FRANCIS SUAREZ, S.J. Tenth Disputation on the Supreme Pontiff

Francis Suarez, S.J.
Tenth Disputation on the Supreme Pontiff

(…) The principal question is whether [the Pope] could be deprived of the papacy against his own will, for it is not evident who would deprive him of it; for no one is immediately deposed by God—for there is nothing in the ordinary Divine Law on this matter; nor should we expect God to do it in an extraordinary way.  Then again, there is no man who can depose the Pope from the papacy, since the Pope has no superior on earth, according to the twelfth Distinction [of the Decree of Gratian], chapter Nunc autem.

In this matter, there are some who support the opinion that the Pontiff can be deprived of his dignity in both ways, but in different instances.  For in the case of heresy, they say that he is immediately deposed by God without taking into consideration any human judgment.[1] 

The foundation for this opinion is that all jurisdiction in the Church is founded upon faith, according to 1 Cor. 3: “No one can lay another foundation besides that which already has been laid, etc.”  Augustine, exposing this (de Fide et operibus, c. 16), says, “If Christ is the foundation, so is faith in Christ”; and the first chapter of Colossians has, “Being founded upon faith.”  Therefore, if faith is the foundation of the Church, then it is also the foundation of the pontificate and of the hierarchical order of the same Church.  This is confirmed by the fact that, apparently for this reason, Christ first asked of Peter a confession of faith before promising him this dignity.  It is also confirmed by the fact that the Fathers often indicate that no one who lacks the faith can have jurisdiction in the Church.[2]

It is confirmed, thirdly, by a popular argument: because the heretic is not a member of the Church, he cannot be its head.  Besides, the heretic should not even be greeted, but avoided entirely, as Paul (ad Tit. 3) and John (in epist. 2) teach; so much the less, therefore, should he be obeyed.  Finally, the heretical Pope denies Christ and the true Church, and consequently himself and his own dignity; therefore, by that very fact he is deprived of his own dignity.

Against this opinion I say, in the second place, that in no case—even that of heresy—is the Pontiff deprived of his dignity and power immediately by God, without the foregoing judgement and sentence of men.  Such is the common opinion today: Cajetan (de Auctoritate Papae, c. 18 et 19), Soto (4 d. 22 q. 2 art. 2), Cano (4 de Locis, c. ult., ad 12), Corduba (lib. 4, q. 11).

Later on, when we treat of the penalties for heretics, we will explain and universally show that no one is deprived by Divine Law of their ecclesiastical dignity and jurisdiction because they are guilty of heresy.  For the time being, however, we briefly give the reasoning a priori.  For, since this is the most grave of penalties, in order for it to be incurred ipso facto, the penalty must be spelled out in Divine Law; but no law can be found stating the same, whether of heretics in general, or specifically of bishops, or most specifically of the Pope; nor is there any certain tradition to the same effect.

Nor can any human law cause the Pontiff to fall ipso facto from his dignity, for the law would have been passed either by an inferior (namely, a Council) or by an equal (namely, a previous Pope); but neither of these can have coercive force, to be able to punish the Pontiff, who is either equal or superior; therefore, etc.

But you will say, there can be a law that is interpretive of Divine Law.  But this is mere imagination—for no such Divine Law has been brought to light; and so far no law has been passed by the Councils or the Pontiffs which would interpret that Divine Law.  This is confirmed by the fact that such a law would endanger the Church, wherefore it is not credible that Christ would have instituted it; and the antecedent is proved thus: If the Pope were an occult heretic and fell ipso jure from his dignity, all of his acts would be invalid.

You will say that this reasoning does not prove the point, at least for notorious and public heretics.  But the difficulty remains: If an external but occult heretic can still be Pope, then by the same reasoning he can continue to be such even if his delict becomes known, as long as no sentence is pronounced against himboth because no one incurs a penalty, except either ipso facto or by a [judicial] sentence; and also because even greater problems would follow: for we would fall into doubt about exactly how great the degree of infamy ought to be for the Pope to be reputed to have fallen from his dignity; thence would arise schisms, and everything would become perplexing, especially if the Pope, after becoming infamous, would keep possession of his See by force or other means and exercise many acts of his office.

Secondly, there is another reason which presses us to hold this opinion: for, if the Pope were to become an external but occult heretic, and afterwards should come to his senses and really repent, he would find himself in a real dilemma; for, if he has fallen from his dignity by his heresy, he ought entirely to renounce the pontificate—which is a very serious thing, and almost contrary to Natural Law, for it amounts to revealing his sin; but he cannot retain his episcopate, since that would be intrinsically evil.  Hence, even the authors who hold the contrary opinion acknowledge that in such a case he could retain his episcopate, and therefore truly be Pope; and this is the common opinion of canonists, following the gloss, c. Nunc autem, d. 21.

But from the fact that they admit this, there is an evident argument that we can take up against them: for God does not restore the Papal dignity to someone who does penance, as He restores grace; for it is unheard of that someone who is not a true Pope should be made Pope by God without the choice and ministry of men.

Finally, faith is not absolutely necessary for a man to be capable of spiritual and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and a man without faith can exercise true acts that require such jurisdiction; therefore, etc.  The antecedent is evidently true, for in extreme necessity a heretical priest can give absolution, as is taught in the material on penance and censures; but absolution is not given without jurisdiction.  And from this the contrary opinion collapses; for, just as faith is not a necessary foundation for the power of orders, which is more excellent in its own way, so neither is it a necessary foundation for jurisdiction; and no author (as I believe) will say in response with even a shadow of probability that the papal dignity is lost through purely interior heresy—although it is certain that faith is lost by that.

Nor are the quotations brought forth of any relevance, for they are not speaking of the foundation of jurisdiction or ecclesiastical dignity, but of the primary foundation of the whole Church and of justification and all spiritual goods, which is Christ, and faith in Christ.  Nor does Christ’s interaction with Peter constitute a probable argument; otherwise, someone could prove in the same way that charity is the foundation of the pontifical dignity, since Christ also asked Peter whether he loved Him; all that Christ intended, then (as we have already said in section 4, n. 4), was to show what would be necessary for a Pontiff to exercise his office in a fitting manner; and the Fathers in nearly the same way.  Besides, the Fathers mean to signify that the heretical [Pope] merits to be deprived of all dignity and jurisdiction; also, occasionally they are treating of private [i.e., particular] bishops and are supposing [the existence of an] ecclesiastical law, as we shall discuss later on.

To their third argument, I respond in one word: The heretical Pope is not a member of the Church, if we consider the substance and form that constitutes the members of the Church; nevertheless, he is the head, if we consider his office and the influx that he exercises; and this is not to be wondered at, for the Pope is not the first and principal head, as if he channeled his own power into the Church; but he is something instrumental, and a vicar of the primary head, Who is able to send a spiritual influx to the members even through a head of bronze.  In a comparable way, He occasionally baptizes and even gives absolution through heretics, as was said above.

In the third place, I say that, if a Pope is heretical and incorrigible, he ceases to be Pope as soon as a declaratory sentence of the crime is brought against him through the legitimate jurisdiction of the Church.  This is the common opinion of the Doctors, and is gathered from [Pope] Clement I, in his first epistle, where he says that Peter taught that a heretical Pope should be deposed.  Now, the foundation is this:
It would harm the Church in the gravest way to have such a pastor; nor could she help herself in so grave a peril; besides, it would be contrary to the dignity of the Church to make her remain subject to a heretical Pope, such that she is unable to repel him from her; for the people generally take after their prince and their priest.

The considerations brought forward to defend the prior opinion strengthen this one as well—especially these: Heresy spreads stealthily like a cancer, and because of this evil heretics must be avoided as much as possible, especially the heretical pastor; but how is he to be avoided, if he does not cease to be pastor?

But there are a number of things to be explained concerning this conclusion.  Firstly, who ought to pass this sort of sentence.  For some say that it should be passed by the Cardinals; indeed, the Church could commit this matter to them, especially if it were so established by the consent or determination of the supreme Pontiffs, as has been done on the matter of Papal election; but so far we do not read that this judgment has been entrusted to them.  Therefore, we must say that it pertains per se to all the bishops of the Church; for, since they are the ordinary pastors and the columns of the Church, we are to believe that this matter pertains to them; and, since no reason can be drawn from Divine Law why it should pertain more to these bishops than to those, and nothing has been established concerning this in human law, of necessity we have to say that it pertains to all the bishops, and therefore to a general Council—and this is the common opinion of the Doctors.  On this topic one can consult Cardinal Albanus’s work de Cardinalibus, question 35 (it is among the treatises of the edition published in the year 1584, in the thirteenth volume, page 2); he treats of this point amply enough.

But then another doubt occurs: How could such a Council be legitimately gathered, since the legitimate gathering of a Council pertains to the Pope.  I respond, first of all, that perhaps it is not necessary for a strictly general Council to be convened, and that it would be enough for provincial or national Councils to be convoked by the archbishops or primates in all the regions, and that they would all have to agree on the same sentence.  Secondly, when a general Council gathers to define matters of faith or pass universal laws, then it is necessary for the Pope to convoke it, in order that it may be legitimate; but for this business, which concerns in particular the Pontiff himself, and is in some manner contrary to him, a Council can be legitimately convoked either by the College of Cardinals, or by an agreement of the bishops; and, if the Pontiff should try to impede its gathering, he should not be obeyed, for he would be abusing his supreme power in a way contrary to justice and the common good.

But here a third doubt arises: With what right could that gathering pass a judgment on the Pope, since the Pope is superior to it?  On this topic, I am amazed at how Cajetan causes himself so much trouble in trying to avoid being forced to admit that the Church or a Council stands above the Pope at least in the case of heresy; and he finally concludes that it does indeed stand above the Pope—but only insofar as he is a private person, and not insofar as he is Pope.  But this distinction is not satisfactory, for it could be affirmed in the same manner that the Church can judge and punish the Pope, not as Pope, but as a private person.  Also, to say that the Pope is superior insofar as he is Pope means nothing other than this, that that person, by reason of his dignity, is exempt from the jurisdiction of any other man and has jurisdiction over [all] others—as is evident in the case of any other dignity.  Let us explain: the pontifical dignity does not make one superior in an abstract, metaphysical sense; on the contrary, it makes one superior (and subject to no one) concretely and on the individual level; therefore, etc.  This is how the Council gathered in the time of [Pope] Marcellinus understood the matter, when it declared that “the first See can be judged by no one”; for the Council said this of the very person of Marcellinus, who was certainly a private person; and this is also the way that Pope Nicolaus recounts the affair in his letter to Emperor Michael, where he recalls a similar decree published in the Roman Council under [Pope] Sylvester; and now we will adduce several reasons for it.

Others, therefore, admit that the Church is superior to the Pontiff in the case of heresy; but that is difficult to defend.  For Christ the Lord established the Pope as the absolutely supreme judge, and the canons, too, affirm it universally without making any distinctions; finally, the Church cannot exercize any act of jurisdiction over the Pope, nor does she confer upon him his power when she elects him; rather, she designates the person upon whom Christ confers the power by his own act [per se].  Therefore, when the Church deposes a heretical Pope, she does not do it as if she were his superior; rather, by the consent of Christ the Lord, she juridically declares him to be a heretic, and therefore completely unworthy of the dignity of Pontiff; and then, by that very fact [ipso facto], he is immediately deposed by Christ; and, being now deposed, he is in the condition of an inferior and can be punished.

However, we should add that, although before this declaration the Church has no power over a heretical Pope in the manner of a superior and of one who has jurisdiction over him, nevertheless, because of her natural right to defend herself, she can use force against him if perchance he machinates something destructive to the Church or tries to impede the gathering of a general Council.
If you ask what gives us certainty that, by Divine Law, a Pontiff is deposed as soon as a sentence is pronounced by the Church: I respond, in the first place, that I have already produced the testimony of [Pope] Clement, which is from the mouth of Peter; in the second place, the Scriptural passages that command us to avoid heretics are a sufficient indication; in the third place, it is the common consensus of the Church and the Pontiffs; in the fourth place, natural reason teaches thus; for it is not credible that Christ left the Church destitute of any remedy for so great a peril; but the remedy that I have adduced seems to be perfectly adapted to the case that is being disputed. (…)

I say fourthly: outside of the case of heresy, a true and undoubted Pontiff, even if he be extremely wicked, cannot be deprived of his dignity. (…) Therefore all the Pontiffs cited above, while affirming that the Church can pass judgment on the Supreme Pontiff in the case of heresy, deny absolutely that she can pass judgment on him outside of that case; and it is in this sense that the often say that the Pope is judged by no one. (…) But someone will object that this only proves that the Pontiff cannot be judged directly as an inferior; nevertheless [they say], his crime could be juridically declared, and, when this declaration has been properly made, the Pope would be considered deposed by the Divine Law, even as we were saying in the case of heresy.  For it seems that the reasoning is the same; for a wicked Pope can cause no less harm to the Church by other crimes than by heresy; and, as a tyrannical prince or a pastor destroying the sheep, it seems justified by the Natural Law that he be taken out of their midst.  Hence, even Christ himself counseled us to amputate a member for the well being of the body.

It is to be noted that Christ the Lord, if He had so willed, could indeed have constituted it thus, although He did not do so, as all the testimonies that we have adduced prove, since the only exception that they make is for the case of heresy. (…) Nor would it have been expedient for the Church if Christ had done so—firstly, lest occasion be taken for many schisms; for it is easy to think of crimes that would be judged worthy of deposition.  Secondly, because there is much more reason to make exception for heresy; for by heresy the Pontiff is constituted outside of the Church, and therefore rightly deserves to be excluded from her, as one who is not apt to rule her.  Thirdly, the crime of heresy is certain and designated; but if permission [to pass judgment on the Pope] were extended to other crimes, there would be no end to the accusations and calumnies.  Lastly, if the matter had been otherwise decided, the sheep could carry themselves in relation to their pastor as if they were the judges and superiors, which is contrary to reason and the right ordering of things.

But…certain canonists…would have it that the Pope could be deposed for such notorious crimes as would give grave scandal to the Church, provided that he is shown to be incorrigible.  Cajetan and Turrecremata (cited above) and Bellarmine (lib. 2 de Romano Pontifice, a capite 27) relate their arguments.  Some, which are taken from natural reason, we have already suggested and have for the most part solved; for we have shown that the nature of heresy and that of other crimes differ, and that, in the case of the latter, the Natural Law allows for a suitable self-defense, which the Church can procure and apply without judging or deposing the Pope.  For, if he commands something contrary to good morals, he is not to be obeyed; if he attempts anything that is manifestly contrary to justice and the common good, it will be lawful to resist him; if he applies force, he can be repelled with force, observing the moderation proper to a blameless self-defense. (…)





[1] Thus Turrecremata (l. 2, cap. 102, l. 4, 2 p., a c. 18), Augustine of Ancona (de Potestate Papae, art. 5), Paludanus (in Opusc. ejusdem argumenti), Driedo (l. 1 de Libertate Christiana, c. 14), Cast. (2 de Justa haereticorum punitione, c. 22 et 23), Simanchas (Instit. cathol., c. 21), Jacobat. (7 de Conciliis, art. 1), Salmeron. (tom. 12, tract. 83). 

[2] Thus Cyprian (relatus cap. Novatianus, 7, q. 1, cap. Didicimus, 24, q. 1), Ambrose (cap. Verbum, de Poenitentia, q. 1), Popes Gelasius (c. Achatius, 1) and Alexander I (cap. Audivimus, 24, q. 1), Augustine (epistol. 48 ad Vincent., et lib. de Pastoribus), St. Thomas (2. 2. quaest. 39).

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