What to do with a “heretical Pope”?
The Open Letter accusing Francis of Heresy:
A Sedevacantist Analysis
More than a week has now passed since the publication of the “Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church” released on Apr. 30 by nineteen Novus Ordo clergymen and academics accusing “Pope” Francis of being a pertinacious heretic and asking the addressees to declare him such and thereby remove him from office. Since then, many more academics and clerics have added their names to the Open Letter, and at the time of this writing, the total is up to 81 (see updates here).
While countless Novus Ordo web sites have covered the fallout from this so far and will continue to do so in the days to come, it is time for some sedevacantist analysis and commentary — the kind of assessment that you won’t get from most other sources, since Sedevacantism is the ugly duckling, the enfant terrible for those in the Vatican II Sect who consider themselves traditional Catholics. So far, only Fr. Anthony Cekada has weighed in briefly on the matter.
Before we begin, a clarifying reminder may be in order: We sedevacantists do not believe that Francis has lost the Papacy, either due to heresy or for any other reason. Rather, we believe that he never attained the Papacy in the first place, for the simple reason that, as a public heretic even before the 2013 conclave, he was simply not eligible for the Papacy or for any other office in the Catholic Church. That’s it in a nutshell.
There is another important point of which our readers should be aware: There are (at least) two ways to demonstrate that Francis is not a valid Pope: (a) by demonstrating he is not a Catholic and therefore cannot be the head of the Catholic Church — this is the argument from the cause (personal heresy); (b) by demonstrating that in his capacity as “Pope”, he has done things which, by divine law, are impossible for a Pope to do (for example, canonize notorious sinners as saints, establish disciplinary laws for the whole Church that are in themselves evil, heretical, impious, immoral, or otherwise harmful) — this is the argument from the effect (impossible actions).
Between these two different lines of argumentation, the argument from the effect is by far the more compelling, as it totally avoids the thorny issue of having to “judge” that someone claiming to be Pope is guilty of the personal sin of pertinacious (=willful) heresy, which a lot of people are uncomfortable doing because they mistakenly fear that this would necessarily mean they are engaging in “private judgment” or that they would be usurping authority they do not have (this too is inaccurate because no one is asking them to make a legal judgment, which would bind other consciences, but only a cognitive judgment concerning a manifest state of affairs; cf. 1 Cor 2:15).
But now on to the Open Letter. Perhaps one can characterize it, first and foremost, as a sincere but desperate attempt by a number of conservative Novus Ordos who are at their wits’ end with Francis to do something — anything — about the pink elephant in St. Peter’s Basilica. However flawed or insufficient the document and the approach may be, there is at least this one thing one can definitely give them credit for: At least they’re trying to do something! They can see that the situation is intolerable and is threatening to gradually destroy even every bit of what they believe Catholicism to be (namely, the Vatican II religion with a conservative spin); and so, as a drowning man tries to hold on to anything within reach, they are trying in their anguish to do whatever appears to be within their means to get the ball rolling in order to put an end to this disaster.
As regards the evidence for heresy and pertinacity on Francis’ part that is presented in the Open Letter, it will not be evaluated or discussed in this post. In the last 6+ years, Jorge Bergoglio has proved himself a public pertinacious heretic in so many ways and on so many occasions, that one might as well ask for proof that McDonald’s sells French fries. Francis is not a Catholic and is guilty as sin of public heresy and apostasy, and this is objectively manifest. Readers who are not familiar with the evidence may wish to take a look at this page:
We will now proceed to analyze and comment on the salient points of the Apr. 30 letter accusing Bergoglio of being a pertinacious heretic.
Addressed to the Wrong People
The Open Letter is addressed to the “bishops of the Catholic Church”, in other words, to the world’s Novus Ordo bishops. This is puzzling already because it’s not like that college of Modernist pretend-bishops has recently distinguished itself as being particularly concerned about orthodoxy. In fact, only a handful of names come to mind when one thinks of who among “Catholic bishops” in the Vatican II religion shows any genuine concern for the importance of Catholic Faith and the purity of doctrine — even the Novus Ordo version thereof.
On the other hand, it does not take long to think of a whole list of pseudo-episcopal scoundrels who are infamous for working to undermine Catholic Faith or morals, or what’s left of either in the Vatican II Church. Names like Mahony, Tobin, Cupich, Maradiaga, Baldisseri, Woelki, Stowe, Paglia, Muller, Farrell, Schonborn, Tagle, Wuerl, Kasper, Gumbleton, Lynch, Nichols, Ravasi, Kohlgraf, Marx, and Favalora may be known for a lot of things, but concern for orthodoxy is not one of them. In fact, with very rare exceptions these people cannot even so much as refuse “Holy Communion” to scandalous politicians, which they are required to do by their own canon law; much less do they penalize them with an excommunication. Are these people now going to excommunicate, as it were, the man they believe to be the Pope? Fat chance!
Already at the outset, then, the authors’ endeavor is doomed to failure: They’re simply addressing the wrong people. Heretics don’t generally care much for orthodoxy. Then again, to whom were they going to appeal instead? Who else is there? And that is the crux of the matter: What recourse can be had concerning the problem of a “heretical Pope”, if such a thing can exist? Who can be appealed to? Thankfully, the question simply does not present itself, for a heretical Pope — that is, someone who is at the same time a public non-Catholic and also the head of the Catholic Church — is an impossibility. One might as well ask what to do about a four-sided triangle or how to cope with a married bachelor. But more on that later.
Heresy as Canonical Delict
In their first paragraph, the signatories of the Open Letter say they are writing “to accuse Pope Francis of the canonical delict of heresy”. Notice they are not accusing him simply of heresy but of “the canonical delict.” Heresy can be looked at from the moral point of view (as a sin against God, dealt with by moral theology), and it can be looked at from the canonical point of view (as a crime or delict against Church law, dealt with by canon law). Clearly, the authors are accusing Francis of the canonical crime, which, however, presumes the personal sin as well, according to the defintion given in canon law: “By the term delict in ecclesiastical law is understood an external and morally imputable violation of a law to which a canonical sanction, at least an indeterminate one, is attached” (1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 2195 §1; underlining added).
By accusing Francis of the canonical delict rather than simply of the public sin, the authors have shot themselves in the foot. Canon law is absolutely clear — and this is really just a restatement of Catholic dogma — that the Pope cannot be judged by any mortal: “The First See is judged by no one” (Canon 1556).
Nor, in fact, can he incur any canonical penalty, for Canon 2227 states:
§1. A penalty cannot be imposed or declared against those mentioned in Canon 1557 §1, except by the Roman Pontiff.
§2. Unless expressly named, Cardinals of the H. R. C. [Holy Roman Church] are not included under penal law, nor are Bishops [liable] to the penalty of automatic suspension and interdict.
The people “mentioned in Canon 1557 §1” include all heads of state (n. 1), all cardinals (n. 2), all legates of the Holy See, and, “in criminal cases, Bishops, even titular ones” (n. 3). Since, then, even cardinals are exempt from the penalties of canon law and are judged by the Roman Pontiff directly, what were the authors of the Open Letter thinking in asking the “Pope’s” inferiors to apply canonical penalties against him who “is judged by no one”? (All this, by the way, is also contained in the Novus Ordo 1983 Code of Canon Law; see Canons 1321; 1404-1405.)
A Heresy Trial for the Pope?
After listing copious documentation to support their accusation that Francis denies Catholic dogma and does so pertinaciously, the accusers state: “Despite the evidence that we have put forward in this letter, we recognise that it does not belong to us to declare the pope guilty of the delict of heresy in a way that would have canonical consequences for Catholics” (p. 15).
This is an interesting admission. If Francis is Pope, then indeed they do not have the power to “declare the pope guilty of heresy” — because they are his inferiors, and an accused person can only be declared guilty in a legally valid and binding way by a superior whose subject he is:
The Supreme Pontiff has the highest legislative, administrative and judicial power in the Church. The Code [of Canon Law] 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.)
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 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 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.)
Strangely enough, however, although they recognize their own powerlessness to legally judge, convict, punish, or depose the “Pope” for heresy, the signatories have nevertheless decided that somehow the “bishops” they are addressing are competent to do these things, when they too, of course, are but Francis’ inferiors:
We therefore appeal to you as our spiritual fathers, vicars of Christ within your own jurisdictions and not vicars of the Roman pontiff, publicly to admonish Pope Francis to abjure the heresies that he has professed. Even prescinding from the question of his personal adherence to these heretical beliefs, the Pope’s behaviour in regard to the seven propositions contradicting divinely revealed truth, mentioned at the beginning of this Letter, justifies the accusation of the delict of heresy. It is beyond a doubt that he promotes and spreads heretical views on these points. Promoting and spreading heresy provides sufficient grounds in itself for an accusation of the delict of heresy. There is, therefore, superabundant reason for the bishops to take the accusation of heresy seriously and to try to remedy the situation.
(“Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church”, Easter Week, 2019, p. 15)
Here the authors state that they want the Novus Ordo bishops they are addressing to “admonish Pope Francis to abjure the heresies that he has professed.” In the very next paragraph, they elaborate:
Since Pope Francis has manifested heresy by his actions as well as by his words, any abjuration must involve repudiating and reversing these actions, including his nomination of bishops and cardinals who have supported these heresies by their words or actions. Such an admonition is a duty of fraternal charity to the Pope, as well as a duty to the Church. If – which God forbid! – Pope Francis does not bear the fruit of true repentance in response to these admonitions, we request that you carry out your duty of office to declare that he has committed the canonical delict of heresy and that he must suffer the canonical consequences of this crime.
(“Open Letter”, p. 15)
This passage is fraught with problems.
First, by what authority do the signatories think they can specify what the “bishops” must do, and even more so, how Francis must react, in order for him not to lose the pontificate they believe him to be holding? Second, what kind of theology underlies this demand? If the Pope has no superior and therefore cannot be tried or judged by anyone, then no one can threaten him with canonical consequences if he should fail to act in a certain way.
The only way bishops could declare that a Pope has lost his office is if he is already not Pope and this is manifest. What is impossible is that he should remain Pope until such time as a declaration should come. For if he is Pope before the declaration, then the declaration cannot be made, for it would amount to judging the Pope, which is impossible. But if a declaration can be issued, then it must be manifest that he is already not Pope even before the declaration, for which reasons the bishops can issue it.
Given these considerations, it simply makes no sense for the authors of the Letter to give Francis a chance to recant (abjure) in order for him not to cease to be Pope. The accusers have been very clear that Francis is already a manifest pertinacious heretic, on account of which they have taken the liberty of asking the Novus Ordo bishops to declare him to have forfeited his office. Their accusation is precisely that he professes heresy and is pertinacious in it, and that this is manifest.
What, then, would repentance accomplish as far as the papal office he supposedly holds is concerned? All it could do is make a heretical pseudo-Pope into a repentant and formerly heretical pseudo-Pope, nothing more. It could not prevent him from having committed pertinacious heresy already, nor could it keep him from losing the pontificate they believe him to hold, since that is lost by public pertinacious heresy alone, as we will see, and not by public-pertinacious-heresy-if-he-doesn’t-do-what-his-inferiors-tell-him-to.
A ‘Faithful Minority’ can depose a Pope?
The Open Letter gets more problematic still:
These actions do not need to be taken by all the bishops of the Catholic Church, or even by a majority of them. A substantial and representative part of the faithful bishops of the Church would have the power to take these actions. Given the open, comprehensive and devastating nature of the heresy of Pope Francis, willingness publicly to admonish Pope Francis for heresy appears now to be a necessary condition for being a faithful bishop of the Catholic Church.
(“Open Letter”, pp. 15-16)
This is just indefensible. If the actions the authors believe their addressees must take need not be taken “by a majority of them”, much less all of them, then how is this supposed to work? What criterion will suffice then as having established that the “Pope” is a heretic and no longer holds his office? A minority of bishops? Then what about the majority that disagrees?
The authors offer a handy standard, though without any justification: The deed is to be done by a “substantial and representative part of the faithful bishops of the Church.” Note well — it’s not just a substantial and representative part of the bishops but of the faithful bishops! And you can probably guess who has already determined who counts as a faithful bishop — precisely, the authors of the Open Letter! And so in the same breath they offer yet another gratuitous criterion for identifying just who is faithful: why, those who are willing to do what they’re being told in the Letter, of course! By that definition, it looks like the verdict will be unanimous after all….
An Attempt at Theological Justification
On p. 16 of the document, the accusers maintain that their “course of action is supported and required by canon law and the tradition of the Church”, and they append an attempt at theological justification for it, entitled “Canon law and Catholic theology concerning the situation of a heretical pope”.
Of course the appendix begins by mentioning the seventh-century Pope Honorius I, a case concerning which enough has been written in the past so that there is no need to repeat it here. We simply ask our readers to review the following links:
- The Case of Pope Honorius I
- The Primacy and Infallibility of the Sovereign Pontiffs: Honorius I
- Does the Pope Honorius Affair Refute Sedevacantism?
Regarding the possibility of a “heretical Pope” (Papa haereticus), that is, the possibility of a true Pope becoming a heretic in his private capacity (as a private person and not as part the exercise of his magisterium, as will be explained later; cf. Denz. 1837) and what would have to be done in such a case, theologians are divided and the Church has never made a definitive pronouncement either way. Theologians have therefore addressed the question at least hypothetically.
After the First Vatican Council (1870), whose dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus contains copious teaching about the Papacy, we find theologians treating of the Papa haereticus scenario only minimally. The canonist Fr. Charles Augustine Bachofen, for example, considered it a “purely academical question”, that is, the question “whether a Pope coud be deposed if he became a heretic or a schismatic.” His response: “Nego suppositum“, meaning, “I deny the supposition” (Rev. Chas. Augustine, A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law, vol. II [London: B. Herder Book Co., 1918], p. 211).
The renowned canonist Fr. Matthaeus Conte a Coronata summarizes the state of the question thus:
…it cannot be proved that the Roman Pontiff, as a private teacher [!], cannot become a heretic, for example, if he contumaciously denies a dogma previously defined; this impeccability was nowhere promised to him by God. On the contrary, [Pope] Innocent III expressly admits that the case can be conceded. But if the case should take place, he falls from office by divine law, without any sentence, not even a declaratory one. For he who openly professes heresy places his very self outside the Church, and it is not probable that Christ preserves the Primacy of His Church with such an unworthy individual. Consequently, if the Roman Pontiff professes heresy, he is deprived of his authority before any whatsoever sentence, which [sentence] is impossible.
(Rev. Matthaeus Conte a Coronata, Institutiones Iuris Canonici, vol. I, 4th ed. [Rome: Marietti, 1950], n. 316c; our translation; underlining added.)
Fr. Joachim Salaverri, in his comprehensive treatise on the Church of Christ, devotes only one short paragraph to the question of the heretical Pope:
Whether or not the Pope as a private person [!] can fall into heresy? Theologians dispute about this question. It seems to us “more pious and probable” to hold that God in his providence will see to it “that the Pope will never be a heretic.” For, this opinion, which was held by Bellarmine and Suarez, also was praised at Vatican Council I by Bishop Zinelli, Secretary for the Faith, when he said: “Because we rely on supernatural Providence, we think it is sufficiently probably that this will never happen. For God is not lacking in essentials, and therefore, if He were to permit such an evil, there would not be lacking the means to provide for it.”
(Rev. Joachim Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB: On the Church of Christ, trans. by Rev. Kenneth Baker [original Latin published by BAC, 1955; English published by Keep the Faith, 2015], n. 657; italics in original.)
The celebrated Cardinal Louis Billot treats of the question of the Papa haereticus more elaborately in Question XIV, Thesis XXIX of his Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi (“Treatise on the Church of Christ”), which is well worth a read. He concludes, similary to Fr. Augustine, that “although there is justification for the hypothesis of a Pontiff who might become notoriously heretical, God would never allow it even to be a-priori believable for the Church to land in so many troubles of such kind”.
The canonist Fr. Matthew Ramstein, too, does not have too much to say on the topic of a heretical Pope. His only paragraph dealing with the topic ends with the words: “How the fact of heresy and of consequent vacancy of the papal chair would be determined is difficult to understand” (A Manual of Canon Law [Hoboken, NJ: Terminal Printing & Publishing Co., 1948], p. 193).
Far from there being some “course of action [that] is supported and required by canon law and the tradition of the Church”, as the authors of the Open Letter would have it, the fact is that the consensus of theologians after Vatican I is that, since the Pope cannot be brought to trial by anyone, nor judged or deposed by anyone, if he ever should become a public heretic in his private capacity, he would immediately and by that fact alone cease to be Pope, having, as it were, removed himself from the Papacy. A declaratory sentence is neither required nor possible for such self-deposition to occur.
This is echoed by the Novus Ordo theologian “Abp.” John Michael Miller, who, after giving the historical background to the debate over the Papa haereticus, writes:
At present, the Church has no canonical norms for dealing with a heretical pope. On the one hand, the pope is obviously in the Church, belonging to the community of faith. Like any Catholic who publicly professes heresy, a pope would place himself outside her communion and by that very fact loses his ministry….
It is difficult to imagine what specific juridical procedures could be drawn up to deal with the situation should it arise…. Because it concerns a question of fact rather than law, there can be no set legal procedure for this process.
(J. Michael Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock [Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1995], p. 293)
Thus everyone can see that the position of the automatic and immediate self-deposition of a Pope who becomes a heretic is not some idea crazy sedevacantists have cooked up but is thoroughly grounded in Catholic theology as informed by the teachings of the First Vatican Council, and it is retained even in Novus Ordo theology.
Speaking of Vatican I, the question of what ought to be done with a Pope who defects into heresy actually came up during the proceedings of that council. Abp. John Purcell of Cincinnati, United States, relates how it was answered by the doctrinal commission:
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.)
More information on this historical tidbit can be found here.
The Pope is judged by No One — except in case of Heresy?
The authors of the Open Letter are quite aware, of course, that a true Pope cannot be judged or removed from office by anyone, even for heresy, and they state as much: “It is agreed that the Church does not have jurisdiction over the pope, and hence that the Church cannot remove a pope from office by an exercise of superior authority, even for the crime of heresy” (p. 17). And yet, they attempt to relativize this principle on the next page with specious argumentation:
The first canon to give explicit consideration to the possibility of papal heresy is found in the Decretum of Gratian. Distinctio XL, canon 6 of the Decretum states that the pope can be judged by no-one, unless he is found to have deviated from the faith…
The canonical assertion that the pope can be judged for heresy came into being as an explication of the canonical principle that the pope is judged by no-one. The statement in this canon is an enunciation of a privilege; its object is to assert that the pope has the widest possible exemption from judgement by others.
This canon was included, along with the rest of the Decretum of Gratian, in the Corpus iuris canonici, which formed the basis of canon law in the Latin Church until 1917. Its authority is supported by papal authority itself, since the canon law of the Church is upheld by papal authority. It was taught by Pope Innocent III, who asserted in his sermon on the consecration of the Supreme Pontiff that “God was his sole judge for other sins, and that he could be judged by the Church only for sins committed against the faith”…. Rejection of the canon in the Decretum would undermine the canonical foundation for papal primacy itself, since this canon forms part of the legal basis for the principle that the Pope is judged by no-one.
(“Open Letter”, pp. 18-19)
The signatories of the Open Letter seem to think that the expression that a Pope can be judged when it comes to heresy expresses a qualification, restriction, relativization, or exception to the general rule that the Pope cannot be judged by anyone, but this is not so. Rather, the simple truth is that the only reason why a Pope — so to speak — can be judged for heresy is that he is no longer Pope if he is a heretic. This fact alone explains why judgment is licit in that case.
This position was first enunciated, it seems, by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada and later adopted by St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church:
In the Summa de Ecclesia, one of the earliest and most influential ecclesiological treatises of the late Middle Ages, John of Torquemada (+1468), for example, admitted that a heretical pope could, in a certain sense, be “judged” by a council. Even so, the council would not be judging a true pope. Precisely because he was heretical, he would already have ceased, by that very fact, to hold the papal office. Jesus’ words, “He who does not believe is condemned already” (Jn 3:18), provided a bilical proof text which justified the automatic loss of office if a pope fell into heresy.
After the Council of Trent, Robert Bellarmine (+1621) and others took up the theory of John of Torquemada: a pope who falls into heresy forfeits his office. No formal deposition is required since divine law already put the pope outside the Church. A kind of direct divine deposition took place, stripping the pope of his primacy. Whatever juridical body “judged” the pope would simply declare the fact of the pope’s heresy, making public that he was no longer in communion with the Church. Theologians frequently compared such a declaration to a death certificate, which publicly makes the death known but does not cause it. With regard to heresy, this judgment would, however, have legal consequences. The Church would be free to elect a new pope. Because these theologians did not give an ecumenical council the right to depose a pope, their theory avoids the pitfalls of [the heresy of] conciliarism.
(Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock, p. 292; underlining added.)
Thus, to say that the Pope cannot be judged “except in the case of heresy” is not to say that there is an exception to the impossibility of judging a Pope — rather, it is to say that a public heretic is already not Pope and therefore can be judged. This is the only way to understand this qualification in accordance with Church teaching.
In his treatise on the Church, Cardinal Billot addressed these very objections made by the signers of the Open Letter, as follows:
The authorities who object on the opposite side of the question 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. For Innocent had said earlier: “If I were not made firm in the faith, how could I strengthen others in the faith? That is what is recognized as pertaining especially to my office, as the Lord witnesses: I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith not fail; and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren. He prayed and He brought it to pass, since He was heard in all things out of reverence for Him. And therefore the faith of the apostolic see has never failed in any disturbance, but has always remained whole and unimpaired in order that the privilege of Peter should persist unshaken.” Consequently, that statement is rather in opposition to adversaries, unless they should say that by it Innocent actually means he can sometimes lack that which the Lord procured for Peter as necessary for the office to which he appointed him.
They also cite the statement of Hadrian II in the third address read in Ecumenical Council VIII, Action 7: “We read that the Roman Pontiff has judged the bishops of all the churches; but we do not read of anyone who has judged him. For although after his death the Eastern churches anathematized Honorius, nevertheless it must be recognized that he had been accused of heresy, by reason of which alone inferiors may resist the initiatives of their superiors or freely reject the wicked senses. Although even in that case it would not have been ever so much lawful for any of the patriarchs or other bishops to carry out the sentence against him unless the approval of the concurrence of the Pontiff of the same first see had preceded.” But what does this matter, since it is well known that Honorius by no means fell into heresy, but only negatively favored the same by not using the supreme authority to root out the incipient error, and in this sense he is said to have been accused in the matter of heresy? Accordingly, in the same Ecumenical Council VIII, Action 1, a formula sent by the same Hadrian had been appended, in which, with no restriction attached, one reads the following: “In view of the fact that the Catholic religion has always been preserved in the apostolic see, and holy doctrine has been proclaimed.” If on the other hand the sense of Hadrian is not that Honorius fell into heresy, those who use that statement to argue that the Roman Pontiff can become a heretic have no ground to stand upon.
Lastly they advance a point of canon law, Distinction 40, canon 6 Si papa: “No mortal on earth presumes to prove the (pope) guilty of faults, since he who is to judge all men must not be judged by any man, unless he be discovered to be deviant from the faith.” But, above all else, one must bear in mind that this citation is taken from the Decretum of Gratian, in which there is no authority except the intrinsic authority of the documents that are found collected in it. Moreover, there is no one at all who would deny that those documents, some indeed authentic and others apocryphal, are of unequal value. Finally, it is more than highly likely that the previously cited canon under the name of the martyr Boniface must be considered to be included among the apocryphal documents. However, Bellarmine in this case also replies: “Those canons do not mean to say that the Pontiff as a private person can err (heretically), but only that the Pontiff cannot be judged. Nevertheless since it is not wholly certain whether a Pontiff can or cannot be a heretic, for this reason they add out of an abundance of caution [the following] condition: unless he become a heretic” [Bellarmine, Book 4, De Romano Pontifice, chapter 7].
(Cardinal Louis Billot, Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi, 5th ed., q. XIV, th. XXIX [Rome: Gregorian Pontifical University, 1927], pp. 633-635; italics given; underlining added; our translation.)
It is unfortunate that the signatories of the Open Letter spent so much time worrying about theological opinions on these questions expressed before the First Vatican Council but not afterwards.
Canonical Warnings needed to prevent Chaos?
All the examples the signatories of the Open Letter give with regard to warnings having to be issued to the “heretical Pope” are irrelevant because, unlike what theological positions may have been permitted in “the early canonical tradition”, the Church has long clarified that the Pope cannot be brought to trial or judged by anyone, and warnings — if they are to be canonically significant — can only be issued by a human superior, of which the Pope has none.
The idea that inferiors could issue warnings that bind a Pope’s conscience is downright silly. How do the authors envision this in the case of Francis? Shall “Cardinals” Burke and Sarah together with “Bishops” Schneider and Gracida send a letter to Francis warning him that they will “remove the papacy” from him? Do they not think that Francis would respond by removing something from them? In any case, what will they do if “Cardinals” Maradiaga, Cupich, and Marx then join “Archbishops” Paglia and Wester in support of Bergoglio, denouncing his opponents? Which of these putative bishops would a Catholic then be obliged — or even permitted — to follow?
Alas, the Open Letter gets stranger still as it goes on. After pointing out that they disagree with “Sedevacantist authors” concerning this matter, the signatories declare that if it were true that “a pope automatically loses the papal office as the result of public heresy, with no intervention by the Church being required or permissible”, then this “would throw the Church into chaos in the event of a pope embracing heresy….”
Now this is just rich. Ladies and gentlemen, which creates the greater chaos? The idea that Francis is Pope or that he isn’t Pope? To ask the question is to answer it. It cannot and need not be denied that of course a Pope becoming a heretic and immediately/automatically ceasing to be Pope would create a chaotic scene and be a grave hardship for the Church — Cardinal Billot referred to “so many troubles of such kind” this would bring about — but by no means would it lead to more or even as much chaos as what the Novus Ordo Sect currently has on display. After all, Francis is able to do so much damage to souls precisely because he is accepted as Pope by practically the whole world.
Let’s have a look at how the canonist Fr. Gerald McDevitt assesses the issue of spiritual harm with regard to loss of office:
Since it is not only incongruous that one who has publicly defected from the faith should remain in an ecclesiastical office, but since such a condition might also be the source of serious spiritual harm when the care of souls in concerned, the Code [of Canon Law] prescribes [in Canon 188 n. 4] that a cleric tacitly renounces his office by public defection from the faith.
(Rev. Gerald V. McDevitt, The Renunciation of an Ecclesiastical Office [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1946], p. 136; underlining added.)
In other words, the immediate and automatic loss of office for heresy is precisely what prevents or at least lessens serious spiritual harm.
The idea that any bishop — not just the Pope — forfeits his office as soon as it becomes public that he is a pertinacious heretic, is easily confirmed just by consulting the pertinent literature on the question. Instead of digging up theories held by some in the early Church or in the eleventh century, the authors of the Open Letter should have simply looked more closely at the past century:
This crime [public heresy or apostasy] presupposes not an internal, or even external but occult act, but a public defection from the faith through formal heresy, or apostasy, with or without affiliation with another religious society…. The public character of this crime must be understood in the light of canon 2197 n. 1. Hence, if a bishop were guilty of this violation and the fact were divulged to the greater part of the town or community, the crime would be public and the see ipso facto [by that very fact] becomes vacant.
(Rev. Leo Arnold Jaeger, The Administration of Vacant and Quasi-Vacant Dioceses in the United States [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1932], p. 82; underlining added.)
Note well: Even in the case of a simple bishop, who has a clear superior in the Pope and can easily be judged by him, the bishop loses his office for heresy as soon as that heresy and its pertinacity are public (defined in canon 2197 n. 1 as “already known or [committed] in such circumstances that it can be and must be prudently judged that it will easily become known”) — even before the judgment by the Holy See. This is confirmed even more explicitly by the same author a few pages later:
…when a bishop tacitly resigns, as in the case of apostacy [sic], heresy, etc., the see becomes fully vacant the moment the crime becomes public. According to a strict interpretation of the law, the jurisdiction of the bishop passes at that moment to the Board [of Diocesan Consultors], who may validly and licitly begin to exercise its power, as long as there is certainty that the crime has become public. In practice, however, it would probably be more prudent on the part of the Board, instead of assuming the governance of the see immediately, to notify the Holy See without delay, and await for such provisions which the Supreme Authority might choose to make.
(Jaeger, Administration, p. 98; underlining added.)
It is simply a matter of practical prudence that, ordinarily, it will probably be better to wait for the Apostolic See to issue a judgment against a manifestly heretical bishop — but this is not necessary, strictly speaking. And if this be so with the case of a mere bishop, who can easily be brought to trial and to whom warnings can be issued, etc. — how much more does this have to be true for the Pope himself, who has no superior and cannot be judged by any man?
Although the authors of the Open Letter go out of their way to assert that “the pope cannot fall from office without action by the bishops of the Church” (p. 19) — while at the same time maintaining, of course, that “the Church does not have jurisdiction over the pope, and hence … the Church cannot remove a pope from office by an exercise of superior authority, even for the crime of heresy” (p. 17) — they also add a little footnote to hedge their bet: “We do not reject the possibility that a pope who publicly rejected the Catholic faith and publicly converted to a non-Catholic religion could thereby lose the papal office.” But this disclaimer overturns their entire thesis because it admits in principle that the Pope does lose his pontificate automatically as soon as his rejection of the Catholic Faith is sufficiently manifest. The only question that remains, then, is one of degree — how manifest is manifest enough? — and not of kind.
When a Pope can — and cannot — become a Heretic
Another critical point to note — one that the Open Letter does not address at all — is that it is utterly impossible for a Pope to defect into heresy in his capacity as Pope, that is, in the exercise of his magisterium. All the controversy concerning the Papa haereticus that theologians even consider as a possiblity is that of a Pope becoming a public heretic in his private capacity, not as the head of the Church, as we have already seen in some of the quotes above. On this point, Fr. Ramstein is emphatic:
If the Pope should happen to fall into heresy, he is no longer a member of the Church, much less its head. It is understood that the Pope cannot be guilty of heresy when he speaks infallibly ex cathedra. The supposition is only possible should the Pope teach heretical doctrine in a private capacity.
(Ramstein, A Manual of Canon Law, p. 193; underlining added.)
But this distinction is not only not drawn by the signatories of the Open Letter; on the contrary, they maintain precisely that Francis has taught heresy in his magisterium, especially as found in the exhortation Amoris Laetitia but also in other Novus Ordo magisterial sources from which they draw data as evidence for his heretical depravity. Thus they have themselves violated Catholic dogma:
…in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved untainted, and holy doctrine celebrated…. For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth. Indeed, all the venerable fathers have embraced their apostolic doctrine, and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed it, knowing full well that the See of St. Peter always remains unimpaired by any error, according to the divine promise of our Lord the Savior made to the chief of His disciples: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren” [Luke 22:32].
(Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 4; Denz. 1833, 1836; underlining added.)
…it can never be that the church committed to the care of Peter shall succumb or in any wise fail. “For the Church, as the edifice of Christ who has wisely built ‘His house upon a rock,’ cannot be conquered by the gates of Hell, which may prevail over any man who shall be off the rock and outside the Church, but shall be powerless against it”. Therefore God confided His Church to Peter so that he might safely guard it with his unconquerable power.
(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 12)
Many more quotes on God’s guarantees for the Papacy can be found here.
The authors might respond to this argument by quoting from p. 1 of their Open Letter: “We do not claim that [Francis] has denied truths of the faith in pronouncements that satisfy the conditions for an infallible papal teaching. We assert that this would be impossible, since it would be incompatible with the guidance given to the Church by the Holy Spirit.”
But here the authors have misunderstood something: The Pope cannot be a heretic at all, not only not in his ex cathedra statements. Heresy is more than simple error — it is the denial of dogma, and willful public adherence to it makes one a non-Catholic, not just a bad Catholic. If the Pope could teach heresy in his non-infallible teachings, then he simply would and could not be the rock against which the gates of hell cannot prevail (cf. Mt 16:18).
Not always Infallible, but always Safe
A Pope’s non-infallible teaching, by definition, does not come with the guarantee of infallible truth, but it does come with the guarantee of infallible safety:
The Holy Apostolic See, to which the safeguarding of the deposit of faith and the attendant duty and office of feeding the universal Church for the salvation of souls have been divinely entrusted, can prescribe theological pronouncements — or even pronouncements to the extent they are connected with ones that are theological — as teachings to be followed, or it can censure them as teachings not to be followed, not solely with the intention of infallibly determining truth by a definitive pronouncement, but also necessarily and designedly apart from that aim, either without qualification or by way of limited supplements, to provide for the safety of Catholic doctrine (cf. Zaccaria, Antifebronius vindicatus, vol. II, diss. V, chap. 2, no. 1). Although infallible truth of doctrine may not be present in declarations of this kind (because, presumably, the intention of determining infallible truth is not present), nevertheless, infallible safety is present. I speak of both the objective safety of declared doctrine (either without qualification or by way of limited supplements, as mentioned) and the subjective safety of declared doctrine, insofar as it is safe for everyone to adopt it, and it is unsafe and impossible for anyone to refuse to adopt it without a violation of due submission towards the divinely established magisterium.
(Cardinal John Baptist Franzelin, Tractatus de Divina Traditione et Scriptura, 2nd ed. [Rome: Ex Typ. S.C. de Propaganda Fide, 1875], Thesis XII, Principle VII; our translation; italics removed; underlining added. The entire work is available in English, translated by Ryan Grant, as On Divine Tradition [Sensus Traditionis Press, 2016].)
This explains why the Church requires us to submit to all papal teaching, not just to that which is infallible. If it were not guaranteed to be safe, then submission would be downright dangerous — even if it were merely optional! Yes, Catholicism demands Faith (cf. 2 Cor 5:7), and here we can see who really believes in the Papacy — it is us sedevacantists!
That papal teaching is always perfectly safe also agrees with common sense: It is one thing for a non-infallible teaching to contain an innocuous error but quite another still for it to contain heresy, which is a very denial of the Faith, poison for souls! A simple analogy from daily life helps to illustrate that: It is one thing for the doctor not to be able to guarantee that the patient is in perfect health; but this does not imply that therefore the patient might be suffering from stage IV brain cancer.
For further details on this issue, please see the following links:
- Would God permit a Non-Catholic Pope? Response to Peter Kwasniewski
- Do Catholics have to Assent to Non-Infallible Church Teaching?
- Ferrara’s Fatal Flaw on Sedevacantism
Quite simply, a Pope (or Church) who can teach heresy at any point except in rare ex cathedra pronouncements is not credible as a divinely instituted authority, one God Himself calls “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and against which He guarantees that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Mt 16:18).
Reading the Open Letter and the different reactions to it from the authors’ co-religionists — those that are sympathetic, those that are hostile, and those who fall in between — one will discover that each side makes some good points, and yet each side also says things that are unacceptable. There is one simple reason for that: It’s because each side is partially correct — and partially in error.
Those who denounce Francis as a manifest heretic are right in doing so; those who point out that a Pope cannot be judged or deposed, are correct as well; and so are those who say each believer has an obligation to assent even to a Pope’s non-infallible teaching. All this is true — but if you put it all together, you get the sedevacantist conclusion: There is no way Bergoglio could possibly be Pope. But because all sides are hell-bent on avoiding that very inference, they necessarily all err in some respect or another.
One thing is always important to keep in mind: The only — or at least the ultimate — reason why the signatories of the Open Letter take the luxury of still considering Francis to be a true Pope until the “bishops” — at least the faithful ones; wink, wink — declare otherwise, is that they reserve the right to simply refuse him submission in the meantime. It’s a kind of best-of-both-worlds scenario for them: It has all the advantages of Sedevacantism — the refusal of Bergoglian garbage — and none of the disadvantages. The only problem is: It runs afoul of Catholic teaching on the Papacy.
Interestingly enough, however, this aspect of their position is never much dwelt upon or justified — it is always tacitly assumed that of course a heretical Pope need not or cannot be submitted to. After all, we are not permitted to submit to heresy. But then, by the same token, we are required to submit to any valid Pope — not just the “non-heretical” ones. How is this possible? It is possible because, at worst, the Pope can become a heretic in his capacity as a private individual — it is totally impossible that any such privately held heresy could infect his Magisterium (regardless of whether we’re talking about the infallible or fallible kind). We challenge the Novus Ordo scholars and clergy in question to produce even one approved Catholic theologian after the First Vatican Council who taught that a Pope can teach heresy in any of his magisterial acts. Good luck.
While we wait, all readers of this blog who have not done so already, are invited to take the Francis Papacy Test to verify for themselves the intrinsic impossibility of Francis being a true Pope, regardless of whether he is personally guilty of the sin or delict of heresy.
To sum up our assessment of the Open Letter in a single sentence: The signatories are using heretical theology to ask heretics to accuse their “Pope” of heresy.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict: This isn’t going to work, fellows.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
License: Public domain
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