Tuesday, January 22, 2008

St. Robert Bellarmine and the impossibility of a heretical pope

Sedevacantists are small, radical fringe groups which emerged after Vatican II, claiming to be Catholic yet each concluding that the post-Vatican II popes teach heresy, and are therefore not valid popes; they assert that the Holy See of Rome (“Sedes”, in Latin) is “vacant”, i.e. there is no legitimate Pope [yet, they disagree among themselves as to who the last valid pope was]. Hence the name of “Sedevacantism” is given to the movement.

They often build their argument from the following quote from St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Catholic Church:
"A pope who is a manifest heretic automatically (per se) ceases to be pope and head, just as he ceases automatically to be a Christian and a member of the Church. Wherefore, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the teaching of all the ancient Fathers who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction." (De Romano Pontifice, Bk II, Ch. 30)
The above text, they hope, leaves the impression that St. Robert believed and taught that the pope could become a manifest heretic. However, that is incorrect. The above quote must be understood in the context of what St. Robert Bellarmine also affirmed in the same text, in Book 4, chapter 6 of De Romano Pontifice:
Chapter 6. On the pontiff as he is a particular person.

Fourth Proposition: It is probable and can be piously believed that the highest pontiff, not only cannot err as pontiff, but also as a particular person cannot be a heretic by believing anything false contrary to the faith.

This is proved firstly because the sweet order of God's providence seems to require it. For the pontiff not only should not and cannot preach heresy, but also should always teach the truth, and he will certainly do this since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brothers, and therefore he added: I have asked for you that your faith not fail, i.e. that the preaching of the true faith not fail in your see. And how, I ask, will a heretical pontiff confirm his brothers in the faith and always preach the true faith? Surely God can force out a confession of the true faith from a heretical heart, as he once put words in the mouth of the ass Balaam; but it would be violent and not according to the custom of God's providence sweetly ordering all things.

Secondly it is proved from the result, for so far there has been no heretic, or certainly it cannot be proved of any that he was a heretic. Therefore it is a sign that this cannot happen.

See Pighius for further arguments.
(De Romano Pontifice, Bk IV, Ch. 6)
It is clear from the above, that St. Robert never believed that it is possible that the pope could be a heretic as pontiff or even as a particular person pertinaciously believe something false contrary to the faith. St. Robert is right in drawing the conclusion in his theological dispute against Cardinal Cajetan in Bk II of De Romano Pontifice, and he is also right in concluding that the pope can never be a manifest heretic in Bk IV of De Romano Pontifice.

Centuries earlier, St. Catherine of Sienna affirmed the same teaching, which is why she concluded it impossible that obedience to the Holy Father could ever be contrary to obedience to God. According to St. Catherine, Doctor of the Catholic Church:
"He left you this sweet key of obedience; for as you know He left His vicar, the Christ, on earth, whom you are all obliged to obey until death, and whoever is outside His obedience is in a state of damnation, as I have already told you in another place." (Dialogue, Treatise on Obedience)

"Even if that vicar were a devil incarnate, I must not defy him." (Letter to Bernabo Visconti)

"Divine obedience never prevents us from obedience to the Holy Father: nay, the more perfect the one, the more perfect is the other. And we ought always to be subject to his commands and obedient unto death. However indiscreet obedience to him might seem, and however it should deprive us of mental peace and consolation, we ought to obey; and I consider that to do the opposite is a great imperfection, and deceit of the devil." (Letter to Brother Antonio of Nizza).
Pope St. Pius X, also affirmed in an allocution against dissenting priests:
"And how should one love the Pope? Not merely by word nor tongue, but works and integrity. When one is loved, all of that person’s thoughts, wills, and desires are sought out for assent...to demonstrate our love to the Pope it is necessary to obey him...when we love the Pope, we do not dispute whether he commands or requires a thing, or seek to know where the strict obligation of obedience lies, or in what matter we must obey; when we love the Pope we do not say that he has not yet spoken clearly – as if he were required to speak his will in every man's ear, and to utter it not only by word of mouth but in letters and other public documents as well. Nor do we cast doubt on his orders, alleging the pretext which comes easily to the man who does not want to obey, that it is not the Pope who is commanding, but some one in his entourage. We do not limit the field in which he can and ought to exercise his authority; we do not oppose to the Pope's authority that of other persons – no matter how learned – who dissent from the Pope. For whatever may be their learning, they are not holy, for where there is holiness there cannot be dissent with the Pope." [allocution of 18 November, 1912, AAS vol. 4 (1912), 693-695. Selection from p. 695]
God bless,