In trying to make sense of the current crisis in the Church, some have read the writings of theologians who teach that a manifestly heretical Pope is ipso facto deposed, and have then drawn the false conclusion that if they themselves personally judge the pope to be a heretic, it must mean he is not the pope. They then write articles instructing other member of the laity how they, too, can judge that the Pope is a heretic, in the hope that they will also conclude that the he is not a true pope. What such people have failed to realize is that the theologians who discuss the ipso facto deposition of a pope for heresy, are only referring to the speculative opinion of how the Pope loses his office (one of the “two opinions” mentioned above), which does not eliminate the necessity of the Church performing the ministerial functions necessary to establish the crime. In other words, the Church must render a judgment before the pope loses his office. Private judgment of the laity in this matter does not suffice. John of St. Thomas addressed this point directly. He explained that a pope who is a manifest heretic according to private judgment remains pope. He wrote:
“So long as it has not been declared to us juridically that he is an infidel or heretic, be he ever so manifestly heretical according to private judgment, he remains, as far as we are concerned, a member of the Church and consequently its head. Judgment is required by the Church. It is only then that he ceases to be Pope as far as we are concerned” (John of St. Thomas). (74)
Prior to the necessary judgment and declaration(s) by the Church, a heretical Pope remains a valid pope. The visibility of the Church (both formally and materially) is too necessary for the contrary to be the case.
Fr. Paul Layman S.J. (d.1635), who is considered one of the greatest canonists of the Counter-Reformation era, as it is sometimes called, explained that even in the case of a pope who was a notorious heretic, as long as he was being tolerated by the Church, would remain a true and valid pope. Writes Fr. Laymann:
“It is more probable that the Supreme Pontiff, as a person, might be able to fall into heresy, and even notorious heresy, by reason of which he would merit to be deposed by the Church, or rather to be declared as separated from her. (…) Observe, however, that, though we affirm that the Supreme Pontiff, as a private person, might be able to become a heretic and therefore cease to be a true member of the Church, (…) still, while he was tolerated by the Church, and publicly recognized as the universal pastor, he would really enjoy the pontifical power, in such a way that all of his decrees would have no less force and authority than they would if he were truly faithful.” (75)
Popes Alexander VI, John XXII, and Honorius I, were all accused of heresy by their contemporaries, yet none was declared deprived of the Pontificate while still living. Consequently, they have always been considered true Popes by the Church, even though Pope Honorius, after his death, was “expelled from the holy Church of God and anathematized” (76) for heresy, by the Third Council of Constantinople. For this reason, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia said: “It is clear that no Catholic has the right to defend Pope Honorius. He was a heretic…” (77) Yet not even Pope Honorius is considered by the Church to have lost the Pontificate while living.
St. Bellarmine himself explained that a heretical bishop must be deposed by the proper authorities. After explaining how a false prophet (meaning heretical pastor) can be spotted, he wrote:
“…if the pastor is a bishop, they [the faithful] cannot depose him and put another in his place. For Our Lord and the Apostles only lay down that false prophets are not to be listened to by the people, and not that they depose them. And it is certain that the practice of the Church has always been that heretical bishops be deposed by bishop’s councils, or by the Sovereign Pontiff.” (78)
Here we see the true thinking of Bellarmine on this point. He explains that a heretical bishop can be spotted by the faithful (who should not listen to him), but he can only be deposed by the proper authorities. If this is true for ordinary bishops, how much more necessary is it when the bishop is the Supreme Pontiff?
Sedevacantists will likely object by saying, since a pope cannot be judged by a council, Bellarmine could not have meant that a council would depose a heretical Pope. They will then insist that this is why Bellarmine taught that a heretical pope loses his office automatically. But this is clearly not the case, since Bellarmine himself defended the opinion that a heretical Pope can be judged by a council. He wrote:
“Firstly, that a heretical Pope can be judged is expressly held in Can. Si Papa dist. 40, and by Innocent III (Serm. II de Consec. Pontif.) Furthermore, in the 8th Council, (act. 7) the acts of the Roman Council under Pope Hadrian are recited, in which one finds that Pope Honorius appears to be justly anathematized, because he had been convicted of heresy, which is the only case in which inferiors are permitted to judge superiors.” (79)
He goes on to explain that even if Pope Hadrian mistakenly condemned Honorius (which is what Bellarmine personally thought), “nevertheless” wrote Bellarmine, “we cannot deny, in fact, that Hadrian, and with him the Roman Council, nay more the whole 8th General council judged that, in the case of heresy a Roman Pontiff can be judged.” (80)
Without examining the cases mention by Bellarmine, it is quite clear that he held to the opinion that a heretical Pope can be judged by a council. Now, since he explicitly stated that “heretical bishops” must be deposed by a council, the same would obviously apply to a heretical bishop of Rome. Hence, his statement that a manifestly heretical pope loses his office ipso facto does not preclude the Church performing the ministerial functions necessary to establish the crime.
Bellarmine’s thinking regarding this matter is perfectly consistent with the mind of the Church, as we see expressed in Canon 10 of the Fourth Council of Constantinople. In response to the schism of Photius, the Council attached the grave penalty of excommunication to any layman or monk who, in the future, separated himself from his patriarch (the Pope is Patriarch of the West) before a careful inquiry and judgment by a synod.
“As divine scripture clearly proclaims, ‘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 judgment in synod, even if he alleges that he knows of some crime perpetrated by his patriarch, and he must not refuse to include his patriarch’s name during the divine mysteries or offices. (…) If anyone shall be found defying this holy synod, he is to be debarred from all priestly functions and status if he is a bishop or cleric; if a monk or lay person, he must be excluded from all communion and meetings of the church [i.e. excommunicated] until he is converted by repentance and reconciled”.
The errors of Sedevacantism will be thoroughly addressed in an upcoming book, which should be out in the Spring of 2015.
In light of what the theologians and canonists have taught throughout the centuries, it is clear that the Church does possess a remedy by which she can rid herself of an heretical Pope. Therefore, faced with such an incalculably grave threat, the Church is not forced to wait for the “biological solution” to solve the problem.