How an Heretical Pope Loses His Office

How an Heretical Pope Loses His Office

When we inquire about how or when a heretical Pope loses his office, what we are really asking is what is required before Christ will sever the bond that unites the man (the Pope) to the papal office (the Pontificate).

To further clarify this point, there is a distinction between the 1) papal office, 2) the man who occupies it, and 3) the bond that joins the two.  Only Christ has the authority to make a man pope (e.g. by joining the man to the office following the election), and only Christ has the authority to disjoin the man from the office for the crime of heresy.  

When will Christ do so?  

The Church has never taught how or when Christ would sever the bond uniting the man to the office. All we have are theologian opinions, which vary greatly. One opinion (which has never been condemned by the Church) maintains that Christ will never sever the bond (will never disjoin the Pope from the Papal Office) regardless of how heretical he becomes.  The more common opinion, however, is that He will do so; but precisely when, how, and what must precede it has never been taught by the Magisterium. 

The various opinions of the theologians and canonists regarding this issue fall into the category of speculative theology, or “questions of law”.  Only the Magisterium has the authority to settle such questions, and it has never done so. [1]  Anyone who maintains that one theological opinion is certainly correct is usurping the authority that belongs to the Magisterium alone.

Bellarmine himself did not present his opinion on how a Pope loses his office as being a fact, nor did he declare that the other opinions (even those that are highly unlikely) were certain wrote.

For example, in De Romano Pontifice, where he discusses how a heretical Pope would lose his office, he referred to the opinions with which he disagrees by using phrases such as “not proven to me” (second opinion), “exceedingly improbable” (third opinion) or “to my judgment, this opinion cannot be defended” (fourth opinion).  He never declared that they were all certainly wrong and that his opinion was certainly correct, since he knew full well that only the Church alone has the authority to settle such “questions of law” definitively; and until it does so, theologians are free to disagree.

Therefore, it is not permitted to use a theological opinion as a certain premise to arrive at a certain conclusion.  Much less is it permitted to publicly declare a conclusion to be a fact, when it is founded upon an opinion that itself is not certain.




[1] “No canonical provisions exist regulating the authority of the College of Cardinals sede Romana impedita, ie., in case the pope became insane, or personally a heretic; in such cases it would be necessary to consult the dictates of right reason and the teachings of history” (Original Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol III, p. 339).

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