July 2017 Print

The Question of Papal Heresy

by Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, SSPX

Editor’s Note: The following is an abridgement of Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize’s study of a highly sensitive theological question concerning the papacy and heresy. It appeared originally in the January 2017 issue of Courrier de Rome.

Introduction to the Problem

In Autumn of 2014, then again in October 2015, Pope Francis convened two Synods in Rome to consult with bishops from all over the world on questions concerning “the human family.” The outcome was, on March 19, 2016, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia on “Love in the Family.” Its eighth chapter opens the door to a practical denial of the Church’s traditional discipline concerning the sacrament of marriage, and consequently calls into question also the dogmatic presuppositions underlying it.

On September 15, 2016, the four Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller, Caffarra, and Meisner sent to the Supreme Pontiff a private letter in which they respectfully asked him to clarify the recent Apostolic Exhortation on five disputed points, using the traditional procedure of “dubia” [“doubts”], in other words, by formulating five questions calling for a clear yes or no answer. The explicit intention of this step was to verify whether the text of the Exhortation at the points indicated could be considered in conformity with the moral teaching of the Church to date.

Since Pope Francis gave no response, the five dubia were made public on November 16. To date, the Holy See still has not provided the expected response.

Giving an account of this silence, during an interview published on LifeSiteNews on December 19, Cardinal Burke declared that there must be a response to the dubia: “...because they have to do with the very foundations of the moral life and of the Church’s constant teaching with regard to good and evil, with regard to various sacral realities like marriage and Holy Communion and so forth.”

For his part, when questioned by Andrea Tornielli in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Cardinal Brandmüller declared on December 27: “We cardinals are waiting for the answers to the dubia, inasmuch as a lack of a response could be seen by broad sectors of the Church as a refusal to adhere clearly and distinctly to defined doctrine.”

Many reflections are coming to light in the wake of the cardinalatial initiative. Just how far will this fraternal correction go? Above all, what would be the consequences thereof, in the event that Francis refused to take them into account?

For John Lamont, the Pope’s response is still awaited, but one can from now on assert that Francis is teaching heresy. This is why, in the event that the correction proved ineffective, the theological opinion inherited from St. Robert Bellarmine envisaging the dethronement of a pope who had fallen into heresy could very well be the solution. All the more so because, in an interview granted to Catholic World Report on December 19, 2016, Cardinal Burke, while careful not to say that Francis is a heretic, presents this hypothesis of Bellarmine as a solid conclusion and does not rule out the possibility that the College of Cardinals might be led to draw this conclusion in view of the facts.

The question about a heretical pope, which is discussed relatively little in the (Scholastic) manuals of theology, nevertheless attracted the attention of some major authors.3 In any case it provides material for a debate, which to this day has never really been taken to its ultimate conclusions.

The important thing is to go back to the principles that always remain the same, through all contingencies, even if the application thereof might momentarily cause difficulties. And so it is necessary to ask three questions:

Is it possible for the Pope to fall into heresy?; 
Can the presently reigning Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Francis, be considered heretical, precisely because of what he teaches in Chapter Eight of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia?; and 
Does a pope who has fallen into heresy lose the pontificate?


Can the Pope Fall into Heresy?

At first glance it would seem that this is an improbable thesis. In fact, the negative answer to this question is the common opinion of theologians of the modern era. They say, in effect, that the pope could not become a formal, obstinate heretic, in other words a deliberate, culpable heretic, although he could become a material heretic, through non-culpable ignorance or because of a simple error and not by reason of ill will. The main advocates of this thesis are the Dutch theologian Albert Pighi (1490-1542) (author of the treatise Hierarchiae ecclesiasticae assertio, which examines this question), St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) (De Romano Pontifice, Book 4, chapters 6-14), and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) (De fide, disputatio 10, sectio 6, §11, Opera omnia, 2:319). Just before Vatican Council I, this opinion was held also by the French canonist Marie-Dominique Bouix (1808-1870).

During that Council, Bishop Zinelli, speaking in the name of the Deputation of the Faith, praises this opinion of Bellarmine and Suarez: according to him it is probable that the pope will never be a formal heretic: “Since these things have been entrusted to supernatural Providence, we think it sufficiently probable that they will never come about” (Mansi, vol. 52, col. 1109).

In the wake of the Council, Cardinal Billot (1846-1931) reiterated the same opinion in L’Église, II–Sa constitution intime, question 14, thesis 29, part 2, nos. 940-949. Fr. Dublanchy too adopted it after him in “Infaillibilité du pape,” Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 8/2:1716-1717.

Finally, during the reign of Pius XII, the classic manual by Father Salaverri, De Ecclesia Christi, thesis 14, §657, mentions this question about the personal heresy of a pope as a matter for theological debate and presents as probable the opinion of Bellarmine and Suarez that was praised by Bishop Zinelli.

The Twofold Argument

 The argument of this explanation is twofold, and it remains invariable in the writings of all the authors who adopt this position. First there is a theoretical argument that is presented as a matter of convenience: the infallibility of the office promised in Luke 22:32 would make personal indefectibility in the faith morally necessary. Indeed, St. Robert Bellarmine remarks in De Romano Pontifice, Book V, chapter 6 that the order established by God absolutely requires that the private person of the Supreme Pontiff not be able to fall into heresy, not even by losing his faith in a purely internal way.

For the pope must not and cannot preach heresy; not only that, but he must also teach the truth always, and there is no doubt that he will always do so, since the Lord commanded him to strengthen his brethren. But how can a heretical pope strengthen his brethren in the faith, how will he always preach the true faith? No doubt, God is still capable of extracting the profession of the true faith from the heart of a heretic, just as he once made Balaam’s ass speak. But there would be violence in that, and not an action in keeping with divine providence, which arranges all things smoothly.”

There is also a second factual argument, following from the first, which logically leads all the advocates of the theory to prove that never in all the history of the Church has any pope been formally heretical (see ibid., chapters 7-14).

The Premodern Opinion

 Nevertheless, the theologians of the modern era are latecomers. And one might object that even before them, from the 12th-16th centuries, theologians commonly thought that the pope can fall into heresy. We encounter this idea in the 12th century in Gratian’s Decretum, specifically Book 1, distinction 40, chapter 6 entitled Si papa. Gratian says that the pope cannot be judged by anyone else, except in the case in which he strayed from the faith. This statement is attributed to St. Boniface, Archbishop of Milan, and it is cited under his name, before Gratian, by Cardinal Deusdedit and Yves de Chartres. It is the text that will serve as a basis for all the reflections of the medieval canonists and will henceforth support a common opinion: “The canonists of the 12th and 13th centuries,” Fr. Dublanchy says, “...know the passage from Gratian and comment on it. All admit without difficulty that the pope can fall into heresy, as into any other serious sin; their only concern is to investigate how and in what conditions he can in this case be judged by the Church” (Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, col. 1715). 

Cajetan again supports this thesis. Albert Pighi in the 16th century would be the first to break with a theological and canonical tradition that had been unanimous until then. But even in the modern era, the new opinion introduced by Pighi would not be absolutely unanimous. In fact, Pighi was rather quickly refuted by Melchior Cano (1509-1560) (De locis theologicis, Book 6, chapter 8, §§21-23) and Domenico Bañez (1528-1604) (Commentary on II-II, q. 1, art. 10, folios 183-212 of the 1587 Venice edition). The Dominican Charles-René Billuart (1685-1757) shares the same opinion with these two theologians in his De fide, dissertatio 5, art. 3, §3, objectio 2; De regulis fidei, dissertatio 4, art. 8, §2, objectiones 2 et 6 and De incarnatione, dissertatio 9, art. 2, §2, objectio 2.

Finally, in the aftermath of the Vatican Council, Father Palmieri defends this thesis in Tractatus de romano pontifice, thesis 32, scholion, pp. 630-633. 

Lessons from History and Today

Consider also that the facts of history are undeniable. There have been in the Church one or two popes who favored heresy, and there are today, since Vatican II, popes who have caused serious problems for the conscience of Catholics, who are rightly perplexed. For instance, Pope Honorius I (625-640) was anathematized by his successors, Sts. Agatho (678-681) and Leo II (682-684) during the Third Council of Constantinople in 681 for having favored the Monothelite heresy. (For more detailed information, see the article “Une crise sans précédents?” that appeared in the journal of the Institute Universitaire saint Pie X, Vu de haut 14 (Automne 2008), pp. 78-95.)

On the other hand, it is clear that since Vatican II, Popes Paul VI, John Paul II. and Benedict XVI have taught—and Pope Francis still teaches—theological opinions that would be difficult to reconcile with the substance of Catholic dogma. But in both cases, the import is essentially the same. And these facts have been noted by persons whose judgment has a certain moral authority, although it lacks juridical authority.

Consider the words of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, delivered in his sermon at the June 30, 1988 episcopal consecrations at Ecône.

“Indeed, since the Council, what we [the popes before 1962] condemned in the past the present Roman authorities have embraced and are professing. How is it possible? We have condemned them: Liberalism, Communism., Socialism, Modernism, Sillonism. All the errors which we have condemned are now professed, adopted and supported by the authorities of the Church. Is it possible?”

Recent events, no doubt, are more serious than situations in the past. Here again is the Archbishop, this time from his March 30, 1986 Easter sermon:

“We find ourselves facing a serious, extremely serious dilemma that I think has never existed in the Church: the fact that the man seated on the chair of Peter participates in the worship of false gods. I do not think that this has ever happened in the history of the Church”  

And, finally, attention must also be paid to the comments Bishop de Castro-Mayer made to Archbishop Lefebvre in a letter dated December 8, 1969: 

“This is a very serious matter. We are on the way to a new Church. Rome is the one driving souls into heresy. It seems to me that we cannot accept all the documents of Vatican II. There are some that cannot be interpreted according to Trent and Vatican I. What do you think?”

All this leads us to think, no more no less, that the first opinion that regards as improbable the fall of a pope into heresy is itself improbable. In other words, the arguments from theological authority along the lines of a negative answer to the question posed are insufficient to win adherence. It must still be shown, therefore, how right reason, enlightened by faith, could justify an affirmative answer.”

Is Pope Francis Heretical?

Identifying Heresy

Calling one’s adversary “heretical” could be polite in a certain ecclesial context that is now past. More precisely, men of the Church too, whether or not they were theologians, had their repertoire of insults. Invective is found in all times and in all professions. We already find considerable traces of it in the Gospel, even on the lips of the Incarnate Word. One may regret that it has become rare, since the last Council, and deplore the kid gloves and sugar coatings that prevail now in inter-confessional dialogues.

The use of insults ought to remain legitimate, provided that no mistake is made about its significance, which will always be limited. Very often, it falls short of its original value and is no more than the last resort of those who have lost all their arguments and just want to avoid losing face. And we are not talking about demonization, which is a form of manipulation on a grand scale. In short, we may be in the middle of rhetoric here and, if you will, outside of the field of theology, properly speaking. Rhetoric may possibly serve as a support to theology, and that is precisely the basis of its legitimacy, but it could never replace it, much less mask the absence thereof.

“Heretical” Demands Contradiction to Defined Truth

It is different with the doctrinal censure “heretical”: the latter is a technical expression, part of the terminology to which specialists resort in order to give as precise an evaluation as possible. The designation “heretical” corresponds to this precise language that the theologian uses; in this sense it applies to a person whose acts and words sufficiently manifest a rejection or a questioning of the revealed truth that is proposed by the infallible Magisterium of the Church. It applies also, consequently, or by extension of its meaning, to a proposition which demonstrably contradicts dogma.

Applying this type of designation to a person or to a proposition therefore implies that one has previously verified the rejection or contradiction in question. What matters is not only whether or not there is a rejection or a contradiction. What also matters is verifying whether this rejection or contradiction has any precise bearing on a dogma, in other words, on a truth that is not only revealed but also proposed as such by an infallible act of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. That spells out the whole complexity of the matter that is hidden behind the word.

The Case of Pope Francis

The question that we are asking ourselves here is extremely precise: Does Pope Francis deserve this designation in the eyes of simple theology, as any member of the teaching Church can practice it by reason of his real, acknowledged competencies? And does he deserve it because of what he affirms in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia? Forty-five theologians thought that they were obliged to affirm it. Four cardinals give us to understand clearly enough that, unless he gives a satisfactory response to their dubia, the Supreme Pontiff could deserve the assignment of such a censure.

What can we say? Let us simply take a look at the five dubia presented by the four cardinals and also at the corresponding passages from Amoris laetitia whose meaning is in doubt. In order to be brief, and in order to be as clear as possible, we will formulate the essential idea of each dubium.

The First Dubium 

The first dubium poses the question concerning paragraphs 300-305 of Amoris laetitia: is it possible to give absolution and sacramental Communion to divorced-and-remarried persons who live in adultery without repenting? For someone who adheres to Catholic doctrine, the answer is no. What exactly does Amoris laetitia say? The following passage from par. 305 says this:

“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

(A footnote reads: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 44). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47)).

The doubt arises here with the note. There is no doubt about the fact that non-culpable ignorance of sin excuses from sin. But to those who are victims of this ignorance and thereby benefit from this excuse, the Church offers first the help of her preaching and warnings, the Church starts by putting an end to the ignorance by opening the eyes of the ignorant to the reality of their sin. The help of the sacraments can only come afterward, if and only if the formerly ignorant persons, now instructed as to the seriousness of their state, have decided to make use of the means of conversion, and if they have what is called a firm purpose of amendment. Otherwise the help of the sacraments would be ineffective, and it too would be an objective situation of sin.

We are dealing here therefore with a doubt (dubium) in the strictest sense of the term, in other words, a passage that can be interpreted in two ways. And this doubt arises precisely thanks to the indefinite expression in the note: “in certain cases.” In order to dispel this doubt, it is essential to indicate clearly what these cases are in which the Church’s sacramental aid proves possible and to state that this is about situations in which the sufficiently enlightened sinners have already decided to abandon the objectively sinful situation.

The Second Dubium 

The second dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 304: is there such a thing as intrinsically evil acts from a moral perspective that the law prohibits without any possible exception? For someone who adheres to Catholic doctrine, the answer is yes. What exactly does Amoris laetitia say? Par. 304, citing the Summa theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas (I-II, question 94, article 4), insists on the application of the law, rather than on the law itself, and emphasizes the part played by the judgment of prudence, which allegedly can be exercised only on a case-by-case basis, strictly depending on circumstances that are unique and singular.

“It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.”

This passage does not introduce any ambivalence, properly speaking. It merely insists too much on one part of the truth (the prudent application of the law), to the point of obscuring the other part of the same truth (the necessary value of the law), which is altogether as important as the first. The text therefore errs here by omission, thus causing a misreading.

The Third Dubium 

The third dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 301: can we say that persons who habitually live in a way that contradicts a commandment of God’s law (for example the one that forbids adultery) are in an objective situation of habitual grave sin? The Catholic answer is yes. Amoris laetitia says on this subject: “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” Two points should be emphasized.

The sentence just quoted posits in principle the impossibility of making a universal affirmation. It does not deny the possibility of saying that public sinners are deprived of grace; it only denies the possibility of saying that all public sinners are deprived of it. This denial has always been taught by the Church. There are in fact, in concrete human acts, what is called exculpatory or “mitigating” reasons (or factors). Because of them, the sinner may not be morally responsible for the objective situation of sin. These reasons include not only ignorance, but also defects of an emotional, affective or psychological sort, and paragraph 302 provides the details, relying on the teaching of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). Nevertheless, these mitigating factors (even if they were frequent, which remains to be proved) exonerate the person but still do not put an end to the objective situation of sin: the subjectively exonerated sinner does not cease to be in that situation objectively. By omitting this key distinction the passage from Amoris laetitia again introduces doubt here.

The Fourth Dubium

The fourth dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 302: can we still say, from a moral perspective, that an act that is already intrinsically evil by reason of its object can never become good because of circumstances or the intention of the person who performs it? The Catholic answer is yes. Amoris laetitia says: “A negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved.” That is true, but the reverse is not, and by neglecting to say that, this passage again introduces doubt.

If a divorced-and-remarried person sins, he sins as such, precisely because he is living in an objective situation of a remarried divorcé, which is an objective situation of grace sin, as such calling for a negative judgment. If the divorced-and-remarried person does not sin, it is not as such, but rather precisely for reasons other than his objective situation as a remarried divorcé, which in itself leads to sin.

The confusion arises here between the intrinsically evil malice of an act and the imputability of this malice to the one who commits the act. The circumstances of the act and the intention of the one who commits the act can have the effect of annulling the imputability of the malice of the act, but not of annulling the malice of the act. This fourth doubt proceeds from the same sort of omission as the third.

The Fifth Dubium

The fifth dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 303: can we say that conscience must always remain subject, without any possible exception, to the absolute moral law that forbids acts that are intrinsically evil because of their object? The Catholic answer is yes. Amoris laetitia repeats here the false confusion introduced already by Francis in his interview with the journalist Eugenio Scalfari, “Interview with the founder of the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica,” in L’Osservatore romano, weekly French edition, dated October 4, 2013. (For more on this subject, see the December 2013 issue of the Courrier de Rome, the article entitled “Pour un Magistère de la conscience?” [“In favor of a Magisterium of the conscience?]).  

No one can act against his conscience, even if it is erroneous. Nevertheless, to say that conscience obliges, even when erroneous, means directly that it is wrong to go against it; but that does not imply at all that it is good to follow it. If the conscience is in error, because it is not in conformity with God’s law, not following it is enough for the will to be bad, but following it is not enough for the will to be good.

Saint Thomas remarks that the will of those who killed the Apostles was bad (Summa theologiae, I-II, question 19, article 6, sed contra). However, it agreed with their erroneous reason (= conscience), according to what Our Lord says in the Gospel (Jn 16:2): “The hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God.” This therefore is the proof that a will conformed to an erroneous conscience can be bad. And this is precisely what Amoris laetitia does not explain, introducing here a fifth doubt. 

Subjectivism: Root of Five Dubia

The five dubia are therefore quite well-founded. The root of them is always the same: the confusion between the moral value of an act, a strictly objective value, and its imputability to someone who performs it, a strictly subjective imputability. Even though it may happen that the moral malice cannot be imputed subjectively, because the person who performs the act is excused from it (which remains to be proved, as much as possible, in each case), the act always and everywhere corresponds to an objective malice and consequently is at the root of an objectively sinful situation, whether or not it is in fact imputed to the one who finds himself in it. The Church’s traditional doctrine gives primacy to this objective order of the act’s morality, which follows from its object and its end or purpose. Amoris laetitia, by reversing this order, introduces subjectivism into morality.

Is Subjectivism Negation of Revealed Truth?

Does such subjectivism, as understood in its principle as well as in the five conclusions that follow from it here, represent the negation of a divinely revealed truth that is proposed as such by an infallible act of the ecclesiastical Magisterium? One would have to be able to answer yes in order to conclude that Amoris laetitia presents a heresy in each of the points just singled out and that Francis deserves the equivalent theological designation.

In order to establish this conclusion, it would be necessary to verify two things. First, are the five truths demolished by these five doubts so many dogmas? Secondly, does Amoris laetitia negate these dogmas, or at least call them into question formally and explicitly enough? The answer to these two questions is far from obvious and certain. For this new theology of Francis, which extends that of Vatican II, avoids this sort of formal opposition with regard to truths already proposed infallibly by the Magisterium before Vatican II. It sins most often by omission or by ambivalence. It is therefore dubious, in its very substance. And it is dubious exactly insofar as it is modernist, or more precisely: neo-Modernist.

Does the Pope Intend to Affirm or Deny?

Chapter Eight of Amoris laetitia is defined, like the others, by the fundamental intention assigned by the Pope to the whole text of the Exhortation, which is “to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice” (paragraph no. 4). Therefore we find here neither more nor less than matter for reflection, dialogue and practice. That is not material for clear-cut denial or calling into question. Or rather, if Amoris laetitia became the cause of heresy, it would be in an absolutely unique way, underhanded and latent as modernism itself. In other words, by the slant of a practice and an adaptation, more than within the framework of a formal teaching.

Practical Subversion of Doctrine

The heresy (if there is one) of Pope Francis is the heresy of a practical subversion, a revolution in deeds, and we would certainly say that this is what remained hidden until now behind the new concept of “pastoral Magisterium.” Now, in this area, it is difficult to make doctrinal censures. Indeed, censures establish a logically contrary relation between a given proposition and previously defined dogma. And this relation could exist only between two speculative truths, belonging to the same order of knowledge. The subversion, for its part, consists of eliciting among Catholics behaviors following from principles opposed to the doctrine of the Church.

This is how Amoris laetitia, while reaffirming the principle of the indissolubility of marriage (in paragraph nos. 52-53, 62, 77, 86, 123, 178), legitimizes a manner of living in the Church that follows from the principle opposed to this indissolubility (243, 298-299, 301-303): the neo-modernist Magisterium reaffirms the Catholic principle of marriage while permitting in practice everything to happen as though the opposite principle were true. How can anyone censure that? Would the note of heresy (understood in the strict sense of a doctrinal evaluation) still retain its meaning then?

Finding the Appropriate Expression

In this matter of censures, it is difficult to find the most appropriate expression, and not uncommonly theologians differ in their appraisals. Without intending to state that their insights are false, or that appraisals contrary to theirs are true, we would like to draw the attention of perplexed Catholics to a problem that perhaps is not always sufficiently taken into account.

The problem of this neo-modernist characteristic of Vatican II, which proceeds much more by way of a subversion in deeds than along the lines of a doctrinal heresy in the documents. Conclusive evidence of this problem, incidentally, has just been given to us, as though in spite of himself, by the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

When questioned on Saturday, January 7, by an Italian news agency, Cardinal Gerhard Müller declared that the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia “is very clear in its doctrine” and that one can interpret it in such a way as to find in it “all of Jesus’ teaching about marriage, all the doctrine of the Church over 2,000 years of history.” According to him, Pope Francis is: “[A]sking us to discern the situation of these persons who are living in an irregular union, in other words, who do not observe the Church’s doctrine on marriage, and asks that we come to the aid of these persons so that they can find a path toward a new integration into the Church.”

Consequently, the Cardinal thinks that it would not be possible to proceed to the fraternal correction mentioned by Cardinal Burke, given that there is in Amoris laetitia “no danger to the faith” (see his remarks reprinted by Nicolas Senèze in La Croix on January 9, 2017). In reality, the danger is very real, and Cardinal Burke rightly reacted to this statement by Cardinal Müller, insisting on the need for a pontifical correction.

Not Heretical but Promoting Heresy

 The debate, therefore, is far from useless, but let us not lose sight of its object: it is not the scandal of a heresy formulated doctrinally; it is the scandal of a praxis that clears the way for a challenge to Catholic truth on the indissolubility of marriage.

To use the words of Saint Pius X himself from the encyclical Pascendi, the proponents of the new moral theology proceed with such refined skill that they easily take advantage of unwary minds. They promote heresy while giving the appearance of remaining Catholic. “Promoting heresy”: this corresponds to the theological note that Archbishop Lefebvre believed he had to use in order to characterize the harmfulness of the Novus Ordo Missae.

“This rite in itself does not profess the Catholic Faith as clearly as the old Ordo Missae and consequently it may promote heresy....What is astonishing is that an Ordo Missae that smacks of Protestantism and therefore favens haeresim[is promoting heresy] could be promulgated by the Roman Curia.” (Mgr Lefebvre et le Saint-Office”, Itinéraires 233 - May 1979, p. 146-1-47).

Without prejudice to any better opinion, we willingly had recourse to it in order to describe the major problem posed today for the conscience of Catholics by the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia.


[Editor’s Note: Fr. Gleize’s precise distinction will surprise more than one. In short, it seems that Pope Francis cannot be considered heretical, since none of the ambiguous statements in Amoris laetitia constitute “a rejection or contradiction of a truth that is not only revealed but also proposed as such by an infallible act of the ecclesiastical Magisterium.”

However, in the popular use of the word “heretical,” one who acts and talks in such a way that he encourages evil and favors heresy is considered heretical. “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck!” The popular expression is not a precise theological judgment; it is rather a common way of designating persons or ideas at odds with the deposit of faith.

The theological expression which can be properly applied to Pope Francis instead of “heretical” is favens haeresim or “promoting heresy.”

That does not change that the fact that the Holy Father is ambiguous in his declarations, refusing to clarify them, and—far from correcting evil—promotes it by practical disposition. It is what Fr. Gleize calls “the scandal of praxis.”]

Can the Pope Lose His Primacy?

The theologians who lived until Vatican Council II all answered this question in the affirmative. They are unanimous in declaring this fact: in the person of a pope, the possession of the supreme pontificate is incompatible with heresy. They are no longer unanimous when it comes to explaining this fact and indicating the reason for it.

Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468), in his Summa de Ecclesia, Book 4, Part 2, chapters 18-20,  writes that in the person of the pope, the papacy is incompatible not only with external but even with internal heresy. The mere fact that the pope adheres in the internal forum of his conscience to an error contrary to doctrine would result in the cessation of his papal office.

The common opinion of Medieval theologians is that a heretical pope in the external (and not just internal) forum must and can be deposed by a human authority, since there is (they claimed) here on earth a power above his. This authority is superior to the pope by way of exception, in the case of heresy. This could be the authority of the college of cardinals or possibly of an Ecumenical Council.

Cajetan’s Thesis

Cajetan (1469-1534), in chapters 20-21 of his 1511 treatise, De Comparatione auctoritatis papae et concilii, holds that there is an authority that can undo the investiture, in other words, cause the existence of the pontifical authority and the pope’s possession of it to cease. But Cajetan tries to differentiate his view from that of the theologians of the previous period by maintaining in principle that on earth there can be no authority superior to the pope, not even in the case of heresy. Indeed, the authority that is required to cause the investiture to cease would be exercised not on the pope but on the connection that exists between the person of the pope and the papacy.

Cajetan’s thesis is adopted by Domenico Báñez (1528-1604) (Commentary on the Summa theologiae II-II, q. 1, art. 10, conclusio 2, folios 194-196 of the 1587 Venice edition) and by John of Saint Thomas (1589-1644) (Cursus theologicus, 5:258-264: De fide, commenting on II-II, q. 1, art. 10, disputatio 2, art. 3, §§17-29). More recently, Cardinal Charles Journet (1891-1975) considered the argument “penetrating” (The Church of the Incarnate Word, vol. 1, Excursus 4). It is made up of two aspects.

First, in De comparatione, chap. 20, §§280 and 281, Cajetan states an authentic principle: the solution to the problem raised must be rooted in the sources of revelation. Now, divine law is content to say that, if the pope becomes heretical, the Church must avoid him. In fact, we can cite at least six passages of Scripture in which God commands His people not to relate to a formal, public heretic.

Passages cited by Cajetan in §280 include Num 16:26: “Depart from...these wicked men”; Gal 1:8: “Let him be anathema,” in other words, separate yourselves from him; 2 Thess 3:6: “Withdraw yourselves from [him]”; and 2 Jn 10: “Receive him not into the house nor say to him: God speed you.” The most eloquent passage (which Cajetan moreover cites constantly rather than the five others) is the one from the Epistle of St. Paul to Titus 3:10: “Hominem haereticum post unam et secundam correptionem devita.” [“A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid.”]  Consequently, divine revelation teaches us no more and no less than this: the Church must avoid any dealings with the heretical pope.

Cajetan then proceeds to justify his own theory. He says that there is only one means of avoiding having anything to do with the heretical pope, in keeping with the requirement of divinely revealed law. This means is the exercise of a ministerial power that is not a power of jurisdiction strictly speaking, the use of which implies no superiority over the pope. Indeed, this power is none other than the very power that the Church uses to establish the pope in his ministry: its precise object is not the person of the man who receives the papacy, nor the papacy (in other words the pope as such), but the connection between the two, in other words the relation that exists between the person who receives the papacy and the papacy itself (see De comparatione, chapter 20, §§282-297).

This power can be exercised in two directions: both to undo the connection as well as to make it. To illustrate this idea, Cajetan turns to an example. The generation or the corruption of a man is caused by an agent that has power over the union between a matter and a form, inasmuch as it disposes the matter, without thereby having power over the form. Similarly, the Church has the power to give the papacy to the person who receives it or to take it away from the one who loses it, inasmuch as she disposes this person, without thereby having power over the papacy.

As John of St. Thomas remarks, this explanation avoids saying that the Church is above the pope as such. Indeed, the Church acts here only as an instrumental cause or to bring about either the investiture or the cessation thereof. In the first case, the Church causes in the person of the pope the disposition required for the investiture, which is the appointment to the See of Rome.

In the second case, the Church causes in the person of the pope a disposition that is incompatible with the office of the pope, which results therefore in the loss of this office. This incompatible disposition that the Church causes is, the argument says, the notoriety of the heresy. And the incompatibility between the notorious heresy and the Supreme Pontificate is said to be taught by divine revelation in Titus 3:10. 

Additional Opinions

Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), in his De Fide, disputatio 10 De Summo Pontifice, section 6, §§3-13. Opera omnia, 12:316-318, states, like Cajetan, that the pope does not lose his pontificate by reason of his heresy itself, whether it be occult or even notorious. He then presents what in his opinion is the common explanation of the theologians. A publicly and incorrigibly heretical (i.e. pertinacious) pope loses the pontificate when the Church declares his crime. This declaration constitutes a legitimate act of jurisdiction, but it is not a jurisdiction that exercises a superior power over the pope. In this case the Church is represented not by the cardinals but by the Ecumenical Council: the latter can be convoked by someone other than the pope since it does not meet to define faith and morals.

The opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), which is found in De romano pontifice, Book 2, chapter 30, and which is followed by Cardinal Billot (1846-1931) (Traité de l’Église du Christ, question 14, thesis 29, Part 2, nos. 942-946), is purely theoretical, because his real thesis is that the pope will never fall into heresy. Assuming nevertheless that, per impossibile, the pope happened to fall into public heresy, he would ipso facto lose the pontificate.

As Bellarmine explains clearly, the basis for this thesis is that a notorious heretic as such is no longer a member of the Church. Now, the pope necessarily must be part of the society of which he is the head. This is why the heretical pope, no longer being a member of the Church, ceases to be her visible head.

The Archbishop’s Approach

In the period following Vatican Council II, Archbishop Lefebvre acknowledged the fact of the liberalism and Modernism publicly professed by the supreme authority in the Church. And at the same time, he did not cease to acknowledge until his death the canonical legitimacy of that authority. “We do belong to the visible Church, to the society of the faithful under the authority of the Pope, because we do not reject the Pope’s authority, but what he does. We do acknowledge the Pope’s authority, but when he uses it to do the contrary of the purpose for which it was given to him, it is obvious that one cannot follow him.” Prudence therefore led the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X not to consider (at least practically and provisionally) the modernist heresy as remaining compatible with the possession of the supreme pontificate.

What can we say, then? Since the pope’s power is supreme in the Church on earth, no one has sufficient authority to determine juridically a possible heresy of the Supreme Pontiff or to draw the penal consequence thereof by taking away the pope’s power. To put it another way: the provisions foreseen by ecclesiastical positive law cannot be applied to the pope. Only divine law can settle this matter. Now the sources of revelation contain no sufficiently explicit teaching about this question. This is why theologians have endeavored to present different solutions, in harmony with revealed principles. Their common opinion is that, if the pope comes to profess public heresy, he loses the supreme pontificate. They differ only in their explanations of how the loss of this pontificate is brought about. Nevertheless, the answer that theologians have given until now remains limited, like the question which it is supposed to answer. First of all, it is a question about the heresy of the Pope alone, not about a heresy that had corrupted the hierarchy of the Church as a whole. Secondly, it is about a heresy properly speaking, not about an attitude favoring heresy. Thirdly, it is about a public heresy, not about an attitude that did not seem sufficiently contrary to the profession of the Catholic Faith.

But things would develop quite differently in another situation, for example if divine providence allowed the false ideas of liberalism to subvert the majority or even a near totality of the Church’s hierarchy, and of the lay faithful too. Until now, the theologians’ explanation has not envisaged such a possibility even for a moment, and this is why it could not acquire the value of a universal principle for solving the problem, applicable to all situations in which the pope might fall into heresy. Therefore one could not rely on the authority of these older theologians to establish with equivalent speculative certitude the theological opinion that the heretical pope would lose the pontificate, in the presence circumstances as well. This is why prudence may order us not to draw this conclusion, at least temporarily. The solution adopted by the Society of Saint Pius X, following Archbishop Lefebvre, answers a precise question that is not exactly identical to the one that the older theologians posed. Here it is a question of popes about whom one can prove at the very most that they favor heresy and what is correctly called “the conciliar Church,” in other words, not only the pope but the near totality of the hierarchy and of the faithful, whose minds are overcome by the false ideas of liberalism and Modernism.

We can therefore pose the question about heresy of the pope in two different ways. First, as a purely speculative problem, abstracting from all circumstances. Then we stick to purely theological reasons, which are supposed to be valid in all cases but are only probable and remain insufficient to provide speculative certitude, since only a still non-existent argument of Magisterial authority could give an apodictic answer. Secondly, as a prudential problem, while taking into account the circumstances, the solution of which could be applied only to a single case. We stick then not to what is certain, theologically speaking, but to what is surest, given the circumstances. The judgment of Lefebvre and of the Society of Saint Pius X on the crisis of the Church is not a theoretical, purely speculative judgment (as is a mathematical judgment); it is a practical and prudential judgment. This explains why it could evolve and be modified by reason of new circumstances.

Would it be prudent then to conclude that, if Pope Francis refuses to comply with the formal demand of the four cardinals, then he will have to be considered an anti-pope? This is the whole question: would it be “prudent”? The question will be posed to the cardinals after having been posed to Archbishop Lefebvre and to the Society founded by him. Since the circumstances are not strictly the same today as in 1979, and since the Society is not cardinalatial either, the prudent answer could no doubt be different. But in any case, the answer will be that of prudence. And whatever course of action is adopted, it will be necessary above all to ask ourselves whether it offers a serious probability of improving the situation and of preserving the common good of Church unity, which is identically a unity of faith and of government.