In the earlier instalments of this essay, we have seen, first, that there is a well-established theological opinion that a pope can lose his office because of heresy, and next, that this loss of office could be authoritatively declared without implying that anyone in the Church has a power greater than, or equal to, the pope’s. In particular, I argued in favour of the position of John of St Thomas and of certain other outstanding theologians, that an official declaration may be made that a pope is an incorrigible heretic, and therefore, according to the divine law promulgated in Titus 3, must be avoided. According to this view, after such a declaration, Christ Himself deposes the pope.

But who would have the right to make this official declaration of heresy, which would introduce into the pope a disposition incompatible with his continued possession of the papacy?

To decide this, we need to consider by what title they would have to be acting. By what right would this group of people, rather than that one, have the right to make a public declaration, with legal consequences, about the heresy of a pope? The answer seems to be, because they are charged with the spiritual good of a community that would be gravely harmed if the declaration of heresy were not made. Now, the pope is by divine law the head of two communities, each of which would be gravely harmed by his heresy: the universal Church on earth, and the local church of Rome. Therefore, there seem at first sight to be two possible groups of people who could make the declaration of heresy: the body of bishops, gathered in council, as representing the universal church, and the college of cardinals, as representing the church of Rome.

It has to be admitted that there are some weighty authorities in favour of a general council of bishops. Bellarmine gives as one of the six possible reasons why a general council may be called, “the suspicion of heresy in a Roman pontiff”, adding that the council must depose him if he is found to be heretical (De conciliis, book 1, IX). This may seem to contradict what he says elsewhere about a heretical pope’s being ipso facto deposed. Presumably, what he means is that it belongs to such a council to make the two admonitions required by divine law, and that after the failure of the second admonition, the pope would lose the papacy ipso facto, without need for any further declaration from the council. In practice, then, his position about the loss of the papacy would not be very different from the alternative position upheld by Cajetan, John of St Thomas, and St Alphonsus (it may be that Bellarmine’s position was that, ideally, such admonitions would be made by a council, but provided that admonitions were clearly made in a public way by someone important, the papacy would be lost ipso facto in the case of pertinacity.)

John of St Thomas explicitly asks whether it is the bishops or the cardinals who should admonish the pope and make a declaration of pertinacity, and he says that it is the bishops. He gives two arguments for this, one positive and one speculative. First, he says that this is clear from the practice of the Church, as happened with Pope Marcellinus, Pope Symmachus and at the Council of Constance. Secondly, he says that the authority to make the declaration of papal heresy has not been given by any explicit law to a particular group, such as the cardinals, and therefore it belongs to the Church as such, and therefore it belongs to a general council, as representing the Church (Cursus Theologicus, De auct. Summ. Pont. disp. 2, art. 3, XVII.)

Neither of these arguments seems decisive. The affair of Marcellinus is too uncertain for any argument to be built on it; in any case, it did not involve a general council. The synod that met to discuss the position of Symmachus was likewise not a general council, but a gathering of bishops from nearby dioceses: and according to Bellarmine, such gatherings were the forerunners of, precisely, the college of cardinals. The Council of Constance “accepted” the renunciation of the papal claimants, but it does not follow that it had to accept these renunciations for them to be valid, nor that it would have had power to declare a pope deposed for heresy; papal heresy was not in question.

As for John’s speculative argument, this would be convincing if it were certain that a ‘general council’ without the pope at its head could represent the Church. But can it? Can there even be a general council without the pope? To call it an ‘imperfect council’, as some people do, seems like calling a decapitated human being ‘an imperfect man’. Each diocesan bishop has ordinary power to rule his diocese, but he does not have ordinary power to help rule the whole Church, or else the popes would be obliged to call general councils frequently. And again, who would have the authority to summon an ‘imperfect general council’?

The college of cardinals, on the other hand, unlike the ecumenical council, is a standing institution. It has its proper head, or at least, a president, namely the dean, who can summon the other cardinals to a conclave. According to the present law of the Church, it has the right to elect a pope, when the see is vacant. It can therefore be said to be charged with a general care for the spiritual good of the Roman church. It would therefore seem fitting that in the case of a suspicion of heresy in the Roman pontiff, the dean of the college should invite his fellow cardinals to discuss the matter, and if necessary, to admonish the pope twice and make a declaration in the case of pertinacity.

The judgement of Bellarmine and John of St Thomas, that a general council would be the proper body, was perhaps influenced by the memory of the Council of Constance. More recent authors, such as Louis Billot, often speak of ‘a general council or the college of cardinals’ as being the interested body, without trying to determine the question. Journet does not address it.

How many of the cardinals would need to agree, for their declaration to have legal force? Nothing in law determines this, as far as I know. It seems only reasonable that such a grave matter should be performed with at least as much care as is taken in the election of a pope, and so according to the present law, a majority of two-thirds would be needed. Of course a declaration of incorrigible heresy and of consequent loss of office would not in itself be infallible. But if it were accepted by all Catholics, then that would be a sign of its truth. Billot writes that the adhesion of the whole Church is the infallible sign of the legitimacy of a pope (De ecclesia Christi, vol.1, 29:2).

What if there is a suspicion of heresy, but the cardinals will not act? In that case, there are still three remedies: prayer, penance and the Swiss guards. Prayer and penance are the principal arms in any supernatural work. But the Swiss guards could also act in defence of the Church. No one is allowed to use physical force against a Roman pontiff, as this brings with it an automatic excommunication. But it would not be using physical force if the front door of his residence were kept locked, and the means of communication with the outside world were cut off, provided that he was given all that was needed for his bodily and spiritual welfare. Time is greater than space, we are told. So I suggest that such a pontiff could be given whatever time heaven wishes him to have, while being kept within a pleasant and well-defined – and well-guarded – space.


“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)


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)