What Bellarmine Really Said on Heretical Popes

In a recent article, Bishop Schneider makes a false claim about Bellarmine:

St. Robert Bellarmine’s opinion is that “a pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church” (De Romano Pontifice, II, 30).

That was not the opinion of Bellarmine, but rather a common opinion of his day, which he discusses. See also this post on Bellarmine.

St. Robert Bellarmine on heretical Popes:

“I respond: there are five opinions on this matter. The first is of Albert Pighius, who contends that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place. Still, because it is not certain, and the common opinion is to the contrary, it will be worthwhile to see what the response should be if the Pope could be a heretic.”

Bellarmine believed it most probable that “the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case.” He calls this position easily defended. The later teaching of the First Vatican Council is consonant with this opinion, as the Council infallibly taught that the Pope has a never failing faith. If a Pope fell into heresy, his faith would have failed. Thus, this opinion of Bellarmine is the one that Catholics must believe, as it is the only position on the topic not contrary to, nor incompatible with, the dogma of Vatican I.

“it is probable that Honorius was not a heretic”

Commentators today assume Honorius was a heretic, and they utterly ignore the many scholarly opinions to the contrary [Bellarmine, Liguori, the old Catholic encyclopedia, more recently: Fr. Iannuzzi and other authors]. If Honorius was not a heretic, then we must consider that Pope Francis has erred far less and is also not a heretic.

“a Pope who remains the Pope cannot be shunned. How will we shun our Head? How will we recede from a member to whom we are joined?”

This is the implicit opinion of almost all the papal accusers. They affirm Pope Francis as the Roman Pontiff and Successor of Peter, yet they accuse him of heresy, apostasy, and idolatry and they utterly shun him by arguing against him at every turn and refusing submission to his authority.

“But a manifest heretic is not a Christian, as St. Cyprian and many other Fathers clearly teach. Therefore, a manifest heretic cannot be Pope.”

Yes, a manifest heretic cannot be Pope, or, more precisely, the true Pope is prevented by the grace of God, absolutely, from ever failing in faith by heresy. Consider, then, the case of Vigilius. He was a manifest heretic and an antipope who became Pope, and as Pope he immediately and utterly rejected his prior heresy, and upheld the true faith.

“that a heretical Pope who is truly Pope can be deposed by the Church, and from its authority, seems no less false than the first.”

The papal accusers also assume this error, rejected by Bellarmine. The error is not only that a man could be both a heretic and true Pope, but also that he could somehow be deposed by the Church.

“Now the fifth true opinion, is that a Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church.”

This opinion is the “common opinion” mentioned in the first quote above. Bellarmine did not hold this opinion. He only considers it as a hypothetical, IF it were the case that God permitted Popes to become heretics, then the heretical Pope would cease to be Christian and a member of the body, and so he could then be judged and punished by the Church. As it turns out, as we know from the First Vatican Council, this is merely a counter-factual hypothetical, as Popes cannot be heretics.

The problem with the fifth opinion is that heresy is not subjectively “manifest”, as many of the members of the Church disagree about almost every controversy. Such a plan, whereby Popes could fall into heresy and be deposed puts a shadow of doubt over every Pope and therefore every Council and therefore every teaching. We are then reduced to the state of Protestants, not knowing what to believe except by our own understanding and by whatever teachers we choose for ourselves.

Quotes are from: Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis Book 1) . Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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