“No one is ever allowed to disobey the pope. Period.”
The statement is made repeatedly on social media, usually in an attempt to end a debate. It’s taken as a given. No sources cited, no documentation provided. It’s merely assumed. It is, after all, obvious.
But is it? Does the Catholic Church actually teach this? Has She ever taught this?
As always in Catholic theology, distinctions must be made.
Few would disagree that it’s permissible to resist a Pope. This idea dates back to St. Paul’s resisting St. Peter in Galatians 2:11–15:
But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision. And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented, so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We by nature are Jews, and not of the Gentiles sinners.
St. Paul takes issue here with St. Peter’s conduct in withdrawing himself from the table of the Gentiles for fear of offending the Jewish converts; by doing so, St. Peter risked misleading the Gentiles into thinking they were obligated to conform to the Jewish way of living. St. Paul’s reprimand here is clearly not an argument against St. Peter’s authority. St. Thomas Aquinas concurs that even an inferior may, and sometimes ought to admonish his superior:
[I]f there was a question of a danger for the Faith, the superiors would have to be rebuked by their inferiors, even in public.” (1)
Aquinas, along with many of the theologians quoted below, makes clear that any such public resistance is directed toward a prelate’s exercise of authority, as Paul did to Peter (2) if there is a danger to the faith (3). As licit resistance, it does not constitute “judging” the Pope.
Concerning this resistance, Thomas Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534), a leading theologian of his time, concurs:
Therefore, you must resist, to his face, a pope who is openly tearing the Church apart, for example, by refusing to confer ecclesiastical benefices except for money, or in exchange for services … a case of simony, even committed by a pope, must be denounced. (4)
But what if this “resistance” is not simply rebuking a pope in an improper exercise of authority? Is disobedience ever allowed? Do theologians ever discuss “disobedience” to the “pope” specifically?
In fact, they do.
Francisco Suarez (1548–1617) of the School of Salamanca, a Jesuit priest and theologian, considered by many to be one of the greatest Scholastics after St. Thomas Aquinas himself, wrote:
If the Pope lays down an order contrary to right customs one does not have to obey him; if he tries to do something manifestly opposed to justice and to the common good, it would be licit to resist him; if he attacks by force, he could be repelled by force, with the moderation characteristic of a good defense. (5)
Sylvester Prieras (1456–1523), a Dominican theologian, appointed master of the Sacred Palace by Pope Leo X and known for his detailed rebuttal to Luther’s 95 Theses, wrote:
In answer to the question, “What should be done in cases where the Pope destroys the Church by his evil actions?”: “He would certainly sin; he should neither be permitted to act in such fashion, nor should he be obeyed in what was evil; but he should be resisted with a courteous reprehension[.] … [H]e does not have the power to destroy; therefore, if there is evidence that he is doing it, it is licit to resist him. The result of all this is that if the Pope destroys the Church by his orders and acts, he can be resisted and the execution of his mandate prevented. The right of open resistance to prelates’ abuse of authority stems also from natural law[.] … As Cajetan observes, we do not affirm all this in the sense that someone could have competence to judge the Pope or have authority over him, but meaning that it is licit to defend oneself. Indeed, anyone has the right to resist an unjust act, to try to prevent it and to defend himself.” (6)
Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546), his Dominican counterpart, founder of the School of Salamanca, wrote:
If the Pope by his orders and his acts destroys the Church, one can resist him and impede the execution of his commands. (7)
St. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), Jesuit theologian, Doctor of the Church, one of the greatest defenders of Catholic theology during the Counter-Reformation, wrote:
As it is lawful to resist the pope, if he assaulted a man’s person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state, and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will; still, it is not lawful to judge or punish or even depose him, because he is nothing other than a superior. See Cajetan on this matter and John de Torquemada. (8)
Juan Cardinal de Torquemada (1388–1468), not to be confused with Tomás, the Grand Inquisitor (1420–1498), wrote:
Were the pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands is to be passed over. (9)
More recently, Raymond Cardinal Burke, canon lawyer, stated: “[There are even times when a] Pope must, as a duty, be disobeyed.” Cardinal Burke referenced the late medieval historian and Oxford scholar Professor John Watts, who wrote about limits to Petrine ministry (10).
The first well known example of a bishop openly disobeying a pope in this sense is provided by Bishop Robert Grosseteste (1175–1253), Bishop of Lincoln (north of London) and one of the most learned men of the Middle Ages. Michael Davies is here quoted at length:
The issue which provoked Bishop Grosseteste’s refusal to comply with what he considered to be an abuse of papal power was that of the papal provision to benefices [a permanent Church appointment, typically that of a rector or vicar, for which property and income are provided in respect of pastoral duties]. He was a man who would allow no compromise on a matter of principle, and here was a question which could not have been more directly concerned with the care of souls. Where he was concerned, there were two considerations which must come before all else when appointing a priest who was to be a true pastor to his people: the pastor must be spiritually worthy of his awe-inspiring office, and he must live among his flock.
He accepted that, in virtue of his plentitude of power, the Pope had the right to make nominations to benefices, and, where this right was properly exercised, he was quite prepared to accept it. But for him both papal power and the provision to a benefice had but one end — the salvation of souls. The Pope, therefore, had been given the power to nominate men to pastoral offices only to build up the Body of Christ through the effective care of souls; and how could the care of souls be advanced by alien pastors who never even saw their flocks and were interested only in the gold they could obtain from them?
In 1253 the Pope nominated his own nephew, Frederick of Lavagna, to a vacant canonry in Lincoln Cathedral! The mandate ordering Bishop Grosseteste to appoint him was something of a legal masterpiece in which the careful use of non obstane clauses [notwithstanding any statutes to the contrary] ruled out every legal ground for refusal or delay. This, then, was the Bishop’s dilemma: He was faced with a perfectly legal command from the Sovereign Pontiff, which apparently must be obeyed, and yet the demand, though legal, was obviously immoral, a clear abuse of power. The Pope was using his office as Vicar of Christ in a sense quite contrary to the purpose for which it had been entrusted to him. The Bishop saw clearly that there is an important distinction between what a Pope has a legal right to do and what he has a moral right to do. His response was a direct refusal to obey an order which constituted an abuse of authority. The Pope was acting ultra vires, beyond the limits of his authority, and hence his subjects were not bound to obey him in this.
In his reply to the papal command, Bishop Grosseteste accused Pope Innocent IV of disobedience to Christ and the destruction of the care of souls. “No faithful subject of the Holy See,” he wrote, “no man who is not cut away by schism from the Body of Christ and the same Holy See, can submit to mandates, precepts, or any other demonstrations of this kind, no, not even if the authors were the most high body of angels. He must needs repudiate them and rebel against them with all his strength. Because of the obedience by which I am bound, and of my love of my union with the Holy See in the Body of Christ, as an obedient son I disobey, I contradict, I rebel. You cannot take action against me, for my every word and act is not rebellion but the filial honor due by God’s command to father and mother. As I have said, the Apostolic See in its holiness cannot destroy, it can only build. This is what the plenitude of power means; it can do all things to edification. But these co-called provisions do not build up, they destroy.”
Commenting on this letter in his study, “Grosseteste’s Relations with the Papacy and the Crown”, W. A. Pantin writes:
“There seem to be two lines of argument here. The first is that since the plentitudo potestatis [regarding the jurisdictional power of the papacy] exists for the purpose of edification and not destruction, any act which tends to the destruction or the ruin of souls cannot be a genuine exercise of the plenitude potestatis[.] … The second line of argument is that if the Pope, or anyone else, should command anything contrary to the Divine Law, then it will be wrong to obey, and in the last resort, while protesting one’s loyalty, one must refuse to obey. The fundamental problem was that while the Church’s teaching is supernaturally guaranteed against error, the Church’s ministers, from the Pope downwards, are not impeccable, and are capable of making wrong judgments or giving wrong commands.” (11)
“You cannot take action against me,” Bishop Grosseteste had warned the Pope — and events proved him to be correct. Innocent IV was beside himself with fury when he first received the Bishop’s letter. His first impulse was to order his “vassal the king” to imprison the old prelate — but his Cardinals persuaded him to take no action.
“You must do nothing. It is true. We cannot condemn him. He is a Catholic and a holy man, a better man than we are. He has not got his equal among the prelates. All the French and English clergy know this and our contradiction would be of no avail. The truth of this letter, which is probably known to many, might move many against us. He is esteemed as a great philosopher, learned in Greek and Latin literature, zealous for justice, a reader in the schools of theology, a preacher to the people, an active enemy of abuses.” This account was written by a man who had no love for the Bishop — Mathew Paris, executor of the mandate which the Bishop had refused to implement. But Mathew recognized the greatness and sincerity of Robert Grosseteste and was stirred by it.
Innocent IV decided that the most prudent course would be to take no action[.] (12)
Fr. Chad Ripperger, formerly of the FSSP and now of the Society of the Most Sorrowful Mother/Doloran Fathers, concurs with the theologians above that disobedience to the pope can be permitted provided that certain conditions are met:
St. Thomas, other moralists, and even the Church Herself give certain conditions under which we should not execute the command of a superior. And this would apply to bishops, and in some rare cases, even the pope. We are bound to obey all of their legitimate commands[.] …
The first condition that would exempt us from obedience is if they command something that is contrary to the Natural Law or the Divine Positive Law, that is, if the command is sinful, one is bound not to obey, in fact, one is forbidden to obey.
Second, if the command is clearly imprudent, and this follows from the fact that imprudence is a sin[.] … This can only be done when has a very clear grasp of all of the circumstances involved, otherwise the benefit of the doubt goes to one’s superior.
Third, the Church Herself says in the code of Canon Law that if the circumstances, under which the command was given, make the execution of the command impossible, the person should go back to the superior and ask what he is to do.
Fourth, if the superior commands you to do something which is contrary to sustenance of life, for example, your superiors cannot command you to fast to the point of starving to death.
Fifth, if the command is excessively onerous, one is not bound to obey. For example, if your superior commanded you to live on four hours of sleep at night[.] …
Sixth, if the command does not come from someone with jurisdiction[.] …
Seventh, your superiors cannot command you to do something spiritually or morally harmful. For example, if your superior commanded a young male to take a piano-playing job in a brothel. (13)
Once all of these factors have been taken into consideration, the question becomes whether they can be applied to the more recent case of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Archbishop Lefebvre, in an act he himself openly described as one of “disobedience,” consecrated four bishops for the Society of St. Pius X in 1988 after being refused permission to do so by Pope John Paul II. In a formal written statement given March 29, 1988 and published in July 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre described this act of disobedience and referenced, in his defense, the theologians quoted above:
Now our disobedience is motivated by the need to keep the Catholic Faith. The orders being given us clearly express that they are being given us in order to oblige us to submit without reserve to the Second Vatican Council, to the post-conciliar reforms, and to the prescriptions of the Holy See, that is to say, to the orientations and acts which are undermining our Faith and destroying the Church. It is impossible for us to do this. To collaborate in the destruction of the Church is to betray the Church and to betray Our Lord Jesus Christ. Now all the theologians worthy of this name teach that if the pope, by his acts, destroys the Church, we cannot obey him ([references in original]: Vitoria: Obras, pp.486-487; Suarez: De fide, disp.X, sec.VI, no.16; St. Robert Bellarmine: de Rom. Pont., Book 2, Ch.29; Cornelius a Lapide: ad Gal. 2,11, etc.)[.] (14)
Note that Prieras, Vitoria, Bellarmine, Grosseteste, Pantin, and Lefebvre all stated that the conditions requisite for disobeying the pope would involve an act or acts that would “destroy the Church” or lead to the “destruction of souls.” None, however, goes into much detail regarding what this destruction would entail. The defenders of Archbishop Lefebvre will point to the statistical collapse of the Church during the period during and following the Second Vatican Council, but whether that, by itself, suffices for the conditions outlined by the theologians (i.e., “destroy”) can be debated.
Applying Fr. Ripperger’s criteria, defenders make the argument that Archbishop Lefebvre met at least the first two:
- That being required, even in his own mind, to “betray the Church and to betray Our Lord Jesus Christ” constituted a sin
- That the “orders being given us … oblige us to submit without reserve to … orientations and acts which are undermining our Faith and destroying the Church,” orders which therefore constituted imprudent commands, making disobedience permissible, since, as Fr. Ripperger states, “this follows from the fact that imprudence is a sin.” They would claim that it would be difficult to argue that Archbishop Lefebvre did not have “a very clear grasp of allof the circumstances involved,” or that he was ignorant of Aquinas’s description of when “an erring conscience binds.”
The answer to the question, then, is yes — a Catholic may disobey the Pope, but only when certain conditions are met. For the everyday Catholic, the conditions outlined by the theologians above do not apply. But for those to whom the theologians addressed their concerns, when they do, disobedience may, in fact, be required. With regard to Archbishop Lefebvre, we have, as St. Thomas More said, no window to look into another man’s conscience, nor can we read a dead man’s mind. Those who wish to claim that Archbishop Lefebvre was lying about his reasons have the free will to do so. Those who wish to claim that he did not in fact meet the conditions set out by the theologians are free to make their case. The theologians have spoken; the reader may decide for himself.
What cannot be argued, however, is that the Catholic Church teaches now, or has ever taught, that no one is ever permitted to disobey a pope.
- Summa Theologica II-II, q33, a. 4
- Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians
- Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii
- Suarez, De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, n. 16. De Fide, disp. X, sec VI, no. 16
- Prieras, Dialogus de Potestate Papae (from Francisco de Vitoria: Obras, pp. 486–7)
- De Vitoria, Obras de Francisco de Vitoria, pp. 486-487.
- Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Bk 2, Ch. 29, 7th reply
- De Torquemada, Summ. de Eccl., pp. 47, 48
- “Grosseteste’s Relations with the Papacy and the Crown”by William Abel Pantin, M.A., F.B.A., in Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop, edited by D.A. Callus, 1953, p. 183.
- Davies, Michael, “Recognize and Resist: Yet Another Example from History,” The Remnant, September 6, 1975
- Chad Ripperger, Assent to Papal Teaching, 7:34
- Archbishop Lefebvre, “Can Obedience Oblige us to Disobey?” from the July 1988 edition of “The Angelus Magazine,” statement originally given March 29, 1988
Paul Casey, M.D. is a hand and wrist surgeon working in Southern California. He also has a Master’s degree in theology. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrCasey62.