The question
of papal heresy, schism, scandal


THE simplest, the easiest, reply is the one which comes instinctively to most good Catholics: No, never! Under no circumstances can it be lawful to oppose the Pope – or, for that matter, the Council – for they represent the Infallible Magisterium of the Church, and if you oppose them you must necessarily be wrong. And, as a Council cannot lawfully exist apart from the Pope, and even less in opposition to him, the answer would seem to be, quite simply, that no opposition to the Pope can ever be lawful: Ubi Papa, ibi Ecclesia. To oppose the Pope is to oppose the Church, and to oppose the Church is to oppose Christ Himself.

The Scriptures provide support in plenty for such a reply: “ Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. “ (Mt 16.18) “ He that heareth you heareth Me: and he that despiseth you despiseth Me; and he that despiseth Me despiseth Him that sent Me. “ (Lk 10.16) “ Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven. “ (Mt 18.18) How often are such quotations used against us by our bishops in their efforts to banish all opposition into the outer darkness!

Support for such a thesis can be produced also at doctrinal level. There are plenty of ecclesiastical documents which show that loyalty and obedience to the Holy See have always been considered necessary for eternal salvation, and that the anathema resting on those who have separated themselves from it has remained through the ages.

History also proves the magnificent continuity and stability of the Papacy as well as that of the great Councils recognised and ratified by it. Such stability is an absolutely unique and incomparable fact. Papal infallibility, promulgated by the First Vatican Council on 18 July 1870, is proved by twenty centuries and 263 Popes, all carrying on the same work of preserving, defending, and expounding the revealed deposit of the faith, and never deviating from the one selfsame tradition, ever faithful to itself.

Yes, a Catholic loves the Pope and obeys him at all times. St Pius X recalled this for the benefit of certain ecclesiastics who delighted in criticising authority – a species by no means extinct today! “ If one loves the Pope, one does not stop to ask the precise limits to which this duty of obedience extends… one does not seek to restrict the domain within which he can or should make his wishes felt; one does not oppose to the Pope’s authority that of others, however learned they may be, who differ from him. For however great their learning, they must be lacking in holiness, for there can be no holiness in dissension from the Pope. Yet there are priests – a considerable number of them – who submit the word of the Pope to their private judgement and who, with unheard-of audacity, make their obedience to the Roman Pontiff conditional upon such personal judgement. “ (From an Allocution given on September 18, 1912.)

And in fact it is through such a discipline, wholly interior and religious, that truth, holiness and unity are preserved within the Church. Protected by a sovereign authority that excludes all contestation, opposition and argument, the Kingdom of God has developed magnificently. One cannot observe this without inferring the necessity of total submission to the Roman Magisterium.

Nevertheless, the alternative and more difficult response is actually more correct: Yes, sometimes it is a lawful and a saintly thing to oppose the Pope or the Council (but let us pass over the Council, as ultimately it is always subordinate to the Pope). Obedience is the rule, certainly, but there are occasions, however rare, when obedience could lead to dissidence…

The Gospels themselves provide evidence for this, for they show us how, more than once, some scathing humiliation followed upon the assertion of Peter’s primacy. Our Lord Himself took care to remind him of his human weakness and ability to sin. After the Profession at Caesarea and the wonderful promise, there came the terrible “ Get behind me, Satan: thou art a scandal unto me. “ (Mt 16.23) To his oath of fidelity Our Lord replied with the prophecy of his impending denial, which however was accompanied by an assurance that he would definitively rise again: “ But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not. And thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren. “ (Lk 22.32) The indefectibility of the Pope is a conditional one, dependent in every case on the power of grace proving stronger than the weak human nature of the individual who occupies this exalted position.

The dogmatic basis of our thesis merits careful study. So far as evidence from history is concerned, this is based on a very small number of cases – though these suffice to show that the Church herself recognises that a Pope is capable of erring in matters of faith or morals or discipline, and that in such cases the faithful have the duty to oppose him… out of loyalty to the Papacy itself!

However, such opposition to the pope must on no account be directed against the Papacy itself. One must never use a disorder, an error, or the passing human weakness of the man himself as an excuse to attack the authority and the institution that he represents, the office that he assumes. The Church is hierarchical, her constitution is monarchical. Her success has been quite prodigious, clearly sustained by divine power. So there is no question of contradicting her by arguing from the possible weaknesses of the men who incarnate her. It is rather a matter of specifying the limitations and exceptions which prove the rule, and thus enhancing her superhuman splendour.

Never has there been any opposition to the Pope as such nor any revolt against the Holy See, on the pretext of collegiality, gallicanism, liberalism or democracy, which has finally won the upper hand. Nor could such opposition ever be legitimate. Here we must insist that our arguments are entirely Catholic and Roman, and are not in any way comparable to the views put forward by Hans Küng in his recent work Infallible? An Inquiry, in which he attacks, a propos Humanae Vitae, the Magisterium itself in its very principle and essential prerogative of infallibility. His work contradicts the defined faith, and its arrogant and mocking style simply serves to condemn the author. He opposes his fantasies to Catholic dogma and stands in judgement over the Church. Those familiar with our thinking know that we put our faith in the Church and oppose every innovator and reformer, even were he the Pope himself. Our opposition is founded on humility and respect and, dare I say it, obedience. His is based on presumption and rebellion.

We have nothing in common with such rebels and we cannot understand how they can be allowed to teach in the Church. Not for us this decapitation of the Church! Every attack against the authority of the Pope is an attack against the Church, against Christ and against God. Anathema sit!

But still, the Pope must remain faithful to himself...

If opposition is sometimes holy and legitimate, it can only be to the pope of the day in the name of the Pope of always. It must be an opposition based on special circumstances, limited to such and such an act of the Pope or to an individual novel and subversive concept of the reigning Pope, which everyone should consider as being in rupture and opposition with the sacred duty and power of Peter, the Pope in Rome “ who can never die ”. But certainly, before engaging oneself in such a “ process ”, no matter how legitimate it may appear, one must measure the risk involved of strengthening the eternal enemies of the Papacy. Without doubt there is no question of conscience more serious than this.

Only the question of the law, of the legitimacy of an opposition to the Pope, will be treated here. The question of the facts is quite different, namely whether a hypothesis is verified at such a period and in such a case. Nevertheless, these two questions are related. For if it were demonstrated in law that such opposition is never legitimate, we would not even have to raise the possibility of the facts in our terrible situation today. And it is here that we touch on the reason why the immense majority of the hierarchy and the faithful refuse a priori any idea of “ counter-reformation ”. Any opposition to Paul VI and Vatican II is for them, as Congar writes in our regard, “ inadmissible ”. The mischief maker! Conversely, the striking and ever-growing certainty of the harmfulness of the Council and the current Pontificate stimulates a new examination of the theoretical question, too superficially studied and too easily resolved in the happy days of the preconciliar Church. The unmistakable decadence of the Church today demands of the theorist a rather fuller enquiry.


This study goes beyond the prescriptions of canon law and the theology of hierarchical Powers. It takes as its source the mystical springs of the faith.

For the Church, in her essential mystery, is the Spouse of Christ, His social Body. As such nothing is dearer to the Saviour than her unshakeable establishment, her preservation, her security, her growth, her unity and her peace. For this reason, Christ gave her His Body and His Blood, as well as His Holy Spirit to give life to these sacramental gifts. The Holy Spirit is thus, by divine “ Mission ”, the soul of the Church: it is He who, as God, unifies, organises and develops this social body and maintains it in unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity, those miraculous perfections which are proper to it.

One further clarification of Catholic theology on this divine institution: the Holy Spirit’s instrument for this work in the midst of men is the Hierarchy. It thus enjoys in a special measure, in accordance with the very precise conditions of its role, those powers granted by the Holy Spirit for the perfection of the Church. That is why the Church is infallible, holy and organised.

THE CHURCH IS INFALLIBLE in her totality as the teaching Church and the believing Church – Ecclesia docens and Ecclesia credens. This infallibility is found in the magnificent accord and unanimity (in the etymological sense of that word) of those who are charged with preaching and those whose virtue it is to believe. Their faith is “ one ”, involving a full communion of certainty and perfection. That was well known, before Vatican II!

THE CHURCH IS HOLY despite the sins of her individual members, because she continues to receive the grace of Christ infallibly and continually distributed through the Sacraments at the hands of her priests. These rites, especially Baptism and the Mass, are certainly efficacious in conferring the life of God. Thus the people have an inexhaustible source of holiness, limited only to the extent of their good dispositions. But the gifts of the Church is, in itself, perfectly holy and sanctifying.

THE CHURCH IS WELL ORDERED. The Church is a well-ordered structure, maintaining her ranks as she battles in the face of obstacles constantly overcome and constantly renewed, spanning the centuries and different civilisations, but always emerging victorious in the end. The Church is the Kingdom of God which will continue to exist and increase until the end of time. The miracle of her success is the immediate result of the day to day acts and decisions of those who, assisted by the Holy Spirit, rule over her. Her victory over dissension, anarchy and persecution is shared between those who command with authority and those who obey with docility, always in mutual charity.

The Church is this visible, historic and hierarchical society, whose Founder and constant Head is Christ, and whose vivifying and sanctifying Soul is the Holy Spirit. She is perfect. By her truth, her holiness and her order she transcends the human elements of which she is composed. The consideration of this historic miracle induces faith in her supernatural mystery: if she appears proof against any natural explanation, either spiritualist or materialist, it is because her Hierarchy has been endowed with divine powers, in the unique symbiosis of a divine Person and a human community.

This marvel has been instituted by Christ, and she has preserved it and asks us to continue it today. Given this perspective, how could there possibly be any legitimate and holy opposition to her Leader?


It was the Apostles whom Jesus Christ entrusted with the task of founding the Church in accordance with His design, and this was put into effect on the Day of Pentecost. Because such a task required very special gifts, the Apostles were endowed with certain exceptional qualities, not all of which could be passed on to their successors. They indeed were infallibly inspired in their words and actions. They were given the power to institute the Sacraments and generally to lay down the form which Our Lord intended the Church to assume. But we must emphasise that those powers died with them. In addition, they were also endowed with the gift of performing miracles and this – we all know – is rare indeed. But they were confirmed in grace, and assured of sanctity, for they were God’s chosen instruments for the founding of the Church. Rebellion against them – which of course did occur from time to time – could not have been justified and we know that it provoked the divine wrath.

It will help us to understand the drama inside the Church over the past ten years if we postulate that, at the Council – and since – the Pope and bishops took it for granted that they too were invested with the same extraordinary gifts as the Apostles – with the exception, of course – of the gift to perform miracles, which is not an easy one to simulate! They too, like the Apostles, had been entrusted with the task of founding the Church – at least of founding it anew! For this task, so they fondly imagined, they were assured of the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and hence had the right to silence all opposition, for he who opposed them must needs be opposing the Holy Spirit. The progressives managed through such an unexpected form of reasoning to convince the great mass of people – priests as well as faithful – that they had no right to protest at the changes they were witnessing in the Church, for her very metamorphosis was under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit!


As we have seen, though the Bishop of Rome and successor of St Peter holds the supreme authority in the Church and the bishops, successors of the remaining Apostles, exercise an authority second only to his, neither he nor the others are endowed with the powers required for the founding of the Church. That took place once and for all. Their mission is to maintain and safeguard the Church already established. This too requires considerable powers, and these are inherent in their functions, but it does not help if they try to blow them up out of all proportion.

When considering the powers which do belong to the Pope and bishops, we must make the distinction between those which are infallible and those which are not. In order to assure a sound foundation for the Church, and enable her to continue in loyalty to the Holy Spirit, certain functions of her Pastors were endowed with absolute and indubitable efficacy. As regards these, the assistance of the Holy Spirit is indeed guaranteed. But in many other matters, the help of God does not overrule the human frailty of the individuals who hold these positions and who, outside the limits of infallibility, must necessarily remain fallible.

  1. Among these, the POWER OF ORDER is an absolute one, with which every priest is invested by virtue of the Apostolic succession derived from Christ Himself. Every priest regardless of his rank in the hierarchy has the same power to offer Mass and administer the Sacraments. Hence, every Mass is infallibly valid provided it is celebrated by a duly ordained priest intending to do what the Church does. This Power persists even in a priest who has fallen into schism or heresy – a point which our readers know to be of burning importance at the present time.
  2. The POWER OF TEACHING is infallible only in part. We will try to present this complex question in manner intelligible to the ordinary reader.
    1. The Church herself is infallible in those of her beliefs which are held unanimously. As the Spouse of Christ she shares in His knowledge of the truth. What all the faithful believe as part of Divine Revelation, must necessarily be true, for were this not so, the Church would be capable of falling into wholesale error and, even if only a single point of dogma were concerned, the gates of Hell would have prevailed, which we know from the promises of Christ to be impossible.For example, the Church has always believed, as an infallibly revealed truth, in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Today this is being contested by certain people in Holland on the pretext that there has been no formal pronouncement by the Magisterium which would make it a dogma that all are under obligation to believe. It is unjustifiable to reason thus, precisely because the constancy of teaching and belief on this point had made formal definition redundant. This infallibility pertaining to the Church as a whole forms, as it were, the foundation upon which rests the infallibility of a General Council and even that of the Pope himself.
    2. The Ordinary Magisterium has only a conditional infallibility. Its purpose is to be the faithful echo of the Church’s constant and unanimous Tradition, and in so far as this aim is fulfilled it shares in the Church’s own infallibility. When the Pope, or bishop, or priest, teaches what the Church has always held to be the truth, he is speaking infallibly. But we must stress that this infallibility – in which we can all be said to share – is limited by the extent to which our teaching is in fact identical with that of the Church, which in certain concrete instances may be difficult to determine. But the certainty enjoyed by the Church is shared by all.On the other hand, if the Pope or the bishops should, even as part of their “ authentic teaching ” – that given in their official capacity, to which there attaches a certain degree of authority by virtue of the rank of those who give it – put forward new or controversial opinions, these do not form part of their Ordinary Magisterium and no infallibility can be claimed for them. It is the great weakness of this Ordinary Magisterium that there is no clear line of demarcation separating it from the realm of human opinions. Since Pacem in Terris, and the “ Pastoral Constitutions ” of Vatican II, the faithful are being constantly misled regarding the authority attaching to these acts of the Pope and Council which, though “ authentic ”, are obviously out of line with – or entirely irrelevant to – the universal Tradition of the Church. Because these lack the authority of Tradition, they cannot justly claim to be part of the Church’s Ordinary Magisterium, and are worth no more than their face value.
    3. There remains the Extraordinary Magisterium, which is of its very nature infallible. The Church has need of the assurance that, if on some point of doctrine her Tradition should perchance lack clarity, or if some long-accepted belief were to be suddenly contested, there would exist a means of clenching the matter definitively. It is to such statements whereby the Sovereign Pontiff solemnly proclaims the guaranteed truth, that the term ex cathedra is applied. When we think of it – it is stupefying that a mere human being should possess such a charism, that he should be absolutely certain of being guided by the Holy Spirit on such occasions. But it is a truth of our Faith, always believed and solemnly proclaimed in 1870 by the Vatican Council. Such a recourse to infallibility is the final resort in the case of doctrinal crises in the Church. From the form in which the proclamation is made it is clear that the Pope is speaking infallibly, or the Council is promulgating a dogmatic constitution, accompanied by anathemas, and that henceforth all controversy on the subject must cease: “ Rome has spoken ”.Before 1870, the appeal to the judgement of the Sovereign Pontiff was universally acknowledged to be the ultimate tribunal at which truth would prevail. Since 1870, we have the absolute certainty that this is so.
    4. The fallible teaching of the private man. Lastly, there is the right of individuals holding positions of dignity to teach in a private capacity, putting forward their personal theological views, which are in no way guaranteed by their Magisterium. It is a most unfortunate thing that there could ever be even the appearance of confusion between the two. This would not be the case if the Pope – or the bishops, individually or when united in a Council – always took care to point out that they were speaking in a private capacity. Perhaps it would be even better if they abstained altogether from such speculative discussions. But when they try and impose what in fact are personal views under the auspices of, or even with all the outward appearances pertaining to the authentic teaching of their Magisterium, there is indeed great danger that what is a mere human opinion should be considered as coming from God.The faithful being, unfortunately, too ready to accept whatever comes from those in authority as infallible, their credulity can be used by the Devil in his efforts to pervert the truth. It has long been the avowed aim of Freemasonry to dominate the Church from inside and it is important for us to realise to what extent this is possible, provided that individuals who serve the cause of the Devil rather than that of God can be placed in high places where their words will appear to carry the authority of the Church.
  3. The POWER OF GOVERNING THE CHURCH consists of the three functions of making laws, passing judgement, and imposing penalties. In this field, according to the generally accepted teaching of theology, there can be no question of infallibility. The Pope and bishops make decisions relating to the good of the Church and the spiritual welfare of her subjects, of an essentially practical nature. That they normally receive help from the Holy Spirit is generally recognised, and they do have a claim on our obedience. Yet this must not be given blindly and when, in certain unfortunate instances, the enlightened conscience of the individual tells him that the commands given by those in authority are against the laws of God, he is bound “ to obey God rather than men ” (Acts 5.29). No authority on earth, even in the Church, can ever be guaranteed to be impeccable in its exercise, and hence, it can never claim infallibility.

We must remember, also, that the Hierarchy have the obligation to use their authority to further the greater good of the Church and the salvation of souls. The laws and regulations which they make are binding to the extent to which these are relevant, directly or indirectly, to those supernatural aims. Were they to go beyond the bounds of their authority, attempting to impose upon the people’s conscience anything which can have no conceivable bearing on these aims, this would not have a binding force even if they invoked their divine mission in order to give greater weight to their personal instructions.


As we have seen, there remain within the field wherein the Hierarchy’s divine mission is exercised certain weak points, certain areas occupied by human fallibility. If it were otherwise, the men of the Church could claim to be invested with divine attributes! Perhaps it would be better if, nevertheless, we took the safer course of always following those who can claim to be assisted by the Holy Spirit even in the day to day running of the Church’s affairs? Yes, but for the possibility that these very Pastors could be betraying their function, deceiving themselves through ignorance or even leading us astray through malice.

In the past, there was safety in the fact that the Pope and bishops remained constantly conscious of their personal fallibility, overshadowed by an Infallibility due to their dependence on the Church and the Holy Spirit, and in their loyalty to the Church’s Tradition in all their teaching. When they begin instead to speak a new and strange language and to do away with all the customs of the past, we must be alerted that something dangerous is afoot. At the very least, it should be clear that on such occasions they are speaking or acting as mere human beings and, whether they are right or wrong, can lay no claim to divine inspiration.


The God-given power of the Bishops is subordinated to that of their Chief, the Bishop of Rome which, as we have seen, is itself relative and not absolute. It is strange how reluctant even theologians are to accept that, outside the bounds of his Infallibility, the Pope is not only theoretically fallible but actually capable of making mistakes or falling into error. Our problem is to find out under what conditions such a thing could happen and whether in these circumstances God could permit him to lead the whole Church into the false views which he had himself adopted. Could the Pope , in such a case, actually teach error with every appearance of authority, and issue decrees which it would be sinful to obey?


Classically, the question consists of two parts: first the theoretical possibility, and secondly, the practical likelihood, of such a state of affairs.

a. Theoretical proof

Yes, outside of his ex cathedra teaching and outside of his ordinary magisterium, when he ceases to repeat what the Church’s unanimous tradition holds to have been revealed, and when he therefore speaks as a private theologian, a pope can fall into heresy.

This possibility – failing which he would be like God – has always been known and professed by the Church. An explicit reference to it is found in a canon of the Decree of Gratian compiled from canonical formulae dating from 1119 – but this particular canon is based on a much earlier source – a Life of St Boniface written in the eighth century. Later teaching follows along the same lines.

Strangely enough, we find a certain sentence of this canon quoted with great frequency in the past few years, but always with the omission of its terminal phrase, with a consequent change in the meaning of the whole:

“ Huius (papae) culpas redarguere praesumit mortalium nullus, quia cunctos ipse judicaturus a nemine est judicandus, NISI REPREHENDATUR A FIDE DEVIUS ” (Ia, dist. XL, c.6, Si papa; ex Gestis Bonifacii martyris). “ Let no mortal being have the audacity to reprimand a Pope on account of his faults, for he whose duty it is to judge all other men cannot be judged by anybody, UNLESS HE SHOULD BE CALLED TO TASK FOR HAVING DEVIATED FROM THE FAITH. ” If the terminal clause is omitted, we who have brought an accusation against Paul VI have merited excommunication; indeed, we need not wait for sentence to be passed on us by Rome. But if you include the critical clause, the matter is quite different: in that case our action becomes reputable and deserving of the attention of an ecclesiastical Tribunal.

The view that a Pope suspected of heresy can be taken to task by anyone is borne out, among others, by Innocent III, Innocent IV, Gregory IX, Adrian VI, and Paul IV. The various relevant papers are found in a book by Paul Viollet, published in 1904, which had unfortunately been placed on the Index by Pius X, not on account of this first section dealing with the theoretical possibility of papal heresy, but on account of a subsequent part, applying this to Pius IX and the Syllabus. His erroneous application does not detract from the value of the theoretical discussion.

Let us quote from Adrian VI: “ I consider that, if one equates the Church of Rome with her Head, that is with the Pope, it is correct to say that she can err, even in matters touching the Faith, by giving encouragement to heresy, in issuing certain decrees, for example. Several Roman Pontiffs have in fact been guilty of heresy...  (Quaest. in IV Sent.; quoted in Viollet, Papal Infallibility and the Syllabus).

The Testament of Gregory XI, dated 1374, is both moving and instructive. For in it he recognises in effect that he may have committed “ errors against the Catholic Faith or adopted opinions at variance with the Catholic Faith ” in his teaching given “ in public or in private ”; and he now abjures and detests any such thing of which he may have been guilty. John XXII, upon his deathbed, solemnly recanted every opinion, every teaching, contrary to the Catholic Faith, alluding to his heretical sermon given on the Feast of All Saints in 1331, “ submitting all that he may have said or written on the subject to the judgement of the Church and of his successors: determinationi Ecclesiae ac successorum nostrorum ”.

Such instances do not leave any room for doubt but that it is possible for a Pope to be guilty of heresy, except in his Solemn Magisterium which, alone, is intrinsically infallible.

Those who still retain doubts on the matter should consider the following: We are often told that the Vatican Council had proclaimed the Pope to be infallible, and that, therefore, we must always listen to him and obey him on pain of damnation. But it is not quite so simple. The Council Fathers, having re-affirmed what the Church had always taught, that it was necessary for salvation to be in union with the Bishop of Rome and that he who rejected his authority could not hope to be saved, went on to reason that therefore the Pope could not err or lead his flock astray, for in that case the faithful might, on certain occasions, find themselves in the position of having to follow him into his error. As no one is ever bound to an evil act, this would be an absurdity.

At this point the Council had to define also the limits of Infallibility, and lay down the precise conditions which must be satisfied for a pronouncement to be ex cathedra. Clearly they were aware that obedience to the Pope – only relatively infallible – could not under all circumstances be identified with obedience to God, who alone is the Source of all Truth and Holiness. Not only was the Infallibility of the Pope defined at the Vatican Council, but also the limits and extent of this Infallibility. To put it another way, the Council laid down also the fact that outside these limits the Pope remained capable of erring and was not entitled to command blind obedience. Many criticisms that have been levelled against the Papacy would fall to the ground if the Popes had always been ready humbly to acknowledge these limitations of their authority.

b. Historical proof

The theoretical possibility of error and crime in the case of a Pope having thus been established – and similar reasoning applies also in the case of an Ecumenical Council – we are left with the practical question whether there have in fact ever been any such cases.

Bellarmine, one of the greatest among the theologians of the Counter-Reformation, would discount this as a practical possibility, believing that God would not permit such a thing. Most modern theologians seem to have held a similar view, at least until 1962, when there was an abrupt change in thinking on the subject. Besides being logically inconsistent, such a view does less than justice to the facts of history.

Cajetan and, before him, Turrecremata, and later, Banès and Suarez, represented the opposing view – that what is possible in theory may well occur in practice. And history provides the evidence to prove their case. No one can dispute the facts, which prove that certain Popes have in fact shown themselves confused in questions of faith and even condemned the upholders of orthodoxy. We must remember, however, that such cases can be counted on the fingers of one hand, that they were mere short-lived episodes and that there were extenuating circumstances in the form of persecution, ill-health or old age. The list of all such cases is so short that it serves only to provoke our admiration at the orderliness marking the long succession of the Papacy. The exceptions only enhance the general impression.

Liberius is famous for having signed, in December 359, when he was under pressure at the hands of the Emperor who was holding him prisoner at Byzantium, a semi-Arian formula which had already, been accepted by all the Eastern bishops, 160 in number, meeting at Seleucia, and by 400 Western bishops, at Rimini – by all of them except Hilary, Athanasius, and a tiny handful of others, whom Liberius went so far as to condemn. But the wretched man came to his senses before long and stood up to the Emperor, thereafter being firm in his support of orthodoxy right up to the time of his death.

Vigilius became to all appearances a supporter of heresy when, in 553, he refused to uphold firmly the Church’s teaching that Christ had two Wills, against “ Monothelism ”, though the issue had, admittedly, been confused by the Byzantines. He did not condemn either this or the older, Monophysite heresy. The Roman deacon Pelagius attacked Vigilius on this account and charged him with heresy, for which he was excommunicated by Vigilius. It was Pelagius, however, who succeeded him on the See of Peter – only to fall into similar habits of temporising and diplomatic duplicity as his predecessor!

Boniface IV adopted a similarly ambiguous – or prudent? – attitude on the same question which had become even more entangled, and for this he was reproached by St Columba in a vehement letter, several entire pages of which might well have been incorporated into our Liber Accusationis in Paulum VI!

Honorius is, among all the Popes in any way guilty of heresy, both the best known and the most culpable – even though this concerned only a single episode in an otherwise great Pontificate. The phrase he used when justifying his compromise with the heretics has a surprisingly up-to-date ring about it, for all that it was spoken in 634: “ We must be careful not to rekindle ancient quarrels. ” On the strength of this argument, he allowed error to spread freely, with the result that truth and orthodoxy were effectively banished. St Sophronius of Jerusalem was almost alone in standing up to Honorius, and accusing him of heresy. Eventually the Pope came to his senses, but he died without having repaired the immense damage caused to the Church by his lack of decision. For this reason the Sixth Council of Constantinople cast its anathema upon him, and this was confirmed by Pope Leo II. All the great Ecumenical Councils since then have endorsed this verdict; even while proclaiming the dogma of Papal Infallibility, the Church of Rome upheld the anathema cast many centuries ago upon one of her Pontiffs on account of heresy.

John XXII said at Avignon, on the Feast of All Saints, 1331, that the soul does not enter the Beatific Vision until the resurrection of the body, at the last day. Protests followed, and a rebuke from the University of Paris whose theologians were consulted. John XXII died in 1334, admitting and recanting his error.

Should we include also Alexander VI, of whom Savonarola said that, coming from a line of Jews whose conversion was only a sham – the notorious Borgias – he had never had the Faith at all? Savonarola did not manage to prove his contention – but Italy has always looked upon him as a saint!

So here we have five Popes who, for one brief moment in their Pontificate, failed in their duty to uphold the purity and integrity of the Faith, or – perhaps one should say – failed to maintain the necessary firmness in doing so. They were acting from motives of diplomacy or the desire to keep the peace rather than from those of formal heresy. What are five cases in almost twenty centuries, among 263 Popes? Insignificant – but for the fact that they show that such a thing can happen.

Moreover, when these few cases are carefully reviewed, as was done prior to the proclamation of Papal Infallibility in 1870, plenty of extenuating circumstances were found for all of them. The question had been confused by the Byzantines, or else it concerned a matter of “ secondary importance ”, as in the case of Vigilius. Or else they were old and sick, like Liberius, and threatened with death and deserted by all the bishops, yielding but for a moment under pressure. Honorius was acting out of sheer weakness when he allowed heresy to win the field, and there has never been general agreement on the extent of his guilt. In the case of John XXII, it was a matter of fanciful speculation on a question of “ lesser importance ”. The worst case would have been that of Alexander VI, if it could have been proven that he really did not have the Christian Faith – did not, perhaps, believe in God at all. All we can say is that the evidence for this is not convincing.

This historical digression will help us to see why a number of theologians consider, if somewhat illogically, that it is impossible in practice for a pope to be in heresy. It would be more correct to say that the odds against it are very great. It is statistically more likely that the Pope is being kept prisoner in his room, that he is not allowed to know what is going on, that he is being drugged, that he is being represented by a double… or anything else you can think of, rather than the one hypothesis which so many people will not face up to and which they consider to be a counsel of despair. Nevertheless, it is the only answer that fits the facts of the present Pontificate, and it need not shake our faith or hope, nor detract from our charity, if we maintain that our Pope is a heretic.


A schismatic is by definition a Christian separated from Rome and rejecting the sovereign authority of the Pope, so it would at first sight seem to be impossible. Yet the possibility – in theory at least – of a Pope being in schism is admitted by theologians on similar grounds as apply to heresy, with certain additional ones belonging to the realm of psychology, of affective orientations. A Pope can, like ordinary people, be torn between his duty on the one hand and personal ambition, or the service of some other power – or ideology – on the other. The possibility of his failing in his duty for such a reason was envisaged both by Suarez and Bellarmine; their discussion has indeed a very up-to-date ring about it. Today, with the benefit of direct clinical observation, we can distinguish three grades of papal schism:

AFFECTIVE SCHISM (manifested in feelings and attitudes). Such would be the case of a Pope turning against his own flock, even perhaps excommunicating the lot, or the most loyal among them, for no lawful reason, and acting generally like an unnatural father who disinherits his own children, showing affection and friendship only towards strangers.

EFFECTIVE SCHISM. Such would be the case of a Pope manifesting unconcern for, even disgust with, the traditional rites and institutions of the Church. If a Pope were to discard the heritage of the ages and replace it with a whole lot of novelties – a new liturgy, new canon law, new pastoral methods and new dogmatic formulations – he would be in a state of schism against the Papacy of ages past, and hence against the Church of the Apostles.

ABSOLUTE SCHISM. There remains the third stage, which we have termed “ absolute schism ”, when the Pope abandons altogether his sacred function – the service of the Church and care of his flock, and concern with men’s supernatural welfare generally – and devotes himself instead entirely to other matters, such as the enrichment of his family or his City, or to making diplomatic contacts and increasing his popularity with Heads of State. Or he could take up another religion, or devote himself to a utopian, all-embracing religion of the future, seeking even to turn the Church into one of its constituent units. One could then speak of a rupture between the Pope and his people, between the Vicar of Christ and the Lord Himself.

There have been a few such cases in the past, but, like those of heresy, they must be classed as relatively minor deviations which serve, however, to forewarn the Church of what might come – of what has come to pass in our own day, the beginning of the Great Apostasy foretold by the Scriptures?


Clearly, a Pope is no more assured of moral indefectibility than other human beings, and his very position may expose him to temptations, the yielding to which would give rise to scandal. But the Church has always exercised eminent discretion with regard to the private failings of her most exalted members. Thus, a Pope’s private life must be maintained above criticism, and no one is allowed to pass judgement upon it in any way. If it does become a source of scandal for the faithful, let them pray and do penance for his amendment or, as a last resort in an intolerable situation, pray God to deliver the Church in the natural way from him who is such a source of scandal. The “ sole remedy against a wicked Pope who still retains the Faith ” is prayer (Journet).

There remains however the possibility of a different sort of scandal, to which classical theology seems to have given no consideration, involving not the private conduct of a Pope but the exercise of his pontifical function itself. When it is not mere “ acts of the Pope ”, but “ Pontifical acts ”, which are the cause of scandal, then they do concern all the faithful who, by remaining a mere “ silent majority ”, become ipso facto accomplices. If, for example, a Pope, in the course of a solemn address to a General Council, or of an Encyclical Letter, were to ask pardon of heretics and schismatics for the supposed guilt of his Predecessors, and indeed of the Church, in having condemned them; if he should become reconciled with them even to the extent of inviting them to joint acts of worship, this would be “ official ” and not private scandal, and constitute an official invitation to others to imitate him in his wrongdoing. Such scandal is a danger to the people’s faith and for this reason it would be wrong to remain silent in the face of it. When a Pope becomes the corrupter of the Church, action against him is imperative.



Bellarmine put forward a solution that sounds extremely drastic, but we must remember that he regarded the possibility – and hence presumably the solution – as merely academic. “ PAPA HAERETICUS DEPOSITUS EST… A heretical Pope is deposed ”. The reason is simple. Heresy being a form of spiritual death, a Pope who should fall into it would be spiritually dead and cut off from the Church, thus ceasing to be her Head.

Such reasoning, however excellent it may be in theory, does not take into account the psychological and sociological aspects of the situation. We have seen over these past ten years that such a solution is inapplicable in practice. To be effective, it would require two preliminary conditions which are, today, inconceivable. The Pope would, in the first place, have to have a clear understanding that he was renouncing the Faith in favour of heresy, and to be doing so deliberately and in consciousness of the mortal sin involved. Secondly, the priests and faithful would have to grasp fully the heresy in the papal teaching and to be unanimously agreed that the Pope was in fact a heretic. Today, however, the heretic sees himself as one ahead of his time, not a rebel but a prophet who is to save the Church! The priests and faithful, for their part, no longer have a clear idea where lies heresy and where the true Faith, or indeed if there is any contradiction between the two...

Thus we have today a situation where a Pope can be guilty of heresy, schism and scandal while believing himself to be engaged in founding Christianity anew, and where he is able to convince the great mass of priests and people into following him, just as they followed the greatest and holiest Popes of the past!

To admit the idea of the automatic deposition of the Pope on account of heresy would entail two possible consequences, the one disastrous and the other absurd. Either we should be left without any possibility at all of ridding ourselves of such a Pope, because the masses would continue to follow him regardless, or else any Tom, Dick or Harry who happened to have some grievance against the Pope could declare, on any ground whatsoever, and claiming for himself the justification of St Robert Bellarmine, that the Pope was a heretic and deposed on this account!


The solution which we regard as a practicable one is that proposed by Cajetan, followed by John of St Thomas and others: “ PAPA HAERETICUS DEPONENDUS EST… A heretical Pope must be deposed ”. This implies not only that a heretical Pope must be deposed from his office, but equally that anyone who feels impelled to bring a charge of heresy against the Pope has an obligation to take the necessary steps towards a judicial process of deposition. He has no right to raise his personal judgement into a legal verdict.

There remain, however, unanswered questions regarding the manner of bringing about such a deposition. Who is to depose the Pope? The Church, evidently. But has the Church the competence to pass judgement on him who is the Head and Sovereign Judge of all? Cajetan maintains that in undertaking such a process of deposition the Church is not in fact passing a verdict on the offender, but only bringing before God’s own Tribunal the evidence required.

It is God Himself alone from whom the process of deposition can emanate. It is hard to see just what Cajetan had in mind and at this point his discussion becomes somewhat nebulous. We are left only with the idea that any ecclesiastical tribunal would be competent merely to institute proceedings, but not to pass sentence.

The Libellus fidei addressed by Adrian II to the Eighth Council of Constantinople gives us some further guidance. In it he reminds the faithful, in connection with Honorius, that they have the right to resist a Pope who errs against the Faith and to refuse the directives of superiors who are in heresy. He adds that even in such a case, no patriarch or bishop would have any right to pass a sentence (of anathema) except with the consent of the Sovereign Pontiff himself. “ Cuipiam de eo quamlibet fas fuerit proferendum sententiam, nisi ejusdem primae sedis pontificis consensus praecessisset auctoritas. ” When Adrian II said that the consent of the Pope was necessary before a condemnation could be issued in such a case, he was thinking, evidently, of a posthumous sentence. But why should we not follow a similar argument and apply it within the lifetime of the Pope concerned? When souls are in danger, there is no case for waiting until death takes its course.


The solution that we are putting forward takes account of the dogma of Papal Infallibility as it was defined by the Vatican Council over 100 years ago. Indeed, though strange at first-sight, this application of the dogma could well seem to future historians a providential one. For the dogma of Infallibility shows us that the only person able to pass judgement on a Pope guilty of heresy, schism, or scandal, is none other than the Pope himself, speaking with the authority of his infallible Magisterium.

The Church must therefore make AN APPEAL TO THE POPE CONCERNING THE POPE. This is precisely what I have been asking for over the past six years – but public opinion is as yet so little prepared for such a solution that I am constantly being accused of having “ condemned ” the Pope, or of having passed “ judgement without appeal ” on him, when I have rather been calling upon him to pass such a judgement, and limited myself to the role of accuser. For the proposed solution is the only one that would do justice to the Pope. Whether his accusers are right or wrong – whether he is guilty or innocent – a Pope whose orthodoxy has thus been called into question cannot honourably extricate himself except through a process in which everything is set out with precision.

Who is to bring the charge? We can have no doubt but that any Catholic, any member of the Church, is entitled to do so. If there should be found a Prince or Emperor to take on the task, so much the better, for his standing would give it added weight. History shows that though force may be a dangerous tool for settling an argument, it has sometimes been used in the service of the Faith. Better still would be a Saint, and we can only regret the passing of the ages of faith when there would come forward Saints who not only expressed their reprimands with the greatest boldness, but followed them up with prophecies and miracles, showing that they were indeed inspired by God. The next best would be a member of the Hierarchy – the higher his rank, the better.

But failing a Saint or a Prince, a Curial Cardinal or even a Bishop, the last and least among Catholics is entitled to bring his charge against the Pope and therefore, for want of anyone better qualified, I decided to undertake the task myself.

If the Pope’s accuser should be in the wrong, he will suffer for it, and that would only serve him right. But, as long he is inwardly convinced that the Pope is in heresy, there remains on him the moral obligation to say so openly. In remaining silent while he is in a state of inward rebellion against the Pope he puts himself into peril of damnation for, if he should be wrong, he is cutting himself off from the Pope and hence from the Church. If he is right, he fails in his obligation of charity by not warning his brethren.

Before which tribunal? The only tribunal competent in matters of Faith is the CHURCH herself, by virtue of her authority as the SPOUSE of the LORD. Her judgement is infallible. The “ believing Church ” owes her faith to and retains her “ sensus fidei ” through the constant help and support given by the “ teaching Church ”. The Process would have to be instituted before the eyes of the whole Church, either by representative members of the Hierarchy, or by a tribunal consisting of ordinary theologians, whose brief would consist merely in establishing whether or not the teaching and acts of the Pontiff were compatible with the Catholic Faith and the Tradition of the Church. Their decision would be subject to the verdict passed by the Pope himself speaking infallibly.

It would fall to the Pope himself to pick the members of the tribunal charged with instructing the Process in all freedom and impartiality. It would seem to me preferable if the members were simple theologians rather than bishops and cardinals who might be tempted to set themselves up into a Council and claim for themselves the right to pass judgement upon the Pope – thus coming back full circle to the erroneous theory of Conciliar supremacy.

Who will be the Sovereign Judge? The Church, of course, but she would have to be represented by one man – the only man – competent to speak in her name, the same who is the lawful Head of every Conciliar Assembly – the Pope himself. He would be called upon, forced, to pass judgement on himself. Here we have the updated solution of the ancient problem – the Pope, speaking ex cathedra, is assured of the help of the Holy Spirit and cannot err either from ignorance or malice. Even if he were a “ demon in his very soul ”, to use the words of Cajetan, he would nevertheless be “ holy by virtue of his office ”. And everything will be saved by God!

What could be the possible outcome of such a Process?

Three alternatives spring to mind:

  1. A new definition of belief. This would be the most glorious way for the Pope to show that he had been wrongfully accused, and to rebut his accuser. The Pope would repeat, this time in the form of a solemn pronouncement, what he had said before in the ordinary way and the orthodoxy of which had been challenged. His opponent and the followers of the latter would have to submit and recant under pain of excommunication for formal heresy.Let us illustrate this by an example: Paul VI had authorised the giving of Holy Communion to a Presbyterian. The opponent claims that such an act was against the Faith and the Church’s God-given Law. The tribunal would have to establish that the facts had been correctly stated, that it was not a misunderstanding or some other accidental confusion but a genuine conflict between two different interpretations of the revealed Faith. It would be for the Pope to show that his interpretation had a sound theological basis, founded in Divine Revelation, and to make an ex cathedra pronouncement justifying intercommunion as compatible with the Faith. In that case, we should have to bow before his decision.
  2. A recantation by the Pope. “ But that is surely impossible ”, is what you may well say. In that case, you are either speaking without reflection or else you are lacking in faith. For if a Pope who has been guilty of serious error is faced with the alternatives of either affirming the Catholic teaching – which would involve admitting his own error – or denying it in order to persist in his own view, it is surely to be expected that he would recant. The five Popes who were guilty of heresy in the past all recanted!This should remind us that, while there is an obligation to take steps against a Pope guilty of heresy, it is also vital to pray for him as well as for the Church. It would be a glorious termination of such a Process against a Pope guilty of heresy, schism, and scandal, it he were to make an act of humility and submission to the will of God, for His greater glory and the inestimable benefit of the Church.
  3. The formal establishment of the Pope’s defection. The Pope might refuse to listen to his accuser. “ Does he have to present himself here? Close the doors; I will have nothing to do with him. “ So the case might drag on until others take up the charges. One day the priests of the Pope’s own diocese might come and demand a reply. “ No, I do not wish to reply ”. In such a case, the Church of Rome would have to draw up an acknowledgement of this refusal and this abuse of authority: the Pope is not willing to exercise his supreme Magistrature!But perhaps the process will commence with a series of procrastinations. The Pope shilly-shallies. He is pressed by his very own Church, the Church of Rome, which is particularly qualified to exercise this role. He is summoned to abandon his calculated inertia: “ The world is waiting for you to settle this question. You cannot stay silent, you must assume your role as Supreme Judge ”. If he again refuses to listen to his Church, further decisions will have to be envisaged.

The Church of Rome would then have to threaten the Pope with deposition. In such a summons, it would be the Pope's own act, his repeated refusal to exercise his responsibilities, that would constitute a resignation. His deposition by the Church would be only a consequence of this. The sentence of deposition would thus be the canonical conclusion of this acknowledgement of the Pope’s resignation. The Church of Rome would then declare the Apostolic See vacant and she would call a conclave for the election of his Successor. For she owes it to herself to have a Head who will teach with authority, judge and punish, and uphold the peace and unity of the Church. She cannot remain for any length of time – to use the term applied to the Republic by Marcel Sembat – “ a woman without a head ”.

Then, once again, the memory of a heretical Pope would fade from people’s minds.