John of Torquemada on Resisting an Erring Pope

 John of Torquemada, Summa de Ecclesia, Book 2, Ch. 49.

In which are presented objections against what has been said about the obedience that is due to the Roman pontiff, with replies to the same.

"Against what we have said – namely, that all the Christian faithful, of whatever rank or condition they may be, must obey the Roman pontiff – our adversaries raise the following objections.

1.     "First: whoever is bound to obey another, must perforce consider the will of the one commanding as the rule of his own activity.  But only the will of God, which is always upright, is the rule of human activity.  Therefore no one is bound to obey anyone except God.

2.     "Second: the Pope can err and be wrong, according to the canon Si Papa, distinction 40.  Hence it does not seem that all should obey him, but rather they should only obey one who is unable to err and be wrong.

3.   "Third: just as the Old Law was a figure of the New Law, so the old priesthood was a figure of the evangelical priesthood; but the old priesthood was inferior to the kingship in dignity, in such wise that the priests were subject to the kings, and not conversely.  As a sign of this in Exodus 19 it is said to the priests that they are a “priestly kingdom,” which indicates that the royal power was greater, and the priestly power lesser.  Therefore it seems that Christian kings are not bound to obey the supreme pontiff, who is called the high priest.

4.  "Fourth: it seems that we must obey lesser prelates before the pope; for an immediate power has a stronger influx than a mediate power; but a lesser power is more immediate than a superior power.  Wherefore it seems that we must obey the lesser power before the greater, and thus a bishop or abbot before the pope.

"Notwithstanding these objections, it must be said that, as was said in the previous chapter, all Christians of whatever condition or rank they may be are bound to obey the supreme pontiff, and, in those things in which they are bound to obey, they must obey him in preference to any other human power.  This is clear from what has been said above, and it will become still clearer from the responses that we shall give to the objections.

"We therefore give the following responses:

1.    "We disagree with the minor premise of the first objection, namely, that the divine will alone is a rule of human activity.  We agree that the divine will is, indeed, the first rule by which all human wills are regulated, but there are also secondary rules, just as there are secondary causes moving their inferiors; and in this way the will of one man commanding can be a kind of secondary rule for the will of him who obeys.  Hence the Apostle says in the last chapter of Hebrews, “Obey your prelates and be subject to them,” for the Lord says of them, “He who hears you, hears me.”  But just as there is a hierarchy among secondary efficient causes, so also among these secondary rules there is inequality inasmuch as one rule is nearer to the first rule than another, according to the order divinely established.   The will of the supreme pontiff is of this sort, since he is the principal vicar and the ruler of all the faithful; wherefore all must obey him as the supreme rule after God.

2.  "The second objection is of unsound logic.  The fact that the pope can sometimes err and command things that are not to be done, means only that he should not be obeyed absolutely in everything; but it would be wrong to infer from this that even when he does command well all are not required to obey him.[1]   But to know in which things to obey him and in which things not – for it is not always evil to disobey one’s prelate, as Augustine says, and as appears in the chapter Non semper, 11, q. 3 – we must note that according to St. Thomas, 2-2 q. 104 a. 5, there are two cases in which a subject is not bound to obey his superior.  

a.       The first is due to the command of a higher power.  Hence Augustine says (as appears in the chapter Qui resistit, 11, q. 3, and in the gloss on Romans, chapter 13), commenting on the line, “He who resists the power, resists the ordinance of God”: “But if he should command something that it is wrong to do, then in this case you must certainly disregard his power.  Look at the hierarchy of human laws: if the curator commands something, but the proconsul commands the opposite, you do not show any disrespect to authority, but you rather choose to obey the greater; nor should the lesser power grow indignant if the greater power is preferred.  Therefore if the emperor commands one thing, and God the other, what will you do?  God is the greater power.  Disregarding the emperor, you must obey God.”   The same appears in the chapter Si Deus jubet, and also in the chapter Julianus.  Moreover this same point is found in Acts 5: “It is necessary to obey God before men.”   Hence, were the pope to command something contrary to sacred scripture, the articles of faith, the truth of the saints or the precepts of natural or divine law, he must not be obeyed, but rather he must be despised when he commands such things.[2]  Hence Isidore says (and it is had in the chapter Si quis, 11, q. 3), “If anyone should forbid us to do what is commanded by the Lord, or again should command us to do what the Lord forbids to be done, let him be held in contempt by all who love God.”  The same appears in the following chapter, Is qui praeest: “If he asks or commands anything of you that is against the will of God or against what is evidently commanded in sacred scripture, let him be treated like a false witness or one guilty of sacrilege.”

b.      The other case in which one is not obliged to obey one’s superior, is if he commands something in a matter in which his inferior is not subject to him.  For Seneca says in De Beneficiis, book 3: “One would be mistaken to think that servitude extends to the whole man, for it does not concern his better part; the body is liable to be subject to another’s rule, but the mind remains sui juris.”  Hence one man is not bound to obey another in those things that pertain to the interior movement of the will; such obedience is due to God alone.  He is, however, obliged to obey his superior in what must be done exteriorly through the body – although in what pertains to the very nature of the body one man must not obey another, but only God; for all men are equal in what regards their nature, for instance in what concerns the sustenance of their bodies and the begetting of offspring; wherefore servants are not obliged to obey their masters, nor children their parents, in deciding to enter into matrimony or to preserve their virginity, or in other matters of this sort; but in what regards the ordering of activity and of human affairs the subject is bound to obey his superior in those things over which he has authority, as a soldier must obey the leader of the army in whatever pertains to war, or a servant must obey his lord in what concerns his tasks as a servant, or a son must obey his father in all that affects household discipline and domestic affairs.  In like manner, all Christians must obey the pope in those things that concern the Christian religion, pertain to his office, and are in accord with divine and natural law.[3]

3.    "To the third objection I respond that one cannot draw a comparison between the priesthood of the old law, and that of the new. (...) (Jean de Torquemada, Summa de ecclesia, Lib II, cap 49, p. 162-163)

“Just as the Pope can become a heretic, so also is he able to do so with the sin of obstinacy. Thus Pope Innocent states, in De Consuetudine,[4] that it is necessary to obey a Pope in all things as long as he does not go against the universal customs of the Church, but should he go against the universal customs of the Church, he need not be followed (Jean de Torquemada, Summa de ecclesia, Lib VI, Pt. I, Cap xi, p. 552)


[1] Licet ex hoc quod papa possit aliquando errare, et praecipere non facienda, bene sequatur quod ei in omnibus simpliciter obediendum non sit, non tamen ex hoc arguitur aut sequitur quod cum bene praecipit, non sit ei ab omnibus obediendum.

[2] Ubi ergo papa juberet aliquid contrarium sacrae scripturae sive articulis fidei aut veritati sanctorum aut mandatis juris naturalis sive divini, ei obediendum non esset, sed talia praecipiens despiciendus est.

[3] Sed in his quae pertinent ad dispositionem actuum et rerum humanarum, tenetur subditus suo superiori obedire secundum rationem superioritatis...omnes vero Christiani papae in his quae ad religionem Christianam et ad cathedram pertinent consona juri divino et naturali.

[4] Innocent IV: “Tamen si papa talia faceret sine causa magna et aliis nota, non debet sustineri, tanquam faciens contra generalem statum Ecclesiae. … Hoc autem dicunt papam posse per illud privilegium ei divinitus datum: «Quodcumque ligaveris super terram etc.» Quod sic intelligitur: Quodcum que ligaveris per constitutiones vel praecepta. Ei enim in omnibus obediendum est in spiritualibus, et in his quae ad animam spectant, nisi contra fidem vel his specialiter prohibita sint.” (Innocent IV , De Consuetudine p 22).