Papal loss of office: Automatic or semi-automatic?

francis-hereticalIn a recent article written for the Remnant, John Salza attempts to answer the question posed in the title, Has Pope Francis Lost His Office for Heresy?

In an “Editor’s Note” preceding the article, Michael Matt writes:

The fact that faithful Catholics are left with no alternative but to seriously debate whether or not Francis is still Catholic provides a startling testimony to the disastrous extent of the crisis in the Church, which clearly starts at the top.

How true this is! By “faithful Catholics,” let us take this to mean sincere Catholics. That there is much disagreement on this topic is to be expected, and I have no difficulty in affirming the sincerity of those with whom I disagree, including John Salza.

It is clear in reading the article that John is being very careful to – if I may use the expression – dumb things down a bit; repeating key concepts over and over just to make sure that even the simplest of readers will be able to follow his reasoning. It is a lengthy article (over 4,000 words) and my response to it is, in turn, likewise cumbersome. This topic is of tremendous importance. So, please, persevere through both articles. It will be worth the effort.

[NOTE: For the present discussion, legitimate questions concerning the resignation of Benedict XVI and the validity of conclave 2013 will be set aside.]

Before we get to the particulars, let it be said that the article – like the book that John co-authored with Robert Siscoe, True or False Pope – is oriented toward offering a general refutation of Sedevacantism; in this case, the term referring to the notion that the Chair of St. Peter has been vacant since the death of Pope Pius XII. (A position, for the record, that I do not hold.)

The fact of the matter is that Francis is utterly unique among the conciliar popes; not so much with respect to the sheer volume of his assorted blasphemies and heresies, but most importantly as it concerns the degree to which he has been formally and publicly admonished and called upon to affirm the true faith in light of his errors, and this by theologians, priests, bishops and even cardinals.

With this important distinction in mind, let’s begin. Mr. Salza states:

In light of Francis’ unprecedented attacks on Church doctrine and practice, some traditional Catholics, in seeking a solution to this papal crisis, are unfortunately being tempted to embrace the theology of the Sedevacantists, who hold that if a Pope embraces or teaches heresy (i.e., denying a revealed truth definitely proposed as such by the Church), he automatically loses his office.

To be very clear, in the case of Francis, we are not faced with a man who simply “embraces and teaches heresy.” This appellation applies to all of the conciliar popes. As John states, the situation with Bergoglio is unprecedented. Let’s not lose sight of that fact.

In my view, it is unprecedented inasmuch as Bergoglio is obstinately (i.e., pertinaciously) determined to cling to, and to disseminate, his heresies; even after having been confronted with numerous corrections from members of the sacred hierarchy.

That such a pope severs himself from the Body of the Church (i.e., is no longer Catholic) is not merely the theology of the Sedevacantists; far from it as you will see. For one, readers may recall that Cardinal Raymond Leo-the-Cowardly-Lion Burke was asked in a 2016 interview with Catholic World Report:

Some people are saying that the pope could separate himself from communion with the Church. Can the pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?

To which Burke replied:

If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.

This statement naturally raises the question, what is formal heresy? The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that in order for heresy to be formal it must be freely willed and consist of “tenets declared false by the Divine teaching authority of the Church.” [NOTE: The Council of Trent has condemned any number of Bergoglian heresies nearly verbatim. See HERE.]

Furthermore, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:

Pertinacity, that is, obstinate adhesion to a particular tenet is required to make heresy formal. For as long as one remains willing to submit to the Church’s decision he remains a Catholic Christian at heart and his wrong beliefs are only transient errors and fleeting opinions.

In other words, one who in ignorance of Catholic doctrine is simply mistaken in his wrong beliefs is not a formal heretic. Obviously, this does not pertain to Bergoglio. It is widely known that he is unwilling to submit to the Church on numerous points.

In response to Cardinal Burke’s statement, Mr. Salza wrote in a previous Remnant article (see HERE):

They [certain Sedevacantists and Francis-rejecters] don’t seem to be embarrassed by the fact that Cardinal Burke went on to say in the same interview that it is the College of Cardinals, and not vigilante Sedevacantists, that judges whether the Pope “formally professed heresy.”

NB:Cardinal Burke did not say that the College of Cardinals “judges whether the Pope formally professed heresy.” Indeed, no one, not even the entire episcopate as a whole, has the authority to judge the pope. The CWR question very specifically concerns whether or not a pope can “legitimately be declared in schism or heresy.”

“Judging” and “declaring” are two very different things. With regard to the pope, as John knows, no one has the authority to do the former.

So, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really meant to say that it is for the College of Cardinals to recognize and report that the pope has formally professed heresy. As for the consequence of this formal profession of heresy, the pope will have separated himself from communion with the Church, and, as Burke said, it’s automatic.

That said, of far more importance than the comments made by Cardinal Burke is the long-held Catholic teaching restated by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis and cited by Mr. Salza in his most recent article as follows:

For not every offense, although it may be a grave evil, is such as by its very own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy. (Pope Pius XII)

In response to this, John writes:

Is it true that a Pope’s act of embracing heresy, by its very nature, severs him from the Church, as the Sedevacantists constantly argue? The answer is a qualified yes, just as Pius XII teaches, when properly understood. The problem is that Sedevacantists have failed to make a fundamental distinction between legal separation and spiritual separation from the Church, and this failure to make the proper distinctions has deceived some Catholics into embracing the Sedevacantist error.

According to Mr. Salza, legal separation (as opposed to spiritual separation) from the Church due to heresy is necessary before one loses his office.  Throughout the article, he defines legal separation for us as follows:

There are two ways that one legally separates from the Church through manifest heresy (and, if a cleric, loses his jurisdiction) … They are either cut off by the Church’s judgment (the first way), or depart of their own accord (the second way).

Bellarmine explains that a manifest heretic is one who either (1) is judged a heretic by the Church’s authorities (“expelled, like the excommunicated”) or (2) openly leaves the Church (by “separating,” “departing,” “turning away” from her). 

As for how one “openly leaves the Church,” John quotes St. Robert Bellarmine as speaking of “those who depart by themselves from her or oppose her, as heretics and schismatics.”

NB: With regard to a pope, only the second way can apply, and for the reason already stated – namely, the pope is not subject to anyone’s judgment; i.e., he cannot be “expelled, like the excommunicated.” Therefore, if a pope is to be cut off from the Church, he must depart of his own accord; for instance, by way of heresy.

At this, we return to the question: Has Francis departed the Church – that is, has he incurred legal separation from the Body of his own accord by way of heresy?

Mr. Salza concludes that he has not, and for a surprisingly unconvincing reason:

Needless to say, none of the conciliar Popes, including Pope Francis, have been cut off by the Church’s judgment (the first way) or departed from the Church of their own accord (the second way), because they all have publicly acknowledged the Church as the infallible rule of Faith, and always professed to be Catholic, even defending their teachings as legitimate developments of Catholic doctrine, however wrong they may have been.

First, let’s remember to stay focused on the question at hand, which has to do specifically with Francis, whose situation is unprecedented.

That said, according to Mr. Salza’s line of thinking, a pope who pertinaciously clings to heresy, disseminates it throughout the Universal Church via “official” means (e.g., Apostolic Exhortations, decrees issued motu proprio, rescripts ordering entries into the AAS, etc.) and continues to do so even after being publicly corrected by theologians, priests, bishops and cardinals, while steadfastly refusing multiple calls to affirm the true faith in light of his many errors, is immune from legal separation from the Church of his own accord (the “second way” identified by Mr. Salza ) under one solitary condition: the man claims to be Catholic.    

If this were so, then the only way a pope could ever incur automatic legal separation from the Body due to heresy and thus lose his office – given that the “first way” (judgment) does not apply to him – is to publicly proclaim I no longer consider myself Catholic!

John repeats the notion that simply claiming Catholicity is enough to maintain one’s membership in the Church several times, at one point stating:

What is absolutely necessary for this bond [with the Church] to be preserved is the external profession that one is a Catholic, while remaining united to the visible society of the Church … Professing to be a Catholic is an implicit profession of submission to the Church’s teaching authority, which suffices for the profession of the true faith.

So, as John would have it, for one who self-identifies as Catholic and perhaps shows up for Mass now and again, no amount of heresy coupled with steadfast refusal to affirm the true faith when faced with correction will serve to automatically sever that man from the Body of the Church.

The irrationality of John’s proposition is plain: It cannot be said that obstinately denying the true faith suffices for the profession of the true faith. 

Where John appears to be confused is in equating professing to be Catholic with professing the Catholic faith. Elsewhere in the article, John offers yet another excerpt from Mystici Corporis that lends clarity to the matter, though he misses the point. Pius XII writes:

Actually only those are to be numbered among the members of the Church who have received the laver of regeneration and profess the true faith and have not separated themselves from the unity of the body or been excluded by legitimate authority. (Mystici Corporis22)

Get that? Simply claiming to be Catholic is not enough to sustain the bond; rather, membership in the Church is made externally manifest by the profession of the true faith.  It is precisely this that Bergoglio refuses to do; even after so many pleas and corrections! And it is “only those” who do profess the true faith who are members of the Church.

And yet, John goes on to say:

We can further clarify this point by distinguishing between the formal and material aspects of the bond. The formal and essential aspect of the “profession of faith” is submission to the Church’s teaching authority…

It is an indisputable fact that Bergoglio has been repeatedly called upon – by numerous churchmen and even by cardinals, no less – to submit to the Church’s teaching authority over and against his heresies, and he has responded by making it perfectly plain that he has no intention whatsoever of doing so.

We are at the point where it is no longer a matter of debate: Bergoglio is looking to himself as the infallible rule of faith; over and against the Church.

John, however, goes on to offer a citation from De Romano Pontefice of St. Robert Bellarmine in which he points to the example of Novation – a heretic and an anti-pope of the third century – in order to “explain[s] what is required for legal separation from the Church.” Bellarmine states:

…even had Novatian been the true and legitimate Pope, he would have automatically fallen from the pontificate,if he separated himself from the Church.

John writes:

Bellarmine refers to the extreme case of Novatian, and it is critical to understand why the saint and Doctor used this example … Novatian didn’t just teach heresy. Rather, he openly left the Church by refusing to recognize Pope Cornelius who was the true Pope (just like the Sedevacantists have done with the conciliar Popes) and even declared himself Pope (as some Sedevacantists have also done). That is, Novatian renounced the Pope and the Church as the infallible rule of faith, and chose another rule (himself, as antipope).

John wants his readers to join him in assuming that Bellarmine identified Novation’s behavior as the only way in which a pope can automatically lose his jurisdiction. One small problem; Bellarmine says no such thing! He is simply giving an example of how it may be possible for a pope to automatically fall from the pontificate.

Furthermore, recall the position that John had previously taken. He wrote:

What is absolutely necessary for this bond [with the Church] to be preserved is the external profession that one is a Catholic.

By this standard, Novation would have avoided automatic legal separation simply by professing to be Catholic, something that he presumably did!   

John belabors the point; citing Fr. E. Sylvester Berry who wrote:

A person who submits to the authority of the Church and wishes to accept all her teachings, is not a heretic, even though he profess heretical doctrines through ignorance of what the Church really teaches…

I mean no disrespect in saying this, but it is difficult to imagine why anyone, after more than five years of heresy and mayhem, would even hint that this in any way describes Bergoglio!

Even so, John then states as if he has proven a point:

As even the Sedevacantists would be forced to concede, all the conciliar Popes, including Pope Francis, have professed to be Catholic and remained united to the visible society of the Church.

Yes, and as even Mr. Salza would be forced to concede, Novation also professed to be Catholic, which, given the fact that he did not profess the true faith, proves exactly nothing with respect to his actual (that is, objective) membership in the Body of Church. (see citation from Mystici Corporis above.)

Lastly, Mr. Salza concludes by offering a citation from John of St. Thomas who wrote [with my emphasis added]:

…for, although heresy separates one from the Church by its very nature, nevertheless, this separation is not thought to have been made, as far as we are concerned (quoad nos), without that declaration. Likewise, we respond to his [i.e., Bellarmine’s] reasoning in this way: one who is not a Christian, both in himself (quoad se) and in relation to us (quoad nos), cannot be Pope; however, if in himself he is not a Christian (quoad se), because he has lost the faith, but in relation to us (quoad nos) has not yet been juridically declared as an infidel or heretic(no matter how manifestly he be such according to private judgment), he is still a member of the Church as far as we are concerned (quoad nos); and consequently he is its head. It is necessary, therefore, to have the judgment of the Church, by which he is proposed to us as someone who is not a Christian, and who is to be avoided; and at that point he ceases to be Popein relation to us (quoad nos); and we further conclude that he had not ceased to be Pope before [the declaration], even in himself (quoad se), since all of his acts remained valid in themselves.[13]

Note very well the emphasized text as it implies a number of questionable propositions; for one, the notion that the pope is, in some sense, under the jurisdiction of the Church and can be judged by the Church as a heretic; for another, that he can have his office taken from him by an action of “the Church” over which he reigns.

Indeed, the Church may “declare” that the man who was pope has departed the Body and has thus surrendered jurisdiction of his own accord (NB: after the fact), but it cannot judge him in the manner John of St. Thomas suggests.

Even the sense in which John of St. Thomas uses the word “declare” is problematic inasmuch as it implies that it is the declaration itself that causes the loss of office. This is tantamount to saying that the pope is deposed by the Church; the declaration being the action that effectively strips him of his jurisdiction. This is utterly untenable as the Church has no authority to so rule against a pope.

Mr. Salza tells us, however, that John of St. Thomas’ theory:

… harmonizes perfectly with the spiritual/legal bond distinction we have discussed in this article (as well as the Body/Soul distinction used by Bellarmine and others that have not been addressed here.

The position put forth by John of St. Thomas does not harmonize with Bellarmine’s thought in the least. In De Romano Pontefice he thoroughly rejects it, making it clear that the loss of office is automatic by the very fact of manifest heresy (ipso facto) and it is not lost as the result of an action undertaken by the Church. Bellarmine writes:

The fourth opinion is of Cajetan. There, he teaches, that a manifestly heretical Pope is not ipso facto deposed; but can and ought to be deposed by the Church. Now in my judgment, such an opinion cannot be defended. For in the first place, that a manifest heretic would be ipso facto deposed, is proven from authority and reason. The Authority is of St. Paul, who commands Titus, that after two censures, that is, after he appears manifestly pertinacious, an heretic is to be shunned: and he understands this before excommunication and sentence of a judge.

Adding to his readers’ confusion, Mr. Salza by summarizes:

After affirming that heresy, by its nature, separates one from the Church, John of St. Thomas explains that one who denies the faith, even internally, ceases to be joined to the Church quoad se (of himself), but remains united to the Church quoad nos (according to us), until he is declared a heretic by the proper authorities or openly leaves the Church of his own will (affirming Driedo and Bellarmine).

Note that we are essentially right back where he began, with John proposing an either/or scenario:

Either one is “declared” (in other places, he uses the word “judged”) a heretic by the proper authorities and is thus severed from the Body of the Church (the “first way”), or he departs of his own accord (the “second way” whereby legal separation from the Body is automatic).

And yet, throughout the entirety of his article, John labors mightily to convince the reader that it is not truly possible for a pope to lose his office apart from the “first way.” In sum, he wishes to have it both ways; at once suggesting that an automatic separation can take place, while also insisting that it isn’t truly automatic!

Be that as it may, Mr. Salza attempts to reconcile the obvious contradiction by stating:

The legal separation from the Church is actualized when the Church’s authorities externally recognize the separation…

Here, toward the very end of his article, Mr. Salza is introducing an entirely new concept, actualization. 

Without going into great detail in the interest of space, let it be said that a distinction must be made between the automatic loss of office actually taking place and the “enforcement” of said loss.

Canon 194 of the Code of Canon Law speaks of those clerics who are “removed from an ecclesiastical office by the law itself.” It then refers to “the declaration of a competent authority” as the means by which the loss is “enforced.” In other words, we must be clear: The loss of office is actualized (to use John’s word) prior to, and apart from, the issuance of any decree.

That said, Mr. Salza is confirming (even if only unawares) that the chronological order of events is indeed as follows: First, the legal separation takes place, secondly, it is formally recognized by the Church’s authorities (i.e., it is declared).

This means that, in the case of a pope who lost his office of his own accord due to heresy, the most that can be done by “the Church’s authorities” (indeed it is their duty, but more on that in a moment) is to declare what has already taken place.  

At this, consider an analogy that may be usefully applied to the present situation:

Imagine that a tornado touches down in your neighborhood and it is witnessed by dozens of people; some of whom are meteorologists who know very well what is, and is not, a tornado. After a period of time, the National Weather Service may, or may not, officially categorize the event as a tornado and report it to the world at large.

Now, in the time between the event and the official declaration (should one ever come), would it make any sense whatsoever to insist that those who observed the tornado are obligated to behave as if it never happened? Of course not. Furthermore, if indeed the “official declaration” never comes (and let’s be honest, with regard to the heretic Bergoglio, it isn’t very likely that one will), does that somehow render the tornado a non-event? Again, of course not.

What John and others who take his position are ultimately insisting is that private persons (that is, ordinary, well-formed Catholics who are not themselves in a position of ecclesial authority) are unable to recognize manifest heresy when they see it. This is most certainly untrue.

Fr. Pietro Ballerini, in a citation that Mr. Salza has cited in his writing elsewhere, stated the following [with my emphasis added]:

Is it not true that, confronted with such a danger to the faith [a Pope teaching heresy], any subject can, by fraternal correction, warn their superior, resist him to his face, refute him and, if necessary, summon him and press him to repent? The Cardinals, who are his counselors, can do this; or the Roman Clergy, or the Roman Synod, if, being met, they judge this opportune. For any person, even a private person, the words of Saint Paul to Titus hold: ‘Avoid the heretic, after a first and second correction, knowing that such a man is perverted and sins, since he is condemned by his own judgment’ (Tit. 3, 10-11).

For the person, who, admonished once or twice, does not repent, but continues pertinacious in an opinion contrary to a manifest or defined dogma – not being able, on account of this public pertinacity to be excused, by any means, of heresy properly so called, which requires pertinacity – this person declares himself openly a heretic. He reveals that by his own will he has turned away from the Catholic Faith and the Church, in such a way that now no declaration or sentence of anyone whatsoever is necessary to cut him from the body of the Church.Therefore the Pontiff who after such a solemn and public warning by the Cardinals, by the Roman Clergy or even by the Synod, would remain himself hardened in heresy and openly turn himself away from the Church, would have to be avoided, according to the precept of Saint Paul.

Does this mean that the declaration of the Church in the matter of a pope who cut himself off from the Body is superfluous? No indeed! As Fr. Ballerini goes on to state:

So that he might not cause damage to the rest, he would have to have his heresy and contumacy publicly proclaimed, so that all might be able to be equally on guard in relation to him. Thus, the sentence which he had pronounced against himself would be made known to all the Church, making clear that by his own will he had turned away and separated himself from the body of the Church, and that in a certain way he had abdicated the Pontificate…

Get that? The declaration is necessary – not in order to separate the heretic from the Body –  but rather for the benefit of the entire Church; in particular, for “the rest,” that is, those who may be either too weak to acknowledge, or too ignorant to realize, that the man who claims to be pope has already in a certain way abdicated the Pontificate.

What Fr. Ballerini’s quote confirms is all too obvious; in the case of a pope who falls into manifest heresy and thus severs himself from the Body of the Church and loses his office, we can well expect that there will be certain private persons who are perfectly capable of recognizing that objective fact; even apart from any formal declaration to that effect.

I count myself among such persons. Whether or not a formal declaration ever comes, may it please the Lord to enlighten “the rest.”


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