Heresy and Loss of Papal Office
It may seem surprising to Catholics who have been taught the doctrine of papal infallibility that a pope, as a private teacher, can nevertheless fall into heresy and automatically lose his office. Lest it be thought that this principle is a fantasy invented by Traditionalist 'fanatics', or, at best, just a minority opinion expressed by an obscure Catholic writer or two, we reproduce some texts from popes, saints, canonists and theologians.Lay readers may not be familiar with the names of Coronata, Iragui, Badii, Prummer, Wernz, Vidal, Beste, Vermeersch, Creusen and Regatillo. These priests were internationally recognised authorities in their fields before Vatican II. Our citations are taken from the massive treatises they wrote on canon law and dogmatic theology.
Matthaeus Conte a Coronata (1950)
"III. Appointment to the office of the Primacy [i.e. papacy]. 1o What is required by divine law for this appointment: (a) The person appointed must be a man who possesses the use of reason, due to the ordination the Primate must receive to possess the power of Holy Orders. This is required for the validity of the appointment.Also required for validity is that the man appointed be a member of the Church. Heretics and apostates (at least public ones) are therefore excluded."...2o Loss of office of the Roman Pontiff. This can occur in various ways:....c) Notorious heresy. Certain authors deny the supposition that the Roman Pontiff can become a heretic.It cannot be proven however that the Roman Pontiff, as a private teacher, cannot become a heretic - if, for example, he would contumaciously deny a previously defined dogma. Such impeccability was never promised by God. Indeed, Pope Innocent III expressly admits such a case is possible.If indeed such a situation would happen, he [the Roman Pontiff] would, by divine law, fall from office without any sentence, indeed without a declaratory one. He who openly professes heresy places himself outside the Church, and it is not likely that Christ would preserve the Primacy of His Church in one so unworthy. Wherefore, if the Roman Pontiff were to profess heresy, before any condemnatory sentence (which would be impossible anyway) he would lose his authority."Institutiones Iuris Canonici. Rome: Marietti 1:312,316.
Pope Innocent III (1198)
"The Roman Pontiff has no superior but God. Who, therefore (should a pope 'lose his savor') could cast him out or trample him under foot - since of the pope it is said 'gather thy flock into thy fold'. Truly, he should not flatter himself about his power, nor should he rashly glory in his honour and high estate, because the less he is judged by man, the more he is judged by God.Still less can the Roman Pontiff glory [Minus dico] because he can be judged by men, or rather, can be shown to be already judged, if for example he should wither away into heresy; because he who does not believe is already judged.In such a case it should be said of him: 'If salt should lose its savor, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled under foot by men'."Sermo 4.
St Antoninus (1459)
"In the case in which the pope would become a heretic, he would find himself, by that fact alone and without any other sentence, separated from the Church. A head separated from a body cannot, as long as it remains separated, be head of the same body from which it was cut off.A pope who would be separated from the Church by heresy, therefore, would by that very fact cease to be head of the Church. He could not be a heretic and remain pope, because since he is outside of the Church, he cannot possess the keys of the Church."Summa Theologica, cited in Actes de Vatican I. V. Frond, publisher.
Pope Paul IV (1559)
"Further, if ever that it should appear that any bishop (even one acting as an archbishop, patriarch or primate), or a cardinal of the Roman Church, or a legate (as mentioned above), or even the Roman Pontiff (whether prior to his promotion to cardinal, or prior to his election as Roman Pontiff), has beforehand deviated from the Catholic faith or fallen into any heresy, We enact, decree, determine and define:- Such promotion or election in and of itself, even with the agreement and unanimous consent of all the cardinals, shall be null, legally invalid and void.- It shall not be possible for such a promotion or election to be deemed valid or to be valid, neither through reception of office, consecration, subsequent administration, or possession, nor even through the putative enthronement of a Roman Pontiff himself, together with the veneration and obedience accorded to him by all.-Such promotion or election, shall not through any lapse of time in the foregoing situation, be considered even partially legitimate in any way....- Each and all of the words, as acts, laws, appointments of those so promoted or elected - and indeed, whatsoever flows therefrom - shall be lacking in force, and shall grant no stability and legal power to anyone whatsoever.- Those so promoted or elected, by that very fact and without the need to make any further declaration, shall be deprived of any dignity, position, honour, title, authority, office and power."Bull Cum ex Apostolatus Officio. 16 February 1559.
St Robert Bellarmine (1610)
"A pope who is a manifest heretic (per se) ceases to be pope and head, just as he ceases automatically to be a Christian and a member of the Church. Wherefore, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the teaching of all the ancient Fathers who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction."De Romano Pontifice. II.30.
St Alphonsus Liguori (1787)
"If ever a pope, as a private person, should fall into heresy, he would at once fall from the pontificate."Oeuvres Completes. 9:232.
Vatican I (1869), Serapius Iragui (1959)
"What would be said if the Roman Pontiff were to become a heretic? In the First Vatican Council, the following question was proposed: Whether or not the Roman Pontiff as a private person could fall into manifest heresy?The response was thus: 'Firmly trusting in supernatural providence, we think that such things quite probably will never occur. But God does not fail in times of need. Wherefore, if He Himself would permit such an evil, the means to deal with it would not be lacking.' [Mansi 52:1109]Theologians respond the same way. We cannot prove the absolute impossibility of such an event [absolutam repugnatiam facti]. For this reason, theologians commonly concede that the Roman Pontiff, if he should fall into manifest heresy, would no longer be a member of the Church, and therefore could neither be called its visible head."Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae. Madrid: Ediciones Studium 1959. 371.
J. Wilhelm (1913)
"The pope himself, if notoriously guilty of heresy, would cease to be pope because he would cease to be a member of the Church."Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Encyclopedia Press 1913. 7:261.
Caesar Badii (1921)
"c) The law now in force for the election of the Roman Pontiff is reduced to these points:....Barred as incapable of being validly elected are the following: women, children who have not reached the age of reason, those suffering from habitual insanity, the unbaptised, heretics and schismatics....Cessation of pontifical power. This power ceases:....(d) Through notorious and openly divulged heresy. A publicly heretical pope would no longer be a member of the Church; for this reason, he could no longer be its head."Institutiones Iuris Canonici. Florence: Fiorentina 1921. 160, 165.
Dominic Prummer (1927)
"The power of the Roman Pontiff is lost:....(c) By his perpetual insanity or by formal heresy. And this at least probably....The authors indeed commonly teach that a pope loses his power through certain and notorious heresy, but whether this case is really possible is rightly doubted.Based on the supposition, however, that a pope could fall into heresy, as a private person (for as pope he could not err in faith, because he would be infallible), various authors have worked out different answers as to how he could then be deprived of his power. None of the answers, nevertheless, exceed the limits of probability."Manuale Iuris Canonici. Freiburg im Briesgau: Herder 1927. 95.
F.X. Wernz, P. Vidal (1943)
"Through notorious and openly divulged heresy, the Roman Pontiff, should he fall into heresy, by that very fact [ipso facto] is deemed to be deprived of the power of jurisdiction even before any declaratory judgement by the Church....A pope who falls into public heresy would cease ipso facto to be a member of the Church; therefore, he would also cease to be head of the Church."Ius Canonicum. Rome: Gregorian 1943. 2:453.
Udalricus Beste (1946)
"Not a few canonists teach that, outside of death and abdication, the pontifical dignity can also be lost by falling into certain insanity, which is legally equivalent to death, as well as through manifest and notorious heresy. In the latter case, a pope would automatically fall from his power, and this indeed without the issuance of any sentence, for the first See [i.e. the See of Peter] is judged by no one.The reason is that, by falling into heresy, the pope ceases to be a member of the Church. He who is not a member of a society, obviously cannot be its head. We can find no example of this in history."Introductio in Codicem. 3rd ed. Collegeville: St John's Abbey Press 1946. Canon 221.
A. Vermeersch, I. Creusen (1949)
" The power of the Roman Pontiff ceases by death, free resignation (which is valid without need for any acceptance, c.221), certain and unquestionably perpetual insanity and notorious heresy.At least according to the more common teaching, the Roman Pontiff as a private teacher can fall into manifest heresy. Then, without any declaratory sentence (for the supreme See is judged by no one), he would automatically [ipso facto] fall from a power which he who is no longer a member of the Church is unable to possess."Epitome Iuris Canonici. Rome: Dessain 1949. 340.
Eduardus F. Regatillo (1956)
"The Roman Pontiff ceases in office:....(4) Through notorious public heresy? Five answers have been given:1. 'The pope cannot be a heretic even as a private teacher.' A pious thought, but essentially unfounded. 2. 'The pope loses office even through secret heresy.' False, because a secret heretic can be a member of the Church.3. 'The pope does not lose office because of public heresy.' Objectionable. 4. 'The pope loses office by a judicial sentence because of public heresy.' But who would issue the sentence? The See of Peter is judged by no one (Canon 1556). 5. 'The pope loses office ipso facto because of public heresy.' This is the more common teaching, because a pope would not be a member of the Church, and hence far less could be its head." Institutiones Iuris Canonici. 5th ed. Santander: Sal Terrae, 1956. 1:396.
Citations taken from the scholarly work, Traditionalists, Infallibility, and the Pope, by Fr. Anthony Cekada, 1995.