On Heretical Popes

One man whom I know holds that all popes since Pius X were heretics. Whole groups maintain that all popes after Vatican II are heretics, even John Paul II. He invited leaders of other religions to Assisi to pray together, but he failed to evangelize them or insist in uniqueness of Catholicism. At Vatican I, several notable figures did not accept the infallibility doctrine. The Reformation itself mostly declared all popes heretical back to Peter. Pope Paul III excommunicated Henry VIII precisely over the question of the indissolubility of marriage. The Eastern Orthodox have rejected the papal position for centuries.

Under Pope Francis, columnists from all over the world broach the “heresy” question, which he is said to foment. Cardinal Burke remarked that Pope Francis should clarify just what he stands for. William Oddie thinks that, in recent comments on marriage, Francis has done this. Others are not so sure. I know a man who thinks that the pope should simply resign because his comments have caused so much anguish and confusion.

George Weigel noted that the modern world has waited half a century for the Catholic Church to accept its mores. It has not done so under Francis. A correspondent in Argentina, however, writes that only three views of this pope exist: 1) he is a modernist, but covers himself by occasionally talking of the devil, 2) he seeks attention and power by attracting everything to himself, and 3) he is a confused thinker but basically orthodox. The man adds that this last view is no longer tenable. Still he sent a document that Archbishop Bergoglio wrote on the gay question in which Francis upheld the old Roman Law tradition of marriage that referred to a mother and the sons begotten of her. But I would be surprised if Pope Francis did not have a huge following in Argentina.

Some writers hold that a pope cannot be a heretic. I had a professor of theology who held that, if a pope was about to sign an heretical document, he would be dead the next morning. Others maintain that if a heretic is elected to the papacy, he will automatically convert on accepting the Office of Peter.

The technical issue of an heretical pope goes back to Reformation discussions, led by the Jesuits, Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez, among others. Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, and John Courtney Murray brought up the issue in discussing the difference between political and ecclesiastical authority. We read in Romans that the authority of an emperor, as that of a pope, comes from God, but in differing ways.

A different kind of pope: with newlyweds celebrating a charity for sick kids (11/6/13)
A different kind of pope: with newlyweds celebrating a charity for sick kids (11/6/13)

John Locke’s opposition to the divine right of kings was an aspect of this issue. The divine right of kings was not a medieval doctrine, though it did go back to oriental despotism, to the divinization of Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors. Authority came directly to the king, not through the people, as the Aristotelian mind had it. Divine right was designed to protect the king from assassination by elevating him to a divine status.

Bellarmine and Suarez considered a de facto possibility of an heretical pope. They granted that the Church would have to depose him if he did not self-declare his heresy. They differed on the exact procedure that would be required. Basically, electors would de-designate the man chosen pope. But as such, they had no authority over the papal power itself, which is from God.

In recent discussions of an heretical pope, the term sedevacante shows up. It means that, if a pope is heretical, his chair is automatically vacant by divine law. Some hold that anyone can so pronounce this vacancy, which would logically make every man his own pope. Bellarmine and Suarez thought the Church, in the persons of a General Council or the assembled Cardinals would have to declare the pope a heretic and depose him. They differed a bit on the exact procedure.

Several writers imply that suddenly the institution, which seemed so solid over the centuries, appears shaky in its own order. “If the Church succumbs to modernity, will it still be a Church?” they wonder. The main issues, in the case of Francis, revolve around the indissolubility of marriage, the nature of the papacy itself, and the approval of gay life as normal. The first is a question of reason and revelation – Moses allowed divorce, Christ did not; the second of revelation; and the third, homosexuality, of reason.

Issues such as the pope’s understanding of the economy or his reading of Islam as solely a religion of peace can be disputed. They are not so close to doctrinal issues. Though they seem to diverge at times, doctrine and compassion do not exclude each other.

Heretical popes? The essence of Catholicism is that there be none. It is also its essence that, if necessary, the issue be faced squarely and judged fairly.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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