By Robert J. Siscoe

Published in the April 2014 issue of Catholic Family News
(Slightly revised in 2019)

In the February 2014 issue of Catholic Family News, John Salza published a timely and revealing piece on the position of Archbishop Lefebvre with respect to the question of Sedevacantism – a topic on the mind of many today following the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and the increasing doctrinal and moral chaos that has ensued.  In his article, Mr. Salza mentioned a two-fold opinion with respect to a heretical Pope:  that of St. Robert Bellarmine, who taught that a manifestly heretical Pope loses his office without a sentence from the Church; and that of Suarez, who taught that a heretical Pope loses his office by virtue of a declaration by the Church.  In footnote #14, Mr. Salza notes an interesting point about this apparent contradiction:

“It is interesting to note that St. Bellarmine (d. 1621) and Suarez (d. 1617) lived at the same time, and yet both held that their seemingly inapposite opinions were the teaching of the Church Fathers and Doctors.”

There is an important point that needs to be clarified regarding the respective opinions of St. Bellarmine and Suarez.  While there is indeed a difference between the two on the speculative level, when it comes to the practical level both opinions are in agreement.  The difference between the two opinions refers to when and how a heretical Pope loses his office, but both opinions agree that a judgment of guilt must be rendered by the proper authorities, or by the guilty party himself, in order for the Pope to be considered no longer Pope.  And such a judgment, and consequent determination, is not the domain of private opinion.

The opinion of St. Bellarmine (which maintains that a heretical Pope automatically loses his office) does not preclude a judgment of guilt by the Church.  It only maintains that the judgment does not cause the heretical Pope to lose his office, but rather confirms that he is guilty of heresy, and as such has lost his office. This is opposed to the opinion of others who maintain that the judgment of guilt and declaration by the Church causes the loss of office.  One opinion maintains that the Church judges the Pope guilty and then declares he has already lost his office as a result of his heresy; the other opinion maintains that the Church judges the guilt and then renders a declaration that causes the loss of office.  The difference between the two is more technical than practical.

These are the two main opinions of theologians with respect to a heretical Pope, and the Church has never made a definitive judgment on which of the two is correct.  But what is important to note is that both opinions agree that for a sitting Pope to be removed he must first be declared guilty of heresy by the Church – by an ecumenical council, or by the College of Cardinals.  The following is taken from Elements of Ecclesiastic Law by Sebastian B. Smith, D.D., Professor of canon law. 

Question: Is a Pope who falls into heresy deprived, ipso jure, of the Pontificate? 

Answer: There are two opinions: one holds that he is by virtue of divine appointment, divested ipso facto, of the Pontificate; the other, that he is, jure divino, only removable.  Both opinions agree that he must at least be declared guilty of heresy by the church, i.e., by an ecumenical council or the College of Cardinals.  The question is hypothetical rather than practical”.[1]

As we can see, the difference between the two opinions pertains to the hypothetical question alone (a question of the speculative order) – namely, when and how a heretical Pope loses his office.  On the practical level, both opinions agree that a judgment of guilt and declaration must be rendered – and this judgment belongs to the Church, not to individual Catholics.  This is a point that every Sedevacantist I have spoken with, or otherwise corresponded with, has missed. 

It should be noted that the aforementioned book by Fr. Smith was sent to Rome for review.  The Preface of the Third Edition explains that Cardinal Simeoni, Prefect of the Propaganda Fide, “appointed two Consultors, doctors in canon law, to examine the ‘Elements’ and report to him. The Consultors, after examining the book for several months, made each a lengthy report to the Cardinal-Prefect”.  Their detailed reports noted five inaccuracies or errors, all of which were corrected in the Third Edition.  The citation provided above regarding a heretical Pope was not among the requested revisions.  This shows that Rome found no error or inaccuracy in the assertion that a heretical Pope “must at least be declared guilty of heresy by the church, i.e., by an ecumenical council or the College of Cardinals” to be considered to have lost his office.  Hence, with the approval of Rome, this teaching remained in the revised Third Edition, which is the edition cited above. 

It is also worth noting that I have personally drawn attention to this teaching of Fr. Smith to a number of well-known Sedevacantist apologists, both priest and laymen, and every single one, without exception, has disagreed with it… but how could they not?  Their conclusion (that the post-Conciliar Popes have not been real Popes) forces them to reject it, since accepting it would require that they revise their position.  But as is too often the case, when someone embraces an error (in this case a false premise) and then draws erroneous conclusions based on that error, it is very difficult for them to retract it later on - especially when they have spent years and years defending the particular conclusion.  If the Sedevacantists accepted the teaching of Fr. Smith (which was implicitly approved by Rome), the most they would be able to maintain is that a future Pope or Council might determine that the post-Conciliar Popes were not true Popes, which just so happens to be the position held by Archbishop Lefebvre.  Referring to Paul VI and John Paul II, the Archbishop said “one day the Church will have to examine their situation”, and in the end it “might have to pronounce the finding that these men had not been Popes (…) it is not impossible that this hypothesis will one day be confirmed by the Church”.  I think it is safe to say that the Archbishop would include Benedict XVI and Francis in that statement if he were alive today.   Unlike the position of the Sedevacantists, that of Archbishop Lefebvre is in no way at variance with the teaching of Fr. Smith. 

The teaching of St. Francis De Sales with regarding a heretical Pope is also consistent with that of Fr. Smith.  In the following quote, St. Francis De Sales (d. 1622), who also lived at the time of Bellarmine and Suarez, refers to both hypothetical opinions mentioned above, as well as the necessity of the Church taking the appropriate action:

"Under the ancient Law, the High Priest did not wear the Rational except when he was vested with the pontifical robe and was entering before the Lord. Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII; or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was. Now when he is explicitly a heretic he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See, and must say as St. Peter did: Let another take his bishopric” [Acts 1].[2]

Notice he says the Church must either deprive him (the opinion of Suarez), or declare him deprived (the opinion of St. Bellarmine).  Regardless of which of the two hypothetical opinions one holds, it is not left to individual Catholics to make the judgment; rather, it is “the Church” that “must say as St. Peter did: Let another take his bishopric”.  And before the Church acts by “depriving him or declaring him deprived” the Papal see not become legally vacant.

In a 2013 article published in Civiltà Cattolica, the former rector of the Gregorian University, Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, confirmed this when he explained the four ways in which a pope can lose the Pontificate.  He wrote:

“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."[3]

At it should be noted that Fr. Ghirlanda does not believe the Church “deprives” a heretical Pope of the pontificate, but only declares the fact of his heresy. This is clear by what he says a little later in the same article:  

“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.”[4]

The declaration of the fact does not authoritatively deprive the Pope of his office, but only makes the fact of his heresy legally known, and renders the papal see legally vacant.  And it is worth noting that Fr. Ghiriland is not only one of the most knowledgeable canonists in the Church today, but he has studied the subject of loss of papal office thoroughly.  As Roberto De Mattei noted after quoting the above excerpts from his article, “Father Ghirlanda is in this exposition, neither a traditionalist nor a progressivist, but a scholar who has gathered a thousand years of canonical tradition.”[5]

A judgment of guilt must be rendered for a Pope to be considered to have lost his office.  This judgment can be made, as we have said, by the Church, or it can be made by the Pope himself should he admit to his guilt.  Just as a person who admits to committing a crime does not need a jury to find him guilty, neither would a Pope who openly left the Church, or openly admitted to denying a defined dogma, require a judgment of guilt.  But to date, none of the post-Conciliar Popes have openly left the Church or publicly admitted to denying a defined dogma.  Therefore, a judgment of guilt by the proper authorities would be necessary for them to be considered to have lost their office.  The private opinion of individual Catholics, who personally consider the Pope to be a manifest heretic, does not suffice.  This is confirmed by John of St. Thomas (d. 1644), who also lived at the time of St. Bellarmine and Suarez.  Here is what he had to say about a Pope who is judged by individual Catholics to be a manifest heretic:

 "St. Jerome - in saying that a heretic departs on his own from the Body of Christ - does not preclude the Church's judgment, especially in so grave a matter as is the deposition of a pope. He refers instead to the nature of that crime, which is such as to cut someone off from the Church on its own and without other censure in addition to it - yet only so long as it should be declared by the Church... So long as he has not become declared to us juridically as an infidel or heretic, be he ever so manifestly heretical according to private judgment, he remains as far as we are concerned a member of the Church and consequently its head. Judgment is required by the Church. It is only then that he ceases to be Pope as far as we are concerned" (John of St. Thomas).[6]

It is one thing for Catholics living through the post-Conciliar nightmare to have the opinion that a future Pope or council will condemn the post-Conciliar Popes as heretics, as the Council of Constantinople did with Pope Honorius I, or perhaps declare that they lost their office while still living due to heresy, which would then render the Acts of their Pontificates null; but it is another thing altogether for individual Catholics to declare that they are not true Popes, simply because they personally consider them to be manifestly heretical.

Another question that arises is whether or not a heretical Pope would retain his authority if he had not been publicly declared guilty of heresy by the proper authorities and removed from office.  Fr. Paul Laymann, S.J., who also lived at the time of Bellarmine and Suarez, addressed this very point.  Fr. Laymann was considered one of the greatest moralists and canonists of his day.  He served as a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ingolstadt from 1603 to 1609, Professor of Moral Theology at the Jesuit house in Munich from 1609 to 1625, and as a Professor of Canon Law at the University of Dillingen from 1625 to 1632.  In the following quote, which was written less than 70 years after Pope Paul IV issued the Bull Cum ex Apostolatus Officio, the distinguished Professor of Canon Law wrote the following about a heretical Pope who was being tolerated by the Church:

 “It is more probable that the Supreme Pontiff, as a person, might be able to fall into heresy and even a notorious one, by reason of which he would merit to be deposed by the Church, or rather, declared to be separated from her [opinion of Bellarmine]. (…) Observe, however, that, though we affirm that the Supreme Pontiff, as a private person, might be able to become a heretic and therefore cease to be a true member of the Church, (…) still, while he were tolerated by the Church, and publicly recognized as the universal pastor, he would really enjoy the pontifical power, in such a way that all his decrees will have no less force and authority than they would if he were truly faithful.”[7]

Manifest Heresy

Another important point that needs clarification is what St. Bellarmine meant by the term “manifest heretic”.  He was not referring merely to a Pope that has made materially heretical statements, or to a Pope who has given reason to believe he has lost the faith; it requires something more: since heresy, properly so-called, requires pertinacity in the will (not simply an error in the intellect), in order for a person who has made materially heretical statements to be considered formally heretical in the external forum, pertinacity in the will would also have to be manifest.  In De Ecclesia Militante, he explains what is required for a Pope who loses the faith to lose the Pontificate.  He writes:

“It is certain, whatever one or another might think, an occult heretic, if he might be a Bishop, or even the Supreme Pontiff, does not lose jurisdiction, nor dignity, or the name of the head in the Church, until either he separates himself publicly from the Church, or being convicted of heresy, is separated against his will”.[8]

It is evident that by “manifest heretic” Bellarmine means one who openly separates himself from the Church, or one who the Church has determined to be a heretic.
Obviously, if a Pope publicly defected from the Faith by leaving the Church, this, in and of itself, would suffice to demonstrate pertinacity in the external forum.  But without such an open admission of guilt, there would have to be another way to demonstrate that he was manifestly obstinate in his position.  The other way, according to St. Bellarmine, is for the Pope to remain obstinate after two warnings.  Only then would pertinacity be sufficiently demonstrated to render the Pope a manifest heretic.   St. Bellarmine bases this on the authority of St. Paul.

“[I]n the first place” wrote Bellarmine, “it is proven with arguments from authority and from reason that the manifest heretic is ‘ipso facto’ deposed. The argument from authority is based on Saint Paul, who orders that the heretic be avoided after two warnings, that is, after showing himself to be manifestly obstinate – which means before any excommunication or judicial sentence (…) Therefore… the Pope who is manifestly a heretic ceases by himself to be Pope and head, in the same way as he ceases to be a Christian and a member of the body of the Church; and for this reason he can be judged and punished by the Church.[9]

As we can see, according to Bellarmine a manifest heretic is one who remains obstinate “after two warnings”.  Such manifest obstinacy reveals pertinacity in the will, which is necessary for a materially heretical statement to qualify as formal heresy in the external forum.  By remaining obstinate after a solemn and public warning, the Pope would, in a sense, pass judgment upon himself, thereby showing himself to be a heretic properly so-called.  It is for this reason, according to Bellarmine, that the Pope – “who judges all and is judged by no one” – can himself be judged and punished by the Church.

But the question arises: who would have the authority to issue a solemn and public warning to the Pope?  The eminent eighteenth century Italian theologian, Father Pietro Ballerini, addressed this very point.  He wrote: “The Cardinals, who are his counselors, can do this; or the Roman Clergy, or the Roman Synod, if, being met, they judge this opportune”.  Then, after citing St. Paul’s letter to Titus (the same portion St. Bellarmine cited as his authority), Fr. Ballerini added:

 “For the person who, admonished once or twice, does not repent, but continues pertinacious in an opinion contrary to a manifest or public dogma - not being able, on account of this public pertinacity to be excused, by any means, of heresy properly so called, which requires pertinacity - this person declares himself openly a heretic. He reveals that by his own will he has turned away from the Catholic Faith and the Church, in such form that now no declaration or sentence of any one whatsoever is necessary to cut him from the body of the Church. (…) Therefore the Pontiff who after such a solemn and public warning by the Cardinals, by the Roman Clergy or even by the Synod, maintained himself hardened in heresy and openly turned himself away from the Church, would have to be avoided, according to the precept of Saint Paul. So that he might not cause damage to the rest, he would have to have his heresy and contumacy publicly proclaimed, so that all might be able to be equally on guard in relation to him. Thus, the sentence which he had pronounced against himself would be made known to all the Church, making clear that by his own will be had turned away and separated himself from the body of the Church, and that in a certain way he had abdicated the Pontificate, which no one holds or can hold if he does not belong to the Church”. (Italics added)[10]

By remaining obstinate after two public warnings, issued by the proper authorities, the Pope would, as Fr. Ballerini said, pronounce sentence “making it clear that by his own will he had turned away and separated himself from the body of the Church” and, in a certain way, “abdicated the Pontificate”.

But we should again note, until the Church declare that the Pope is not the Pope, the faithful must continue to recognize him as the Supreme pontiff and obey him in all licit commands.  Bellarmine himself confirms this.  In his book, On Councils, Bellarmine responds to an objection of the Protestants, who argued that for a Council to be legitimate, it is necessary that the Pope free all the bishops from the Oath of Fidelity that take to him, so they will be free to speak openly.  Bellarmine responds by saying that requirement is both unjust and unnecessary.

It is unjust, he says, because:

“that oath [of fidelity to the Pope] does not take away the freedom of the Bishops, which is necessary in Councils, for they swear they will be obedient to the supreme Pontiff, which is understood as long as he is Pope, and provided he commands these things which, according to God and the sacred canons he can command; but they do not swear that they are not going to say what they think in the Council, or that they are not going to depose him if they were to clearly prove that he is a heretic (Sed non jurant, se non dicturos, quod sentuint in Concilio, vel se non deposituros eum, si haeretcum esse convincant)." [11]

Notice, he said the Bishops can depose a Pope if they can “clearly prove” that he is a heretic.  He then explains why the requirement of the Protestants is unjust, and this is the important part:

“[It is] unjust because inferiors ought not be free from the obedience to superiors, unless first he were legitimately deposed or declared not to be the superior…[12]

So, according to Bellarmine before a heretical Pope is depose him or legitimately “declared him not to be” Pope, Catholics are not free from their duty of obedience to him.


Those who adhere to the Sedevacantist position based on the opinion of the Saints and Doctors of the Church, who held that a manifestly heretical Pope automatically loses his office, have mistakenly concluded that their private judgment on the matter suffices in place of a formal judgment by the Church; and that, based on their private judgment, they are permitted to declare openly that a man elected by the College of Cardinals as Pope is not a true Pope;[13] and furthermore, that they are then permitted to attempt to persuade others to accept their private judgment as a public fact.[14]  Based on this false premise, Sedevacantists apologists have spilled much ink over the years trying to explain to individual Catholics in the pew how they can detect heresy in the Pope (i.e. ‘judge the Pope’), so that they too will personally conclude that the Pope is a “manifest heretic” and publicly adopt the Sedevacantist position.  What they have failed to understand is that the judgment of heresy is not left to individual Catholics in the pew, but to the Church, which is why John of St. Thomas said: “be he [the Pope] ever so manifestly heretical according to private judgment, he remains as far as we are concerned a member of the Church and consequently its head. Judgment is required by the Church. It is only then that he ceases to be Pope as far as we are concerned."[15]

This demonstrates the wisdom and prudence of Archbishop Lefebvre, who refused to adopt the Sedevacantist position, and instead left the judgment to the Church rather than rendering a public judgment he had no authority to make.

[1] Smith, Sebastian B. Elements of Ecclesiastical Law (revised third edition), New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1881.
[2] St. Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy (TAN Books, Rockford IL) pg 305-306.
[3] Gianfranco Ghirlanda, Cessazione dall’ufficio di Romano Pontefice, "La Civiltà Cattolica" q. n 3905 March, 2 th   2013, p. 445.
[4] Gianfranco Ghirlanda, Cessazione dall’ufficio di Romano Pontefice, "La Civiltà Cattolica" q. n 3905 March, 2 th   2013, p. 445.
[5] Ibid.
[6] John of St. Thomas, Disp. II, art III 26  

[7] Laymann, Theol. Mor., Lib, tract . I, cap, VII, pp. 145-146, 1625.  Cited in the book Can Popes Go Bad, by De Silveira, pg. 87
[8] De Ecclesia Militante, Chapter X
[9] De Romano Pontifice, lib. II, cap. 30
[10] De Potestate Ecclesiastica, pgs.104-105
[11] Ibid, ch. XXI, p. 117.
[12] Ibid.
[13] St. Thomas explains what is required for a judgment to be lawful:  “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.” ST II-II Q 60, A2 
[14] St. Thomas said: “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.”  He went on to say: “Wherefore even as it would be unjust for one man to force another to observe a law that was not approved by public authority, so too it is
[15] John of St. Thomas, Disp. II, art III 26  

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