[Historical Review] The Limits of Papal Authority and the Fate of a Heretical pope: An exclusive interview with +Bishop Athanasius Schneider (2nd Look)


Pope Vigilius

In an exclusive interview with Lifesitenews , Bishop +Athanasius Schneider elaborated on his essay which is one of the most exhaustive pieces written to the question of a heretical Pope in our modern day. I will be honing in one particular comment made in this interview, which was teased out more fully in the essay, and then comment on it with the historical record in view.

When asked to give a nutshell of his position, Schneider responded saying:

The main idea of the essay is the following: A pope cannot be deposed by anyone and he cannot lose his office ipso facto for whatever reason. The Church has observed this truth for two thousand years and it has never happened that a pope was deposed because of heresy or that his pontificate was declared invalid because of heresy. No reason whatsoever, even if proposed by a saint or famous theologian – which nevertheless remains only an opinion and not a doctrine of the Church — justifies a breach with this unshakable constant tradition. It would introduce the revolutionary novelty of declaring a pope deposed or the loss of his office because of heresy.”

Let’s be clear, Bishop Schneider believes that “a pope cannot be deposed by anyone and he cannot lose his office…for whatever reason”. This means that a Pope could come out and teach either Gnosticism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monotheletism, Iconoclasm, Donatism, Pelagianism, Novatianism, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Calvinism, Jansenism, Modernism, or <insert heresy>, and promote any of these heresies through his ordinary magisterium, issuing binding decrees (all of which are, according to Schneider, legitimately resisted), excommunicating all who disagree, and deposing all bishops who disagree….and as long as he does not enforce these heresies in the mode of ex-cathedra teaching, he can stay in office and require the submission of all the baptized for decade after decade (assuming he has such a long term of office). Further, Bishop Schneider says that the Church has observed this tradition “for two thousand years”.

I am curious as to what history Bishop Schneider is reading from. I continue to read of Honorius I and John XXII, but why stop there? Have we completely forgotten about the Council of Constantinople II (553) and the disunity which erupted, in part, as a result of Pope Vigilius, and which lasted for several decades that followed? What is significant about Vigilius is that he was holding office when the Church took action against him for “heresy”. I put heresy in quotations since it turns out that the Pope was actually not in heresy, but the historical context nevertheless illustrates for us what 6th century bishops of both Eastern and Western Christendom were prepared to do in the case of a “erring” Pope. In short, the Emperor Justinian convened a Council, at the request of Pope Vigilius, to examine the document called Three Chapters, which were writings by three Eastern theologians of the 5th century (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ibas of Edessa, and Theodoret of Cyrus). The majority of the Bishops, including Vigilius himself, had already committed to condemning this document. However, when the Western churches heard about this, they mistook this condemnation for a simultaneous condemnation of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, since two of these three theologians were exonerated and accepted at this latter Council. In fact, when the Western churches finally saw that Vigilius was giving into the condemnation of the Three Chapters, they unlawfully removed his name from the diptychs. Not a small and insignificant portion, either. It was the churches of North Africa, Illyrian Peninsula, Aquileia, Milan, and Spain that ceased to commemorate Vigilius, and many of these churches would not recognize the ecumenicity of the Council of Constantinople II for many years to come. In any case, Vigilius was vasillating on the question when he resided in Constantinople. At first , he condemned the Three Chapters, and then he turned around and changed his mind. It was this changing of the mind that caused the Emperor Justinian to react with penal measures through the instrumentality of the Council to remove Vigilius from the diptychs, and then proceed to condemn the Three Chapters without Papal approval. What interests us here are the statements made at the Council on what they understood to be the recourse of the Church in response to a “heretical” Pope (I put heretical in quotes since I don’t believe Vigilius was actually a heretic, for reasons I will have to share in a different post for a different time).

In the Council extracts, the following instruction was given by the Emperor Justinian I through a certain quæster  named Constantine:

“While I am still present at your holy council by reason of the reading of the documents which have been presented to you, I would say that the most pious Emperor has sent a minute (formam), to your Holy Synod, concerning the name of Vigilius, that it be no more inserted in the holy diptychs of the Church, on account of the impiety which he defended. Neither let it be recited by you, nor retained, either in the church of the royal city, or in other churches which are entrusted to you and to the other bishops in the State committed by God to his rule. And when you hear this minute, again you will perceive by it how much the most serene Emperor cares for the unity of the holy churches and for the purity of the holy mysteries.”

In the 7th session of the Council, the Bishops decreed the following:

When the most religious Pope of Elder Rome arrived in this great city, all these things were made known to him. And when he had examined them, he both condemned them and declared his assurance in writings addressed both to ourselves and to our then spouse of pious memory; for we did not allow anyone who did not condemn this impiety to receive inviolable communion from him or from anyone whomsoever. He also swore dread oaths in writing that he would continue with the same purpose, condemning and anathematizing the aforesaid Three Chapters and would not attempt anything in any way or at any time to rebut the condemnation of the aforesaid Three Chapters. Moreover he often condemned the impious Three Chapters orally in the presence of most glorious officials and most religious bishops, as many of you who assembled know. He continued so acting for seven years. Afterwards letters passed between you and him, in which you mutually agreed to meet together and compose a condemnation of the aforesaid chapters in council. But afterwards, when invited both by  us and by your religious council, he refused to meet in common, and contradicted his own intention by defending the tenets of the followers of Theodore and Nestorius. Moreover, he made himself alien to the Catholic Church by defending the impiety of the aforesaid chapters, separating himself from your communion. Since therefore he has acted in this way, we have pronounced that his name is alien to Christians and is not to be read out in the sacred diptychs, lest we be found in this way sharing in the impiety of Nestorius and Theodore. Accordingly we earlier made this known to you by word of mouth, but now we inform you in writing through our officials, that his name is no longer to be included in the sacred diptychs. We ourselves, however, preserve unity with the Apostolic See, and it is certain that you will guard it. For the change to the worse in Vigilius or in anyone else cannot harm the peace of the churches…The holy council said: What has now seemed good to the most pious emperor is consonant with the labours he has borne for the unity of the holy churches. Let us therefore preserve unity with the Apostolic See of the sacrosanct church of Elder Rome, transacting everything according to the tenor of the texts that have been read.” (The Acts of the Council of Constantinople, Richard Price, Pages 100-101)

One of the oddities here is that while they took action against the position of Vigilius, they nevertheless saw unity with the Roman See as indispensable. Why and how this could be will have to be left for a different article, but needless to say, the precise teaching on what to do in the case of a heretical Pope and how this affects Rome as the principle of unity had not been fully worked out by the Church in the 6th century. But of supreme importance is the statement of the Bishops on how Vigilius’ name is to be removed from the diptychs because by supporting heresy, he makes himself alien to the society of the Church. Moreover, they also saw communing with a heretic as risking the same guilt as that heretic.

In the 8th session, the Bishops decreed the following:

It happened that Vigilius was staying in this Imperial city and ought to have taken part in everything that was mooted concerning these Three Chapters, and had often condemned them both orally and in writing; afterwards he also agreed in writing to attend the council and discuss these Three Chapters together with us, so that we might all produce in common a decree corresponding to the orthodox faith. So our most pious Emperor, in accordance with what had been resolved among us, urged both Vigilius and ourselves to meet together, since it is appropriate for priests to impose a common solution on common problems. Accordingly, we necessarily besought his reverence to fulfill his written promises, saying that it was not right that the cause of stumbling arising from these Three Chapters should increase and thereby unsettle the Church of God. But when, although often invited both by us all and in addition by the most glorious officials sent to him by the most pious Emperor, he postponed heeding these requests and admonitions and attending, we recalled to his memory the great example of the Apostles and the traditions of the fathers. For even though individual Apostles abounded with the grace of the Holy Spirit so that they did not need the advice of others over what had to be transacted, yet they had no wish to decide in any other way the question that was mooted, whether the Gentiles ought to be circumcised , before they met together and each of them confirmed his statements from the testimonies of the divine scriptures. Accordingly it was in common that they all pronounced judgment on the matter, writing to the Gentiles and stating in a declaration that ‘when we all assembled together it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose no other burden on you except these necessary things, that you abstain from what had been offered to idols, from blood, from what has been strangled, and from fornication’. The holy fathers also who convened at various times in the holy four councils followed ancient precedent and decreed in common on the heresies and problems that had arisen , since it is certain that it is through joint examination, when there is expounded what needs to be discussed on both sides, that the light of truth dispels the darkness of lies. For neither is it permissible in the case of the faith for anyone to anticipate the judgment of the Church in her totality, since each person needs to help of his neighbor, as Solomon says in Proverbs, ‘A brother who provides help to his brother will be raised up like a fortified city, and is strong like a kingdom with foundations’, and again he says in Ecclesiastes, ‘Two are better than one, and they have a good reward for their labour, because if one falls his comrade will raise him up’, and again, ‘Even if one man would prevail, two resist him, and a triple cord is not easily broken’. And the Lord Himself says, ‘Verily I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about any matter for which you ask, it will be given to you by my Father in heaven, for wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there am I with them in the midst of them’. When, however, even after mention of examples of this kind he postponed meeting together with us, we took to heart the apostle’s warning that ‘each person will render an account of himself to God’, and were in fear both of the judgment with which those are threatened who cause offense to one of the little ones — how much more when those offended are the Christian Emperor and whole congregations and churches — and also of what was uttered by God to Paul, ‘Do not fear, but speak and do not keep silence, because I am with you and no one will be able to harm you’. Accordingly, we assembled together and before anything else professed in summary that we hold the faith that our Lord Jesus Christ true God handed down to his holy apostles and through them to the holy churches, and which the holy fathers and doctors of the church who came after them handed down to the congregations entrusted to them” (Price, 110-11)

The Bishops here espouse what would be later called Conciliarism. They decry against the idea of a one single man being able to render a judgment over and against the whole Church, an idea given official stamp by the Vatican Council I (1870) under Pope Pius IX. For them, Vigilius had attempted to do just that by not participating in the Council. In reality, however, the Bishops are only intending to make a judgment “in common”, whereas reality proves they were operating with the force of a regional council. For the whole West, being present in the person of the Pope, the decisions made at the Council were without the West, and so it could not be a truly ecumenical action at this point in time. Moreover, by the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, it had become ecumenical belief that any conciliar deliberations without the ratification of the Pope of Rome were not to be given ecumenical weight. Be that as it may, the statements made here are extremely illuminating, however much they might represent a premature, and Imperially devised, mentality.

And it is not as if these bishops did not recognize the authoritative primacy of the Pope . When the Council had written to Viglius, pleading with him to come and cooperate with the Council, their letter had stated the following as read aloud in the 6th session:

It was indeed right, since you have obtained the prime dignity of the priesthood, most holy man, that matters that relate to the state of the holy chuches be made known to your divinely honoured beatitude. With this very much in view, our most Christian Emperor gave orders that certain proceedings concerning” (Price, 357)


But we, bishops, answered him: If your blessedness is willing to meet together with us and the most holy Patriarchs, and the most religious bishops, and to treat of the Three Chapters and to give, in unison with us all, a suitable form of the orthodox faith, as the Holy Apostles and the holy Fathers and the four Councils have done, we will hold you as our head, as a father and primate. ” (Session VII – Extracts from the Acts)

We can speak about the legitimacy or the illegitimacy of the Councils actions, as well as those of the Western churches, but one thing we cannot ignore is this – a good number of bishops from both the East and the West were prepared to respond to an erring Pope by actively severing communion with him, and no longer recognizing his name at the altar in divine liturgy. Why? Because ecclesial unity requires three outward bonds to be true, and that is unity in (1) faith, (2) sacramental cult, and (3) hierarchical episcopal communion. If there is a break in any one of these, there no longer exists the possibility of commemorating the name of a schismatic at the altar of divine liturgy when the Eucharist is the strongest symbol of ecclesial unity which exists. To commemorate the name of a Bishop who holds a different faith, or a different sacramental cult, or a different episcopal order would be a contradiction with the unity symbolized in the Eucharist Himself. And yet, Bishop Schneider made an appeal to the weight of the testimony of two-thousands years. What about this tragic event of the 6th century Mediterranean world affords omitting? Vigilius, six months after the Council concluded, finally came around and ratified the Council’s decision in condemning the Three Chapters. In fact, we don’t see any decree coming from the Pope which speaks to the “disobedience” of the Council bishops.  His successors defended the Council as ecumenical (binding) against the doubts of many Western churches.

In conclusion, Bishop Schneider’s thesis, I’m afraid, opens the door to enforcing the Bishops of the universal Church to recite the name of a heretical Pope at all divine liturgies, and thereby violate the Eucharistic unity requisite for such name to be legitimately cited.  In the Patristic mind, you are who you commune with. This is why we see the reasoning of the Council fathers at Constantinople II (553) reasoning as if they would carry the guilt of heresy if they were to retain the name of Vigilius in the diptychs of the liturgy. Therefore, as a protective measure against sinning in such a way, they excised his name, thereby breaking fellowship with him. Now, I know what the reader may be asking at this point. Is the solution then a route towards Papal depositions? I’m not exactly sure. I do know that genius minds such as Cardinal Cajetan, St. Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez, and John of St. Thomas all understood that a manifestly heretical Pope was inconsistent with the plan, design, and function of the Petrine office, and so could not held but speak to the potential possibility of the Church being able to protect herself from such fatality. Keep in mind, though, that Bellarmine was willing to entertain this as a speculative theory, but was adamant in his own opinion that God would never allow a formal and manifest heretic to ever exist in the Papal office. If I had to show a few of my cards, I would say I am beginning to lean towards Bellarmine on that one (withstanding all I have written, mind you). But what seems eminently unreasonable to me is to speak about the supremacy of the Papal office and its occupant, and then speak about the possibility of a manifestly heretical Pope being untouchable in all the ills and damage he could wreak havoc upon the Church with, allowed to enjoy full rights of Papal prerogatives all the while,  leaving the Church to suffer all the confusion and misleading that would result. To his credit, Schneider appeals to divine providence to not allow the Church to completely be destroyed, but it seems clear to me that many who have read his essay, such as Dr. Taylor Marshall and Timothy Gordon (TnT), believe that Pope Francis is just this sort of heretic, and who cannot be touched at all during his term.

5 thoughts on “[Historical Review] The Limits of Papal Authority and the Fate of a Heretical pope: An exclusive interview with +Bishop Athanasius Schneider (2nd Look)

  1. It seems to be a question of internal schism (as we have currently), or external schism (like the Vigilius affair). To a certain extent the latter is preferable because it excludes all pretense of “unity” and upholds truth above all. Without a doubt it is a difficult question.

  2. Cardinal Burke at least at one time, didn’t agree.


    CWR: Bishop Athanasius Schneider, O.R.C., the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan and titular bishop of Celerina, who has written an open letter of support for the four cardinals and their dubia, has also said that the Church is in a de facto schism. Do you agree with that?

    Cardinal Burke: There is a very serious division in the Church which has to be mended because it has to do with, as I said before, fundamental dogmatic and moral teaching. And if it’s not clarified soon, it could develop into a formal schism.

    CWR: Some people are saying that the pope could separate himself from communion with the Church. Can the pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?

    Cardinal Burke: If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.

    CWR: That could happen.

    Cardinal Burke: Yes.

    CWR: That’s a scary thought.

    Cardinal Burke: It is a scary thought, and I hope we won’t be witnessing that at any time soon.

  3. Pingback: Christ the foundation of the church – Unmasking anti Jehovah sites and people

  4. The logic would appear circular to me: let’s say I’m a “massive fan” of Pope Francis but the next Pope claims Pope Francis was heterodox or even heretical in some of his teachings. Could I just not say that Pope is rather the one who is actually heretical or heterodox? I suppose an ex cathedra pronouncement from the next Pope affirming in definition the contrary to Pope Francis’s teaching on some point(s) would be the trump card here, but I still think the precedent of just waiting for the magisterial authority of some future Pope to “finally” decide the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of a past or current Pope comes very close to effectively making submission to the Roman Pontiff’s ordinary magisterium or teaching authority virtually pointless, which seems impossible as his ordinary magisterium is also broadly covered by the charism of infallibity.

    It seems to me more in keeping with the Catholic faith and tradition to both submit and assent to the Roman Pontiff, trusting in God all the while: ultimately any divine faith must at some point do this or else God seems effectively cut out of the equation, so to speak.

  5. Pingback: Erick Ybarra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s