Answering Fr. Kramer's Objection to "The True Meaning of Bellarmine's Ipso Facto Loss of Office Theory"


In the article, “The True Meaning of Bellarmine’s Ipso Facto Lossof Office Theory,” we showed that Bellarmine maintained that if a Pope fell into formal heresy, but did not publicly separate himself from the Church, he would retain his jurisdiction, dignity, and title as head of the Church, unless and until he was “convicted of heresy,” which is exactly how we interpreted his teaching in True or False Pope?

For that, we were accused by Fr. Kramer (and others) of heresy for allegedly denying that the Pope is immune from all human coercive judgment. 

To counter that erroneous accusation, in the recent article we showed how it is possible for the Church to render a legal judgment/conviction (discretionary judgment) that a Pope has fallen into heresy, without exercising any coercive force or jurisdiction over him.  We showed that Bellarmine himself taught that a true Pope can be judged with a discretionary judgment (but not a coercive judgment), while he remained Pope, and he proved it by citing the cases of Popes Leo III, Leo IX, and other Popes, who submitted to a discretionary judgment by ecclesiastical or secular tribunals.

Fr. Kramer has always maintained that an antecedent judgment is neither required, nor permitted, before a heretical Pope is deprived of his jurisdiction, and insisted Bellarmine taught the same.  Rather than admitting that he's been proven wrong, Fr. Kramer raised specious objections to our recent article as a diversionary tactic.  We respond to each of these objections below.

Objection 1: “An imperfect council is incapable of judging on a matter of faith infallibly, and therefore cannot definitively judge with finality whether a pope’s opinion is heresy, and from there determine that the pope is indeed a contumacious heretic.” (Fr. Kramer)

Answer: That is why theologians and canonists distinguish between a “new heresy,” and one that has already been the subject of an infallibly judgment by a Pope or council, and teach that a Pope can only be declared a heretic for contumaciously denying the latter.   Once the Church has defined a dogma, everyone - including future Popes - are bound to believe it; and anyone who denies a defined dogma – including a future Pope – will be a heretic.

We should also note that denying a revealed truth that the Church has not yet pronounced with a final and definitive (infallible) judgment, would not constitute heresy, properly so-called, since pertinacious heresy is directly against the infallible authority of the Church, and only indirectly a denial of revealed truth.  As Garrigou-Lagrange explains, “Heretical pertinacity is not directed immediately against God’s word, or truth in revealing. Its target is the infallibility of the Church’s authority.” (Lagrange, The Theological Virtues: I On Faith, p. 433).  Billuart teaches the same: “Pertinacious heresy, therefore, is immediately and directly opposed to the infallible authority that the Church enjoys in proposing revealed truths … heresy is mediately and indirectly opposed to these truths, and consequently to revelation itself, and finally to the First Truth who is the source of revelation. (Billuart, Summa S. Thomae, II-II, 4th Diss., art. 1, On the Nature and Divisions of Heresy.) 

If the Church has not yet proposed a revealed truth with her infallible authority, denying it would not constitute pertinacious heresy, nor would the doctrine in question require the assent of Divine and Catholic faith. 

Objection 2: “The Pope could preempt the judgment of the council by defining that the teaching he was accused of heresy for professing is true.” (Fr. Kramer)

Answer:  Only if the teaching he is professing is true, since the charism of infallibility would prevent even a heretical Pope from erring when he defined a doctrine.  If the Pope denied a dogma that had already been the subject of an infallible pronouncement by a Pope or council, the charism of infallibility would prevent him from defining the contrary. 

Objection 3: “If an ‘imperfect council’ presumes to judge a true and validly reigning pope guilty of heresy, the pope as supreme judge possesses the right and the power to overrule the council and judge the matter with infallibility and finality.” (Fr. Kramer)

Answer: Not if his jurisdiction were “removed by God” (i.e. he is ipso facto deposed), the moment the council convicted him of heresy.  At that point, he would no longer be Pope, and hence would no longer be the "supreme judge" with “the right and power to overrule the council.” 

Objection 4: “No council can arrogate the power to itself (1) to nullify or suppress the pope’s right of primacy to judge the case as the supreme, final, and infallible judge, and then (2) presume to arrogate to itself the supreme power to judge the pope’s opinion heretical with finality, and (3) command the pope with coercive juridical force to submit to the judgment of the Council.” (Fr. Kramer)

Answer: In reply to (1), the council does not suppress the Pope’s right to judge matters of faith; it “convicts him of heresy” for denying an already defined dogma, and Christ strips him of his supreme jurisdiction.  Regarding (2), according to Bellarmine (and that's whose opinion we are discussing), bishops – who are competent to judge cases of heresy – can indeed gather at council to judge whether the Pope has denied a defined dogma.     

In reply to (3), the bishops cannot command a Pope with coercive force to submit to their judgment, but they can present him with evidence that a previous Pope or council has infallibly defined the dogma he denies, and then publicly and solemnly warn him that by persisting in his denial of the dogma, he will reveal himself to be a heretic.  If the Pope persisted in his heresy after a public and solemn warning, he would thereby manifest his pertinacity and contumacy, not for resisting the any authority of the bishops who merely presented the teaching of the Church to him, but for rejecting the infallible authority of the Church that previously defined the dogma.

Objection 5: “There exists no possibility for canonical warnings to be administered to a pope” (Kramer).

Answer:  In the case of a Pope, the warning is not an act of jurisdiction, but an act of charity (fraternal correction), which is permitted.  Bellarmine explains:

Bellarmine: “Peter allowed himself to be reprimanded by Paul because that was not a juridical censure, but a fraternal correction. For, as Augustine says in letter 19 to Jerome, and Gregory in homily 18 on Ezekiel, Paul does not reprimand Peter, as a superior judges inferiors with authority, but as inferiors sometimes correct their superiors out of charity.” (De Romano Pontifice, lib. 2, cap. xxvii).

Objection 6: Even a point that has already been solemnly defined can be misinterpreted in such a manner that it would necessarily require an additional exercise of the supreme magisterium to resolve it — and until then it would be argued back and forth with one side saying that the new interpretation is heretical and the other claiming it is not — and such a dispute could only be judged with finality by that one priest who is the judge in the place of Christ.” (Fr. Kramer).

Answer: This didn’t stop Fr. Kramer, back in 2013, from judging and declaring that Francis – who he believed to be Pope while he was judging him – was a heretic, and then announcing on social media that the papal see was “vacant.”  Nor did it stop him, in May of 2019, from judging and declaring on his Facebook page that Benedict – who he also believed to be Pope while he was judging him – was a heretic, and then exhorting “the few remaining Catholic prelates and clergy” to consider the see vacant!  

Fr. Kramer even insists that the laity – most of whom don’t know the difference between heresy and lesser errors – can judge that the Pope is a “manifest heretic” using their “conscience,” and claims that doing so is “a basic right of natural law.”[1]  

Apparently, Fr. Kramer believes that everyone except bishops at a council can judge if the Pope has fallen into heresy.

Objection 7: “In matters of faith, the judgment of an imperfect council is binding neither on the pope nor the rest of the Church, since, as Bellarmine explains: “For it is necessary, that all the faithful hold the same in matters of faith: ‘There is one God, one Faith, one Baptism. (Ephes. 4) But there cannot be one Faith in the Church, if there is not one supreme Judge, to whom all are bound to acquiesce’.” [De Romano Pontifice lib. i. cap. ix].  (Fr. Kramer)

Answer: An imperfect council does not judge a matter of faith, but a matter of fact; that is, the bishops don’t define doctrines, they judge if the Pope pertinaciously denies a dogma that has already been defined.  As Bellarmine explains, bishops at an imperfect council only have the authority needed to provide for the head:

Bellarmine: “The second [question], whether or not it is lawful for a Council to be summoned by someone other than the Pope, when the Pope should not summon it, because he is a heretic or schismatic. …

“I respond that in no case can a true and perfect Council (such as we make out disputation on here) be convoked without the authority of the Pope, because it is he who has the authority to define questions of faith. For the chief (praecipua) authority is in the head, in Peter; to whom it was commanded to confirm the brethren, and therefore for whom the Lord himself prayed that his faith would fail not (Luke 22).  Still in those two cases an imperfect Council could be gathered, which would suffice for the Church to provide for the head.   For the Church, without a doubt, has the authority of itself to provide for the head, although it cannot, without the head, make determinations on many things that it can with the head, as Cajetan rightly teaches in his little work, de potestate Papae, c. 15 and 16, and much earlier on the priests of the Roman Church in their epistle to Cyprian (which is the 7th in the second book on the works of Cyprian).  Hence, an imperfect Council can happen, if it is summoned by the College of Cardinals, or by the Bishops who come together in one place of themselves.” (De Conciliis, bk. 1, ch. XIV.)

Objection 8: “A discretionary judgment can have no juridical effect on a pope, and the simple act of discretion which establishes a crime in the minds of men is not a juridical act, but is a natural personal act of private persons exercising the human faculty of judgment, which, when expressed as a discretionary judgment of an arbiter, is not in the nature of a judgment of the Church.” (Fr. Kramer)

Answer: A discretionary judgment is not the judgment of a private person. It is the legitimate judgment of those who possesses the discretionary power (clavis scientiae) needed to render it.  The discretionary power is the “authority to judge,” as St. Thomas explains (Suppl, q. 17, a. 3, ad 2). Hence, it is not the judgment of private persons, but of public persons acting in their official capacity.

The effect of the “conviction” (discretionary judgment) is that the Pope is recognized as a heretic by a body of bishops who are competent to judge cases of heresy. He becomes a “manifest heretic” (i.e., a notorious heretic), according to their judgment. 

Now, Fr. Kramer’s public declarations that Francis and Benedict are heretics, and that the papal see fell vacant in 2013, and again in 2019, is an act of private judgment. And since it involves a matter of the universal Church that Fr. Kramer has no right to judge and declare, his public declarations constitute a judgment by usurpation, which, as St. Thomas teaches, is an unlawful judgment, and a mortal sin. 

In the Summa, the Angelic doctor explains what is required for a judgment to be lawful, and who alone has the right to pronounce it:

St. Thomas: “Since judgment should be pronounced according to the written law, as stated above, he that pronounces judgment, interprets, in a way, the letter of the law, by applying it to some particular case. Now since it belongs to the same authority to interpret and to make a law, just as a law cannot be made except by public authority, so neither can a judgment be pronounced except by public authority, which extends over those who are subject to the community.[2] (…)

Judgment is lawful in so far as it is an act of justice. Now it follows from what has been stated above (1, ad 1,3) that three conditions are requisite for a judgment to be an act of justice: first, that it proceed from the inclination of justice; secondly, that it come from one who is in authority; thirdly, that it be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence. If any one of these be lacking, the judgment will be faulty and unlawful. First, when it is contrary to the rectitude of justice, and then it is called ‘perverted’ or ‘unjust’: secondly, when a man judges about matters wherein he has no authority, and this is called judgment ‘by usurpation’; thirdly, when the reason lacks certainty, as when a man, without any solid motive, forms a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, and then it is called judgment by ‘suspicion’ or ‘rash’ judgment.[3] (…)

“Whatever is contrary to the law of God is a mortal sin. Now whoever does an injustice does that which is contrary to the law of God… Therefore whoever does an injustice sins mortally.”[4]

Objection 9: “to be a valid judgment of the Church, the judgment must be a juridically declared act — and to be juridically declared it must be pronounced by one who possesses the jurisdiction to issue a judgment (even if the judgment is not pronounced in the judicial forum) — and only then would such a declaration be a judgment of the Church.”

Answer: The conviction would be a legitimate judgment of the Church, since it would be rendered by a body of bishops who possess the competency and legal authority (discretionary power) needed to render and declare it.  According to the manuals published after Vatican I, a council can licitly declare a Pope heretical.  For example, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa (1955), Joachim Salaverri writes:

“Theologians concede that a general Council can licitly declare a Pope heretical, if this case [of a Pope falling into heresy] is possible, but it cannot depose him authoritatively since he is superior to the Council … see Suarez, De fide d.10 s.6.” (Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa, 1955, p. 217, No. 5).

The fact that Salaverri is referring to a sitting Pope (not a former Pope who already lost his office), is proven from the teaching of Suarez that he referenced. Here is what Suarez wrote:

“I say thirdly, if a Pope were a heretic and incorrigible, when first, through the legitimate jurisdiction of the Church, a declaratory sentence of the crime is pronounced against him, he ceases to be Pope. This is the common opinion among the doctors.” (Suarez, De Fide, disp 10, sect. 6.) 

In Tractatus De Romano Pontifice (1891), Palmieri says teaches the same.  He says in the case of a heretical Pope, the Church declares him a heretic, and then God deprives him of his jurisdiction.  And he too references the great Francisco Suarez as the authority for his position:

“If a Pope is obstinate in his heresy—obstinate, I say: for, if he heeds the Church’s admonitions, nothing further is necessary—such a Pope is deposed, not by man, but by God himself, who takes away the jurisdiction that He had given him; the Church, for her part, only declares the man to be a heretic, and then (ideoque) God deprives him of his jurisdiction.” (cf. Suarez, Defensio Fidei Catholicae, lib. iv c. 7 n. 5).

If there is any doubt that Palmieri means God deprives the Pope of his jurisdiction after the Church has declared him a heretic, the following quotation he referenced from Suarez to support his position removes it:

“[T]he Pontiff can in no case, even if he wished to subject himself to another, be compelled through censure, as commonly taught by the theologians on [The Sentences] 4, dd. 18 & 19, and as we said at large in the tractate De Censuris. … For although in the case of heresy he could be deposed, he is in truth not deposed by man but by God himself, after the declaration of a legitimate Council has preceded.” (Defensio Fidei Catholicae, lib. v c 7 n. 5).

In Summa Apologetica de Ecclesia Catholica (1890), Vincent Groot also teaches that a heretical Pope is deprived by God after “a declaratory sentence, by which the fact of heresy is juridically established.” 

In the case of a Pope who is publicly and juridically, a notorious and contumacious heretic, if indeed it could ever happen that the Roman Pontiff - considered as a private person - could be contumaciously heretical, such a heretical Pope would have to be deposed by a council of bishops.  But that deposition would not be an act of jurisdiction, as if there could be a jurisdictional power greater than the power of the Pope, but only a declaratory sentence, by which the fact of heresy is juridically established; and once established, the Pope is believed to lose his dignity by divine law.

"I would refer the deposition to the elective power; for in this hypothetical case the [council] fathers declare that the body of the Church has separated itself from a heretical man; and when this has been done, the seat being vacant, those who by law have the right to elect [a new Pope] can safely proceed to do so. This seems to be the opinion of Cajetan, De author. Papae et Concilii cap. XXI — XXIII.; Cano, De loc. theol. lib. VI. cap. VIII, and of others.”  (Summa Apologetica de Ecclesia Catholica, Mans, 1890, Q. XII, art IV, arg iii).   

The former rector of the Gregorian University, Fr. Ghirlanda, explains that in the case of a notoriously heretical Pope, the papal see becomes vacant the moment the Cardinals issue a declaratory sentence:

 “The vacancy of the Roman See occurs in case of the cessation of the office on the part of the Roman Pontiff, which happens for four reasons: 1) Death, 2) Sure and perpetual insanity or complete mental infirmity; 3) Notorious apostasy, heresy, schism; 4) Resignation.  In the first case, the Apostolic See is vacant from the moment of death of the Roman Pontiff; in the second and in the third from the moment of the declaration on the part of the cardinals; in the fourth from the moment of the renunciation. (…)

“There is the case, admitted by doctrine, of notorious apostasy, heresy and schism, into which the Roman Pontiff could fall, but as a ‘private doctor,’ that does not demand the assent of the faithful (…) However, in such cases, because ‘the first see is judged by no one’ (Canon 1404) no one could depose the Roman Pontiff, but only a declaration of the fact would be had, which would have to be done by the Cardinals, at least of those present in Rome.” (Gianfranco Ghirlanda, Cessazione dall’ufficio di Romano Pontifice, "La Civiltà Cattolica" q. n 3905 March, 2,  2013, p. 445)

Many more post Vatican I authorities could be cited, confirming that a heretical Pope remains Pope until he is declared a heretic by the Church.

So, Fr. Kramer’s personal opinion that the Church cannot declare that a Pope is a heretic (but he can), is directly contradicted by the theologians who possess the competency and authority to speak on the matters, and whose manuals were written and received an imprimatur after Vatican I. 

Objection 10: “Ballerini, who famously followed Bellarmine’s “Fifth Opinion”…

Answer: Since Fr. Kramer admits that Ballerini held the 5th opinion, let’s read Ballerini's teaching on the loss of office for a heretical Pope, in context, including the part that Fr. Kramer conveniently omitted, to see when he believed a heretical Pope would be deprived of his jurisdiction. 

In the follow quotation, Ballerini explaining how he believes the Church can remedy the case of a heretical Pope, without having to wait for a general council to be convened.

“In the case of the Pope’s falling into heresy, the remedy is more promptly and easily supplied.  Now, when we speak of heresy with reference to the Supreme Pontiffs, we do not mean the kind of heresy by which any of them, defining ex officio a dogma of faith, would define an error; for this cannot happen, as we have established in the book on their infallibility in defining controverted matters of faith.  Nor do we speak of a case in which the popes err in a matter of faith by their opinion on a subject that has not yet been defined [i.e., a new heresy]; for opinions that, before the Church has defined anything, men are free to embrace, cannot be stigmatized as heresy.  The present question, then, pertains only to the case in which the Pope, deceived in his private judgment, believes and pertinaciously asserts something contrary to an evident or defined article of faith, for this is what constitutes heresy. …

"But why, we ask, in such a case, where the faith is imperiled by the most imminent and the gravest of all dangers … should we await a remedy from a general council, which is not at all easy to convene?  When the faith is so endangered, cannot inferiors of whatever rank admonish their superior with a fraternal correction, resist him to the face, confront him, and, if it is necessary, rebuke him and impel him to come to his senses?  The cardinals could do this, for they are the counselors of the Pope; so could the Roman clergy; or, if it is judged expedient, a Roman synod could be convened for that purpose.  For the words of Paul to Titus: ‘Avoid a heretic after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a one is perverse and sins, being condemned by his own judgment” (Tit. 13:10), are addressed to any man whatsoever, even a private individual.  For he who, after a first and second correction, does not return to his senses, but persists in an opinion  contrary to a manifest or defined dogma, cannot, by the very fact of this public pertinacity, be excused by any pretext from heresy in the strict sense, which requires pertinacity, but rather declares himself plainly to be a heretic; in other words, he declares that he has departed from the Catholic faith and from the Church of his own accord, in such wise that no declaration or sentence of any man is necessary to cut him off from the body of the Church.  St. Jerome’s perspicacious commentary on the above-quoted words of St. Paul affords us insight into the matter: “It is for this reason that [the heretic] is said to be self-condemned: whereas the fornicator, the adulterer, the murderer, and those guilty of other sins are cast out of the Church by her ministers [sacerdotes], heretics, for their part, pronounce sentence against themselves, leaving the Church of their own accord; and their departure is considered as a condemnation issued by their own conscience.”  Therefore, the Pope who, after a solemn and public warning given by the cardinals, the Roman clergy, or even a synod, would harden himself in his heresy, and thus would have departed plainly from the Church, would, according to the precept of St. Paul, have to be avoided; and, lest he bring destruction upon others, his heresy and contumacy would have to be brought forth into the public, so that all might similarly beware of him; and in this way the sentence that he passed against himself, being proposed to the whole Church, would declare that he has departed of his own accord, and has been cut off from the Body of the Church, and has in  certain manner abdicated the Papacy, which no one possesses, nor can possess, who is not in the Church.”

Comment: The reason he said “no declaration or sentence of any man is necessary to cut him off from the body of the Church,” is because cutting someone off from the Church requires the use of coercive power, which the Church cannot exercise against a Pope.  Therefore, he says the Pope cuts himself off from the Church, by remaining hardened in heresy in the face of public and solemn warnings.  Pay close attention to what he says next:

You see, then, that in the case of a heresy to which the Pope adheres in his personal judgment, there is a prompt and efficacious remedy apart from the convocation of a general council; and in this hypothetical case whatever would be done against him to bring him to his senses before the declaration of his heresy and contumacy would be the exercise of charity, not of jurisdiction; but afterwards, when his departure from the Church has been made manifest, whatever sentence would be passed against him by a council would be passed against one who is no longer Pope, nor superior to a council.”

Notice, he says whatever would be done to call the Pope to reason, before he was declared a heretic by the Church (e.g., warnings, etc.), would be acts of charity, not of jurisdiction.  The reason they would be acts of charity, of course, is because as long as he remains Pope the Church cannot exercise any jurisdiction over him. 

What does this last paragraph, which Fr. Kramer conveniently omitted, tell us?  What it tells us is that Bellarini believes the heretical Pope would remain Pope until he was declared a heretic by the Church.  Only then would his jurisdiction be “removed by God.”  So Ballerini does indeed hold the 5th opinion of Bellarmine!  And unlike Fr. Kramer, he also understands it!  

Related articles:

* Fr. Kramer's Canonical Confusion (Siscoe vs. Kramer Debate)


[2] ST, II-II, q. 60, a. 6 (emphasis added).

[3] ST, II-II, q. 60, a. 2 (emphasis added).

[4] ST, II-II, q. 59, a. 4.