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.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine's Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.

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  • I think it may be high time the bishops meet to consider the pontificate of Francis, what it has done and is doing and may do to the Church. Facts should be examined without naïveté, then a decision made. A pope need not explicitly deny one iota of doctrine as he hands the church over to mischievous theologians who are prepared to transvalue the traditional meanings of Church teachings. Pope St. Pius X explicitly warned against this MO in his battles against and warnings about Modernism festering (he said) in the very bosom of the Church. Progressives, so-called, are the heirs of the Modernists with their “evolution of doctrine” creed. Francis needs to be examined. Very carefully. Very realistically. Very soon.

    • Rodrigo Vargas Castro

      Why does Pope Francis need to be examined?
      You seem to be saying Pope Francis is a modernist that goes in detriment of the true teaching of the Church?
      Would you mind explaining how so?
      I’m just looking to better understand your stance here.

  • Brendan Quinn

    The author is wrong. A Pope may be a heretic, as Pope Honorious clearly was. The thing is he never taught heresy infallibly. (Remember the 3 criteria, 1/. Teaching to the Church Universal 2/. Teaching on faith and morals 3/. Teaching from the Chair of Peter). Francis has made a complete mess of the Papacy but so far he has come nowhere near troubling the infallibility of the Pope issue.

    • Rodrigo Vargas Castro

      The author, James V. Schall, S.J., is not wrong, because he doesn’t claim no Pope can be a heretic. The author is just stating that “some writers hold that a pope cannot be a heretic.”
      Now, I’d like to have a better understanding of what you mean when you say Pope Francis has made a mess of the Papacy. How so?
      I mean, he has made quite a few off-hand comments which have led to various (wrong) interpretations by, especially, the media.
      Is that the mess Pope Francis is doing in your opinion?

      • Brendan Quinn

        A Pope can be a heretic. You clearly failed Catholicism 101. The question is can they teach it to the Church universal as doctrine, which is where infallibility comes in. I would suggest Pope Francis accepting the blasphemous crucificix of Christ on a hammer and sickle was offensive, I would suggest that Pope Francis issuing the document that Jews should not be converted was heresy, I would suggest that Pope Francis claiming that “you arent a Christian if you build walls”was clearly idiotic and stupid as those of us who are Catholic were bombarded with images of the Vatican with its 50 foot high walls as a clear example of his hypocrisy and unbelievable insensitivity of Francis. I would suggest Pope Francis attacking and insulting Catholic bishops and Cardinals at the end of the Synod of the family was disgraceful behaviour on the Popes part. I would suggest his repeated phone calls to his atheist mate in Italy claiming he is going to overturn the Churchs teaching on marriage as scandalous. I havent even started yet. What about Pope Francis awarding Putin a “peace prize” after he has invaded 3 countries. How would you feel if you were Ukranian. The Holy Catholic Church has been blessed with such wonderful and Holy men in the last 5 Popes it is such a shame we have this man occupying the chair of Peter so unworthily now. Mark my words, this man will split the Church.