With an Explanation of the Jesuit and Dominican Opinions

Robert J. Siscoe
John Salza, Esq.

(The following was prepared for an important event that was recently attended by prominent theologians, philosophers and historians.  It was preceded by a verbal presentation of the information contained below, with the following being handed out for a more thorough discussion)

       The hypothesis of a heretical Pope and how the Church would remedy such situation has been the subject of debate amongst the Church’s canonists and theologians for centuries. We will consider the two main opinions concerning the deposition of a heretical Pope, their similarities and differences, and answer some of the principle questions that are raised.[1]
      While there has been much disagreement regarding technical matters, the general consensus is two-fold: 1) the hypotheses of a Pope falling into interior and exterior heresy is possible; 2) if such a thing should occur, the heretical Pope can and indeed should be judged by the Church and removed from office or “deposed.”
       To clarify terminology, the word “deposition” is used to refer to the process whereby the Church oversees the loss of office for a heretical Pope. Theologically, however, the term “deposition” is more accurately understood as the act by which Christ Himself severs the bond that joins the man and the papacy. The Church itself does not depose the Pope in the sense that it exercises authority over him, as when a superior deposes an inferior. Rather, the Church establishes the fact of the crime (and, according to some, performs other ministerial functions), which is then followed by the deposition of the heretical Pope by Christ. As we will explain, the Jesuits and Dominicans have different opinions about this process, but they both hold that Christ Himself is the efficient cause of the loss of office.
       John of St. Thomas explains the necessity of separating from a heretical Pope, which he finds in Divine law. He says:
"We are obliged to separate ourselves from heretics, according to 1 Tit. 3:10 “A heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid.”  But he who remains in the Pontificate should not be avoided; on the contrary, the Church is obliged to be united to him and to be in communion with him, since he is her supreme head; therefore, if the Pope is a heretic, either the Church is obliged to remain in communion with him, or else he ought to be deposed from the papacy.  The first hypothesis—that the Church is obliged to follow a heretical head—is evidently destructive to the Church and of its very nature involves the danger that the whole ecclesiastical government would fall into error; on the other hand, since the heretic is an enemy of the Church, the Church has a natural right to take action against such a Pope, because she has the right to self-defense against her enemies, and a heretical Pope is an enemy; consequently, she has the right to take action against him.  By all means, then, the second option should be taken, and such a Pope should be deposed."[2]

       Now, the difficulty concerning how the loss of office would occur stems from the fact that the Pope has no superior on earth, even in the case of heresy; hence, the Church cannot authoritatively depose him since this is the act proper to a superior. There are, generally speaking, two opinions concerning how such a deposition can licitly be brought about. In our book True of False Pope? we refer to these two opinions as the Jesuit Opinion (defended by the two Jesuits, Bellarmine and Suarez), and the Dominican Opinion (defended by Cajetan and John of St. Thomas).[3] We will briefly consider the similarities and differences, before addressing the Dominican Opinion in depth, and, in so doing, demonstrate that it is not a species of Conciliarism, as some have mistakenly maintained. Rather, when fully understood, the Dominican Opinion might be considered by some a clearer solution to the alleged problem and more firmly based on divine law.


       The opinion defended by Bellarmine and Suarez is that a Pope who the Church determines to be manifest heretic (that is, guilty of the crime of heresy) falls ipso facto from the pontificate without the Church technically deposing him – that is, without the Church having any part to play in severing the bond that unites the man (matter) to the pontificate (form). According to this opinion, the function of the Church is simply to establish and declare the crime of heresy, at which time Christ authoritatively deposes the Pope. We can see this, for example, in the following citation from Francisco Suarez against the error of the Conciliarists (e.g. Azorius):

"Therefore, others [e.g., Azorius, 2 tom., 2, cap. 7] affirm the Church is superior to the Pope in the case of heresy, but this is difficult to say. For Christ the Lord constituted the Pope as supreme judge absolutely; even the canons indifferently and generally affirm this; and at length [teach that] the Church does not validly exercise any act of jurisdiction against the Pope, nor is the power conferred on him by election, rather [the Church] merely designates a person upon whom Christ confers the power by himself. Therefore on deposing a heretical Pope, the Church would not act as superior to him, but juridically and by the consent of Christ she would declare him a heretic and therefore unworthy of Pontifical honors; he would then ipso facto and immediately be deposed by Christ."[4]

       The Dominican Opinion (defended by Cajetan and John of St. Thomas) maintains that the fall from the pontificate occurs, not when the Church establishes (and declares) the crime, but rather when the Church, using the authority of a general council, commands the faithful, by a juridical act (which has coercive power over the faithful), that the man must be avoided (vitandus). This juridical act effectively separates the Church from the Pope, and thereby renders his authority impotent. It is by this juridical act, they maintain, and not merely when the crime has been established and declared by the Church, that Christ authoritatively deprives the Pope of his office (severing the bond between the man and the pontificate). We note that according to both opinions, the Pope will not lose his office unless and until he is judged to be a heretic by the Church.[5]


       That the Church is permitted to render a judgment concerning a Pope in the case of heresy (the exception to the rule), is found in the famous canon Si Papa, Dist 40, Ch. 6[6], and the teaching of Pope Innocent III, who said: “For faith is so necessary for me that, while for other sins I have only God as my judge, only for that sin which is committed against faith could I be judged by the Church;[7] and other authorities. Bellarmine cited both of these authorities when teaching that the Church can judge a heretical Pope:

"That a heretical Pope can be judged is expressly held in the Canon, Si Papa, dist. 40, and with Innocent. And what is more, in the Fourth Council of Constantinople, Act 7, the acts of the Roman Council under Hadrian are recited, and in those it was contained that Pope Honorius appeared to be legally anathematized, because he had been convicted of heresy, the only reason where it is lawful for inferiors to judge superiors. Here the fact must be remarked upon that, although it is probable that Honorius was not a heretic … we still cannot deny that [Pope] Hadrian, with the Roman Council, and the whole Eighth Synod sensed that in the case of heresy, a Roman Pontiff can be judged. Add, that it would be the most miserable condition of the Church, if she should be compelled to recognize a wolf, manifestly prowling, for a shepherd.”[8]

  In defending the Dominican Opinion, John of St. Thomas taught the same:

"Concerning the case of heresy, theologians and jurists dispute over many things, and our work does not permit us to discuss all of them in great detail; but all the doctors agree that the Pope can be deposed for heresy, and we shall cite them when we treat of the difficulties. We have an explicit text in the chapter Si Papa, distinction 40, where it is said: “No mortal man presumes to rebuke the Pope for his faults, because he who is to judge all men is judged by no one, unless he be found to have deviated from the faith.”  This exception manifestly signifies that a judicial sentence should be passed against the Pope in the case of heresy. The same is confirmed by the letter of [Pope] Adrian II, related in the eighth general Synod, session VII, in which he says that the Roman Pontiff is judged by no one; but, [he adds,] an anathema was pronounced against [Pope] Honorius by the [bishops of] the East because he had been accused of heresy, which alone makes it licit for inferiors to resist the doings of their superiors. Similarly, even Pope St. Clement says in his first epistle that St. Peter taught that a heretical Pope should be deposed."[9]


       Regarding the declaratory sentence, some theologians who hold to a variation of the Jesuit Opinion (ipso facto loss of office) teach that the fall from the pontificate would occur after the Church established the crime, but before the crime has been declared by the Church. This position is intended to avoid any issues with the Church inappropriately judging the Pope. The more common opinion, however, is that the Church is not only able to establish the crime of incorrigible heresy, but is also able to issue a declaratory sentence, since “a merely declaratory sentence”[10] does not involve coercion or punishment.[11] 
       Some writers have interpreted Bellarmine’s teaching that “the manifest heretic is ipso facto deposed … before any excommunication or judicial sentence,”[12] as meaning before any declaratory sentence.  However, this is not what John of St. Thomas understood Bellarmine to mean. It is clear that he understood Bellarmine to be referring a juridical act following the declaratory sentence, which “causes” (or, more properly, relates to) the deposition itself. This interpretation is corroborated by the fact that Bellarmine made this statement in the context of his attempted refutation of Cajetan’s opinion, which does require a consequent juridical act.  
      That John of St. Thomas did not understand Bellarmine’s position to exclude an antecedent declaratory sentence is seen in the following quotation, in which he defends Cajetan’s position against Bellarmine’s objections. “Bellarmine and Suarez” wrote John of St. Thomas, “are of the opinion that, by the very fact that the Pope is a manifest heretic and declared to be incorrigible, he is deposed by Christ our Lord without any intermediary, and not by any authority of the Church.”[13] So it is clear that he understands Bellarmine to teach that the fall from office takes place immediately following the declaratory sentence. John of St. Thomas further confirms this when he taught that the debate over how a Pope loses is office concerns whether the Pope who has been declared a heretic is deposed ipso facto, or if he must be deposed by the Church. He wrote:

"It cannot be held that the Pope, by the very fact of being a heretic, would cease to be pope antecedently to a declaration of the Church.  (…)  What is truly a matter of debate, is whether the Pope, after he is declared by the Church to be a heretic, is deposed ipso facto by Christ the Lord [Jesuit Opinion], or if the Church ought to depose him [Dominican Opinion]. In any case, as long as the Church has not issued a juridical declaration, he must always be considered the Pope."[14]

       In light of this, it is clear that John of St. Thomas interprets Bellarmine’s teaching (that “the manifest heretic is ipso facto deposed … before any excommunication or judicial sentence”) as being a rejection of Cajetan’s opinion, which maintains that a Pope who has been declared a heretic must then be deposed by a vitandus declaration - a consequent juridical act (discussed below) - and not as excluding a declaratory sentence antecedent to the loss of office.  Regardless, the disputes concerning a declaratory sentence are, practically speaking, of little importance, since the Pope will not lose his office before the Church first establishes the crime of heresy.


       Both opinions maintain that for the crime of incorrigible heresy to be established, the Pope who professes heresy would have to be warned, according to the teaching of St. Paul (Titus 3:10), and given the opportunity to recant. The warnings would be in the form of a fraternal correction (an act of charity), not an act of jurisdiction, since the Church has no jurisdiction over a Pope. If a Pope were to remain hardened in heresy, following a two-fold warning, he would reveal that, by his own will, he had rejected the Faith. The eminent eighteenth century theologian, Fr. Pietro Ballerini (who holds to a variation of the Jesuit opinion of ipso facto loss of office), explains who would have the responsibility of warning a Pope, as well as the effects that such warnings would produce.

"Is it not true that, confronted with such a danger to the faith [a Pope teaching heresy], any subject can, by fraternal correction, warn their superior, resist him to his face, refute him and, if necessary, summon him and press him to repent? The Cardinals, who are his counselors, can do this; or the Roman Clergy, or the Roman Synod, if, being met, they judge this opportune. For any person, even a private person, the words of Saint Paul to Titus hold: ‘Avoid the heretic, after a first and second correction, knowing that such a man is perverted and sins, since he is condemned by his own judgment’ (Tit. 3, 10-11). For the person, who, admonished once or twice, does not repent, but continues pertinacious in an opinion contrary to a manifest or defined 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 a way that now no declaration or sentence of anyone 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, would remain himself hardened in heresy and openly turn 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 [declaratory sentence], 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 he had turned away and separated himself from the body of the Church, and that in a certain way he had abdicated the Pontificate…" [15]

       Ballerini goes on to say that “whatever would be done against him before the declaration of his contumacy and heresy, in order to call him to reason [e.g., warnings, etc.], would constitute an obligation of charity, not of jurisdiction”[16] since the Church has no jurisdiction over a Pope.
       The Dominicans also hold to the necessity of warnings to establish incorrigibility, as can be seen from the following quotation from John of St. Thomas:

"Unless a Pope abide pertinaciously and incorrigibly in his heresy, he should not be deposed from the papacy.  See the gloss by Hugon on the chapter Si Papa, distinction 40 (cited above), where he holds the same opinion and declares that, if a Pope falls into heresy and, after being corrected, lapses once again, he can be corrected a second time; but after two corrections, if he falls into heresy once more, he is not to be admitted back, even if he shows himself ready to be corrected, but is rather to be considered incorrigible and deposed; and Cajetan, in his Opusculum de auctoritate papae, ch. 22, provides a good foundation for this with the saying of the Apostle: “After the first and second correction avoid [him], knowing that such a one is subversive” (Titus 3:10). When, therefore, the first and second corrections have been given, and he falls once more into heresy, he is considered to be incorrigible according to human judgment; and so, lest the corrections be iterated without end, they are terminated with the second one, and after this he is held to be incorrigible."[17]

       John of St. Thomas goes on to explain that the only competent authority to render the necessary judgment is a general council:

"And now it remains to be explained by what authority this Council is to be called (…). I respond that such a council can be convened by the authority of the Church, which is in the bishops themselves, or the greater majority thereof. For indeed the Church has the right, by divine law, to separate herself from an heretical pope. Consequently she has the right, by the same divine law, to use all means of themselves necessary for such separation, and the means that are ‘of themselves (per se) necessary’ are those that are legally able to prove such crime; but one cannot prove the crime legally unless there be a competent judgment; and in such a grave matter as this, the only competent judgment is that of a general council. Because we are treating here with the Universal head of the Church, this pertains to the judgment of the universal Church, which is a General Council.”[18]


       How can the Church convene a general council to oversee the deposition of a heretical Pope, when a general council must be convened and overseen by a Pope, either personally or through his legates? In answering this question, Cajetan makes the classical distinction between a perfect council and an imperfect council; or, as he puts it, “an absolutely perfect council,” and “a perfect council in relation to the present state of the Church.” He explains that a perfect council absolutely is one in which the body is united to its head, and therefore consists of the Pope and the bishops.[19] Such a council has the authority to define dogmas and issue decrees that regulate the universal Church.[20] An imperfect general council, on the other hand, can only “involve itself with the universal Church up to a certain point.”[21] It cannot define doctrines or issue decrees that regulate the universal Church, but only possesses the authority to decide the matter that necessitated its convocation. He explains that there are only two cases that justify convoking such a council, namely, “...when there is a single heretical pope to be deposed, and when there are several doubtful supreme pontiffs.”[22] In such exceptional cases, a general council can be called without the approval of (or even against the will of) the Pope.
       Regarding the question of who within the Church would have the authority to convene such a council, John of St. Thomas explains that since it has not been entrusted to anyone in particular, an imperfect council could be convened by the Cardinals or the neighboring bishops, or even by the secular authorities in a Catholic state:

"But if we speak… of who has the authority to convoke such a Council, I do not think that its convocation has been entrusted to anyone in a determinate manner; but I think that it could be done either by the Cardinals, who would be able to give the bishops knowledge of what is going on; or else the bishops who are nearer [geographically to the Pope] could denounce the matter to the others, so that all would come; or again, it could even happen at the insistence of the [Catholic] princes—in which case the summons would not, indeed, have any coercive force, as it has when the Pope convokes a Council; rather, it would be denunciative in nature, notifying the bishops of the [alleged] crime and making it manifest that they should come to remedy the situation.  The Pope, therefore, cannot annul such a Council, since he himself is a part [of the Church], and the Church by Divine Law has the power to gather a Council for this end, because she has the right to separate herself from a heretic."[23]


       While the necessity of separating from a manifest heretic (even a manifestly heretical Pope) is revealed in Sacred Scripture (Num. 16:26, Gal. 1:8, 2Thess. 3:6, 2Cor. 6:7, Tit. 3:10 and 2Jn. 1:10), the more difficult question is how the Church can depose a heretical Pope without claiming authority over him?[24] Cajetan explains the nature of the problem:

"Three things have been established with certainty, namely, 1) that the pope, because he has become a heretic, is not deposed ipso facto by human or divine law; 2) that the pope has no superior on earth; and 3) that if he deviates from the faith, he must be deposed, as in C. Si Papa [D. 40 c. 6]. Great uncertainty remains concerning how and by whom the pope who ought to be deposed will [in fact] be judged to be deposed, for a judge, as such, is superior to the one who is judged. (…)

"For, if he is to be judged and deposed by a universal council, then it follows that the pope, while remaining pope, has the universal council superior to him, especially in the case of heresy. If, however, neither the council nor the Church is superior to him, then it follows directly that a pope who has deviated from the faith should be judged and deposed, yet no one could judge and depose him, which is ridiculous. What shall we say, therefore, to avoid both extremes? The only course to take is toward the middle, which is hard to reach; virtue indeed consists of reaching that goal, which usually results in the solution to many problems.”[25]


      Having presented the difficulty, Cardinal Cajetan discusses the four theological opinions: Of these four opinions, he refers to two “extreme opinions,” and two “middle opinions.”
       The two extreme opinions are: 1) That a Pope who commits the sin of heresy (even occult) falls from the pontificate ipso facto without human judgment. 2) That a Pope does have a superior over him on Earth, and therefore can be judged and deposed. If opinion #1 were true, the Church would never know for sure if a person elected Pope and considered Pope by the Church was, in fact, a true Pope or false Pope – a true believer or a pretender. If opinion #2 were true, it would mean the Pope has a superior on Earth (a general council), which is the heresy of Conciliarism. Hence, both of these extreme opinions are shown to be false by Cajetan and consequently rejected.
       Within the two “extreme opinions,” Cajetan discusses what he calls two middle opinions: THE FIRST middle opinion is that a Pope does not have a superior on earth unless he has fallen into heresy, in which case the Church would be superior to the Pope. This opinion, which was defended by Azorius, is also a species of Conciliarism and is therefore rightly rejected. THE SECOND middle opinion holds that the Pope has no superior on Earth, even in the case of heresy, but that the Church does possess a ministerial power when it comes to deposing a heretical Pope (that is, a Pope who the Church has already found guilty of the crime of heresy). This is the opinion that Cajetan and John of St. Thomas defend and is what we have termed the “Dominican Opinion.”


       The Dominican Opinion holds that the ministerial power exercised by the Church consists of those acts which are necessary, not only to judge and declare the heresy, but especially to separate the Church from a heretical Pope, in accordance with Divine law (Titus 3:10). This opinion avoids the error of Conciliarism, since it does not claim that the Church has authority over the Pope; nor does the Church punish the Pope by deposing him. Rather, the Church works with Christ in the deposition by performing the ministerial functions which essentially renders the Pope’s authority impotent. The ministerial act, which brings about the deposition of a Pope, is a juridical act, directed to the faithful, which legally separates the Church from the Pope.
       It is here that we run into the essential difference between the Jesuit Opinion and the Dominican Opinion. The former maintains that Christ deposes the Pope after the Church determines and declares the crime of heresy (the heretic Pope separates from the Church), whereas the latter maintains that Christ deposes the Pope after the Church declares that he must be avoided (the Church separates from the Pope). In both cases the fall is preceded by a separation of the Pope and the Church: either the Pope separating from the Church (Jesuit), or the Church separating from the Pope (Dominican).
       In defending the Dominican Opinion, Cajetan is clear that the juridical act of the general council does not claim authority over the Pope; it is only an act of separation (directed to all the faithful) - a ministerial act according to which the Church separates herself from the heretical Pope - and it is a ministerial act that the Church has the authority to perform, as Cajetan explains:

"In short, no where do I find superiority or inferiority from divine law in the case of heresy, but only separation. Now it is obvious that the Church can, in fact, separate itself from the pope by only a ministerial power, which is the same [ministerial] power by which it can elect him. Therefore, the fact that it is laid down by divine law that a heretic should be avoided and banished from the Church does not create a need for a power which is greater than a ministerial one. [This ministerial power] consequently is sufficient [for the separation]; and it is known to reside in the Church."[26]

       John of St. Thomas also comments on the fact that while the Church has no superiority over a Pope, it does possess the authority, by Divine law, to separate from him and avoid him, if he should fall into heresy.

"It can never happen that the Church has power over the pope formally… One cannot cite any authority stating that Christ the Lord has given the Church authority over the pope. Those who were cited in the case of heresy, do not indicate any superiority over the Pope formally, but only speak of avoiding him, separating from him, refusing the communion with him, etc., all of which can be done without requiring a power formally above the Pope’s power."[27]

       That a separation does not require an act of authority over a superior is seen, for example, in the case of a wife who is forced to separate from an abusive husband, since the act of separation is licit without requiring her to have authority over her spouse and head. In like manner, the Church can separate from a heretical Pope, due to the grave danger that he would present, without having to claim for itself an authority superior to him.


       To further explain the Dominican position concerning precisely how the loss of office occurs, John of St. Thomas employs the Thomistic concepts of form and matter to explain how the union between the man and the pontificate is dissolved. A distinction is made between the man (the matter), the pontificate (the form), and the bond that unites the two. He explains that just as the Church plays a ministerial role in the election of a Pope, so likewise she plays a ministerial role in the deposition of a heretical Pope.
       During the election, the Church designates the man (the matter), who is to receive the pontificate (the form) immediately from God. The election disposes the man to receive the pontifical authority, at which time God gives him the pontifical power. The contrary happens when a Pope is deposed for heresy. Since “the Pope is constituted Pope by the power of jurisdiction alone,”[28] (which he is unable to effectively exercise if he must be avoided by the Church), when the Church judges him to be an incorrigible heretic, and then presents him to the faithful as one that must be avoided, the Church thereby induces a disposition into the matter (the man) that renders him incapable of sustaining the form (the pontificate). In John of St. Thomas’ words:

"The authority of the Church has for its object the application of the power of the Pope (form) to a given person (matter), by designating that person by election; and the separation of this power from the person, by declaring him to be a heretic and as one to be avoided by the faithful. And so, because the declaration of his crime works like an anticipatory disposition, preceding the deposition itself, it relates to the deposition only ministerially; nevertheless it also reaches the form itself dispositively and ministerially, insofar as it causes the disposition, and thereby indirectly (mediately) influences the form…”[29]

       John of St. Thomas delves deeper into his explanation by noting that in deposing the heretical Pope, the Church acts directly upon the matter (the man), but only indirectly upon the form (the pontificate). He describes this point by using the analogy of procreation and death. He explains that just as the generative act of man does not produce the form (the soul), neither does that which corrupts and destroys the matter (disease, etc.) directly touch the form (the soul) - nor does the corrupting element directly cause the separation of the form from the matter (but only renders the matter incapable of sustaining the form) – so, too, is it with the election and deposition of a Pope. John explains:

"Just as in the generation and corruption of a man, the begetter neither produces nor educes [develops] the form [the soul], nor does the corruptor [disease, etc.] destroy the form, but accomplishes the coming together [of the form and matter], or the separation [of the form from the matter] by way of affecting directly the dispositions of matter, and by this reaches the form mediately [indirectly]."[30]

       We can see that in both the election and deposition of a Pope, the Church acts directly upon the matter (the man) and only indirectly upon the form (the pontificate). During the election, the Church designates the man who is to receive the form. God freely responds to this legitimate ministerial act of the Church by joining the man to the pontificate, thus making him Pope. In like manner, when it comes to deposing a heretical Pope, the Church first judges the man a heretic, and then commands the faithful, by a juridical act, that he must be avoided. While the Church has no jurisdiction or authority over the Pope, it does possess jurisdiction over the faithful and therefore can issue commands that they are obliged to obey.[31] And because a Pope who “must be avoided” (according to Divine Law) cannot effectively rule the Church, this act of the Church disposes the Pope for the loss of office. God freely responds to this legal act of the Church (which it has a right to do, according to Divine Law) by severing the bond that unites the matter to the form, thereby causing the man to fall from the pontificate. In the words of John of St. Thomas:

"The Church is able to declare the crime of the pontiff and, according to divine law, propose him to the faithful as one who must be avoided, according to the manner in which heretics should be avoided [Titus 3:10]. The Pontiff, however, by the fact of having to be avoided, is necessarily rendered impotent by the force of such a declaration, since a Pope who must to be avoided is unable to influence the Church as its head. Therefore, by virtue of such a power, the Church dissolves ministerially and dispositively the link of the pontificate with such a person."[32]

And a little later,

"Thus by declaring a pontiff as Vitandus [to be avoided], the Church can induce a disposition in that person (the matter) by which the pontificate (the form) cannot remain, and thus it [the union of form and matter] is thus dissolved ministerially and dispositively by the Church, and authoritatively by Christ; likewise by designating him by election, she ultimately disposes him to receive the collation of power [directly] by Christ the Lord, and thus [the Church] ministerially creates a pope."[33]

       John of St. Thomas goes on to explain how two sets of canonical laws, which might appear to some to be in contradiction, are harmonized by his explanation. He says:

"By understanding things in this way, the provisions of the law, which sometimes affirm that the deposition of the Pontiff belongs to God alone, and sometimes say that he can be judged by inferiors in case of heresy, are in harmony. Both are true. For on the one side, the ‘ejection’ or deposition of the Pope is reserved only to God alone authoritatively and principally, as stated in the Decree of Gratian, Distinction 79 (Pars I, D 79, c. 11), and in many other places of the law, which say that God has reserved to Himself the judgment of the Apostolic See. On the other hand, the Church acts ministerially and dispositively by judging the crime and proposing him to the faithful as one to be avoided, and in this way she judges the Pontiff, as stated in the Decree of Gratian, in Dist. 40, chapter “Si Papa” (Pars I, D 40, c. 6) and in Part II, Chapter “Oves” (q. 7 c. 13)."[34]

     As we can see, according to the Dominican Opinion, the Church only acts ministerially and dispositively, and hence does not claim authority of the Church over the Pope.  Therefore, this opinion is not a species of Conciliarism, but far from it. Both John of St. Thomas and Cajetan were fierce opponents of the heresy in their day.
       John of St. Thomas concludes his position as follows:

"It is necessary that, just as the Church designates the man and proposes him to the faithful as being elected Pope, so too is it necessary that the Church declares him a heretic and proposes him as one to be avoided. Hence, we see from the practice of the Church that this is how it has been done; for, in the case of the deposition of a Pope, his cause was handled in a general Council before he was considered not to be Pope, as we have related above. Therefore, it is not because the Pope is a heretic, even publicly, that he will ipso facto cease to be Pope, before the declaration of the Church and before she proclaims him as ‘to be avoided’ by the faithful."[35]


       Before concluding, we should also note that God will not depose a heretical Pope (will not sever the bond uniting the man to the office) as long as he is being tolerated by the Church and recognized as the Church’s universal head. This is explains by the great 17th century canonist, Fr. Paul Laymann, S.J., who wrote:

"Assertion Two: it is more probable that the Supreme Pontiff, as concerns his own person, could fall into heresy, even a notorious one, on account of which he would deserve to be deposed by the Church, or rather be declared to be cut off.[36] The proof of the assertion is that neither Sacred Scripture nor the tradition of the Fathers indicates that such a privilege was granted by Christ to the Supreme Pontiffs; therefore the privilege is not to be asserted.  (…) not, indeed, as if the Roman Pontiffs were at any time heretics de facto (for one could hardly show that), but it was the persuasion [of the Fathers] that they could fall into heresy; and that, if such a thing should seem to have happened, it would pertain to the other bishops to examine and judge the matter, as one can see from the sixth Synod, session 13; the seventh Synod, last session; the eighth Synod, session 7 (in the letter of Hadrian); and the fifth Roman Council under Pope Symmachus: “By many of Our predecessors it has been decreed and ratified in Councils that the sheep should not presume even to reprehend their Pastor unless he has strayed from the Faith.”  And in the chapter Si Papa, distinction 40, we read that Archbishop Boniface wrote: “He who is to judge all is judged by no one, unless perchance he be found to have deviated from the Faith.”  And Bellarmine himself writes: “We cannot deny that Hadrian with the Roman Council—nay, even the whole eighth General Council—thought that the Roman Pontiff could be judged in the case of heresy” (lib. 2 c. 30).  On this topic, one can consult Melchior Canus (lib. 5 de locis Theologicis, cap. ult.).

"Note, however, that although we assert that the Supreme Pontiff, insofar as he is a private person, can become a heretic, and therefore cease to be a true member of the Church—since the Church is the congregation of the faithful; but heretics, by the very fact that they have cast off the true faith of Christ, are neither faithful nor true Christians, as St. Augustine rightly testifies in his Enchiridion, ch. 5—nevertheless, as long as the Pope is tolerated by the Church and publicly recognized as the universal Pastor, he really continues to possess the power of the papacy, so that all of his decrees have no less force and authority than if he were truly a believer, as Dominic Bannes (q. 1 a. 10 dub. 2 ad. 3) and Suarez (lib. 4 de legib. cap. 7) accurately explain.  The reason for this is that it is expedient for the well-governing of the Church, even as in any other well-constituted commonwealth, that the acts of a public magistrate remain valid as long as the magistrate remains in his office and is publicly tolerated, as L. Barbarius (ff. de officio Praetorum) explains.[37]

       Billuart teaches the same, when he says: “Christ, by a special dispensation, for the common good and tranquility of the Church, will continue to give jurisdiction even to a manifestly heretical pope, until he has been declared a manifest heretic by the Church.[38]
       In light of this, we can easily see the error of those (i.e., Sedevacantists) who conclude that the See of Peter is empty simply because they personally judge the Pope to be a heretic.


       During the First Vatican Council, Bishop Zinelli, the Relator for the Deputation of the Faith, said the following about the hypothesis of a heretical Pope: “God does not fail in the things that are necessary; therefore, if He permits so great an evil, the means to remedy such a situation will not be lacking.”[39] As we have seen, in spite of subtle differences, some of the greatest minds of the Church have provided a blueprint for how this difficult process would take place.  Ultimately, however, it would be the responsibility of the proper ecclesiastical authorities to determine the best course to follow in such a grave matter.

[1] For a more thorough treatment of these issues, please see our book True or False Pope? Refuting Sedevacantism and Other Modern Errors (John Salza/Robert Siscoe, published by St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, 710 pages).
[2] John of St. Thomas., Cursus Theologici II-II, On the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3
[3] The Dominican Cardinal Thomas Cajetan first addressed the issue in De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii.  Later, the Jesuits, Robert Bellarmine (De Romano Pontifice, bk 2, ch 30) and Francisco Suarez (Tractatus De Fide, Disp. 10, Sect. 6) objected to certain aspects of his position.  Lastly, the Dominican John of St. Thomas refuted Bellarmine and Suarez’s objections and defended the position of Cajetan, in his work, Cursus Theologici (II-II, On the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3).
[4] Suarez, Tractatus De Fide, Disp. 10, Sect. 6, n. 10, p. 318. Here is an example where Suarez uses the term “deposing” to describe the general process of determining whether the Pope is a manifest heretic.
[5] This is evident from Bellarmine’s refutation of the Second Opinion, in which he says: “Jurisdiction is certainly given to the Pontiff by God, but with the agreement of men [who elect him], as is obvious; because this man, who beforehand was not Pope, has from men that he would begin to be Pope; therefore, he is not removed by God unless it is through men [who first judge him]” (De Romano Pontifice, bk 2, ch. 30).
[6] “If the Pope, being neglectful of his own salvation and that of his brethren, be found useless and remiss in his works, and, more than that, reluctant to do good (which harms himself and others even more), and nonetheless brings down with him innumerable throngs of people (who will be scourged with many lashes forever, together with this one, who was the first acquisition of hell); no mortal man presumes to rebuke him for his faults, for he who is to judge all, himself can be judged by no man—unless he be found to deviate from the faith; and all the faithful pray with so much the more insistence for the Pope’s perpetual [good] status, inasmuch as they realize that, next to God, their own salvation depends above all on the integrity of the Pope” (THE DECREE OF GRATIAN, Part 1, Distinction 40, Chapter 6—‘Si Papa’).
[7] “For, unless I myself be firmly established in the faith, how can I strengthen others in it?  But it is well known that this specially pertains to my office, since the Lord protests, “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith fail not; and you, once you have been converted, confirm your brethren” (Lk. 22). He asked, and He obtained; for He was heard in all things on account of his reverence (Heb. 5). And therefore the faith of the Apostolic See has not failed in any disturbance, but has always remained whole and undefiled, that the privilege of Peter might persist unshaken.  For faith is so necessary for me that, while for other sins I have only God as my judge, only for that sin which is committed against faith could I be judged by the Church” (Pope Innocent III, Sermon 2 on the Consecration of a Supreme Pontiff),
[8] Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, bk. 2, ch. 30
[9] John of St. Thomas., Cursus Theologici II-II, On the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3
[10] “A declaratory sentence of the crime, however, is not excluded as long as it is merely declaratory. This does not bring about the judgment of a heretical pope, but rather shows that he has been judged” (Wernz-Vidal, Ius Canonicum. Rome: Gregorian 1943. 2:453).
[11] “Because neither God not nature fails in necessary things, the same authority extends to all pre-conditions [for a Pope to be deposed].  I do not require any of them as requiring coercive power over Pope Peter; it is sufficient for [the powers] to be declaratory, admonitory and the like. The judgment, being based [on] … the evident fact or open profession of incorrigible heresy… which happens without being coerced” (Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii, ch. XXI).
[12] De Romano Pontifice, bk 2, ch 30.
[13] John of St. Thomas, Cursus Theologici Ii-Ii, On The Authority Of The Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3
[14] John of St. Thomas, Cursus Theologicus, Tome 6.  Questions 1-7 on Faith.  Disputation 8., Article 2
[15] De Potestate Ecclesiastica, (Monasterii Westphalorum, Deiters, 1847) ch. 6, sec. 2, pp. 124-125 (emphasis added). 
[16] Ibid.  Ballerini did not believe it was necessary for a general council to oversee the deposition.  He held that the fall from office would occur once the Pope was judged and declared a heretic by the Church, and that if a council was later convened, it would simply declare that the previous pope had already lost his office.  As noted earlier, such minor technical issues have been much disputed.
[17] John of St. Thomas, Cursus Theologici II-II, On the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3
[18] Ibid
[19] Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii, ch. XVI
[20] Ibid
[21] Ibid
[22] Ibid
[23] John of St. Thomas, On the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3
[24] Similar to our previous usage, by “depose” we mean the process by which the Church removes the heretical Pope from office. But, again, it is technically Christ Himself who deposes the heretical Pope.
[25] Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii, ch XX. 
[26] Ibid.
[27] Cursus Theologici II-II De Auctoritate Summi Pontificis, Disp. II, Art. III, De Depositione Papae, p. 138.
[28] Cajetan, De Comparatione Cuctoritatis Papae et Conciliin, ch. XVII
[29] John of St. Thomas, Cursus Theologici II-II, On the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3
[30] Ibid
[31] Note that even though the Church has already determined the Pope is a manifest heretic, the Dominican Opinion is extremely careful to avoid Conciliarism, by maintaining that the Church still exercises no authority over him.
[32] John of St. Thomas, Cursus Theologici II-II, On the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Disp. 2, Art. 3
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] See: Cajetan (opusc. de auctor. Papae, c. 18 & seqq.), Turrecrem. (lib. 2 Sum. de Ecclesia, c. 112 ad 6), Canus (lib. 6 de locis, cap. ult. ad 11), Azorius (tom. 2, lib. 5, cap. 5), Valent. (cit. quaest. 1 p. 7 & quaest. 6 §39), and Bannes (cit. a. 10 dub. 2); against Albert Pighius (lib. 4 de Eccles. hierarch. c. 8), whom Bellarmine favors (lib. 2 de Pontif. c. 30 & lib. 4 c. 2 & 6).
[37] Laymann, Theol. Mor., bk. 2, tract 1, ch. 7, p. 153 (emphasis added).
[38] Summa S. Thomae Of Charles Rene Billuart, O.P. (1685-1757), Secunda Secundae, 4th Dissertation: On the Vices Opposed to Faith, A.1.
[39] Conc. Vatic., Mansi 52, 110

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