Historical Fact vs. Neo-Trad Wonderland…

The Question of a Heretical Pope considered by the First Vatican Council

[See also our Follow-Up Post here]

While certain self-styled “traditionalists” and “real Catholics” are currently pushing the attractive and convenient but utterly false and disastrous idea that the Catholic Church had Popes in her history who were heretics but were still valid Popes, we at Novus Ordo Watch like to go by actual Church teaching and verifiable facts.

Besides such blowhards as Michael Voris (at 5:54 here) and Eric Gajewski (here), one of the biggest loudmouths out there who is pushing this bewildering error of “heretical but valid Popes” is the anonymous English blogger Mundabor, whom we recently gave a good spanking for his train wreck of a theological analysis on the Novus Ordo Missae. See for yourself the masthead of the Mundabor blog, which prominently features “Heretical Popes” as a menu option, which is a link that takes you to a list of essays that supposedly demonstrate that there have been heretical but valid Popes at some point or other in Church history:


Click image to enlarge

Of course, the reason why Mundabor is so chipper about alleged “heretical Popes” in Church history is that the head honcho which his religion is currently afflicted with, Mr. Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”), is as blatant of a heretic as one will probably ever see claiming the Chair of St. Peter. Not being able to deny the obvious, and yet also being stubbornly unwilling to concede that Francis’ “papacy” is a fraud, that is, that Mr. Bergoglio is an impostor and not at all a valid Pope, Mundabor tries to seek refuge in historical precedent — real or imagined — for the idea of a heretic validly holding the papal office. Whether there actually is historical precedent for such an absurdity, is entirely secondary to Mundabor. What matters to him primarily is that a case can be made for it, however sloppily and inaccurately, and this is what the English blogger now advertises on his “Heretical Popes” page.

Unfortunately for Mundabor, Voris, Gajewski and others who believe that a Pope can be a heretic and still remain the head of the Catholic Church, this question actually came up at the First Vatican Council, which defined the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870. In a conference given after his return from the council, Archbishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati related the following (pay close attention, all you who think Sedevacantists are just a bunch of presumptuous nutbags):

The question was also raised by a Cardinal, “What is to be done with the Pope if he becomes a heretic?” It was answered that there has never been such a case; the Council of Bishops could depose him for heresy, for from the moment he becomes a heretic he is not the head or even a member of the Church. The Church would not be, for a moment, obliged to listen to him when he begins to teach a doctrine the Church knows to be a false doctrine, and he would cease to be Pope, being deposed by God Himself.

If the Pope, for instance, were to say that the belief in God is false, you would not be obliged to believe him, or if he were to deny the rest of the creed, “I believe in Christ,” etc. The supposition is injurious to the Holy Father in the very idea, but serves to show you the fullness with which the subject has been considered and the ample thought given to every possibility. If he denies any dogma of the Church held by every true believer, he is no more Pope than either you or I; and so in this respect the dogma of infallibility amounts to nothing as an article of temporal government or cover for heresy.

(Abp. John B. Purcell, quoted in Rev. James J. McGovern, Life and Life Work of Pope Leo XIII [Chicago, IL: Allied Printing, 1903], p. 241; imprimatur by Abp. James Quigley of Chicago; underlining added.)

This answer given jibes 100% with the sedevacantist position. If it surprises you, maybe it’s time to stop reading the resistance propaganda cranked out by The RemnantRorate CaeliCatholic Family NewsThe Angelus, and similar publications. Real history turns out to be refreshingly sedevacantist!

Too often people will nonchalantly disseminate quotes they have not verified, simply copying and pasting what they find on the internet or in some SSPX propaganda tract. (Prime offender: Eric Gajewski, as detailed in TRADCAST 003, who “quoted” from a non-existing letter to a non-existing bishop.) At other times, research is scrapped entirely and replaced by self-made analogies that have nothing to do with Catholic teaching or theology (Mundabor and Louie Verrecchio recently demonstrated their impressive skills in this regard). Our advice: If you want to be discussing theology on the internet in a serious fashion, make sure you don’t consider yourself above actually going to a library to look things up or purchasing a book or two — overcoming any fear that whatever evidence you will find may actually require you to change your position.

The anecdote from Vatican I recounted by Abp. Purcell is but the latest discovery adding to a mountain of evidence for Sedevacantism. We are indebted to the research of our friend Steven Speray of the Catholicism in a Nutshell blog for this marvelous find. We shall outline the salient points from the archbishop’s report, lest they be glossed over, and add some clarifying remarks, below.

According to the response given to an inquiring cardinal at the First Vatican Council, as related by Abp. Purcell:

  • No Pope has ever been a heretic
  • If a Pope were to become a manifest heretic, he would immediately cease to be Pope because he would immediately cease to be a member of the Church
  • He would be deposed not by the Church, which has no authority over the Pope, but by God Himself, who has made membership in the Church dependent upon profession of the true Faith, on which the Church’s unity depends (see Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 22)
  • The Church’s bishops could declare the former Pope to have deposed himself — something that would enable them to remove the non-Pope
  • The very idea of a heretical Pope who nevertheless remains Pope is “injurious” to the papacy and thus to Catholic dogma

Got that, Mundabor? Got that, Mr. Gajewski? Got that, Society of St. Pius X? Sorry if it doesn’t fit in with your current ideas, but the truth just doesn’t care what people think about it.

Now, since we know that there are a lot of skeptics out there, we’re providing an image of the page from which this excerpt of Abp. Purcell’s address is taken (click image to enlarge) — let no one say we just made it up or didn’t check our sources:


McGovern, Life and Life Work of Pope Leo XIII (1903), p. 241
(click to enlarge)

[UPDATE: The book in question is available online for free, at this link and also here.]

Let us underscore once more that, as this testimony confirms, the Fathers of the First Vatican Council concluded after extensive research, investigation, and debate that no Pope had ever been a heretic — not Liberius, not Honorius I, not Stephen VII, not Nicholas I, not John XII, not John XXII, nor any other name that is typically brought up in association with the accusation of “papal heresy”. This is the Tradition of the Church, and anyone who calls himself a “traditionalist” or “traditional Catholic” may actually want to consider following it.

But then, what did the Fathers of Vatican I know about the papacy or Catholic history, right? You can be assured of one thing: Mundabor will not bend. His first premise in all argumentation is that Sedevacantism is false, and everything else must conform to this dogma of all dogmas, no matter how untrue or unreasonable the outcome. Alas, this is a very common symptom these days: argumentation that is driven by a pre-conceived and desired conclusion. This is not the way to arrive at truth; in fact, it turns the search for truth on its head by being nothing more than a clever way to justify what one wishes the truth were. We at Novus Ordo Watch know what we’re talking about: All of us were Novus Ordo at one point and are converts to the sedevacantist position. All of us. It is not easy to admit one has been wrong, or deceived, but it is necessary.

One highly important consideration that is usually forgotten by those who happily push the idea that a Pope can be a heretic and still be Pope is that such a scenario would spell the end of the unity of the Church, one of the essential marks of her divine constitution, because it would mean that someone can be a member of the Church — in fact, her head — while professing a different religion than that of the Catholic Church. In other words, the Church would not be one in Faith. But this is a heresy: “One body and one Spirit; as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:4); “When the Divine founder decreed that the Church should be one in faith, in government, and in communion, He chose Peter and his successors as the principle and centre, as it were, of this unity” (Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 15).

We have an ongoing series of blog posts called The “Heretical” Popes, which examines and refutes various arguments that are typically brought up to substantiate the claim that some Popes in the Church’s history were heretics, that is, denied defined dogma. It is simply not true, and after Vatican I, the only people who still made such a claim — as far as we’ve seen — were condemned:

So, once again real research has backed up the sedevacantist position. Follow the false, non-sedevacantist “Traditionalists” and their propaganda outlets at your own risk.

[See also our Follow-Up Post here]

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons / mundabor.wordpress.com (screenshot; modified) / own scan
Licenses: public domain / fair use / n/a

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11 Responses to “The Question of a Heretical Pope considered by the First Vatican Council”

  1. Mike

    Hello, a question that I have seen raised, and one that I have thought about myself is this: Let’s pick an obscure Pope that one never sees (or hardly ever sees) mentioned or quoted.

    I’ll pick one at random for the purpose of the exercise. Take Pope John XVI. I’ve never heard anything about him, and I am only using this name as someone obscure and little known. I’m not saying he was one, but how do we know he was not a public heretic?

    Not as the Pope in a teaching role, but simply as a private person, who once told someone else that he rejected some defined dogma, but was OK on everything else. Just say that the clergy of Rome simply didn’t know what to do about it, and kept it quiet and waited for him to die, and that was the end of that. Does it matter now? Do you have a link to something?

    Many thanks, Mike

    • Novus Ordo Watch

      All you can go by is the historical record. No one is considered to be guilty of a fault unless there is evidence. So, the whole question is a non-starter. The question has to be, “What evidence do we have that he WAS a public heretic?”

      • Mike

        Well, none at all.

        I think there are some very obsessive people around the traps who think it is their duty before God to trawl through the entire history of the Church and look for problems, and if there aren’t any, they’ll make some up.

        I guess we leave it to Providence. If there were an issue that affected the Church, it would some out into the open by God’s design.

        Thanks for your reply – it was very quick!

  2. fiftysixseventysix

    The quote seems more closely to support the idea that a Pope who falls into heresy must be declared to have done so by the Church, at which point he would be immediately deposed by Christ. First, the answer of Abp. Purcell, after stating there has never been a case of a heretical Pope, begins with “the Council of Bishops could depose him for heresy . . . “, which leads immediately to ” . . . for from the moment he becomes a heretic he is not the head or even a member of the Church.” The sequence of this answer suggests the proper order is (1) declaration; (2) deposition by God at the moment of declaration. The remainder of that paragraph is less clear and seems to reference a point before the declaration (i.e., “begins to teach doctrine . . .”) and skipping the sequence first stated, proceeding directly to being deposed by God.

    The second paragraph clearly supports the duty of the faithful to resist the false teachings of a Pontiff. Next, where he says, “If he denies any dogma of the Church held by every true believer, he is no more Pope than either you or I”, “denial” seems to be the operative word, and should be properly understood as being “pertinacious” or “incorrigible”, which is only determined after a correction and admonition to renounce the heresy. If a Pope, being made aware of his error, should then refuse to correct himself or expressly deny the article of faith (pertinacity), then the declaration could be made by the Church. In other words, “denial” as it’s used appears to be the trigger for the next steps – (1) declaration and (2) deposition.

    Thirdly, the Archbishop states, “the dogma of infallibility amounts to nothing as an article of temporal government or cover for heresy.” This of course is true – infallibility does not guarantee good governance, nor does it mean the Pope couldn’t possibly be a heretic because he’s infallible. Papal infallibility protects the Church by ensuring the Holy Spirit will not allow the Pope to err when he repeats or solemnly defines a dogma binding the entire Church (i.e., to be believed by all with divine and Catholic faith). A narrowly tailored rule, to be sure. This leaves open the possibility that a true Pope can err outside of this precise circumstance and remain Pope until – again – (1) declaration and (2) deposition, assuming a council would be called for such purpose.

    Finally, this quote must considered in context: the Archbishop is giving what sounds like (from the tenor of the answer) an oral response to a question. Was this a question posed to the Council intended to be definitively answered? Was it in fact definitively answered? Was Abp. Purcell vested with authority to answer on behalf of the entire Council or was he giving his own opinion?

    In any case, I believe the Archbishop is correct. But we also know the question of a heretical Pope has never been answered definitely by the Church. We have to look to the most probable answers as gleaned from the Natural Law and Divine Law, Tradition, and by researching the Church Fathers and theologians (who of course also base their own theories and conclusions on Natural and Divine Law, Holy Scripture, and Tradition). In light of the foregoing, I leave you with this from Suarez:

    “In the third place, I say that, if a Pope is heretical and incorrigible, he ceases to be Pope as soon as a declaratory sentence of the crime is brought against him through the legitimate jurisdiction of the Church. This is the common opinion of the Doctors, and is gathered from [Pope] Clement I, in his first epistle, where he says that Peter taught that a heretical Pope should be deposed. Now, the foundation is this: It would harm the Church in the gravest way to have such a pastor; nor could she help herself in so grave a peril; besides, it would be contrary to the dignity of the Church to make her remain subject to a heretical Pope, such that she is unable to repel him from her; for the people generally take after their prince and their priest.”

    • poapratensis

      Not at all. Think of it like this. You have died. At some point evidence indicates you have died, like assuming room temp, rigor mortis, etc. Then, weeks later often, the state produces a document declaring you to have died.

      The pope is the supreme legislator and judge; no man can depose him, only God, the head of the church, can depose him. NO council of bishops, not even every bishop in the world in unanimity can depose a pope, but they can issue a document declaring him to be deposed by God through heresy.

      A certificate of death doesn’t mean the state executed you. It simply means you are dead and the state obliges all to recognize that.

      As a Sedevacantist, I would welcome such an action from the church since it would oblige everyone else to recognize sedevacantism. As it is, I tolerate sedeplenists because no declaration has been issued. But I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming, especially with Bergoglio.

      • fiftysixseventysix

        ” . . . I would welcome such an action from the church since it would oblige everyone else to recognize sedevacantism.”

        I think your comments are actually pretty closely aligned with mine. My only concern is regarding that portion of your comment I quoted above. Why would that Church action provide you any consolation or validation? First, if you are Sede, may I assume you do not recognize present-day Rome to truly be the Catholic Church? If so, any action Rome takes in declaring Francis’ heresy would be meaningless to you, right?

        Second, my sincere hope is the true restoration of Holy Mother Church – you sound as though you simply want vindication as to the Sede position. Even if the Church took such action, it would only mean the See is vacant as it is every time we’re between Popes. From that standpoint, no one really denies Sedevacantism since they recognize each interregnum period. It would do nothing to validate the Sede theory for what’s been going on for the past 50+ years. I don’t want to assume that’s all you would hope to get out of a universal recognition that Francis is a heretic – I trust that you want what every good Catholic does – sound doctrine, unambiguous teaching by steadfastly Catholic clergy, etc. However, I would caution you that one major flaw I see in Sedes (I was one until about two years ago), is that many seem to persist in that position as a matter of pride. It essentially becomes their identity and livelihood, and from that point on it becomes more an issue of pride and the desire to be right rather than an genuinely believed, intellectually honest opinion. When you say that X action would force everyone to recognize the Sede position, I think you run the risk of sounding like you just want to be right, regardless of the truth of what actually is happening.

  3. Daniel

    Any other links of articles explaining why the Councils were wrong in condemning Honorius as a heretical Pope wrong? So Vatican I had the authority to overturn previous Ecumenical Councils?

    • Novus Ordo Watch

      Every council is only as valid as its promulgation by the Pope. The Pope who promulgated Constantinople III — I think it was St. Leo II; remember that when the council finished and published its documents, the Holy See was vacant at the time — approved the condemnation of Pope Honorius only in the sense of him being guilty of neglect in stamping out a heresy, not in actually holding the heresy himself. So, Vatican I did not overturn any previous ecumenical councils.

      There are plenty of books on this topic, including “Pope Honorius before the Tribunal of Reason and History” by Fr. Paul Bottalla:

      • Daniel

        Wasnt Honorius condemned by at least two Councils? so the condemnations were not approved by Popes? Could the Pope issue condemnations on their own authority?

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