Canon law tradition says a pope who commits formal heresy ceases to be pope: expert
December 21, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) -- The saga of the four cardinals’ dubia and their possible “formal correction” of Pope Francis over Amoris Laetitia has raised the question of what would happen if a pope obstinately refused to uphold the perennial truths of the faith.
While the leading critics of Amoris Laetitia, including the four cardinals, have been clear that they are not accusing Pope Francis of heresy, many wonder in light of the Church’s teaching on papal infallibility if it is possible for a pope to commit heresy and how it would affect his papal office if he did.
Renowned canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters recently wrote a blog post on this very question.
According to Peters, who holds the Edmund Cdl. Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, canonical tradition has dealt with the possibility of a pope falling into personal heresy and promoting such heresy publicly and what should be done if this happens.
Peters notes that while it is true that, as Canon 1404 states, “The First See is judged by no one,” thus making it impossible for anyone to remove an erring pope from his office, this does not mean that a pope in error retains his office.
Peters quotes an interpretation of Canon 1404 by famous American canon lawyer Lawrence Wrenn to make the point.
“Canon 1404 is not a statement of personal impeccability or inerrancy of the Holy Father. Should, indeed, the pope fall into heresy, it is understood that he would lose his office. To fall from Peter’s faith is to fall from his chair,” writes Wrenn in the 2001 New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law.
Peters writes that the “crucial question” from a canonist’s perspective is “who would determine whether a given pope has fallen into heresy,” a question he says that canon law is silent about, but not canonical tradition.
Peters finds the canonical tradition expressed by Franz Wernz — a famed canonist who was elected as the Superior General of the Jesuit order in 1906 — who considered the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope in his work Ius Canonicum.
After laying out various positions dealing with a heretical pope and showing their deficiencies, Wernz speculates that while no one on earth can remove power from a pope since there is no higher office than “Roman Pontiff” that is capable of passing such judgment, nevertheless, a general council could determine that a pope had committed heresy, and in doing so, had effectually cut himself off from the true vine, thereby forfeiting his office.
Writes Wernz in his work published posthumously in 1928: “In sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the very fact. Meanwhile a declaratory criminal sentence, although it is merely declaratory, should not be disregarded, for it brings it about, not that a pope is ‘judged’ to be a heretic, but rather, that he is shown to have been found heretical, that is, a general council declares the fact of the crime by which a pope has separated himself from the Church and has lost his rank.”
After quoting Wernz, Peters comments: “I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this analysis.”
Comments Peters: “…however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a catastrophe, Deus vetet [God forbid], would result in the loss of papal office.”
“In sum, and while additional important points could be offered on this matter, in the view of modern canonists from Wernz to Wrenn, however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a catastrophe, Deus vetet, would result in the loss of papal office,” he writes. “May that fact serve as a check against those tempted to engage in loose talk about popes and heresy.”
Peters writes that “thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit” the Church, even during the reign of a heretical pope, “cannot fall into heresy.”
In an interview with Catholic World Report published this week, Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the four cardinals behind the dubia, said that he and his brother cardinals are not saying the pope is in heresy, but merely asking him to clarify ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia.
“We have simply asked him, as the Supreme Pastor of the Church, to clarify these five points that are confused; these five, very serious and fundamental points. We’re not accusing him of heresy, but just asking him to answer these questions for us as the Supreme Pastor of the Church.”
When asked about what would happen if a pope did commit heresy, Burke — recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Roman Catholic canon law — agreed with Peters' analysis that such a pope would automatically cease to be pontiff.
“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,” he said.
Following the canonical tradition, Burke said that it would have to be members of the College of Cardinals who would make such a declaration of heresy, adding that there is already the discipline in place to be followed when the Pope ceases from his office, as happened when Pope Benedict XVI abdicated his office.
Read Dr. Ed Peters' blog post here.
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