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The Question of Papal Heresy - Part 6b

March 16, 2017

In this second part of the conclusion in this series, Fr. Gleize discusses two distinct approaches to this question, and Abp. Lefebvre's prudence.

The author of this series, Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, has been a professor in the SSPX's Seminary of St. Pius X in Econe, Switzerland for 20 years, where he is currently teaching ecclesiology. He is the author of numerous articles in Courrier de Rome and is a consultant to the SSPX commission responsible for doctrinal discussions with the Holy See.

Editor’s Note

This second section of Part 6 of Fr. Gleize’s precise study of whether or not a heretical pope loses his investiture must be read in the light of the first section, particularly the portions here discussing the theological speculations of Cajetan and Suarez.

Readers should take particular note here of how the Society of Saint Pius X has approached this problem, not as a speculative matter, but as a matter of prudential judgment.

The third section of Part 6 will conclude Fr. Gleize’s critical analysis of the various speculative approaches to the issue of the papacy and heresy.

Part 6b – Does a pope who falls into heresy lose his investiture in the Primacy?

Two Approaches to the Question of Heresy

Following on what has been said in Part 6a, we can therefore pose the question about the heresy of the pope in two different ways. First, as a purely speculative problem, abstracting from all circumstances. Then we stick to purely theological reasons, which are supposed to be valid in all cases but are only probable and remain insufficient to provide speculative certitude, since only a still non-existent argument of Magisterial authority could give an apodictic answer.

Secondly, as a prudential problem, while taking into account the circumstances, the solution of which could be applied only to a single case. We stick then not to what is certain, theologically speaking, but to what is surest, given the circumstances. The judgment of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and of the Society of Saint Pius X on the crisis of the Church is not a theoretical, purely speculative judgment (as is a mathematical judgment); it is a practical and prudential judgment. This explains why it could evolve and be modified by reason of new circumstances. (Conversely, the judgment of the sedevacantists and the ecclesiadeists is a mathematical judgment that tries to stick to a unique, universal conclusion that is true and certain in all circumstances.)

Speculative Opinions Remain Debatable

As for the purely speculative opinions of the older theologians, they remain debatable, on that same level of speculation.

The opinion of Juan de Torquemada (see Part 6a) is improbable; moreover it is presented as an objection and refuted by Cajetan in his De comparatione, in chapters 17, 19, and 22. Heresy committed in the internal forum of the conscience is unverifiable; if it entails the loss of the supreme pontificate, it will never be possible to verify this and the Church will never have certitude about a possible cessation of the investiture. Such a situation contradicts the essentially visible character of the Church.

The opinion of the medieval theologians (cf. no. 3), which acknowledges that the Church has a power to depose the pope if necessary, contradicts the divine constitution of the Church: Cajetan recognizes that this thesis mentioned in an objection was (at least in his era) the common opinion. But it does not hold up, because since the pope is above the Church by divine right, if there is an exceptional case in which the Church has power over him, this case must be explicitly foreseen and stated as such in the sources of revelation. Now, “when we consider the exceptional case of heresy, divine law does not foresee that the pope should be subject to the Church” (see De comparatione, chapter 20, §280). This is why the explanation set forth by these theologians should be rejected: it contradicts the explicit teaching of revelation.

Cajetan’s explanation suffers from a weakness that it without a doubt fatal to it. For it begs the question, supposing that the authentic meaning of Titus 3:10 (and of other similar passages in Scripture) is the sense required in order to be able to prove the alleged interpretation. Now this supposition is purely gratuitous. St. Paul says that it is necessary to avoid a notorious heretic, no more and no less.

On the basis of that, nothing proves that a notoriously heretical pope is dismissed from his office, because nothing says that the situation of someone who must be avoided by the faithful is incompatible with the title of the papacy. Despite the paradoxical attractiveness of this assertion at first glance, it is still possible to avoid having anything to do with a notoriously heretical pope, without therefore considering him as being dethroned from the papacy.

The Archbishop giving a sermon in 1984.

Lefebvre’s Prudential Approach

Abp. Lefebvre’s supernatural prudence in the present situation of the Church since Vatican Council II demonstrates this sufficiently. A good summary of this attitude is given by the Declaration of Fidelity to the Positions of the Society of St. Pius X:

I, the undersigned, recognize Francis as Pope of the Holy Catholic Church. That is why I am ready to pray in public for him as Supreme Pontiff. I refuse to follow him when he departs from Catholic Tradition, especially in the questions of religious liberty and ecumenism, as also in the reforms which are harmful to the Church.”

This expression “I refuse to follow him” neatly corresponds to the devita of Saint Paul, and it does not rule out the “I recognize.”

Billot Contra Cajetan’s Speculative Opinion

Returning to the matter of speculative opinions, we can also add (to confirm this first argument, which is the main argument of the refutation) that Cajetan’s explanation in reality does not avoid saying that the Church is above the pope. Cardinal Billot saw this clearly in his Traité de l’Église du Christ, question 14, thesis 29, part 2, pp. 605-606, nos. 940-941:

Let no one say that the deposal could still be understood not as the direct withdrawal of the papacy (since this power is given directly by God and subordinates all other power in the Church to itself), but rather as a simple change of subject, inasmuch as one would withdraw from the pope the legitimacy that acquired his election for him. In fact…far from being the contrary corresponding to the election, this change of person is dependent on another order, for it corresponds to an act of jurisdiction and to the exercise of a power. This is why the objection’s conclusion does not follow: just because the person of the pope can be designated by men, this does not mean that the latter have the legitimate power to dismiss the person of the pope from the papacy....The Church, or an ecclesiastical assembly, cannot perform any act upon the person of the pope, except for the election. And therefore, once the election is canonically terminated, the Church has nothing more to do until a new election takes place, which can occur only after the see becomes vacant.”

And, further, Billot observes the following:  

Cajetan takes a lot of trouble without managing to show how it would be possible to keep these three principles together: a pope who has fallen into heresy is not thereby deposed by virtue of divine law nor by virtue of human law; the pope who remains pope has no superior on earth; if the pope loses the faith, the Church has the power to depose him all the same. But one may reply that, if the pope who has fallen into heresy remains pope and can be deposed by the Church, one or the other of these two consequences must necessarily be admitted: either the fact of deposing the pope does not require the one who deposes him to have power over him, or else the pope while remaining pope is really subject on earth to a superior power, at least in a particular situation. Moreover, as soon as we open the door to a deposal, there is no longer any reason to restrict it (by the very nature of things or by virtue of a positive law) to deposal solely in the case of heresy. For then we have already destroyed the principles that make the deposal impossible in general, and nothing remains but a voluntaristic rule, accompanied by an arbitrarily defined exceptional case.”

Shortcomings in Suarez and Bellarmine’s Explanations

Suarez’ explanation (see Part 6a) is original. In fact it can be likened neither to Cajetan’s nor to St. Robert Bellarmine’s. For Cajetan, the Church alone causes the pope’s dethronement; for Saint Robert Bellarmine it is Christ alone. For Suarez it is Christ and the Church at the same time. We should note in passing that this way of viewing the problem is characteristic of his eclecticism. Suarez has a lot of erudition but little genius. He does not synthesize. He always has trouble deciding among opposing authorities, and his tendency is to reconcile them is a sort of middle-of-the-road solution.

In acting this way, he weakens the principles: this, incidentally, is the main reason why Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange disapproves of Suarez. For example in De Christo salvatore, pp. 108-109, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrant writes:

In this question, Suarez, as is often the case with his eclecticism, refutes Scotus by relying on Saint Thomas and Saint Thomas by relying on Scotus. But this intermediate position is very difficult to hold, and it is not at all easy to preserve its equilibrium or stability, and this is why it is not uncommon for Suarez, when he sets forth his theses, to waver or oscillate between Saint Thomas and Scotus without finding a firm position.”

(For more on this topic, see the book by Michel Villey, La Formation de la pensée juridique moderne (Presses Universitaires de France, 2003), pp. 351-353).

It is important to remember that Suarez is a man of his times, and the deep trends that he expresses already herald modern positivism. For Cajetan, the Church deposes the pope without thereby exercising a power that was superior to the papacy. Christ does not intervene; it is enough for the Church to annul the final condition, which is insufficient but nonetheless required for investiture so that it can produce its fruit. Everything happens at the level of the previous disposition.

For St. Robert Bellarmine, Christ denies the formal heretic’s investiture inasmuch as he is a formal heretic: the Church has no role to play. For Suarez, the Church prepares, so to speak, the way to Christ, so that He can depose His vicar. The same critique can be made of this explanation as of Cajetan’s. Suarez supposes that the passage by St. Paul to Titus justifies his thesis. Now we have seen that that is not at all the case.

As for the passage from the First Epistle of St. Clement of Rome which both Cajetan and Suarez rely upon, the text cannot be found in the editions of the authentic works of Saint Clement: it is probably apocryphal.

St. Robert Bellarmine’s opinion was no doubt common until the time of Vatican Council II, but the situation that has emerged since then modifies the particulars of the problem. This opinion is therefore a probable approach to a solution in a certain context, but it could not be applied to every context. As we explained earlier, this way of solving the theoretical problem is not a universal principle of responding in practice to it.