Unfortunately, I don’t see how anyone who is aware of the facts can deny that Pope Francis is pertinacious in rejecting various doctrines that are proposed by the Church as truths of divine faith. Despite being urged by many people to do so, he refuses to express his adhesion to the Church’s teaching on matters of general and special morality, and on justification. He continues to promote the errors contrary to these teachings, by word and by deed.

How do we respond to a pope pertinacious in heresy? Unlike the sedevacantists, I don’t believe that the individual Catholic has the right to declare that a pope, or bishop, has lost his office for heresy, and that a new pope needs to be appointed. To have legal force, such a declaration has to come from a body with sufficient legal standing within the Church: the college of bishops or the sanior pars thereof, or the college of cardinals, or perhaps the other patriarchs.

Before such a declaration occurs, does a heretical pope have the right to act as pope? Hardly: a heretic does not have the right to be head of the Catholic Church. In this sense we might perhaps say that such a pope has lost his office ‘before God’, though not yet ‘before the Church’; but I am not sure what authority for such a phrase exists.

Does that mean we have the right to disobey his laws and precepts? No, not as such. Until a proper legal declaration of a pope’s loss of office has been made, the public life of the Church, which is a society governed by law, must surely proceed on the basis that he still holds his office. It may be that if some future pope or council condemns Pope Francis for heresy, that pope or council may also declare that he lost his office from the moment that he began to manifest pertinacity, i.e. from the moment that he began to assert things which he knew to be contrary to what the Church teaches as revealed (and let us remember that he has promoted Holy Communion for the invalidly married from his first Angelus address.)

In that case, the future pope or council would have to decide which of Pope Francis’s actions had been legally valid. I suppose that they would say that jurisdiction had been supplied to him by Christ, Supreme Head of the Church, whenever he had posited an act which pertained directly to the salvation of souls. For example, his episcopal appointments would be judged valid, for if the diocesan bishops were not duly in possession of their sees, they could not give faculties to priests, and so penitents would not have been validly absolved. On the other hand, they could judge that the acts of Pope Francis which did not pertain directly to the salvation of souls had been invalid or at least doubtful: for example, canonisations.

The public life of the Church, then, must be based on that which legally obtains. The private life of Catholics seems like a different matter. If a person is convinced that Pope Francis is pertinacious, and therefore does not have the right to act as head of the Church, I am not sure that he need give any kind of assent to his teachings (I mean, even those teachings which are not open to some other obvious objection.)

“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)


What should we think of the impending canonisation of Pope John Paul II? I met someone shortly after the pope’s death who said that if John Paul II was canonised, he would become a sede-vacantist. I hope he was simply letting off steam; but his words point to a real problem that cannot be solved simply by ignoring it.

Of course I am happy to acknowledge all the great qualities of the late pontiff, and not only his natural ones such as linguistic talent and ‘stage-presence’, but also his supernatural ones. We perhaps do not reflect enough, for example, on the courage that must have been required every time he came into St Peter’s Square, or any other public place, after the assassination attempt. There can be no doubt, either, of his personal love for Jesus Christ, his devotion to prayer and to duty usque ad mortem, his piety to our Lady and his boldness in speaking unwelcome truths to the world’s rulers, especially about abortion.

Yet there are also the facts that have disconcerted many. What would St Pius X have made, we ask, of the Assisi prayer meetings? What of the late pope’s participation, according to the Osservatore Romano itself, in a pagan ceremony in Africa? What of the kissing of the Koran, and the public prayer to St John the Baptist to bless Islam? These and similar questions led to the drawing up of an international ‘Statement of Reservations’ before the beatification in 2011.

Perhaps the Old Testament figure of Jephthah can aid us in our perplexity. In the book of Judges, chapter 11, he vows before going into battle that if God grants him victory he will sacrifice the first living thing that comes out of his house on his returns. He does win, his daughter is the first living thing to come out of the house, and he reluctantly fulfils his vow. Hardly saint-like material, we might think. St Thomas Aquinas quotes St Jerome’s assessment: ‘he was foolish in making his vow and impious in fulfilling it’. Yet, turning to the New Testament, we find Jephthah canonised by the Holy Ghost in the 11th chapter of Hebrews.

To reconcile these biblical passages, some have proposed that Jephthah received a special inspiration from God to act as he did. Cornelius a Lapide thinks it unnecessary to posit this. What Jephthah did, he tells us, was certainly wrong, but he was a soldier with a simple mentality who believed it necessary to fulfil the vow once he had made it. Sacrificing his daughter was grave matter, but not a mortal sin, as he lacked a clear perception of the wrongness of the action. It was, in fact, compatible with a real determination to do the will of God cost what it may.

I wonder if it would be impertinent to draw an analogy with Karol Wojtyla. Certainly he did not have the rustic simplicity of a Jephthah to mislead him. But he had, I think, something else that prevented him from seeing certain things as they are: a false theology of religions. He genuinely believed that Christ and the Holy Spirit were operating through non-Christian religions to bring about the sanctification of those who pursued them in good faith. This was a serious error, yet it was in his case compatible with a great purity of heart and a desire to do the will of God. It will be for this purity of intention that he will be canonised, as Jephthah has been.