The issue of how to handle a heretical pope, in concrete terms, has not yet been treated in a manner which approaches anything like a true general consent in the entire Catholic tradition. So far, neither a pope nor an Ecumenical Council has made relevant doctrinal pronouncements nor have they issued binding canonical norms regarding the eventuality of how to handle a heretical pope during the term of his office.
There is no historical case of a pope losing the papacy during his term of office due to heresy or alleged heresy. Pope Honorius I (625 – 638) was posthumously excommunicated by three Ecumenical Councils (the Third Council of Constantinople in 681, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, and the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 870) on the grounds that he supported the heretical doctrine of those who promoted Monotheletism, thereby helping to spread this heresy. In the letter with which Pope Saint Leo II (+ 682 – 683) confirmed the decrees of the Third Council of Constantinople, he declared the anathema on Pope Honorius (“anathematizamus Honorium”), stating that his predecessor “Honorius, instead of purifying this Apostolic Church, permitted the immaculate faith to be stained by a profane treason.” (Denzinger-Schönmetzer, n. 563)
The Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, a miscellaneous collection of formularies used in the papal chancery until the eleventh century, contains the text for the papal oath, according to which every new pope, upon taking office, had to swear that he “recognized the sixth Ecumenical Council, which smote with eternal anathema the originators of the heresy (Monotheletism), Sergius, Pyrrhus, etc., together with Honorius.” (PL 105, 40-44)
In some Breviaries until the 16th or the 18th centuries, Pope Honorius was mentioned as a heretic in the lessons of Matins for June 28th, the feast of Saint Leo II: “In synodo Constantinopolitano condemnati sunt Sergius, Cyrus, Honorius, Pyrrhus, Paulus et Petrus, nec non et Macarius, cum discipulo suo Stephano, sed et Polychronius et Simon, qui unam voluntatem et operationem in Domnino Jesu Christo dixerunt vel praedicaverunt.” The persistence of this Breviary reading through many centuries shows that it was not considered scandalous by many generations of Catholics, that a particular pope, and in a very rare case, was found guilty of heresy or of supporting heresy. In those times, the faithful and the hierarchy of the Church could clearly distinguish between the indestructibility of the Catholic Faith divinely guaranteed to the Magisterium of the See of Peter and the infidelity and treason of a concrete pope in the exercise of his teaching office.
Dom John Chapman explained in his book “The Condemnation of Pope Honorius” (London 1907), that the same Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople that declared anathema on Pope Honorius made a clear distinction between the error of a particular pope and the inerrancy in faith of the Apostolic See as such. In the letter asking Pope Agatho (678 – 681) to approve the conciliar decisions, the Fathers of the Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople say that Rome has an indefectible faith, which is authoritatively promulgated to the whole Church by the bishops of the Apostolic See, the successors of Peter. One can ask: How was it possible for the Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople to assert this and yet in the same breath to condemn a pope as a heretic? The answer is clear enough. Pope Honorius I was fallible, he was wrong, he was a heretic, precisely because he did not, as he should have done, declare authoritatively the Petrine tradition of the Roman Church. To that tradition he had made no appeal, but had merely approved and enlarged an erroneous doctrine. But once disowned by his successors, the words of Pope Honorius I were harmless against the fact of the inerrancy in Faith of the Apostolic See. They were reduced to their true value, as the expression of his own personal view.
Pope Saint Agatho did not let himself be confused and shaken by the lamentable behavior of his predecessor Honorius I, who helped to spread heresy. In spite of this, Pope Agatho kept his supernatural view of the inerrancy of the See of Peter in teaching the Faith, as he wrote to the Emperors in Constantinople: “This is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ (the See of Rome), has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of Almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end, according to the divine promise of the Lord and Savior himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, “Peter, Peter, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not. And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Ep. “Consideranti mihi” ad Imperatores)
Dom Prosper Guéranger gave a short and lucid theological and spiritual explanation of this concrete case of a heretical pope, saying: “What exultation rang through the abyss, when one sad day saw Pope Honorius the representative of Him who is essential Light appear to side for a moment with the powers of darkness in bringing on a cloud which would interpose itself betwixt Heaven and those mountains of God, where He dwells with His Vicar; it is but too probable that the social aid of intercession was weaker just then than it should have been.” (The Liturgical Year, London 1900, vol. 12, p. 377)
There is, furthermore, the weighty fact that during two thousand years there was never a case that a pope during the term of his office was declared deposed because of the crime of heresy. Pope Honorius I was declared anathema only after his death. The last case of a heretical or semi-heretical pope was the case of Pope John XXII (1316 – 1334) when he taught his theory that the Saints would enjoy the beatific vision only after the Last Judgment in the Second Coming of Christ. The treatment of that particular case in those times was as follows: there were public admonitions (University of Paris, King Philip VI of France), a refutation of the wrong Papal theories made through theological publications, and a fraternal correction on behalf of Cardinal Jacques Fournier, who eventually became his successor as Pope Benedict XII (1334 – 1342).
The Church in the very rare concrete cases of a pope committing serious theological errors or heresies could definitely live with such a pope. The practice of the Church until now was that she left the final judgment about a reigning heretical pope to his successors or to a future Ecumenical Council, such as in the case of Pope Honorius I. The same would probably have happened with Pope John XXII, if he had not retracted his error.
Popes were deposed several times by secular powers or by criminal clans. This occurred especially during the so-called dark ages (10th and 11th centuries), when the German Emperors deposed several unworthy popes, not because of their heresy, but because of their scandalous immoral life and their abuse of power. However, they were never deposed according to a canonical procedure, since that is impossible because of the Divine structure of the Church. The pope gets his authority directly from God and not from the Church; therefore, the Church cannot depose him, for any reason whatsoever.
It is a dogma of faith that the pope cannot proclaim a heresy when teaching ex cathedra. This is the Divine guarantee that the gates of hell will not prevail against the cathedra veritatis, which is the Apostolic See of the Apostle Saint Peter. Dom John Chapman, an expert in investigating the history of the condemnation of Pope Honorius I, writes: “Infallibility is, as it were, the apex of a pyramid. The more solemn the utterances of the Apostolic See, the more we can be certain of their truth. When they reach the maximum of solemnity, that is, when they are strictly ex cathedra, the possibility of error is wholly eliminated. The authority of a pope, even on those occasions when he is not actually infallible, is to be implicitly followed and reverenced. That it should be on the wrong side is a contingency shown by faith and history to be possible” (The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, London 1907, p. 109)
If a pope spreads doctrinal errors or heresies, the Divine structure of the Church already provides an antidote: in such a case there are stepping into the breach the substituting ministry of the representatives of the episcopacy and the invincible sensus fidei of the faithful. In this issue the numerical factor is not decisive. It is sufficient to have even a couple of bishops proclaiming the integrity of Faith and correcting thereby the errors of a heretical pope. It is sufficient that bishops instruct and protect their flock from the errors of a heretical pope and their priests and the parents of Catholic families will do the same. Furthermore, since the Church is also a supernatural reality and a mystery, a unique supernatural organism, the Mystical Body of Christ, bishops, priests, and lay faithful – besides corrections, appeals, professions of faith, and public resistance – necessarily also have to do acts of reparation to the Divine Majesty and acts of expiation for the heretical acts of a pope. According to the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium (cf. n. 12) of the Second Vatican Council, the entire body of the faithful cannot err in matters of belief, when from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. Even if a pope is spreading theological errors and heresies, the Faith of the Church as a whole will remain intact because of the promise of Christ concerning the special assistance and permanent presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the truth, in His Church (cf. John 14: 17; 1 John 2: 27).
When by an inscrutable permission of God, at a certain moment of History and in a very rare instance, a pope spreads errors and heresies through his daily or ordinary non-infallible Magisterium, Divine Providence awakens at the same time the witness of some members of the episcopal college, and also of the faithful, in order to compensate the temporal failures of the Papal Magisterium. One has to say that such a situation is very rare, but not impossible, as Church History has proven. The Church is indeed one single organic body, and when there is a failure and lack in the head of the body (the pope), the rest of the body (the faithful) or eminent parts of the body (the bishops) supplement the temporary Papal failures. One of the most famous and tragic examples of such a situation occurred during the Arian crisis in the fourth century, when the purity of faith was maintained not so much by the ecclesia docens (pope and episcopate) but by the ecclesia docta (faithful), as Blessed John Henry Newman has stated.
The theory or opinion (the loss of papal office by deposition or declaration of the ipso facto loss) implicitly makes the pope identical with the entire Church or manifests the unhealthy attitude of a pope-centrism, of papolatria ultimately. The representatives of such an opinion (especially some Saints) were those who manifested an exaggerated ultramontanism or pope-centrism, making the pope a kind of half-god, who cannot commit any errors, not even in the realm outside the object of Papal infallibility. Thus, a pope committing doctrinal errors, which theoretically and logically includes also the possibility of committing the gravest doctrinal error, i.e., a heresy, is for the followers of that opinion (deposition of a pope and loss of his office because of heresy) unbearable or unthinkable, even if the pope commits such errors in the realm outside the object of Papal infallibility.
The theory or theological opinion that a heretical pope can be deposed or lose office was alien to the first millennium. It originated only in the High Middle Ages, in a time when pope-centrism arrived at a certain high point, when unconsciously the pope was identified with the Church as such. This was already in its root the mundane attitude of an absolutist prince according to the motto: “L’État, c’est moi!” or in ecclesiastical terms: “I am the Church!”
The opinion, which says that a heretical pope ipso facto loses his office, became a common opinion starting with the High Middle Ages until the twentieth century. It remains a theological opinion and not a teaching of the Church and therefore it cannot claim the quality of a constant and perennial teaching of the Church as such, since no Ecumenical Council and no pope has supported such an opinion explicitly. The Church, however, condemned a heretical pope, but only posthumously and not during the term of his office. Even if some saint Doctors of the Church (e.g. St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Francis de Sales) held such an opinion, it does not prove its certainty or the fact of a general doctrinal consensus. Even Doctors of the Church have been known to err; such is the case with Saint Thomas Aquinas regarding the question of the Immaculate Conception, the matter of the sacrament of Orders, or the sacramental character of the episcopal ordination.
There was a period in the Church where there was, for instance, an objectively wrong common theological opinion that asserted that the handing over of the instruments was the matter of the sacrament of Orders, an opinion, however, which could not invoke antiquity and universality, even though such an opinion was for a limited time supported by a pope (by the decree of Eugene IV) or by liturgical books (though for a limited period). This common opinion was, however, later corrected by Pius XII in 1947.
The theory – deposing a heretical pope or the loss of his office ipso facto because of heresy – is only a theological opinion, that does not fulfil the necessary theological categories of antiquity, universality, and consensus (semper, ubique, ab omnibus). There have been no pronouncements of the universal ordinary Magisterium or of the Papal Magisterium, that would support the theories of the deposition of a heretical pope or of the loss of his office ipso facto because of heresy. According to a Medieval canonical tradition, which was later collected in the Corpus Iuris Canonici (the Canon law valid in the Latin Church until 1918), a pope could be judged in the case of heresy: “Papa a nemine est iudicandus, nisi deprehendatur a fide devius”, i.e. “the pope cannot be judged by anyone, unless he has been found deviating from the faith.” (Decretum Gratiani, Prima Pars, dist. 40, c. 6, 3. pars) The Code of Canon Law of 1917, however, eliminated the norm of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, which spoke of a heretical pope. Neither does the Code of Canon Law of 1983 contain such a norm.
The Church has always taught that even a heretical person, who is automatically excommunicated because of formal heresy, can nevertheless validly administer the sacraments and that a heretic or formally excommunicated priest can in an extreme case exercise even an act of jurisdiction by imparting to a penitent sacramental absolution. The norms of the Papal election, which were valid until Paul VI inclusively, admitted that even an excommunicated cardinal could participate in the Papal election and he himself could be elected pope: “No cardinal elector may be excluded from active and passive participation in the election of the Supreme Pontiff because of or on pretext of any excommunication, suspension, interdict or other ecclesiastical impediment. Any such censures are to be regarded as suspended as far as the effect of the election is concerned.” (Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontifice eligendo, n. 35). This theological principle must be applied also to the case of a heretical bishop or a heretical pope, who in spite of their heresies can validly perform acts of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and therefore do not lose ipso facto their office because of heresy.
The theory or theological opinion allowing the deposition of a heretical pope or the loss of his office ipso facto because of heresy is in practice unworkable. If it were applied in practice, it would create a situation similar to that of the Great Schism, which the Church already experienced disastrously at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries. Indeed, there will be always a part of the Cardinals’ college and a considerable part of the world’s episcopate and also of the faithful who will not agree in classifying a concrete Papal error (errors) as formal heresy (heresies) and consequently they will therefore continue to consider the current pope as the only legitimate pope.
A formal schism, with two or more pretenders to the Papal throne – which will be an inevitable consequence of even a canonically enacted deposition of a pope – will necessarily cause more damage to the Church as a whole than a relatively short and very rare period in which a pope spreads doctrinal errors or heresies. The situation of a heretical pope will always be relatively short in comparison with the two thousand years of the existence of the Church. One has to leave an intervention, in this rare and delicate case, to Divine Providence.
The attempt to depose a heretical pope at any cost is a sign of all too human behavior, which ultimately reflects an unwillingness to bear the temporal cross of a heretical pope. It maybe also reflects the all too human emotion of anger. It will, in any case, offer a far too human solution, and as such is somewhat similar to behavior in politics. The Church and the Papacy are realities which are not purely human, but also Divine. The cross of a heretical pope – even when it is of limited duration – is the greatest imaginable cross for the entire Church.
Another error in the intention or in the attempt to depose a heretical pope consists in the indirect or subconscious identification of the Church with the pope or in making the pope the focal point of the daily life of the Church. This means ultimately and subconsciously a yielding to unhealthy ultramontanism, pope-centrism, and papolatry, i.e. a papal personality cult. There were indeed periods in the history of the Church when for a considerable period of time the See of Peter was vacant. For instance, from Nov. 29, 1268, to Sept. 1, 1271, there was no pope and in that time neither was there any anti-pope. Therefore, Catholics should not make the pope and his words and actions their daily focal point.
One can disinherit children of a family. Yet one cannot disinherit the father of a family, however guilty or monstrously he behaves himself. This is the law of the hierarchy which God has established even in creation. The same is applicable to the pope, who during the term of his office is the spiritual father of the entire family of Christ on earth. In the case of a criminal or monstrous father, the children have to withdraw themselves from him or avoid contact with him. However, they cannot say, “We will elect a new and good father of our family.” It would be against common sense and against nature. The same principle should be applicable therefore to the question of deposing a heretical pope. The pope cannot be deposed by anybody, only God can intervene and He will do this in His time, since God does not fail in His Providence (“Deus in sua dispositione non fallitur”). During the First Vatican Council, Bishop Zinelli, Relator of the conciliar commission on Faith, spoke in these terms about the possibility of a heretical pope: “If God permits so great an evil (i.e. a heretical pope), the means to remedy such a situation will not be lacking” (Mansi 52, 1109).
The deposition of a heretical pope will ultimately foster the heresy of conciliarism, sedevacantism, and a mental attitude similar to that which is characteristic in a purely human or political community. It will also foster a mentality similar to the separatism in the Protestant world or to autocephalism in the commonwealth of the Orthodox churches.
The theory or opinion allowing deposition and loss of office is revealed furthermore to be in its deepest roots – though unconsciously – also a kind of “Donatism” applied to the papal ministry. The Donatist theory identified the sacred ministers (priests and bishops) almost with the moral holiness of Christ Himself, demanding therefore for the validity of their office the absence of moral errors or misconduct in their public life. The mentioned theory in a similar way excludes the possibility of a pope making doctrinal errors, i.e., heresies, declaring by that same fact his office invalid or vacant, as the Donatists did, declaring the priestly or episcopal office invalid or vacant because of errors in the moral life.
One can imagine that in the future the Supreme authority of the Church (Pope or Ecumenical Council) could stipulate the following or similar binding canonical norms for the case of a heretical or a manifestly heterodox pope:
A pope cannot be deposed in whatsoever form and for whatever reason, not even for the reason of heresy.
Every newly elected pope on entering upon his office is obliged in virtue of his ministry as the supreme teacher of the Church to take the oath of protecting the entire flock of Christ from the dangers of heresies and to avoid in his words and deeds any appearance of heresy in compliance with his duty of strengthening in faith all the Shepherds and the faithful.
A pope who is spreading obvious theological errors or heresies or helping in the spread of heresies by his actions and omissions should be obligatorily corrected in a fraternal and private form by the Dean of the College of Cardinals.
After unsuccessful private corrections, the Dean of the College of Cardinals is obliged to make his correction public.
Together with the public correction, the Dean of the College of Cardinals must make an appeal for prayer for the pope that he may regain the strength to confirm unambiguously the entire Church in the Faith.
At the same time the Dean of the College of Cardinals should publish a formula of a Profession of Faith, in which there would be rejected the theological errors that the pope teaches or tolerates (without necessarily naming the pope).
If the Dean of the College of Cardinals should omit or fail to make the correction, the appeal to prayer, and the publication of a Profession of Faith, any cardinal, bishop or a group of bishops should do this and, if even the cardinals and bishops omit or fail to do this, any member of the Catholic faithful or any group of Catholic faithful should do this.
The Dean of the College of Cardinals or a cardinal, or a bishop or a group of bishops, or a faithful Catholic or a group of Catholic faithful who made the correction, appeal to prayer, and the publication of the Profession of Faith cannot be subjected to any canonical sanctions or penalties or accused of disrespect towards the pope for this reason.
In the extremely rare case of a heretical pope, the spiritual situation of the Church can be described with the words that Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590 – 604) used, calling the Church in his time “an old ship woefully shattered; for the waters are entering on all sides, and the joints, buffeted by the daily stress of the storm, are growing rotten and herald shipwreck” (Registrum I, 4, Ep. ad Ioannem episcopum Constantinopolitanum)
The episodes narrated in the Gospel about Our Lord calming the stormy sea and rescuing Peter, who was sinking in the water, teach us that even in the most dramatic and humanly desperate situation of a heretical pope, all the Shepherds of the Church and the faithful should believe and trust that God in His Providence will intervene and Christ will calm the raging storm and restore to the successors of Peter, His Vicars on earth, the strength to confirm all the Shepherds and faithful in the Catholic and Apostolic Faith.
Pope Saint Agatho (678 – 681), who had the difficult task of limiting the damage that Pope Honorius I caused to the integrity of the Faith, left vivid words of an ardent appeal to each successor of Peter, who must be always mindful of his grave duty to guard unspoiled the virginal purity of the Deposit of Faith: “Woe is me, if I neglect to preach the truth of my Lord, which they have sincerely preached. Woe is me, if I cover over with silence the truth which I am bidden to give to the exchangers, i.e., to teach to the Christian people and imbue it therewith. What shall I say in the future examination by Christ himself, if I blush – which God forbid! – to preach here the truth of his words? What satisfaction shall I be able to give for myself, what for the souls committed to me, when he demands a strict account of the office I have received?” (Ep. “Consideranti mihi” ad Imperatores)
When the first pope, Saint Peter, was materially in chains, the whole Church implored his liberation: “Peter was kept in prison. But prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him” (Acts 12: 5). When a pope is spreading errors or even heresies, he is in spiritual chains or in a spiritual prison. Therefore, the entire Church has to pray without ceasing for his liberation from this spiritual prison. The entire Church must have a supernatural perseverance in such a prayer and a supernatural trust in the fact that it is God who governs His Church ultimately and not the pope.
When Pope Honorius I (625 – 638) adopted an ambiguous attitude towards the spreading of the new heresy of Monothelitism, Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, sent a bishop from Palestine to Rome, saying to him the following words: “Go to the Apostolic See, where are the foundations of holy doctrine, and do not cease to pray till the Apostolic See condemn the new heresy.”
In dealing with the tragic case of a heretical pope, all the members of the Church, beginning with the bishops, down to the simple faithful, have to use all legitimate means, such as private and public corrections of the erring pope, constant and ardent prayers and public professions of the truth in order that the Apostolic See may again profess with clarity the Divine truths, that the Lord entrusted to Peter and to all his successors. “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles” (First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor aeternus, cap. 4)
Each pope and all members of the Church must be reminded of the wise and timeless words, that the Ecumenical Council of Constance (1414 – 1418) pronounced about the pope as the first person in the Church who is bound by the Faith and who must scrupulously guard the integrity of the Faith: “Since the Roman Pontiff exercises such great power among mortals, it is right that he be bound all the more by the incontrovertible bonds of the faith and by the rites that are to be observed regarding the church’s sacraments. We therefore decree and ordain, in order that the fullness of the faith may shine in a future Roman pontiff with singular splendor from the earliest moments of his becoming pope, that henceforth whoever is to be elected Roman pontiff shall make the following confession and profession in public.” (Thirty-ninth session from October 9, 1417, ratified by Pope Martin V)
In the same session, the Council of Constance decreed that every newly elected pope had to make an oath of faith, proposing the following formula, from which we quote the most crucial passages:
“I, N., elected pope, with both heart and mouth confess and profess to almighty God, that I will firmly believe and hold the Catholic Faith according to the traditions of the Apostles, of the General Councils and of other Holy Fathers. I will preserve this faith unchanged to the last dot and will confirm, defend and preach it to the point of death and the shedding of my blood, and likewise I will follow and observe in every way the rite handed down of the ecclesiastical sacraments of the Catholic Church.”
How timely is such a Papal oath and how urgent it is to put such on oath into practice, especially in our days! The pope is not an absolute monarch, who can do and say what he likes, who can change doctrine or liturgy at his own discretion. Unfortunately, in the past centuries – contrary to the Apostolic tradition in the ancient times – the behavior of the popes as absolute monarchs or as half-gods became so commonly accepted to the extent that it shaped the theological and spiritual views of the prevailing majority of the bishops and the faithful, and especially among pious people. The fact that the pope must be the first in the Church who has to avoid novelties, obeying in an exemplary manner the tradition of the Faith and of the Liturgy, was sometimes blotted out from the consciousness of the bishops and the faithful by a blind and pious acceptance of a kind of Papal absolutism.
The Papal oath from the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum considered as the main obligation and the most distinguished quality of a new pope his unshakeable faithfulness to the Tradition as it was handed down to him by all his predecessors: “Nihil de traditione, quod a probatissimis praedecessoribus meis servatum reperi, diminuere vel mutare, aut aliquam novitatem admittere; sed ferventer, ut vere eorum discipulus et sequipeda, totis viribus meis conatibusque tradita conservare ac venerari.” (“To change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort.”)
The same Papal oath named, in concrete terms, fidelity to the lex credendi (the Rule of Faith) and to the lex orandi (the Rule of Prayer). With regards to the lex credendi (the Rule of Faith), the text of the oath says:
“Verae fidei rectitudinem, quam Christo autore tradente, per successores tuos atque discipulos, usque ad exiguitatem meam perlatam, in tua sancta Ecclesia reperi, totis conatibus meis, usque ad animam et sanguinem custodire, temporumque difficultates, cum tuo adjutorio, toleranter sufferre.” (“I promise to keep with all my strength, even to the point of death and the shedding of my blood, the integrity of the true faith, whose author is Christ and which through your successors and disciples was handed over up to my humble self, and which I found in your Church. I promise also to bear with patience the difficulties of the time”.)
With regard to the lex orandi the Papal oath says:
“Disciplinam et ritum Ecclesiae, sicut inveni, et a sanctis praecessoribus meis traditum reperi, illibatum custodire.” (“I promise to keep inviolate the discipline and the liturgy of the Church as I have found them and as they were transmitted by my holy predecessors.”)
In the last hundred years, there were some examples of a kind of Papal absolutism concerning changes in the liturgical tradition of the Church. When we consider the lex orandi, there were drastic changes made by Popes Pius X, Pius XII, and Paul VI, and, regarding the lex credendi, by Pope Francis.
Pius X became the first pope in the history of the Latin Church who made such a radical reform of the order of the psalmody (cursus psalmorum) that it resulted in the construction of a new kind of Divine Office regarding the distribution of the psalms. The next case was Pope Pius XII, who approved for liturgical use a radically changed Latin version of the millennia-old and melodious text of the Vulgate Psalter. The new Latin translation, the so-called “Pian Psalter,” was a text artificially fabricated by academics and was, in its artificiality, hardly pronounceable. This new Latin translation, aptly criticized with the adage “accessit latinitas, recessit pietas,” was then de facto rejected by the entire Church under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII. Pope Pius XII changed also the liturgy of Holy Week, a millennia-old liturgical treasure of the Church, introducing partially ex novo invented rituals. Unprecedented liturgical changes, however, were executed by Pope Paul VI with a revolutionary reform of the rite of the Mass and of the rite of all other sacraments, a liturgical reform, which no pope before dared to do in such a radicalness.
A theologically revolutionary change was made by Pope Francis insofar as he approved the practice of some local churches of admitting in singular cases sexually active adulterers (who are cohabitating in so-called “irregular unions”) to Holy Communion. Even if these local norms do not represent a general norm in the Church, they nevertheless signify a denial in practice of the Divine truth of the absolute indissolubility of a valid and consummated sacramental marriage. His other alteration in doctrinal questions consists in the change of the Biblical and the constant bi-millennial doctrine regarding the principle of the legitimacy of the death penalty. The next doctrinal change represents the approval of Pope Francis of the phrase in the Interreligious document of Abu Dhabi of February 4, 2019, which states that the diversity of the sexes together with the diversity of races and the diversity of religions corresponds to the wise will of God. This formulation as such needs an official Papal correction, otherwise it evidently will contradict the First Commandment of the Decalogue and the unmistakable and explicit teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ, hence contradicting Divine Revelation.
Against this background remains the impressive and thought-provoking episode narrated in the life of Pope Pius IX, who upon the request of a group of bishops to make a slight change in the Canon of the Mass (introducing the name of Saint Joseph), answered: “I cannot do this. I am only the Pope!”
The following prayer of Dom Prosper Guéranger, in which he praises Pope Saint Leo II for his strenuous defense of the integrity of Faith in the aftermath of the crisis caused by Pope Honorius I, each pope and all the faithful should assiduously pray, especially in our time:
”Saint Leo, uphold, in every age, the Pastor who rules Christ’s Church that he may keep himself aloof from the darkening mists that earth exhales; keep ever alive in the breast of the faithful flock that strong prayer, which should continually be made without ceasing for him by the Church (cf. Acts 12: 5): and then, Peter, were he even chained in the depths of the darkest dungeon, will be reached by the Sun of Justice and clearly see his way in that pure ray ; then, will the whole body of the Church be lightsome. For, Jesus hath said, the light of the body is the eye: if the eye be single the whole body will be lightsome. (Math. 6: 22) We realize more fully the strength of the Rock whereon the Church stands; we know that the gates of hell shall never prevail against her. (Math. 16: 18) For surely the efforts of the spirits of darkness never went to such lengths as they did in that sad crisis of Pope Honorius to which thou didst put an end: nor was their success, however great in appearance, contrary to the divine promise: for it is to the teaching of Peter, not to his Pope Honorius’ silence and his support of heresy, that the unfailing assistance of the Holy Ghost is guaranteed.” (The Liturgical Year, London 1900, Vol. 12, pp. 377 -378)
The extremely rare case of a heretical or of a semi-heretical pope must ultimately be endured and suffered in the light of the faith in the Divine character and in the indestructibility of the Church and of the Petrine office. Pope Saint Leo the Great formulated this truth, saying that the dignity of Saint Peter is not abated in his successors, however unworthy they may be: “Cuius dignitas etiam in indigno haerede non deficit” (Serm. 3, 4).
There could be a truly extravagant situation of a pope who practices sexual abuse of minors or subordinates in the Vatican. What should the Church do in such a situation? Should the Church tolerate a Papal sexual predator of minors or subordinates? For how long should the Church tolerate such a pope? Should he lose the papacy ipso facto because of sexual abuse of minors or subordinates? In such a situation there could originate a new canonical or theological theory or opinion of allowing the deposition of a pope and the loss of his office because of monstrous moral crimes (e.g. sexual abuse of minors and subordinates). Such an opinion would be a counterpart of the opinion allowing the deposition of a pope and the loss of his office because of heresy. However, such a new theory or opinion (deposition of a pope and the loss of his office because of sexual crimes) would surely not correspond to the perennial mind and practice of the Church.
The tolerance of a heretical pope as a cross does not mean passivity or an approval of his wrong doing. One should do all that is possible to remedy the situation of a heretical pope. To bear the cross of a heretical pope does under no circumstances mean to consent to his heresies or to be passive. Just as people have to bear, for instance, an iniquitous or Atheist regime as a cross (how many Catholics lived under such a regime in the Soviet Union and were bearing this situation as a cross in the spirit of expiation), or as parents have to bear as a cross an adult child, who became an unbeliever or immoral, or as members of a family have to bear as a cross for instance an alcoholic father. The parents can not “depose” their errant child from membership in their family, just as the children can not “depose” their errant father from membership in their family or from the title “father.”
The surer way of not deposing a heretical pope represents a more supernatural view of the Church. Such a way with its practical and concrete countermeasures and counteractions under no circumstances means passivity or collaboration with the Papal errors, but a very active commitment and a true compassion with the Church, which, in the time of a heretical or semi-heretical pope, experiences her Golgotha hours. The more a pope spreads doctrinal ambiguities, errors, or even heresies, the more luminously will shine the pure Catholic Faith of the little ones in the Church: The Faith of innocent children, of religious sisters, the Faith especially of the hidden gems of the Church, the cloistered nuns, the Faith of heroic and virtuous lay faithful from all social conditions, the Faith of individual priests and bishops. This pure flame of Catholic Faith, oftentimes nurtured by sacrifices and expiation acts, will burn more brightly than the cowardice, the infidelity, the spiritual rigidity and blindness of a heretical pope.
The Church is of such a Divine character that it can exist and live for a limited period of time notwithstanding a reigning heretical pope, exactly because of the truth that the pope is not synonymous or identical with the Church. The Church is of such a Divine character that even a heretical pope is not able to destroy the Church, even though he heavily damages the life of the Church, yet his action has only a limited duration. The Faith of the entire Church is greater and stronger than the errors of a heretical pope and this Faith cannot be defeated, not even by a heretical pope. The constancy of the entire Church is greater and more durable than the relatively short-lived disaster of a heretical pope. The true rock upon which resides the indestructibility of the Church’s Faith and holiness is Christ Himself, the pope being only his instrument, just as every priest or bishop is only an instrument of Christ the High Priest.
The Church’s doctrinal and moral health does not depend exclusively on the pope, since by Divine law the Church’s doctrinal and moral health is guaranteed in extraordinary situations of a heretical pope by the fidelity of the teaching of the bishops and ultimately also by the fidelity of the entirety of the lay faithful, as Blessed John Henry Newman and History sufficiently demonstrated. The Church’s doctrinal and moral health does not depend essentially to such an extent on the relatively short-lived doctrinal errors of a single pope that it renders thereby the Papal See vacant. As the Church can support a pope-less time, as already occurred in History for a period even of several years, so the Church is by Divine constitution so strong that she can also support a short-lived heretical pope.
The act of deposition of a pope because of heresy or the declaration of the vacancy of the Papal chair because of the loss of the papacy ipso facto on behalf of a heretical pope would be a revolutionary novelty in the life of the Church, and this regarding a highly important issue of the constitution and the life of the Church. One has to follow in such a delicate matter – even if it is of practical and not strictly of doctrinal nature – the surer way (via tutior) of the perennial sense of the Church. Notwithstanding the fact that three successive Ecumenical Councils (the Third Council of Constantinople in 681, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, and the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 870) and pope Saint Leo II in 682 excommunicated Pope Honorius I because of heresy, they did not even implicitly declare that Honorius I had lost the papacy ipso facto because of heresy. In fact, the pontificate of Pope Honorius I was considered valid even after he had supported heresy in his letters to Patriarch Sergius in 634, since he reigned after that another four years until 638.
The following principle, formulated by pope Saint Stephen I (+ 257) although in a different context, should be a guideline in treating the highly delicate and rare issue of a heretical pope: “Nihil innovetur, nisi quod traditum est,” i.e., “Let there be no innovation beyond what has been handed down.”
March 21, 2019
+ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana