On Catholics

Can Popes Be Heretics?

Note: I recently have had a back-and-forth debate with Jack from Vidimus Gloriam Eius and Scoot from Times-Dispatch of Vichy Earth, two excellent individuals, on voting. I wanted to apologize for possibly complaining about being pulled into that discussion, which was done partially just for comic relief. I more often deal with objections to the Faith, but I agree that this is an important discussion for Catholics to have, especially if (as some have claimed) voting is sinful. Since this is so important to us, Catholics, it is not too far from the sorts of things I tackle on my blog, so people are still free to attempt a rebuttal of my work.

This is often considered a very relevant question. This is not to make a statement about the Pope, but many have been concerned about various vague statements Pope Francis has been saying. I understand this. Still, I think it is a fair concern. Nevertheless, I think it can be dangerous to claim that on this account, someone is somehow not Pope. Nevertheless, the Popes’ heresies or alleged heresies have been frequently used to justify ideas such as sedevacantism and Beneplenism. I myself will not claim any Pope has been speaking manifest heresy. However, even if one does hold this view, one cannot claim that the Pope is not Pope on these grounds. This I will defend as follows.

In another post, I explained that this is by no means inconsistent with the doctrine of papal infallibility, which only protects the Pope from error when he is officially defining a doctrine, which is something that no Pope has done. Nevertheless, theologians have been arguing for centuries as to whether a Pope could be a heretic. But the question cannot simply be up in the air, if we are going to definitively claim that the Pope is not the Pope. It has to be definitive Catholic teaching. Otherwise, we could very well find ourselves outside of the Church because of our personal opinions are inconsistent with what is supposedly happening now.

Here, I imagine some sedevacantists would say that it is dogma that Popes cannot remain Pope if they are heretics, and they would appeal to Pope Paul IV’s Papal Bull, Cum ex Apostolatus Officio, from 1559. The Bull was written to prevent Cardinal Morone, whom Paul IV suspected of adhering to the then-newborn heresy of Protestantism, from being elected to the papacy. The Bull begins by saying that: “the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God and our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fulness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.” (¶1) After teaching it is licit to contradict a heretical pope after he is elected, Paul IV goes on to say:

“In addition, that if ever at any time it shall appear that any Bishop, even if he be acting as an Archbishop, Patriarch or Primate; or any Cardinal of the aforesaid Roman Church, or, as has already been mentioned, any legate, or even the Roman Pontiff, prior to his promotion or his elevation as Cardinal or Roman Pontiff, has deviated from the Catholic Faith or fallen into some heresy:

“(i) the promotion or elevation, even if it shall have been uncontested and by the unanimous assent of all the Cardinals, shall be null, void and worthless.” (¶6)

Notice it only teaches that their promotion would be null if the heresy is committed before elevation to the Holy See, not afterward. Quotations of alleged heresy I have read which sedevacantists produce are generally from after elevation. First of all, this does not refer to internal heresy. If that were true, then there would be no way of knowing whether a pope or bishop was a real pope at all. There have been many bishops and priests in the past who were openly heretics. For that reason, I would not be surprised if some are privately heretics. For instance, I could easily believe Antidicomarianitism (the denial of the Perpetual Virginity) without telling anyone. I could become a priest or a bishop and still I would not tell anyone of my Antidicomarianite position. Surely, I would still be a valid bishop. 

Moreover, the idea that an election would be null and void is not based on the private judgment of Catholic individuals. The judgment would have to be rendered by the proper authorities before the election would be rendered null. The Bull was a disciplinary decree that attached a retroactive penalty to one who was authoritatively judged by the Church to have deviated from the faith prior to his promotion or election. For the bull to have any practical effect, the cardinal would have to admit to be guilty before his election or else be found guilty by the Church. Sedevacantist bishop, Donald Sanborn, admits of Pope Benedict XVI:

“Even if it [Cum ex Apostolatus Officio] should for some cause still have force, it could only apply to Ratzinger if he were legally recognized as a public heretic. But, as we have seen, there is no legal condemnation of Ratzinger. Before the law of the Church he does not have the status of heretic because (1) he himself does not hold himself guilty of heresy, and (2) no legitimate superior holds him guilty of heresy.” Sanborn, Donald, Explanation Of The Thesis Of Bishop Guérard Des Lauriers, June 29, 2002.

An admission of guilt or a condemnation by a higher authority is the condition necessary for the election to be juridically rendered null. Otherwise, his acts of jurisdiction are indeed valid.

Aside from that, however, the bull is not dogma nor even still in effect. It is often assumed to be because the bull says it is to last in perpetuity, ending with these words: “If anyone, however, should presume to attempt this, let him know that he is destined to incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul.” Naturally, I can see why someone might think it to be dogmatic or infallible, but in truth it is not. The same bull was actually brought up long ago when papal infallibility was defined in the First Vatican Council. There were heretics who denied the dogma of papal infallibility (probably—if they dared so insult our Lady—along with the Immaculate Conception), leading to the founding of a schismatic group called “Old Catholicism”. These heretics pointed out the various penal sanctions, arguing them to be completely unjust, tyrannical, and contrary to Catholic principles in an attempt to disprove papal infallibility. Rather than defending the document itself, the defenders of the Faith simply argued that the bull was not infallible. Actually, Cardinal Joseph Hergenrother, Church historian and canonist at the time wrote as follows:

“The Pope does not here speak as teacher (ex cathedra), but as the watchful shepherd eager to keep the wolves from the sheep, and in a time when the actual or imminent falling away even of bishops and cardinals demanded the greatest watchfulness and the strongest measures. The Bull of Paul IV may be perhaps considered too severe, injudicious, and immoderate in its punishments, but it certainly cannot be considered an <em>ex cathedra</em> doctrinal decision. No Catholic theologian has considered it as such, or placed it in a collection of dogmatic decisions; and to have done so would have only deserved ridicule; for if this Bull is to be considered as a doctrinal decision, so must every ecclesiastical penal law. Papal Infallibility, it is most true, excludes any error as to moral teaching, so that the Pope can never [definitively] declare anything morally bad to be good, and vice versa; but infallibility only relates to moral precepts, to the general principles which the Pope prescribes to all Christians as a rule of conduct, not to the application of these principles to individual cases, and thus by no means excludes the possibility of the Pope making mistakes in his government by too great severity or otherwise.” (. . .) “The sort of proofs our opponents bring forward in this matter show an entire ignorance of Papal Bulls. Compare, for example, another Bull of the same Pope directed against the ambitious endeavours of those who coveted the Papal dignity; this Bull has equally the agreement of the Cardinals, is published out of the plenitude of the Papal power, is declared to be forever in force, threatens equally all spiritual and temporal dignitaries without exception, etc. And yet it is undoubtedly not in the least a dogmatic Bull. If it were, there would be scarcely any recent ecclesiastical laws (as oppose to dogmas) for canonists to discuss; while dogmatic theologians would have been all in strange ignorance of their province.”

Hergenröther, Joseph. Catholic Church and Christian State: A Series of Essays on the Relation of the Church to the Civil Power. United Kingdom, Burns and Oates, 1876, 42-43, 45.

So what Hergenrother is basically saying is that the fact that the Bull is a Magisterial document issued by the pope which teaches that it shall remain in perpetuity does not mean that it cannot be abrogated by a future pope. The Bull is disciplinary, not doctrinal. A pope cannot bind a future pope to merely disciplinary matters and ecclesiastical governance. Even sedevacantist Bishop Sanborn admits that “Cum ex apostolatus is an apostolic constitution, a law, made by Pope Paul IV , which says that if a pope should be a heretic, his elevation to this dignity would be null. It was made in order to ensure that no Protestant could ever become the Pope. It does not apply to the present case for two reasons. The first is that it is no longer the law. It was derogated (made obsolete) by the 1917 Code of Canon Law.” So it is not dogma that heretics cannot be Pope.

All the same, sedevacantists often point to current canon law, which states that they would incur a latae sententiae excommunication (1917 Can. 2314 §1, Can. 2335). It is sometimes argued that such heretics would be outside of the Church and therefore false popes. The idea is that if Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) were not pope on the grounds of allegedly being a heretic, no subsequent pope would be the true pope either, as the cardinals appointed by John XXIII would not be true cardinals and therefore be able to elect any subsequent pope.

To explain this, we must first understand the difference between liceity and validity. A licit action means one carried out in accordance with law. The law may be a natural law, a law revealed by God, or a human law, civil or ecclesiastical. An illicit action is, therefore, necessarily immoral. An invalid action, on the other hand, is one that does not produce the spiritual or juridical effects that it intends to produce. A valid action, whether licit or illicit, good or evil, produces such effects.

Now how does this tie to the papacy? Well, if a bishop who appoints a certain priest as pastor of a parish and knows that the man is morally or psychologically unfit, violating Canon Law (can. 521 §2, 1983 Code; can. 453 §2, 1917 Code), that bishop acts illicitly, but the priest is still the pastor of that parish. Some sedevacantists argue that Roncalli’s election was not valid because he had allegedly previously fallen into heresy, thus bringing him to cease to be part of the Catholic Faith. However, Roncalli’s election would be valid anyway, as is made clear by the special Church law governing conclaves. Pope Pius XII, in his apostolic constitution Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis in 1945 explained it as follows:

“None of the cardinals may in any way, or by pretext or reason of any excommunication, suspension, or interdict whatsoever, or of any other ecclesiastical impediment, be excluded from the active and passive election of the supreme pontiff. We hereby suspend such censures solely for the purposes of the said election; at other times they are to remain in vigor.”

VAS 34

“Active” in this context means that such a cardinal may vote in the election, while “passive” means that he himself can be elected. Now, one might wonder why the Church’s traditional law went out of its way to allow heretics, apostates, and Freemasons to be pope (after all, who wants an evil pope plotting to destroy the followers of the One of Whom he is the vicar?). But when one thinks about it, it rather keeps anything from happening like exactly what the sedevacantists say is happening. It would be like a cancer to the Church. The heretical pope would appoint false cardinals and canonize false saints. Christ organized the Catholic Church to be unified and without a pope, Catholicism could fall apart.

Remember that offenses akin to heresy which contain a latae sententiae excommunication can be committed in grave secrecy as I have explained. So, if the Church’s law had required the cardinals to be free of all ecclesiastical censure, the cardinals would have no guarantee that the cardinal was eligible because he might have committed some secret crime incurring excommunication. If this were true, this would be very harmful to the Church. So if Roncalli were a secret heretic, apostate, or Freemason before being elected to the papacy, they would not have the strict moral right to be popes, but popes they would still be.

Canon 2264 (still going by the 1917 code, which sedevacantists accept) states: “An act of jurisdiction carried out by an excommunicated person, whether in the internal or the external forum, is illicit; and if a condemnatory or declaratory sentence has been pronounced, it is also invalid, without prejudice to canon 2261 §3; otherwise it is valid.” Canon 2261 §3, by the way, makes an exception to this invalidity when it is a case of an officially excommunicated priest giving absolution to someone in danger of death. Now, as it says specifically “otherwise it is valid”, provided that the excommunication has not been declared, an act of jurisdiction carried out by the excommunicated person is valid. Therefore, if a pope is validly elected and refuses to admit he has fallen into heresy, no other cleric has the authority to excommunicate him. So if the pope refuses to resign, all his acts of jurisdiction would remain valid.

What happens if a pope falls into heresy during his pontificate, rather than before? It would certainly seem contradictory if a pope could fall into heresy after he were already elected that he would lose his jurisdiction. Why should a pope be a true pope if elected in heresy, but lose his papacy if he were to fall into heresy later?

The one other canon which sedevacantists might point out is Canon 188 §4 (1917 Code), which states: “Due to the fact that a tacit resignation by virtue of the law accepts any office, becomes vacant automatically and without any declaration if . . . the cleric has publicly defected from the Catholic Faith.” However, to “defect publicly” from the faith clearly means something more drastic than to make heretical statements in the course of public speeches or documents. This particular cause of losing an ecclesiastical office is found in that section of the Code dealing with the resignation of such an office (canons 184–191) and is part of a canon which lists eight sorts of actions which the law treats as “tacit resignations.” In other words, they are the sorts of actions that can be safely taken as evidence that the cleric in question does not even to want to continue in the office he has occupied before. §3 mentions a priest who accepts promotion to another ecclesiastical office incompatible with his previous one. §5 mentions a priest who gets married, either canonically or civilly. §6 mentions a cleric who, contrary to canon law, spontaneously join the secular armed forces. So, if I were to publicly defect from the Catholic Faith, that would be like if I would cease to call myself the “Chivalric Catholic” and become the “Chivalric Puritan”, for example. The cleric would cease even to profess to be Catholic and clearly has not the slightest desire to continue in his previous clerical office. Such a defection would be clear to the most ignorant of all Catholics. It is quite clear that none of the popes after John XXIII have ever acted in such a way. All of them, including Francis, have publicly professed to be Catholic and shown every public sign of intending to continue exercising the papal office until death, save Benedict XVI who formally resigned.

So yes, whether you like him or not, Pope Francis is still the Pope and successor of Peter, to whom we all owe our allegiance. This is not to say we cannot disagree with him, but when we do so publicly, as children to a father.

Bonum Certamen Certemus
I am the Catholic of Honor


By The Chivalric Catholic

Hello, I am the Chivalric Catholic or the Catholic of Honor. I conform all my beliefs to the Magisterium founded by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. The short explanation of who I am is a teenager with nostalgia for the Middle Ages. I have a love for apologetics, honor, and literature (especially adventures). I believe it is important and honorable to respect my opponents in this. If anything I write is contrary to the Faith (after all, I have no degrees) please write to me and inform me.

2 replies on “Can Popes Be Heretics?”

I think it would be very hard to square the idea of a heretical pope with the scriptures and a general sense of what it means to be Catholic big C. There is a rock on which the Church is built and it will not fail. That is a very week promise if Sedes or Benes are correct, or for that matter if Francis is a Heretic. If I had to list the virtues of what it means to be Catholic vs other faiths. Obedience should be in the top 3 and a belief that God guides the Church even if bad things appear around and within it.

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Thanks for your comment. To be clear, it is not my place to judge the Pope. My only argument was that even if they are correct, I don’t think that proves much.

As for the quote you mentioned, I agree, but, as many have pointed out, the “rock” is not Peter in his person so much as Peter in his office.

In the following passage after Christ names Peter “the rock”, he tells him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance (Gr.—skandalon, stumbling block) to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Matthew 16:23)

So, I think this could easily be understood that the “petros”, rock, can easily also be a “skandalon”, stumbling block, if he commits scandal. And Peter does this many times—most prominently when he denies Christ, which is probably one of the worst things any Pope has ever done. Besides, if the Pope cannot be a heretic, is it because the Pope is unable to commit heresy or because God simply, through His Providence, will not allow it to happen?

As for obedience, that is important. But as with other authorities, we only have to obey what is not sinful. Also, no Catholic is bound to believe whatever the Pope may or may not have said in an airport interview or in private or even as a pastor. After all, anyone would accept a Pope can be guilty of material heresy, so I don’t really see how a scandalous Pope couldn’t be guilty of formal heresy.

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