The Abuse of  Ecclesiastical Power

According to 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 irrational.1 This 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

Dealing with 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 Liturgical Year:

On Christmas 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."

At these 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.

Dom Guéranger 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."

Few Catholics 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:

They either 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.

Should the 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?...

The drivel 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

"Is not 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.

Professor Marcel 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:

For them 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.

There have 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 of that.

Few readers 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

The pontificate of Pope Zosimus lasted for one year only, from 417-418.

His knowledge 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.

Pope Boniface 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 just grounds. 

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."

After becoming 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."

Pope Honorius 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.

Pope Sergius II (904-911):

...certainly 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."

Pope Alexander 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 himself."

St. Gregory VII (1073-1085) was able to humiliate the Emperor Henry IV "but it proved to be a political mistake."

Pope Gregory 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."

Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404):

...increased 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.

Pope Sixtus 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."

Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) was:

...a kindly 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 Francesschotto, 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 his appointment.

Despite the 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:

The circumstances 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 condession 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.

Pope Leo 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.

Pastor's 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.

Conservative 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.

An ability 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.

Professor de Corte comments:

One must 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 eternity.

The epidemic 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.

Professor de 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 traditionalist movement.9 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?

We teach 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 his salvation.10

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 hiss 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 buffooneries."11

Bishop Freppel 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 he commented:

Absolutism 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 interpretations.13

Bishop Zinelli 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 p. 389).

This is precisely the point made by Bishop d?Avanzo of Calvi, another spokeman for the Deputation of the Faith, during the Vatican I debate on papal authority:

Therefore 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

Sylvester Prierias 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:

Thus, were he to wish to distribute the Church?s wealth, or Peter?s 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.

Sufficient 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 Pope?s infallible teaching authority comes into a special category and every Catholic is bound to give it full internal and external consent.

Commenting 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 Pope?s 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

Opposition 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 Newman warns:

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] ).

Cardinal Newman 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:

The word "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:

Certainly, 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


A 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.

Take the 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.

One hundred 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.

The Pope 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

Cardinal Hergenröther's 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:

The Pope 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

Similarly, 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:

The Pope 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.

Father Rahner also uses a similar example to illustrate a morally illicit papal act:

Imagine that 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 Poper VIld 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.

From this 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 26


Father Rahner 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.

Victor bade 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 penalty.28


Similarly, 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 30

 Pope John 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 of Trent.

Sixtus V, 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 impression.32


The Rebuke at Antioch

St. Paul's 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:

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

To quote Suarez again:

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

Vitoria, his 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

Saint Robert 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 a superior.37

Sufficient 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.

Writing in 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."

Clearly, if 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 1952.41

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 tthere 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

Wernz-Vidal 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 dignity."43

In other words, the sentence merely declares publicly that the Pope has already been deposed: it is not the sentence which deposes him.

An important 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 among theologians.



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.

History must 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 Christ's will."



1. 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.

2. ST, II-II, Q. XXXXIII, a. VII, ad. 5.

3. ST, II-II, Q.CIV, art.V, ad. 3.

4. The Devastated Vineyard (Franciscan Herald Press, 1973), pp. 3-4.

5. Ibid., p. 5.

6. 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 refer.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, XIV, 1303, col.2.

10. Denzinger, 1827.

11. C. Butler, The Vatican Council (London, 1930), II, 80.

12. Preparatory document which the Fathers could discuss and amend.

13. Ibid., pp. 84-85.

14. J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissa collectio (Paris, 1857-1927), LII, 715.

15. Ibid.

16. Difficulties of Anglicans (London, 1876), p. 256.

17. Ibid., pp. 257-258.

18. Ibid., pp. 260-261.

19. Ibid., p. 261.

20. Ibid.

21. CE, XII, 269-270.

22. Uncle of Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor.

23. Summa de Ecclesia (Venice, 1560), lib. iv, para. ii, cap. 11.

24. De charitate, Disputatio XII de schismate, sectio I (Opera Omnia, Paris, 1858), 12, 733ff.

25. Father Rahner is here making the same point to be found in Father Congar?s 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.

26. K. Rahner, Studies in Modem Theology (Herder, 1965), pp. 394-395.

27. Ibid., p. 397.

28. CE, XII, 263, col. 2.

29. 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.

30. CE, I, 395, col. 2.

31. E. John, The Popes (London, 1964), p. 253.

32. CE, II, 412, col. 1.

33. A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (London, 1953), p. 1116.

34. ST, II-II, Q. XXXIII, art. VII, ad. 5.

35. De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, n. 16.

36. Obras de Francisco de Vitoria, pp. 486-487.

37. De Summo pontifice (Paris, 1870), lib. II, cap. 29.

38. The Tablet, 11 September 1965, p. 996.

39. D. 1830.

40. Bellarmine, De Summo pontifice, n. 30, lib. II, cap. 30.

41. Wernz-Vidal, Jus Canonicum (Rome, 1952).

42. Summa de Ecclesia, n. 18, lib. II, cap. 102.

43. Wernz-Vidal, Jus Canonicum (Rome, 1943), II, 518.