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Can the Pope Become a Heretic

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Can the Pope Become a Heretic?
This has been an academic discussion among theologians and canonists for centuries. Some hold that since the Vatican Council in 1870, this is now considered an impossibility, while others hold that this possibility was not set aside by the Vatican Council. In doing the research, it appears that this is still considered a possibility. This discussion shall give the reasoning of those theologians and canonists who believe that it is possible for the Pope to become a heretic, as well as those who discuss it academically and then to make some observations based upon the comments after the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917, which have a bearing on this proposition. Pope Paul IV opens ‘Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio’ with the following statement: “We considering a matter of this kind to be of so grave and perilous a nature that even the Roman Pontiff, who is the viceregent of God and the Lord Jesus Christ “Cum ex apostolatus officio Nobis, upon earth, having a plenitude of power over meritis licet imparibus, divinitus credito, nations and kingdoms, judging all and being c u r a D o m i n i c i g r e g i s N o b i s i m mineat judged of none in this present world, may generalis, et exinde teneamur pro fideli illius nevertheless be reproved if he is found custodia, et salubri directione, more vigilis deviating from the faith-and (considering Pastoris, assidue vigilare, et attentius moreover) that where there is greater danger providere, ut qui hac aetate, peccatis there should be also a fuller and more exigentibus, propriae prudentiae innitentes diligent consultation, lest false prophets or scientius, et perniciosius solito contra others having secular jurisdiction also, orthodoxae fidei disciplinam insurgunt, et should entangle miserably the souls of the superstitiosis, ac fictitiis adinventionibus faithful, and should draw down with them sacrarum Scripturarum intelligentiam into perdition and destruction the pervertentes, Catholicae Ecclesiae unitatem innumerable peoples committed to their et inconsutilem Domini tunicam scindere charge and government in spiritual o r moliuntur, ab ovili Christi repellantur, nec temporal matters, and so it might happen magisterium erroris continuent, qui discipuli that we should see the abomination of veritatis esse contemnunt.” desolation spoken of by Daniel the Prophet, in the holy place.” This would appear to confirm the possibility of a Pope saying something heretical. In fact Pope John XXII did, was reproved and retracted his statements. He made a statement upon what was then an open question, which theologians considered a dangerous statement. In the case of statements in a speech, one should give more latitude than in something more official, such as an Encyclical.

Has Any Pope Become a Heretic?
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Although some allege this has happened, Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine in his de Romano Pontifice went to great lengths to demonstrate that it had never happened in history and disproved each and every allegation. More modern authors have also considered this question. In discussing resignation of the Pope, Abbo and Hannan in The Sacred Canons (1921) state: “Moreover, the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff would cease if he should become insane, though only if this were established by incontrovertible proof, for insanity is juridically equivalent to death. According to the opinion of some canonists, it would cease also upon his notorious lapse into heresy. Neither of these two eventualities has occurred in the long history of the papacy.” Saint Alphonsus is also of the same opinion. Therefore as of 1921, no case of actual Papal heresy has occurred according to the opinion of theologians and canonists.

What Would Happen If the Pope Became a Heretic?
Dogmatic Theology: Christ’s Church by Van Noort (1957) teaches: “All theologians admit that the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith or morals when so speaking: either by proposing a false opinion in a matter not yet defined, or by innocently differing from some doctrine already defined. Theologians disagree, however, over the question of whether the pope can become a formal heretic by stubbornly clinging to at error in a matter already defined. The more probable and respectful opinion, followed by Suarez, Bellarmine and many others, holds that just as God has not till this day ever permitted such a thing to happen, so too He will never permit a pope to become a formal and public heretic. Still, some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy. They add that should such a case of public papal heresy occur, the pope, either by the very deed itself or at least by a subsequent decision of an ecumenical council, would by divine law forfeit his jurisdiction. Obviously a man could not continue to be the head of the Church if he ceased to be even a member of the Church.” This is a good summary of the thinking of theologians and canonists on this important subject. What is most important is that all canonists who consider this possibility do so in commenting on two Canons of the Code of Canon Law. “If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff wishes to resign his office, it is not necessary for the validity of the renunciation that the Cardinals or any other persons accept the resignation.” This is significant, because Canon 188 states: (Canon 188, paragraph 4) “”All offices shall be vacant ipso facto by tacit resignation in the following cases: 4. If a cleric has publicly lapsed from the faith.” “Ob tacitam renuntiationem ab ipso jure admissam quaelibet official vacant ipso facto et sine ulla declaratione, si clericus: 4. A f i d e c a t h o l i c us publice defecerit;” “Si contingat us Romanus Pontifex renuntiet, ad ejusdem renuntiationis validatatem non est necessaries Cardinalem aliorumve acceptatio.” (Canon 221)

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Canonists have debated whether or not his also includes schism, but Pope Pius XII appears to have settled this as the ‘lawgiven’ in the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi: “For not every sin, however great it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.” (Paragraph 23) In the previous paragraph he had stated; “Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.” We know that heretics do not profess the true Faith. Now we should distinguish between an isolated incident, such as that of Pope John XXII and persistent and notorious heresy. An isolated incident is most likely an accident, which would not have happened with more mature deliberation. However, persistent and notorious heresy is another matter. This is a way of life and thus quite dangerous. In the case of a notorious and persistent heretic, the law is quite clear. They are excommunicated ipso facto under Canon 2314, become irregular under Canons 984, paragraph 5 and 985, paragraph 1 and resign all offices in the Church under Canon 188, paragraph 4 to mention a few results. Pope Pius IX states that they have suffered shipwreck in the Faith, and much more can be said.

Why Is the Case of the Pope Different?
If all Christians who become heretics immediately suffer shipwreck of the Faith and incur excommunication and irregularity, why doesn’t the Pope? Why is there a reticence to ‘judge the pope’? The reason is simple. “Prima Sedes a nemine judicatur’ (Canon 1556) “The Primatial See can be judged by no one.” In fact this is a doctrine of the Divine and Catholic Faith. This is why canonists and theologians have debated the question of whether or not a Pope can become a heretic and more important, what can the Church do if such a catastrophe happened. Some hold that an imperfect council of the Church would have to be called to declare the fact and then elect a Pope or convene the Cardinals to elect a Pope. It is called imperfect, because only a Pope can call an Ecumenical Council. Others hold that the Cardinals, as the ordinary electors of the Pope, could intervene to declare the papacy vacant and proceed to elect a Pope. Some hold that the papacy does not truly become vacant until such declaration, while others hold that the papacy become vacant by the act of heresy and all that is required is the declaration of this fact by the Church.

Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio And a Possible Solution
Given the reasoning of the more modern canonists in light of Canons 188, paragraph 4 and 221, the most likely event is that a Pope by committing an act of heresy resigns his office, which the Church accepts by the very fact of the heresy as it does in all other cases. It should be noted that the old law supporting Canon 188, paragraph 4 is Pope Paul IV’s Bull, ‘Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio. We have quoted paragraph 1 above. Let us consider that if a man is a persistent and notorious heretic after his apparent election as Pope, he might have been a heretic prior to his election. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that if this is true, that God would make this able to be discovered by carefully reviewing a man’s speeches and writings prior to his election as Pope?

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Paragraph 6 of ‘Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio’ provides: “We add moreover that if at any time it shall appear that any Bishop even if he assert for himself the rank of Archbishop, Patriarch, Primate, or Cardinal of the aforesaid Roman Church, or legate, or even Roman Pontiff before his promotion or assumption into the Cardinalate or Pontificate, shall have deviated from the Catholic faith or have fallen into any heresy, or incurred, excited or committed any schism, his promotion or assumption even made in full concord and with the unanimous consent of all the Cardinals, shall be null, abrogated, and void, nor shall be called or become valid even by the reception of the grace of consecration nor the subsequent possession of government and administration, nor even by the enthronization or adoration of the elected person as Roman Pontiff or the universal obedience rendered to him for how long a period soever.”

“Adiicientes quod si ullo umquam tempore apparuerit aliquem Episcopum, etiam pro Archiepiscopo, seu Patriarcha, vel Primate se gerentem, aut praedictae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem, etiam u t praefertur, Legatum, seu etiam Romanum Pontificem ante eius promotionem, vel in Cardinalem, seu Romanum Pontificem assumptionem a fide Catholica deviasse, aut in aliquam haeresim incidisse, promotio, seu assumptio de eo etiam in concordia, et de unanimi omnium Cardinalium assensu facta, nulla, irrita, et inanis existat, nec per susceptionem muneris, consecrationis, aut subsecutam regiminis, et administrationis possessionem, seu quasi, vel ipsius Romani Pontificis inthronizationem, aut adorationem, seu ei praestitam ab omnibus obedientiam, et cuiusvis temporis in praemissis cursum, convaluisse dici, aut convalescere possit, nec pro legitima in aliqua sui parte habeatur,”

If we find heresy in a person’s pre-election writings and speeches, then he ceased to be a Catholic prior to his apparent election as Pope. Since only a Catholic man can become Pope, he was not capable of being elected Pope as Pope Paul IV states in this bull. And this also solves the problem about judging the Pope, because we are not judging the Pope, but rather judging whether or not a man became Pope when there is a good reason to doubt that he did. It is this author’s opinion that God would have the evidence available to us upon research, if it appeared that a Pope became a heretic. In other words, God would have evidence of his heresy before his apparent election as Pope to be able to be discovered with reasonable research.

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