
be possible that God would allow that visibility to disappear for decades. The
reasoning of those who deny that we have a pope puts the Church into an
inextricable situation. Who will tell us who the future pope is to be? How, as
there are no cardinals, is he to be chosen? The spirit is a schismatical one.
. . . And so, far from refusing to pray for the Pope, we redouble our prayers
and supplications that the Holy Ghost will grant him the light and strength in
his affirmations and defense of the Faith.
DOCUMENTATIONThe question of whether the Holy See is vacant must be
considered from three aspects, that is whether a pope could become an heretic
and forfeit his office; what constitutes heresy; and whether any of the
conciliar popes can be considered to be heretics within the context of this
1. Can a pope forfeit his office through
The problem which would face the Church if a legitimately
reigning pope became an heretic has been discussed in numerous standard works of
reference. The solution is provided in the 1913 edition of The Catholic
Encyclopedia: "The Pope himself, if notoriously guilty of heresy, would cease to
be pope because he would cease to be a member of the Church."2 Many theologians
have discussed the possibility of a pope falling into heresy, and the consensus
of their opinion concurs with that of The Catholic Encyclopedia. The Pope must
evidently be a Catholic, and if he ceased to be a Catholic he could hardly
remain the Vicar of Christ, the head of the Mystical Body. St. Robert Bellarmine
taught: "The manifestly heretical pope ceases per se to be pope and head as he
ceases per se to be a Christian and member of the Church, and therefore he can
be judged and punished by the Church. This is the teaching of all the early
Fathers."3 Saint Robert was, of course, discussing a theoretical possibility,
and believed that a pope could not become an heretic and thus could not be
deposed, but he also acknowledged that the more common opinion was that the pope
could become an heretic, and he was thus willing to discuss what would need to
be done if, per impossibile, this should happen: "This opinion (that the Pope
could not become an heretic) is probable and easily defended ...Nonetheless, in
view of the fact that this is not certain, and that the common opinion is the
opposite one, it is useful to examine the solution to this question, within the
hypothesis that the Pope can be an heretic."4 The great Jesuit theologian,
Francisco de Suarez (1548-1617) was also sure that God's "sweet providence"
would never allow the one who could not teach error to fall into error, and that
this was guaranteed by the promise Ego autem rogavi pro te ... (Luke 22: 32).
But, like Bellarmine, Suarez was willing to consider the possibility of an
heretical pope as an hypothesis, particularly in view of the fact, he claimed,
that several "general councils had admitted the hypothesis in question".5 Saint
Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) did not believe that God would ever permit a Roman
Pontiff to become a public or an occult heretic, even as a private person: "We
ought rightly to presume as Cardinal Bellarmine declares, that God will never
let it happen that a Roman Pontiff, even as a private person, becomes a public
heretic or an occult heretic."6
If, per impossible, a pope became a
formal heretic through pertinaciously denying a de fide doctrine, how would the
faithful know that he had forfeited his office as he had ceased to be a
Catholic? It must be remembered that no one in the Church, including a General
Council, has the authority to judge the Popes. Reputable authorities teach that
if a pope did pertinaciously deny a truth which must be believed by divine and
Catholic faith, after this had been brought to his attention by responsible
members of the hierarchy (just as St. Paul reproved St. Peter to his face), a
General Council could announce to the Church that the Pope, as a notorious
heretic, had ceased to be a Catholic and hence had ceased to be Pope. It is
important to note that the Council would neither be judging nor deposing the
Pope, since it would not possess the authority for such an act. It would simply
be making a declaratory sentence, i.e. declaring to the Church what had already
become manifest from the Pope's own actions. This is the view taken in the
classic manual on Canon Law by Father F.X. Wernz, Rector of the Gregorian
University and Jesuit General from 1906 to 1914. This work was revised by Father
P. Vidal and was last republished in 1952. It states clearly that an heretical
Pope is not deposed in virtue of the sentence of the Council, but "the General
Council declares the fact of the crime by which the heretical pope has separated
himself from the Church and deprived himself of his dignity."7 Other authorities
believe that such a declaration could come from the College of Cardinals or from
a representative group of bishop, while others maintain that such a declaration
would not be necessary. What all those who accept the hypothesis of an heretical
pope are agreed upon is that for such a pope to forfeit the papacy his heresy
would have to be "manifest", as Saint Robert Bellarmine expressed it, that is
notorious and public (notorium et palam divulgata).8 A notorious offence can be
defined as one for which the evidence is so certain that it can in no way be
either hidden or excused.9
A pope who, while not being guilty of formal
heresy in the strict sense, has allowed heresy to undermine the Church through
compromise, weakness, ambiguous or even gravely imprudent teaching remains Pope,
but can be judged by his successors, and condemned as was the case with Honorius
2. What is heresy?
There has never been a case of a pope
who was undoubtedly a formal heretic, and it is unlikely in the extreme that
there ever will be one. This will become evident if some consideration is given
to examining precisely what constitutes formal heresy. The Code of Canon Law
defines an heretic as one who after baptism, while remaining nominally a
Catholic, pertinaciously doubts or denies one of the truths which must be
believed by divine and Catholic faith.10 It teaches us that by divine and
Catholic faith must be believed all that is contained in the written word of God
or in tradition, that is, the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church and
proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church or
by its Ordinary Universal Magisterium.11 No teaching is to be considered as
dogmatically defined unless this is evidently proved.12
A doctrine is de
fide divina et catholica only when it has been infallibly declared by the Church
to be revealed by God. Hence this term does not apply to doctrines which one
knows to have been revealed by God, but which have not been declared by the
Church to have been so revealed (de fide divina); nor to those which the Church
has infallibly declared, but which she does not present formally as having been
revealed (de fide ecclesiastica); nor to those which the Church teaches without
exercising her infallible authority upon them. If a doctrine is not de fide
divina et catholica, a person is not an heretic for denying or doubting it,
though such a denial or doubt may be grave sin.13
3. The Conciliar
It should now be apparent that there is no case whatsoever for
claiming that any of the conciliar popes have lost their office as a result of
heresy. Anyone wishing to dispute this assertion would need to state the
doctrines de fide divina et catholica which any of these popes are alleged to
have rejected pertinaciously. There is not one instance which comes remotely
within this category. The nearest one can come to a formal contradiction between
preconciliar and post-conciliar teaching is the subject of religious liberty. It
has yet to be shown how they can be reconciled.14 It is possible that the
Magisterium will eventually have to present either a correction or at least a
clarification of the teaching of Vatican II on this subject. Neither the
pre-conciliar teaching nor that of the Council on religious liberty comes within
the category of de fide divina et catholica, and so the question of formal
heresy does not arise.
1 Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1917), vol.
III, p. 217.
2 CE, vol. VII, p. 261.
3 Saint Robert Bellarmine, De Romano
Pontifice (Milan, 1857), vol. II, chap. 30, p. 420.
4 Ibid., p. 418.
Suarez, De legibus (Paris, 1856), vol. IV, chap. 7, no. 10, p. 361.
Dogmatic Works of St. Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri (Turin, 1848), vol. VIII, p.
7 Wernz-Vidal, Jus Canonicum (Rome, 1942), vol II, p. 518.
9 Op. cit., note 92, Wernz-Vidal, (Rome, 1937), vol VII, pp.
10 Code of Canon Law: Old Code, Canon 1325; New Code, Canon 751.
Denzinger, 1792; CCL: Old Code, Canon 1323; New Code, Canon 750.
12 CCL, Old
Code, 1323; New Code, 749.
13 T. Bouscaren & A. Ellis, Canon Law, A Text
& Commentary (Milwaukee, 1958), p. 724.
14 M. Davies, The Second Vatican
Council and Religious Liberty (The Neumann Press, Minnesota, 1992).
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Last modified 6th May, 1997, by David Joyce.