Bishop Schneider on the Problem of a Heretical Pope
On March 21, 2019, the “Blog de Jeanne Smits” published a French translation of a long text by His Excellency Bishop Athanasius Schneider published in English the day before on Rorate-Caeli.blogspot.com. The French journalist presented her translation under the suggestive title “On the Question of a Heretical Pope: Bishop Athanasius Schneider Sheds Light on the Debate.” Bishop Schneider seeks to bring everything down to one specific question: “How to handle a heretical pope, in concrete terms?”1 The question is considered on the practical level. This level must include not only necessary and absolute principles, but also variable and relative circumstances. The difficult part is putting each of the two in its proper place, in a truly heavenly perspective.
Are Bishop Schneider’s considerations inspired by the same principles as those held by Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX)? Without denying the grave harm heresy represents for the Church or underestimating the importance of the integrity of the Faith, the prelate rather insists upon a different aspect of the question raised by the supposed heresy of the pope. In his eyes, the opinion according to which the Church has an authority over the pope and in the event of a heresy on his part could depose him or at least declare his demise manifests “the unhealthy attitude of a pope-centrism, of papolatria ultimately.”
He says those who hold this opinion make the pope “a kind of half-god, who cannot commit any errors, not even in the realm outside the object of papal infallibility.” It is “an indirect or subconscious identification of the Church with the pope or [a way of] making the pope the focal point of the daily life of the Church. This means ultimately and subconsciously a yielding to unhealthy ultramontanism, pope-centrism, and papolatry, i.e. a papal personality cult.” According to Bishop Schneider, this opinion “originated only in the High Middle Ages, in a time when pope-centrism arrived at a certain high point, when unconsciously the pope was identified with the Church as such.” And he sees it as “the root of the mundane attitude of an absolutist prince according to the motto: ‘L’État, c’est moi!’ or in ecclesiastical terms: ‘I am the Church’!”
This truly astonishing way of presenting the issue reveals a viewpoint inherited from the “nouvelle théologie.”2 With all due respect to Bishop Schneider, papolatry, pope-centrism, and ultramontanism are nothing but words, words that have been overused and misused for the purpose of discrediting the best theological tradition3 that was careful to define the power of the pope in keeping with the initial elements offered by divine Revelation. What is more, the Church cannot be defended against the pope, and the difficulty that the hypothesis of a pope tyrannizing the Church presents for ecclesiology must be resolved in the light of the definition of the Papacy, for a good definition always includes the answers to the objections that may be raised against it. This definition is contained in the sources of divine Revelation and in the constant teachings of the Church’s Magisterium that explain it.
The first principle of all ecclesiology is expressed in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, (16:18). St. Peter and all his successors, the bishops of Rome, are the “rock” on which Christ unceasingly builds His Church, and by this we are to understand that the pope, as the successor of St. Peter, is the Vicar of Christ, and as such, the head of the entire Church; the primacy, that is to say, the power of supreme and universal jurisdiction, is his. Such is the constant and unanimous teaching of Tradition, and the first Vatican Council and Popes Leo XIII in his encyclical Satis Cognitum and Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis give the fully developed expression of it. Leo XIII clearly declares that this truth is not a medieval exaggeration and he proves his point by quoting the Fathers of the Church: “These declarations,” he says, “were preceded by the consent of antiquity which ever acknowledged, without the slightest doubt or hesitation, the bishops of Rome, and revered them, as the legitimate successors of St. Peter. Who is unaware of the many and evident testimonies of the holy Fathers which exist to this effect?”4
Theologians have done nothing but repeat and develop these divinely-revealed teachings. The Church therefore is indeed, in a certain sense, in the pope as in her head, according to the expression attributed to St. Ambrose: Ubi Petrus, ibi et Ecclesia, in the sense that, as Leo XIII recalls, “the Roman Church is the efficient cause of unity in the Christian commonwealth.”5
What is more, considering the pope as the supreme head of the entire Church on the level of his jurisdictional power properly speaking does not lead these theologians to make of him a “half-god,” infallible in all his actions on the different level of his magisterial power. Cajetan, for example, declares that outside of the limits of a judgment passed with authority on a matter of Faith, the pope does indeed “risk being mistaken more than all the rest of the Church in matters of Faith.”6 It is true that, according to the most common opinion of the theologians, the simply ordinary papal Magisterium is considered as being habitually unerring, but that is not the same thing as infallibility in the strict sense of the word.
Remember, too, that the pope is not alone. The ordinary teaching of the entire hierarchy of the Church, by the very fact that it is constant and unanimous, is an infallible sign, for it is guaranteed against any error thanks to the “charism of truth, which certainly is, was, and always will be in the succession of the episcopacy from the apostles. The purpose of this is, then, not that dogma may be tailored according to what seems better and more suited to the culture of each age; rather, that the absolute and immutable truth preached by the apostles from the beginning may never be believed to be different, may never be understood in any other way.”7
This is a different type of divine assistance, quite distinct from the charism “of truth and unerring faith” granted to St. Peter and his successors and described in the constitution Pastor Aeternus.8 With this other type of assistance, the entire hierarchy of the “Church teaching,” not only the pope, but also all the bishops with him and under him, enjoys this “charism of truth” thanks to which the “Church taught” can trust the ordinary teaching of the Magisterium of the entire episcopate without any risk of error in their beliefs.
But above all, as we recalled earlier, it is the very definition of the papacy that provides the principle that will resolve the present difficulty. The Pope, successor of St. Peter, is essentially and by definition the “Vicar of Christ.” That is the meaning of the Gospel metaphor in which St. Peter (and with him each and every one of his successors) is compared to a “foundation” on which Christ builds His Church. Once again, it is Leo XIII9 who tells us how we are to understand this expression, referring, as usual, to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church:10 “When he heard ‘thou art a rock,’ he was ennobled by the announcement. Although he is a rock, not as Christ is a rock, but as Peter is a rock. For Christ is by His very being an immovable rock; Peter only through this rock.11 Christ imparts His gifts and is not exhausted. …He is a rock and constitutes a rock.”
The Pope is the foundation of the Church only by participation, and in dependency on Christ, who is this foundation by essence; that is the meaning of the consecrated expression in which we confess as a truth of the Faith that the pope is the “Vicar of Christ.” Leo XIII’s predecessor, Pope St. Leo the Great, expressed the same idea when he placed on Our Lord’s lips the following words to St. Peter: “Although I am the indestructible rock, I the cornerstone who make both things one, I the foundation on which no one can lay another, you also are rock because you are made firm in my strength. What belongs properly to my own power you share with me by participation.”12
This idea was developed by Fr. Calmel in a beautiful text whose unequaled depth, along with the wise decisions of Archbishop Lefebvre, should serve Catholics of our days more than ever as food for thought and provide them with the true answers to the true questions. The first truth this text begins by recalling is the very one that Bishop Schneider’s considerations unfortunately tend to downplay: “There is no Church without an infallible Vicar of Christ who enjoys the Primacy.” This truth is the divinely-revealed principle that should serve as the basis for any theological considerations on the Church. “Jesus Christ desired a Church with the bishop of Rome at her head, as His visible vicar and at the same time the bishop of bishops and of the entire flock. He conferred upon him the prerogative of the rock so that the edifice would never collapse. He prayed with an effective prayer for him at least, of all the bishops, never to fail in the Faith in such a way that, having recovered after the failings from which he will not necessarily be preserved, he might ultimately confirm his brothers in the Faith; or if it is not he in person who confirms his brethren in the Faith, it might be one of his first successors.”
The other idea that immediately follows from this principle, in which it is contained in act, is that “no matter the miseries, even on the religious level, of this visible and temporary vicar of Jesus Christ, it is Jesus Himself who governs His Church, who governs His vicar in the government of His Church, who governs His vicar in such a way that he cannot engage his supreme authority in upheavals or complicities that would change the religion.” Indeed, “if the pope is the visible vicar of Jesus who ascended into the invisible heavens, he is no more than a vicar: vices gerens, he stands in for Him, but remains someone else. …While the pope is preserved from error when he engages his authority in the matters and manner in which it is infallible, he can err in other cases. If he errs in matters other than those covered by infallibility, this does not keep the one head of the Church, the invisible sovereign priest, from continuing to govern His Church.”
The papacy’s essentially vicarious role therefore signifies that “the Church is not the Mystical Body of the pope”; instead, it signifies that “the Church with the pope is the Mystical Body of Christ.” And there we have the divinely-revealed and absolutely necessary principle that provides us with the solution to the difficulty raised by the hypothetical situation of a heretical pope; the power of the pope is limited by Christ and not by the Church.13
In application of this principle, Fr. Calmel concludes as follows, in terms that show how limited Bishop Schneider’s considerations prove: “The weaknesses of a pope must not make us forget even for a moment the solidity and sanctity of the lordship of Our Savior, or keep us from seeing the power and wisdom of Jesus who holds in the palm of His hand even insufficient popes, who contains their insufficiencies within impassable limits.” Indeed, the means by which the Church protects herself against the possible heresy of a pope is first and foremost, in its fundamental principle, this lordship of the Savior, the sovereign power of the invisible head that is essentially the foundation of the Church, the rock from which Peter receives his own stability. And this lordship of the Savior that preserves the Church from the weaknesses of the pope is exercised through the papacy itself. The means of protection against the heresy of a pope is not, strictly speaking, as Bishop Schneider claims, most likely under the influence of the new ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, “the substituting ministry of the representatives of the episcopacy” or “the invincible sensus fidei of the faithful.”
The means is the very regency of Christ as it is exercised through the pope, to keep the gates of Hell from ever prevailing against the Church. To those who would object that this regency of Christ cannot do without the secondary causes, the very principle of papacy’s vicarious nature offers the answer: it is first and foremost (primo et per se as our scholastic authors would have put it) through the pope that Christ gives the Church the means to protect herself against the pope. The pope must remain the first of all the secondary causes through which Christ rules over His Church, respecting the order He Himself has established. And it is from the pope that the other living forces of Tradition and the Church will receive the means to protect themselves from heresy.
The Faith of the Church comes to her from Christ always through the intervention of the pope. What Vatican Council II chose to call a “sensus fidei” is not the result of an assistance from the Holy Ghost directly applied to the entire body of the faithful. Nor do the “representatives of the episcopacy” have any “substituting ministry” to replace a defective papacy, as if the Holy Ghost directly preserved the Church in her Faith and morals by means of a college of cardinals or bishops.
The Gospel promises apply first and foremost to the See of St. Peter. And it is in remaining attached to this See and clinging to the age-old teachings of its living Magisterium that both the simple faithful and the bishops can protect themselves against the possible failings of the present pope. Christ thus unceasingly preserves the faithful and the pastors from the present attacks of heresy thanks to all the past teachings of the only “rock” upon which He built His only Church once and for all.
We do not deny that the “sense of the Faith” or more precisely the “sensus catholicus” of the faithful can have a role to play in resisting heresy; but this role is that of a rule that is itself regulated, not by the Holy Ghost as Vatican II claims,14 but by the past teachings of the Magisterium of the popes. Nor do we deny that the representatives of the episcopate can compensate for the failings of a heretical pope; but this compensation is made possible through direct dependency not on the Holy Ghost but on the former Magisterium of all the popes who came before the pope who has fallen into heresy. This was the argument that Archbishop Lefebvre constantly developed to explain his conduct and he summed it up perfectly at the episcopal consecrations on June 30, 1988.
“It seems to me, my dear brethren, that I am hearing the voices of all these popes—since Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII—telling us: ‘Please, we beseech you, what are you going to do with our teachings, with our preaching, with the Catholic Faith? Are you going to abandon it? Are you going to let it disappear from this earth? Please, please, continue to keep this treasure which we have given you. Do not abandon the faithful, do not abandon the Church! Continue the Church!’… This is why we are convinced that, by the act of these consecrations today, we are obeying the call of these popes and as a consequence the call of God, since they represent Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Church.”
The entire strength of this argument comes from the very definition of the papacy, that is to say, from the papal power’s essentially vicarious nature. For, in order to be vicar, it has to be the one and unceasing echo of the one and unceasing word of the same Christ. All the weight of the past echoes always repeating the same things thus represents the solid foundation on which the Church can constantly depend. For Christ remains the same yesterday, today and forever, through the Magisterium of the See of St. Peter, which is the ever-living Magisterium, be it past or present, the “proximate and universal criterion of truth in matters of Faith and morals,” as Pius XII put it.15
While ancient theologians did consider the possibility of declaring the demise of a pope who had fallen into heresy, the reason they gave was the very authority of the positive divine law, whose expression they believed they discovered in the sources of Revelation. In keeping with the first principle of ecclesiology, they considered the pope as the Vicar of Christ and therefore thought that only Christ possessed enough authority to remove a pope from power. The idea that the Church here below could have any authority over the pope to depose him was unacceptable in their eyes. Therefore, if proclaiming the loss of the papacy is not to be considered a sufficiently well-grounded hypothesis, it is not, as Bishop Schneider believes, because it would be the excessive consequence of an excessive principle. It is because the pope remains in his essential definition the vicar of Christ and the possibility of his deposition in the event of heresy does not seem to be sufficiently established as the express will of Christ in the sources of Revelation. And on the practical level, this possibility is not to be retained in the eyes of prudence by reason of the harm it would cause to the Church.
For the rest, Bishop Schneider’s reflections repeat evidences of a historical (Arianism, Pope Honorius) or theological (“the pope is not an absolute monarch, who can do and say what he likes, who can change doctrine or liturgy at his own discretion”) nature. We gladly concede the material exactitude of these elements, albeit with reserves as to his comments on the different liturgical reforms. But we cannot support the prelate’s fundamental argument that is too tainted with the new ecclesiology. In its democratic and collegial orientation, this argument disregards the true nature of the papacy that gives way to a sort of “Petrine office” or “ministry.” The greatest credit goes to Archbishop Lefebvre for defending the Church and her Tradition in the very name of the papacy, that is to say, based on the first principle of all ecclesiology, “Tu es Petrus.”
1 All the quotes are taken from Bishop Schneider’s text published on Rorate Caeli.
2 See Jean-Marie Tillard, The Bishop of Rome (SPCK, 1983); Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present (Michael Glazier, 1996).
3 See the De Ecclesia and De Romano Pontifice treatises by Johann Baptist Franzelin, Louis Billot, Domenico Palieri, Timotheus Zapelena, and Joaquin Salaverri, as well as the various authors of theological tradition who wrote on the issue: Juan de Torquemada in his Summa de Ecclesia, Cajetan in his treatise De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii, St. Robert Bellarmine in his Controversies, Francisco Suarez in his Cursus Theologicus.
4 Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum (June 29, 1896).
5 Ibidem: “…quia in christiana republica causa efficiens unitatis est Ecclesia romana.”
6 Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii.
7 St. Pius X, Motu Proprio Sacrorum Antistitum (Antimodernist Oath), “de charismate veritatis certo.”
8 Vatican Council I, constitution Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4: “Veritatis et fidei numquam deficientis charisma Petro ejusque in hac cathedra successoribus divinitus collatum.” The “charism of truth and unfailing faith granted by God to St. Peter and to all his successors in this see,” the see of the Primacy of the bishop of Rome.
9 Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum (June 29, 1896).
10 It is a passage from a Homily entitled De Paenitentia and attributed to St. Basil.
11 “Christus enim essentialiter petra inconcussa; Petrus vero per petram.”
12 St. Leo the Great, Serm. 4, Ch. 2.
13 All of Cajetan’s considerations in his Apologia Tractatus de Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii, from chapters 1 to 4, develops this point.
14 Paragraph 12 of Lumen Gentium claims that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith.” This sense of the Faith is “aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.” And even if “the guidance of the sacred teaching authority” does play a certain role, it is not the proper principle of the infallibility of the People.
15 Pius XII, encyclical Humani Generis, August 12, 1950. When we say that the Magisterium is “living,” we are not speaking of the present Magisterium as opposed to the past Magisterium but of the Magisterium as a whole in relation to Revelation, which is over.