“Since the Church can declare the Pontiff a person to be avoided, she can induce in that person a disposition without which the pontificate cannot stand” (John of St Thomas)


In part one we saw the long-standing consensus that a pope can lose the papacy on account of heresy. As St Robert Bellarmine says: “The Church’s condition would be wretched, were she forced to take a manifest prowling wolf as her shepherd.” However, there is not perfect agreement about how the loss of the papacy takes place. We must put aside the theory toyed with by certain late mediaeval theologians, that an ecumenical council is superior to a pope and therefore can depose him. This is incompatible with Vatican I’s definition of the pope’s universal jurisdiction. There is no power in the Church on earth superior to the pope’s. We are therefore left with two main theories.

The first is that of Bellarmine and of modern sedevacantists. Bellarmine argued that a pope ceases to be pope by the mere fact of being a public heretic. It is of divine law, he argues, that a public heretic automatically loses any right to govern the Church. He supports this view partly from reason, partly from patristic quotations. By reason he argues that a public heretic is not a Christian, therefore not a member of the Church, therefore not its head. From the Fathers, he cites, for example, St Cyprian’s declaration that Novatian lost jurisdiction from the mere fact of his schism, and Pope St Celestine’s declaration that the excommunications carried out by Nestorius after he had started preaching Nestorianism were of no effect.

The second opinion is that of Cajetan, John of St Thomas, Banez, St Alphonsus, Billuart and Journet. This holds that a manifestly heretical pope is not automatically deposed but should be deposed, if he remains incorrigible after two admonitions. John of St Thomas argues that Bellarmine’s position would lead to intolerable disorder. He writes:

A heretic must be avoided after two corrections, that is, after corrections that have been juridically made by the authority of the Church, and not according to private judgement. For great confusion would follow in the Church, if it sufficed that a correction be performed by a private person – without the declaration by the Church of the manifest heresy and without her indicating to everyone that they should avoid this pope – for everyone to be obliged to avoid him. For the heresy of a pope could not be made known to all the faithful except by the report of others; but such reports would not create any juridical obligation that everyone should believe them and avoid him. Therefore, it is necessary that just as the Church juridically proposes the pope to everyone by electing him, so also must she depose him by declaring him and indicating him to be a heretic who must be avoided (Cursus Theologicus, De auct. Summ. Pont. disp. 2 art. 3, XXVI).

He thus forestalls the modern sedevacantist enterprise. To Bellarmine’s arguments, he says, first, that while a heretical pope is not a Christian with respect to himself, he is with respect to us. We could perhaps say that whether or not we call such a man a Christian, he can still have jurisdiction over Christians since this comes to him from Christ independently of his own spiritual state. To the argument from the Fathers, John replies that they simply intended to say that heresy by itself was sufficient without any further crime to deprive a man of jurisdiction, but not that no kind of declaration by the Church was necessary. We can add that in the case of a man like Novatian who actually founds another church, the simple refusal of Catholic bishops to communicate with such a man is an adequate declaration of his loss of jurisdiction. As for Nestorius’s excommunications of his opponents, these were presumably invalid not because he had lost jurisdiction automatically from his heresy, but because the people whom he excommunicated, being orthodox, had not committed a crime for which they could be excommunicated.

But this still leaves two questions: (a) how is it possible for ‘the Church’ to depose a pope, when the pope is the head of the Church on earth; and (b) whom do we mean by ‘the Church’ here?

The difficulty of (a) is probably what causes Bellarmine to speak of an automatic self-deposition. But as John of St Thomas points out, that would lead to great confusion. So John makes a subtle distinction. No one earth directly removes the papacy from a pope, as the pope may directly remove episcopal jurisdiction from a bishop. Rather, ‘the Church’, by the official declaration of incorrigible heresy, causes the man who is the pope to have a certain property, namely the property of ‘having to be avoided’, which is by divine law incompatible with possessing the papacy. Therefore, when the man who is the pope comes to have this property, then Christ, as the pope’s superior, removes the papacy from him. For Christ commands us not to avoid the pope; but divine law, promulgated in Titus 3, commands us to avoid an incorrigible heretic, duly declared; therefore, since Christ cannot contradict Himself, He will remove the papacy from an incorrigible heretic. ‘The Church’ therefore deposes the heretical pope not directly but indirectly. John says that the Church does it ‘dispositively’, meaning that it introduces into the man who is the pope a disposition with which the papacy cannot stand.

We might draw an analogy from the ‘Law of Jealousy’ in the Old Testament. According to Numbers 5, a husband who suspects his wife of adultery has the right to bring her before a priest and oblige her to drink ritually cursed water. If she is innocent, nothing will happen, but if she is guilty, her belly will swell and her thigh rot. It is a unique law, I think: a standing promise of a miracle.

Let us suppose that a husband gives his wife the water to drink and her belly swells and her thigh rots. Can we say that he had the power to take her health from her? Strictly, no, since his action was not the cause of, but only the occasion for, the swelling and the putrescence. God alone was the cause of it. Even though no other created cause intervenes between the giving of the water and the departure of the woman’s good health, the husband is only an indirect and dispositive cause of what happens to her.

So with the deposition of a pope. The Church, after two fruitless corrections, can declare a pope to be an incorrigible heretic. This is equivalent to the giving of the water to the adulteress. Then, not by the Church’s power but by God’s, the papacy would fall from that man. The Church’s declaration is only the occasion and not strictly the cause of the loss of the papal office.

But that still leaves question (b): who exactly counts as ‘the Church’, in such a case. I’ll consider that in part III.

(to be continued)