The Question of Papal Heresy - Part 1

February 09, 2017
Source: District of the USA
The Chair of St. Peter surrounded by Bernini's sculpture in St. Peter's, Rome.

Heretical Pope, loss of Papal Office… Are St. Bellarmine’s comments only opinions? Fr. Gleize reviews the matter in a series of 6 articles.

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.

Part 1: Introduction to the Problem

In Autumn of 2014, then again in October 2015, Pope Francis convened two Synods in Rome to consult with bishops from all over the world on questions concerning “the human family.” The outcome was, on March 19, 2016, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia on “Love in the Family.” Its eighth chapter opens the door to a practical denial of the Church’s traditional discipline concerning the sacrament of marriage, and consequently calls into question also the dogmatic presuppositions underlying it.

On September 15, 2016, the four Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller, Caffarra, and Meisner sent to the Supreme Pontiff a private letter in which they respectfully asked him to clarify the recent Apostolic Exhortation on five disputed points, using the traditional procedure of “dubia” [“doubts”], in other words, by formulating five questions calling for a clear yes or no answer. The explicit intention of this step was to verify whether the text of the Exhortation at the points indicated could be considered in conformity with the moral teaching of the Church to date.

Since Pope Francis gave no response, the five dubia were made public on November 16. To date, the Holy See still had not provided the expected response.

Giving an account of this silence, during an interview published on LifeSiteNews on December 19, Cardinal Burke declared that there must be a response to the dubia:

...because they have to do with the very foundations of the moral life and of the Church’s constant teaching with regard to good and evil, with regard to various sacral realities like marriage and Holy Communion and so forth.”1

For his part, when questioned by Andrea Tornielli in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Cardinal Brandmüller declared on December 27:

We cardinals are waiting for the answers to the dubia, inasmuch as a lack of a response could be seen by broad sectors of the Church as a refusal to adhere clearly and distinctly to defined doctrine.”

Many reflections are coming to light in the wake of the cardinalatial initiative. Just how far will this fraternal correction go? Above all, what would be the consequences thereof, in the event that Francis refused to take them into account?

For John Lamont,2 the Pope’s response is still awaited, but one can from now on assert that Francis is teaching heresy. This is why, in the event that the correction proved ineffective, the theological opinion inherited from St. Robert Bellarmine envisaging the dethronement of a pope who had fallen into heresy could very well be the solution. All the more so because, in an interview granted to Catholic World Report on December 19, 2016, Cardinal Burke, while careful not to say that Francis is a heretic, presents this hypothesis of Bellarmine as a solid conclusion and does not rule out the possibility that the College of Cardinals might be led to draw this conclusion in view of the facts.

The question about a heretical pope, which is discussed relatively little in the (Scholastic) manuals of theology, nevertheless attracted the attention of some major authors.3 In any case it provides material for a debate, which to this day has never really been taken to its ultimate conclusions.

The important thing is to go back to the principles that always remain the same, through all contingencies, even if the application thereof might momentarily cause difficulties.

In the remaining articles in this series, we will distinguish three main questions:

  1. It possible for a Pope to fall into heresy?
  2. Can the presently reigning Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis, be considered heretical, precisely because of what he teaches in Chapter Eight of the Exhortation Amoris laetitia?
  3. Does a pope who has fallen into heresy lose the pontificate?
  • 1. Lisa Bourne, “Cardinal Burke suggests timeline for ‘formal correction’ of Pope Francis”, LifeSiteNews (December 19, 2016)
  • 2. John Lamont, “Considerations on the Dubia of the Four Cardinals”, article published on the website Rorate Coeli on December 5, 2016.
  • 3. They are chiefly, as we will see later on, Cajetan, John of Saint Thomas, St. Robert Bellarmine, Suarez, Billot, and finally Journet.