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ROME, March 25, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Bishop Athanasius Schneider recently published an essay in which he considers and rejects the possibility of the theological opinion that the Church could depose a heretical pope.

In his essay (which may be viewed here), the auxiliary of Astana considers that, far from reflecting an exaggerated ultramontanism, the acceptance of the possibility of a heretical pope but the denial that he could be deposed reflects a reasoned and proportionate understanding of papal authority.

In an exclusive interview with LifeSite, Bishop Schneider expands on certain questions which arose in response to his essay: the authority of those theologians with whom he disagrees, the scope for debate in regard to this question, and the abuses which have arisen since the beginning of the last century from an exaggerated view of papal authority. 

Here below is our interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider.

LifeSite: Your Excellency, can you please summarize in a nutshell the position you lay out in your essay on the question of a heretical pope? 

Bishop Schneider: 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.

The other main idea is to propose a concrete canonical procedure that could be executed in the case of a heretical or a semi-heretical pope — a procedure that will not contradict the Divine constitution of the Church. This proposal is meant only as an impulse and contribution to further theological and canonical debate.

The other relevant intention of the essay is to raise awareness about the already centuries-old erroneous and unhealthy state of papal-centrism or papolatry, i.e. about the phenomenon of an inflated concept of papal authority in the life of the Church.This phenomenon represents to some extent a caricature of the papal ministry. It makes the pope the omnipresent focal point of the daily life of the Church on a worldwide scale and insinuates that a pope can never make a mistake. A new kind of a total papal infallibility is thereby established, and unconsciously turns the pope into a kind of demigod. Such a phenomenon is alien to the sane tradition of the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church. It is indeed time to sound a warning cry in this regard. 

Why have you decided to publish this essay now?

In recent times, there have been discussions about the theory or opinion on a heretical pope on the internet and in other media. I have received letters from many people, even from serious theologians, who want to discuss the matter and know my approach to it. 

I noticed that to some degree there was a lack of clarity of thought, a tendency to base reasoning on emotion, and solutions proposed that in their final consequences contain the dangerous principles of sedevacantism and conciliarism.

The opinion that a heretical pope can be deposed or lose his office ipso facto because of heresy ultimately contradicts the Divine constitution of the Church, which says that the power given to the pope comes directly from God and not from the Church, i.e. not from an ecclesiastical institution (college of cardinals or a council). In times of widespread doctrinal confusion and an unprecedented crisis regarding the papal magisterium, there is a danger of losing one’s emotional calm and intellectual clarity and sobriety — qualities that are indispensable for finding in a sure manner the way out of the crisis — amid the noise of a growing number of increasingly loud and discordant voices. 

What is the highest authority in the tradition which explicitly agrees with your position?

For me the highest authority is the constant Tradition of the Church, which has never officially taught that a pope can legitimately be deposed for any reason whatsoever, and which has never carried out such a deposition in practice. Regarding a so-called papolatry and exaggerated papal-centrism, it is again the sane and sure Tradition of the Fathers of the Church and of the popes of the first millennium that contradicts it.

Do you think a Catholic in good standing could hold that an ecumenical council or the cardinals could bring it about that a pope was deposed, even though you personally hold that this opinion is false? In other words, is it a question open to legitimate debate among Catholic theologians? 

Since the supreme authority of the Church, i.e. the Papal Magisterium or the Magisterium of an Ecumenical Council, has not yet up to now issued relevant teachings or binding norms on how the Church ought to treat a pope who is spreading heresies or semi-heresies, the possibility remains of a legitimate debate among Catholic theologians.

What would you say to someone who holds that the authority of Cajetan, Suarez, John of St. Thomas and Bellarmine is so great that it doesn’t make sense for someone to take your authority over theirs?

I did not intend by my essay to impose my opinion an anyone. My intention was to provide an impetus and to offer a contribution to a serious debate on this concrete issue. The authority even of renowned theologians is nonetheless an opinion. Their opinions do not represent the voice of the Magisterium — and surely not the voice of the constant and universal Magisterium of the Church. 

As I mentioned in my essay, there were well-known theologians who, for a considerable time, taught an objectively erroneous opinion about the matter of the sacrament of Orders, i.e. that the matter of this sacrament was the handing over of the instruments, an opinion which was absent during the entire first millennium. The handing over of the instruments was even not practiced during the first millennium in the entire Church in the East and West. 

The aforementioned theologians do not present the proof of the universality and antiquity of the entire Church, which is necessary in such an important question.

Do you think that Bellarmine’s advancement of the position that God will not allow a pope to be a formal heretic is just a pious opinion or an erroneous theologian opinion? 

We have to consider the fact that, in the time of St Robert Bellarmine, there was still a theological debate underway about the concrete limits and mode of exercising the charisma of the infallibility in the Papal Magisterium. I am inclined to assume that St Robert Bellarmine thought that the Pope could not pronounce a formal heresy when teaching definitively or, using the terminology of the First Vatican Council, when teaching “ex cathedra.”

The practical steps you propose emphasize the work of individuals who might correct a pope, but also included is the notion of a group of bishops collectively doing so. Is this the same as the classic Dominican idea of an ‘imperfect council’ of bishops that could investigate charges of papal heresy?

I categorically reject the idea of a so-called ‘imperfect council’ of bishops. The term in itself is theologically contradictory and essentially represents the heresy of “conciliarism” or “synodality” in the manner of the Orthodox churches.

The idea of a body in the Church that would exercise the role of an investigating judge and pronounce judgement over the Pope, who is the visible head of the Church, contradicts the Divine constitution of the Church. In the end, this is the method employed by the Orthodox Church. This approach was the deepest root of the Great Oriental Schism in 1054 between the Greek Church and the Holy See. At the time, the Patriarch of Constantinople, along with his synod, investigated in a type of “imperfect council” charges of alleged papal heresies. 

My proposal to issue a correction to the Pope corresponds to the example of St Paul in his correction of the first Pope, St Peter, and does not represent a judgement over the Pope. There is a subtle but crucial difference between a correction — a fraternal correction — even in a public form, and the act of an investigating judge and who pronounces a verdict. 

The correction I have in mind could also be expressed by a group of bishops, but not as a formally assembled group. It would rather be a matter of collecting their individual consensus on the fact of the heresy or the semi-heresy of a pope — of compiling then their signatures and commissioning one of them to transmit the correction to the pope. This is not a judicial investigation process of the pope, but a verification of an obvious fact. In substance, such a correction would have the same meaning as did St Paul’s correction of St Peter. Yet in this case, it would be done in a collective manner by a group of cardinals or bishops, or even faithful.  

Would you say that the question is at least doubtful enough that it would be rash and gravely imprudent to attempt to depose a heretical pope?

It would contradict the Divine constitution of the Church and would on a practical level inevitably create enormous confusion, as happened during the Great Schism at the end of the 14thand the beginning of the 15thcenturies. We have to learn from history.

How important is it that an ecumenical council posthumously condemn a heretical pope? 

We already have the example of three Ecumenical Councils, which posthumously condemned Pope Honorius I. This is surely important, and the Church must stop the spread of heresies or erroneous and ambiguous teachings which a heretical, a semi-heretical or a highly negligent pope has left behind him after his death. Indeed, the Church has never tolerated for a lengthy period of time the existence and spread of heresies or doctrinal ambiguities. Likewise, a good mother will not tolerate harmful food for her children, and a good physician will not tolerate the spread of infectious diseases. Heresies and ambiguous doctrines in the life of the Church are nothing less than harmful food and infectious disease.  

You raise the issue of how an inflated concept of papal authority encouraged novelties in the Roman Liturgy? Do you think that Pius X, Pius XII and Paul VI exceeded their authority as pope in making the liturgical changes which they did? And do you think that the canon of Trent forbidding the creation of new rites binds the Pope as well as other pastors of the Church?

The way in which the constant Tradition of the Church and all the popes until the beginning of the 20thcentury behaved should be a sure indication. In fact, the Church for nineteen centuries never made drastic, inorganic or revolutionary changes to the lex orandi, i.e. the Sacred Liturgy. 

The fact that the manner of liturgical celebrations is not strictly-speaking a dogmatic or, as people say today, a pastoral issue, does not mean that a pope can therefore execute a revolutionary liturgical reform. Here, the Oriental or the Orthodox churches are an outstanding example of an extremely diligent and somewhat scrupulous approach to liturgical reforms. In my opinion, the aforementioned popes abused their power by implementing radical and inorganic liturgical reforms. The radical nature of these reforms were alien to the entire Tradition of the Church in both East and West for nineteen centuries, i.e. until the beginning of the 20thcentury.

The canons of the Council of Trent, which forbade the creation of new rites in the celebration of the sacraments, referred to such revolutionary and inorganic liturgical reform. In this sense these canons should be observed by all popes, even though they are not strictly binding for a pope. Each pope should, however, consider these canons of the Council of Trent as an appeal of the proven wisdom of the constant and sure Tradition of the Church. It would be a sign of audacity and of papal absolutism and therefore of imprudence not to follow this advice. 

There is a well-known principle dating back to the time of the Apostles and first popes which says: “Nihil innovetur, nisi quod traditum est,” i.e., “Let there be no innovation beyond what has been handed down.” It was with these words that I deliberately concluded my essay.