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 217, 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)

This last week has brought not one but two statements presented as being from Pope Francis which seem to be – how shall I put it? – heteredox.

The first is indisputably his. It is the Letter to the International Commission against the Death Penalty. A somewhat clumsy Zenit translation is given here. We might have expected simply a repeat of what is in the Catechism – that the death penalty can be justified as a matter of social self-defence (which doesn’t imply self-defence only against the man who is executed, but could include self-defence by deterrence or by the very visible upholding of the moral law), coupled with a prudential judgement, to which no Catholic is bound, that today it will very rarely if ever be the case that the death penalty is necessary.

That’s not what we find. Instead we read:-

(i) self-defence cannot apply in the case of the death penalty as it can in the case of enemy invasion, because the harm done by the criminal is now in the past, and can’t be changed;

(ii) the death penalty is a crime against the dignity of man;

(iii) the death penalty has no legitimacy, because of the possibility of error;

(iv) the death penalty deprives the criminal of the possibility of reparation (and, bizarrely, of the possibility of confession)

(v) the death penalty is contrary to divine mercy (if only Moses had known that);

(vi) the death penalty is worse than the crime committed by the criminal.

He says, “today, the death penalty is inadmissible”; but the points (i) to (vi) imply that it always was. He quotes our Lord saying “put your sword back into its sheath” and telling the one who was without sin to cast the first stone, but does not point out that neither of these involved a properly-constitued tribunal. He does not mention Christ quoting with approval the law, “He that shall curse father or mother, dying let him die” (Mk. 7:10), nor St Paul’s assertion that the civil ruler or “prince” does not bear the sword in vain, i.e. without good reason, but rather as God’s minister (Rom. 13:4).

Nor does he quote the statement of faith which Innocent III gave to the Waldensians, which includes the assertion:-

With regard to the secular power, we affirm that it can exercise a judgement of blood without mortal sin provided that in carrying out the punishment it proceeds not out of hatred, but judiciously, not in a precipitous manner, but with caution (Dz. 795).

Nor does he quote the teaching of the Roman Catechism of St Pius V, that:-

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and eath, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this commandment which prohibits murder.

Apart from all these things, the legitimacy of the death penalty has been taught by the universal and ordinary magisterium of the Church for many centuries and is therefore surely a matter of faith.

I can see no way to reconcile the pope’s statements listed above, with the possible exception of (iv), with this teaching of the Church.

That was the first thing.

The other thing is not an official statement, but another of these interviews with the Italian atheist chap. But it can’t be written off, because the previous interviews have been put in a book and published by the Vatican Press. So the pope presumably considers the Italian chap a reliable conduit for his own opinions. Part of it is in English here.

So, the unusal bit in this interview happens when the Italian atheist chap says to the Holy Father, “What about the souls that choose selfishness and put out the divine spark? Will they be punished?” And the pope is quoted as saying, “They won’t be punished but annihilated (non c’è punizione ma l’annullamento).” The chap says that the pope’s words were netta e chiara, “clear and distinct”.

Annullamento means annihilation or destruction. It can also be translated as cancellation, but what would that mean?

In other words, we have here the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that the wicked will not suffer after death, because they will no longer exist. Obviously this is contrary to Scripture, Tradition and many statements of the magisterium. To quote just one, from Lateran IV:-

All will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear to receive according to their works, whether these have been good or evil, the ones perpetual punishment with the devil and the others everlasting glory with Christ (Dz. 801).

I suppose it would be just about possible to interpret these words attributed to the pope in an orthodox way – ‘not punished’, because they will suffer the natural consequences of their own choices rather than a penalty arbitrarily imposed; ‘annihilated’ not ontologically but morally, in that they will no longer be capable of love etc. But frankly, would there be any point? If the words were not meant in their obvious sense, it is for an official spokesman to disavow them.

Of course none of these things touch the dogma of papal infallibility; the conditions for an ex cathedra judgement are not present. But we seem to have a pope who does not know the Catholic faith.

No doubt it was very wrong of Richard Williamson to have consecrated a bishop in that monastery in Brazil last week (and I was sorry to see him do it in such a-hole-in-the-corner way; that was not how Archbishop Lefebvre acted. Also, why on earth did he choose someone nearly as old as himself?) But in times like these, I find it difficult to be sorry that there is another orthodox bishop in the world; perhaps even a Catholic bishop, given how hard it is to excommunicate oneself under modern canon law.

Michael Davies once said that future Catholic apologists would have greater difficulties with the Eucharistic Prayers for Children than with the morals of the Borgias or the worst excesses of the Inquisition. Perhaps also they will have more difficulties with the present pope than with Popes Liberius, Honorius I and John XXII combined.

A  blessed Passion-tide to all.

Walking recently in a country that was Catholic until the Council, I saw a large, medieval village church and tried to go in. The nave was barred by a locked iron gate, but from the narthex one could see the high altar with its fine marble baldachino. In front of it stood a little altar set up to face the congregation upon which, I suppose, the holy sacrifice is offered on days when the nave is not locked. And I marveled, as I always do, at the silent testimony these things bear to a revolution; and I mused on how many Catholic altars there are throughout the world, once consecrated by a successor of an apostle, now gathering dust.

What would Pope Innocent III have said of it? Writing of the mystical meaning of our ceremonies, he says that the altar-stone in which the relics of saints are enclosed represents the Church; the priest kissing it when he begins Mass, is the Bridegroom showing his love for the Bride. How many of our altars never receive this mark of tenderness, but remain unreverenced from year’s end to years end? Some serve as stands for pot-plants, or worse. Some stand naked, as if a decree had gone forth that it should be always Good Friday and never Easter. Others again, if little heeded by the priests, are tended still by some faithful sacristan who waits in silence for a change of days. But alongside each unused altar, a heavenly power stands, untroubled yet unforgetful.

And as I thought of these things, and thought also that he spoke rightly who said one should kindle a light rather than bemoan the darkness, I determined to compose a prayer for the restoration of our altars; and you also, good reader, may recite this prayer if you think like me about these things:-

O God, who hast granted to thy Church to set up altars throughout the world consecrated by holy oil and by apostolic power, and hast commanded thy angels to stand guard beside them until the end of time, grant we beseech thee to thy bishops and priests a new love of these holy altars, that the everlasting sacrifice of thy Son may daily be perpetuated upon them, and that thy girded people may ascend to that sublime altar which is in heaven, Christ thy self-same Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.

And a Latin version, mostly literal:-

Deus, qui dedisti ecclesiae tuae ut potestate apostolica oleoque sanctissimo altaria per orbem terrarum erigat, quique angelis tuis praecepisti ut usque in saeculi finem iuxta eadem adstantes pervigilent, tribue quaesumus episcopos sacerdotesque tuos altaribus ita nova mente delectari ut Filii tui sacrificium crebrius in dies offeratur atque ad sublime altare in coelis populus accinctus tuus ascendat, eundem Iesum Christum Filium tuum Dominum nostrum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.