The Impossibility of Judging or Deposing a True Pope
Accepting the Vatican II Sect as the Catholic Church has consequences. So does believing that Jorge Bergoglio is the Vicar of Christ despite being a public apostate: If he is a valid Pope, then there is no power on earth that can undo his papacy. If he is truly the successor of St. Peter, then he can resign voluntarily, but no one can take the pontificate from him.
This clear truth does not sit well with many in the “Recognize-and-Resist” (aka “Semi-Traditionalist”) camp, now that Francis is so obviously a non-Catholic and so clearly doing grave damage to Catholicism. As the situation gets more and more unbearable by the day, we hear anything from exhortations to hold out and wait for this “pontificate” to blow over, to ludicrous petitions for Francis to become a Catholic or else resign, to now outright calls for him to be removed by “the bishops” or “the cardinals”. The new anti-sedevacantist book True or False Pope? by John Salza and Robert Siscoe even attempts to give a theological justification for deposing a Pope and presumes to show how it can be accomplished.
Yes, you read that right: The very people who always prattle on about how we cannot “judge the Pope”, are now issuing calls for… the “Pope” to be judged. It’s funny how that works in Novus Ordo Land: Sedevacantists are lambasted for “judging the Pope” because they realize that if Catholic teaching has any meaning, then Jorge Bergoglio cannot possibly be a valid Pope, yet those who believe Francis to be a valid Pope can, without any qualm of conscience, not only treat him like the village idiot and contradict, deride, and criticize him at will, but now even demand that others in the “Church” remove him from office — all without, of course, “judging the Pope”. Welcome to the jungle.
Clearly, it is high time we looked at what the Catholic Church teaches on the (im)possibility of judging and removing a valid Pope. In this post, therefore, we will examine two things: (1) What “judging the Pope” really means; and (2) whether a validly reigning Pope can be removed or “deposed.”
What does it mean to “judge the Pope”?
The Catholic Church teaches dogmatically that no one is allowed or able to judge the Pope. The Vatican Council (1869-70) taught dogmatically:
And since the Roman Pontiff is at the head of the universal Church by the divine right of apostolic primacy, We teach and declare also that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases pertaining to ecclesiastical examination recourse can be had to his judgment; moreover, that the judgment of the Apostolic See, whose authority is not surpassed, is to be disclaimed by no one, nor is anyone permitted to pass judgment on its judgment. Therefore, they stray from the straight path of truth who affirm that it is permitted to appeal from the judgments of the Roman Pontiffs to an ecumenical Council, as to an authority higher than the Roman Pontiff.
(First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 3; Denz. 1830; underlining added.)
Since no one may judge the Pope, then, it is of the utmost importance to know just what constitutes judging the Pope. To spill the beans right up front: “Judging the Pope” does not mean judging whether a particular claimant is Pope, which would obviously involve circular reasoning. Rather, it means putting one’s own judgment above that of the (acknowledged) Pope by refusing to accept the final sentence rendered by the Vicar of Christ on any given matter pertaining to Faith, morals, or discipline, or by presuming to make his teachings, laws, or disciplinary decisions subject to review, revision, or validation by another. The Pope is the highest authority in the Church, and for this reason no one can question, appeal from, or overturn his judgment.
But, one may ask, why is it that no one can judge the Pope? The simple truth is that judging — understood in the proper canonical sense — is an act that belongs by right only to a superior, and the Pope, being the highest authority in the Church, has no superior on earth. It is for this reason that no one could summon the Pope before a tribunal for questioning, much less render any kind of judgment against him. No one is above the Pope, and therefore no one can judge him — not even all the bishops or cardinals collectively, not even the entire Church Militant taken together. No, this isn’t our idea; this is binding Catholic teaching, as we will now see.
Before we proceed to various quotes proving our position with respect to how the Church understands her teaching that a Pope cannot be judged, we must emphasize that all the evidence we adduce is deliberately chosen only from the time of 1870 onwards — that is, from the time of the First Vatican Council, which settled a lot of Catholic doctrine regarding the papacy and made it untenable to hold a number of theories that had still been permissible to hold up until that time. In this we distinguish ourselves from the recognize-and-resist proponents, specifically Messrs. Salza and Siscoe, who in large part advance ideas that were abandoned after Vatican I because they could no longer be held in light of the council’s teachings — which is why nearly all of the prooftexts they use come from theologians and canonists who wrote before the First Vatican Council, such as Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, Fr. Francisco Suarez, John of St. Thomas, Fr. Paul Laymann, and others. Yet, if these theories were still acceptable after Vatican I, how come Salza and Siscoe never cite any theologians or canonists from the twentieth century on these points?
We will revisit this question later on. Right now, let’s examine what the Church teaches about “judging the Pope”.
First, we’ll have a look at the actual principle as enunciated in the 1917 Code of Canon Law: “Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur” (Canon 1556) — “The First See is judged by no one.” This is the canonical rendition of Vatican I’s teaching about the impermissibility of judging the Pope. What exactly does it mean? To ensure we understand this principle correctly, we will simply look at what various Catholic studies and commentaries on the Code of Canon Law say about it.
We begin with the Benedictine Fr. Charles Augustine’s Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law, published in 1921:
The first or primatial see is subject to no one’s judgment. This proposition must be taken in the fullest extent, not only with regard to the object of infallibility. For in matters of faith and morals it was always customary to receive the final sentence from the Apostolic See, whose judgment no one dared to dispute, as the tradition of the Fathers demonstrates. Neither was it ever allowed to reconsider questions or controversies once settled by the Holy See. But even the person of the Supreme Pontiff was ever considered as unamenable to human judgment, he being responsible and answerable to God alone, even though accused of personal misdeeds and crimes. A remarkable instance is that of Pope Symmachus (498-514). He, indeed, submitted to the convocation of a council (the Synodus Palmaris, 502), because he deemed it his duty to see to it that no stain was inflicted upon his character, but that synod itself is a splendid vindication of our canon. The synod adopted the Apology of Ennodius of Pavia, in which occurs the noteworthy sentence: “God wished the causes of other men to be decided by men; but He has reserved to His own tribunal, without question, the ruler of this see.” No further argument for the traditional view is required. A general council could not judge the Pope, because, unless convoked or ratified by him, it could not render a valid sentence. Hence nothing is left but an appeal to God, who will take care of His Church and its head.
(Rev. Charles Augustine, A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law, Vol. VII [St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1921], pp. 11-12; italics given; underlining added.)
Then we turn to the popular Woywod-Smith commentary, which has the following to say about Canon 1556:
The Primatial See can be judged by no one (Canon 1556). The Supreme Pontiff has the highest legislative, administrative and judicial power in the Church. The Code states that the Roman Pontiff cannot be brought to trial by anyone. The very idea of the trial of a person supposes that the court conducting the trial has jurisdiction over the person, but the Pope has no superior, wherefore no court has power to subject him to judicial trial.
(Rev. Stanislaus Woywod, A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, rev. by Rev. Callistus Smith [New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1952], n. 1549, p. 225; underlining added.)
Next, we look at Fr. Sylvester Berry’s explanation of how Canon 1556 is not simply a disciplinary matter subject to change but actually expresses a principle rooted in the unchangeable divine law:
The Roman Pontiff is not subject to any power on earth whether civil or ecclesiastical. This follows of necessity from his position as supreme head of the Church, which is subject to no authority save that of Christ alone. “Being supreme head of the Church, he cannot be judged by any other ecclesiastical power, and as the Church is a spiritual society superior to any temporal power whatever, he cannot be judged by any temporal ruler. Therefore, the supreme head of the Church can direct and judge the rulers of temporal powers, but he can neither be directed nor judged by them without a perversion of due order founded in the very nature of things” [St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Book 2, Ch. 26]. This doctrine is taught by the Fathers and incorporated in the canons of the Church: “The first See is judged by no one” [Canon 1556]. A synod of bishops held in Rome in 503, to investigate charges against Pope Symmachus, declared that “God wished the causes of other men to be decided by men, but He reserved to His own tribunal, without question, the ruler of this See.”
This complete exemption of the Roman Pontiff from all civil jurisdiction is of divine institution, for Christ himself conferred it upon St. Peter and his successors, at least implicitly, when He entrusted to them the supreme authority, which necessarily implies such exemption.
(Rev. E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise [London: Herder, 1927], pp. 544-45; underlining added.)
As Fr. Berry points out, the doctrine about the Holy See not being subject to anyone’s judgment was already taught by St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), whose teaching on the papacy was adopted in essence — sometimes even verbatim — by the First Vatican Council. It is good to remember this against our opponents, who love to rely on those who contradicted Bellarmine on various matters regarding the papacy: Cajetan, Suarez, and John of St. Thomas, whom they quote extensively. Yet, it is Bellarmine’s teaching that was adopted by the council, not that of the others, and it is Bellarmine who was canonized a Saint and declared a Doctor of the Church, not Cajetan, Suarez, or John of St. Thomas. (There is a Saint Cajetan, it is true, but he is not the same Cajetan spoken of here.)
A succinct summary of the whole matter with some welcome additional information is given by Fr. Thomas Burke in a canon law dissertation published in 1922:
The Roman Pontiff has received from Christ supreme authority over the whole Church, and it follows from this very fact that he, in the direction of the faithful to eternal salvation, possesses full jurisdiction and all its attributes. He alone, or together with a Council called by him, can make laws for the universal Church, abrogate them or derogate from them, grant privileges, appoint, depose, judge or punish Bishops. He is the supreme judge by whom all causes are to be tried; he is the supreme judge whom no one may try.
…It is not becoming that the supreme legislator [i.e. the Pope] should be subject to other laws, except to those which emanate from the Sovereign Pontificate; it is not becoming that he who constitutes the tribunal of appeal for all men, rulers as well as subjects, should be judged by his inferiors….
The divine law upon which rests pontifical immunity in spiritual things, is also the foundation upon which is built the ecclesiastical law in things partly spiritual and partly temporal. That the Apostolic See is subject to no judgment is affirmed by Boniface VIII in these terms, “The superiority of the Church and ecclesiastical power over the State and civil power is verified by the prophecy of Jeremias, ‘I have set thee this day over the nations, and over kingdoms to root up, and to pull down, and to waste, and to destroy, and to build, and to plant’ [Jer 1:10]. Therefore, if the earthly power shall go astray, it shall be judged by the spiritual; and if a lesser spiritual power shall go astray, by its superior: but if the supreme power shall go astray, he can be judged by God alone, not by man, according to the Apostle, ‘The spiritual man judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man’” [Bull Unam Sanctam].
The Roman Pontiff is declared to be free from subjection to any forum or tribunal by the first Canon in De Fore Competente. “Prima Sedes a nemine judicatur” [Canon 1556]. By the Prima Sedes is meant the Roman Pontiff, as is apparent from the nature of the thing [cf. Canon 7]. The Sacred Congregations, Tribunals and Offices by means of which the Pope is wont to transact the affairs of the Church are not included in this immunity, and their members may be judged by the Pope himself or by his delegate. The reason why the Pope can be judged by no one is evident. No one can be judged by another unless he is subject to that person, at least with respect to the subject matter of the trial. Now, the Roman Pontiff is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, and to him has been entrusted the commission to feed His lambs and His sheep. In no way, therefore, can he be subjected to any man or to any forum, but is entirely immune from any human judgment. This principle, whether taken juridically or dogmatically suffers no exception.
(Rev. Thomas Joseph Burke, Competence in Ecclesiastical Tribunals [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1922], pp. 85-87; underlining added.)
Such is the Catholic teaching, and it makes a lot of sense. It is not difficult to understand or accept.
In sum, the maxim “no one can judge the Pope” means that the Pope has no superior, and therefore his teachings, his judgments, his decisions are final and not subject to review, revision, or validation by anyone. In so far as a particular judgment or decision is in itself changeable, it could only be modified by another (i.e. future) Pope, who, although not superior to a prior Pope, is nevertheless his equal. (Thus, for example, we find in Church history that the supression of the Jesuit order imposed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 was rescinded by Pope Pius VII in 1814.)
Now that we are clear on what the maxim does mean, it is necessary also to consider what “judging the Pope” does not mean: Notice that none of the evidence quoted above talks about judging whether a particular papal claimant is actually Pope; for the principle in question is that no one can judge the Pope, not that no one can judge whethersomeone is Pope. The former concerns the dogma of the papacy; the latter concerns a particular individual as eligibleto possess the papacy. The principle exempting the Pope from all judgment, therefore, applies to all valid holders of the papal office only, and it has no bearing whatsoever on what is a completely different question altogether, namely, how to ascertain whether a particular individual’s claim to be the Pope is true or not. This latter issue is, of course, of the utmost importance, especially considering the nature and function of the papacy, but we will leave its in-depth discussion for a future blog post.
Back in the 1980s, Lefebvrist apologist Michael Davies (1936-2004), one of the most influential “recognize-and-resist” advocates, went on the record claiming that to say that John Paul II (who was then reigning in the Vatican) is not a valid Pope is impermissible because it would amount to “judging the Pope”, which a Catholic is not allowed to do. In his scathing and comprehensive critique of Davies, sedevacantist author John Daly exposes the absurdity of this contention:
Davies’s position amounts, in fact, to saying that there is no distinction between judging whether a particular person is the pope and judging the pope. But by forbidding us to judge whether a particular person is the pope or not, Davies in effect requires us to accept uncritically the validity of anyone’s claim to be pope. After all, if John-Paul II’s claim may not even be questioned, why should one be allowed to question the claim of some other pretender to the papacy, such as Clemente Domínguez Gómez of Palmar de Troya, who, since 1978, has styled himself “Pope Gregory XVII”? If one is “judging the pope” by examining Karol Wojtyła’s credentials, one must be “judging the pope” by examining Dominguez’s. But of course in reality one is doing no such thing in either case. Davies’s point involves a crass begging of the question: it presumes the very point that is disputed – John-Paul II’s legitimacy – as its grounds for forbidding us to question it.
(John S. Daly, Michael Davies — An Evaluation, 2nd ed. [Saint-Sauveur de Meilhan: Tradibooks, 2015], pp. 141-142; italics in original.)
It is clear, then, that the teaching and law that no one may judge the Pope has nothing to do with discerning whether a particular claimant is Pope — rather, it has everything to do with the fact that the Pope is the highest authority in the Church, and for this reason no one can question, appeal from, or overturn his judgment. That is what the Church means when she teaches that no one can judge the Pope.
Thus, we come to the ironic conclusion that not only are our “recognize-and-resist” opponents wrong to accuse us of “judging the Pope” for saying that Jorge Bergoglio isn’t Pope; rather, considering what judging the Pope really means, it is clear that they are the ones who are judging the (supposed) Pope, because they refuse, question, or pretend to overturn his teachings, laws, judgments, and decisions all the time. The Society of St. Pius X is a textbook example of this, for they are in essence running a parallel church with its own phony marriage tribunals and a faux quasi-magisterium, and they constantly subject the “Holy See” to their judgment instead of the other way around. For some more specific examples, see our post, “The Pope Speaks — You Decide?”.
Still not convinced? Have a look at the following papal quotes and see if you do not find in them condemnations of, in essence, the very things the SSPX and similar “recognize-and-resist” adherents habitually do or advocate:
Since this does not please the neo-schismatics, they follow the example of heretics of more recent times. They argue that the sentence of schism and excommunication pronounced against them by the Archbishop of Tyana, the Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople, was unjust, and consequently void of strength and influence. They have claimed also that they are unable to accept the sentence because the faithful might desert to the heretics if deprived of their ministration. These novel arguments were wholly unknown and unheard of by the ancient Fathers of the Church. For “the whole Church throughout the world knows that the See of the blessed Apostle Peter has the right of loosing again what any pontiffs have bound, since this See possesses the right of judging the whole Church, and no one may judge its judgment” [St. Gelasius, epistle 26, sect. 5]. The Jansenist heretics dared to teach such doctrines as that an excommunication pronounced by a lawful prelate could be ignored on a pretext of injustice. Each person should perform, as they said, his own particular duty despite an excommunication. Our predecessor of happy memory Clement XI in his constitution Unigenitus against the errors of Quesnell forbade and condemned statements of this kind [see Denz. 1441-43].
These statements were scarcely in any way different from some of John Wyclif’s which had previously been condemned by the Council of Constance and Martin V. Through human weakness a person could be unjustly punished with censure by his prelate. But it is still necessary, as Our predecessor St. Gregory the Great warned, “for a bishop’s subordinates to fear even an unjust condemnation and not to blame the judgment of the bishop rashly in case the fault which did not exist, since the condemnation was unjust, develops out of the pride of heated reproof” [Hom. 26 on the Gospels, sect. 6]. But if one should be afraid even of an unjust condemnation by one’s bishop, what must be said of those men who have been condemned for rebelling against their bishop and this Apostolic See and tearing to pieces as they are now doing by a new schism the seamless garment of Christ, which is the Church?
(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Quartus Supra, n. 10)
Similarly, it is to give proof of a submission which is far from sincere to set up some kind of opposition between one Pontiff and another. Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future council, or to a Pope who is better informed.
(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Epistola Tua)
Nor is it any less a matter of praise that in matters pertaining to ecclesiastical discipline you are distinguished by that perfect obedience of execution, of will, and of judgment towards the Holy See, which is such a mark of “the … authentic guidance of the Holy Spirit” [St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., L. III, c. 3].
Let no one take from you the glory of that rectitude in doctrine and fidelity in obedience due to the Vicar of Christ; among your ranks let there be no room for that “free examination” more fitting to the heterodox mentality than to the pride of the Christian, and according to which no one hesitates to summon before the tribunal of his own judgment even those things which have their origin in the Apostolic See.
(Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Sept. 10, 1957; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 1483, p. 760.)
These three quotations are a near-perfect condemnation of the position maintained by the Society of St. Pius X and its supporters, and they reiterate the Catholic view that the Pope cannot be judged by anyone on earth because he has no human superior, and a legally binding judgment can only be rendered by a superior.
This is why we call the recognize-and-resist adherents “Semi-Traditionalists” or “Neo-Traditionalists”: They embrace Tradition only up to an extent, only in part; and their understanding of Tradition is quite novel and therefore not genuinely traditional at all.
Having clarified what is and is not meant by “judging the Pope”, we can now consider the second question which presents itself: Can a true Pope be deposed?
Can a valid Pope be deposed?
If no one can judge the Pope because only a superior could judge him and the Pope has no superior on earth, then it follows necessarily that, a fortiori, he cannot be removed from his office, or deposed, since such actions involve a great deal more than just judging.
The subject matter of deposition is a bit tricky to research because in Church history, particularly in the first few centuries, the word “deposition” did not always enjoy the clearly defined meaning it does today (see Rev. H. A. Ayrinhac, Penal Legislation in the New Code of Canon Law [New York: Benziger, 1920], p. 145). However, at least since the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the definition of the term is settled, as Fr. Ayrinhac’s commentary on Canon 2303 expounds:
By deposition a cleric is deprived permanently of all offices, benefices, dignities, pensions and functions in the Church and becomes unable to acquire them in future; but he is not deprived of the clerical privileges nor reduced to the lay state, and he remains bound to comply with the obligations imposed by ordination, such as the obligation of celibacy and of the Divine Office.
Deposition implies more than suspension or privation of office, but less than degradation. It takes away the office or benefice, like privation, and not simply the right to exercise certain powers like suspension; and it creates moreover an inability for future promotion; but it does not, like degradation, deprive the offender of the clerical privileges (Wernz. n. 120).
(Ayrinhac, Penal Legislation, n. 168, p. 163)
We see, then, that deposition is by no means synonymous with removal from office. In fact, although it includes removal from office (“it takes away the office”), it is much more than that (see also Canon 2288). This is important to keep in mind when reading canonical or theological sources that speak about deposition.
Another significant distinction to be aware of is that a privation of office — i.e. the removal from office — is essentially different from the automatic loss of office that occurs by the very fact and without the need for a declaration if a cleric publicly defects from the Catholic Faith (see Canon 188 n.4). The Code of Canon Law, in fact, terms this automatic loss of office a “tacit resignation”, not a privation, removal, or deposition:
An in-depth discussion of Canon 188 n.4 now would exceed the scope of this post and will be left for a later time (you can read an older treatment of the subject here), but we mention it here to point out that it would be an error to think that because deposition and removal from office are impossible in the case of a Pope, that therefore it would also be impossible for a true Pope to automatically lose his office by tacit resignation through public defection from the Faith. Those are completely different things, and although we do not concede that it is possible for a true Pope to ever publicly defect from the Faith, we nevertheless insist, with the bishops at Vatican I, St. Robert Bellarmine, and the Code of Canon Law, that if a Pope could do such a thing, he would indeed immediately cease to be Pope.
An excellent pre-Vatican II study on tacit resignation is contained in the work The Renunciation of an Ecclesiastical Office by Fr. Gerald McDevitt (1945), which is now back in print. It comes as no surprise to us that in over 700 pages of True or False Pope?, Salza and Siscoe manage to mention or reference McDevitt exactly zero times. Instead, they spill their ink advancing positions by Cajetan, Suarez, and John of St. Thomas, who wrote well over 200 years beforethe First Vatican Council, the teachings of which rendered their theories on deposing a Pope untenable, as we already said.
This tactic of using as “evidence” for one’s theological position texts and arguments from ages past that were decided against by a definitive judgment from the Church later on, is not new. For example, at the time of Vatican I, Bp. Henri Maret used this trick in an attempt to justify certain Gallican doctrines against the theological position of the so-called Ultramontanist party that was later confirmed as orthodox by the council. Maret, who had published a two-volume work under the pseudonym “Bishop de Sura”, was answered by the famous Dom Prosper Gueranger of the Abbey of Solesmes, France. Gueranger’s response to all of Maret’s errors was published as The Papal Monarchy and received the explicit approbation of Pope Pius IX.
Here is what Abbot Gueranger had to say about Maret’s tactic:
[One] has only to study the decisions of these two ecumenical councils [of Lyons and Florence] and in this case, as in every other case of this type, to interpret the documents and the writings of earlier times according to the definitive judgments, and not the judgments according to the writings and documents that preceded them.
Now, His Excellency, Bishop de Sura, has done the second. Following Bossuet’s argument in his “Defense of the [Gallican] Declaration”, he has gone looking for proofs for his system in the periods preceding these two councils, seeking to lend an impossible degree of importance to facts which took place many centuries before the decisions in question….
…Bishop de Sura would like to prove to us that Gallicanism is present throughout antiquity. The prelate does not cite one single conciliar act to which it might have been in conformity, and he refrains from mentioning a hundred others that are explicitly along the lines of the decrees of Lyons and of Florence….
The host of facts, which Bishop de Sura has accumulated and presented in a light that is far from being genuine, could delude those of his readers who are strangers to ecclesiastical science; the others will not be surprised by it. They know that for most of the theses condemned by the Church at Trent and since, the fomenters of the proscribed doctrine have always been able to assemble a rather large bundle of texts and facts predating the definitive judgment, and that they have not failed to do so….
Bishop de Sura … has reversed the true theological method, in trying to weaken formal decisions by means of facts that preceded them, instead of explaining these facts with the help of those very decisions.
(Dom Prosper Gueranger, The Papal Monarchy [Fitzwilliam, NY: Loreto Publications, 2003], pp. 34-36; underlining added.)
This is eerily similar to what Salza and Siscoe like to do in True or False Pope?: turn to theological theories advanced at a time when they were still acceptable to hold or at least tolerated, and pretend that these ideas are still tenable today, even though since Vatican I and the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, they can no longer be maintained — which is precisely why Salza and Siscoe cannot quote or cite any twentieth-century Catholic theologian who agrees with them.
We see the same trick repeated on their web site, where they posted a pompous article entitled, “A Renowned 17th-Century Canonist Refutes Sedevacantism”. Why did they have to go back to the seventeenth century, ladies and gentlemen, to look for support for their position? Because at that time, the thesis advanced by the canonist in question (Fr. Paul Laymann) was still permitted to be held, whereas since the 1870 Vatican Council and the 1917 Code of Canon Law, this is no longer an option.
Don’t believe it? Don’t take our word for it; take that of Cardinal Louis Billot, S.J. (1846-1931). In his Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi (“Treatise on the Church of Christ”), the great Jesuit theologian addressed the question whether it was possible for a Pope to be deposed, and he did so in light not only of St. Robert Bellarmine’s teaching but, writing in the twentieth century, also in light of the decrees of the First Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law:
But as far as is certain, one must to the same degree hold as an undoubted fact that a person who has once and for all been elevated to the pontificate can be free from the pontificate itself by free abdication, just as much as in relation to an undoubted Pontiff, [a removal] can by no means come about through a deposition by which the Pontiff would be deprived of his authority by the Church or by any group existing in the Church. The general reason is that a superior is not deposed by an inferior. But the Pope is beyond each and every man in the Church, taken both distributively and collectively, and not only by way of general rule but also in view of any case or event at all, as is now evident from the precepts of ecclesiastical monarchy and openly stated below, where [I discuss] the power and guiding principle of the primacy. Wherefore, the opinion of the Gallicans on this point must be regarded in the same sense as their opinion about the superiority of a Council over the Pope, which now, after the definitions of the Vatican Council, has proved heretical.
Nor may you say that deposition is still conceivable, not, for instance, by direct removal of pontifical power (since this is immediately from God and has all other power in the Church under it), but the legitimacy which election produced would naturally without qualification be removed from the person of the Pontiff by a simple change of subject. In fact, this is recognized as contradictory on a number of points. Indeed, first, because the Pontiff would always be placed under legal liability to the judgment of inferiors, something that involves an open contradiction. Second, because the aforesaid change of person is not opposed correlatively to election but exists in another order, undoubtedly in the order of a jurisdictional and juridically capable act, and therefore it does not follow [that] if the person of the Pontiff can be appointed by men, he can therefore be deprived of legitimacy by men. Third, because the Church or the community of the Church does not retain any act with respect to the person of the Pontiff except the act of election. Therefore, with a canonical election completed, there remains nothing to do until there is occasion for a new election, and there is no occasion for a new election except subsequently at a vacancy of the see. Therefore, the impossibility of deposition is certain in every way. However, below we shall speak about what one must think concerning the fourth and fifth sessions of the Council of Constance.
(Cardinal Louis Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, 5th ed. [Rome: Gregorian Pontifical University, 1927], Question XIV, Thesis XXIX, pp. 628-629; underlining added.)
Having thus thoroughly demolished the idea that a true Pope can ever be deposed, Billot then proceeds to tackle the question of defection from the Church, i.e. what would happen if the Pope became a heretic, a schismatic, or an apostate (notice that this parallels our discussion from earlier, where we distinguished removal from office that occurs in deposition from tacit resignation that occurs concomitantly with public defection). Not surprisingly, Billot once again sides with us sedevacantists:
…if, in the case of heresy, a pope still remaining pope can be deposed by the Church, one of two things necessarily results: that a deposition does not affirm the deposer’s [ecclesiastical] superiority with respect to the deposed, or that a pope who remains pope in reality has, at least in reference to some event, a superior on earth. Moreover, once a way to deposition is opened, whether owing to the very nature of the thing or to positive law, there is no longer at hand any reason why the possibility of deposition should be restricted to only a case of heresy. For thenceforth all principles to which its incompatibility is generally connected are undermined, and nothing remains except a voluntary rule to which an arbitrary exception is added.
(Billot, de Ecclesia, p. 630)
In this, Billot refutes the erroneous position taken by Cardinal Cajetan and others before the First Vatican Council, which is now again being promoted by Salza, Siscoe, and the SSPX/resistance traditionalists at large. A lot more from Billot’s Thesis could be quoted but we will not do so here because it is too much text for a simple quote — instead, we invite you to read the Thesis in its entirety on your own because it deserves to be read in full and in proper context. To this end, we are providing an exclusive English translation of the whole of Thesis XXIX, of which the above is only a small excerpt. It can be accessed here:
- Cardinal Louis Billot on the Legitimacy of the Roman Pontiff
(taken from Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, 5th ed. , Question 14, Thesis 29)
In this Thesis, Cardinal Billot also briefly advances the idea that peaceful adherence by the whole Church to a particular papal claimant is an infallible sign that the individual in question is in fact a legitimate Pope. Salza and Siscoe have been using this as one of their main arguments against Sedevacantism, and we mention it here only for the sake of fairness, lest anyone accuse us of trying to “hide” what Billot says on the matter. We will address the issue of universal peaceful adherence at length in a subsequent article or blog post, but we will gloss over it here, because for discussing the impossibility of judging or deposing a Pope, the issue of peaceful acceptance is irrelevant.
In their book True or False Pope?, the anti-sedevacantist authors dedicate an entire chapter to arguing, albeit with countless supposed nuances, that a Pope can be deposed (pp. 331-368). Unfortunately, Cardinal Billot’s Thesis XXIX does not make an appearance in the chapter at all. In fact, throughout their book, Salza and Siscoe quote Cardinal Billot mainly with regard to the issue of universal peaceful adherence — but on the question of whether a Pope can be deposed, Billot is hardly cited at all, and where he is quoted he is misrepresented (e.g., on p. 151).
In any case, the foregoing sufficiently refutes the notion that a Pope can be deposed or removed from office. However, there is one argument of Salza and Siscoe that deserves to be addressed still, and that is the claim that although judging belongs by right to a superior, in the case of heresy, even an inferior may judge his superior. Salza and Siscoe claim that this was the position of St. Robert Bellarmine, as an “exception” to the principle that the First See can be judged by no one (pp. 300-303). Here is the quote they base their assertion on:
Firstly, because that a heretical Pope can be judged is expressly held in the Canon, Si Papa, dist. 40, and with [Pope] Innocent [III]. And what is more, in the Fourth Council of Constantinople, Act 7, the acts of the Roman Council under [Pope] Hadrian are recited, and in those it was contained that Pope Honorius appeared to be legally anathematized, because he had been convicted of heresy, the only reason where it is lawful for inferiors to judge superiors. Here the fact must be remarked upon that, although it is probable that Honorius was not a heretic, and that Pope Hadrian II was deceived by corrupted copies of the Sixth Council, which falsely reckoned Honorius was a heretic, we still cannot deny that Hadrian, with the Roman Council, and the whole Eighth Synod sensed that in the case of heresy, a Roman Pontiff can be judged. Add, that it would be the most miserable condition of the Church, if she should be compelled to recognize a wolf, manifestly prowling, for a shepherd.
(St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Ch. 30 [Mediatrix Press, 2015], pp. 304-310; underlining added.)
At first sight, it may indeed seem like St. Robert Bellarmine is going against what was later defined by Vatican I, namely, that no one can judge the First See. But as we saw earlier: “This principle, whether taken juridically or dogmatically, suffers no exception” (Burke, Competence in Ecclesiastical Tribunals, p. 87). So, what is going on here?
We may safely turn to Cardinal Billot for help, who addresses the examples given by Bellarmine of Popes Innocent III, Adrian II, etc., albeit in a slightly different context:
The authorities who object [that a Pope becoming a heretic is a real possibility] do not prove anything. First they cite the statement of Innocent III, in his Sermon 2 on the consecration of the Supreme Pontiff, where, speaking about himself, he says: “Faith is necessary to me to such a degree that, although I have God alone as judge of [my] other sins, I could be judged by the Church only by reason of a sin that is committed in the faith.” But surely Innocent does not affirm the case as simply possible, but, praising the necessity of faith, he says that it is so great that if, whether or not it is in the realm of possibility, a Pontiff should be found deviant from the faith, he would already be subject to the judgment of the Church by the reason that was stated above. And indeed it is a manner of speaking similar to that which the Apostle uses when wishing to show the unalterable truth of the Gospel: But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema.
(Billot, de Ecclesia, p. 630; underlining added.)
Put simply, when St. Robert Bellarmine says that a Pope can be judged in the case of heresy, he means it in a manner of speaking, much like St. Paul said that an angel from Heaven who preaches a false Gospel would be anathema (see Gal 1:8-9). Bellarmine does not mean that an inferior can legitimately render a canonical judgment against the Pope, his superior, by way of some mysterious exception — although this is what Salza and Siscoe insist is Bellarmine’s position (pp. 300-303) — any more than St. Paul meant that a genuine angel could actually preach a false gospel. Rather, Bellarmine simply means that if a Pope were to become a public heretic, he could then be judged by his inferiors because he would no longer be Pope — which is exactly what he argues in the very same chapter from which this quote is taken.
Likewise, the reason why Pope Adrian II could say that “in the case of heresy, a Roman Pontiff can be judged”, is not because heresy is some sort of exception to the principle codified at Vatican I that no one can judge the Pope, but because public heresy alone — together with schism and apostasy — is a sin that of its very nature can make a true Pope cease being Pope: “For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy” (Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 23).
That is why a superior can then be judged, so to speak, by his inferiors: because he is then no longer the lawful superior, but, being a heretic, he is cut off from the Body of the Church. This is what St. Robert Bellarmine means, and this is also how Cardinal Billot understands the Doctor of the Church, because he does not contradict St. Robert in any way, which would be odd because it is Billot who argues, as we saw, that for “the Pontiff [to] be placed under legal liability to the judgment of inferiors … involves an open contradiction” and that if one were to grant a single exception even for heresy, “there is no longer at hand any reason why the possibility of deposition should be restricted to only a case of heresy … and nothing remains except a voluntary rule to which an arbitrary exception is added.”
At last we have arrived at the end of our little excursion. We must disappoint the Semi-Traditionalist loudmouths who are currently roaming the internet calling for Francis to be deposed: Sorry, folks, but if Francis is a true Pope now, then no one can take the pontificate away from him. He cannot be removed from office; he cannot be deposed. You’re simply stuck with him. Welcome to Catholic teaching on the papacy.
The good news is, however, that Francis is not a valid Pope now, and never was. He is not a Catholic and therefore not eligibile to be Pope, no matter how many “cardinals” elect him. Remember that those who scream the loudest that sedevacantists are wrong and Francis is a valid Pope, waste no time refusing this “true Pope” the submission they owe him. As we said in our TRADCAST 012, it’s not just that the recognize-and-resist traditionalists are wrong about Francis being Pope, it is much worse: They are wrong about the papacy.
Accepting Jorge Bergoglio as Pope has consequences. Our opponents are now paying the price of their erroneous position that a public apostate can be a true and lawful successor of St. Peter.
By Joachim Specht (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons