As the Church enters in many places a strange sort of Holy Saturday (though at least the chants of Tenebrae are heard on Holy Saturday), here is a passage from St Robert Bellarmine which I came across recently, about the phrase ‘the Breaking of the Bread’ as a name for the Mass.  Some of the Tablety sort of people seem to like this phrase because they think (if truth be told) that it is a bit Protestant.  Bellarmine discusses it while speaking of the Scriptural passages that teach the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist:

The second argument is drawn from the words ‘The bread which we break’ (1 Cor. 10).  For in the mystery of the Eucharist, breaking is the same as immolating or offering.  This is clear from the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 11: ‘This is my body which is broken for you.’  For Calvin too, and Martyr [the Protestant controversialist Peter Martyr Vermigli] and many Catholics understand this of the passion, and Calvin says expressly, ‘To be broken here means the same as to be immolated’.  Therefore in this place too, breaking will be immolation: for it is the same word, of the same author, in the same epistle, and treating of the same subject.

This is confirmed by the fact that Paul speaks about the chalice with words that have to do with its consecration, not its distribution; for he doesn’t say, ‘the chalice which we drink’, but ‘the chalice which we bless’.  Therefore in speaking of the bread, he must also have used words having to do with its consecration, not with its distribution (‘Controversies on the Sacrament of the Eucharist’, Bk. 1, chapter 12).

Or so says St Robert Bellarmine:

There are therefore in each realm two kings: one who is visible, a man; another who is invisible, an angel.  And in each church there are two bishops: one who is visible, a man; another who is invisible, an angel.  And in the universal Catholic Church, there are two supreme pontiffs established under Christ: one who is visible, a man; another who is invisible, an angel.  We believe that this angel is St Michael. For as once the synagogue of the Jews venerated him as their patron, so now does the Church of Christians (‘The Ladder of Ascent to God’, 9th step.)

“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)


Whether or not one affirms that the statements made by the Roman Catechism and the Holy Office about the centrality of the earth in the universe are binding, one must surely be struck by the relation between St Robert Bellarmine, the Fatima apparitions, and the date of May 13th. It was Bellarmine who was charged with telling Galileo of ‘the declaration made by the Holy Father and published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, whose content is that the doctrine attributed to Copernicus is contrary to Holy Scripture and therefore cannot be defended or held’ (Bellarmine’s own words). Of all the church’s doctors, it was Bellarmine to whom it fell to make this declaration.

Bellarmine was beatified on May 13th, 1923, and this date was assigned as his feast day, where it still remains on the calendar of the ordo antiquior. Why this date was chosen I have been unable to discover: it is not the day of his death. However, 6 years earlier, on May 13th 1917 there had taken place the first of the apparitions of our Lady at Fatima, and this date was later to be assigned for this feast day. These apparitions were validated by the miracle of the sun, which was seen by a vast crowd to fall from its orbit towards the earth. If God had wanted to give a ocular proof of the Bellarmine declaration, it is hard to see what more striking one He could have offered. 

…The seventh heresy is to say that the Canticle of Canticles was not written by the spirit of the true God but by the breath of Cupid, and that nothing else is found in it but amorous words of king Solomon and of his wife, the daughter of Pharaoh. According to this view, it is a profane canticle, which is why, they say, it does not mention the name of God.

…But so that there would be no ground for suspecting that the Canticle was written about Pharaoh’s daughter or about some other particular woman, the Holy Spirit willed things to be written about the bride which could not all apply to any one woman. Moreover, it is, we believe, for the same reason that when the bride’s beauty is praised and vividly described, some expressions are used which apply very well to the Church, but which would be unseemly for a woman. For what would be the beauty of a woman whose head was as large as Carmel, whose nose  resembled a tower, whose eyes were like fish-pools and whose teeth were like shorn sheep? (St Robert Bellarmine, Controversies, I, V)

What do people mean by being baptised on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised on their behalf? Why am I in peril every hour?

St Francis de Sales comments:-

This passage properly understood evidently shows that it was the custom of the primitive Church to watch, pray, and fast for the souls of the departed. For, firstly, in the Scriptures ‘to be baptised’ is often taken for afflictions and penances; as in St Luke, chapter XII, where our Lord speaking of his Passion says, ‘I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptised, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished!’ – and in St Mark, chapter X, he says, ‘Can you drink of the chalice that I drink of, or be baptised with the baptism wherewith I am baptised?’; in which places our Lord calls pains and afflictions baptism. This then is the sense of that Scripture: if the dead rise not again, what is the use of mortifying and afflicting oneself, of praying for and fasting for the dead? And indeed this sentence of St Paul resembles that of the Machabees, ‘It is superfluous and vain to pray for the dead if the dead rise not again’ .

But secondly, it must not be said that the baptism of which St Paul speaks is only a baptism of grief and tears, and not of fasts, prayers and other works. For thus understood, his conclusion would be very false. The conclusion he means to draw is that if the dead rise not again, and if the soul is mortal, in vain do we afflict ourselves for the dead. But, I pray you, should we not have more occasion to afflict ourselves by sadness for the death of friends if they rise no more? (‘The Catholic Controversy’, III, V).

Bellarmine adds:-

This interpretation fits best with what follows, ‘Why am I in peril every hour?’, as if to say, ‘why do some afflict themselves in praying for the dead, and why do I afflict myself in preaching the gospel, if there is no resurrection of the dead?’

And again:-

 It is objected that the apostle should not have said, ‘why are people baptised on their behalf?’ but ‘why are we baptised on their behalf?’, since all Christians pray for the dead. I answer that the apostle wished to argue not from the custom of Christians, which might be rejected by the unbelievers as being something new, but from the custom of the Jews, who like their ancestors and following the example of the Scripture fasted and prayed for the dead (‘Controversies’, VI, VI).

St Ephraim, ‘the harp of the Holy Ghost’, had already expounded St Paul in this way, sixteen hundred years ago.

St Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians is a locus classicus:-

And you know what withholds, that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity already works; only he who now holds is to hold until he be taken out of the way. And then that wicked one shall be revealed (2 Thess. 2).

Bellarmine comments:-

Here Paul speaks, not venturing to write openly about the overthrow of the Roman Empire, which nevertheless he had clearly explained when he was with them, and the meaning is: ‘Do you know what hinders the coming of antichrist? I told you, the Roman Empire hinders it, because its sins are not yet completed, and Antichrist, who will take this empire out of the way on account of its sins, will not come until they are completed. And so the one who now holds is to hold, that is, to reign, until he be taken out of the way, that is, abolished, and then that wicked one will be revealed (Tomus II, Liber III, caput V).

As Bellarmine shows in loc., this is a common view among the fathers, even though Augustine acknowledges that other interpretations are possible.  That the Roman imperial power was the historic force preventing Christ’s enemies from coalescing under one visible head was believed, strange as it may seem, even when the emperors were pagans and persecutors. It was still believed, naturally enough, when the emperors became the Church’s patrons   and protectors. It is as if, the birth of our Lord having been heralded by the decree going forth from Caesar Augustus, Caesar Augustus’s power must disappear before the anti-decree will go forth. But has not this been, as Maritain wrote in his study of St Paul, disproved by the facts?

The Eastern Roman Empire continued until Whit Tuesday, 1453. Within a lifetime the Protestant revolt had begun: the greatest undermining of the faith yet known. The Emperors of the West continued to have the Roman name until August 6th, 1806. In the lifetime that followed this, the basis of natural religion, namely belief in a personal God, ceased to be part of the general heritage of mankind. Insofar as the Roman imperial power and tradition continued, it was vested in the Austrian emperors until Hallowe’en 1918. In the lifetime that followed this date, natural law was destroyed. The Fathers, and Bellarmine, do not say that Antichrist would appear the day after the dethroning of the last emperor, but that the imperial power was preventing his arrival. Anti-Christian forces would always be at work, but independently one of another; once the imperial power was removed, they would, somehow, be freed to co-ordinate their efforts in view of a supreme attack. Finally, the last heir apparent to a reigning emperor died last year on Independence Day. It remains to be seen what will happen next.