Fr. Felix Cappello, S.J., on a hot-button issue…

Distinguished Pre-Vatican II Theologian:
A Heretical Pope is Impossible

The Jesuit Fr. Felix Cappello (1879-1962) was an outstanding theologian of the Catholic Church. He held doctorates in Sacred Theology, philosophy, and canon law. He taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University from 1920 to 1959 and served as a Vatican advisor.

In 1911/12, Fr. Cappello’s 2-volume work De Curia Romana (“On the Roman Curia”) was published. Volume 2 deals specifically with the Roman Curia during a time when there is no Pope, the state of sede vacante. It contains a treatment of the question of the “heretical Pope” (Papa haereticus) and whether the Church has the power to depose him. This is a matter that is of great interest in our day and has been for a while, even at the Vatican:

Recently Taylor Marshall brought up this issue (in this clip), and the anti-sedevacantist duo John Salza and Robert Siscoe have focused a lot of their attention on it. We thought it useful, therefore, to present this article to the public in an exclusive English translation.

Writing in 1912, before the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Cappello is obviously not influenced by the current ecclesial mess, and so he is not biased on the question one way or another. At the same time, writing after the First Vatican Council and also the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII, his theological treatise is informed by a wealth of dogmatic and doctrinal teachings that were issued by the papal magisterium in the 19th century, a benefit which many theologians of the past who discussed the issue of the Papa haereticus did not have.

Thus Fr. Cappello’s analysis is both extremely competent and unbiased. It is a best-of-both-worlds scenario.


Whether the Roman Pontiff can be deposed by the Cardinals or by a General Council

1. Erroneous opinions. – A manifold error, which clearly savors of heresy, was raised up by royalists and by other pseudo-Catholics, more or less imbued with the principles of Gallicanism.

1º Some teach that Cardinals possess the right, not only of electing the Supreme Pontiff, but also of deposing him for a just cause.

2º Others affirm that the power of deposing the Pope belongs to the universal society of the faithful, that is, to the Church.

3º Others say that the aforesaid faculty does not belong to the Cardinals, nor to the Church or community of the faithful, but only to a general Council. Hence the proposition of Gallicanism: “Ecumenical Councils are above the Pope, even outside the time of schism.”

4º Some say that the Roman Pontiff is to be deposed by a general Council when a most grave cause should occur, such as: a) if he governs the Church ineptly; b) if he becomes odious to the society of the bishops or of the faithful; c) if he governs his subjects impiously or unjustly; d) if he leads a disgraceful life; e) if he falls into heresy.

5º Others restrict the authority of ecumenical Councils to depose the Pope to extraordinary cases only, for instance, if he is scandalous, or heretical, or of doubtful legitimacy. Thus see Bossuet [Defensio, lib. X, cap. XXI.].

6º There are not lacking also Doctors who say that the Roman Pontiff for some more atrocious crimes, especially for moral depravity, heresy, etc., loses jurisdiction ipso facto, so that no sentence of deposition is required from a general Council; at most, they say, merely a declaratory sentence of the crime is required and is sufficient.

Such opinions are clearly erroneous, as will be clear from what is said below.

2. The Question of a heretical Pope. – It is a Catholic dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he performs the duty of pastor and teacher of all Christians, he is infallible by a special assistance of the Holy Ghost. Thus the present question does not regard the Pontiff insofar as he is the universal Pastor and Teacher of the Church, but rather insofar as he is considered as a private person. On this matter, the Authors usually ask whether a Roman Pontiff who falls into heresy loses the supreme power ipso facto, or if he is to be deposed by an ecumenical Council.

We shall see below whether or not the supposition is to be admitted. Various opinions are commonly held.

The first affirms that the Roman Pontiff loses the papal jurisdiction ipso facto for heresy, even occult heresy, with no requirement that he be deposed [cfr. Palmieri, De Romano Pontifice, p. 40].

The second asserts that by notorious and openly divulged heresy the Pope is deprived of his power ipso facto, before any declaratory sentence whatsoever [cfr. Bellarm., De R. Pontif., lib. II, cap. 30; Bouix, De Papa, to. II, p. 653 ss.].

The third contends that the Roman Pontiff does not fall from his power ipso facto even on account of heresy that is notorious or public; but nonetheless he can and must be deposed by a sentence, at least one that declares the crime [Cfr. Suarez, De fide, disp. 10, sect. 6, n. 6 sq.].

The fourth holds that the Supreme Pontiff does not lose his jurisdiction on account of heresy, nor can he be deprived of it by deposition [Cfr. Bellarm., l. c.].

The fifth declares that the Roman Pontiff cannot fall into heresy, not even as a private doctor; that is, it denies the supposition itself [Cfr. Billot, to. III, p. 141 sq.].

Which of these opinions is more probable?

3. The Catholic doctrine to be held. – First, it is certain that the Roman Pontiff is not subject to the College of Cardinals, nor to a council of Bishops, as he himself is the Bishop of bishops, the pastor of pastors, the head of all the particular churches and of the universal Church itself. Therefore, the Pope is simply and absolutely above the universal Church, and above a general Council, such that above himself he acknowledges nobody on earth as his Superior [Cfr. Bellarm., De Concil. auct., lib. II, cap. XIII ss.].

Thus it is unsuitable to assert that the Cardinals or the bishops joined together have the right of deposing the Roman Pontiff. And indeed:

a) Christ established Peter and his successors, not the Cardinals or the bishops, as the foundation of the Church. Now if the College of Cardinals or a Council of Bishops could depose the Pontiff, would we not be obliged to say that those Cardinals and Bishops are the foundation of the Church, against the positive will of Christ?

b) Christ committed the duty of feeding the lambs and the sheep, as well as confirming the brethren in faith, to Peter and to his successors. But if the Pope could be deposed, it would not be he who feeds or confirms, but rather he would be fed and confirmed by others.

c) The Roman Pontiff possesses full and complete power in the Church, so that independent of him no power exists in fact nor can be conceived.

d) Bishops have no jurisdiction, or at least they can never validly and licitly exercise it, except insofar as they are dependent on the Supreme Pontiff; but if they had the right to depose the Pope, they would thus act not only independently of the Pope, but against him.

e) A general Council is of no value, unless the Roman Pontiff convokes it, presides over it, and confirms its acts by his supreme authority.

f) Bishops and others have any power, only insofar as it is granted to them by the divine law, or the natural or ecclesiastical [law]. But neither the divine law, nor the natural nor the ecclesiastical grants to bishops and other prelates the power to depose the Roman Pontiff. Thus [the conclusion follows].

g) Whatever is done by bishops or Cardinals, or by any other persons whomsoever, insofar as they are outside the Church, must be regarded as worthless and illicit. For where Peter is, or the Roman Pontiff, there is the Church, according to the axiom of the Holy Fathers; consequently, if anyone wants to act against the Pope, by that very fact he is outside the Church, and thus acts wrongly. Thus the right of deposing the Roman Pontiff, no matter in what aspect it is considered and in what case it is considered as fit to be used, must be regarded as an absurdity, as being manifestly repugnant to the positive will of Christ, and to the nature of the Primacy, and to the essential constitution of the Church.

h) The eighth ecumenical Council, act VIII, declared: “We read that the Roman Pontiff has judged all the bishops of the Churches, but we do not read that anyone has judged of him.”

i) The Fifth Lateran Council, sess. XI taught: “That the Roman Pontiff alone, as having authority over all councils, has full right and power of calling, transferring, and dissolving councils, is clear not only from the testimony of Sacred Scripture, the sayings of the holy [Church] Fathers and of other Roman Pontiffs, but also by the confession of those very councils themselves.”

[N.B.: The letters j and k do not exist in the Latin alphabet.]

l) [Pope] Gelasius in his epistle to the bishops of Dardania says: “The Church throughout the world knows that the holy Roman see has the right to judge all, and that nobody is permitted to pass judgment on its judgment.”

m) [Pope] Nicholas I in his epistle to Michael writes: “It is perfectly clear that the judgment of the Apostolic See, whose authority is excelled by none other, is not to be reviewed by anyone.”

n) [Pope] Gregory [Lib. 9, epist. 39 ad Theotistam.]: “If Blessed Peter, he says, when he was blamed by the faithful, had paid attention to the authority that he had received in holy Church, he could have responded: let the sheep not dare to reprimand their pastor.”

o) [Pope] Boniface VIII [In extrav. Viam sanctam, tit. de maiorit. et obedient.]: “If, he says, an earthly power goes wrong, it is to be judged by the spiritual power. If the spiritual goes wrong, the lesser [is judged] by the greater, but if the supreme [power goes wrong, it is judged] by God alone, for it cannot be judged by man.”

The opinion that is most probable, in fact certain, if we may give our opinion, is the last, namely that which affirms that the Roman Pontiff cannot fall into heresy even as a private doctor.

Consequently, the Pope cannot be deposed in any case, neither directly by a condemnatory sentence, nor indirectly by a sentence that merely declares the crime.

The reason why is clear.

a) Christ the Lord established the Church in such a way as to provide for its right governance and for the spiritual benefit of the faithful. But if the Roman Pontiff could become a heretic as a private doctor, this would doubtless lead more or less to harm and disgrace for the Church.

b) Christ said absolutely and simply: “But I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not; when you have been converted, confirm thy brethren” [Lk 22:32], without distinguishing between private or public function of teaching.

c) The Roman Pontiff, by the force of the Primacy, must conduct himself by the positive intention of Christ, such that he is worthy of full confidence on the part of his subjects. But what confidence could he deserve, if he himself could err just as others may?

d) It is difficult to distinguish in individual cases whether the Pope spoke ex cathedra or only as a private doctor, and consequently whether he is infallible or is liable to error as are the rest of men. Consequently, the faithful for good reason would get stuck in doubts as to whether a doctrine is to be accepted with bowed head as being proposed by the Pontiff, or otherwise. From this, there would arise very many doubts, questions, anxieties of souls. All these inconveniences clearly evaporate, if our opinion is accepted.

e) The arguments upon which the patrons of the opposing opinions rely are of no force. Thus: 1º the example of [Pope] Liberius or of another heretical Pontiff is in our time rightly rejected, as critical history has shown it to be false, as one may see among the more recent Authors on this subject; 2º Canons c. 6, D. 40, c. 13. C. II, q. 7, which speak of a heretical Pope are apocryphal; 3º The words of [Pope] Innocent III [Serm. IV in consecratione Pontificis] are either to be referred in general to Pontiffs, that is, Bishops; or are not to be understood of heresy properly so called; or finally, as not a few authors hold, are apocryphal.

In light of all this, with good reason we conclude that the opinion that affirms that the Roman Pontiff cannot become a heretic even as a private doctor, is most probable, indeed according to our judgment is entirely certain.

Source: Rev. Felix M. Cappello, De Curia Romana iuxta Reformationem a Pio X, vol. II: De Curia Romana “Sede Vacante” (Rome: Fridericus Pustet, 1912), pp. 8-13. Bold print and italics in original. We thank the volunteer who translated Fr. Cappello’s article and has allowed it to be published.

Not surprisingly, Fr. Cappello’s position is in agreement with that of St. Robert Bellarmine: “It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith” (De Romano Pontifice, Book IV, Chapter 6).

Nevertheless, St. Robert Bellarmine acknowledged that this position “is not certain, and the common opinion is to the contrary”, as of the time when he was writing (16th/17th centuries), wherefore he explored the issue in depth:

It must be remembered that Cardinal Bellarmine had not yet been declared either a Saint or a Doctor of the Church when Fr. Cappello’s De Curia Romana was published in the early 1910s.

For further reading on this topic, we recommend the following posts:

It is important to understand that, while the correct resolution of the issue of the “heretical Pope” has its relevance and usefulness to the Sedevacantist position, the validity of Sedevacantism does not depend on it whatsoever. There are more ways than one to arrive at the conclusion that Francis cannot be a valid Pope, and not all of them require one to hold that Francis is personally guilty of the sin of heresy. Here are some alternative arguments:

With regard to the person of Fr. Cappello, there is a video clip that includes photos of him available here.

May he rest in peace.

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