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Monday, February 9, 2015
When Must a Catholic Obey the Pope?

In today's world, we are faced with a dire situation that is virtually unprecedented in the history of the Church.  We need only look to Pope Francis' comments of late on how Catholics should not "breed like rabbits," his support for adulterers, his abuse of the Holy Thursday Liturgy during the Washing of the Feet, the grave controversies arising from last year's Synod on the Family regarding contraception and divorce, and much more.

The point of this post is not to discuss any of these issues.  But, in light of the above, if a Pope were to command us to do something contrary to the Deposit of the Faith, if he were to teach an error, if he were to abuse the Sacred Liturgy, or anything of the like, must we support him or even obey him?

In light of Cardinal Burke's recent comments, it is especially important for us to consider at this time when many bishops are even teaching things contrary to the Faith and are causing scandal.

Let's start with some important sources on the topic.  Even though these sources may be old, they are nonetheless relevant to this discussion and they hold weight because they encapsulate the authentic teaching of the Magesterium of the Church.

"...that it is necessary to obey a Pope in all things as long as he does not go against the universal custom of the Church, but should he go against the universal customs of the Church, he need not be followed" -Pope Innocent III

"Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See- they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations." Melchior Cano, theologian of the Council of Trent

"We affirm without hesitation that all the striving of men will be vain if they leave out the Church." Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum #16
And let us not forget St. Robert Bellarmine:
“Just as it is lawful to resist the pope that attacks the body, it is also lawful to resist the one who attacks souls or who disturbs civil order, or, above all, who attempts to destroy the Church. I say that it is lawful to resist him by not doing what he orders and preventing his will from being executed.”
The Church is not without some history on this matter.  Pope Vigilius for instance was a heretic who was excommunicated by the Second Council of Constantinople.  The Faithful were not only discouraged from following him; on the contrary, to follow him would have been a grave sin.

I am not alleging the current Pope to be a heretic.  It seems all to common that when anyone so much as questions the directives of the modern popes after Vatican II, that those with the questions are accused of such.  On the contrary, I am not.  However, the issue of the possibility of a heretic as Pope is relevant.  After all, if a Pope were to be a heretic, would he have to be followed?  Could a Pope even be a heretic?  Would he lose his right to rule or would it declare null and void all of his actions as if he were never a Pope?

The Remant published an article by Robert J. Siscoe in November 2014 on this very subject.  I quote:
“Indeed the Church has the right to separate herself from an heretical pope according to divine law. Consequently it has the right, by the same divine law, to use all means of themselves necessary for such separation…”

- John of St. Thomas

“The Church must render a judgment before the pope loses his office. Private judgment of the laity in this matter does not suffice.”

- Robert J. Siscoe

A recent article by Fr. James V. Schall S.J., which was re-posted as “the article of the week” on the popular Traditional Catholic website Rorate Caeli, has caused quite stir in some quarters. In the short article, which is titled On Heretical Popes, Fr. Schall briefly discusses the claims of heresy leveled against the post-Conciliar Popes, especially Pope Francis, and raises the question of whether a pope can fall into heresy, and, if so, how the Church would go about deposing him. The article was written in a very moderate tone, but the issues addressed were evidently too much for the extreme Left and their newly discovered Ultramontanism.

A writer at the ultra-liberal National Catholic Reporter reacted with outrage that Fr. Schall would dare mention such issues during the current Pontificate. He declared Fr. Schall’s article to be “irresponsible and inflammatory”, and suggested the only response to this “danger” is “to seek even harder to embrace Pope Francis and his effort to renew the Church.”

In light of recent events, even mainstream Catholics are beginning to openly ask if it is possible for a pope to be a heretic, and, if so, what means would the Church possess to remedy such a dangerous situation. For if Providence could permit a man to be raised to the Pontificate whose words and actions risked leading countless souls into sin and heresy, surely the Good God has likewise provided the Church with the means necessary to protect herself, and to remedy the dire situation. During the First Vatican Council, Bishop Zinelli, a Relator for the Deputation of the Faith (the body charged with explaining the meaning of the schemas to the Council Fathers), said the following about the hypothesis of an heretical Pope: “God does not fail in the things that are necessary; therefore, if He permits so great an evil, the means to remedy such a situation will not be lacking”. (1)

In this article, we will delve deep into the issues that were only touched upon by Fr. Schall. We will not only consider the possibility of a Pope falling into heresy, but, more importantly, the way in which an heretical Pope can be deposed. We will consider this complex and difficult question on both the speculative and practical level by consulting the theologians and canonists who have written on the subject over the centuries. We will employ the distinctions necessary to navigate through the minefield of possible errors that touch upon the issue of deposition, while carefully avoiding the heresy of Conciliarism.
And for those unfamiliar, the SSPX website has provided a translation for the words of Cardinal Burke that were referenced at the beginning of this article
Cardinal Burke: I cannot accept that Communion can be given to a person in an irregular union because it is adultery. On the question of people of the same sex, this has nothing to do with marriage. This is an affliction suffered by some people whereby they are attracted against nature sexually to people of the same sex.

Question: If perchance the pope will persist in this direction, what will you do?
Cardinal Burke: I shall resist, I can do nothing else. There is no doubt that it is a difficult time; this is clear, this is clear.
And so, we could summarize this question (When Must a Catholic Obey the Pope) by saying again the wisdom of Pope Innocent III, namely "...that it is necessary to obey a Pope in all things as long as he does not go against the universal custom of the Church, but should he go against the universal customs of the Church, he need not be followed."  And furthermore, should a Pope teach anything contrary to the Deposit of Faith as our forefathers and their forefathers held to it, we should resist such a Pope and hold true to the same Faith that we have received (St. Paul: "Tradidi quod et accepi —I have transmitted to you what I have received").


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