There seems to be a slew of errors going around on social media which feed on a misrepresenting of the interviews with Cardinal Burke over the dubia. Like always, I’m not accusing him of supporting those actions done invoking his name [†]. I’m opposing errors from those I call “Combox Warriors” (Catholic battling in social media over Church matters, viciously attacking those who disagree). These errors stem from the refusal to consider they might have gotten something wrong in comparing what they think follows from what they think the Pope says with what they think previous Church teaching means. In other words, the attacks on the Pope depend on the ipse dixit claims of his critics who need to prove what they assume is true.
So let’s look at some of the problems with their claims.
How is it that X Isn’t a Teaching, but Y is, When Both are Taught at the Same Level?
One of the claims used to deny the teaching authority of Amoris Lætitia is to say it isn’t a teaching because it is only an Apostolic Exhortation. The problem is, these critics also insist that this Exhortation is wrong because it “contradicts” (a point to be proven, not assumed) Familiaris Consortio. But there is the problem. Familiaris Consortio is also an Apostolic Exhortation. So, if Amoris Lætitia is not a teaching because it is “only” an Apostolic Exhortation, then logically one must concede that Familiaris Consortio is not a teaching either.
In other words, you can either accept the authority of both or reject the authority of both. But to accept one and reject the other on these grounds is irrational.
There’s No Facility for Removing a Pope from Office
Another problem comes from Combox warriors quoting St. Robert Bellarmine out of context (we’ll talk more about that below). The argument is that when a Pope is a manifest heretic, he is no longer the Pope. It is claimed that the Pope’s teachings “prove” he is a heretic (or will be soon). Therefore, it is argued that he’s not the Pope. So, who determines whether the Pope has crossed that line? Cardinal Burke thinks it can be done but “It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.” The problem is, there is no competent tribunal to judge him. No valid council has ever deposed a sitting Pope. In fact, the Code of Canon Law (#1404) tells us, “The First See is judged by no one.”
Indeed, the cause of the Great Western Schism came about because a majority of cardinals deserted Pope Urban VI and elected an antipope (Robert of Geneva, aka Clement VII) in his place. Later, to try to correct the confusion, cardinals called a council at Pisa [*] and tried to depose both the Pope and the antipope and “declared” a new person Pope (antipope Alexander V). In all of this, the Church regards the true Pope to have been Urban VI and his successors.
The Council of Constance declared that a Council had the authority to depose a Pope (the Haec Sancta Synodus decree), but this decree was never approved by Gregory XII (the legitimate Pope of the time) nor his successor Martin V, so it is not considered a magisterial teaching. Therefore, it cannot be invoked against Pope Francis. The point is, despite whether one, four, or even all 121 of the cardinals under the age of 80 want to depose the Pope, there is no valid means they can use to do so.
Before a Pope could be removed from office because he was a “manifest heretic,” we would need one of two things to happen:
- The Pope would have to issue a decree defining how a Pope could be removed.
- A Council called by a Pope would have to decree on how a Pope could be removed—and the Pope at the time of the Council would have to approve that declaration.
Let’s Talk About St. Robert Bellarmine’s Opinion [§]
Earlier, I mentioned the passage of St. Robert Bellarmine that critics of the Pope cite to say a Pope can be removed. The arguments I have seen run along the lines of pointing out that he is a Doctor of the Church and therefore his writings are official teachings of the Church. This is not true. The text in question actually discusses 5 opinions. What’s not normally quoted is the fact that the first view rejects that the Pope can be a heretic in the first place:
The first is of Albert Pighius, who contends that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: 806 [Hierarchiae Ecclesiasticae, bk 4, ch. 8.] such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place.
However, he says that because “the common opinion is to the contrary, it will be worthwhile to see what the response should be if the Pope could be a heretic.” Note that phrase, “if the Pope could.” He’s not assuming it happens. He’s making a speculative, “What if that’s wrong?” Of those four opinions He rejects three of them:
- That the Pope can be deposed the instant he falls into even personal heresy.
- That the Pope can’t even be deposed for manifest heresy.
- [St. Cajetan’s opinion] That if the Pope falls into manifest heresy, he can and should be deposed by the Church.
After analyzing and rejecting these, he supports the following:
Now the fifth true opinion, is that a Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction, and namely St. Cyprian who speaks on Novation, who was a Pope in schism with Cornelius: “He cannot hold the Episcopacy, although he was a bishop first, he fell from the body of his fellow bishops and from the unity of the Church.” 819 [Bk 4, epist. 2]. There he means that Novation, even if he was a true and legitimate Pope; still would have fallen from the pontificate by himself, if he separated himself from the Church.
Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff. (De Controversiis Book 1) (pp. 309-310). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.
Unfortunately, the term “true opinion” is misunderstood today. It’s a philosophical term which refers to an opinion which is held for reasons that are true, as opposed to arbitrary preference, but many wrongly think it means “fact.” So, this isn’t Church doctrine, and St. Robert Bellarmine doesn’t think it is either.
I would sum up this chapter as follows: While not defined, it is probable to believe that the Pope can’t be a manifest heretic, and therefore can’t be deposed. But, if he could be a manifest heretic (which is debated), members of the Church don’t depose him—he’d merely stop being Pope because he’d stop being Christian. (Many of Pope Francis’ critics who cite the Saint’s opinion actually seem to misinterpret it as #1 and #3 which he actually rejects.)
That being said, St. Robert Bellarmine’s treatise was never turned into the official teaching of the Church. As pointed out above, the Church has no defined way to remove a Pope, so this cannot be used by cardinals or councils to depose a Pope.
Popes Honorius I and John XXII
Two Popes who have been mentioned as “proof” of Popes being heretics are Honorius I and John XXII. The problem is, neither Pope proves anything in the case at hand, and it is unjust to claim Pope Francis is in the same situation.
Honorius I was condemned at the Third Council of Constantinople, 42 years after his death, because, in a letter to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, he seemed to privately hold the heresy of monothelitism. But there is a dispute as to whether he disagreed with Our Lord having two wills (heterodox) or disagreed with the idea of Our Lord having two wills in conflict. Regardless of which was true, he is considered as having failed to carry out his duty by evading the issue instead of confronting it.
If it was true he privately held heresy, his case does not show a Pope can be deposed for heresy. He died in office and a later Pope confirmed the sentence of the Council. Nor can his evasion be equated with Pope Francis refusing to answer the dubia. Honorius I sought to evade an answer. Pope Francis insists the teaching is clear, but some people want excessive clarification. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Pope, there is no evidence that he is seeking to evade a debate.
Pope John XXII is (wrongly) portrayed as a Pope who taught heresy. That is not an accurate accusation. The issue was whether those who die see the Beatific vision immediately or not until the Final Judgment. At this time, the issue was not decided. What John XXII did was give homilies (which are not an occasion for infallibility) holding the former position. The controversy is over whether he was defining doctrine. He was not formally corrected, but was persuaded to change his opinion on the subject.
The accusations of heresy came from a group called the Spiritual Franciscans whom the Pope ruled against. The issue was over whether his condemnation of the idea that, “Christ and his apostles had no possessions whatever.” Seeking to discredit the Pope, they accused him of teaching heresy. However, this was not a defined doctrine and the Pope was not teaching. It was not until his successor, Benedict XII, that the issue was defined. Since heresy is “ the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” and John XXII did not deny anything, let alone obstinately, we don’t consider him a heretic.
It’s not my place to judge the intentions of the cardinals who are troubled by the Pope, and I won’t accuse them of bad will. Cardinal Burke did explicitly say Pope Francis was not a heretic, so it would be unjust to put those words in his mouth.
Unfortunately, some Catholics on social media are using his words to justify their attacks on the Pope. These attacks have long been based on their own readings of what they think the Pope says, contrasted to what they think the Church said previously. In doing so, they have two prove two things:
- That they have interpreted the Pope according to his intention.
- That they have interpreted previous Church teaching according to the understanding of the magisterium today.
[†] One wishes the combox warriors would give the Pope the same consideration.
[*] This gathering was condemned in the Lateran V Council.
[§] Permissions to quote sections of the recent translation of this work was given by Mediatrix Press. The volume in question can be found HERE. (To get to the relevant chapter, go to Book II, Chapter XXX) I’ve copied the footnotes to the text in brackets after the number for readers who want to make sure nothing is overlooked.