Papal Heresy & Deposition [Abridged]


Many have asked what the Catholic Church does when the Head, that is, the Pope of the Roman See, is an out and out heretic. First, we should understand that current Code of Canon Law states very plainly:

1404 The First See is judged by no one

Secondly, knowing the above, is there a point where a sitting Pope can commit to heresy and lose his office ipso facto (by that very fact) ? It should be noted that it was the standard opinion of theologians in the medieval period to believe that a Pope could fall into heresy in his private opinions (1). Also, that most canonists believed that a Pope lost his office through heresy (2), and this is the common teaching today (3) . Within the perspective of classical theologians(4) we have the solution to a Papal heretic which says that the Pope is automatically deposed by God himself. Others stated that the Pope must be judged by an ecclesiastical body who can declare the Pope heretical, thereby announcing the vacancy of St. Peter chair, and the green light for a Papal election for a new Pope. The 12th century canonist Gratian produced a statement from a prior century which goes like this:

“No mortal shall presume to rebuke his [the Pope’s] faults, for he who is to judge all is to be judged by no one, unless he is found straying from the faith” (5)

Pope Innocent III, under whose Pontificate the primacy of the Papal office was highly promoted, wrote:

“only on account of sin committed against the faith can I be judged by the church” (6)

During the course of the Middle ages, it was common to believe that a Council of bishops could judge the Pope (7). The 15th century theologian John of Torquemada said that a heretical Pope could be judged by a council, with the added nuance that this judgement would merely be announcing the vacancy of St. Peter’s chair. The logic was taken from St. John’s gospel which records our Lord Jesus saying, “He who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18), and would entail an automatic loss of office on the part of a heretical Pope. This would maintain the law of canon 1404 cited at the beginning since it would not be an imposition of a penal sentence by the Church, but rather a recognition of fact.

In the 17th century, St. Robert Bellarmine followed Torquemada in believing this. Now, this view didn’t believe that a formal deposition takes place, since divine law already mandates that the Pope would have forfeited his office ipso facto the formal heresy (8). This recognition of a Papal forfeiture of office was compared to the issuing of a death certificate. There is the announcement, which is not the cause of death [i.e. deposition]. However, other theologians such as Cajetan, John of St. Thomas, and Fransisco Suarez, argued that there does need to be a formal judgement of the Church in order for even a past formally heretical Pope to lose his office. Suarez wrote:

“If the pope becomes an unrepentant heretic, after having passed on him the declaratory sentence of his crime, by legitimate ecclesiastical jurisdiction, he ceases to be Pope” (9)

Now, as stated in the opening, some have asked if there is a definitive and canonical model on what to do in the case of an heretical Pope. The answer is no, but that does not mean the Church has no self-defense mechanism that is knowable to foresee how this might go down. For starters, one has to be a member of the holy Church in order to hold office in the Church. Just like anyone who belongs to the community of the Catholic Church, if a Pope were to publicly profess heresy, he would ipso facto be self-excommunicate. And since non-members of the Church are not members of the Church, they cannot hold an office which is in the Church. All the views center around the necessary consequences of what formal heresy does to someone who is a member of the Church.  So it is a matter, firstly, of fact rather than canonical law. It is just simply a fact that formal heresy kicks one out of the Church, and the Church would have to, in the case of a formally heretical Pope, determine whether this is truly the case; and then it would follow that the Papal chair is vacant.

(1) Francis A. Sullivan, Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 92

(2) Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of the Church and Dogma (1300-1700), The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 108

(3) Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B, The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division)

(4) Who’s opinion is to be well respected by the mandate of the Papal Magisterium of Pope Pius IX  in Tuas Libenter ([1863], Denz 1683)

(5) Decretum Gratiani, Dist. 40, c. 6; translation in Patrick Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987), 71

(6) Patrologia Latina 217, 656; Translation in Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma

(7) Congar, L’Eglise De Saint Augustin a l epique moderne, 306, 309-310

(8) Granfield, Papacy in Transition, 171

(9) Fransisco Suarez, Opera Omnia, vol. 12 (Paris: L. Vives, 1858), tract. 1, disp. 10: De summo pontifice, sect. 6, 317)

(10) Picture from –

2 thoughts on “Papal Heresy & Deposition [Abridged]

  1. Pingback: [Review] +Athanasius Schneider: On the question of a heretical pope | Erick Ybarra – Credo Ut Intelligam

  2. Pingback: The First See is Judged by No One: Historical & Critical Review of Bishop +Athanasius Schneider’s Op-Ed for Rorate Caeli | Erick Ybarra – Credo Ut Intelligam

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