Point / Counterpoint 2: Robert Siscoe

By: Robert Siscoe

catholic-encyclopediaI want to begin by thanking my friend Louie for his reply and for continuing this important discussion. I had originally intended to discuss a different issue in this second installment, but I believe it will be more helpful if I address to several of the points Louie raised, as well as the reasons he gave for rejecting the teaching of the authorities a quoted.


Louie wrote:

We are not discussing it [private judgment] in the Sedevacantist sense wherein one may presume to have the personal authority to act as judge and jury; finding a pope (or popes) guilty of formal heresy and thus no pope at all.  Rather, ‘private judgment’ in the present context is nothing more than discerning objective realities through the lens of our Holy Catholic faith.

But how are we not acting as “judge and jury” if we publicly declared that Francis has “judged himself” a formal heretic (first judgment), and then conclude and declare that he is “no pope at all” (second judgment).

And this is the exact methodology used by Sedevacantists, who don’t claim to be judging with personal authority either. They say all they are doing is “discerning objecting reality” (they even use that exact terminology) and arriving at the conclusion that the last 6 popes have been antipopes. This is the same approach used by “Our Lady’s Resistance” to reject all the Popes after Pius X (d. 1914), and by Richard Ibranyi to conclude that all the Popes since Innocent II (d.1130) have been Antipopes.

There is no essential difference between the approach Louie mentioned and that used by Sedevacantists, since both are rooted in private judgment concerning the question of “fact” (i.e., is the pope a heretic?), and the very complicated questions of speculative theology and law (i.e., if he is a heretic, when and how does he lose his office?).  Because there is no teaching concerning the latter, we cannot declare that Francis has lost his office for heresy, even if we sincerely believe he is a heretic based on what we “discern.”

Now, I readily admit that “discerning objective realities through the lens of our Catholic faith” may lead a person to conclude that Francis lacks the virtue of faith, but, as all who have studied this subject in depth admit, the loss of supernatural faith does not result in the loss of papal office.


Louie wrote: “With this understanding in mind, it is indeed my opinion (or “private judgment” if you prefer) that Francis has judged himself a formal heretic; the implications of this self-judgment [i.e., loss of office] being plain.”

But that’s the problem: the implications are not plain, since the Church has never told us what the implications are. That is, the Church has never settled the pertinent “questions of law”. Consider the teaching of the “Doctor Eximius et Pius,” Francisco Suarez, who wrote:

“In no case, even of heresy, is the Pontiff deprived form his dignity and power immediately by God himself, without undergoing the judgment and sentence of men. This is the common opinion today. (… ) if a Pope were a heretic and incorrigible, he would cease to be pope after a declaratory sentence of the crime were advanced against him by the legitimate jurisdiction of the Church. This is the common teaching of Doctors.”

What was plain to the theologians and Doctors of the Church in the 16th Century concerning one aspect of the “question of law” is that a Pope, who is considered, by private opinion, to have “judged himself” a heretic, will not lose his office (and jurisdiction/power) until after he is declared a heretic by the Church. And this is not the opinion of one “dissenting voice,” but the common opinion from a time when the Faith was strong and the vast majority of theologians were solid (unlike our age).

In fact, even the Sedevacantist bishop, Donald Sanborn, admits that the recent Popes (and bishops) all legally retained their office because they were never declared heretics by the Church.[HERE] In other words, Sanborn agrees with “the common teaching of the Doctors” concerning this aspect of the “question of law.”


Concerning the “question of fact,” if we consider the case of Pope Francis objectively, and are guided in our judgment by canon law, he cannot yet be considered a formal heretic.  At this point, he would only be “suspect of heresy” (you’d be surprised what a cleric can get away with while only being “suspect of heresy”.[HERE]  Before being judged a formal heretic by the Church, he would have to be warned twice by the proper authorities, and given six months to remove or clear up the cause of suspicion.  Prior to that, regardless of how heretical he seemed according to private judgment, he would retain his office. [HERE]

Now, if these procedures are required, as a matter of justice, for a lesser cleric, how much more necessary when the accused is the Pope?  Does it seem reasonable for there to be such a lack of proportion between how Francis is being judged, by private judgment, and what would be required before a lesser cleric were considered a formal heretic by the Church’s judgment?


Louie wrote:

It is my sincere belief that Our Lord wills that we should use reason, logic and intelligence – applied with sensus Catholicus – to discern the objective reality of the present situation as best we are able.

If the “objective reality” in question is whether Francis is the Pope, I deny that God wants us to use our reason and logic to figure it out, any more than He want us to use our reason and logic to determine which defined doctrines are true.  I say this because the legitimacy of a Pope, who has been elected by the Cardinals and accepted as Pope by the Church, is not only infallibly certain, but is similar to a doctrine defined by a council.[HERE] Just as we don’t use our reason and logic to decide what defined doctrines we will accept, neither do we use our reason logic to decide if we should accept Francis as Pope. To know who the Pope is, we simply look to what the Church has proposed for belief and accept it. Francis’ legitimacy is a dogmatic fact that Catholics must accept.[HERE]

The very notion that it’s up to the laity to determine who the Pope is, is a non-Catholic mindset introduced into the world of Tradition by the Sedevacantists, who are then forced to either publicly reject the traditional doctrine concerning dogmatic facts (which is a mortal sin against faith), or else twist themselves into a pretzel in their attempt to get around it.


Now, we both agree that “no canonical provisions exist” governing how the Church would deal with a heretical pope, or how/when he would lose his office; and therefore if faced with such a situation it would be necessary for the Church to “consult the dictates of right reason and the teachings of history” (Catholic Encyclopedia).  Based on this, Louie wrote:

As Robert and I go about sharing our opinions with you, our readers, you will discover that some of the available theological opinions make logical sense; while others seem downright incompatible with the dictates of right reason alone (to borrow a phrase from the Catholic Encyclopedia)In his article, Robert provided an excellent example of the latter when he quoted John of St. Thomas (JST) as follows: ‘It cannot be held that the pope, by the very fact of being a heretic, would cease to be pope antecedently [prior] to a declaration of the Church.’

I would begin by noting that the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia doesn’t say it is necessary to use right reason alone, but “right reason and the teachings of history” – which is precisely what JST did in his treatise on this subject.  And this may be the first time anyone has accused John of St. Thomas, who is considered one of the greatest Thomistic philosophers and theologians in the history of the Church, of lacking sound reason.

Now, the reason Louie considers JST’s teaching to be, as he called it, an “offense against right reason,” is because he says a pope can be at once a heretic, de facto, yet remain pope.  He sees this as a contradiction; but as we will see as we go forward, there is no inherent contradiction in what JST wrote, when the proper distinctions are made.  And JST was not just shooting from the hip when he made his comments.  He studied the matter in depth and wrote one of the most thorough treatise’ on the subject that one will find. He used his trained mind, guided by ecclesiastical laws and historical precedents, to arrive at his conclusion. And his conclusion (concerning this point) was the common opinion of his day, which would not have been the case if it were an offense against right reason.

I would also add that it is not for the laity (Ecclesia Discens) to “consult the dictates of right reason and the teachings of history” to determine if, when, or how a heretical pope loses his office, since the laity have neither the authority nor the competency to do so. Rather, it is for the proper authorities (Ecclesia Docens) to resolve these difficult legal questions and determine the proper course to follow.

Something may seem to be unreasonable to us, or even appear to contain an inherent *contradiction*, due to an error in our own thinking or simply because we lack sufficient knowledge to understand it.  That is why such complicated matters are to be resolved by the competent authority.


In response to an objection raised in the comments section below my first installment, we cannot consult our conscience to know if Francis is the Pope. This is because the conscience does not judge speculative truth, but practical behavior. It applies knowledge (what is already known) to individual acts (past, present and future) in order to determine if they are morally good or bad. (ST Ia, q. 79, a. 13)  Therefore, one cannot look to their conscience to determine if Francis is the legitimate Pope, anymore than the Catholics of the 15th Century could look to their conscience to determine if Alexander VI – who was accused by Savonarola of being “a non-Christian” who did not “even believe in the existence of God” – was the legitimate Pope.


Next Louie rejected the highly acclaimed commentary on canon law by Beal, Coriden, and Green, because he believes their commentary on Canon 194 is “a glaring offense against right reason.”

I have to disagree. Nothing in their commentary on Canon 194 is an offense against right reason. On the contrary, their teaching is founded on a common legal principle.


As Beal, et al. explain, if a cleric publicly defects from the Faith or attempts marriage, his office is lost by the force of law (per C. 194), but it only takes effect after the Church renders a judgment and declares the fact upon which the loss of office is based.  This is an example of what legal scholars call “a mixed question of law and fact”.  The facts are established by the proper authorities, before the consequences of the law take effect.

“A mixed question of law and fact” explains a popular legal dictionary, “refers to a question which depends on both law and fact for its solution. In resolving a mixed question of law and fact, a reviewing court must adjudicate the facts of the case.”

In the case under consideration, if a cleric publicly defects from the Faith, the Church (like a secular court) establishes and the fact, and then the consequences of the law take effect.  This is standard legal practice both in secular and ecclesiastical courts, and it is a matter of common sense.

For example, let’s say that an employment contract states that the punishment for stealing is immediate termination.  Now, if an employee is stealing from the company, and if some of his co-workers are convinced “by discerning objective reality” that he is doing so, that’s not enough for him to lose his job.  The proper authorities must establish the fact, before the consequences of the law (loss of pay and employment) take effect.  This is similar to the loss of office for a cleric who publicly defects from the faith or attempts marriage.  The Church establishes and declares the fact, and then the consequences of the law take effect.

What Canon 194 confirms is that a cleric, who has been judged to be a heretic by private judgment alone, will retain his office until the proper authorities establish the fact.  Hence, there is no inherent *contradiction* in Beal’s commentary, which reflects the common legal practice.

Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, a crucial point we will need to address is this:  Heresy, of his nature, severs a person from the Church (quoad se); but heresy, of its nature, does not cause a cleric to lose his office or jurisdiction quoad se (in itself) or quoad nos (for us).  This point will be fully developed in a future installment.


Regarding the citation from Billuart, who wrote: “I say that manifest heretics, unless they are denounced by name, or themselves depart from the Church, retain their jurisdiction and validly absolve,” you responded by saying his teaching “is not directly applicable to the matter at hand,” since it pertains to the validity of sacramental theology, not the legitimacy of a pope.

But what Billuart’s teaching does show is that clerics who are “in the judgment of all or at least of the majority … rebellious against the definitions of the Church,” will retain their jurisdiction until they are denounced by the proper authorities, which is consistent with Canon 194 and the law established by Pope Martin V.  And Billuart does indeed directly address the matter at hand later in the same chapter, when he writes:

“Christ, by a special dispensation, for the common good and tranquility of the Church, will continue to give jurisdiction even to a manifestly heretical pope, until he has been declared a manifest heretic by the Church.”

Billuart explicitly stated that what he wrote above was the “common opinion” of his day (the late 18th century), which would certainly not have been the case if it was “downright incompatible with the dictates of right reason.”


For all of the reasons already given, the opinion of Fr. Paul Laymann, S. J., (considered one of the greatest canonists of the 17th Century), which maintains that even a notoriously heretical Pope would retain his office “as long as he is tolerated by the Church, and is publicly recognized as the universal pastor” likewise contains nothing contrary to right reason.

Would it not be more prudent for us to presume that some of the Church’s most respected theologians, canonists, and distinguished prelates, fully trained in their respective science, have a more complete understanding of the principles of theology and law than ourselves? And if we accept their teaching as even probable, we cannot say Francis has lost his office for heresy – at least not until the Church establishes the fact and declares the crime.

Click here for Point / Counterpoint 2: Verrecchio

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