Abuse of Ecclesiastical Power
Catholic theologians and canon lawyers, a prelate can abuse his
position in a number of ways, which include the imposition of unjust
laws or failure to guard and transmit the deposit of Faith, either
by remaining silent in the face of heresy or even by teaching heresy
himself. A Catholic has the right to refuse obedience in the first
case and a duty to oppose the prelate in the second. Their consensus
regarding law in general is that the legislator should not simply
refrain from demanding something that his subjects would find impossible
to carry out, but that laws should not be too difficult or distressing
for those subjected to them. St. Thomas explains that, for a law
to be just, it must conform to the demands of reason and have an
effect which is both good and for the benefit of those for whom
it is intended. A law can cease to bind without revocation on the
part of the legislator when it is clearly harmful, impossible, or
is particularly true if a prelate commands anything contrary to
divine precept. (Praelato non est obediendum contra praeceptum
divinum.) In support of this teaching St. Thomas cites Acts
5:29: "We ought to obey God rather than men." He teaches
that not only would the prelate err in giving such an order but
that anyone obeying him would sin just as certainly as if he disobeyed
a divine command. ("...ipse peccaret praecipiens, et ei
obediens, quasi contra praeceptum Domini agens...").2
the question as to whether subjects are bound to obey their superiors
in all things he explains that: "Now sometimes the things commanded
by a superior are against God. Therefore superiors are not to be
obeyed in all things."3
Where a matter
of faith is involved, resistance is not a right but a duty for the
faithful Catholic. The only correct course of action is that taken
by Eusebius and so highly praised by Dom Guéranger in his
Day, 428, Nestorius (Patriarch of Constantinople), profiting from
the immense crowd assembled to celebrate the birth of the Divine
Child to Our Lady uttered this blasphemy from his episcopal throne:
"Mary did not give birth to God; her son was only a man,
the instrument of God."
words a tremor of horror passed through the multitude. The general
indignation was voiced by Eusebius, a layman, who stood up in
the crowd and protested. Soon a more detailed protest was drafted
in the name of the members of the abandoned Church, and numerous
copies spread far and wide, declaring anathema on whoever should
dare to say that He Who was born of the Virgin Mary was other
than the only begotten Son of God. This attitude not only safeguarded
the Faith of the Eastern Church, but was praised alike by Popes
and Councils. When the shepherd turns into a wolf the first duty
of the flock is to defend itself. As a general rule, doctrine
comes from the bishops to the faithful, and it is not for the
faithful, who are subjects in the order of Faith, to pass judgment
on their superiors. But every Christian, by virtue of his title
to the name Christian, has not only the necessary knowledge of
the essentials of the treasure of Revelation, but also the duty
of safeguarding them. The principle is the same, whether it is
a matter of belief or conduct, that is of dogma or morals. Treachery
such as that of Nestorius is rare in the Church; but it can happen
that, for one reason or another, pastors remain silent on essential
matters of faith.
then insists that, when the Faith is compromised by someone in authority
in the Church, the true Christian is the one who makes a stand for
the truth rather than the one who does nothing under the specious
pretext of submission to lawful authority.
To sum up what
has been demonstrated so far, normally subjects must be obedient
to lawful authority in Church and State but they have the right
to resist harsh and harmful laws which do not contribute to the
common good. They must never compromise the Faith under the pretext
of obedience. "When the shepherd becomes the wolf the flock
must defend itself."
concerned to uphold orthodoxy within the Church during these troubled
times would dispute this. Catholics in English-speaking countries
do not normally have to contend with shepherds who have actually
become wolves but with shepherds who permit wolves to ravage their
flocks, shepherds who condemn any of the sheep who have the temerity
to complain. Such bishops are not the exception, they have become
the norm. Dietrich von Hildebrand denounces them with the burning
indignation of an Old Testatment prophet:
close their eyes and try, ostrich-style, to ignore the grievous
abuses as well as appeals to their duty to intervene, or they
fear to be attacked by the press or the mass-media and defamed
as reactionary, narrow-minded, or medieval. They fear men more
than God. The words of St. John Bosco apply to them: "The power
of evil men lives on in the cowardice of the good."...One
is forced to think of the hireling who abandons his flocks to
the wolves when one reflects on the lethargy of so many bishops
and superiors who, though still orthodox themselves, do not have
the courage to intervene against the most flagrant heresies and
abuses of all kinds in their dioceses or in their orders.4
Dr. von Hilderbrand
is in perfect conformity with the authorities who have already been
cited when he denies that the faithful have the duty of automatic
obedience to their bishops in the present state of the Church. He
shows with admirable clarity that the mark of a truly faithful Catholic
can be a refusal to submit to heretical or compromising bishops.
faithful at the time of the Arian heresy, for instance, in which
the majority of the bishops were Arians, have limited themselves
to being nice and obedient to the ordinances of these bishops,
instead of battling heresy? Is not fidelity to the true teaching
of the Church to be given priority over submission to the bishop?
Is it not precisely by virtue of their obedience to the revealed
truths which they received from the Magisterium of the Church,
that the faithful offer resistance?...
of the heretics, both priests and laymen, is tolerated; the bishops
tacitly acquiesce to the poisoning of the faithful. But they want
to silence the faithful believers who take up the cause of orthodoxy,
the very people who should by all rights be the joy of the bishops'
hearts, their consolation, a source of strength for overcoming
their own lethargy. Instead, these people are regarded as disturbers
of the peace.5
fidelity to the true teaching of the Church to be given priority
over submission to the bishop?" asks Dr. von Hildebrand. "Yes,
it is," replies St. Thomas Aquinas together with every reputable
theologian who has examined the subject. There can be very few faithful
Catholics who would refuse to align themselves with St. Thomas and
Dietrich von Hildebrand on this point - with one reservation. Many,
if not most, would add the proviso: "Unless the bishop in question
is the Bishop of Rome." Some are quite unwilling to admit,
even to themselves, that an occasion could ever arise when a Catholic
should justifiably refuse obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff. However
sincere such people may be, they display a lamentable ignorance
of Church history and Catholic theology.
de Corte of the University of Liège can be ranked with Dr.
von Hildebrand as one of the outstanding Catholic philosophers of
our time. He has noted that the attitude of these Catholics towards
the Pope is tantamount to the claim that he is inerrant, that his
every decision, his every word, is divinely inspired, that he is,
in fact, a divine oracle. Writing in the March 1977 issue of the
Courrier de Rome he remarked:
it is as if the person of the Pope were, as such, infallible,
and as if all his words, all his directives, all his judgments
in all matters, even those foreign to religion, could never be
subject to error, though the whole history of the Church protests
against that conviction which is close to idolatry.
been Popes whose doctrine was near-heresy, Honorius and Liberius
for example. There were others whose faith, hope and charity could
hardly be perceived behind the disorders of their conduct. And
there were some whose faults, stupidity, blunders, extravagances,
and weaknesses in the government and administration of the Church
were such that the divine organism entrusted to their care was
more than once shaken. It is enough to read the twenty or so volumes
of Ludwig von Pastor's History of the Popes to be convinced
will possess this huge work but some will own the very scholarly
one-volume work on the same subject, The Popes, edited by
Eric John and published by Burns and Oates in 1964. It is only necessary
to glance through the brief lives of the Popes in this book to find
literally hundreds of examples of "faults, stupidity, blunders,
extravagances, and weaknesses" among the Popes. A few of these
examples will suffice to make the point:6
of Pope Zosimus lasted for one year only, from 417-418.
and prudence were insufficient for his task of governing the Church,
and he was a weak man who blustered and yielded. Within a few
days of consecration he conferred on Patroclus, Bishop of Aries,
a usurper of the see, unscrupulous in his methods, what amounted
to legatine authority over all the bishops of southern Gaul, and
reprimanded them harshly when they defended their rights....Zosimus
ordered the rehabilitation of an African priest, Apiarius, degraded
by his bishop for his immoral life.
II (530-532) attempted to nominate his successor, "an ambitious
and unscrupulous deacon named Vigilius. His action, however, met
with such general disapprobation that he rescinded the decree."
Here is an example of a pope who was clearly in the wrong, who met
with legitimate resistance, and eventually abandoned his misguided
policy. Pope Zosimus had refused to budge when opposed on equally
This did not
prevent Vigilius from eventually obtaining the papacy. Pope St.
Silverius was unjustly deposed in 537 and Vigilius elected in his
place. St. Silverius was handed over "to Vigilius and his slaves.
He was taken to the island of Palmaria where on 11 November his
resignation was extorted. On 2 December 537 he died, a victim of
ill use and starvation. The guilt of his death rests primarily on
Vigilius. The Church honors him as a martyr."
Pope "letters frankly Monophysite7
addressed to the Monophysite bishops are attributed to Vigilius
and reputable Catholic scholars believe in his authorship. In view
of his shifty and unscrupulous character...we may be disposed to
agree." The Emperor Justinian was anxious to reconcile his
Monophysite subjects and hoped to achieve a compromise with them
by condemning three authors of whom they did not approve. "These
writings proposed for anathema were known as the 'Three Chapters.'
Though the condemnation would not reject [the Council of] Chalcedon,8
it must derogate from its authority, and would therefore be a sop
to the Monophysites." The Emperor wished Vigilius to condemn
the Three Chapters. "A pitiful history of vacillation and evasion
followed." One of the writings was a letter by a Bishop Ibas
which had been read at Chalcedon and pronounced orthodox. A Council
of Oriental bishops falsely claimed that the letter of Bishop Ibas
was not the document read at Chalcedon. The Council excommunicated
Pope Vigilius, who then surrendered. He "condemned the Chapters
and even endorsed the Council's lie about Ibas' letter on pain of
heresy for disputing it. It was perhaps the greatest humiliation
in the history of the papacy."
I (625-628), though orthodox in his personal belief, wrote letters
which could be interpreted in a heretical sense. "The progress
of the heresy [Monothelitism], the clear revelation of its character
after Honorius' death, and the use made by the heretics of his approving
letters, compelled the General Council of 680 to condemn Honorius
along with the Patriarch Sergius. This condemnation was sustained
by Pope Leo II and repeated by subsequent popes."
The case of
Pope Honorius poses a particular problem for those who claim that
the Pope is inerrant. If Honorius did not really favor heresy then
Leo II erred in condemning him, but if Leo II did not err in his
condemnation then Honorius was guilty of favoring heresy.
took the papacy by force, but he is customarily regarded as a
legitimate pope. Legitimate he may have been but suitable he certainly
was not....This unscrupulous man who ruled the Church so arrogantly
held a Roman Council which overturned the acts of the Council
of 898....the execration of some undoubted popes by this terrible
man, were enough to cause scandal. Many of the better men of the
day resisted and a bitter conflict arose.
Here is another
example of good Catholics justly resisting a bad pope.
Pope John XII
was "a scandal to the whole Church...John conducted himself in the
manner of a layman, preferring hunting to church ceremonies, and
largely indifferent to Church matters....It was said that he was
struck with a paralysis while visiting his mistress. He died on
14 May 964, without confession or receiving the Sacraments."
II (1061-1073) made a sincere effort to introduce much needed reforms
into the Church. "Both in northern Italy, and to a lesser extent
in England, reform had served as a cloak for dirty politics without
the Pope realizing he was being used by men less scrupulous than
VII (1073-1085) was able to humiliate the Emperor Henry IV "but
it proved to be a political mistake."
IX (1227-1241) "commissioned a convert from heresy, the Dominican
Robert le Bougre, a sadistic monster who was later burned himself,
as his inquisitor in France."
A French pope,
Martin IV (1281-1285) had served the King of France before Pope
Urban IV called him to the Curia. "An ardent patriot, Martin
IV was the devoted servant of Charles, and all else was now sacrificed
to French interests. Charles was made a senator of Rome for life.
Seven new cardinals were created, four of them Frenchmen. Those
appointed to offices in the Papal States by the previous pope were
now displaced in favor of Frenchmen."
the taxation of the Church and sold provisions and expectatives
for ready cash. Indulgences were multiplied, to be gained by an
offering of money with little regard paid to the essential spiritual
conditions. In the year 1400 the Pope proclaimed a Holy Year and
allowed would-be pilgrims to the shrines of Rome to forego the
arduous journey for a sum roughly equivalent to what they would
otherwise have spent. The bankers of Europe were called in to
collect the offerings which they divided equally with the Pope.
There can be little doubt that Boniface IX, who treated the whole
business simply as a political problem, was guilty of simony on
a massive scale.
IV (1471-1484) had one dominating idea, "the desire to advance
his family and obtain for it a leading position in Italy. Other
popes had engaged in nepotism, some out of family loyalty and others
from political considerations: but under him it became the chief
influence in papal policy."
VIII (1484-1492) was:
and genial man [but] he lacked the personality and intellectual
capacity for the office of pope. His morals were equally unsuitable,
and he openly avowed his illegitimate children....To the open
scandals caused by the pope's morals and policies - the advancement
of his bastard Franceschotto, and his collaboration with the heathen
- were added the results of corruption in the Curia. Administrative
incompetence and the expenses of foreign policy in the early years
of his pontificate led both to an increase in the sale of offices
and to the creation of new posts in order that they might be sold.
The number of papal secretaries was increased to twenty-six and
the new posts sold for 62,400 ducats, while fifty-two Plumbatores
were appointed to seal bulls, each of whom paid 2,500 ducats for
fact that all these citations appear in an approved and highly praised
work of Catholic scholarship, many Catholics will be shocked to
read them. They reveal that men totally unsuited for the highest
office to which a human being can rise have been elected to the
office of Sovereign Pontiff. They reveal that popes have appointed
unworthy officials; that popes have been deceived by unscrupulous
men; that policies they initiated have done harm to the Church;
that they have subordinated the good of the Church to political
policies, to the interests of a particular country or their family.
If true, these statements reveal that to be elected pope guarantees
neither impeccability nor inerrancy. But as the Church has never
taught that the pope is impeccable or inerrant, no Catholic should
shirk facing up to the truth. Mention was made earlier of Baron
von Pastor's History of the Popes. A most interesting article
on this work appeared in the 19 July 1940 issue of The Commonweal,
at that time one of the most reputable and orthodox publications
in the English-speaking Catholic world. The first volume of Baron
von Pastor's great work was published in 1886 - the last in 1933.
The article in The Commonweal comments:
of the time were favorable to Pastor. The nineteenth century had
seen an unprecedented development of the historical sciences,
and nowhere was this development more remarkable than in Germany,
where Pastor was trained. Immense stores of authentic materials
were made available to historians, and the publication of manuscripts
and documents, of the fruits of individual and collective research,
of historical monographs of every kind and of reviews which gave
expression to the findings and opinions of every school of thought
increased on all sides. Leo XIII gave further impetus to this
movement when in 1883 he opened to historians the incomparable
riches of the Vatican archives.
performed an even greater service by his letter on the study of
history, in which he declared that the Church has nothing to fear
from the truth and desires only that the truth be known. He reaffirmed
the norms by which all sound historical scholarship must be guided;
the first law of history is, "Never tell a lie," and
the second, "Do not fear to tell the truth." It is understandable,
though deplorable, that many who observe the first cannot bring
themselves to fulfill the second. From this selective obedience
arises the grave abuse by which history, maimed and distorted,
is made the unprofitable servant of unsound apologetics. Cardinal
Newman remarked that the endemic fidget about giving scandal is
itself the greatest of scandals, and we may paraphrase his famous
comment on literature by saying that we may expect a sinless history
only from a sinless people.
freedom from the criminal trait of accommodating his matter is
an imperishable glory for Catholic historical readership and is
surely not the least of the reasons for the esteem in which his
work is held by Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike.
Catholics who ignore the truth and insist that every decision of
Pope Paul VI was divinely inspired cannot hope to be vindicated
by history. For many centuries there was an unfortunate tendency
for Catholic apologists to adapt the facts to suit the case. Thus
Liberius neither signed one of the creeds of Sirmium nor confirmed
the excommunication of St. Athanasius (see Appendix I); Honorius
did not write the letter for which he was condemned - it was a forgery;
Bishop Grosseteste did not write the letter denouncing Pope Innocent
IV - it was also a forgery.
to face up to the truth is a sign of a strong and informed faith.
Had the Church taught that every pope is impeccably virtuous this
could not be reconciled with the life of Pope Alexander VI - but
as the Church has never taught that the popes are impeccable, Alexander
VI may be a source of scandal but he is not an impediment to faith.
It should never be forgotten that the first pope actually denied
Our Lord - perhaps this was intended as a lesson and a warning
to us. Certainly, not even the most dissolute of St. Peter's successors
ever descended to the extent of denying Christ.
have a very weak faith to be upset by this human side of the Church.
One can, indeed, suffer in one's feelings; but the solidity, the
Amen, of our response to the action of God in the One,
Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church should never be damaged by
it: God writes straight with crooked lines, says the Portugese
proverb, He always draws good from evil; and we know from Scripture
that the time of universal apostasy will be followed by the glory
of the kind of deification of the Pope which is raging, in different
degrees, in Catholic souls, and which inclines them, again in
different degrees, to an absolute obedience to his injunctions
in any domain whatsoever, is relatively recent. The Middle Ages,
for example, knew nothing of it. It certainly cannot be said that
that period, the most brilliant in the history of Christianity,
ever cast doubt on the spiritual primacy of the papacy in the
order of faith. The struggles between the Empire and Rome, however
violent they were, respected the fundamental principle of the
Catholic faith. When Dante, with a sort of ferocity, put Boniface
VIII, the Pope gloriously reigning at the time he wrote, into
the abysses of Hell, in company with some of his predecessors,
he did not, like Luther, condemn to a shameful execution the Papacy
itself as the principal organ of the Church.
Corte has touched here upon what is perhaps the most important distinction
to be made in this discussion - the distinction between schism and
disobedience. This distinction is discussed in the Dictionnaire
de Théologie Catholique by no less a person than Fr.
Yves Congar, O. P., an implacable critic of Mgr. Lefebvre and the
Father Congar writes that schism involves a refusal to accept the
existence of legitimate authority in the Church, e. g. Luther's
rejection of the papacy to which Professor de Corte referred. Father
Congar explains that the refusal to accept a decision of legitimate
authority in a particular instance does not constitute schism but
disobedience. A Catholic who misses Mass on Sunday without good
cause is disobedient but not schismatic - and his disobedience constitutes
a sin. But disobedience to an unlawful command, a refusal to submit
to an abuse of power, can be meritorious. It was not Bishop Grosseteste
who sinned in refusing to appoint the Pope's nephew as a canon of
Lincoln Cathedral but the Pope who sinned by using offices intended
for the cure of souls as a means of obtaining revenue for his relatives.
But how can such a viewpoint be reconciled with the teaching of
Pastor Aeternus, the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican
Council on the Church and particularly papal authority?
and declare that, in the disposition of God, the Roman Church
holds the pre-eminence of ordinary power over all the other
churches; and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff,
which is truly episcopal, is immediate. Regarding this jurisdiction,
the shepherds of whatever rite and dignity and the faithful,
individually and collectively, are bound by a duty of hierarchical
subjection and of sincere obedience; and this not only in matters
that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain
to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the
whole world. When, therefore, this bond of unity with the Roman
Pontiff is guarded both in government and in the profession
of the same faith, then the Church of Christ is one flock under
one supreme shepherd. This is the doctrine of Catholic truth;
and no one can deviate from this without losing his faith and
In their zeal
to uphold papal authority some Catholics interpret these words as
if they invested the Sovereign pontiff with an authority which he
has never possessed and could never possess. Probably without realizing
it, they are claiming implicitly if not explicitly, that the Pope
possesses absolute or arbitrary power, i.e. - that the Church has
been placed at his disposal to be governed at his whim. But the
authority of the Pope is neither absolute nor arbitrary - the idea
that Pastor Aeternus might be interpreted in this manner
was considered ridiculous during the debates of the First Vatican
Council and attempts to include clauses intended to exclude such
an interpretation were treated as absurd. One American Father, Bishop
Verot of Savannah, proposed a canon stating: "If anyone says
that the authority of the Pope in the Church is so full that he
may dispose of everything by his mere whim, let him be anathema."
He was told that the Fathers had not come to Rome "to hear
of Angers (France) had been professor of theology at the Sorbonne
and was one of the theologians who were called to Rome to prepare
for the Council. During the debate on the Pope's power of jurisdiction
is the principle of Ulpian in the Roman law, that the mere will
of the prince is law. But who has ever said that the Roman Pontiff
should govern the Church according to his sweet will, by his nod,
by arbitrary power, by fancy, that is without the laws and canons?
We all exclude mere arbitrary power; but we all assert full and
pedect power. Is power arbitrary because it is supreme? Are civil
governments arbitrary because they are supreme? Or a General Council
confirmed by the Pope? Let all this confusion of ideas go! Let
the genuine doctrine of the schema12
be accepted in its true, proper, genuine sense, without preposterous
was Relator (Spokesman) for the Deputation of the Faith, the body
charged with explaining the meaning of the schemas to the Fathers.
In answer to the Melchite Patriarch of Antioch he explained that
papal power was not absolutely monarchical because the form of Church
government had been instituted by Christ and could not be abolished
even by an ecumenical council. "And no one who is sane can
say that either the Pope or the Ecumenical Council can destroy the
episcopate or other things determined by divine law in the Church."14
If the power
of the Pope is neither absolute nor arbitrary it must obviously
be limited. The most obvious and most important limitation upon
the plenitude of papal power (plenitudo potestatis), mentioned
on a number of occasions during the debates of the First Vatican
Council, is no less than that upon which Bishop Grosseteste based
his refusal to obey Pope Innocent IV:
As I have
said, the Apostolic See in its holiness cannot destroy, it can
only build. This is what the plentitude of power means; it can
do all things to edification. But these so-called provisions do
not build up, they destroy (see
This is precisely
the point made by Bishop dAvanzo of Calvi, another spokeman
for the Deputation of the Faith, during the Vatican I debate on
Peter has as much power as the Lord has given to him, not for
the destruction, but for the building up of the Body of Christ
that is the Church.15
was a prominent Dominican opponent of Martin Luther and defended
papal authority in his Dialogus de Potestate Papae (1517).
He accepted that the Pope could abuse his position and used the
terminology of Bishop Grosseteste - that the Pope possessed his
power only to build, not to destroy:
he to wish to distribute the Churchs wealth, or Peters
Patrimony among his own relatives; were he to wish to destroy
the Church or to commit an act of similar magnitude, there would
be a duty to prevent him, and likewise an obligation to oppose
him and resist him. The reason being that he does not possess
power in order to destroy, and thus it follows that if he is doing
so it is lawful to oppose him.
evidence has already been presented to make it clear that Pastor
Aeternus does not oblige Catholics to accept that the Popes
has absolute or arbitrary power, or that all legislation which he
promulgates in accordance with prescribed legal norms must necessarily
be above criticism. Doctrinal teaching promulgated with the Popes
infallible teaching authority comes into a special category and
every Catholic is bound to give it full internal and external consent.
on the possibility of a conflict between conscience and papal authority,
Cardinal Newman explains:
Next, I observe
that, conscience being a practical dictate, a collision is possible
between it and the Popes authority only when the Pope legislates,
or give particular orders, and the like. But a pope is not infallible
in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of State, nor
in his administration, nor in his public policy.16
to any papal command is not something to be contemplated lightly.
Indeed, it would be better to err in the direction of unthinking
and unqualified obedience than to adopt the Modernist attitude of
submitting every papal decision to our personal judgment. Cardinal
If in a particular
case it (conscience) is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign
monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of
the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available
means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question.
And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called "in possession;
that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against
him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience.
Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of
God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction,
he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying
it. Prima facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment
of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly.17
This is an
admonition which traditionalists should always keep in the forefront
of their minds. There can be no source of action which a Catholic
should undertake with more fear and trembling than that of disobeying
a papal command. Such an act can only be prompted by the certainly
that to obey the Pope would be to disobey God ("We ought to obey
God rather than men " [Acts 5 :29] ).
stresses that if a man is sincerely convinced that "what his
superior commands is displeasing to God, he is bound not to obey."18
He adds that:
"Superior" certainly includes the Pope; Cardinal Jacobatius
brings out this point clearly in his authoritative work on Councils,
which is contained in Labbe's collection, introducing the Pope
by name: "If it were doubtful," he says, "whether
a precept (of the Pope) be a sin or not, we must determine thus:
that, if he to whom the precept is addressed has a conscientious
sense that it is a sin and injustice, first it is his duty to
put off that sense; but, if he cannot, nor conform himself to
the judgment of the Pope, in that case it is his duty to follow
his own private conscience, and patiently to bear it if the Pope
punishes him." - lib. iv. p. 241.19
It was in this
context that Newman remarked:
if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which
indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink -to the Pope,
if you please, - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.20
Distinction: Legal and Moral Norms
The above sub-title
appears on page 394 of Karl Rahner's book Studies in Modern Theology
which was published in English in 1965. Father Rahner makes an important
distinction between what is legally valid and what is morally
valid. He cites an example of a papal act which would be legally
valid but morally illicit which has some similarity to the case
of Bishop Grosseteste and Innocent IV.
case of a pope's deposing a competent and pious bishop without
any objective reason, merely in order to promote one of his relatives
to the post. It could hardly be proved that such a deposition
is legally invalid. There is no court of appeal before which the
Pope and his measure could be cited. The Pope alone has the competence
of competence, that is, he alone judges in the last juridical
instance on earth whether in a given act he has observed those
norms by which in his own view that act is to be judged. But for
all the unassailable legal validity of such a measure, such a
deposition would be immoral and an actual offense against the
divine right of the episcopate, though not an offense extending
to the proper sphere of doctrine.
years ago, in May 1879, Joseph Hergenröther was created Cardinal
together with John Henry Newman. The Cardinal, one of the greatest
theologians of his time, was called to Rome to assist in the preparatory
work for the First Vatican Council. He was acknowledged as one of
the most effective apologists for and interpreters of the Council.
Pope Pius IX was one of his most fervent admirers. Cardinal Hergenröther
made it quite clear that by no stretch of the imagination could
the powers of jurisdiction ascribed to the Pope by the Council be
considered as arbitrary or unrestricted.
is circumscribed by the consciousness of the necessity of making
a righteous and beneficent use of the duties attached to his privileges....He
is also circumscribed by the respect due to General Councils and
to ancient statutes and customs, by the rights of bishops, by
his relation with civil powers, by the traditional mild tone of
government indicated by the aim of the institution of the papacy
- to "feed" - and finally by the respect indispensable
in a spiritual power towards the spirit and mind of nations.21
reference to ancient customs is very peninent to the refusal of
Mgr. Lefebvre and traditionalists in general to accept the New Mass.
Cardinal Jean de Torquemada22
was the most influential champion of the papal primacy in the fifteenth
century. His Summa de Ecclesia (1489) is a systematic treatise
on the Church, defending the infallibility and plenitude of papal
power. This work forms the basis of the arguments of the most notable
defenders of the primacy up to the First Vatican Council - such
theologians as Domenico Jacobazzi and Cajetan, Melchior Cano, Suarez,
Gregory of Valencia, and Bellarmine. Cardinal Torquemada taught
that the Pope could become a schismatic by breaking with tradition,
particularly with respect to worship:
can separate himself without reason purely by his wilfulness from
the body of the Church and from the college of priests by not
observing what the universal Church by apostolic tradition observes...or
by non-observance of what was ordered universally by the universal
councils or by the Apostolic See, especially in respect to the
divine cult if he does not want to observe what concerns the universal
rite of the Church's worship.23
the wholesale reversal of traditional customs and ceremonies could,
in the opinion of Francisco de Suarez (1548-1617), result in the
Pope actually becoming a schismatic. Suarez is usually considered
the greatest Jesuit theologian and was called by Pope Paul V "Doctor
eximius et pius. " For Suarez, schism, in the specifically
theological sense, is a cleavage in the one Church. This need not
involve formal heresy but can include one who retains the faith
but in his actions and conduct is unwilling to maintain the unity
of the Church. Suarez writes:
can be a schismatic if he does not want to have union and bond
with the whole body of the Church, as he should, if he attempts
to excommunicate the whole Church, or if he wants to abolish all
ecclesiastical ceremonies, which are confirmed by apostolic tradition
as Cajetan remarks.24
It is an indisputable
fact that never in the history of the Church has any Pope presided
over so wholesale an abolition of traditional customs and ceremonies
as Pope Paul VI. The only comparable revolution was that of the
Protestant Reformation - but this was done by men who were openly
acting outside the unity of the Church.
also uses a similar example to illustrate a morally illicit papal
the Pope, as supreme pastor of the Church, issued a decree today
requiring all the uniate churches of the Near East to give up
their Oriental liturgy and adopt the Latin rite....The Pope would
not exceed the competence of his jurisdictional primacy by such
a decree, but the decree would be legally valid.
But we can
also pose an entirely different question. Would it be morally
licit for the Pope to issue such a decree? Any reasonable man
and any true Christian would have to answer "no." Any
confessor of the Pope would have to tell him that in the concrete
situation of the Church today such a decree, despite its legal
validity, would be subjectively and objectively an extremely grave
moral offense against charity, against the unity of the Church
rightly understood (which does not demand uniformity), against
possible reunion of the Orthodox with the Roman Catholic Church,
etc., a mortal sin from which the Pope could be absolved only
if he revoked the decree.
example one can readily gather the heart of the matter. It can,
of course, be worked out more fundamentally and abstractly in
a theological demonstration:
1. The exercise
of papal jurisdictional primacy remains even when it is legal,
subject to moral norms, which are not necessarily satisfied merely
because a given act of jurisdiction is legal. Even an act of jurisdiction
which legally binds its subjects can offend against moral principles.
2. To point
out and protest against the possible infringement against moral
norms of an act which must respect these norms is not to deny
or question the legal competence of the man possessing the jurisdiction.25
asserts that "there can be a right and even a duty to protest"
against a morally illicit act "even where the legality of an
act of ecclesiastical authority cannot be questioned." He refrains
from discussing the nature such a protest might take but censures
in the most scathing terms those who insist that any act of an ecclesiastical
superior, the Pope included, cannot be contested if legally valid.
(Note that this was written before 1965.) His indictment can be
applied directly to those conservative Catholics who attack traditionalists
simply because they oppose legally valid papal legislation. It would
be a different matter if they contested the grounds upon which traditionalists
protest, e. g. it is a matter for debate as to whether the New Mass
constitutes a break with tradition, has compromised true Eucharistic
doctrine, and leads to liturgical abuse, etc. But when they deny
that a Catholic ever has the right to contest any legally
valid papal act there is no room for debate. Such an assertion is
nonsensical: there is nothing to discuss.27
Has the example
of papal interference with liturgical custom, chosen by Fathers
Rahner and Suarez, ever been applied in practice? The answer is
"yes," and on at least two occasions. During the pontificate
of St. Victor (189-198) a dispute arose due to the fact that some
Asiatic Christians did not conform their system for reckoning the
date of Easter to that of Rome, with the result that Easter was
celebrated on different days in different parts of the Church.
the Asiatic Churches conform to the custom of the rest of the
Church, but was met with determined resistance by Polycrates of
Ephesus, who claimed that their custom derived from St. John himself.
Victor replied with excommunication. St. Irenaeus, however, intervened,
exhorting Victor not to cut off whole Churches on account of a
point which was not a matter of faith. He assumes that the Pope
can exercise the power but urges him not to do so. Similarly the
resistance of the Asiatic bishops involved no denial of the supremacy
of Rome. It indicates solely that the bishops believed St. Victor
to be abusing his power in bidding them renounce a custom for
which they had apostolic authority....Saint Victor, seeing that
more harm than good would come from insistence, withdrew the imposed
a number of Popes including Nicholas II, St. Gregory VII, and Eugenius
IV attempted to impose the Roman rite upon the people of Milan.
The Milanese even went to the extent of taking up arms in defense
of their traditional liturgy (the Ambrosian rite) and they eventually
prevailed. As a rite with a prescription of two centuries it was
not affected by the promulgation of Quo Primum in 1570. 29
XXII actually taught heresy in his capacity as a private doctor.
(Many papal utterances express no more than the personal opinion
of the Pope and do not involve the teaching authority of the Church.)
Pope John XXII taught that there was no particular judgment; that
the souls of the just do not enjoy the beatific vision immediately;
that the wicked are not at once eternally damned; and that all await
the judgment of God on the Last Day. The Pope was denounced as a
heretic by some Franciscans and then appointed a commission of theologians
to examine the question. The commission found that the Pope was
in error and he made a public recantation.31
One of the
most serious cases of papal error was that of Pope Sixtus V. This
well-meaning pontiff considered himself to be a biblical scholar
and Latinist of no small ability and decided to intervene personally
in the revision of the Vulgate which had been ordered by the Council
though unskilled in this branch of criticism, had introduced alterations
of his own, all for the worse. He had even gone so far as to have
an impression of this vitiated edition printed and partially distributed,
together with the proposed Bull enforcing its use. He died, however,
before the actual promulgation and his immediate successors at
once proceeded to remove the blunders and call in the defective
Rebuke at Antioch
rebuke to St. Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2) provides a classic example
of an occasion when the Pope himself needs to be corrected. Peter's
behavior in not eating with the Gentile converts was not in conformity
with his own convictions or the truth of the Gospel. He was also
endangering both the liberty of the Gentiles and the Jews from the
Mosaic Law and, although not guilty of doctrinal error, he was,
at the least, exerting moral pressure on behalf of the Judaizers.33
St. Thomas comments:
To quote Suarez
If the Faith
be in imminent peril, prelates ought to be accused by their subjects,
even in public. Thus, St. Paul, who was the subject of St. Peter,
called him to task in public because of the impending danger of
scandal concerning a point of Faith. As the Glossary to St. Augustine
puts it: "St. Peter himself set an example for those who
rule, to the effect that if they ever stray from the straight
path they are not to feel that anyone is unworthy of correcting
them, even if such a person be one of their subjects."34
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.35
Dominican counterpart, writes: "If the Pope by his orders and
his acts destroys the Church, one can resist him and impede the
execution of his commands."36
Bellarmine considers that:
Just as it
is licit to resist the Pontiff who attacks the body, so also is
it licit to resist him who attacks souls or destroys the civil
order, or above all tries to destroy the Church. I say that it
is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding
the execution of his will; it is not licit, however, to judge
him, to punish him, or depose him, for these are acts proper to
should now have been written to indicate that the right to resist
the Pope has a solid foundation in Catholic theology although the
circumstances which could justify such resistance would have to
be of the utmost gravity. To repeat a citation by Cardinal Newman:
"Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence
of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the papal injunction,
he is bound to obey it." The object of this appendix is limited
to proving that under extraordinary circumstances a Catholic can
have not simply the right but the duty to disobey the Pope. A related
topic is that of the deposition of a heretical pope. It will be
dealt with only briefly here.
The Tablet in 1965, Abbot (now Bishop) B. C. Butler posed
the question as to the source of authority in the Church "if
the Pope has disenfranchised himself by public heresy? Where at
such a time is hierarchical authority? Where is the authority that
can, not indeed depose a pope (no human authority can depose a pope),
but declare that the soi-disant pope has lost his powers
whether by heresy, schism, or lunacy?"38
It will be
noted that Bishop Butler phrased his question carefully. He does
not suggest that any authority on earth could either judge or depose
the Pope but asks whether there is any authority competent to declare
that the Pope has lost his powers. The First Vatican Council taught
that: "They err from the right path of truth who assert that
it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman Pontiffs
to an Ecumenical Council, as to an authority higher than that of
the Roman Pontiff."39
Canon Law states clearly: Prima sedes a nomine iudicatur
- "The first see can be judged by no one." (Canon 1556)
On the other hand Canon 2314 states that: "All apostates from
the Christian faith, and all heretics and schismatics: (1) are ipso
facto excommunicated; (2) if after due warning they fail to
amend, they are to be deprived of any benefice, dignity, pension,
office, or other position which they may have in the Church, they
are to be declared infamous, and clerics after a repetition of the
warning are to be deposed."
the Pope came into one of these categories he would incur the appropriate
penalty - as a cleric he would be deposed but who could depose him
as he has no superior? Theologians have answered this question in
two ways. One school of thought, represented by St. Robert Bellarmine,
taught that a heretical pope would be judged by God and cease per
se to be pope: "The manifestly heretical pope ceases per
se to be pope and head as he ceases per se to be a Christian
and member of the Church, and therefore he can be judged and punished
by the Church. This is the teaching of all the early Fathers."40
The man the Church would be judging and punishing would not be the
Pope, he would not even be a Catholic.
This is also
the view taken in the classic manual on Canon Law by F. X. Wernz,
rector of the Gregorian University and Jesuit General from 1906
to 1914. His work was revised by P. Vidal and last republished in
The fact that
the Pope had been deposed by God for heresy would need to be made
known to the Church. This could be done by the declaration of a
General Council. Cardinal Torquemada makes it clear that the Pope
would not actually be judged by the Council - a Council cannot judge
a pope nor is there any appeal from a pope to a Council. It would
be a "declaratory sentence," a declaration that the Pope
has lost his office through heresy or schism. "Properly speaking,
the Pope is not deposed by the Council because of heresy but rather
he is declared not to be pope since he fell openly into heresy and
remains obstinate and hardened in heresy."42
explain the position in very similar terms, i. e. the Pope is not
deposed in virtue of the sentence of the Council but "the General
Council declares the fact of the crime by which the heretical pope
has separated himself from the Church and deprived himself of his
In other words,
the sentence merely declares publicly that the Pope has already
been deposed: it is not the sentence which deposes him.
group of theologians including Cajetan, Suarez, and two Spanish
Dominicans who were prominent in the debates at the Council of Trent
- Melchior Cano and Dominic Soto, held a contrary view which was
that it was the sentence of the Council which deprived the Pope
of his office. This view does not appear tenable subsequent to the
teaching of Vatican I which has already been cited, i. e. that
there is no appeal from the judgment of a pope to a General Council.
However, even the view that the General Council does not depose
the Pope, but merely declares him to be deposed, raises extremely
difficult problems. Who would summon a General Council since this
is the prerogative of the Pope? What if the Pope could be persuaded
to summon it but then refused to accept its decision? Fortunately,
Pope John XXII submitted to the commission of theologians which
declared his views on the Judgment to be heretical. Sixtus V died
before his erroneous version of the Vulgate could be promulgated.
The hypothesis of a heretical pope who either refused to summon
a Council or or refused to submit to its judgment, and did not die
in the opportune manner of Pope Sixtus V, is one which would give
even the very best theologians a great deal of food for thought.
No attempt will be made to solve it here as it is only a hypothesis.
The purpose of raising the matter of a papal deposition is to demonstrate
that not only is it quite legitimate to resist the Pope if he is
using his power to destroy the Church but that the far more serious
step of actually deposing the Pope has been a matter for free debate
The only possible
conclusion to be drawn from the evidence provided in this appendix
is that a Catholic has the right and sometimes the duty to oppose
papal teaching or legislation which is manifestly unjust, contrary
to the faith, or harmful to the Church. Such resistance has occurred
during the history of the Church. Such a refusal could only be justified
in the most exceptional circumstances when the fact that the subject
was right and the Pope was wrong was just not probable but manifest.
The conditions which Cardinal Newman set out as necessary preparation
for such resistance should be observed stringently.
decide whether Archbishop Lefebvre had sufficient grounds for his
refusal to obey Pope Paul VI. In the case of Bishop Robert Grosseteste
there can be no reasonable doubt but that he was right and Pope
Innocent IV wrong. What has happened once can always happen again
and we can say with the saintly English Bishop, and in perfect loyalty
to the Holy See: "God forbid that to any who are truly united
to Christ, not willing in any way to go against His will, this See
and those who preside in it should be a cause of falling away or
apparent schism, by commanding such men to do what is opposed to
A comprehensive selection of citations from all the principal authorities
is provided in an article by Fr. Raymond Dulac in the Courrier
de Rome, No. 15, to which full acknowledgment is given.
ST, II-II, Q. XXXXIII, a. VII, ad. 5.
ST, II-II, Q.CIV, art.V, ad. 3.
The Devastated Vineyard (Franciscan Herald Press, 1973),
Ibid., p. 5.
References are not provided for these quotations as they can all
be found in the accounts of the lives of the Popes to whom they
Monophysitism: The doctrine that in the Person of the Incarnate
Christ there was but a single Divine Nature, as against the orthodox
teaching of a double Nature, Divine and Human, after the Incarnation.
The Council of Chalcedon (451) condemned those who deny the title
Theotokos ('God-bearer') to Our Lady. A denial of this title
implied that the Humanity of Christ is separable from His Divine
Person. It also condemned those who denied any distinction between
Our Lord's Divine and Human natures. Catholic teaching is that the
Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is one Divine Person with two
natures, Divine and Human.
Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, XIV, 1303, col.2.
C. Butler, The Vatican Council (London, 1930), II, 80.
Preparatory document which the Fathers could discuss and amend.
Ibid., pp. 84-85.
J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissa collectio
(Paris, 1857-1927), LII, 715.
Difficulties of Anglicans (London, 1876), p. 256.
Ibid., pp. 257-258.
Ibid., pp. 260-261.
Ibid., p. 261.
CE, XII, 269-270.
Uncle of Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor.
Summa de Ecclesia (Venice, 1560), lib. iv, para. ii, cap.
De charitate, Disputatio XII de schismate, sectio I (Opera
Omnia, Paris, 1858), 12, 733ff.
Father Rahner is here making the same point to be found in Father
Congars article on schism in Le Dictionnaire de Theologie
Catholique, i. e. that to question the use made of authority in
a particular instance without denying or rejecting that authority
does not constitute schism.
K. Rahner, Studies in Modem Theology (Herder, 1965), pp.
Ibid., p. 397.
CE, XII, 263, col. 2.
Sadly, it was "reformed on the lines of the Roman Rite after
Vatican II but whether or not its traditional character has been
destroyed I am unable to say.
CE, I, 395, col. 2.
E. John, The Popes (London, 1964), p. 253.
CE, II, 412, col. 1.
A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (London, 1953), p.
ST, II-II, Q. XXXIII, art. VII, ad. 5.
De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, n. 16.
Obras de Francisco de Vitoria, pp. 486-487.
De Summo pontifice (Paris, 1870), lib. II, cap. 29.
The Tablet, 11 September 1965, p. 996.
Bellarmine, De Summo pontifice, n. 30, lib. II, cap. 30.
Wernz-Vidal, Jus Canonicum (Rome, 1952).
Summa de Ecclesia, n. 18, lib. II, cap. 102.
Wernz-Vidal, Jus Canonicum (Rome, 1943), II, 518.
Courtesy of the Angelus
Press, Regina Coeli House
2918 Tracy Avenue, Kansas City, MO 64109