Can a Pope Be a Heretic?

Recently, Cardinal Burke stated that, if Pope Francis were to endorse a position on marriage and sexuality that were contrary to the tradition of the Church, that he would be obliged to “resist” the pontiff. Although the cardinal clarified that he was speaking of a purely hypothetical situation, he hit upon a nerve that gets struck from time to time among Catholics—in instant messages, in passing, on Facebook, though almost never in print—“What if?” What if Cardinal Kasper’s ideology takes over the upcoming Ordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family? What if the behind-the-scenes machinations of his supporters ultimately win the day? What if the pope lets civilly divorced and remarried Catholics receive communion?

Fr. James Schall identified the dilemma last year, when he pointed out that the elephant in the room is the question of heresy. If Church discipline of excluding Catholics who have obtained a civil divorce and remarriage from Communion is based on infallible Church doctrine about sin and repentance, and if the pope tries to change that discipline, wouldn’t that make the pope a heretic concerning that doctrine?

In the finest tradition of Jesuit discourse, Fr. Schall insisted that we talk about the elephant rather than staring at it. I agree because I know that God is not going to let us down, and neither is Pope Francis.

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What is a heretic?
In order to even talk about the elephant, we have to identify it. A “heretic” is someone guilty of a heresy. According to the Catechism, “heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.” A heretic differs from an “apostate,” who is guilty of “apostasy” (the total repudiation of the Christian faith, not just some part of it), or a “schismatic,” who is guilty of “schism” (separation from the unity of the Church, without necessarily denying some or all of the Christian faith) (CCC 2089).

In a more technical sense, the denial of some truth of the Faith can actually be two things: a sin and a crime. It is a mortal sin, because it is directly contrary to the theological virtue of faith, “by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself” (CCC 1814). It is a canonical crime, because the Church criminalizes certain, very dangerous sins like heresy, so that the Church can compel those who commit them with penalties to carry out the promises of their baptism (Code of Canon Law, Canon 1311). The penalties for the crime of heresy include automatic excommunication (Canon 1364 §1); for clerics, automatic removal from any ecclesiastical office that the heretic might have possessed (Canon 194 §1, no. 2); for religious, automatic expulsion from their religious order (Canon 694, §1, no. 1).

It is important to remember, though, that not everyone who happens to deny some truth of the Faith is culpable for the mortal sin of heresy; nor is everyone who is culpable for the mortal sin of heresy penalized for the canonical crime of heresy in the same way. To be fully culpable for the sin, a person has to have full knowledge of what the Church teaches in a particular matter and make a conscious decision to reject the Church’s teaching in that matter (CCC 1859), or a person has to willfully fail in his or her duty to seek the truth (CCC 1791). To receive the maximum penalty for the crime, a person also has to be at least 16 years old, be aware that heresy is a canonical crime, and not be subject to a long list of other exclusions and exceptions (Canons 1322-24).

Since believing something wrong doesn’t automatically make you culpable for the sin or guilty of the crime, theologians usually make a distinction between people who aren’t consciously and deliberately rejecting the Church’s teaching and those who are:

  • material heretic is someone who does notrealize that they believe something heretical. Provided that their ignorance is not their own fault, material heretics are neither culpable of the sin nor guilty of the crime.
  • formal hereticis someone who does realize that they believe something heretical and makes a conscious and free decision to believe it. Formal heretics are culpable for the sin, and can also be penalized of the crime provided that they meet the appropriate conditions (age, awareness, etc.).

Can the pope be a heretic?
Most theologians would agree that a pope could be a material heretic, just like any other well-meaning but misinformed Catholic. He wouldn’t be culpable for any sin or guilty of any crime. He could, in fact, remain in a state of grace, and, endowed with the virtue of faith, lead the Christian faithful in the faith delivered once for all to the apostles. His material heresy might even appear in his non-infallible teaching, although God gives him special help to avoid that (CCC 892). But Catholics firmly believe that it could never appear in his infallible teaching. (CCC 891)

Theologians are divided as to whether the pope could ever be a formal heretic, because they don’t agree on two things:

  1. Does the grace promised by Christ to Peter preclude the possibility of a pope falling into formal heresy?
  1. If it doesn’t, would a heretical pope lose his office as a consequence of the sin of heresy, or as a penalty for the crime of heresy?

There were always some people who believed that God would simply not allow the pope to become a formal heretic, because it would be against Christ’s promises to Peter. But from the twelfth century onwards, a lot of Catholic theologians didn’t. That’s when Gratian, the most important medieval canon lawyer, included in his Decretum a warning to errant popes that he attributed to St. Boniface:

If the Pope, remiss in his duties and neglectful of his and his neighbor’s salvation, gets caught up in idle business, and if moreover, by his silence (which actually does more harm to himself and everyone else), he nonetheless leads innumerable hoards of people away from the good with him, he will be beaten for eternity with many blows alongside that very first slave of hell [the Devil]. However, no person can presume to convict him of any transgressions in this matter, because, although the Pope can judge everyone else, no one may judge him, unless he, for whose perpetual stability all the faithful pray as earnestly as they call to mind the fact that, after God, their own salvation depends on his soundness, is found to have strayed from the faith. (Decretum, Part 1, Distinction 40, Chapter 6)

So, no one can convict a pope of being remiss in his duties, because no one stands above the pope in judgment—unless the pope is a heretic, and then… Then what? Unfortunately, Gratian didn’t fill in the blank. But since Gratian’s Decretum became required reading for theologians and canon lawyers, the question became unavoidable for subsequent generations of Catholic theology.

The two most important answers came from sixteenth-seventeenth century Jesuits: Francisco Suarez and St. Robert Bellarmine.

Suarez took it as a given that a pope could be a formal heretic. He then considered two possibilities for what happens next:

First possibility: The pope loses his office as a consequence of the sin of heresy, because people who commit that sin cease to be members of the Church, and God deposes a pope who is no longer a member of the Church. (Suarez, De fide, 10.6.2)

Suarez rejects this possibility for two reasons. First, falling out of a state of grace might mean that you aren’t a member of the Church in the way that you’re supposed to be, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not a member of the Church—otherwise you’d be kicked out of the Church every time you committed a mortal sin. Second, if Catholics are supposed to believe that God deposes popes, then Scripture, the Tradition of the Church, and the pronouncements of the Magisterium ought to have said something about it—but they haven’t. Besides, if God deposes popes, you could never be sure if the pope was really the pope—what if he was a secret heretic and God had secretly deposed him? How would you ever know? (Suarez, De fide, 10.6.2-4)

Second possibility: The pope keeps his office if he commits the sin of heresy, but loses his office if he is convicted of the crime of heresy. (De fide 10.6.6)

Suarez thinks that, just like Christ bestows the papacy on the man whom the Church elects, so also Christ takes away the papacy from the man whom the Church convicts (De fide 10.6.10). So, if a pope commits the sin of heresy, all the other bishops of the world have the right to try him for the crime of heresy, even against his will (De fide 10.6.7). If they were to convict him, he could be considered deposed from the papacy by Christ, and the Church could elect another pope.

Bellarmine was more hesitant about the whole question. Unlike Suarez, he did not take it as a given that the pope could be a formal heretic. Actually, Bellarmine considered it “probable” that God would prevent the pope from ever being a formal heretic  (he says it twice: De Romano Pontifice 2.30 and 4.2). Nevertheless, Bellarmine was willing to consider what would be the case if the pope could fall into formal heresy.

If we assume that the pope could be a formal heretic, Bellarmine thinks Suarez’s opinion is wrong. Suarez allows the bishops to judge the pope. But one of Gratian’s basic rules is that no one can judge the pope. Sure, Suarez has Christ carrying out the judgment, but it is only because the other bishops of the Church have pronounced the judgment first.

Instead, Bellarmine adopts the position that Suarez rejected: the pope loses his office immediately by committing the sin of formal heresy, because people who commit that sin cease to be members of the Church, and God deposes a pope who is no longer a member of the Church. It’s true that the bishops could still get together and make a declaration that God had deposed the pope, but their declaration would not be a judgment in any real sense, only an acknowledgement of what God had already done. (De Romano Pontifice 2.30)

Suarez and Bellarmine both have good points, but I think they each show how the other misses the mark. Suarez is right that, if Catholics are supposed to believe that God deposes popes, then Scripture, the Tradition of the Church, and the pronouncements of the Magisterium ought to have said something about it. But Bellarmine has something important to contribute, too: if God doesn’t depose popes, then no one can, because no one can judge the pope. And besides, it’s not even agreed that the pope could ever be a formal heretic, anyway.

Where does that leave us?
First, God has not abandoned his flock to the whims of heretics. Our Lord prayed for St. Peter’s faith (Luke 22:32), he promised Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church that was founding upon him (Matthew 16:18), and, on the day of Pentecost, he sent his Holy Spirit upon that Church, with Peter at its head, to proclaim the Gospel to all nations (Acts 2). Catholics shouldn’t expect, and shouldn’t go looking for falsehood in the successor of St. Peter. God is always faithful to his promises.

Second, because God is faithful to his promises, there is no evidence that Pope Francis has committed the mortal sin of formal heresy, the canonical crime of formal heresy, or that he is even a material heretic with regard to any of the Church’s teachings, including the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Much to the contrary, he has said that he considers himself a “Son of the Church” in this regard, he has endorsed a traditional understanding of the relationship between the sexes, and has condemned the “ideological colonization” that breaks down God’s plan for the family. Sure, he has expressed support support for the way in which Cardinal Kasper wrote on marriage and the family, but he has never publicly and definitively endorsed what Cardinal Kasper said.

So what is all the fuss about? About something Pope Francis might do or say but has not actually done or said? Then why don’t we follow Gratian’s advice? Let’s pray for Pope Francis as earnestly as we can, because like Gratian said, our own salvation depends in many ways on the guidance he gives us as members of the flock of Christ. Even better, let’s pay attention to how we pray. Certainly Pope Francis needs our prayers. But prayers motivated by love for him are more meritorious than prayers motivated by fear of what he might do in spite of the graces that God offers him to fulfill his divinely appointed duty. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:8), and each one of us—clergy and laity alike—always stands in need of an increase of that love. Not that there will be less to work for—the latest revelations of impropriety at the Extraordinary Synod warn us against such naïveté—just less to fear as we grow in the confidence of Christ, and as we trust in the victory that God has already won in Christ, into which he leads his Church daily through the Successors of St. Peter: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)


  • Jacob W. Wood

    Jacob W. Wood is an Assistant Professor of Theology and a Faculty Associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned his Master’s in theology from St. Andrews University and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.

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