Michael Lofton’s Errors on Not Judging the Pope

“The First See is judged by no one but God.” [infallible under Lateran V and Vatican I]

There is no exception to the teaching: The First See is judged by no one but God. Those who wish to depose the Roman Pontiff must overcome this (and many other) teachings. Here is a claim by Michael Lofton, which was a response to a comment by username “SacredHeart”–

SacredHeart: “One question; can a layman actually judge the Holy See or is it only for God to judge?”

Lofton: “Judge in what sense? Nobody can authoritatively judge the pope. Bishops can only judge him in the sense of recognizing if he has deviated from the faith, not in exercising authority over him. Laity can only judge a papal proposition to be false after considerable analysis on whether the magisterium has ruled otherwise or that there is strong evidence his actions are imprudent.” [Can a Pope Be Deposed? – Michael Lofton | 06/30/2021]

If no one can “authoritatively” judge the Pope, then how is the Pope to be deposed? The idea that Bishops simply “recognize” that he has deviated is absurd. Pope Francis teaches, and his opponents claim he has deviated to the extent of heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. Yet he continues to teach. There is no objective recognition of error; it is a matter of contradictory claims, for and against what the Pope has taught or decided.

And it is dogma that the First See is judged by no one. Not by Bishops, not by the laity, not even with certain conditions or distinctions. Unam Sanctam taught that the Pope is judged by no one, and Lateran V confirmed that teaching, making it infallible. The perennial teaching of the Church also confirms that teaching (see the list of teachings below).

These distinctions Lofton makes are found nowhere in magisterial teaching. If the First See is judged by no one, then the Roman Pontiff in his official acts cannot be judged by Bishops, not in any sense. If Bishops could judge that a Pope “has deviated from the faith”, that is a substantial negative judgment of the Roman Pontiff, in the official acts of his See. The Roman Pontiff could teach or make a decision of discipline, under his supreme authority, and, supposedly, Bishops could refuse those decisions, refuse that authority, by saying, “we judge that the Pope has deviated from the faith.”

That is a case of Bishops judging the Roman Pontiff. And if the Bishops prevail over the Pope, then they are the supreme authority, not the Pope. And that is the heresy of conciliarism. It is a heresy contrary to the dogmas of Vatican I on the papal charisms (see my previous post).

And then Lofton goes further and claims that the laity can judge a papal “proposition” — by which he means a teaching of the Supreme Teaching authority in the Church that the laity disapprove — and supposedly judge it to be false. That idea is schismatic, as it puts the opinion of the laity above the teaching authority of the Church. And adding the conditions of “considerable analysis” and “strong evidence” does not save the claim from being a rejection of papal authority by the laity. What is strong evidence? A papal decision. What is strong evidence in the face of a papal decision? Nothing. And what if the “magisterium has ruled otherwise”? That is for the Pope to judge, whether past magisterial teachings conflict with his teaching, or not.

Otherwise the laity could refuse an entire body of teaching by saying it conflicts with past magisterial teaching — just as has been done to reject the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of the successive Popes since that time. Lofton’s theory is playing out in practice, and instead of the Pope standing corrected, the laity and some Bishops simply become schismatics and heretics.

Does the teaching of Pope Saint John Paul II — that those who have outwardly rejected the Church can still be implicit members — conflict with the teaching of the Council of Florence? As a matter of dogma, it cannot, as the Apostolic See is unblemished and never wanders from the path of Apostolic tradition. What if the laity think there is a conflict there? They are obligated to believe what the Pope teaches on faith, and put aside their own reasonings. No Pope ever errs gravely on doctrine or discipline.

Lofton’s version of “The First See is judged by no one” has loopholes you could drive a Mac truck through. If Bishops and the laity can refuse the authority of the Pope, and judge that he has erred, that is a negation of the teaching that the First See is judged by no one. It is a negation of every Papal charism and especially of his supreme authority. Nothing is left of that saying about the First See, after the exceptions Lofton proposes.

What does the Church teach?

Pope Saint Nicholas I (858-67): “Neither by the emperor, nor by all the clergy, nor by kings, nor by the people will the judge be judged…. The first See will not be judged by anyone….” [1]

Pope Saint Leo IX (1049-54): “By passing a preceding judgment on the great See, concerning which it is not permitted any man to pass judgment, you have received anathema from all the Fathers of all the venerable Councils…. As the hinge while remaining immovable opens and closes the door, so Peter and his successors have free judgment over all the Church, since no one should remove their status because ‘the highest See is judged by no one.’ ” [2]

Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), in Unam Sanctam confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council: “Therefore, if the earthly power goes astray, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a lesser spiritual power goes astray, [it will be judged] by its superior; and truly, if the highest [power] goes astray, it will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone. And so the Apostle testifies, ‘The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.’ [1 Corinthians 2:15]” [3]

Pope Clement VI (1342-52): “whether you have believed and do believe that the supreme and preeminent authority and juridical power of those who were the Roman pontiffs, We who are so, and those who will be so in the future have been, are, and will be such that they and We were not, are not, and in the future will not be able to be judged by anyone; but that they and We have been, are, and will be reserved in judgment by God alone; and that it was not possible, is not possible, and will not be possible for Our decisions and judgments to be appealed to any other judge.” [4]

Pope Paul IV (1555-59): “the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God, and of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted, if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.” [5]

Vatican I: “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.” [Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3, n. 8]

Old Code of Canon Law: “The Primatial See can be judged by no one.” Canon 1556. [6]

Canon 1404 (1983 Code): “The First See is judged by no one” [7]

[1 Cor]
{2:15} But the spiritual nature of man judges all things, and he himself may be judged by no man.
{2:16} For who has known the mind of the Lord, so that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

Note that the teaching of 1 Corinthians 2:15-16, applied by Unam Sanctam to the Roman Pontiff, is the infallible Word of God. And Unam Sanctam was confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council, making this interpretation of Scripture regarding the Pope infallible.

Pope Pius IX, Condemned the Error: “22. The obligation by which Catholic teachers and authors are strictly bound is confined to those things only which are proposed to universal belief as dogmas of faith by the infallible judgment of the Church.” [8]

Pope Pius IX, Condemned the Error: “23. Roman pontiffs and ecumenical councils have wandered outside the limits of their powers, have usurped the rights of princes, and have even erred in defining matters of faith and morals.” [9]

Pope Gregory XI, Condemned the Error: “19. An ecclesiastic, even the Roman Pontiff, can legitimately be corrected, and even accused, by subjects and lay persons.” [10]

Non-infallible teachings and decisions require religious assent. The possibility of limited licit theological dissent does not extend to the laity or even the Bishops standing in the face of the Roman Pontiff and proclaiming him to have erred. It is dogma that he can never teach or commit heresy, that he can never err gravely on doctrine or discipline. And the limited possibility of error in what is non-infallible does not permit the faithful to judge that they are certainly correct, and the Pope is certainly wrong.

Donum Veritatis: “Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14:1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33 ).”

Papal Response

Few proponents of papal deposition consider the response of the Pope.

What happens if the Pope replies, “No, I judge that you bishops have deviated from the faith. Anathema sitis. [May you (plural) be cut off]”. The Pope would not be deposed. The Bishops would be cut off.

And if you think that a large enough group of Bishops would prevail over the Pope, think again. In the East West Schism of 1054, whose yearly anniversary is in July, the Patriarch of Constantinople and a large number of Bishops departed from communion with the Pope. He did not stand corrected, or give them whatever they wanted. He did not change the teachings or decisions of the Apostolic See one whit. They left. And they are still separated.

So this fantasy that Francis critics have of a group of Bishops who will declare that the Pope has “deviated from the faith” is contrary to historical fact. Popes do not stand corrected by Bishops or Cardinals.

When Pope Urban VI had a conflict with some Cardinals. He did not stand corrected. He threw them in prison. The Pope is the highest authority, and no one who says to the Roman Pontiff: “You have deviated from the faith!” ever prevails over him.

Pope John XXII was not corrected by a group of theologians and clergy, as the fanciful version of the story goes. He expressed a theological opinion. He permitted disagreement with that opinion. He stated he would work towards a decision under the Magisterium. He eventually changed his own opinion on the merits of the theological evidence. And his successor, Benedict XII, defined the dogma. John was not a heretic for contradicting a future dogma. Neither was Saint Thomas Aquinas in his error on the Immaculate Conception.

The Sixth Ecumenical Council did not convict Pope Honorius of heresy. Rather, Pope Saint Agatho and Pope Saint Leo II corrected the fathers of the Council. Agatho taught the Council that Popes never lead the Church astray and never fail in faith. Pope Leo II changed the charge against Honorius from heresy to negligence. (This teaching of never-failing faith was made infallible by the First Vatican Council.)

When a manifest heretic and antipope, who conspired against the true Pope Silverius, who had the true Pope sent into exile where he died, when that wicked man, Vigilius, later became true Pope, the fifth Ecumenical Council sought his approval for its teachings. And he withheld that approval for as long as he liked, until he determined that the acts of the Council were correct and prudent. The Ecumenical Council did not go forward and proclaim their teachings and their decisions without the Roman Pontiff, even though he had formerly been a manifest heretic and antipope who was responsible for the death of his predecessor. The Roman Pontiff is the Supreme authority in the Church, and no body of Bishops corrects him, accuses him, deposes him, nor declares any truth to be infallible without him.

Obvious Truth

The whole idea of deposing the Pope is based on the idea that certain truths are obvious, and so the Bishops or the people can simply acknowledge a manifest heresy or manifest grave error by the Pope. But that idea does not work in practice. The Protestants have fallen into many small groups, since they have no Roman Pontiff to unify them. Those who reject any Ecumenical Council fall into schism and heresy.

Dei Filius: “Everybody knows that those heresies, condemned by the fathers of Trent, which rejected the divine Magisterium of the Church and allowed religious questions to be a matter for the judgment of each individual, have gradually collapsed into a multiplicity of sects, either at variance or in agreement with one another; and by this means a good many people have had all faith in Christ destroyed.” [Introduction, n. 5]

The truth on faith and morals requires a unity of belief based on a single visible Head of the Church on earth. Allowing religious questions to be a matter of judgment for individuals or even Bishops, in contradiction to the Roman Pontiff, results in a multiplicity of sects. It is not obvious that a Pope has erred gravely. Every Pope accused of grave errors or grave failures in faith has his defenders. Saint Robert Bellarmine defends every Pope against the claim of heresy. So do some modern authors, like William Carrol and Fr. Joseph Iannuzzi.

And the infallible teachings of Vatican One make the deposition of any Pope unnecessary, as no Pope can fail in faith, and the Apostolic See is without blemish at all times. So without heresy, without grave errors that would blemish the First See, there is no need for a judgment and a consequent deposition.

Pope Paul IV: “the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God, and of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted, if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.” [Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio]

The document of Paul IV never speaks of the Roman Pontiff erring by apostasy, heresy, or schism — except before he becomes Roman Pontiff. The list of persons affected by the decision of Paul IV, persons who fail gravely in faith, does not include the Pope. Then later, Paul IV only allows that a Pope might deviate from the faith, not commit apostasy, heresy, or schism. So a deviation from the faith is a lesser error, as in a less than grave error in a non-infallible decision. And what is permitted to the people of God is to disagree, that is, to contradict the Roman Pontiff. This licit theological dissent is discussed in “Human Life in Our Day” by the U.S. Bishops, and in Donum Veritatis by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. And the ability to licitly dissent permits this contradiction, but it is in no way or sense a judgment over the Pope. For the faithful must maintain that possibility and even the likelihood that the Magisterium has not erred, and that it is the dissenter who has erred. We can never speak with surety in contradicting a non-infallible less than grave alleged error of the Roman Pontiff. We do not have the papal charisms. And even the non-infallible decisions of the Pope have the help of the Holy Spirit.

The claim that a Pope can be judged is heresy or proximate to heresy, and the claim that a Pope can be deposed is heresy or proximate to heresy. There is no system for deposing the Pope, no matter what hypothetical is proposed, that does not contradict multiple weighty dogmas on the authority and preservation from grave error of the Roman Pontiff.

Bellarmine, Pighius, Vatican I

Bellarmine: “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. 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, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis Book 1). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

Vatican I infallibly confirmed the opinion of Bellarmine, raising to the dignity of a dogma the truth that the Pope can never be a heretic. And this leads to the conclusion that the Pope “would not be deposed in any case.” Bellarmine agrees with this idea, calls it probable and easily defended. And Vatican I has made it required belief.

It is heresy to say that a Pope has failed in faith, such as by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry; it is heresy to say that the Apostolic See, the Pope in his official decisions of doctrine or discipline, can err gravely. It is schism to propose deposing any particular Pope, currently in office.

More From Lofton

Michael Lofton: “The Church is going to be avoiding him, getting separated from him, refuse communion with him…. So it’s not that the Church is sitting in judgment over the Pope, as if it’s superior to him. That would be conciliarism. No…it is simply, the Church is avoiding him, separating itself from him, refusing communion with him.” 16:40 ff

Lofton is describing the opinion of another author, but one whom he agrees with. It is patently self-contradictory to say that the Church is not sitting in judgment over the Pope, but is merely…well, utterly rejecting him and refusing his authority in its entirety. So that is a severe judgment of the Pope. Deposition is removal of the Roman Pontiff from office and deprivation of all his power and authority. Calling that not a judgment is like robbing a bank and saying, “This isn’t bank robbery; I’m merely making a withdrawal … at a bank where I don’t have an account.” Saying to the Pope, we’re not judging you, but you will be leaving Vatican City and someone else will take your place is a judgment of the most severe type possible against the Pope.

What Lofton describes is not so much a legitimate deposition of the Pope, but a schism of those who are attempting to depose the Pope. Those who avoid the Pope, separate from him, refuse communion with him are committing the Canonical crime of schism, which carries the penalty of automatic excommunication. Submission to the Roman Pontiff is required of all the faithful: “it arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” That is dogma. Refusal of submission is schism.

Lofton goes on to describe a system of deposition where it is Christ, the authority of Christ, which is actually deposing the Pope. Really? What if the Pope disagrees and refuses to be deposed? He is the Vicar of Christ, none other. No one can say to the Pope, we depose you by the authority of Christ, as no one on earth exercises the authority of Christ except through the one Church whose one Head is Christ and His Vicar. And since is it dogma [Pius XII Mystical Body of Christ 40] that “Christ and His Vicar constitute one only head” of the Church, the Pope cannot be deposed by some other authority, even all the Bishops put together, exercising the authority of Christ. They have no authority apart from the Pope, just as Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 22 teaches:

“But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church, and made him shepherd of the whole flock….”

So the body of bishops lacks the authority to depose the Pope. They have “no authority” apart from the Pope. They exercise their authority as Bishops “together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.” Never. Their authority is only ever exercised “with the consent of the Roman Pontiff.” So the Pope cannot be deposed by the Bishops. That is heresy. And Lofton is wrong when he claims that the Bishops have some authority apart from and even in opposition to the Pope.

Then the claim that a Pope can commit heresy is contrary to the dogmas of Vatican I. And the claim that heresy can be “manifestly clear” is not how heresy and dogma have ever worked in the history of the Church. There are persons on both sides of a doctrinal controversy. There are multiple interpretations of anything the Pope might say. Nothing is manifestly clear apart from the authority of the Church and her Supreme Shepherd the Pope.

When a group of “scholars”, clergy, and a few Bishops declare the Pope to be a heretic or apostate or idolater or whatever else, the Pope does not leave Rome. He does not stop teaching. And the body of Bishops, by the prevenient grace of God which no one can resist, will never fall into apostasy, heresy, or schism by rejecting the Roman Pontiff or the Apostolic See or the true faith taught and confirmed by every Pope. All that is left is for a schismatic group to pretend that they have deposed the Roman Pontiff, and to elect an antipope. Or perhaps they will depart from the Church without a Roman Pontiff of their own, like the SSPX.

At just before the 22 minute mark, Michael Lofton claims that an Ecumenical Council could, but probably will not, depose Pope Francis. That is the heresy of conciliarism, condemned by Vatican I: “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.” [Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3, n. 8]

Finally give this letter of Pope Saint Paul VI to the schismatic Marcel Lefebvre a read. The Pope did not stand corrected by the SSPX. They departed from communion with the Pope by schism and heresy. And they remain separated from the Church today. Lefebvre died separated from communion with the true Church. That is not what you want for the end of your life, my fellow Catholics. Not at all.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

1. Pope Saint Nicholas I, Letter Proposueramus quidem to Emperor Michael, 865; Denzinger n. 638.
2. Epistle: In Terra Pax Hominibus, 1053; Denzinger 351-353.
3. Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, n. 7.
4. Pope Clement VI, Letter Super quibusdam to the Mekhithar (Consolator), September 29, 1351; Denzinger 1056.
5. Pope Paul IV, “Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio”.
6. Old Code of Canon Law, Canon 1556.
7. Code of Canon Law (1983), Canon 1404.
8. Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, n. 22.
9. Ibid., n. 23.
10. Pope Gregory XI, Errors of Wyclif, n. 19.

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