First, a review of what Bellarmine says.
In the book On the Roman Pontiff, book 2, chapter 30, Saint Robert Bellarmine considers a proposition called “the tenth argument”.
“The tenth argument. A Pope can be judged and deposed by the Church in the case of heresy; as is clear from Dist. 40, can. Si Papa: therefore, the Pontiff is subject to human judgment, at least in some case.”
He begins by saying there are five opinions on the matter.
1. “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.”
This opinion was that of Saint Robert Bellarmine as well as Pighius, and it was adopted and confirmed dogmatically by the First Vatican Council. When Bishop Vincent Gasser, in his relatio before the Council, says that the Council adopted the opinion of Bellarmine, not any extreme opinion of Pighius and his school, he means this opinion, where Bellarmine and Pighius happen to agree.
Bellarmine: “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.”
At the time Bellarmine writes, the Magisterium had not yet defined opinion one as dogma, and people generally thought that popes could be heretics. So Bellarmine considered what might happen if a Pope were permitted by God to teach or commit heresy. But in the present day, this opinion of Bellarmine is deprecated; Vatican I has made this discussion mute. Since others cite it as alleged proof that a Pope can be a heretic and be deposed, let’s see what Bellarmine says.
2. Bellarmine: “Thus, the second opinion is that the Pope, in the very instant in which he falls into heresy, even if it is only interior, is outside the Church and deposed by God, for which reason he can be judged by the Church.”
Bellarmine rejects the second opinion because the authority of Peter is given to a man by God, but only through men (as when a conclave elects a Pope). So therefore, an heretical Pope could not be deposed by God without men. God would not work in that manner. It would also, I add, be entirely uncertain which Popes and Councils to believe, if some Popes were interiorly deposed by God for interior sins, that the faithful could not know.
3. Bellarmine: “The Third opinion is on another extreme, that the Pope is not and cannot be deposed either by secret or manifest heresy.”
This opinion is not tenable, as the Church would have lost Her indefectibility, being led by an heretical Pope who could not be deposed. And, as Bellarmine says, “it would be the most miserable condition of the Church, if she should be compelled to recognize a wolf, manifestly prowling, for a shepherd.” The body of Christ cannot have a wolf, manifestly prowling and leading the sheep away from the path of salvation and into Hell. The Church would have lost Her indefectibility, if God permitted such a situation.
4. “The Fourth Opinion is of Cajetan. There, he teaches, that a manifestly heretical Pope is not ipso facto deposed; but can and ought to be deposed by the Church. Now in my judgment, such an opinion cannot be defended.”
Bellarmine rejects the opinion of Cajetan that a manifestly heretical Pope is not automatically deposed. Bellarmine asserts that a manifest heretic is ipso facto deposed, even if he were Pope (hypothetically). For by any manifest heresy, a Christian cuts himself off from the Church. He is not joined to the soul of the Church, due to his sinful rejection of Her infallible teaching, and he is not joined to the body of the Church, as his heresy is public and manifest. Bellarmine goes on to argue for the automatic deposing of a manifest heretic.
By the way, this implies that persons such as Vigano and Schneider are ipso facto deposed as Shepherds of the Church; they are manifestly heretical and schismatic Bishops, who are automatically excommunicated and therefore have lost their authority to teach the faithful. Included among these manifest heretics are those who reject the Second Vatican Council, in its teaching or its authority, for such persons are heretics and schismatics.
Bellarmine also says: “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?” Therefore, an heretical Pope would need to be deposed, so that he could be shunned, as Paul instructs us to do (Titus 3:10-11).
Bellarmine: “Now in regard to reason this is indeed very certain. A non-Christian cannot in any way be Pope, as Cajetan affirms in the same book, and the reason is because he cannot be the head of that which he is not a member, and he is not a member of the Church who is not a Christian. But a manifest heretic is not a Christian, as St. Cyprian and many other Fathers clearly teach. Therefore, a manifest heretic cannot be Pope.”
A more modern theological opinion would be that an heretical Christian, having been excommunicated, might still retain a type or degree of membership in the Church. An excommunicated Christian might still be in the state of grace. They may still receive the Sacrament of Confession, if they repent, and that Sacrament is only permitted to Christians. They retain the indelible character. They may retain most or all of the beliefs of Christians, depending on whether they were excommunicated for heresy or for schism (or some other offense).
So it is perhaps Bellarmine’s position is too sweeping. Manifest heresy would not necessarily make someone a non-Christian, unless it were to the extent of apostasy. His point still stands, though. A Pope who commits manifest heresy would be ipso facto deposed.
Bellarmine: “Next, the Holy Fathers teach in unison, that not only are heretics outside the Church, but they even lack all Ecclesiastical jurisdiction and dignity ipso facto.” So a manifest heretic who is a Pope or Bishop is outside the Church (though today we would temper the type and degree of his loss of membership), and loses his authority. This leaves an heretical Pope, in Bellarmine’s opinion — predicated on the hypothetical IF a Pope could commit heresy — outside the Church and without any authority.
5. Bellarmine: “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 is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction….”
And now we come to the fifth opinion, like the first, accepted by Bellarmine. But this fifth opinion is only “the fifth true opinion” if it is the case that Popes can commit or teach heresy. Bellarmine thinks that God does not permit this. He says the first opinion, that Popes cannot teach or commit heresy is probable and easily defended. And since this fifth opinion is predicated on a Pope being heretical, something excluded by Vatican I, it is only an intellectual exercise. One cannot base an accusation against Pope Francis on this fifth opinion.
Marshall and Grant
Dr. Taylor Marshall and Ryan Grant discuss Bellarmine on whether a Pope can be a heretic, in this video. Let’s consider what they say.
Taylor Marshall and Ryan Grant opine that a manifestly heretical Pope could be deposed by an Ecumenical Council. They note that the “first opinion” is the one held by Bellarmine, that a Pope cannot teach or commit heresy. This opinion is dismissed by them, in a common but erroneous manner, by accusing various Popes of grave failures of faith, including Honorius, John 22, and Marcellinus.
The enemies of the Church accused Pope Marcellinus of apostasy, of sacrificing to the pagan gods, which would be a grave sin against faith, even if under duress. But this is also the type of sin which the grace of God prevents. For if the Rock on which the Church is founded, whose faith is never failing, could, even exteriorly and under duress, worship pagan gods, the Church would not be indefectible. For many souls would be lost, following this example of the Pope. Therefore, based on the teaching of Vatican I, we must conclude that Marcellinus was innocent. See my previous post. He was falsely accused by the enemies of the Church, as a way to convince his flock to behave similarly. The fact that this Pope was a Saint who died a martyr, rather than worship pagan gods, is also proof of his innocence. The story that he worshipped false gods exteriorly, repented, and then died rather than commit the same act again is fiction.
But when Marcellinus was accused, he offered to be judged by an Ecumenical Council. Yet the Cardinals and Bishops refused to judge him, saying: “For the first See is not judged by anyone.” And his innocence is defended in this article in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. It is impossible that Marcellinus committed the grave sins against faith of which he is accused, as it is contrary to the dogma of Vatican I. And even from a mere human perspective, the accusations are untrustworthy and the account clearly spurious.
So Marshall and Grant err gravely by using their own fallible opinions to judge and condemn past Popes for grave sins against faith. Basing a theological opinion on a prudential judgment is a weak argument.
It is interesting to note that, before Vatican I declared the never failing faith of the Pope, they considered the past history of the Popes, looking for any Pope who failed in faith. They found none. Honorius was rather easily defended, as Cardinal Manning states. And the same was true for the other Popes. And the fathers of that Council were well aware of the writings of Bellarmine defending the Popes against accusations of failure of faith. Since the Council did not find any Popes guilty of heresy, this is further proof that the Council intended to define that Popes cannot commit heresy.
The First Vatican Council phrased this dogma in positive terms, that each Pope has a charism from God of truth and a never-failing faith. This is better than merely saying that Popes do not commit heresy and do not teach heresy; it is a fuller statement which includes the negative, but also includes the positive gift. The Pope has a charism from God ordered inexorably toward truth and faith. Unfailing in truth. Unfailing in faith. That is the Vicar of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.
But Marshall and Grant err gravely by claiming that the First Vatican Council did not deal with the question of whether a Pope could commit or teach heresy. Grant states: “the Magisterium of the Church punted on the issue, refused to define it….” But if that is true, Mr. Grant, then what is the meaning of this charism of truth and a never failing faith? Grant ignores the teaching entirely. He gives no explanation.
The video is one hour, 55 minutes long, and both of these men ignore entirely the dogmatic teaching of Vatican I that answers they are asking. The video is titled: “Can Popes Become Heretics?” And the teaching of the First Vatican Council which answers the question is this:
The original Latin: “Hoc igitur veritatis et fidei numquam deficientis charisma Petro eiusque in hac Cathedra successoribus divinitus collatum est, ut excelso suo munere in omnium salutem fungerentur….”
My translation: “Therefore, this charism of truth and of never failing faith, was divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this Chair, so that they might exercise their preeminent office for the salvation of all….”
And if Grant believes that Vatican I did not decide the question of whether Popes can teach heresy, what does he think “this charism of truth and never failing faith” means? How can a Pope have a divinely conferred charism of truth and never failing faith, and also teach material heresy and commit formal heresy? Grant does not address the question. This is typical of the papal accusers. They make their arguments against the Pope in a theological “bubble”, an anti-papal “pod”.* Everyone outside of their bubble or pod must keep their distance and wear a mask.
[* Bubble and pod are terms used during the pandemic to describe persons who can be closer than 2 meters to you, and do not have to wear masks around you.]
Teaching heresy from the Chair of Peter is an exceedingly grave failure of faith. It would do grave harm to the indefectibility of the Church. And so the grace of God does not permit this to happen.
The never failing faith of the Pope, the definition of Vatican I, certainly implies that the Pope cannot be a heretic, as then his faith would have failed. Also, the teaching that each Pope has the gift of truth implies that he cannot teach heresy. For material heresy is contrary to truth and formal heresy is contrary to a never failing faith. Thus the gift of truth and never failing faith utterly prevents any type of heresy, material or formal, in any valid Roman Pontiff.
Ignoring their previous admission that Saint Robert Bellarmine held the “first opinion” that a Pope cannot teach or in any way be a heretic, Marshall and Grant go on to adopt the fifth opinion, that a manifestly heretical Pope is de facto not a member of the Church and is automatically deposed, and therefore can be judged by an Ecumenical Council. Bellarmine accepts the fifth position only as a hypothetical that he believes cannot happen. So Marshall and Grant are not relying on the authority of Bellarmine. They are out on a limb by themselves, and they are in contradiction to the First Vatican Council.
What method can be used to judge a Pope?
Bellarmine says only an Ecumenical Council could judge a Pope who is a manifest heretic. Now Ecumenical Councils are not above Popes, and so a Council cannot judge a Pope. But Bellarmine poses a hypothetical wherein the Pope has lost his validity, has lost his office, by being a manifest heretic. So he is no longer Pope and a Council can judge him.
This is problematic. For if someone is being judged, then it is not yet clear, prior to the judgment’s outcome, whether he is innocent or guilty. If the accused Pope is innocent, then the Council judged the true Pope, which is contrary to dogma. If the Pope is guilty, then according to this fifth opinion, he had already ceased to be Pope and head, and ceased to be a Christian, and so he could be judged by the Council. The problem is that, before the Council judges him to be guilty, they lack the authority to judge if he is guilty or not. The Council does not have the authority to judge the Pope, unless he is a deposed-by-God manifest-heretic former-pope. But this can only be determined at the end of the judgment process. This implies, necessarily and absolutely, that a Council cannot judge a Pope. For they lack the authority, unless they unjustly assume his guilty before he is judged.
So Bellarmine errs on this particular point. The opinion of the Fathers that manifest heretics lose jurisdiction is not the same as the opinion that a Pope can commit heresy. Further, stating that IF a Pope committed heresy, he would automatically be cut off from the Church and would lose his jurisdiction, is not the same as saying that Popes can commit heresy.
Consider the following argument. (1) If a Pope commits heresy, he would be automatically cut off from the Church and would lose his authority. (2) If God permits Popes to commit heresy, then the faithful would not know which Popes were valid and which teachings to believe. (3) Not knowing which teachings to believe, makes it all the more difficult to determine which Popes have committed heresy. (4) Councils are only valid if approved by a valid Pope. (5) Not knowing which Popes are valid causes us to not know which Councils are valid. (6) The end of this process is that the faithful would have no way to know which Popes and Councils were valid and which teachings to believe. They would be like lost sheep, and the Church would utterly lose Her indefectibility. (7) Therefore, God does not permit Popes to commit heresy.
The argument is predicated on the true premise that IF a Pope commits heresy, he is no longer the valid Pope. So the proposition is true, in the abstract, but also counter-factual. It is like the assertion: If Christ has not risen, then our faith is in vain. Christ has risen. But it is still true that IF He has not risen, then our faith would be in vain.
Marshall and Grant unfortunately take opinion five as if it were factual, as if a Pope could teach or commit heresy, and be deposed by an Ecumenical Council. This is not possible, as the Roman Pontiff is above the authority of an Ecumenical Council.
“We also define that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons.” [Council of Florence]
Since the Roman Pontiff governs the whole Church, he also governs the body of Bishops and any Ecumenical Councils. This implies that Councils may not depose a Pope.
“Since the Roman pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the apostolic see (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman pontiff.” [Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3, n. 8]
It is easy to say “manifest heretic”, but when the accusation is against the Roman Pontiff, it is not so manifest. The accusers of Pope Francis are absolutely certain that he has taught heresy, and yet the body of Bishops and the vast majority of the faithful do not agree. Thus, a Council judging the Pope is not judging someone who is certainly a heretic prior to the judgment.
Moreover, an Ecumenical Council, by definition, is the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff and in communion with the body of Bishops. If the Pope were a heretic, who had already been deposed by God, a gathering of Bishops would not be an Ecumenical Council, as they lack a head. This is confirmed by Universi Dominici Gregis. Therein, Pope Saint John Paul II teaches that a Council ceases as soon as the Roman Pontiff, during the Council, dies, and it cannot resume without the new Roman Pontiff’s permission. On the other hand, if the Pope were innocent, then the gathering of Bishops is also not a Council, as they do not gather in communion with him, but to oppose him, and even possibly so as to declare that he is no longer a valid Pope.
I am a fan of Ryan Grant’s work. Grant’s contribution to scholarship is invaluable to the Church. But he is not a competent theologian. The ability to understand and write theology is a gift. No matter how intelligent you may be, if you don’t have that gift, then you will not be a good theologian. Despite Grant’s own admission that he is not a theologian, he delves into theology by implying that a Pope can be a heretic and can be deposed by an Ecumenical Council.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.