The Five Opinions of Bellarmine Concerning an Heretical Pope

The Five Opinions of Bellarmine Concerning an Heretical Pope

Robert Siscoe

In this multi-part article, we will examine the Five Opinions discussed by Bellarmine in De Romano Pontifice concerning an heretical Pope, and if or how he can be deposed  This series will examine each of the opinions in depth, and include recently translated material from Bellarmine – some of which has been published and some that has not – which clarifies his own position on both the speculative level (i.e., what is required for an heretical Pope to be ipso facto deposed), and the practical level, as far as the laity are concerned, and proves how egregiously the Sedevacantists have misrepresented his position.  

What will become evident is that Bellarmine’s opinion in no way supports Sedevacantism.  On the contrary, if the Doctor of the Church were alive today, he would be the first to condemn it.  In De Romano Pontifice, Bellarmine observes that all heretics “oppose the See of the Roman Pontiff with their whole strength," and adds that "there have never been any enemies of Christ and also his Church, who did not wage war together with this seat.”  He explains that, as Christ was for the Jews, so the Papacy is “the Stone of offense, and the rock of scandal” for heretics.  He further explains that heretics labor in vain by pointing to the scandals of the evil Popes which, he admits, obscures the glory of the Papacy, since the very reason God permits such evils is so men will not be under the illusion that Papacy is preserved by the goodness of the men who hold the office, but by the power of God Himself who preserves it in spite of them. Considered in this light, while the glory of the papacy is diminished by the scandals of evil popes in one sense, in another it is "more forcefully increased and magnified by the same,” says Bellarmine, since it proves that it is not sustained by "human council, prudence, or strength," but by "a unique providence of God", who fortifies and protects it "so that the gates of hell should not be able to prevail against it”. 

Unfortunately, during times when God does permit scandalous popes, some Catholics end by losing the faith and leave the Church - either for no religion, for an existing sect or religion, or by forming a new heretical sect.  The latter is the case with Sedevacantism, which is a new heresy that arose as a result of the scandals of the recent Popes, and the erroneous belief that a Pope or bishop who fall into heresy is ipso facto deposed - even if they remain in peaceful possession of their see and are recognized as holding office by the remainder of the episcopate.  In the end, this error has led them to conclude that the entire episcopate has defected and fallen vacant, and that the gates of hell prevailed against the visible Church founded by Christ.  It is a perfect example of how a small error in the beginning results in a big error – or in this case a monstrous heresy – in the end. And the main authority they use to justify their "small error in the beginning" is Bellarmine - specifically what he wrote in his commentary on the Five Opinions. What will be evident by the end of this series, is that they have entirely misunderstood and misrepresented Bellarmine's opinion concerning the loss of office for heretical Popes or bishops.

The Two Difficulties

Before we get started, it is important to understand the two difficulties that are at the root of the various opinions. 1) how can the Church judge a pope when “the first see is judged by no one,” and 2) how can it depose a pope without exercising authority or coercive power over him? These are the two difficulties the theologians have to explain. The attempt to resolve them is what gave rise to the differing theological opinions, which in reality are nothing but ways of explaining, theologically, how the Church can judge and depose a Pope without truly judging and deposing a Pope – that is, without exercising any coercive power or authority over a Pope.  When the theologians speak of "deposing" the Pope, it must be understood in an improper sense, as Cardinal Journet observes (Church of the Word Incarnate, cap. viii, exc. ix).

We should also note that during the 14th and 15th centuries, many theologians (e.g., Azorius, Gerson, and Almain) believed a council was superior to a Pope, and therefore could authoritatively judge and depose a Pope if he fell into heresy. This movement was known as Conciliarism.  It was a widely accepted opinion at the time, but it has since been formally condemned by the Church and can no longer be held.  Contrary to what some people have imagined, none of the five opinions that Bellarmine comments on were held by Conciliarists, and none of them fall into the error of Conciliarism. 

Neither do any of the opinions contradict anything defined by Vatican I, as the Sedevacantists claim.  This is one of the many false arguments used by the apologists of Sedevacantism – such as Mario Derksen of Novus Ordo Watch – as a means of dismissing the teaching of any theologian that directly refutes their arguments.  When confronted with the teaching of these theologians, they simply claim “that opinion can no longer be held after Vatican I” without demonstrating how or why (because they can’t demonstrate how or why).   Indeed, misrepresenting Vatican I - especially its teaching on Papal Infallibility, the unfailing faith of St. Peter, and its condemnation of Gallicanism – is one of the primary tactics used by the apologists for the Sedevacantist heresy.  This too will be discussed in this series of articles.   

We will begin with an overview of the Five Opinions.

Summary of the Five Opinions

The Five Opinions Bellarmine addresses can be summarized as follows:

1)      The First Opinion is that a Pope cannot fall into formal heresy in the first place, and therefore the questions related to if or how he can be removed from office are irrelevant.  Bellarmine qualifies this opinion as probable, but admits that it is not certain, and that the common opinion is the contrary.

2)      The Second Opinion is that a Pope who falls into formal heresy (and loses the faith) is ipso facto deposed by Divine Law, and then judged and deposed de facto by the Church. 

Two Difficulties: This opinion attempts to avoid both difficulties by stating that the “Pope” being judged and deposed is no longer the pope, but a former pope.   Therefore, the Church isn’t judging or deposing a pope.  While this opinion seems like a simple solution for the two difficulties, in reality it is theologically and canonically problematic and contains numerous logical inconsistencies.  This opinion was entirely abandoned before the Sedevacantist revived it to support their heresy.  Most Sedevacantists think they hold the 5th Opinion, but in reality they don’t.  They hold a slightly modified version of this opinion, which Bellarmine himself rejects. He does so by noting that just as God does not make a man Pope without the cooperation of men (i.e., the Cardinal electors), neither does He remove a Pope without the cooperation of men (i.e., the judgment of men). 

3)      The Third Opinion maintains that if a Pope falls into heresy – even public and notorious heresy – the Church is stuck with him, since “the first see is judged by no one.”  While this is a minority opinion, if it is true that a Pope is entirely immune from all human judgment, this would be the only logical opinion of the last four (that is, of those opinions that concern the case of a Pope who does fall into heresy).  Bellarmine disagrees with this opinion and refutes it by stating that heresy is the one case in which an inferior can judge a superior, and therefore the one case in which the Church can judge a Pope (more on “judging” the Pope later).

4)      The Fourth Opinion is that a Pope who falls into heresy must be warned two or three times and given an opportunity to recant.  If he fails to so, the Church declares his heresy and then indirectly deposes him.  It is important to note that the Pope is not deposed ipso facto when his heresy is declared, which is how some recent authors have understood this opinion (and why some have included Suarez as holding it).  According to this opinion, the Pope does not fall from the Pontificate until the Church indirectly deposes him by declaring him vitandus (“to be avoided”) – which legally obliges all Catholics to avoid him.  This declaration has the direct effect of legally separating the members of the Church from the Pope, and the indirect effect of rendering him incapable of exercising the pontificate (a pope can’t govern the faithful if they are legally obliged to avoid him). Those who defend this opinion justify the legal separation (vitandus declaration) by appealing to divine law – Scripture – which states that a man who is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, is to be avoided (Titus 3:10). 

Two Difficulties: How does this opinion avoid the two difficulties? 1) By maintaining that the Church does not truly judge the Pope (i.e., with a coercive judgment), but merely determines if he is a heretic using the means Scripture itself has given us – that is, by warning him that the doctrine he holds is heretical, and giving him an opportunity to correct his position. 2) The second difficulty is avoided by noting that Church does not authoritatively or directly depose him, but only does so indirectly by the vitandus declaration, which renders him incapable of exercising the office. The moment the Church is legally separated from the Pope, Christ Himself authoritatively deposes him by severing the bond that unites the man (matter) to the Pontificate (form).  Only then can the Church “judges and punish” the former pope.

5)      The Fifth Opinion maintains that if a Pope becomes a “manifest heretic”, he is ipso facto deposed. This is the opinion Bellarmine holds, and the one Sedevacantists mistakenly believe supports their position. Nothing could be further from the truth.  As noted above, the Sedevacantists hold a version of the 2nd Opinion, not this one. Contrary to what the Sedevacantists imagine, in almost all cases this opinion does not eliminate the need for the Church to render a judgment before the Pope is ipso facto deposed.  If he were to openly separate himself from the visible Church of his own will (i.e., publicly joined the Baptist Church), he would lose the pontificate without an antecedent judgment.  But if he remains visibly in office, as all the recent popes have, he would not be ipso facto deposed until the proper authorities – the bishops at a council – had convicted him of heresy and declared him to be separated from the Church. Only then would he cease to be Pope - at least as far as the faithful are concerned (quoad nos), if not quoad se; and as long as he remains pope quoad nos, he retains the pontificate and his acts of jurisdiction remain valid (unless, of course, they are unjust).

Two Difficulties: How does this avoid the two difficulties? As with the Fourth Opinion, the Church does not truly judge the pope (with a coercive judgment), but only determines if he is a heretic. The second difficulty is avoided by maintaining that the Church does not “depose” him in any way, neither directly nor indirectly, but that he is instead ipso facto deposed the moment he separates himself from the Church (if he openly leaves the Church), or the moment the bishops determine and declare that he has separated himself from the Church (if he had remained visibly in office).

One key difference between this opinion and the fourth, is that Christ does not authoritatively separate the Pope from the Pontificate because the Church has legally separated from him (i.e., by the vitandus declaration, 4th Opinion), but because the Pope has legally separated himself from the Church (by leaving it, or by being legitimately declared separated from it by the Bishops).  But the key point to remember about this opinion is that as long as the pope (or any other bishop) remains in visibly in office, and in peaceful possession of his see, he is never ipso facto deposed until the Church intervenes and renders a legitimate judgment.   Bellarmine says this explicitly in a quotations we will provide later.

That is a brief explanation of the Five Opinions.  We will now examine each one in depth, and see how the Sedevacantists have entirely misrepresented Bellarmine’s opinion, and ended by believing the gates of hell have prevailed against the visible Church.  This is a perfect example of how a small error in the beginning results in a big error – or in this case a monstrous heresy – in the end.

To be continued: Part II