There is agreement among the doctors that a pope can be deposed on account of heresy (John of St Thomas)


Recent events are leading some of us to blow the dust off more than one ancient tome. Many even well-educated Catholics are surprised to learn that there has long been a consensus among theologians that a pope can lose his office through heresy. How this happens will be a matter for the second and third part of this essay. For now, we may simply note that such a consensus exists.

A Roman synod of 503 stated that the pope could not be deposed unless he had departed from the faith (nisi a recta fide exorbitaverit). A canon attributed by Gratian to St Boniface of Devon (7th-8th century) said that the pope could be judged by no one, unless he were found straying from the faith (nisi deprehendatur a fide devius). A letter of Pope Adrian II at the 4th ecumenical council of Constantinople (869-70) made the same statement (I have these facts from the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, and have not verified them independently. But the DTC is probably the greatest Catholic reference work ever produced.)

Innocent III, no slouch in maintaining the papal prerogatives, said: “I can be judged by the Church only on account of a sin committed against the faith (propter solum peccatum quod in fide committitur possem ab Ecclesia judicari) (PL 217, 656D). Elsewhere he makes the point at greater length, commenting on the text: If the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled underfoot by men:

It is sufficiently plain how this can apply to other prelates, but it is not immediately clear how it can be understood of the Roman pontiff. For as the Apostle says: A servant stands or falls to his own master. And the same apostle therefore also says: Who are you, to judge another man’s servant? But since the Roman pontiff has no other master save God, therefore, however much he loses his savour, who can put him outside so that he may be trampled underfoot? But he should not vainly flatter himself on his power or rashly pride himself in his elevated rank and position of honour, for the less he is susceptible to man’s judgement, the more he will be judged by God. And this is to say too little: for he can be judged by men, or rather be shown to be judged, if he loses his savour by way of heresy; for he who does not believe is already judged. And that is how there apply to him the words: If the salt lose its savour, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled underfoot by men (PL 218, 670 A-B)

The Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique adds: “This doctrine was received and confirmed by the whole of the mediaeval period” (article, ‘Déposition et dégradation des clercs’, 519).

St Robert Bellarmine, often reckoned the greatest ecclesiologist of them all, was of the same mind. We shall consider his views more closely in part 2. John of St Thomas, one of the greatest of Aquinas’s commentators, explains the Scriptural basis of the Church’s power to judge a heretical pope. St Paul writing to St Titus says: “A man that is a heretic, correct once and a second time; after that, avoid him.” John of St Thomas comments:

One who remains in the papacy should not be avoided, since on the contrary the Church is bound to be united to him and communicate with him as her supreme head. Therefore, if a pope is a heretic, either the Church is obliged to communicate with him, or he must be deposed from the papacy. The first option would clearly lead to the destruction of the Church; it would involve an innate danger of error for the whole government of the Church, if the Church were obliged to follow a heretical head. In fact, since the heretic is the enemy of the Church, she can by natural right, that is, by the right of self-defence, against such a pope, since she can defend herself from her enemy, which is what a heretical pope is. Therefore, she can act against him; therefore, we must certainly follow the second option, namely, that such a pope is to be deposed (Cursus Theologicus, De auct. Summ. Pont. disp. 2 art. 3, II).

Cardinal Charles Journet, the great ecclesiologist of the 20th century, concludes: “There is therefore an absolute contradiction between the fact of being Pope and the fact of persevering in heresy after one or two admonitions” (The Church of the Word Incarnate, 483).

(to be continued)