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Could God permit a heretical pope to remain in office, and why would He?

There is a reason why it is not impossible for a heretic to occupy an ecclesial office.
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Lightning strikes the Vatican, Feb. 11, 2013, hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.
Peter Kwasniewski By Peter Kwasniewski

January 9, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Can a pope be a formal heretic but still somehow continue in his office (although he will be prevented from declaring heresy ex cathedra)? In an article at OnePeterFive, Eric Sammons makes a compelling case that the answer is “yes.”

St. Robert Bellarmine laid out the various possible scenarios well, but there are two objections to the way he reasoned about them. On the one hand, his argument against the possibility that “the pope could be a heretic” is not tight: it would be a terrible trial, he says. But God’s providence could allow even a terrible trial for a time, so long as it did not damage the Church beyond recovery. On the other hand, his argument for the possibility that “the Church could simply recognize the fact of the pope’s abdication” encounters insurmountable practical difficulties: by the time the Church has a formal heretic as a pope, she most likely also lacks the highly virtuous churchmen to carry out such a maneuver. So it seems more reasonable to conclude that the pope could be even a formal heretic.

An obvious objection is that the Church has said no formal heretic can occupy an ecclesiastical office, as found in the 1917 Code of Canon Law: “Any office becomes vacant upon the fact and without any declaration by tacit resignation recognized by the law itself if a cleric: ... 4. Publicly defects from the Catholic faith.” But this is a principle of law, not a principle inherent in the natures of things. The commentators say it is “incongruous” that a heretic should occupy such an office, not that it is impossible in itself.

The reason it is not impossible for a heretic to occupy an ecclesial office is that the Church is defined not only by belief and loyalty, but also by place and time. Someone who has defected from the Church’s belief and therefore ceased to be Catholic in the most important sense can still, in the stupidly physical sense of the word, occupy an ecclesiastical office: he can sit in a room in the Vatican or in a bishop’s estate, and he can write on official letterhead, and so on. One could approach him and say, “Excuse me, but since you are no longer a Catholic, you should leave the room.” But he will say, “How dare you say I am no longer a Catholic?”

Formal heretics, despite their formal heresy, have rarely admitted to being no longer in the fold. And as long as no one else can occupy the office, and the people subject to that office have no power to act, this squatter in the office wields a de facto authority. It is incongruous that someone outside the Catholic faith continues to tell people what to do in the Church — it is, in fact, rather like someone who does not belong to a family having absolute power over the family. But it is not impossible.

In actual practice, therefore, formal heretics have occupied ecclesiastical offices, until someone with authority to do so (and, often enough, with thugs to back him up) insists that they leave. So the current Code of Canon Law repeats the old canon: “The following are removed from ecclesiastical office by virtue of the law itself: … 2. One who has publicly defected from the Catholic faith.” But it merely acknowledges the reality of the situation when it adds: “The removal mentioned in nn. 2 and 3 can be insisted upon only if it is established by a declaration of the competent authority.” True, this declaration is a mere recognition of fact, but for the automatic removal from office to have juridical effect, the recognition must come from a competent authority.

Therein lies the difficulty when it comes to the Petrine office. This principle stated by Canon Law can have its effect only if we can find someone authorized to say, in an official way, that the pope is a formal heretic. In any case, it is tricky to get a canon law case up against the man who has absolute power over canon law.

This leaves us with the practical difficulty of getting together a contingent of men somehow either authorized or competent and virtuous enough to “merely recognize” the pope’s de facto abdication. Pending that, no one else can occupy the office, and everyone under him continues under an obligation of obeying (according to a correct  notion of obedience: one obeys unless commanded to act against the known truth held with a good conscience). This is to say that, in some real yet irritating sense, he still occupies the office despite having rejected it in some important way.

On a notorious and formal heretic holding ecclesiastical office, most authors say this can happen despite the fact that heresy separates one from the Church, but they will say that the occupancy of such office is made possible by extraordinary jurisdiction supplied by the Church —w hich some interpret to mean “supplied by the pope.” If this were true, then a manifestly and notoriously heretical pope could not supply his own jurisdiction, so the usual basis for saying that a heretical cleric can retain office would not apply in the case of such a pope. In other words, he would be worse off than all other bishops. This seems counterintuitive at first but would make sense from the vantage of his office being the first and most important and therefore not capable of retaining someone who ought to believe and act as the visible head of the Church on Earth.

However, this claim about supplied jurisdiction masks a secret papolatry. Since it is the very nature of the Church that demands the existence of the papal office — in other words, since the pope is not first, simply speaking, but, as a member of the Church, takes up an office of the Church and for the Church — the pope gets his jurisdiction from the Church. The Church is the first and abiding reality with and under Christ, and the pope is consequent to that reality. There are other offices within the Church that are consequent to the Church simultaneously with the pope’s office — that is, there are other offices consequent to the Church that are not consequent to the pope. Hence, it is truer to say a heretical cleric can retain office because of jurisdiction supplied by the nature of the Church.

The Lord does not allow any evil except for the sake of some good, and in the case of the just whom the Lord loves, that good will not be merely the eventual punishment of the wicked, but growth in virtue, achievement of sanctity, and everlasting glory for those who remain faithful. I hope and believe, as part of my basic act of faith in God, that every evil the Church suffers will somehow advance her well-being in the end.

That such may be the case in our present mighty trial, I daily beg of the crucified yet risen Lord, adding my prayers to the incense of those martyrs recounted in Revelation 6, and adding my cry to theirs: “How long?”


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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.