Papal Heresy and Deposition

Portrait of Pope John XII

This posting is actually my attempt to copy/paste a facebook log of comments in answer to the below question. I have not yet made it into an article-form, but have just pasted my comments from the discussion, so forgive the messiness.

Imagine a pope falls into heresy. How would this be identified and corrected and, is it possible for a pope to be deposed from his office for heresy?

Lord Forbid this ever be necessary.


Erick Ybarra The first thing to note is that the movement to identify a Bishop, let alone a Pope, as a heretic is a careful and slow process. The 10th Canon of the 4th and Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (869-70) states: hagia_sophia_cathedral

As divine scripture clearly proclaimes, ‘Do not find fault before you investigate, and understand first and then find fault’. And does our law judge a person without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does? Consequently this holy and universal synod justly and fittingly declares and lays down that no lay person or monk or cleric should separate himself from communion with his own patriarch before a careful inquiry and judgement in synod.…”

So the first step would be : Investigation

Erick Ybarra The Church’s theologians can offer “dubia” or inquiries to clarification , when putting side by side the particular teaching of the Pope and the article of Christian faith he is supposedly denying (whether directly or indirectly). However, the proof of the crime of heresy , which is different than mere heresy, would have to be conducted by the competent authority, namely, those who are ordained to the Shepherding of the Church (Magisteria), the Bishops.

Does this in any way mitigate against the pope’s unique and supreme role in making and interpreting doctrine and if not, why not?

Erick Ybarra Good question 🙂

All members of the Church, including the Pope, are bound to the following declaration made at the Vatican Council:

“Therefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed
which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition,
and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed,
whether by her solemn judgment
or in her ordinary and universal magisterium”

The level at which this *prior* magisterium, or *remote* magisterium (as opposed to the magisterium of the present), is at the supreme level of authority, and is thus irreformable even by a future Pope who wields the same supreme authority. The Pope’s authority is only potentially equal, and since the former teachings are all given as *definitive* , the Pope has no ability to effect changes.

So, it does not mitigate against the Pope’s unique and supreme role in formulating dogmatic definitions (he does not make doctrine) since, for example, the magisterial
teaching of the past, let’s say, just for one example, the infallible & ecumenical authority of Chalcedon 451, carries with it the very same level of authority that a particular Pope would in his ex cathedra teaching.

So let’s say the Pope came out and asserted that Christ *does not* have two natures in one single person (Chalcedon’s definition), that would mean he negates former supreme authority, and since reason forbids that two contrary assertions can co-exist in reality (the law of non-contradiction), and since Vatican I dogmatically and infallibly taught that faith cannot contradict reason, the Church can recognize a dereliction of duty on the part of this particular Pope; but again, final decisions would not be in the hands of the laity, but of the Bishops, and more appropriately, the Cardinals.

Erick Ybarra Secondly, the magisterium, per Vatican I decrees require us to pay with divine assent to all dogmatic pronouncements of the Church’s magisterium (Councils, Papal decrees). From that moment onward, the infallible Vatican Council (#1) says all teaching thenceforward must conform to the very same meaning as formerly held by the Church. The faithful are endowed with the cognitive reception to identify what this is by several methods, one being the sensus fidelium, right reason (which again, faith cannot contradict reason, as stated in V1), the consensus of the Church’s theologians, chiefly the church fathers.

Vatican I itself made this a law at least with regard to the divine revelation of Scripture in its “Profession of faith”:

Likewise I accept sacred scripture
according to that sense which holy mother church held and holds,
since it is her right to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy scriptures;
nor will I ever receive and interpret them except according to the unanimous consent of the fathers.

On the Decree on “Faith and Reason” , the Vatican Council says:

“Hence, too,that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.”

Thus, if a Pope were to attempt to come out and say that through divine illumination, the development of doctrine, (etc,etc), Jesus really did not raise from the dead in his physical human body, and that rather the sense in which the church has used “body” or “flesh” (soma, sarx, corpus, etc,etc) were just code-words for a new kind of body which is not human…..the faithful are *BOUND TO IGNORE HIM*

Erick Ybarra …since one is already bound by divine obligation to pay divine assent to the already dogmaticized faith on the real resurrection-human-body of jesus

Erick Ybarra Also, the Pope’s authority is limited by his very vocation, and since the Vatican I council decreed that the Pope is not authorized to teach any new doctrine not formerly held by the Church, he is bound to proclaim what is *already known*, to some degree, by the faithful (sensus fildelium/episcopate/consensus of faith/scholastic theologians).

It states:

For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter
not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine,
but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

Erick Ybarra If it were the case that the Pope’s authority was not conditioned by the above articulated vocation, then it would be the case that his authority could enforce whatever it is that he wished.


Erick Ybarra Thankfully, we have an example in divine revelation, wherein the 1st Pope was espousing, whether directly or indirectly, a compromise of Christian teaching in the city of Antioch. The competent authority, St. Paul the Envoy of Christ, had the proof of this crime in person, and proceeded to offer his fraternal correction.

Erick Ybarra Based off divine law (Titus 3:10), the heretic is to be rejected after the 1st and 2nd admonition. In other words, he/she is to be seen as severed publicly from both visible bonds of the Church. And, in the case of a Pope, since a manifest formal heretic is not even a member of the Church, much less hold an office *in the Church*, he is to be announced self-deposed by the divine law of Titus 3. This is how St. Robert Bellarmine put it:

“For, in the first place, it is proven with arguments from authority, and from reason that the manifest heretic is ipso facto deposed. The argument from authority is based on Saint Paul (Titus 3:10), who orders that the heretic be avoided after two warnings, that is, after showing himself to be manifestly obstinate” (De Romano Pontifice, Bk 2, Ch 30)

Erick Ybarra Since the corrections offered to the heretic (Titus) are to be done by the member of the episcopate (i.e. St. Timothy, and those faithful men he ordains to be entrusted with pastoring), it would not be enough for the faithful, or even priests, to offer the warnings. John of St. Thomas (one of the church’s foremost theologians) writes:

“So long as it has been declared to us juridicially that he is an infidel or heretic , be he ever so manifestly heretical according to private judgement, he remains, as far as we are concerned, a member of the Church and consequently its head. Judgement is required by the church. It is only then that he ceases to be Pope as far as we are concerned” (Cursus Theologici II-II De Auctoritate Summi Pontificis, Disp. II, Art. III, De Depositione Papae, p. 139.)

Erick Ybarra Historical precedent for this was given with the heresy of Nestorius of Constantinople (429-30). It had been shown that he was preaching a heresy in the city of Cple, and yet Cyril of Alexandria, the one responsible for this investigation, did not remove him from the diptycha of Alexandria.Pope Celestine was then notified by Cyril, and the Pope gave him 10 days to recant his *already held* error or else he would be excommunicated (which proves that a Bishop, including the Pope, does not lose his ecclesiastical office even when a formal heretic without having the competent authority both prove the crime and commit the sentence). Due to the intervention of Emperor, Nestorius was rather to have a Council, which the Pope acquiesced to, and sent his legates with the very same stricture as in his former letter of warning. At the Council of Ephesus 431, it was proven by competent authority that Nestorius was indeed a manifest heretic, holding to his error with a pertinacious will, and he was *then* deposed, and excommunicated.

Erick Ybarra Now, the question is inevitable. In the Code, it states in Can. 1404: The First See is judged by no one.

Since the Pope holds the highest office, he cannot receive a sentence of deposition or excommunication from anyone in the Church [know this matter is distinct from whether the faithful can be cognizant of a heresy or deviant teaching of a particular reigning Pope]. So how would a heretical Pope be deposed?

Pope Innocent III, in his Coronation sermon IV, says :

“The Roman Pontiff…should not mistakenly flatter himself about his power, not rashly glory in his eminence or honor, for the less he is judged by man, the more he is judge by God. I say ‘less’ because he can be judged by men, or rather shown to be judged, if he clearly loses his savor to heresy, since he ‘who does not believed is already judged’ (John 3:18). In such a case it should be said of him ‘If salt should lose its flavor, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled underfoot by men’ ” (In Consecratione, PL 218:670)

The same Pope says elsewhere “For me the faith is so necessary that, whereas for other sins my only judge is God, for the slightest sin committed in the matter of the faith I could be judged by the Church” (Serm. Consecrat. Pontif. Rom., PL CCXVII, col 656)

Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) writes : “It is beyond question that a Pope can err in matters of faith, and even teach heresy…I say: If by the Roman church you mean its head or pontiff, it is beyond question that he can err even in matters touching the faith. He does this when he teaches heresy by his own judgement or decretal. In truth, many Roman Pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was Pope John XXII (1334)” (IV Sentent, Quaestio De Confirm, quoted by De Boussuet in ‘Oeuvres Completes’ Tome XVI)

Commenting on this nuance of showing “to be judged“, the famous canonist Fr. Wernz wrote that the declaratory sentence of a crime of heresy “does not have the effect of judging a heretical Pope, but of demonstrating that he has already been judged” (Ius Decretalium (1913) II, p. 615).

Erick Ybarra So, in a short and simple summary, the Pope can be offered correction and warning by the competent authorities, and once the crime of heresy (manifest w/ pertinacity of will), an imperfect council can announce that the Chair of Peter is vacant, thereby opening the way for the election of a new Pope who can confirm the former movements of the Council, thus completing the authority of the act.

Erick Ybarra More commentary on the cognizance of deviant teaching in a possibly heretical Pope. As you have probably read elsewhere, some people have this idea that the Pope is authorized, via the authority gifted to his office, to promote any teaching that he wants, and that whichever interpretation that he comes to, the faithful are bound since his interpretive ability is confirmed to be stamped with God’s authority. You now know this to be false since the very Council which devoted the most space to defining the power of the Roman Pontiff says:

“Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for
on the one hand right reason
established the foundations of the faith
and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things;
on the other hand, faith
delivers reason from errors and
protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds.”

Erick Ybarra Moreover, in the Papal magisterium of Pope Pius IX, in his Ineffabilis Deus , writes concerning the Magisterium which relates to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception:

“And indeed, illustrious documents of venerable antiquity, of both the Eastern and the Western Church, very forcibly testify that this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the most Blessed Virgin, which was daily more and more splendidly explained, stated and confirmed by the highest authority, teaching, zeal, knowledge, and wisdom of the Church, and which was disseminated among all peoples and nations of the Catholic world in a marvelous manner — this doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine. For the Church of Christ, watchful guardian that she is, and defender of the dogmas deposited with her, never changes anything, never diminishes anything, never adds anything to them; but with all diligence she treats the ancient documents faithfully and wisely; if they really are of ancient origin and if the faith of the Fathers has transmitted them, she strives to investigate and explain them in such a way that the ancient dogmas of heavenly doctrine will be made evident and clear, but will retain their full, integral, and proper nature, and will grown only within their own genus — that is, within the same dogma, in the same sense and the same meaning.”

Erick Ybarra You will have some persons, wishing to undermine the organization of the Catholic magisterium, who will seek to trap Catholics into an internal break in the system, such that the faithful are helplessly bound to whatever a Pope or group of bishops with the Pope decide to do. This is especially enhanced by appealing to the absence of any clearly articulated process of deposing a Pope, for instance. However, this disposition comes with several false presumptions. The first is that the magisterium has a blank check on its authoritative teaching abilities, when this is explicitly contradicted by the Vatican decrees. Secondly, it presumes that the faithful have no cognitive powers to sense either deviation or conformity, and are only left as obligated to offer blind obedience to the Pope and the pastors in union with him, when in fact that very magisterium of the Pope has stated plainly that the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful, i.e. the whole church) is a rule to abide by . And thirdly, this disposition operates with an ignorance to the true function of the Papal office, which is chiefly described in the famous “Papal Oath” once required to take upon entering office. I will quote below.


Erick Ybarra ” I vow to change nothing of the received tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; 

To the contrary: with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort; 

To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order that may surface; 

To guard the holy canons and decrees of our Popes as if they were the divine ordinaces of heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, whose place I take through the grace of God, whose Vicarship I possess with They support, being subject to the severest accounting before Thy divine tribunal over all that I shall confess; 

I swear to God Almighty and the Savior Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared….

I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I.

If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, thou willst not be merficul to me on that dreadful day of divine justice. 

Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone – be it ourselves or be it another – who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction to this constituted evangelic Tradition and the purity of the Orthodox faith and the Christian religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture”

Erick Ybarra A few more comments, and I’m off (I promise).

The 1st Vatican Council defined what it is that Catholics are required to believe (also quoted above, but we’ll quote it again) :

“Therefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed
which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition,
and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed,
whether by her solemn judgment
or in her ordinary and universal magisterium”

Just by this binding statement, we have any reigning Pope barred in by divine chains to what has always been known.

Ordinary and Universal Magisterium (OUM) or De Fide non Definita is another mode of infallible teaching and renders the Patristics as a rule of faith, since the whole Church cannot err. The Patristics have been used in ecclesial magsterial acts as a rule to the faith. You see this in the Council of Orange , the Council of Trent , and Pope Pius IX in Gravissimas Inter (for more, see Denzinger Indez Systematicus under A7ad). The Church recognizes the inability of the Patristics, as a whole to err in faith and morals, and so they serve as a source of appeal in dogmatic teaching. This should dispel the erroneous strategy of those who refuse to recognize anything as authority which does not come directly from a Pope. Besides, it is a contradiction since the Pope’s have directly submitted their magisterium to the Patristics (v1).

This would also, then, include the Vincentian canon as a rule of faith – “that which has been believed everywhere, at all times, by all Christians”. It is not a rule which is perfectly transparent , but it is a general rule nonetheless, and you see Papal magisterium co-ordinated to it in its past teaching acts.

Another thing you might hear is “I see you quoting theologians and their opinions. I want words that come out of the Pope’s mouth!!”. Well, Pope Pius IX in Tuas Libenter ([1863], Denz 1683) wrote “that you must believe those teachings of the universal ordinary magisterium held by theologians to belong to the faith.”. Note it does not say “Bishops”, but rather “Theologians”. Fr Chad Ripperger notes that this term “refers to a specific group of men, viz. those theologians of the various scholastic schools from the twelfth centnunry until the middle of the eighteenth century (roughly during the years of 1100 to 1750) , (Magisterial Authority, page 30). And so the person with the initial objection would have to eat the words of this Pope, but there is more – Denz. 2879/1683, Gregory IX, Ab Aegyptiis (Denz 824/442); Sixtus IV, Romani Pontificis Provida (Denz. 1407 [no corresponding old #]).

Then, if your interlocutors are insisting that only what is taught ex Cathedra from a Pope is going to count, then you can respond by saying that they have an idealized and unreasonable expectation of what counts as reliable teaching. It would be as if before 325 AD, no one could trust that Christ was consubstantial with the Father. But such a proposition is ridiculous, and so their expectation is ridiculous.


Finally, for more theological study, I recommend Fr. Chad Ripperger’s two little booklets “The Binding Force of Tradition” & “Magisterial Authority, “On Divine Tradition” by Cardinal John Baptist Franzelin SJ translated by Ryan Grant,  “True or False Pope?” by Robert Siscoe and John Salza, and “Tradition and Church” by George Agius D.D.

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