Can a Heretical Pope Be Deposed?
St. Robert Bellarmine Refutes the Anti-Sedevacantists
As we had announced in one of our News Digests recently, the monumental theological work De Romano Pontifice(“On the Roman Pontiff”) of Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., has now been translated into English, for the first time ever. The translator is Mr. Ryan Grant of Mediatrix Press, and the English-speaking world owes him a tremendous amount of gratitude.
The English On the Roman Pontiff is being published in two volumes, with the first volume containing Books I and II, and the second volume containing Books III, IV, and V. The first volume is available for shipping right now, whereas the second volume is scheduled to be released soon:
Volume 1: Books I & II
Available in Softcover & as Kindle eBook
Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was a member of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit. He was declared a Saint by Pope Pius XI in 1930, and a Doctor of the Church by the same Pope in the following year. His feast day is May 13, the same day Our Lady of Fatima first appeared in 1917. He is the patron saint of catechists and has been called the “Doctor of the Papacy”, and for good reason. His writings were a most reliable guide during the proceedings of the First Vatican Council (1869-70), which, by authority of Pope Pius IX, defined the dogma of papal infallibility and issued eloquent teaching on the Papacy, the Church, and the Magisterium. In his decree declaring St. Robert a Doctor of the Church, Pope Pius XI extolled his keen mind, his strong morals, his great learning, and his brilliant teaching, and highlighted in particular Bellarmine’s teaching authority with regard to the papacy:
But it is an outstanding achievement of St Robert, that the rights and privileges divinely bestowed upon the Supreme Pontiff, and those also which were not yet recognised by all the children of the Church at that time, such as the infallible magisterium of the Pontiff speaking ex cathedra, he both invincibly proved and most learnedly defended against his adversaries. Moreover he appeared even up to our times as a defender of the Roman Pontiff of such authority that the Fathers of the  Vatican Council employed his writings and opinions to the greatest possible extent.
(Pope Pius XI, Decree Providentissimus Deus declaring St. Robert Bellarmine a Doctor of the Church, Sept. 17, 1931)
It is no surprise that when the question was raised at the Council what would happen if a Pope were to become a heretic, it was the teaching of St. Robert Bellarmine that informed the bishops’ answer:
In recent months, as the “pontificate” of Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”) has become an obviously heretical freak show, we have been seeing a number of arguments raised that a manifestly heretical Pope would remain Pope until he be deposed by an official judgment by the Church or by specific cardinals. But the arguments that are usually used to support this position are almost exclusively based on theological opinions advanced only before the First Vatican Council of 1870, whose rich teaching on the papacy makes the idea of a heretical-but-valid Pope completely untenable, as we have shown. The teaching of St. Robert Bellarmine, on the other hand, is typically either distorted, given secondary importance, or ignored altogether by those who would appeal to theological opinions that were permitted before Vatican I but are clearly no longer acceptable after the council.
In order to remedy this problem, we are reproducing on this site St. Robert Bellarmine’s entire Chapter 30 of his Book II of On the Roman Pontiff (De Romano Pontifice aka De Summo Pontifice), which addresses the very question of whether a heretical Pope could be deposed by the Church. We are making this chapter available with the permission of the translator, Ryan Grant (to prevent misunderstanding, we would like to point out that Mr. Grant is not a sedevacantist):
- St. Robert Bellarmine: On the Roman Pontiff, Book II, Chapter XXX:
“Whether a Heretical Pope can be Deposed”
The following paragraphs are some highlights taken from the chapter:
[Objection:] A Pope can be judged and deposed by the Church in the case of heresy; as is clear from Dist. 40, can. Si Papa: therefore, the Pontiff is subject to human judgment, at least in some case.
I respond: there are five opinions on this matter.
…it would be the most miserable condition of the Church, if she should be compelled to recognize a wolf, manifestly prowling, for a shepherd.
The fourth opinion is of Cajetan. There, he teaches, that a manifestly heretical Pope is not ipso facto deposed; but can and ought to be deposed by the Church. Now in my judgment, such an opinion cannot be defended. For in the first place, that a manifest heretic would be ipso facto deposed, is proven from authority and reason. The Authority is of St. Paul, who commands Titus, that after two censures, that is, after he appears manifestly pertinacious, an heretic is to be shunned: and he understands this before excommunication and sentence of a judge. Jerome comments on the same place, saying that other sinners, through a judgment of excommunication are excluded from the Church; heretics, however, leave by themselves and are cut from the body of Christ, but a Pope who remains the Pope cannot be shunned. How will we shun our Head? How will we recede from a member to whom we are joined?
Now in regard to reason this is indeed very certain. A non-Christian cannot in any way be Pope, as Cajetan affirms in the same book, and the reason is because he cannot be the head of that which he is not a member, and he is not a member of the Church who is not a Christian. But a manifest heretic is not a Christian, as St. Cyprian and many other Fathers clearly teach. Therefore, a manifest heretic cannot be Pope….
Next, the Holy Fathers teach in unison, that not only are heretics outside the Church, but they even lack all Ecclesiastical jurisdiction and dignity ipso facto. … Pope Celestine I, in an epistle to John of Antioch, which is contained in Volume One of the Council of Ephesus, ch. 19, says: “If anyone who was either excommunicated or exiled by Bishop Nestorius, or any that followed him, from such a time as he began to preach such things, whether they be from the dignity of a bishop or clergy, it is manifest that he has endured and endures in our communion, nor do we judge him outside, because he could not remove anyone by a sentence, who himself had already shown that he must be removed.” And in a letter to the clergy of Constantinople: “The Authority of our See has sanctioned, that the bishop, cleric or Christian by simple profession who had been deposed or excommunicated by Nestorius or his followers, after the latter began to preach heresy, shall not be considered deposed or excommunicated. For he who had defected from the faith with such preaching, cannot depose or remove anyone whatsoever.”
Nicholas I confirms and repeats the same thing in his epistle to the Emperor Michael. Next, even St. Thomas teaches that schismatics soon loose all jurisdiction; and if they try to do something from jurisdiction, it is useless. Nor does the response which some make avail, that these Fathers speak according to ancient laws, but now since the decree of the Council of Constance they do not lose jurisdiction, unless excommunicated by name, or if they strike clerics. I say this avails to nothing. For those Fathers, when they say that heretics lose jurisdiction, do not allege any human laws which maybe did not exist then on this matter; rather, they argued from the nature of heresy. Moreover, the Council of Constance does not speak except on the excommunicates, that is, on these who lose jurisdiction through a judgment of the Church. Yet heretics are outside the Church, even before excommunication, and deprived of all jurisdiction, for they are condemned by their own judgment, as the Apostle teaches to Titus; that is, they are cut from the body of the Church without excommunication, as Jerome expresses it.
Next, what Cajetan says in the second place, that a heretical Pope who is truly Pope can be deposed by the Church, and from its authority seems no less false than the first. For, if the Church deposes a Pope against his will, certainly it is over the Pope. Yet the same Cajetan defends the opposite in the very same treatise….
Now the fifth true 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. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction…. The foundation of this opinion is that a manifest heretic, is in no way a member of the Church; that is, neither in spirit nor in body, or by internal union nor external….
Be sure to read the entire chapter, available here, to get the full context and import of the teaching of St. Robert, Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor [=Teacher] of the Universal Church.
It cannot be emphasized enough why a Pope who is a manifest heretic cannot be a valid Pope. The reason is that one of the marks of the Church is her unity: she is one in the profession of the same Faith, as Pope Leo XIII emphasized in his beautiful encyclical on the unity of the Church:
Wherefore, in His divine wisdom, [God] ordained in His Church Unity of Faith; a virtue which is the first of those bonds which unite man to God, and whence we receive the name of the faithful – “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. iv., 5). That is, as there is one Lord and one baptism, so should all Christians, without exception, have but one faith.
(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 6)
But a heretic, by definition, does not profess the same Faith as the Church. Hence, were it possible for a heretic to be Pope, then the Church would be divided in her Faith and she would not be unified; but this is heresy: “I believe … in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church” (Nicene Creed).
In addition, as each Catholic has the obligation to submit with docility to the Supreme Pontiff and his teachings, laws, and liturgical rites, under pain of schism, the absurdity of such a concept as a heretical-but-valid Pope becomes even more glaring. A few links for your review:
- Pope Leo XIII quashes “Recognize-but-Resist” Position
- TRADCAST 003: Refuting Eric Gajewski’s false Recognize-and-Resist Traditionalism
- Comedy Hour with John Salza: Papal Authority and the Magisterium
- Is Francis a Valid Pope? Why It Matters
As we ponder the truly frightening and unprecedented situation which we have found ourselves confronted with since Angelo Roncalli (“Pope John XXIII”) claimed the papacy in 1958 and summoned the Second Vatican Council, let us never forget that this diabolical subversion of Catholicism was actually foretold, in one way or another, by a number of individuals in recent Church history, who based their predictions on their deep knowledge of Sacred Theology and the Holy Scriptures:
- Cardinal Henry Manning (1861): The Pope, the Antichrist, and the Great Apostasy
- Fr. Edmund O’Reilly (1882): ‘The Church may be without a Pope for a Long Time’
- Fr. Sylvester Berry (1921): ‘Satan will persecute the Papacy’
- Fr. Sylvester Berry (1927): ‘Satan will set up a False Church’
- Mgr. Fulton Sheen (1948): ‘Satan will set up a Counterchurch’
- Fr. Herman Kramer (1956): ‘Satan may seek to prevent a valid Papal Election’
Like her Divine Founder, the Catholic Church is undergoing the Passion. As the Mystical Body of Christ, she suffers mystically what Christ suffered physically. And like her Lord and Head, the Church too has been betrayed by those who should have defended her: The Modernists, said the great Pope Saint Pius X, “put into operation their designs for her undoing, not from without but from within. Hence, the danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain from the very fact that their knowledge of her is more intimate (Pius X, Encyclical Pascendi, n. 3; cf. Mk 14:10).
Unfortunately, just as many abandoned our Blessed Lord in His darkest hour, so many are now abandoning the true Church, either for a false church that is more appealing to them, or for the pleasures of the world. Hence our Divine Savior exhorted us to persevere to the end and pray much, so as not to fall away in time of temptation (cf. Mt 25:1-13; Mt 26:41; Mk 4:2-20; Lk 18:8; Rom 11:21-22).
Clearly, the “operation of error” which St. Paul warned against in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 is upon us. May the teaching of St. Robert Bellarmine, confirmed and reinforced by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, ever be our guide, and may his intercession ever be our help and protection!
St. Robert Bellarmine, pray for us that the Lord may deign to grant to His Holy Church once again a true Roman Pontiff, who will condemn the diabolical sect begun by Angelo Roncalli and restore the True Catholic Church to her former glory in the sight of all doubters!