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A much-misused quotation explained…

St. Robert Bellarmine’s Teaching on Resisting a Pope

For decades the proponents of the recognize-and-resist position have been using a quotation from St. Robert Bellarmine, the celebrated Doctor of the Church canonized by Pope Pius XI, in defense of their position and in apparent contradiction to Sedevacantism. The quote in question is the following (the precise wording varies a bit depending on which translation is used):

Just as it is licit to resist a 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. It is not licit, however, to judge him, to punish him, or to depose him, for these are acts proper to a superior.

(St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chapter 29)

The book from which this quote is taken, De Romano Pontifice (“On the Roman Pontiff”), has recently been translated into English by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. (available here) and also by Mr. Ryan Grant (available here).

As far back as 2004, the sedevacantist priest Fr. Anthony Cekada wrote an article explaining the context and meaning of this celebrated Bellarmine quote (italics given):

This passage, we have repeatedly been told, supports the notion that the traditionalist movement can “resist” the false doctrines, evil laws and sacrilegious worship that Paul VI and his successors promulgated, but still continue to “recognize” them as true Vicars of Christ. (This strange idea is also attributed to other theologians such as Cajetan.)

The same passage in Bellarmine — we have also been told — shoots down the principle behind sedevacantism (that a heretical pope automatically loses his office) because sedevacantists “judge” and “depose” the pope.

These conclusions, it turns out, are simply another example of how low intellectual standards in traditionalist polemics give birth to myths that quickly take on the aura of near-revealed truths.

Anyone who actually consults the original sources and who understands a few fundamental distinctions in canon law comes up with a completely different set of conclusions about what the famous “resistance” passage really means, to wit:

(1) Bellarmine is talking about a morally evil pope who gives morally evil commands — not one who, like the post-Vatican II popes, teaches doctrinal error or imposes evil laws.

(2) The context of the statement is a debate over the errors of Gallicanism, not the case of a heretical pope.

(3) Bellarmine is justifying “resistance” by kings and prelates, not by individual Catholics.

(4) Bellarmine teaches in the next chapter of his work (30) that a heretical pope automatically loses his authority.

In a word, the passage can neither be applied to the present crisis nor invoked against sedevacantism.

A brief comment on each of these four points is in order.

Fr. Cekada then proceeds to elaborate on each of these points. We will not reproduce the text here but simply link to the 3-page article:

Now that the entire De Romano Pontifice is available in English, people are able for themselves to see the full context in which Cardinal Bellarmine was speaking, and what he was and was not saying.

The reason we are bringing this topic up again at this time is that as of late, the Bellarmine resistance quote has been making the rounds again as the Bergoglian circus in the Vatican is reaching a fever pitch. In particular, the well-known recognize-and-resist polemicist Christopher Ferrara is fond of (mis)using the Bellarmine quote (latest case in point here), treating it as a blank check that allows him to blast Francis for anything he can while still maintaining that he is the Vicar of Christ — clearly the best of both worlds. Yet, why we should feel bound to accept the teaching of Cardinal Bellarmine while at the same time we are being asked to ignore and reject the teachings of a putative ecumenical council and a whole line of supposedly true Popes, is curiously never explained.

By the way, when it comes to other quotations by St. Robert Bellarmine, Ferrara & Co. are not quite so quick to share them with their readers; for example:

The Pope is the Teacher and Shepherd of the whole Church, thus, the whole Church is so bound to hear and follow him that if he would err, the whole Church would err.

Now our adversaries respond that the Church ought to hear him so long as he teaches correctly, for God must be heard more than men.

On the other hand, who will judge whether the Pope has taught rightly or not? For it is not for the sheep to judge whether the shepherd wanders off, not even and especially in those matters which are truly doubtful. Nor do Christian sheep have any greater judge or teacher to whom they might have recourse. As we showed above, from the whole Church one can appeal to the Pope yet, from him no one is able to appeal; therefore necessarily the whole Church will err if the Pontiff would err.

(De Romano Pontifice, Book IV, Chapter 3; Grant translation.)

Unfortunately, to our knowledge this quotation has never made it into the propaganda put out by the Society of St. Pius X, The Remnant, the Fatima Center, Catholic Family News, The Angelus, or any other of the self-appointed doctrinal babysitters of the supposed Holy See.

The following links are further important resources on what St. Robert Bellarmine taught and how it contradicts the recognize-and-resist position so popular among those who would be traditional Catholics but are strangely selective in what traditional teachings they accept:

Once again St. Robert Bellarmine has come to the defense of Sedevacantism. The reason for this is quite simply that Sedevacantism is nothing but Catholic principles applied to the strange times in which we live. That the Chair of St. Peter is vacant is simply a necessary conclusion at which we must ultimately arrive, given the incontrovertible empirical facts about the Modernist papal claimaints and the strange new church that has emerged since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
License: Public domain