Is Francis or Benedict the True Pope?

By Robert Siscoe and John Salza

       Let’s face it. Many Catholics – and not just the “rad trads,” – are questioning whether Francis is the true Pope. The issues which have given rise to this questioning are no secret, and have left many Catholics in a state of bewilderment. Putting aside those who have publicly denounced Francis as an antipope, many others simply don’t know what to believe, or even what principles should guide them in forming their judgment. Recently, one Catholic writer stated that “we don’t have the authority” to declare Francis an antipope, and “Francis is the pope until a future pope says he’s not.” Yet, the same writer, in the same article, said she didn’t have “any real objection to someone thinking that perhaps Bergoglio is an antipope” and even concluded that “You can believe it” [that Francis is an antipope].[1] Confusion and even contradictions seem commonplace, even among knowledgeable Catholics.
       In this article, we will take up the controversy surrounding the questionable resignation of Pope Benedict and whether Francis “the Bishop of Rome” is the legitimate Pope. At the outset we should note that it is not our intent to provide definitive answers to all of the questions involved, but only to apply the applicable principles and present what seems clear to us is the correct approach for Catholics to take, as they seek to navigate their way through the ever-increasing crisis of the Church and the papacy.
       What are the issues that have caused some to doubt or deny Francis’ legitimacy? The primary issue concerns the validity of Benedict’s resignation. Some believe he was forced to resign, and that his resignation was not a “free act” (which is required for validity); others point to irregularities in the wording of his resignation, which calls into question his intent (Did he intend to renounce the papal office or only the active exercise thereof?). Another issue that is raised concerns the validity of Francis’ election.  Doubts here arise from the publicly admitted conspiracy of the “clerical mafia” (the St. Gallen’s Group) to elect him.  Such a conspiracy is not only illicit, but subjects those who take part in it to latae sententiae excommunication. A final issue that causes some to question Francis’ legitimacy is the damage he is doing to the Church, and to souls, through his scandalous and erroneous teachings, which are leading souls astray and confirming others in their errors and sin. This is aggravated by the fact that, unlike his recent predecessors who undermined Catholic doctrine - often under the specious pretext of unity and world peace (the stated goal of the Assisi prayer meetings) - Francis has directed his attack on the natural law itself, under the specious pretext of mercy and compassion for sinners.
       Some see in one or more of these issues a reason to reject Francis in favor of Benedict, thinking it provides the best solution to explain away his disastrous pontificate, by enabling them to hold that all the evils are not really coming from the Pope, but from an antipope. Ironically, however, many of these people were also very critical of Benedict during his reign, even accusing him of being a public promoter of idolatry (e.g., Assisi 2011), and an arch-Modernist who publicly rejects fundamental doctrines of the faith, such as the physical resurrection of the body,[2] and who was already advocating Communion for the divorced and remarried in the early 1970s.[3]
       While there is no question that Francis’ papacy has been a disaster, some have argued that Benedict is more dangerous than Francis, since his sheep’s clothing is apparently far more convincing. Which is more dangerous, one who under a “traditional’ veneer subtly deceives those with the faith and leads them into error, or one who, easily recognized as a wolf by true faithful, confirms, in their error, those who are already entangled therein? The point is that the papal controversy is not between a solid traditional Pope (Benedict) and a liberal Pope (Francis), but rather between two men who are cut from the same Modernist cloth. The primary difference is one of personality and method. Francis, who recently said “I am by nature irresponsible,”[4] is reckless and destructive, while Benedict is more subtle. But both are deeply ingrained with the modern errors, and dyed in the wool Modernists, which explains why, while others have been scandalized by Francis, Benedict has openly praised him.  For example, Benedict recently said: “Thank you, Holy Father, for your goodness, which from the first moment of your election, to every moment of my life here, has touched my heart. We hope that you can go forward with all of us on this path of divine mercy, showing us the path of Jesus toward God.” In his latest book, Benedict said he sees “no contradictions” between his papacy and that of Francis, and even praised the “new freshness in the Church, a new joy, a new charisma that addresses the people, which is something beautiful.”[5] Would those who reject Francis in favor of Benedict ever utter such words?  Not likely.
       We will begin by addressing the controversy surrounding the resignation of Pope Benedict. 

Benedict’s Resignation

       During Benedict XVI’s Coronation Mass, on April 24, 2005, the newly-elected Pope said: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”[6] Less than eight years later, Benedict would be the first Pontiff in over seven centuries to resign from the papacy. Some have speculated that this resignation was a self-fulfilling prophecy for Benedict, and that he was fleeing from the wolves that he knew surrounded him.

Was it a Free Act?

       Concerning papal resignations, the 1917 Code of Canon Law cleared up a point that was disputed by theologians for centuries. The question concerned whether the resignation would have to be accepted by the Church in order for it to be valid. Regarding this previously disputed point, Bellarmine wrote: “I say the Pontiff cannot renounce the pontificate without the consensus of the Church.”[7] Francisco Suarez defended the contrary view[8] and his position was codified in the 1917 Code of Canon Law which provides that, contrary to the opinion of Bellarmine, the consensus of the Church is not necessary for a Pope to resign.[9]  All that is required is that the resignation “is made freely and properly manifested.”[10] It is here that we run into two objections presented against the validity of Benedict’s resignation. 
       In light of the Vatileaks scandal and the 300-page two-volume dossier[11] delivered to Benedict the day before he resigned, documenting corruption, blackmail and an underground homosexual network within the Vatican (a dossier which magically disappeared from the news following the announced resignation), coupled with allegations that the SWIFT banking system had blocked all financial transactions in Vatican City[12] (only to unlock after Benedict announced his resignation), some have understandably speculated that Benedict’s resignation was not a “free act,” but was brought about by coercion and blackmail by the very “wolves” he spoke of during his Coronation Mass. They maintain that this calls into question the validity of the act, since, according to Canon Law, [13] a resignation of the papacy not freely made would be null and void.[14]  One problem with this theory is that Benedict himself has stated publicly, numerous times, that his resignation was not forced,[15] and that it was done “with full freedom.”[16] He repeated this again in his recent book, when he said:

“It was not a retirement made under the pressure of events or a flight made due to the incapacity to face them. No one tried to blackmail me. I would not have allowed it. If they had tried, I would not have gone because it is not right to leave when under pressure.”[17]

       He could not have been more clear in affirming that his resignation was not forced. Thus, if we take him at his word, we would have to conclude that Benedict’s resignation was indeed a free act.  In spite of the controversial events that surrounded the resgnation, he has never suggested otherwise.
       But Benedict’s repeated public statements that his resignation was “freely made” have not satisfied all, since, as they say, the statement itself could easily be forced. In order to prevent such a doubts, Cardinal Brandmüller recently argued that, in the future, the decision to resign from the pontificate should be done with the cooperation and consultation of the College of Cardinals, as was the case with the resignation of Pope Celestine, rather than being sprung on the Church without warning, as in the case of Benedict.  In light of the doubts and confusion Pope Benedict’s hasty resignation has caused for some, we can certainly see the wisdom in Brandmüller’s recommendations. But the fact remains that any doubts concerning the freedom of the act are mere speculation, which contradict the consistent public testimony of Benedict himself, who alone knows if the act was free.  In fact, he has not only declared that his resignation was freely made, but furthermore that “there isn’t the slightest doubt about the validity,” and even that any “speculation about its invalidity is simply absurd.”[18] 
       In light of the consistent testimony of the “Pope Emeritus,” there is certainly not sufficient doubt about the validity of his resignation on the basis that the act itself was not freely made. All doubts are merely speculative, and thus do not rise to the level of positive, probable doubt required by Canon Law to morally justify 1) forming a private judgment contrary to the pubic judgment of the Church (which holds that Francis is the legitimate Pope), or even 2) suspending judgment. [19] Moreover, moral theology requires that we always take the safer course, which[20], as applied here, is submission to the Church’s judgment (not rejecting it based on mere speculation), especially since doing so is in no way sinful, and most certainly in accord with Catholic tradition and practice.

Questioning the Intention

       A second issue that is raised over the validity of the resignation concerns, not the freedom of the act, but the intention of the act. Did Benedict truly intend to resign from the papal office, or only from “the active exercise thereof”?

Papal Diarchy

       Following the resignation of Pope Benedict, some began to point out potential problems with the way in which the resignation was worded, or, one could say, the way the resignation was manifested. Stefano Violi, esteemed Professor of Canon Law at the Faculty of Theology in Bologna and Lugano, published a study which included a detailed examination of the Latin text. The professor argued that a close examination of the document reveals Pope Benedict did not intend to completely renounce the Papal office (the munus petrinus), but only the active exercise thereof (the agendo et loquendo). He argued that his intent seems to have been to essentially split the papacy in two, thereby transforming the papal monarchy into a papal diarchy.          
       Commenting on Professor Violi’s study, Vittorio Messori wrote the following:

        “[Pope] Benedict did not intend to renounce the munus petrinus, nor the office, or the duties, i.e. which Christ Himself attributed to the Head of the Apostles [i.e., Peter] and which has been passed on to his successors. The Pope intended to renounce only the ministerium, which is the exercise and concrete administration of that office.”

       Then, commenting on the precise terminology used by Pope Benedict, Messori added:

       “In the formula employed by Benedict, primarily, there is a distinction between the munus, the papal office, and the execution, that is the active exercise of the office itself: but the executio is twofold: there is the governmental aspect which is exercised agendo et loquendo (working and teaching); but there is also the spiritual aspect, no less important, which is exercised orando et patendo (praying and suffering). It is that which would be behind Benedict XVI’s words: ‘I do not return to private life […] I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter’. Enclosure here would not be meant only in the sense of a geographical place, where one lives, but also a theological ‘place’.”

       A little further on, Messori cites the following from Professor Violi’s study:

       “Benedict XVI divested himself of all the power of government and command inherent in his office, without however, abandoning his service to the Church: this continues through the exercise of the spiritual dimension of the pontifical munus entrusted to him. This he did not intend to renounce. He renounced not his duties, which are, irrevocable, but the concrete execution of them.”

       Some have argued that this novel act of Pope Benedict explains why he chose to retain the papal coat of arms, why he continues to wear the white cassock, and why, rather than returning to his pre-papal name Joseph Ratzinger, has chosen the title “His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus.” The Italian journalist and intellectual, Antonio Socci, who was one of the first to publicly question the papal resignation, quoted Pope Benedict’s trusted secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, who, shortly after the resignation, explained that the reason Pope Benedict retained his papal name is because “he considers that this title corresponds to reality.”
       In a recent speech delivered at the Pontifical Gregorian University on May 20, 2016, on the occasion of the presentation of a book on Benedict’s pontificate, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, who remains the personal secretary of Benedict, again reiterated that Pope Benedict did not intend to renounce the papal office. Rather, the Archbishop explained, Benedict’s intention was to expand the papacy by essentially splitting it in two, just as Professor Violi had observed in his study a few years earlier. Ganswein began by saying: “I was present when Benedict XVI, at the end of his mandate, removed the Fisherman’s ring, as is customary after the death of a Pope, even though in this case he was still alive! I was present when, on the other hand, he decided not to give up the name he had chosen, as Pope Celestine V had done when, on December 13, 1294, a few months after the start of his ministry, he again became Pietro del Morrone.” He then added:

       “Since February 2013 the papal ministry is therefore no longer what it was before. It is and remains the foundation of the Catholic Church; and yet it is a foundation which Benedict XVI has profoundly and permanently transformed during his exceptional pontificate … Since the election of his successor Francis, on March 13, 2013, there are not therefore two popes, but de facto an expanded ministry — with an active member and a contemplative member. This is why Benedict XVI has not given up either his name, or the white cassock. This is why the correct name by which to address him even today is ‘Your Holiness’; and this is also why he has not retired to a secluded monastery, but within the Vatican — as if he had only taken a step to the side to make room for his successor and a new stage in the history of the papacy…”

       Needless to say, no one, not even a Pope, possesses the authority to change the nature of the papacy by expanding it to include two living men – “an active member and a contemplative member.” A man becomes Pope when God joins the man elected (the matter) to the pontificate (the form); and he ceases to be Pope either upon death, or when God disjoins the man from the pontificate, either due to the crime of heresy (established by the judgment of the Church) or by resignation. As Cajetan explains, a man is made Pope by virtue of jurisdiction alone; and, according to the will of Christ Who founded the papacy, only one man at a time can possesses papal jurisdiction. Hence, Benedict is either the Pope or a former Pope; he is most certainly not a member of an “expanded Petrine ministry” that includes two Popes.
       If the papacy could be expanded to include two men, why could it not be further expanded to three, or four, or perhaps a dozen? Needless to say, this would lead quickly to schism with the various groups following the “Pope” of their choosing. This is why, as St. Jerome taught, only “one is elected, that by the appointment of a [single] head, all occasion of schism may be removed.”[21] 

                Defect of Intention
       The question that the papal diarchy raises concerns the intention of Benedict. If his intention was not to renounce the papal office, but to expand the Petrine ministry and only renounce a portion of the exercise thereof (agendo et loquendo), would this defective intention render his resignation null? Or would God, in spite of such a defective intention, nevertheless sever the bond uniting him to the office, provided that the Church herself considered the resignation to have taken place? In other words, if Benedict publicly stated that his intention was to resign the papacy, and if the entire Church understood him to mean that he was completely renouncing the papal office, would a defective intention, resulting from a doctrinal error (i.e., the belief that it is possible to change the nature of the papacy by splitting it in two) prevent God from severing the bond joining his person to the papacy? Or would God sever the bond uniting his person to the papal office in spite of the defective intention that is rooted in a doctrinal error?
       If this was Benedict’s intention (and he himself has never affirmed that it was) it would be a novelty without precedent.  Nevertheless, we can attempt to answer the question (i.e., whether God would remove him from office in spite of the defective intention) by drawing on the established doctrine of the Church concerning the intention necessary for the validity of a sacrament, which provides a useful (though certainly not definitive) framework to address the issue at hand. 
       To begin with, we should note that just as God is the efficient cause of the Sacraments, so too is He the efficient cause of 1) making man a Pope, and 2) removing a man from the papal office. As Cajetan teaches, when it comes to a papal resignation, the act of the one resigning is not even a partial efficient cause, but only a dispositive cause.[22]  In other words, the one resigning disposes himself to lose the papal office (by submitting his resignation), while God Himself is the one who causes the separation of the man from the office.
       Now, while a proper intention is necessary to validly confect a sacrament, it is important to note that a doctrinal error held by the minister does not necessarily render the sacrament null due to a defect of intention – even when the doctrinal error in question concerns the intended effect of the sacrament. 
       For example, the intended effect of baptism is the washing away of original sin and the infusion of sanctifying grace. Yet if the minister lacks the intention to produce the baptismal effect (due to a doctrinal error he has embraced), this defect of intention would not, in and of itself, render the sacrament null. In other words, it would not hinder God – the efficient cause - from producing the sacramental effect. The Holy Office clarified this very point in 1872, when it responded to the following question concerning baptism administered by a Methodist minister:

       “1. Whether baptism administered by those [Methodist] heretics is doubtful on account of defect of intention to do what Christ willed, if an express declaration was made by the minister before he baptised [saying that] that baptism had no effect on the soul? (…)

“Reply to the first question: in the negative, because despite the error about the effects of baptism, the intention of doing what the Church does is not excluded.”

       What is required for a proper intention is to “do what the Church does” (in this case, baptize), but it is not necessary that the minister specifically intends to do what the Church intends (infuse grace into the soul). Hence, a defective intention due to a doctrinal error does not necessarily render the sacraments null. Analogously, it would seem that Benedict’s general intention to resign would suffice (in which case God would remove him from the papal office), even if the intention was partially deficient due to a doctrinal error concerning the effect (i.e., the erroneous belief that he could partially resign, and remain half of an “expanded Petrine ministry” or “papal diarchy”).
While not a perfect comparison, the Church’s sacramental theology provides a thoughtful framework for attempting to address the unique situation. But we should also note that Benedict himself has never claim that he only intended to renounce a portion of the office.  The speculation is based on the testimony of others and the wording used in his resignation.
       It is also worth noting that in the making of a Pope (i.e., God joining the man elected to the Pontificate), a legal defect in the election does not necessarily mean he will not become a true Pope. In fact, a man can be elected illegally, or even take possession of the pontificate by fraud, yet nevertheless become a true Pope. Just as legal, technical defects do not prevent God – the efficient cause - from joining the man to the pontificate, nor would a defective intention (due to a doctrinal error) necessarily prevent God – the efficient cause - from removing him from office (i.e., disjoining him from the papacy). As St. Alphonsus, Doctor of the Church, explains, whether God joins a man to the pontificate (or severs a Pope from the pontificate?), is not necessarily based upon a legal technicality. He wrote:

       “It is of no importance that in past centuries some Pontiff was illegitimately elected or took possession of the Pontificate by fraud; it is enough that he was accepted afterwards by the whole Church as Pope, since by such acceptance he would have become the true Pontiff.”[23]

       If an illegal election, or taking possession of the papacy by fraud, does not necessarily hinder God from joining man to the papacy (provided the Church herself considers him to be Pope), it seem quite certain that a partially defective intention in the resignation, due to a novel doctrinal error in the mind of the one resigning, would similarly not prevent God from disjoining him from the papacy. And we should again note that Benedict himself has stated that there isn’t the slightest doubt about the validity of his resignation. 

       “There isn’t the slightest doubt about the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry,’ Benedict wrote to Andrea Tornielli, a veteran Vatican reporter with La Stampa newspaper. ‘The only condition for the validity is the full freedom of the decision. Speculation about its invalidity is simply absurd’.”[24]      

      We conclude this point by noting that potential issues relating to a defect in Benedict’s intention to resign are mere speculation; and even if such a defect were certain, it would in no way prove that God did not sever the bond uniting him to the papal office.[25]  Hence, as was the case with doubts concerning the validity of the resignation based on the freedom of the act, we do not have positive, probable doubt to reject the validity of the resignation based on a defect of intention. All such doubts are nothing more than speculation, and therefore do not justify one rejecting the public judgment of the Church. 
       Let us now turn to the controversy surrounding the election of Jorge Bergoglio.

Francis’ Election

       In addition to the questions concerning the validity of Pope Benedict’s resignation, there have been added allegations of a conspiracy to force Benedict out and elect Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis). The conspiracy was first brought to light by Dr. Austen Ivereigh in his book The Great Reformer. After the book was published, the Belgian Cardinal, Godfried Danneels, publicly admitted to being part of what he called a secret “clerical mafia” (The St. Gallen Group), which conspired to push Benedict out and elect Bergoglio.[26]
       According to the laws established by John Paul II for papal elections, which were applicable at the time of Bergoglio’s election, any secret pact or agreement which would oblige Cardinals to vote a certain way in a Papal election carries a latae sententiae excommunication for the non-elected co-conspirators.[27] However, this excommunication would not nullify the election, since the law that has been in place for centuries currently states that “No cardinal elector may be excluded from active and passive participation in the election of the Supreme Pontiff because of or on pretext of any excommunication, suspension, interdict or other ecclesiastical impediment.”
       Active participation is the act of electing a Pope; passive participation is being elected Pope. Hence, the admitted conspiracy to elect Bergoglio may raise important questions concerning the men who elected him, but it does not prove that Bergoglio is not the Pope. To again quote St. Alphonsus, Doctor of the Church, “it is of no importance that in past centuries some Pontiff was illegitimately elected or took possession of the Pontificate by fraud; it is enough that he was accepted afterwards by the whole Church as Pope, since by such acceptance he would have become the true Pontiff.”[28]  So even if it can be shown that there was a canonical irregularity in Francis’ election, or even if he was elected un-canonically, it would not prove Francis is not the Pope. On the contrary, it may be the fulfillment of a centuries-old prophecy given by a great saint with the same name.
       Shortly before his death in the year 1226, none other than St. Francis of Assisi gathered together his spiritual children and prophesied a time of tribulation in the Church, during which a man, non-canonically elected, is raised to the pontificate, and who, by his cunning, endeavors to lead many into error. The following prophecy is taken from the book Works of the Seraphic Father St. St. Francis of Assisi, published in the year 1882:

“The time is fast approaching in which there will be great trials and afflictions; perplexities and dissensions, both spiritual and temporal, will abound; the charity of many will grow cold, and the malice of the wicked will increase. The devils will have unusual power, the immaculate purity of our Order, and of others, will be so much obscured that there will be very few Christians who will obey the true Sovereign Pontiff and the Roman Church with loyal hearts and perfect charity. At the time of this tribulation a man, not canonically elected, will be raised to the Pontificate, who, by his cunning, will endeavor to draw many into error and death. Then scandals will be multiplied … there will be such diversity of opinions and schisms among the people, the religious and the clergy, that, except those days were shortened, according to the words of the Gospel, even the elect would be led into error, were they not specially guided, amid such great confusion, by the immense mercy of God. … Those who are found faithful will receive the crown of life; … choosing to obey God rather than man, they will fear nothing, and they will prefer to perish rather than consent to falsehood and perfidy. Some preachers will keep silence about the truth, and others will trample it under foot and deny it. Sanctity of life will be held in derision even by those who outwardly profess it, for in those days Our Lord Jesus Christ will send them not a true Pastor, but a destroyer."[29]

       Notice that nowhere is it even hinted at that the “uncanonically elected” man who “is raised to the Pontificate,” who would “endeavor to draw many into error and death,” is an Antipope. On the contrary, St. Francis presents him as the legitimate Pope who was sent, no doubt as a punishment for sin and a trial for the faithful, by Jesus Christ himself.

Peaceful and Universal Acceptance of a Pope

       This brings us to the next question: Is there any way to know, with certitude, whether a man who is elected Pope is, in fact, a true and legitimate Pope? As we extensively address in our book True or False Pope?, it is the common doctrine of the Church that the peaceful and universal acceptance of a Pope provides infallible certitude of his legitimacy. It also, quite logically, provides infallible certitude that all of the necessary conditions (both positive and negative) for him being validly elected were met.
       The legitimacy of a Pope, who has been accepted as such by the Church, falls into the category of a dogmatic fact, which is a secondary object of the Church’s infallibility. Fr. Sylvester Berry explains:

“The extent of infallibility refers to the truths that may be defined by the Church with infallible authority. Some truths are directly subject to the infallible authority of the Church by their very nature [Revealed truths]; others only indirectly because of their connection with the former. The one set of truths constitutes the primary, the other the secondary extent of infallibility.” (…) This secondary or indirect extent of infallibility includes especially (a) theological conclusions, (b) truths of the natural order, (c) dogmatic facts, and (d) general disciplinary matters (…)

DOGMATIC FACTS. A dogmatic fact is one that has not been revealed, yet is so intimately connected with a doctrine of faith that without certain knowledge of the fact there can be no certain knowledge of the doctrine. For example, was the [First] Vatican Council truly ecumenical? Was Pius IX a legitimate pope? Was the election of Pius XI valid? Such questions must be decided with certainty before decrees issued by any council or pope can be accepted as infallibly true or binding on the Church. It is evident, then, that the Church must be infallible in judging of such facts, and since the Church is infallible in believing as well as in teaching, it follows that the practically unanimous consent of the bishops and faithful in accepting a council as ecumenical, or a Roman Pontiff as legitimately elected, gives absolute and infallible certainty of the fact.”[30]

       Msgr. Van Noort explains that the infallibility of dogmatic facts is qualified as “theologically certain.”[31]  He further explains that “we must hold with an absolute assent, which we call ‘ecclesiastical faith,’ the following theological truths (…) those which the ordinary magisterium dispersed throughout the world unmistakably proposes to its members as something to be held (tenendas). So, for example, one must give an absolute assent to the proposition: ‘Pius XII [the Pope at the time] is the legitimate successor of St. Peter’; (…) when someone has been constantly acting as Pope and has theoretically and practically been recognized as such by the bishops and by the universal Church, it is clear that the ordinary and universal Magisterium is giving an utterly clear-cut witness to the legitimacy of his succession."[32]
       In his 1951 book On the Value of Theological Notes and the Criteria for Discerning Them, which was drafted for use by Roman congregations under Pius XII, Fr. Sixtus Cartechini, S.J., explains that the rejection of a dogmatic fact (and the example he uses is a Pope who has been accepted as such by the Church) constitutes a “mortal sin against faith.”[33]  And it should be noted that the “universal acceptance” does not require a 100 percent mathematical unanimity, but only a practically or morally unanimous acceptance, reflecting the one mind of the Church, as noted by Fr. Berry in the above quotation.
       This teaching is one of the ways to disprove the error of the Sedevacantists who maintain that Pius XII was the last true Pope.
       The renowned twentieth century theologian, Louis Cardinal Billot, makes a number of interesting observations about this doctrine. In addition to affirming that the acceptance of a Pope by the universal Church is an infallible sign of his legitimacy, he also explains that his acceptance “heals in the root” any defects in the papal election (e.g., illegal maneuvering, conspiracies, etc.). He further says that God cannot permit the whole Church to accept a false Pope as being the true Pope. In his own words:

       “Finally, whatever you still think about the possibility or impossibility of the aforementioned hypothesis [of a Pope falling into heresy], at least one point must be considered absolutely incontrovertible and placed firmly above any doubt whatever: the adhesion of the universal Church will be always, in itself, an infallible sign of the legitimacy of a determined Pontiff, and therefore also of the existence of all the conditions required for legitimacy itself. It is not necessary to look far for the proof of this, but we find it immediately in the promise and the infallible providence of Christ: ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail against it,’ and ‘Behold I shall be with you all days.’ (…) As will become even more clear by what we shall say later, God can permit that at times a vacancy in the Apostolic See be prolonged for a long time. He can also permit that doubt arise about the legitimacy of this or that election. He cannot however permit that the whole Church accept as Pontiff him who is not so truly and legitimately. Therefore, from the moment in which the Pope is accepted by the Church and united to her as the head to the body, it is no longer permitted to raise doubts about a possible vice of election or a possible lack of any condition whatsoever necessary for legitimacy. For the aforementioned adhesion of the Church heals in the root all fault in the election and proves infallibly the existence of all the required conditions.[34]

              John of St. Thomas wrote a comprehensive treatise on this subject[35] which, to our knowledge, has never been translated into English. He concludes that the legitimacy of a Pope, who has been accepted as such by the entire Church, is equivalent to an article of faith.  He wrote:

“It is immediately of divine faith that this man in particular, lawfully elected and accepted by the Church, is the supreme pontiff and the successor of Peter, not only quoad se (in itself) but also quoad nos (for us) – although it is much more manifest to us (quoad nos) when de facto the Pope defines something. In practice, no Catholic disagrees with our conclusion. (…) Christ the Lord entrusted it to the Church to choose for herself a man who, for a certain period of time, would be the sort of rule of faith just described; and, consequently, the Church also received the commission to determine, by her own act of acceptance, that this man was canonically and legitimately elected. For, just as it pertains to the Pope and the Church to determine which books are canonical, so it pertains to the Church [not private judgment] to determine which man has been chosen to be the norm and living rule of the faith. (…) [Therefore this matter] is something that the Church can determine as a truth of faith."

       We should note that when he speaks of the Pope being the “the rule of faith,” this is true insofar as the Pope defines something to be held by the Church, not when he is giving press interviews on an airplane or even, necessarily, when writing in an encyclical.  This is explicit throughout the treatise. As we will discuss later, non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium are not owed the assent of faith, but only a “religious assent,” which itself permits of exceptions.
       John of St. Thomas then explains that the Cardinal electors represent the Church itself in proposing the man to the faithful as Pope. Consequently, their judgment represents the public judgment of the Church. If the election is peaceful, this judgment alone will suffice for the universal acceptance. If there is any defect in the election, it is remedied by the fact that the Universal Church (the bishops, priests and faithful) accepts the man as Pope, as St. Alphonsus and Billot explained above.  He wrote:

"The Church accepts the election and the elect as a matter of faith, because she receives him as the infallible rule of faith, and as the supreme head to whom she is united—for the unity of the Church depends upon her union with him. (…) the election and the one elected are proposed by the Cardinals, not in their own person, but in the person of the Church and by her power—for she it is who committed to them the power of electing the Pope and of declaring him to have been elected.  Wherefore they, in this respect and for this task, are the Church herself representatively. Thus the Cardinals, or whoever else are electors legitimately designated by the Church (that is, by the Pope), represent the Church in all that concerns the election of her head, the successor of Peter. Just as the Pope gathers the bishops together in a Council, and yet its confirmation and the ultimate sentence in matters of faith depend upon him, so the congregation of Cardinals elects the Pope, and declares that he has been elected, and yet it is the Church, whose ministers they are, that by its acceptance ultimately confirms as a truth of faith the fact that this man is truly the highest rule of faith and the supreme pontiff."

      John of St. Thomas also addresses precisely when the universal acceptance becomes sufficient to prove that the man is a legitimate Pope.  From the same treatise:

"All that remains to be determined, then, is the exact moment when the acceptance of the Church becomes sufficient to render the proposition de fide. Is it as soon as the cardinals propose the elect to the faithful who are in the immediate locality, or only when knowledge of the election has sufficiently spread through the whole world, wherever the Church is to be found?

"I REPLY that (as we have said above) the unanimous election of the cardinals and their declaration is similar to a definition given by the bishops of a Council legitimately gathered. Moreover, the acceptance of the Church is, for us, like a confirmation of this declaration. Now, the acceptance of the Church is realized both negatively, by the fact that the Church does not contradict the news of the election wherever it becomes known, and positively, by the gradual acceptance of the prelates of the Church, beginning with the place of the election, and spreading throughout the rest of the world. As soon as men see or hear that a Pope has been elected, and that the election is not contested, they are obliged to believe that that man is the Pope, and to accept him."

       Note that John of St. Thomas says the Cardinals’ election and declaration “is similar to a definition given by the bishops of a Council legitimately gathered” (the ecclesia docens), which is “confirmed” by the rest of the Church through its “acceptance” of the election (the ecclesia discens). And while, in John of St. Thomas’ time, this positive acceptance would happen gradually as the news spread throughout the Church and the word, in our information age, the news spreads world-wide almost immediately. This means that the universal acceptance (both positive and negative) would be manifest very quickly – at least within the first several days following the election.
       Hence, in the words of John of St. Thomas, if “the Church does not contradict the news of the election” when it “becomes known,” or “as soon as men” learn of it (which is immediate), this fact would provide infallible certitude that he was a legitimate Pope. It would follow that concerns and doubts arising months and years later would not call into question his legitimacy. The reason is obvious – if universal acceptance weren’t immediate, there would always be lingering doubts about whether the man elected were a true Pope.[36] And if he were a bad Pope, causing damage to the Church, certain people would simply reject him as a false Pope and go into schism. We should also note that just because a Pope has not been universally accepted by the Church does not mean he is not a true Pope.  This is confirmed by the fact that during the Great Western Schism the legitimate Pope had not been accepted as such by the entire Church.

The Conditions for a Valid Election

       John of St. Thomas also addresses issues related to the conditions for a valid election – both the conditions required for the electors, and the conditions required for the one elected. For example, the electors must be true Cardinals; they must have the intention of electing the Popes, and they must follow the laws currently in place for a valid election. There are also conditions for a person to be validly elected Pope. He must be a male and baptized (positive conditions) and he must not be insane or a public heretic (negative conditions).  John of St. Thomas explains that the infallible certitude we have that the man is Pope (which we know when he is peacefully elected and/or accepted as Pope by the entire Church as soon as it becomes known) provides infallible certitude that all of the pre-requisite conditions for his validity have been met.  He wrote:

       "The acceptance and definition of the Church [i.e., that this man is Pope], inasmuch as it gives the certitude of faith [concerning his legitimacy], does not touch upon the conditions of the election, or the intention and genuine identity of the electors, without intermediary, but rather mediately, and as a logical consequence of what it immediately touches upon: namely, that whoever is elected by the persons that the Church designates to choose a Pope in her name, by the very fact that he is accepted by the Church as legitimately elected, is in fact Pope. This latter is what the definition of Martin V[37], related above, as well as the acceptance of the Church, is really about. But from the de fide truth that this man is Pope, it follows as a consequence that all the requisite conditions must have been observed.  (…) because it is de fide that this man in particular, accepted by the Church as canonically elected, is the Pope, the theological conclusion is drawn that there were genuine electors, and a real intention of electing, as well as the other requisites [e.g., the proper intention of the resigning Pope, if the election follows a papal resignation], without which the de fide truth could not stand. Therefore, we have the certainty of faith, by a revelation implicitly contained in the Creed and in the promise made to Peter, and made more explicit in the definition of Martin V, and applied and declared in act (in exercitio) by the acceptance of the Church, that this man in particular, canonically elected according to the acceptance of the Church, is Pope."

       He then addresses the conditions for the one being elected. What he says refutes the claim of the Sedevacantists that the recent Popes were all “public heretics” prior to their election, which allegedly rendered their elections null.  He begins with the following objection: “We do not have the certitude of faith that this subject is susceptible of this dignity [i.e., that he meets the conditions]; neither, then, do we have the certitude of faith that he has, in fact, received this dignity.”  He replies as follows:

“The answer here is similar to the preceding.  Prior to the election, there is a moral certainty that all these conditions required in the person are actually met.  After the fact of the election and its acceptance, the fulfillment of these conditions is known with the certainty of a theological conclusion, since they have, per se, a logical implication with a truth that is certain, and certified by faith.  (…) the truth that is defined and accepted by the Church is not that this man is baptized or ordained, etc., but that this man is truly pope. (…)  That he is baptized and meets the other requirements [i.e., that he is not a public heretic] is inferred as a consequence; (…) the truth that this man has been ordained, and has the power of order (that is, of the priesthood or episcopate), is certain in the same way as the truth that he is baptized is certain; namely, not as a truth immediately de fide, but as a theological conclusion necessarily connected with the truth that he is the Pope and the rule of faith in the Church."

       He goes on to explain, as Cardinal Billot did above, that God will not permit a man to be elected Pope, and accepted as Pope by the Church, who does not meet the necessary conditions:

"[I]t is not merely a pious belief, but a theological conclusion (as we have stated), that God will not permit one to be elected and peacefully accepted by the Church who in fact does not meet the conditions required; this would be contrary to the special providence that God exercises over the Church and the assistance that she receives from the Holy Ghost."

       Next, he addresses the objection of those today who hold to the novel “Material/Formal Pope thesis” – that is, that the Pope has indeed been legitimately and validly elected and truly holds the office, but, due to an alleged impediment (heresy), he did not receive the jurisdiction from God to become a true Pope. John of St. Thomas refutes this novel thesis by stating the obvious:

"Nor is there a real difference between the proposition, 'This man is properly elected,' and, 'This man is Pope,' since to be accepted as the Supreme Pontiff and to be the Supreme Pontiff are the same, just as it is the same for something to be defined, and for the definition to be legitimate."

       As we saw earlier, Fr. Catechini taught that those who would reject the legitimacy of a Pope, who had been accepted as such by the Church, would be guilty of a mortal sin against the faith.  John of St. Thomas goes one step further by saying, alone with Suarez, that such a person would be a heretic.

"Whoever would deny that a particular man is Pope after he has been peacefully and canonically accepted, would not only be a schismatic, but also a heretic; for, not only would he rend the unity of the Church… but he would also add to this a perverse doctrine, by denying that the man accepted by the Church is to be regarded as the Pope and the rule of faith. Pertinent here is the teaching of St. Jerome (Commentary on Titus, chapter 3) and of St. Thomas (IIa IIae Q. 39 A. 1 ad 3), that every schism concocts some heresy for itself, in order to justify its withdrawal from the Church. Thus, although schism is distinct from heresy, in … the case at hand, whoever would deny the proposition just stated would not be a pure schismatic, but also a heretic, as Suarez also reckons."

Closing Thoughts – Recognize and Resist

      In his short reign, Francis has clearly shown himself to be a danger to the faith and perhaps even the “destroyer” prophesied by St. Francis of Assisi. Whether it is his statement that “there is no Catholic God,” that the souls of those who are not saved will be “annihilated,” or his latest, that “no one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!,” he is sowing untold confusion in the Church and in the minds of the faithful. If the Church condemned Pope Honorius as a heretic for erring on one doctrine, we can only imagine what the future holds for Francis. Considering this danger posed by Francis, what should Catholics do?
       St. Bellarmine cites divine law in explaining that heretical bishops (who he calls “false prophets”) are not to be listened to by the faithful.  Generally speaking, we are to follow and obey our legitimate leaders, but this obligation ceases when they preach errors and heresy. And it should also be noted that when Bellarmine teaches that heretical bishops are not to be listened to, he is obviously referring to those whose heretical teachings are public, for how else would the faithful be capable of knowing that they were preaching heresy? Bellarmine also notes, however, that while the faithful have the right and indeed the duty to refuse to listen to heretical prelates, they do not possess the authority to depose them, or, what amounts to the same thing, declare them deposed. He writes:

“We must point out, besides, that the faithful can certainly distinguish a true prophet from a false one, by the rule that we have laid down, but for all that, if the pastor is a bishop, they cannot depose him and put another in his place. For Our Lord and the Apostles only lay down that false prophets are not to be listened to by the people, and not that they depose them. And it is certain that the practice of the Church has always been that heretical bishops be deposed by bishop’s councils, or by the Sovereign Pontiff.”[38]

       What else is clear from the above quotation is that a heretical prelate will not lose his office unless he is judged a heretic by the Church, not simply by private judgment.
       Regarding the case of a Pope (not just any bishop) who falls into heresy, Fr. Mattheus Conte Coronata, S.T.D, said he, too, should not be listened to:

“Far be it that the Church should hear a Pontiff lapsed into heresy, She who rather is bound to stop up Her own ears against his violent speech, lest She be infected by the venom of his doctrine…”[39]

       While it is easier said than done in our day of social media and instant communication, because Francis constantly undermines the Faith by his irresponsible statements, he should not be listened to by the faithful, and his errors should be resisted. The Papal Bull of Pope Paul IV, Cum ex Apotolatus, teaches that a Pope who deviates from the Faith can indeed be resisted:

“[T]he Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God and our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.”

       Just as the good angels were justified in not blindly following their legitimate head, Lucifer, when he disobeyed God; and just as the faithful Jews were obliged to resist Caiaphas when he rejected Christ, so too are Catholics today fully justified in resisting the errors coming from Francis, and in stopping up their ears “against his violent speech, lest [they] be infected by the venom of his doctrine.” Therefore, we recognize him as the legitimate Pope, but resist his teachings that depart from Tradition – just as we have done with his recent predecessors. This is what the Popes, Fathers and Doctors teach, and what true Catholics have always done when faced with erring Popes.

[1] Hilary White, “Francis is the Pope Until the Pope Says He’s Not,” The Remnant newspaper, July 20, 2016, pp. 12-13.
[2] “One thing at any rate may be fairly clear: both John (6:63) and Paul (1 Cor. 15:50) state with all possible emphasis that ‘resurrection of the flesh,’ and the ‘resurrection of the body,’ is not a ‘resurrection of physical bodies.’ Thus, from the point of view of modern thought, the Pauline sketch is far less naïve than later theological erudition with its subtle ways of construing how there can be eternal physical bodies. To recapitulate, Paul teaches, not the resurrection of physical bodies, but the resurrection of persons, and this not in the return of the ‘fleshly body,’ that is, the biological structure, an idea he expressly describes as impossible…” Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2004) with a new Foreword by Cardinal Ratzinger dated April 2000, pp. 357-358.
[3] See: Ehe und Ehescheidung: Diskussion unter Christen, Kösel-Verlag, München, 1972, pp. 35-56.
[4] L'Osservatore Romano.
[6] Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI, St. Peter's Square, Sunday, April 24, 2005.
[7] De Romano Pontifice, ch 29.
[8] “I say firstly that the Pope can lay aside the dignity of his own will. It is defined thus, and at times it has happened which is clear from history; but there can be a controversy on whether it would be fitting for him to await the consensus of the Church, or at least the Cardinals in order that his renunciation might be valid. Certainly this question pertains more to canonists than to us, still I do not think it is necessary. For the Pontiff teaches in the above citation simply that he can freely resign…” (Suarez, De Summo Pontifice, Distinction X, no. 6, translated by Ryan Grant).
[9] “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is not required for validity that the resignation is accepted by the Cardinals or by anyone else” (Canon 221, 1917 code).  We find the same teaching in the 1983 code cited below.
[10] “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone” (Can. 332 §2, 1983 Code).
[11] In a Slate News article dated February 22, 2013, we read: “Unsourced reports coming out of Italy suggest that the pope decided to call it quits not because of his old age but instead to avoid the fallout that could come from a secret 300-page dossier compiled by three cardinals he tapped to look into last year's leak of confidential papers stolen from his desk.” (Josh Voorhees, “Italian Media Tell Story of ‘Underground Gay Network’ at the Vatican”).
[12] “When a bank or territory is excluded from the system, as it did in the case of the Vatican in the days before the resignation of Benedict XVI in February 2013, all transactions are blocked. Without waiting for the election of Pope Bergoglio, the Swift system has been unlocked [upon] the announcement of the resignation of Benedict XVI.   ‘There was a blackmail come from who knows where, through SWIFT, exercised on Benedict XVI. …This explains and justifies the unprecedented resignation of Ratzinger” (, Sept. 30, 2015).
[13] Canon 185 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law provides: “Resignation is invalid by law if it was made out of grave fear unjustly inflicted, fraud, substantial error, or simony.”  Canon 188 of the 1983 provides the same: “A resignation made out of grave fear that is inflicted unjustly or out of malice, substantial error, or simony is invalid by the law itself.” Note that any of these canonical elements would have to be established by the Church in the ecclesiastical forum.
[14] “a valid abdication of the Pope must be a free act, hence a forced resignation of the papacy would be null and void, as more than one ecclesiastical decree has declared” (Original Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, 1907, p. 32).
[16] /2013/february/documents /hf_ben-xvi_spe_20130211_declaratio.html.
[17] Benedict, “Last Testament: In His Own Words: Benedict XVI”
[18] “Benedict Rejects Rumors On Why He Resigned As ‘Simply Absurd.’” Washington Post, David Gibson, February 26, 2014.
[19] Positive, probable doubt might exist, for example, if Benedict had made inconsistent statements regarding whether his act of resignation was truly free (i.e., statements that the act was both free and coerced), or even if a credible witness testified under oath that the act was coerced. In the absence of such evidence, and in light of Benedict’s multiple, public statements affirming the freedom of the act and denouncing the contrary, arguments challenging the validity of the resignation are mere speculation only. In this case, we are not dealing with evidence on both sides of the argument that is so equally balanced as to render a decision impossible.
[20] Fr. Austin Fagothey, S.J., Right and Reason, Second Edition (Tan Books and Publishers, Rockford, IL, 2000) p. 216
[21] Letter against Jovinian, cited in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, p 102.
[22] De Comparatione Cuctoritatis Papae et Conciliin, by Cardinal Cajetan, ch. XXI translated by Burns I Izbicki, included in Conciliarism & Papalism, (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY 1997) p. 91
[23] Liguori, Verita’ della Fede, in “Opera de S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori, Marietti” (Torino, 1887), vol. VIII., p. 720, n. 9.
[24] “Benedict Rejects Rumors On Why He Resigned As ‘Simply Absurd’.”, Washington Post, David Gibson, February 26, 2014
[25] Some who have declared Francis an antipope due to Benedict’s defect of intention have referred to canon 188 (1983 Code) which provides: “A resignation made out of grave fear that is inflicted unjustly or out of malice, substantial error or simony is invalid by the law itself.” However, “substantial error” is a canonical element that must be factually established by the Church – the legitimate trier of fact, and binding interpreter of her own laws - in order for an ecclesiastical resignation to be held invalid. The canonical element is certainly not “established” by any Catholic in the street.
[26] For more information, see Robert Siscoe, “A Bishop Dressed in White,” The Remnant newspaper, March 2013; John Salza, “Who is the ‘Bishop Dressed in White?,’” Catholic Family News, January 2015.
[27] “The Cardinal electors shall further abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind which could oblige them to give or deny their vote to a person or persons. If this were in fact done, even under oath I decree that such a commitment shall be null and void and that no one shall be bound to observe it, and I hereby impose the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae upon those who violate this prohibition.” John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, No. 81, February 22, 1996.
[28] Liguori, Verita della Fede, in “Opera de S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori, Marietti” (Torino, 1887), vol. VIII., p. 720, n. 9.
[29] Works of the Seraphic Father St. Francis Of Assisi, (R. Washbourne, Paternoster Row, London, 1882) pp. 248-250.

[30] The Church of Christ, pp. 288, 289, 290.
[31] “Assertion 2: The Church’s infallibility extends to dogmatic facts. This proposition is theologically certain.” (Christ’s Church, p. 112)
[32] Van Noort, Sources of Revelation, p. 265.
[34] Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, vol. I, pp. 612-613 (emphasis added).
[35] Cursus Theologicus, Tome 6, Q 1-7 On Faith, Disputation. 8.
[36] The dogmatic reason why this is not possible is because the First Vatican Council teaches that the Church will always have “perpetual successors” to St. Peter.
[37] “Martin V, in the Council of Constance, in the condemnation of the errors of Wyclif … in the interrogations that are to be made of those whose faith is suspect, to see whether they rightly believe, puts this question.  Also, whether he believes that the Pope canonically elected, who is reigning at the time (his proper name being given), is the successor of Blessed Peter, having supreme authority in the Church of God?  These words do not speak of the truth of that proposition understood in a general sense—namely, that whoever is lawfully elected is the Supreme Pontiff—but in the particular, concerning whoever is pope at the time, giving his proper name, for instance, Innocent X [the Pope at the time].  It is of this man, whose proper name is given, that the pope is bidding the person suspect in faith to be asked, whether he believes that such a person is the successor of Peter and the Supreme Pontiff: therefore this [whether he is a true Pope] pertains to the act of faith—not to an inference or a moral certitude; for neither of the latter two is a matter of faith.” (Corpus, n. 13)
[38] De Membris Ecclesiae, bk. I, De Clerics, ch. 7 (Opera Omnia; Paris: Vivès, 1870), pp. 428-429 (emphasis added).
[39] Ecclesia Sancta A Potestate Et Dignitate, S.R.E. Cardinalium, Legatorum Apostolicorum, &C, (1677) R. P. Matthiae a Corona Leod. Carm. S. Th. Doctr. Paris, tract I, caput XXI, p. 80. Translated by Brother Alexis Bugnolo.