The Question of Papal Heresy - Part 6a

Source: District of the USA

Throughout history, theologians have differed in their theses regarding the ability for a heretical pope to remain the Vicar of Christ.

The author of this series, Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, has been a professor in the SSPX's Seminary of St. Pius X in Econe, Switzerland for 20 years, where he is currently teaching ecclesiology. He is the author of numerous articles in Courrier de Rome and is a consultant to the SSPX commission responsible for doctrinal discussions with the Holy See.

Part 6a – Does a pope who falls into heresy lose his investiture in the Primacy?

The Opinion before Vatican II

The theologians who lived until Vatican Council II all answered this question in the affirmative. They are unanimous in declaring this fact: in the person of a pope, the possession of the supreme pontificate is incompatible with heresy. They are no longer unanimous when it comes to explaining this fact and indicating the reason for it.

Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468), in his Summa de Ecclesia, Book 4, Part 2, chapters 18-20,  writes that in the person of the pope, the papacy is incompatible not only with external but even with internal heresy. The mere fact that the pope adheres in the internal forum of his conscience to an error contrary to doctrine would result in the cessation of his papal office.

The common opinion of Medieval theologians is that a heretical pope in the external (and not just internal) forum must and can be deposed by a human authority, since there is (they claimed) here on earth a power above his. This authority is superior to the pope by way of exception, in the case of heresy. This could be the authority of the college of cardinals or possibly of an Ecumenical Council.

Cajetan’s Thesis

Cajetan (1469-1534), in chapters 20-21 of his 1511 treatise, De Comparatione auctoritatis papae et concilii, holds that there is an authority that can undo the investiture, in other words, cause the existence of the pontifical authority and the pope’s possession of it to cease. But Cajetan tries to differentiate his view from that of the theologians of the previous period by maintaining in principle that on earth there can be no authority superior to the pope, not even in the case of heresy. Indeed, the authority that is required to cause the investiture to cease would be exercised not on the pope but on the connection that exists between the person of the pope and the papacy.

Cajetan’s thesis is adopted by Domenico Báñez (1528-1604) (Commentary on the Summa theologiae II-II, q. 1, art. 10, conclusio 2, folios 194-196 of the 1587 Venice edition) and by John of Saint Thomas (1589-1644) (Cursus theologicus, 5:258-264: De fide, commenting on II-II, q. 1, art. 10, disputatio 2, art. 3, §§17-29). More recently, Cardinal Charles Journet (1891-1975) considered the argument “penetrating” (The Church of the Incarnate Word, vol. 1, Excursus 4). It is made up of two aspects.

First, in De comparatione, chap. 20, §§280 and 281, Cajetan states an authentic principle: the solution to the problem raised must be rooted in the sources of revelation. Now, divine law is content to say that, if the pope becomes heretical, the Church must avoid him. In fact, we can cite at least six passages of Scripture in which God commands His people not to relate to a formal, public heretic.

Passages cited by Cajetan in §280 include Num 16:26: “Depart from...these wicked men”; Gal 1:8: “Let him be anathema,” in other words, separate yourselves from him; 2 Thess 3:6: “Withdraw yourselves from [him]”; and 2 Jn 10: “Receive him not into the house nor say to him: God speed you.” The most eloquent passage (which Cajetan moreover cites constantly rather than the five others) is the one from the Epistle of Saint Paul to Titus 3:10: “Hominem haereticum post unam et secundam correptionem devita.” [“A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid.”]  Consequently, divine revelation teaches us no more and no less than this: the Church must avoid any dealings with the heretical pope.

Avoiding a Heretical Pope

Cajetan then proceeds to justify his own theory. He says that there is only one means of avoiding having anything to do with the heretical pope, in keeping with the requirement of divinely revealed law. This means is the exercise of a ministerial power that is not a power of jurisdiction strictly speaking, the use of which implies no superiority over the pope. Indeed, this power is none other than the very power that the Church uses to establish the pope in his ministry: its precise object is not the person of the man who receives the papacy, nor the papacy (in other words the pope as such), but the connection between the two, in other words the relation that exists between the person who receives the papacy and the papacy itself (see De comparatione, chapter 20, §§282-297).

This power can be exercised in two directions: both to undo the connection as well as to make it. To illustrate this idea, Cajetan turns to an example. The generation or the corruption of a man is caused by an agent that has power over the union between a matter and a form, inasmuch as it disposes the matter, without thereby having power over the form. Similarly, the Church has the power to give the papacy to the person who receives it or to take it away from the one who loses it, inasmuch as she disposes this person, without thereby having power over the papacy.

As John of Saint Thomas remarks, this explanation avoids saying that the Church is above the pope as such. Indeed, the Church acts here only as an instrumental cause or to bring about either the investiture or the cessation thereof. In the first case, the Church causes in the person of the pope the disposition required for the investiture, which is the appointment to the See of Rome.

In the second case, the Church causes in the person of the pope a disposition that is incompatible with the office of the pope, which results therefore in the loss of this office. This incompatible disposition that the Church causes is, the argument says, the notoriety of the heresy. And the incompatibility between the notorious heresy and the Supreme Pontificate is said to be taught by divine revelation in Titus 3:10. 

Francisco Suárez, a highly influential philosopher and theologian of Early Modern Scholasticism.

Suarez’s Opinion

Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), in his De Fide, disputatio 10 De Summo Pontifice, section 6, §§3-13. Opera omnia, 12:316-318, states, like Cajetan, that the pope does not lose his pontificate by reason of his heresy itself, whether it be occult or even notorious. He then presents what in his opinion is the common explanation of the theologians. A publicly and incorrigibly heretical (i.e. pertinacious) pope loses the pontificate when the Church declares his crime. This declaration constitutes a legitimate act of jurisdiction, but it is not a jurisdiction that exercises a superior power over the pope. In this case the Church is represented not by the cardinals but by the Ecumenical Council: the latter can be convoked by someone other than the pope since it does not meet to define faith and morals.

Suarez then explains the essential point of his thesis: he refuses to say that in this exceptional case the Church possesses a true power of jurisdiction over the pope. The Church does nothing but declare in the name of Christ the pope’s heresy, which amounts to declaring that the pope has become unworthy of the papacy. And by means of this declaration of the Church, Christ immediately takes the papacy back from the pope.

In a third logical moment, the pope who has fallen from his office becomes inferior to the Church and she can punish him. The thesis therefore is based entirely on one truth. This truth is that the previous declaration of the Church that notes the pope’s heresy is the necessary and sufficient condition for Christ to withdraw the papacy from the pope. And Suarez proves this truth by saying that it is spelled out in the divine law of revelation. In support of this, Suarez also cites Titus 3:10 along with a passage from the First Epistle of St. Clement of Rome which allegedly says that “Petrum docuisse haereticum papam esse deponendum.” [“That Peter who has taught something heretical must be deposed as pope.”]

St. Robert Bellarmine’s Opinion


The opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), which is found in De romano pontifice, Book 2, chapter 30, and which is followed by Cardinal Billot (1846-1931) (Traité de l’Église du Christ, question 14, thesis 29, Part 2, nos. 942-946), is purely theoretical, because his real thesis is that the pope will never fall into heresy. Assuming nevertheless that, per impossibile, the pope happened to fall into public heresy, he would ipso facto lose the pontificate.

As Bellarmine explains clearly, the basis for this thesis is that a notorious heretic as such is no longer a member of the Church. Now, the pope necessarily must be part of the society of which he is the head. This is why the heretical pope, no longer being a member of the Church, ceases to be her visible head.

If we adopt this explanation of Saint Robert Bellarmine and of Cardinal Billot, the disputed question then is: As of what moment can one say that the heresy is notorious, in the case of the pope? The Church’s historic Canon Law (CIC 1917, canons 2264 & 2314) allows, for persons other than the pope, an intermediary situation in which, if the heresy has not been manifested sufficiently, all acts of jurisdiction in the external forum would remain valid albeit illicit. By analogy, a pope who is formally but not yet notoriously heretical could for some time remain at the head of the Church.

But Billot adds that Providence could not permit the whole Church to acknowledge as her head a formal heretic. If the elected man is or becomes formally heretical, this acknowledgment could not persist, and this is why the notoriety would have to appear rather quickly, in one way or another.

At the very most, it could happen that only a few periti [experts] in the Church were endowed with the necessary theological intelligence to assess the whole situation; the others (in other words almost the totality of the Church) would not be capable of understanding the whole import of the crisis, even though their virtue of faith sufficed for their personal conduct. St. Thomas Aquinas makes a similar distinction when he speaks about “majores” and “minores” [the greater and the lesser] with regard to the notoriety of the Messiah among the Jews (STh III, q. 47, art. 5).

A Delegation from God


Finally, a recent study by Fr. Guillaume Devillers in part 6 of his study on the Doctrine sociale et politique à l’école de saint Thomas, at article 9 in the journal Le Sel de la terre 54 (automne 2005) pp. 165-168, arrives at different conclusions. One can even go so far as to say that these conclusions are truly new (and therefore deserve wide attention), even though one may claim that they are based on the above-cited theologians, in particular on Cajetan.

The hypothesis says: The Church, like any other society, has the power to depose a heretical pope by a delegation received from God in the case of heresy. The proof rests on two arguments: [1] the authority of St. Clement of Rome in a passage from his Epistle to the Corinthians; and [2] an analogy with what happens in civil society in the case of tyranny. This boils down to saying (and the author states this explicitly at the outset of his study) that everything is based not on the divine positive law of revelation, but on simple natural law. Indeed, our author notes that all theologians have endeavored to justify their theses by citing the facts of revelation and Christ’s positive institution: according to them, the deposal of the heretical pope would be necessary according to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition.

Now it is clear that revelation does not teach that. This is why the remaining option is to turn to the natural law. It is enough to apply the principle that the supernatural order presupposes the natural order. The Church is a society. Now, in every society, natural divine law requires that in a case of tyranny the citizens proclaim the dethronement of a power that may still be legal but has become illegitimate. And on the other hand this natural divine law which applies to the case of the city [= society] of the natural order remains valid also in the case of the Church, because she is a city in the supernatural order. This is why it is not only licit but necessary to depose a heretical pope, because that pope is to the Church what a tyrant is to natural society. And in order to do this, society receives in that case delegation from God.

Editor’s Note

The 6th part of Fr. Gleize’s precise study of whether or not a heretical pope loses his investiture will continue with an examination of how Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of Saint Pius X has responded to the problem of popes who appear to favor heresy, and the fact that the near totality of the hierarchy and the faithful are today overcome by the false ideas of liberalism and modernism. The third and concluding portion of part 6 will then follow.