A canonical primer on popes and heresy

December 16, 2016
By Edward A. Peters, Professor of Canon Law at Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit, Michigan
[ Emphasis and {commentary} in red type by Abyssum ]

{Before you read this important post from the Canon Law Blog of the distinguished Professor of Canon Law, Dr. Edward Peters, I offer for your understanding of the issues involved here some additional information.

First, you must keep in mind that the promise made by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, to preserve and protect his Church from error pertains to the teaching of the Church, primarily done by the person of his Vicar, the Pope, but also by the successors of the Apostles, individually (to a lesser degree) and collectively (to a greater degree) when a truth which is part of the Faith is being taught as de fide , i.e., as something to be believed in order to be perfectly united with Christ.

De Fide teachings are rare and their rarity is indicative of their importance.  The best example of de fide teachings are the teachings contained in the Nicene Creed.

Following Charles Journet we can describe four conditions which are necessary for ABSOLUTE INFALLIBILITY to attach to a teaching.

1.  The teaching must be about faith and morals.

2.  The teaching must apply universally to all men and women on the earth.

3.  The teaching must be the result of study and reflection over a long period of time by the faithful, especially by the pope, bishops, theologians, canonists, and other experts in the particular field of the teaching.

4.  The teaching must be promulgated in a solemn manner to reinforce the fact that it is being addressed to all men and women on earth and that acceptance of it as a de fide teaching is necessary for salvation.

It should be obvious then that teachings that do not meet the standard of those four characteristics cannot be considered infallible teachings.

Keeping that is mind it should be obvious that off-the-cuff remarks delivered in the aisle of an transatlantic flight in an airplane have zero relationship to the promise of infallibility to his Church.  And even what the pope says in prepared homilies, speeches, allocutions, little if any protection from fallibility.  

Infallibility is what the philosophers call an analogous concept, not a univocal concept, in that it admits of more or less depending on the circumstances, especially the four characteristics listed above.

In the context of heresy and the papacy about which Dr. Peters writes below, keeping in the mind what I have written above should be helpful is understanding that while a pope my utter heretical opinions, thoughts, proposals, he does not become a heretic until he attempts to define something as belonging to the de fide deposit of the faith that is in opposition to what is already accepted by the Church as belonging to the de fide deposit of the faith.

Here is where things get a little tricky.  Pope Francis is very much a Jesuit and so he avoids plain speech and writing.  He, for example will do come right out and say that everyone, regardless of their state of grace, has a right to receive Holy Communion.  Such a statement would be heretical.  He would be rightly labelled by some as a heretic as a man, but that would not make him a Heretic Pope unless and until he tried to formally change the deposit of faith in a way that seemed to meet the four characteristics of infallibility listed above.

Professor Peter’s column below is important.  I urge you to read and reread it carefully keeping in mind what I have written above.



The Conclave Of Cardinals Have Elected A New Pope To Lead The World's Catholics

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN – MARCH 13: Newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pontiff and will lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)


No one in a position of ecclesial responsibility—not the Four Cardinals posing dubia, not Grisez & Finnis cautioning about misuses, and not the 45 Catholics appealing to the College, among others—has, despite the bizarre accusations made about some of them, accused Pope Francis of being a heretic or of teaching heresy. While many are concerned for the clarity of various Church teachings in the wake of some of Francis’ writings and comments, and while some of these concerns do involve matters of faith and morals, no responsible voice in the Church has, I repeat, accused Pope Francis of holding or teaching heresy.  {I agree that the lack of accusations of heresy by Cardinals seems to absolve Francis of heresy, but there must be some point at which the sensus fidelium  voiced by the faithful begin to amount to an indictment of heresy. The Church has been saved before by the faithful when “no one in a position of ecclesial responsibility” accused a bishop or patriarch of being a heretic.}

That’s good, because the stakes in regard to papal heresy are quite high. Those flirting with such suspicions or engaging in such ruminations should be very clear about what is at issue.

First. Heresy is, and only is, “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be believed by divine and catholic faith.” 1983 CIC 751. Heresy is not, therefore, say, the failure to defend effectively specific truths of Revelation (though that might be negligence per Canon 1389); moreover, privately-held heretical views, even if they are leading to certain observable actions, are not in themselves actionable under law (Canon 1330).

Second. We can dismiss as impossible—indeed, as unthinkable thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit—any scenario whereby a pope commits the Church to a heresy. See Ott, Fundamentals (1957) 287 or Catholic Answers tract “Papal Infallibility” (2004). However grave might be the consequences for a pope falling into heresy, the Church herself cannot fall into heresy at his hands or anyone else’s. Deo gratias.

Those two points being understood, the canonical tradition yet recognizes (and history suggests) that a given pope could fall into personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly, which brings us to some thoughts on those possibilities.

Setting aside a few who, relying on half-baked notions like “popes are not bound by canon law”, throw up their hands in despair at the prospect of a heretical pope and predict the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It, others, more reasonably, point to Canon 1404, which states “The First See is judged by no one”, and conclude that the only remedies in the face of genuinely heretical pope are prayers and fasting. May I suggest, though, that canon law has somewhat more to offer than that.

Wrenn, writing in the CLSA NEW COMM (2001) at 1618 states: “Canon 1404 is not a statement of personal impeccability or inerrancy of the Holy Father. Should, indeed, the pope fall into heresy, it is understood that he would lose his office. To fall from Peter’s faith is to fall from his chair.” While I suggest that Wrenn’s warning be read again, lest its startling impact be overlooked by the calm manner in which he expressed it, turning to the crucial question as to who would determine whether a given pope has fallen into heresy, Wrenn notes that it is not settled by Canon 1404 nor, I would add, is it settled by any other canon in the Code. But again, one may turn to canonical tradition for insight.

To be sure, all admit that in talking about popes falling into heresy we are talking a very remote scenario. Vermeersch-Creusen, Epitome I (1949) n. 340, “This sort of case, given the divine protection of the Church, is considered quite improbable.” Beste, Introductio (1961) 242, “In history no example of this can be found.” And the great Felix Cappello, Summa Iuris I (1949) n. 309, thought that the possibility of a pope falling into public heresy should be “entirely dismissed given the special love of God for the Church of Christ [lest] the Church fall into the greatest danger.”

But Cappello’s confidence (at least in scope of divine protection against heretical popes) was not shared by his co-religionist, the incomparable Franz Wernz, whose summary of the various canonical schools of thought about the possibility of a papal fall from office due to heresy is instructive. After reviewing canonical norms on loss of papal office due to resignation or insanity, Wernz-Vidal, IUS CANONICUM II (1928), n. 453, considers the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope (emphasis and citations omitted):

Through heresy notoriously and openly expressed, the Roman Pontiff, should he fall into such, is, by that very fact, and before any declaratory sentence of the Church, deprived of his power of jurisdiction. 

Now, concerning this matter there are five views, the first of which denies the basis for the entire issue, namely, that a pope could, as a private scholar, fall into heresy. While this opinion is clearly pious and probable, it cannot be said to be certain and common. So, accepting the premise of the question, it needs to be considered.

The second opinion holds that the Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the fact of even hidden heresy. This opinion is rightly said by Bellarmine to labor under a false supposition, namely, that secret heretics are entirely separated from the body of the Church. The third view holds that the Roman Pontiff, not even for obvious heresy, loses, upon that fact, his power, nor can he be deprived of by deposition. But this opinion is called by Bellarmine, for ample reasons, “highly improbable”.

The fourth view, with Suarez, Cajetan, and others, argues that a pope is not, even upon the fact of manifest heresy, deposed, but that he can be and must be deposed upon a sentence (at least a declaratory one) of crime. “This view in my judgment cannot be defended” as Bellarmine teaches.

Finally there is the fifth view of Bellarmine which was expressed at the outset in the assertion [above] and which is rightly defended by Tanner and others as being more approved and more common. For he who is no longer of member of the body of the Church, that is, of the Church as a visible body, cannot be the head of the universal Church. But a pope who falls into public heresy would by that fact cease to be a member of the Church; therefore he would also, upon that fact, cease to be the head of Church.

So, a publicly heretical pope, who by the mandate of Christ and of the Apostle should be avoided because of danger to the Church, must be deprived of his power, as nearly everyone admits. But he cannot be deprived of his power by a merely declaratory sentence. 

For every judicial sentence of privation supposes a superior jurisdiction over him against whom the sentence is laid. But a general council, in the opinion of adversaries, does not have a higher jurisdiction than does a heretical pope. For he, by their supposition, before the declaratory sentence of a general council, retains his papal jurisdiction; therefore a general council cannot pass a declaratory sentence by which a Roman Pontiff is actually deprived of his power; for that would be a sentence laid by an inferior against the true Roman Pontiff.

In sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the very fact. Meanwhile a declaratory criminal sentence, although it is merely declaratory, should not be disregarded, for it brings it about, not that a pope is “judged” to be a heretic, but rather, that he is shown to have been found heretical, that is, a general council declares the fact of the crime by which a pope has separated himself from the Church and has lost his rank.

I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this analysis. See, e.g., Ayrinhac, CONSTITUTION (1930) 33; Sipos, ENCHIRIDION (1954) 156; Regatillo, INSTITUTIONES I (1961) 299; Palazzini, DMC III (1966) 573; and Wrenn (2001) above. As for the lack of detailed canonical examination of the mechanics for assessing possible papal heresy, Cocchi, COMMENTARIUM II/2 (1931) n. 155, ascribes it to the fact that law provides for common cases and adapts for rarer; may I say again, heretical popes are about as rare as rare can be and yet still be.

In sum, and while additional important points could be offered on this matter, in the view of modern canonists from Wernz to Wrenn, however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a catastrophe, Deus vetet, would result in the loss of papal office.

May that fact serve as a check against those tempted to engage in loose talk about popes and heresy.

{To which I would say, Amen!, but I would add please God do not things reach the point where there is not loose talk but well reasoned talk by responsible individuals.}

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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