The hypothesis of the possibility of a heretical pope derives from the Decree of Gratian (dist. XL, cap. 6, col. 146) from the 12th century. According to the opinion expressed in this decree, the pope cannot be judged by any human authority, except if he has fallen into heresy (a nemine est iudicandus, nisi deprehendatur a fide devius). Basing themselves on this spurious decree erroneously attributed to St. Boniface (+754) and accepted by Gratian, the Medieval theologians and theologians of the subsequent centuries maintained as possible the hypothesis – but not the certitude – of a heretical pope. The eventual condemnation of a pope in the case of heresy by a so-called imperfect Council of bishops corresponds to the thesis of mitigated Conciliarism. The heretical thesis of Conciliarism holds that a Council is superior to the pope.
Even if — according to the opinion of the automatic loss of the papacy for heresy — the judgment of the loss of the papal office is pronounced by the heretical pope upon himself, and he automatically falls from office without any judgment by the Church, such an opinion contains a contradiction and reveals a hint of crypto-conciliarism. For according to this opinion, the College of Cardinals or a group of bishops would have to issue an official declaration about the fact of the automatic loss of the papal office. According to another opinion, the automatic loss of the papal office for heresy would be tantamount to a renunciation of the papal office. However, one has to bear in mind the inevitable possibility of disagreement among members of the College of Cardinals or the episcopacy regarding whether or not a pope is guilty of heresy. Hence, there will always be doubts regarding the automatic loss of the papal office.
The pope as pope cannot fall into formal heresy in the sense that he would pronounce a heresy ex cathedra. But according to renowned traditional theologians he can favor heresy or fall into heresy as a private doctor or also as pope, but only in his non-defining and non-definitive Magisterium, which is not infallible.
St. Robert Bellarmine’s opinion is that “a pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church” (De Romano Pontifice, II, 30). The opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine and other similar opinions on the loss of the papal office for heresy are based on the spurious decree of Gratian in the Corpus Iuris Canonici. Such an opinion has never been approved explicitly by the Magisterium or supported by an explicit teaching about its doctrinal validity by the Roman Pontiffs during a considerable period of time. In fact, this matter has not been decided by the Church’s Magisterium and does not constitute a definitive doctrine pertaining to the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium. This opinion is supported only by theologians, and not even by all the Fathers of the Church from antiquity. This opinion was not taught unanimously and universally by the bishops and the popes in their constant Magisterium. Neither Gratian nor St. Robert Bellarmine, nor St. Alphonsus, nor other renowned theologians asserted with their opinions a doctrine of the Magisterium of the Church. Even some interventions of individual Fathers of the First Vatican Council, which seem to support the opinion of the automatic loss of the papacy for heresy, remain their personal opinion, but not a formal teaching of the First Vatican Council. And even if some few popes seemed to support such an opinion (as e.g. Innocent III or Paul IV), this does not constitute a proof for the constant teaching of the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium. One also cannot cite Pope Gregory XVI to support the opinion of the automatic loss of the papal office for heresy. For he supported this thesis in his book The Triumph of the Holy See and the Church Against the Attacks of the Innovators before he became pope, hence not in his papal Magisterium.
The automatic loss of the papal office by a heretical pope touches not only on the practical or juridical aspects of the life of the Church, but also on the Church’s doctrine — in this case, on ecclesiology. In such a delicate matter, one cannot follow an opinion, even if it has been supported by renowned theologians (such as St. Robert Bellarmine or St. Alphonsus) for a considerable period of time. Instead, one must wait for an explicit and formal decision by the Magisterium of the Church — a decision which the Magisterium has not yet issued.
On the contrary, the Magisterium of the Church, since Popes Pius X and Benedict XV, has seemed to reject such an opinion, as the formulation of the spurious decree of Gratian was eliminated in the Code of Canon Law 1917. The canons that address the automatic loss of an ecclesiastical office for heresy in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (canon 188 §4) and in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 194 §2) are not applicable to the pope, because the Church deliberately eliminated from the Code of Canon Law the following formulation taken from the previous Corpus Iuris Canonici: “unless the pope is caught deviating from the faith (nisi deprehendatur a fide devius).” By this act, the Church manifested her understanding, the mens ecclesiae, regarding this crucial issue. Even if one does not agree with this conclusion, the matter remains at least doubtful. In doubtful matters, however, one cannot proceed to concrete acts with fundamental implications for the life of the Church, such as, e.g., not to name an allegedly heretical or an allegedly invalidly elected pope in the Canon of the Mas or preparing for a new papal election.
Even if one supports the opinion of the automatic loss of the papal office for heresy, in the case of Pope Francis, the College of Cardinals or of a representative group of bishops has not issued a declaration regarding the automatic loss of papal office, specifying the concrete heretical pronouncements and the date when they happened.
According to the opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine, a single bishop, priest, or lay faithful cannot state the fact of the loss of papal office for heresy. Consequently, even if a single bishop or priest is convinced that Pope Francis has committed the crime of heresy, he has no authority to eliminate his name from the Canon of the Mass.
Even if one subscribed to the opinion of St Robert Bellarmine, in the case of Pope Francis doubt still remains, and there is still no statement by the College of Cardinals or a group of bishops, affirming the automatic loss of the papal office and informing the entire Church about this fact.
Faithful Catholics can morally (but not canonically) distance themselves from erroneous or evil teachings and acts of a pope. This has occurred several times in the course of the Church’s history. However, given the principle that one ought to give the benefit of the doubt regarding the position of one’s superior (in dubio pro superiore semper sit præsumendum), Catholics should also consider the correct teachings of the pope as part of the Magisterium of the Church, his correct decisions as part of the Church’s legislation, and his appointments of bishops and cardinals as valid. For even if one subscribes to the opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine, the necessary declaration of the automatic loss of the papal office has still not be issued.
A moral and intellectual “distancing” of oneself from erroneous teachings of a pope also includes resisting his errors. However, this should always be done with due respect for the papal office and the person of the Pope. St. Bridged of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena, both of whom admonished the popes of their times, are fine examples of such respect. St. Robert Bellarmine wrote: “Just as it is licit to resist the Pontiff who attacks the body, so also is it licit to resist him who attacks souls or destroys the civil order or above all, tries to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding the execution of his will” (De Romano Pontifice, II, 29).
Warning people about the danger of a pope’s wrong teachings and actions does not require convincing people that he is not the true pope. This is required by the nature of the Catholic Church as a visible society, in contrast to the Protestant understanding and to the theory of conciliarism or semi-conciliarism, where the convictions of an individual or of a particular group inside the Church are considered as having an effect upon the fact of who is the true and valid shepherd in the Church.
The Church is strong enough and possesses sufficient means to protect the faithful from the spiritual damage of a heretical pope. In the first place, there is the sensus fidelium, the supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei). It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, by which the members of the Church possess the true sense of the faith. This is a kind of spiritual and supernatural instinct that makes the faithful sentire cum Ecclesia (think with the mind of the Church) and discern what is in conformity with the Catholic and Apostolic faith handed on by all bishops and popes, through the Universal Ordinary Magisterium.
One should also remember the wise words that Cardinal Consalvi spoke to a furious Emperor Napoleon, when the latter threatened to destroy the Church: “What we, i.e. the clergy, tried to do and we did not succeed, you for sure, will not succeed.” Paraphrasing these words one could say: “Even a heretical pope cannot destroy the Church.” The Pope and the Church are indeed not totally identical. The Pope is the visible head of the Militant Church on earth, but at the same time he is also a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.
The sentire cum Ecclesia requires from a true son or daughter of the Church that he or she also praise the pope when he does right things, while asking him to do still more and praying that God enlightens him so that he may become a valiant herald and defender of the Catholic Faith.
The former Pope Benedict XVI is no longer the pope. It suffices to re-read the core of Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration of renunciation to realize what it meant. The following affirmations of the former Pope Benedict XVI eliminate any reasonable doubts about the validity of his abdication, and his recognition of Pope Francis as the only true pope: “Among you, in the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope to whom today I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience” (Farewell address to the Cardinals, 28 February 2013). “I have taken this step with full awareness of its gravity and even its novelty, but with profound interior serenity” (Last General Audience, February 27, 2013). “There is not the slightest doubt about the validity of my renunciation of the Petrine ministry. The only condition of validity is the full freedom of the decision. Speculation about the invalidity of renunciation is simply absurd” (Letter from February 18, 2014, to Andrea Tornielli, published in La Stampa, February 27, 2014). During a conversation with a journalist from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the former Pope Benedict XVI said: “The Pope is one, he is Francis.” These words of Benedict XVI were reported in the written edition of Corriere della Sera, June 28, 2019 and anticipated in the Italian version of Vatican News on June 27, 2019.
The Church is a visible society. Therefore, what was essential for the fulfillment of Benedict XVI’s resignation was not his possible internal thought but what he externally declared, for the Church does not judge about internal intentions (de internis non iudicat Ecclesia). Pope Benedict XVI’s ambiguous acts, like wearing a white cassock, keeping his name, imparting the apostolic blessing, etc., do not affect the unequivocal meaning of his act of renunciation. Many of his demonstrable and unequivocal words and actions after his resignation also confirm that he considers Pope Francis, and not himself, to be the pope.
Declaring Pope Francis to be an invalid pope, either because of his heresies or because of an invalid election (for reasons of alleged violations of the Conclave norms or for the reason that Pope Benedict XVI is still the pope because of his invalid renunciation) are desperate and subjectively taken actions aimed at remedying the current unprecedented crisis of the papacy. They are purely human and betray a spiritual myopia. All such endeavors are ultimately a dead end, a cul-de-sac. Such solutions reveal an implicit Pelagian approach to resolving a problem with human means; a problem, indeed, which cannot be resolved by human efforts, but which requires a divine intervention.
One need only examine similar cases of the deposition of a pope or declaration of the invalidity of his election in Church history to see that they provoked rivaling and combatting claimants to the papal office.
Such situations caused more confusion for the Church than did tolerating a heretical or doubtfully elected pope with the supernatural vision of the Church and trust in Divine Providence.
The Church is ultimately not a human but a divine-human reality. She is the Mystical Body of Christ. Attempts to resolve the current crisis of the papacy which favor the opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine with its concrete solution, or take refuge in the unproven theory of Benedict XVI still being the only true pope, are doomed to fail from the start. The Church is in the hands of God, even in this most dark time.
We must not be lax in proclaiming Catholic truth and warning and admonishing when papal words and actions clearly harm the faith. But what all true sons and daughters of the Church ought to do now is launch a serious world-wide crusade of prayer and penance to implore a divine intervention. Let us trust in the Lord’s words: “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7).
February 28, 2020
+ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Astana