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Sunday, June 5, 2022

Sunday Meditation for Pentecost: Can a Pope Be a Heretic and, If He Is, Does He Automatically Lose the Chair?

On this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church, let's consider a question on the mind of many faithful Catholics these days: Can a pope be a heretic? If he does fall into heresy, does he automatically lose the Chair of Peter. And a further question: Who has the authority to make a declaration of heresy and judge that the visually reigning pope is, in fact, no longer pope?

It doesn't seem to be as clearcut as many seem to think. And this is the reason I refuse to declare that Pope Francis is not, in fact, the legitimate pope and is, instead, an anti-pope. Much as I like and respect Ann Barnhardt, I can't jump on that bandwagon. And here are some of the reasons.

Saints have addressed this question. Here are a few quotes from articles that discuss the issue and their positions:

Fr. James Schall (RIP) writing in 2014 at The Catholic Thing, On Heretical Popes:

The technical issue of an heretical pope goes back to Reformation discussions, led by the Jesuits, Robert Bellarmine  [1542-1621] and Francisco Suarez [1548-1617], among others....We read in Romans that the authority of an emperor, as that of a pope, comes from God, but in differing ways.....Bellarmine and Suarez considered a de facto possibility of an heretical pope. They granted that the Church would have to depose him if he did not self-declare his heresy. They differed on the exact procedure that would be required. Basically, electors would de-designate the man chosen pope. But as such, they had no authority over the papal power itself, which is from God....

In recent discussions of an heretical pope, the term sedevacante shows up. It means that, if a pope is heretical, his chair is automatically vacant by divine law. Some hold that anyone can so pronounce this vacancy, which would logically make every man his own pope. [That's a big problem!] Bellarmine and Suarez thought the Church, in the persons of a General Council or the assembled Cardinals would have to declare the pope a heretic and depose him. They differed a bit on the exact procedure.... 
Heretical popes? The essence of Catholicism is that there be none. It is also its essence that, if necessary, the issue be faced squarely and judged fairly.

But then we are on the horns of a dilemma. Who are the the ones needed to "face the issue squarely and judge it fairly?" Does every lay person in the pew have that authority? Not by my calculations. Otherwise, like Martin Luther, each of us becomes prosecutor, jury, and judge of the pope and Holy Mother Church -- making each of us his own personal pope. Yikes! I can't go down that road.

Jacob Woods writing for Crisis Magazine in 2015 (Can a Pope Be a Heretic) also looked at the arguments of Suarez and Bellarmine. He makes the distinction between material and formal heresy and writes:

Suarez took it as a given that a pope could be a formal heretic. He then considered two possibilities for what happens next:

First possibility: The pope loses his office as a consequence of the sin of heresy, because people who commit that sin cease to be members of the Church, and God deposes a pope who is no longer a member of the Church. (Suarez, De fide, 10.6.2)

Suarez rejects this possibility for two reasons. First, falling out of a state of grace might mean that you aren’t a member of the Church in the way that you’re supposed to be, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not a member of the Church—otherwise you’d be kicked out of the Church every time you committed a mortal sin. Second, if Catholics are supposed to believe that God deposes popes, then Scripture, the Tradition of the Church, and the pronouncements of the Magisterium ought to have said something about it—but they haven’t. Besides, if God deposes popes, you could never be sure if the pope was really the pope—what if he was a secret heretic and God had secretly deposed him? How would you ever know? (Suarez, De fide, 10.6.2-4)

Second possibility: The pope keeps his office if he commits the sin of heresy, but loses his office if he is convicted of the crime of heresy. (De fide 10.6.6)

Suarez thinks that, just like Christ bestows the papacy on the man whom the Church elects, so also Christ takes away the papacy from the man whom the Church convicts (De fide 10.6.10). So, if a pope commits the sin of heresy, all the other bishops of the world have the right to try him for the crime of heresy, even against his will (De fide 10.6.7). If they were to convict him, he could be considered deposed from the papacy by Christ, and the Church could elect another pope.

Bellarmine was more hesitant about the whole question. Unlike Suarez, he did not take it as a given that the pope could be a formal heretic. Actually, Bellarmine considered it “probable” that God would prevent the pope from ever being a formal heretic (he says it twice: De Romano Pontifice 2.30 and 4.2). Nevertheless, Bellarmine was willing to consider what would be the case if the pope could fall into formal heresy.

If we assume that the pope could be a formal heretic, Bellarmine thinks Suarez’s opinion is wrong. Suarez allows the bishops to judge the pope. But one of Gratian’s basic rules is that no one can judge the pope. Sure, Suarez has Christ carrying out the judgment, but it is only because the other bishops of the Church have pronounced the judgment first.

Instead, Bellarmine adopts the position that Suarez rejected: the pope loses his office immediately by committing the sin of formal heresy, because people who commit that sin cease to be members of the Church, and God deposes a pope who is no longer a member of the Church. It’s true that the bishops could still get together and make a declaration that God had deposed the pope, but their declaration would not be a judgment in any real sense, only an acknowledgement of what God had already done. (De Romano Pontifice 2.30)

Suarez and Bellarmine both have good points, but I think they each show how the other misses the mark. Suarez is right that, if Catholics are supposed to believe that God deposes popes, then Scripture, the Tradition of the Church, and the pronouncements of the Magisterium ought to have said something about it. But Bellarmine has something important to contribute, too: if God doesn’t depose popes, then no one can, because no one can judge the pope. And besides, it’s not even agreed that the pope could ever be a formal heretic, anyway.

Where does that leave us?
First, God has not abandoned his flock to the whims of heretics. Our Lord prayed for St. Peter’s faith (Luke 22:32), he promised Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church that was founding upon him (Matthew 16:18), and, on the day of Pentecost, he sent his Holy Spirit upon that Church, with Peter at its head, to proclaim the Gospel to all nations (Acts 2). Catholics shouldn’t expect, and shouldn’t go looking for falsehood in the successor of St. Peter. God is always faithful to his promises.

Canon lawyer, Cathy Ciardi, goes into this question at Canon Law Made Easy. She points out a case where Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans disagreed on a theological question of religious worship in China. The pope had to make the final decision. Was he right; was he wrong? Pope's are not infallible unless they are speaking ex cathedra. Ciardi's article is worth reading and points out how difficult these questions can be, particularly with regard to declaring the pope a heretic. She concludes with a warning that canonically the term heresy has a strict meaning and interpretation and the term shouldn't be thrown around indiscriminately. That seems like good advice, particularly with reference to a pope who appears to have been legitimately elected by the college of cardinals. 

On the other hand, saints and Church documents have addressed the possibility of a heretical pope and certainly there are grounds that cause many to believe that Pope Francis is not a legitimate pope. You can read a number of quotes that address the question at Virgo Sacrata in the article, Catholic Church Teaching on Heresy. Are you experiencing brain vertigo yet? 

I'll conclude with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian and liturgical scholar and his article, Could God permit a heretical pope to remain in office, and why would He?

The reason it is not impossible for a heretic to occupy an ecclesial office is that the Church is defined not only by belief and loyalty, but also by place and time. Someone who has defected from the Church’s belief and therefore ceased to be Catholic in the most important sense can still, in the stupidly physical sense of the word, occupy an ecclesiastical office: he can sit in a room in the Vatican or in a bishop’s estate, and he can write on official letterhead, and so on. One could approach him and say, “Excuse me, but since you are no longer a Catholic, you should leave the room.” But he will say, “How dare you say I am no longer a Catholic?”

Formal heretics, despite their formal heresy, have rarely admitted to being no longer in the fold. And as long as no one else can occupy the office, and the people subject to that office have no power to act, this squatter in the office wields a de facto authority. It is incongruous that someone outside the Catholic faith continues to tell people what to do in the Church — it is, in fact, rather like someone who does not belong to a family having absolute power over the family. But it is not impossible.

So what the heck is a faithful Catholic to do? 

In actual practice, therefore, formal heretics have occupied ecclesiastical offices, until someone with authority to do so (and, often enough, with thugs to back him up) insists that they leave. So the current Code of Canon Law repeats the old canon: “The following are removed from ecclesiastical office by virtue of the law itself: … 2. One who has publicly defected from the Catholic faith.” But it merely acknowledges the reality of the situation when it adds: “The removal mentioned in nn. 2 and 3 can be insisted upon only if it is established by a declaration of the competent authority.” True, this declaration is a mere recognition of fact, but for the automatic removal from office to have juridical effect, the recognition must come from a competent authority.

So there we are back to the question of who has the authority to declare the pope a heretic and remove him physically from Chair of Peter? I sure don't!

Therein lies the difficulty when it comes to the Petrine office. This principle stated by Canon Law can have its effect only if we can find someone authorized to say, in an official way, that the pope is a formal heretic. In any case, it is tricky to get a canon law case up against the man who has absolute power over canon law.

This leaves us with the practical difficulty of getting together a contingent of men somehow either authorized or competent and virtuous enough to “merely recognize” the pope’s de facto abdication. Pending that, no one else can occupy the office, and everyone under him continues under an obligation of obeying (according to a correct notion of obedience: one obeys unless commanded to act against the known truth held with a good conscience). This is to say that, in some real yet irritating sense, he still occupies the office despite having rejected it in some important way.

We are living in incredibly confusing times, not for the first time in Church history. Why has God allowed all this? I don't know! And Professor Kwasniewski doesn't give a clear-cut answer. He concludes with this:

The Lord does not allow any evil except for the sake of some good, and in the case of the just whom the Lord loves, that good will not be merely the eventual punishment of the wicked, but growth in virtue, achievement of sanctity, and everlasting glory for those who remain faithful. I hope and believe, as part of my basic act of faith in God, that every evil the Church suffers will somehow advance her well-being in the end.

The apostles couldn't see the "good" of Good Friday. It was only after the Resurrection that they recognized what God was doing. Perhaps this is a time for us to exercise the virtue of patience, obey the pope in those things where he acts with the mind of the Church, and oppose him when he commits acts that undermine the faith.  It's an important time for Catholics to recognize exactly what constitutes true obedience in the Church. That's the title of Dr. Kwasniewski's recently published book and I recommend it highly. I've already given it to a priest friend and bought another one to send to my bishop. 

In the meantime, making a declaration that the pope is a heretic really is above my status as a pew sitter. I can't even claim to have a deep understanding of the theological and canonical issues involved. But I can be faithful to the perennial teaching of the Church in her doctrine and sacred tradition. And that's what I'm doing.

With the aid of the Holy Spirit and through the intercession of the Blessed Mother may all of persevere in faith until the day we leave the battlefield and face our King. 

Come, O Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in us the fire of Thy love. Send forth Thy Spirit, O Lord, and we shall be created and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.

St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, pray for us.


Jeremiah Alphonsus on Youtube said...

If there’s one thing Francis has made crystal clear, it’s that he hates the actual Catholic Church with the white-hot hatred of a thousand burning suns. Thus, for example, he seeks to obliterate the actual (“traditional”) Roman Rite from the face of the earth. Incredible.

So much more could be mentioned, all of which would shock actual Catholics of past ages such that they’d rightly exclaim: “No, this diabolical man cannot possibly be an actual pope. His is a religion we do not recognize. He’s certainly a herald of the Antichrist, the diabolical ape of St. John the Baptist. Away with him!”

His religion is that of the Judas Council, the religion of “the synthesis of all heresies” (i.e., Modernism, condemned in Pope St. Pius X’s great encyclical, Pascendi). His “church” is the Novus Ordo Antichurch.

Francis, because of modern communications, is truly the most public heretic in the history of the world. The invaluable Novus Ordo Watch site has copiously documented his public heresy and apostasy. See the Francis I section there. Also be sure to see this post there:

‘Anything but Sedevacantism!’ Analysis of a Curious Phenomenon

Also see there the many devastating critiques of the schizophrenic and non-Catholic “Recognize and Resist” position embraced by the SSPX and others.

Also see my Youtube channel, Jeremiah Alphonsus.

Popes absolutely must be Catholic. One cannot be the head of a body of which one is not a member.
Yet Francis is not Catholic, as he’s publicly made clear.
Thus Francis cannot possibly be an actual pope.

This is the inexorable logic. And it takes no legal authority whatsoever to recognize this factual reality, any more than one must be a coroner to recognize a dead body. The coroner merely has the authority to later officially pronounce the body dead. But the body was already factually dead, though not yet legally dead. Further, one need not like the fact that the body is dead; yet it remains dead, regardless of any legal declaration and regardless of one’s feelings.

Similarly, as a public heretic and indeed apostate, Francis has never been an actual pope. Again: One cannot be the head of a body of which one is not a member. (Note that any electoral irregularities are irrelevant; Francis can’t possibly have been elected an actual pope in 2013 because he wasn’t an actual Catholic in 2013, then as now.)

This is the reality, the present factual reality, we face. No doubt, once the Novus Ordo Antichurch has withered away and the actual Catholic Church emerges from the catacombs once again, Francis’ “papacy” will then be legally judged as null and void. But until then, it remains factually null and void. Factually null and void = factually non-existent, right now, at this very moment.

We’ve heard much about the dangers of refusing to follow an actual pope. It's time to hear of the mortal dangers of following a false pope, a manifestly false pope.

It’s time to get real; really real.

Jeremiah Alphonsus on Youtube said...


St. Bellarmine wasn’t afraid of getting really real. For example, he wrote:

Therefore, the true opinion is the fifth, according to which the Pope who is manifestly a heretic ceases by himself to be Pope and head, in the same way as he ceases to be a Christian and a member of the body of the Church; and for this reason he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction, and outstandingly that of St. Cyprian (lib. 4, epist. 2) who speaks as follows of Novatian, who was Pope [antipope] in the schism which occurred during the pontificate of St. Cornelius: “He would not be able to retain the episcopate, and, if he was made bishop before, he separated himself from the body of those who were, like him, bishops, and from the unity of the Church.”

According to what St. Cyprian affirms in this passage, even had Novatian been the true and legitimate Pope, he would have automatically fallen from the pontificate, if he separated himself from the Church.

This is the opinion of great recent doctors, as John Driedo (lib. 4 de Script. et dogmat. Eccles., cap. 2, par. 2, sent. 2), who teaches that only they separate themselves from the Church who are expelled, like the excommunicated, and those who depart by themselves from her or oppose her, as heretics and schismatics. And in his seventh affirmation, he maintains that in those who turn away from the Church, there remains absolutely no spiritual power over those who are in the Church. Melchior Cano says the same (lib. 4 de loc., cap. 2), teaching that heretics are neither parts nor members of the Church, and that it cannot even be conceived that anyone could be head and Pope, without being member and part (cap. ult. ad argument. 12). And he teaches in the same place, in plain words, that occult heretics are still of the Church, they are parts and members, and that therefore the Pope who is an occult heretic is still Pope. This is also the opinion of the other authors whom we cite in book De Ecclesia.

The foundation of this argument is that the manifest heretic is not in any way a member of the Church, that is, neither spiritually nor corporally, which signifies that he is not such by internal union nor by external union. For even bad Catholics are united and are members, spiritually by faith, corporally by confession of faith and by participation in the visible sacraments; the occult [i.e., secret, non-public] heretics are united and are members although only by external union; on the contrary, the good catechumens belong to the Church only by an internal union, not by the external; but manifest heretics do not pertain in any manner, as we have already proved.

-From De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chapter 30, by St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church

Aqua said...

I have had many conversations with my Traditional Priests on this topic. I have voluntarily told every Priest in every Parish I have been a member of (a relatively high number) of my position on the disputed Papal election, as a condition of receiving the Sacraments from them.

It is clear to me, without any doubt, after much reflection, prayer, conversations, study, in reference to my conscience that Bergoglio is not Pope. He does not hold the Office required to possess the Divine connection to Almighty God and His guaranteed protections. It's not even a question any more, for me.

What my Priests have always told me, almost verbatim in every case, is that we are not required to accept a Pope's particular name, if there is some dispute (as there now is); but we *are* required to accept the Papacy and its institutional authority. Our required belief can be condensed down to the Apostles Creed. You are not in schism just because there is a dispute over the proper occupant of St. Peter's Throne. There have been disputes before. There will be disputes again. Disputes are ok. Stay with the Creed.

As I said - I have no doubt a major catastrophe has occurred within the Papacy, as evidenced by two visible Popes and the general concensus that the Papacy is no de facto synodal in nature - retire and remain is now a thing; emeritus Pope similarly a thing; Popes committing blasphemy, sacrelige and heresy as a matter of course ... a thing now. Ignore the Pope if you value your soul seems to be the common wisdom of faithful Catholics.

Not me. One Pope at a time. It is really, really simple. As you would expect from God in the time of chastisement - you don't need a Theology degree to see there are two Popes when we are only allowed one. You don't even need to be literate to see that. It doesn't matter how good or bad the additional Pope is. Not relevant. His orthodoxy or heterodoxy is not the issue. The issue is two occupants (soon, possibly to be three) of one Throne.

When Benedict XVI dies, the Sede will be Vacante. And then, we will just have to see.

Meinrad said...

Great article Mary Ann and spot on. Today is Pentecost so I will share this:

When that man stepped onto the loggia I inwardly cried "OH NO!" I recognized the enemy
instantly. Many others have reported the same sense of dread or horror at his appearance.
While he dresses like a shepherd he speaks like the dragon.

I think the Holy Ghost inwardly warned me he was bad. I wonder how many reading this comment
had the same experience?

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

Aqua, I appreciate your comments and most often agree, but I'm not convinced on this one. (Ditto to you, Jeremiah.) I follow doctrine and Sacred Tradition and reject all novelties that conflict with them. I think determining the legitimacy of the pope is not my responsibility. My conscience does not lead me to act differently. I pray for Holy Mother Church every day and for the hierarchy. I defend the faith to the best of my ability and teach and witness it to my grandchildren. I think that is pleasing to God. At least I hope and pray so.

Jeremiah Alphonsus on Youtube said...

Well said, Meinrad. I too was instantly repulsed by Francis the moment he stepped out. I could smell the sulfur through the screen. All those with an intact sensus Catholicus can’t help but be repulsed by him.

Mark Docherty said...

Mary Ann,

Surely you are aware that the position of Ann, Dr. Mazza, and myself is that Benedict is still pope because his resignation was defective, whether he knows it or not. Bergoglio's heresy is not germane to the question. While it is a huge indicator that he does not enjoy the supernatural protection of the Petrine Promises, it doesn't figure into the root cause at all. Thank you.

Jeremiah Alphonsus on Youtube said...

Mark, any electoral irregularities are irrelevant; Francis can’t possibly have been elected an actual pope in 2013 because he wasn’t an actual Catholic in 2013, then as now. As for Benedict, he too is a man of the Judas Council; he’d just take us into the abyss at 100 mph rather than 1,000 mph.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

I am, Mark; but Benedict has reportedly said numerous times that he is NOT the pope and stepped down willingly. The most recent article I read was from March 2021. I don't have the expertise or authority to judge whether his resignation was defective or not. Even if it was, at this point as Kwasniewski says, he occupies the chair. Nothing I do is going to change that so why dwell on it?

I listen to Francis when he speaks with the mind of the Church; I ignore him when he undermines doctrine or Sacred Tradition. Everyone has to choose his battles; this one isn't mine. I mostly ignore him and pray for him. I confess that I never kept tabs on any pope on a daily basis although I've read plenty of encyclicals and Church documents. At this point I try to keep the Commandments, love my family and do as much good as I can with the limited energy of an old lady.

Aqua said...

Mary Ann said: "I don't have the expertise or authority to judge whether his resignation was defective or not." - and - "I listen to Francis when he speaks with the mind of the Church; I ignore him when he undermines doctrine or Sacred Tradition ... I mostly ignore him and pray for him."

I actually think we have not just a right, but a *duty* (both), to defend the Church from all enemies, foreign and domestic (inside and outside).

We have two visible Popes. Even an illiterate Catholic who can't read can know *this fact* is outside what is permissible.

The new Pope in this two-headed thing demands from the Faithful deviations from the Faith such that you mostly "ignore him".

Catholics are going to hell because we are being led there by a Papacy (which has been deformed and thus disconnected, by definition, from God). Souls that could have been won for Christ are also being lost to hell for the same reason.

Kwasnewski is wrong. He doesn't "occupy the Chair". The previous occupant is clearly still there for all with eyes to see; and he has told us himself, verbally (not just visually) that he "remains firmly and forever, safely within the enclosure of St. Peter".

You said "I don't have the expertise or authority to judge whether his resignation was defective or not." Yet you claim the expertise and authority to judge which directives and new doctrines to "mostly ignore", which to accept.

By de facto acceptance of this *deformed papacy*, ignore for a moment the second occupant's deviations, this deformed papacy with two visible occupants for the first time in history you have accepted the most basic, fundamental deviation from Sacred Tradition possible: an alteration in the cornerstone, laid by God Himself at the birth of His Church.

I know you dislike this ongoing controversy, likely won't publish this, but the controversy will not ever go away. The deformation remains and the deviations and destructions will only get worse - there is no chance for better until the cornerstone is fixed by Laymen whose duty it now is (as Fulton Sheen predicted) to demand *their* Papacy back as God intended - one man, validly elected to the Divine Office, *not two* (or more).

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

Aqua, I have no problem publishing this, but I do get weary of being beaten over the head with it.

I have five children and their spouses and 26 grandchildren to think about. I have nine siblings, (three of whom are deceased) to pray for. I have a sister in a nursing home who often calls me several times a day. I have another mentally ill sister who sometimes calls me three or four times a day.

My husband has eight siblings with whom we try to keep in touch. Then I have a number of friends and more distant relations with whom we also try to keep in contact at least a little.

I think the duties of my state in life begin with my duty to worship God, love my husband, and focus on building the faith of my family. I can certainly judge the doctrine and unchanging truths of the faith given to us by our fathers without wrangling about the Benedict/Francis question.

My focus right now this summer is Grandma camp for seven of my grandchildren and one of their young friends. We will not be talking about the pope, but about the fundamentals of the faith that every Catholic should grow up with. We'll pray and play.

If you feel called to engage in "this ongoing controversy" go for it. The Lord has not given me a compulsion to do so. I'm familiar with compulsion, however, because I was "compelled" in the St. Paul way to participate in rescue and sidewalk counseling for years. So if God wants me to fight the same fight you're fighting, He has the means to let me know. In the meantime, you do your thing and I'll continue to do my Wife/Mom/Grandma thing and use the blog to defend the faith according to the insights I'm given.

Oremus pro invicem.

Aqua said...

Perditio Tempus

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...



I hope you aren't talking about my suggestion that we pray for each other or about the time I spend with my family.

This isn't the first time we've had multiple popes although in this case, one man is not claiming the chair. In fact, he says he's not pope.

But if you were saying that arguing over this is a waste of time, I can't disagree. You are clearly passionate about the subject and I respect that. Zeal for the faith is admirable. But people of good will can disagree. Shall we leave it at that?