It’s hard to imagine the Catholic Church being in worse shape than it currently is. We have a colossal and ongoing sex abuse scandal among the clergy and hierarchy that continues endlessly like some demonic global Chinese water torture. Due primarily to this scandal, the Church has lost all its moral authority in the world. Further, decades of cozying up to the culture has led to massive defections from the Church, as people no longer see her as an escape from our deadly culture, but instead as a religious blessing upon it. And then there’s Pope Francis.
Pope Francis. Nearly from day one he has been a source of scandal to the faithful. From “Who am I to judge?” to denigrating big families for “breeding like rabbits” to encouraging acceptance of adultery by essentially blessing the non-Catholic paradigm of “remarriage after divorce,” he has consistently been at odds with the most basic Catholic doctrines. And now we have the Amazon Synod and the infamous “Pachamama” idols. Even with the absolute best reading of the situation — that the pope is just taking his love of diversity too far — he has scandalized millions with his laissez-faire attitude toward idolatry.
All of these events and more have led a crescendo of Catholics to wonder why Pope Francis has allowed heresy to flourish so much under his pontificate. This in turn has made not a few Catholics suspect that Francis is himself a heretic. But if Francis is a heretic, some uncomfortable questions follow.
The Nagging Question
Is Francis really the pope? Can a heretic even be a pope? Those are the questions many Catholics are asking today, understandably. How could Our Lord allow the pope — His vicar! — to permit and possibly even embrace heresy and thus inflict so much damage on the Church?
Those who have come to the conclusion that Francis is not the pope generally fall into three camps:
- Pope Benedict XVI did not validly resign, so he is still pope.
- The election of Pope Francis was invalid for various reasons, so he was never elected pope, and there hasn’t been a pope since 2013.
- Francis was validly elected, but due to his embrace of heresy, he at some point lost the papal office, so there is currently no pope.
In all three views, however, the underlying assumption is that Francis can’t be the pope because Francis is a heretic and a pope can’t be a heretic. It might be easy to dismiss these views as the realm of kooks and conspiracy theorists. But that would be unfair and would also minimize the awfulness of the Francis papacy, which has led to these difficult questions. It’s easy to blame those who reject the papacy of Francis as the problem. But the problem is Francis. Period. He has caused this crisis of conscience among faithful Catholics by his disregard for protecting the Faith and the Church’s traditions. The problem isn’t those who question his papacy; the problem is how he has practiced his papacy.
So we need to take seriously these possibilities and see if they have any merit. Here I consider the third possibility — that Francis has lost the papal office due to heresy. You can look here and here for arguments as to why the first two possibilities are not convincing.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Heretical Pope?
The third possibility from above takes the following form:
Assumption: Pope Francis is a heretic.
Conclusion: Therefore, he is no longer pope.
Let’s agree to the assumption: that Pope Francis is a heretic. Even with that assumption, there are a lot of nuances to this point — Is he a material heretic or a formal heretic? Has he proclaimed heresy officially? — and I think one can make strong arguments on either side of these questions, but I want to look instead at the worst-case scenario: What does it mean if Pope Francis is a formal heretic? Does the conclusion follow that he is no longer the pope?
As Bishop Athanasius Schneider points out, this question is unprecedented in the history of the Church. In fact, one of the reasons the office of the bishop of Rome grew to such magnificent stature in the first millennium is that it had a solid reputation for orthodoxy. When bishops and patriarchs in the East were embracing heresies left and right, the universal Church knew that it could count on the bishop of Rome — the pope — to be orthodox. Even the few exceptions, such as Pope Honorius, demonstrate this reputation. When Honorius was guilty of allowing a heresy to spread — not proclaiming it, but just allowing it to spread — he was condemned by the Church after his death. The idea of a heretical pope wasn’t in the forefront of the minds of Catholics.
But later theologians did start to look at the question of a heretical pope, from a hypothetical standpoint. One of the most famous theologians to tackle it was also a saint and doctor of the Church: St. Robert Bellarmine. In De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chapter 30, he considered five possible opinions on the matter:
- The pope cannot be a heretic.
- The pope who falls into heresy, even secret heresy, is ipso facto no longer the pope, which gives the Church authority over him to declare his deposition official since he’s no longer pope.
- Even if a pope were a heretic, he cannot be deposed of his papacy by any means.
- If a pope becomes a formal heretic, he is not automatically deposed, but the Church can indirectly depose him. This is done by legally separating the faithful from the pope, which makes him no longer the valid pope.
- If the pope becomes a formal heretic, the Church can recognize that fact and declare him separated from his office.
Bellarmine holds that opinion 1 is “probable” but that if there were a heretical pope, then opinion 5, he believes, is the correct one.
At first glance, it might appear that opinions 2, 4, and 5 are all saying nearly the same thing. In a sense, they are, although there are important distinctions among them. But they all are struggling with a crucial issue: according to canon law and the perennial teaching of the Church, the “first see is judged by no one.” In other words, there is no court above the pope to judge him. (By “judge,” we mean not just to determine whether or not the pope is right about something, but to have the juridical power to do something about it.) Even if you got all the bishops in the world together, they still cannot judge the pope. So opinions 2, 4, and 5 are all attempts to square the circle of an outside body in fact judging the pope.
It’s also important to note that none of these three opinions offers the specific means by which the Church takes this action. Is it the college of Cardinals? An ecumenical council? What if only some cardinals or bishops take the action? (Note that even for these three opinions, an individual Catholic has no authority to declare a pope deposed; it is always “the Church” that does so.) And no matter how you finesse the issue, you ultimately have a group of men for all practical purposes judging the pope, or at least judging whether the pope’s actions and words have made him deposed, and yet the first see is to be judged by no one. While these options are in the realm of theological opinion, it’s the infallible teaching of the Church that the pope has universal jurisdiction, which means no one has jurisdiction over him. Although opinions 2, 4, and 5 each attempt to get around that issue, I believe that none sufficiently does; you are always left with men judging the one who is unjudgeable by men.
“A Most Miserable Condition”
But what about opinions 1 and 3? Since we are assuming for the purposes of this discussion that a pope can in fact be a heretic, we can put aside opinion 1. So only opinion 3 remains. Bellarmine himself quickly dismisses opinion 3, saying it is “exceedingly improbable” and “it would be the most miserable condition of the Church, if she should be compelled to recognize a wolf, manifestly prowling, for a shepherd.” And that’s essentially the argument today against this option: God would never let His Church be led by a heretic. But it is my belief that opinion 3 is the one that stands up best to the papacy’s biblical foundations as well as a critical analysis of Catholic teaching on the papacy, no matter how painful and difficult that may seem.
Before I explain my argument, please remember that there is no official church teaching on this issue. Bellarmine acknowledges this clearly, which is why he classifies each option as an “opinion.” And he acknowledges his own views as an “opinion.” Even though Bellarmine is a Doctor of the Church, that does not make him infallible, as can be seen with other Doctors who held erroneous views, such as St. Thomas Aquinas’ view on the Immaculate Conception. I’ve seen a lot of Catholics quoting Bellarmine as if that were the end of the debate, but Bellarmine himself would abhor that idea. He knew these were theological opinions, and until the Church formally declares a teaching on the subject, Catholics are free to disagree on it.
Now, why do I believe that even if a pope were a heretic, he cannot be deposed? One might argue, after all, that popes have been deposed against their will in the past, but I address that argument here. (TLDR: popes have been deposed before, but in each case they accepted the deposition. We’re talking here about a situation in which a pope refuses to accept deposition.)
Bellarmine says that it would be a “most miserable condition” if a pope were a heretic and couldn’t be removed from office, akin to recognizing a wolf as a shepherd. And I think many Catholics would agree that today we are in a “most miserable condition.” Yet I would challenge Bellarmine’s assumption that God would not allow such a miserable condition.
The entire Catholic faith is founded upon suffering. Contrary to today’s Prosperity Gospel, which preaches that faith in Christ will lead to riches and comfort, Catholicism takes seriously the words of Our Lord: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). Catholicism not only says that you can’t avoid suffering as a disciple of Christ, but promises suffering, for this is the way of the Master. The assumption that God wouldn’t allow His church to be in a “most miserable condition” goes against the fundamental premise of the faith: that the way of Christianity is the way of the Cross. God does not protect us from suffering; He gives us the grace to endure it and even offer it up to Him.
But what about Christ’s promise to Peter that he would be the rock upon which Christ built the Church? Wouldn’t a heretical pope violate that promise? More to the point, what’s the point of a pope if he can be a heretic? We need to look more closely at the promise Christ gave to Peter, as well as the role of the pope in the Church.
Peter’s Divine Mandate
Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16:18 is the foundation of the papacy: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Catholics of course recognize that Our Lord was instituting the papacy with these words, making the papacy the rock on which the Church is built. But note what he says the gates of hell will not prevail against: the Church, not Peter himself. (In case it’s not clear what the “it” is referring to in this passage, the Greek actually means “her,” not “it,” making it clear that Jesus is referring to the Church.) When Peter denied Christ three times, the gates of hell prevailed against him. When he separated himself from Gentile Christians — something Paul rebuked him for (Gal 2:11–12) — the gates of hell had prevailed against him. When Pope John XXII publicly proclaimed heresy, the gates of hell prevailed against him. Yet the Church endured, and Christ’s promise endured.
So what does Christ’s promise to Peter entail? Vatican I makes that clear: the Church — through the pope — cannot officially teach error. When a pope declares something ex cathedra, he is infallible in his teaching. For to make a heresy an official teaching of the Church would truly mean that the gates of hell had prevailed not just over the pope, but over the entire Church.
After the Resurrection, Christ followed up his promise to Peter by commanding that he “feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). The Church has seen this — and Vatican I has affirmed it — as a sign of the pope’s universal jurisdiction of the Church. He is the ultimate authority in the Church, with the power to appoint and depose bishops, erect parishes, and excommunicate dissenters, among other responsibilities.
Thus, we see the twofold powers of the pope: he cannot err when teaching ex cathedra, and he has universal jurisdiction. But what’s important to note is that these are his only two divinely instituted powers. As much as the faithful have, over the centuries, built up the papacy into a super-pastor role, making him out to be the source and summit of our faith, only infallibility of ex cathedra statements and universal jurisdiction are of divine mandate and therefore protected by Christ.
So when someone asks the legitimate question, “What’s the point of a pope if he can be a heretic?,” I think he is confusing the divinely protected role of the pope with the humanly desired role of the pope. Yes, we’d love to have a pope who is holy, wise, and courageous. We’d love him to be a perfect manager of people. But those desires are not divine protections. A pope can be a heretic but can’t teach heresy ex cathedra due to Christ’s promise, and nothing he does or believes can make him lose his divinely instituted universal jurisdiction, which was given to him by Christ. A heretical pope, therefore, in no way violates any promise or mandate of Christ.
Disinheriting Your Father
Bishop Athanasius Schneider wrote the following (and I strongly encourage you to read his entire essay on the subject):
One can disinherit children of a family. Yet one cannot disinherit the father of a family, however guilty or monstrously he behaves himself. This is the law of the hierarchy which God has established even in creation. The same is applicable to the pope, who during the term of his office is the spiritual father of the entire family of Christ on earth. In the case of a criminal or monstrous father, the children have to withdraw themselves from him or avoid contact with him. However, they cannot say, “We will elect a new and good father of our family.” It would be against common sense and against nature. The same principle should be applicable therefore to the question of deposing a heretical pope. The pope cannot be deposed by anybody, only God can intervene and He will do this in His time, since God does not fail in His Providence. (“Deus in sua dispositione non fallitur”)
Some people find the idea that Francis isn’t pope a comforting one. It appears to solve numerous problems, and it also seems to relieve some of our suffering. However, I think our desire to avoid the suffering that Francis’s papacy entails may engender the wishful conclusion that he must not be pope. We want to disinherit our father because he has become abusive. But perhaps this is because we’ve all become flabby in our practice of the Faith. We say we want suffering, but whenever suffering comes that isn’t exactly the type we desire, we flee from it. So while we say we’ll do anything for the Faith, the idea of being in communion with a heretical pope is just a step too far. Yet God in His permissive will has allowed Francis to be pope, and we cannot wish that away, even if we believe he is a heretic. He is still the pope.
So what should Catholics do, who are stuck with a heretical pope, or even a pope that allows heresies to flourish? While it might be comforting to assume that Francis is not really the pope and move along, that’s exactly what the Enemy wants. Instead, the first thing we must do is prayer and mortification for Francis and for the Church. In our quick-and-easy culture, most of us don’t really know what real prayer and mortification is. We need to spend many hours in prayer, as well as offering up both involuntary and voluntary mortifications for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. We can pray without ceasing that God in His mercy would open the heart of the pope and bring him to conversion. Further, meditating on the Passion of Our Lord can also help us to appreciate the value of suffering and how we can embrace it instead of running from it.
And we can — and should — also take action. As Bishop Schneider noted, we can “withdraw [ourselves] from him or avoid contact with him,” meaning we do not support his actions when they harm the faithful. We can even speak out in our own circle of influence against any heresies being promoted or tolerated by Rome. We can support with our prayers and financial resources those who are in the public eye defending the truth. We can help those Catholics who are struggling with their faith, showing them the truth and beauty that is traditional Catholicism. We can do all these things, knowing that even in dark times, God works for good, and that it is through suffering that the Church will be resurrected.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.