A Tower of Babel:
The Rush to Depose a Pope
Recently, I received from a reader a treatise titled On The Deposition Of The Pope, written by the Dominican theologian John of St. Thomas (1589-1644). John of St. Thomas is considered by many to be one of the most faithful interpreters of St. Thomas Aquinas, and his (John of St. Thomas’) writings on this subject are almost certainly being considered as central to any agenda which seeks a declaration of heresy and deposition from the Papacy in respect to Pope Francis.
Before beginning my analysis of John of St. Thomas’ treatise, I wish to clearly state my own position. I do not believe that a Pope can fall into formal heresy, and therefore be judged as one who has lost the Catholic Faith. Obviously, I therefore do not think he can be deposed. I strongly recommend a carefully reading of my article titled The Sifting: The Never-Failing Faith of Peter, to be found here: http://www.waragainstbeing.com/node/44
I need add, on the other hand, that I certainly do believe that a Pope can succumb to all sorts of philosophical and theological error, which indeed can find expression in objective heresy (in forms which obviously do not constitute infallible teaching), and which certainly may find expression in all sorts of agendas and practices which are in contradiction to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice. Again, I refer to the above-mentioned article for an analysis of how this is possible, and why I think it a matter of God’s providential chastisement.
It is also important, I think, to place this present subject in a certain perspective. With the Papacy of Pope Francis, we are now faced with many attempts, from manifold perspectives, to find justification and means for deposing the Pope. Canon Law emphatically declares that “The First See is judged by no one” (#1404), and so all these attempts necessitate the spinning of casuistic complexities designed to somehow convince us that judging the Pope is not really judging at all. Most of these attempts focus on the writings of four men (their writing occurring over a span of less than 150 years): Thomas Cajetan, Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez, and John of St. Thomas. Sedevacantists focus on the teaching of Bellarmine and Suarez and their teaching that a Pope who is a manifest heretic ipso facto loses his office, without a formal judgment from the Church. This obviously justifies their position that the Chair of Peter is empty, and in the minds of most sedevacantists, has been empty since the death of Pope Pius XII.
Those who are not sedevacantists, and yet also seek a means of justifying Papal deposition, quite naturally embrace the writings of Cajetan and John of St. Thomas, both of whom taught that Papal deposition could only happen through the actions of a General Council of the Bishops. It is quite obvious that this is the only option open to the SSPX, since they have all along claimed to recognize the legitimacy of Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors. But now it is also the preferred option for others who are horrified by what Pope Francis has been saying, writing, and doing.
At the present moment, a heated war is being waged between these two camps. Suffice to say that in dealing here with the position of John of St. Thomas (and also Cajetan, since their positions are very similar), I will be largely ignoring the sedevacantist position. The latter I have rightly called “The Religion of Abandonment” – after 66 years without a Pope, theirs is a position which looks to the rest of human history without a Pope, and therefore without a Church.
The position of John of St. Thomas, and that of the SSPX and others who seek the Pope’s deposition, is however, something which now poses an immense threat to the Church. It portends a descent into chaos which would make the present crisis of disunity and rebellion in the Church look like child’s-play. It is therefore well-worth examining and combating.
As we shall see, in John of St.Thomas’ agenda for deposing a Pope, the responsibility and power of such deposition comes to rest in a General Council of Bishops. It would therefore seem absolutely necessary to begin with a lucid understanding of the relationship between the Pope and all the bishops of the world.
I consider the greatest and most authoritative exposition of the relationship which must exist according to the Divine Constitution of the Church between bishops and the Pope to be Pope Leo XIII’s wonderful encyclical ,em>Satis Cognitum (On the Unity of the Church). I have never seen it quoted by any of the growing number of people now busily trying to find some justification for deposing a Pope. The following passage is crucial:
“The safety of the Church depends on the dignity of the chief priest, to whom if an extraordinary and supreme power is not given, there are as many schisms to be expected in the Church as there are priests….He alone was designated as the foundation of the Church. To him He gave the power of binding and loosing; to him alone was given the power of feeding. On the other hand, whatever authority and office the Apostles received, they received in conjunction with Peter: ‘If the divine benignity willed anything to be in common between him and the other princes, whatever He did not deny to the others He gave only through him. So that whereas Peter alone received many things, He conferred nothing on any of the rest without Peter participating in it’. (S. Leo M. sermo iv., cap.2).” [Notice that the last two sentences are quoted from Pope St. Leo the Great].
Every attempt to justify the deposition of a Pope because of heresy necessitates the building of an intellectual construct, a Tower of Babel, which ascends above the Pope, while still claiming subjection to the Papacy. All of the scourings of history – searching through the writings of Saints, Doctors, Theologians, Canonists, Councils, and Popes – in a vain attempt to find justification for, and a means towards, judging and deposing a Pope, must disguise the fact that not only does the Pope not “participate” in such construction, but that every one of these edifices is diametrically opposed to the manifest mind and will of the reigning Pope. Every such attempt, in other words, is in direct contradiction to the truth taught by Pope Leo XIII which is rendered in bold in the above quotation.
I watch these attempts proliferating in the midst of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and feel like I am in the eye of a hurricane watching the traditional Catholic world sucked down into a vortex of self-deceit. I am strongly reminded of Satan’s original temptation: “No, you shall not die the death. For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.” It is the same old temptation. We just cannot believe that God would allow us to be in a situation in which we have no recourse to any power or source of authority within ourselves, but only in Him.
But this is precisely the principle which is the foundation of the Papacy and its only ultimate defense against all the forces of Satan, especially those forces working internally in the minds and hearts of the individual pontiffs themselves which would seek to prevail over it throughout the centuries: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm they brethren.” (Luke 22: 31-32). The extraordinary prerogatives of the Papacy, which make it the Rock against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail, can only be rooted in the promise and prayer of Christ.The defense of the institution, perpetuity, power, and nature of the Papacy does not lie in man’s recourse to any sort of natural law or human right, but in the supernatural grace and promise of God. This is the central truth of the Papacy which is at least implicitly denied in the following passage from John of St. Thomas’ treatise (and which forms the entire justification for his seeking a means of deposing a Pope):
"Now, one should not avoid one that remains in the [Sovereign] Pontificate; on the contrary, the Church should instead be united to him as her supreme head and communicate with him. Therefore, if the pope is a heretic, either the Church should communicate with him, or he must be deposed from the Pontificate.
"The first solution leads to the ,strong>obvious destruction of the Church, and has inherently a risk that the whole ecclesiastical government errs, if she has to follow a heretical head. In addition, as the heretic is an enemy of the Church, natural law provides protection against such a Pope according to the rules of self-defense, because she can defend herself against an enemy as is a heretical Pope; therefore, she can act (in justice) against him. So, in any case, it is necessary that such a Pope must be deposed.”
As we shall see by the end of our analysis, the so-called “natural right” to depose a Pope is itself immersed in self-contradiction, and represents an agenda for total chaos and disintegration within the Church.
It is well to begin by repeating this basic principle: “So that whereas Peter alone received many things, He conferred nothing on any of the rest without Peter participating in it.”
The only way in which a living Pope can participate in the loss of the Papacy is through his own voluntary resignation. The grievous error of John of St. Thomas position is therefore succinctly stated in the very first sentence of his treatise: “I affirm that the Pope can lose the pontificate in three ways: through natural death, by voluntary renunciation, and by deposition.” No matter what Jesuitical or sophistic mental gyrations one may come up with, there can be no attempt at deposition of a Pope without directly contradicting the absolutely foundational principle that “He conferred nothing on any of the rest without Peter participating in it.”
So let us begin. I wish to note here for the sake of future reference that the work of John of St. Thomas examined here was first translated into French from the Latin and annotated by Fr. Pierre-Marie O.P., and then translated from the French into English by Fr. Juan Carlos Ortiz, SSPX. Subtitles were added, and I shall employ these subtitles where I deem it appropriate.
John of St. Thomas begins with three “Arguments from authority” (subtitle) in order to try to establish some sort of authoritative precedence for his position:
The first argument is as follows:
“A specific text is found in the Decree of Gratian, Distinction 40, chapter Si Papa, where it is said: ‘On earth, no mortal should presume to reproach (redarguere) any faults to the Pontiff, because he who has to judge (judicaturus) others, should not be judged (judicandus) by anyone, unless he is found deviating from the Faith.’ (Pars I, D 40, c. 6). This exception obviously means that in case of heresy, a judgment could be made of the pope.” (please keep in mind that this last sentence is the conclusion of John of St.Thomas, and is not found in Gratian].
I have personally added bold emphasis to the word “reproach” in the above passage from the Decree of Gratian. It is clear that there is here proposed a right of judgment (which is identified with the concept of “reproach”, and nothing else) in regard to errors or deviations from the faith on the part of the Pope. This, of course, is fully incumbent upon us in our individual responsibility for retaining and defending the Faith. But there is nothing here, contrary to what John appears to say in his last sentence of the above paragraph, to identify such judgment and reproach with the right to sit in judgment of the Pope’s culpability in this regard (as being one who has lost the Catholic faith), or depose him.
This becomes fully evident if we place the above quote from Gratian in its larger context (which, in all honesty should have been done in the first place):
“If the Pope, being neglectful of his own salvation and that of his brethren, be found useless and remiss in his works, and , more than that, reluctant to do good (which harms himself and others even more), and nonetheless brings down with him innumerable throngs of people….Let no mortal man presume to rebuke him for his faults, for, it being incumbent upon him to judge all, he should be judged by no one, unless he is suddenly caught deviating from the faith.”
The word “reproach” or “rebuke”, and the “judgment” which is its requisite, is here applied across a wide spectrum of papal failures, and the passage simply instructs us that we pull back from such judgment and reproach of the Pope except in the case of his deviation from the faith – in which case we may exercise that judgment which issues forth in reproach of the Pope. To extend the word “judgment” as used here to further mean that someone has the right to formally judge the Pope as a heretic, and depose him, is indeed a perversion of this passage. Such rashness and presumption seems to speak of an agenda desirous of seeing things that are not really there.
The Second Argument from Authority, employed by John of St. Thomas, runs as follows:
“The same thing is confirmed by the letter of Hadrian II, reported in the Eighth General Council [IV Constantinople, 869-870], in the 7th session, where it is said that the Roman Pontiff is judged by no one, but the anathema was made by the Orientals against Honorius, because he was accused of heresy, the only cause for which it is lawful for inferiors to resist their superiors. (MANSI, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova collectio amplissima, Venice, 1771, vol. 16, col. 126).”
First, we rightly conclude again, and therefore in agreement with this principle as stated in the above passage, that it is the right and duty of inferiors to resist objective heresy proposed by their superiors. But the above passage does not accuse Honorius of actually being a formal heretic, nor does it say anything about the right of inferiors to judge him to be so, and certainly says nothing about the right to depose him. In other words, the above passage, in and of itself, offers no argument whatsoever justifying judgment and deposition of a Pope.
But there is more that needs to be said here.
I would consider the “case” against Pope Honorius to be probably the greatest piece of historical falsification of fact and reality in the history of the Catholic Church. I have written a rather extensive article on this subject, which was actually made into a chapter in my book The War Against the Papacy. I have now converted that chapter into an individual article, the link for which will be found at Part XXV at the bottom of the menu on the left side of this page. I have also included in this document my shorter chapters on Pope Liberius and Pope John XXII, since these Papacies have also been used to further this same agenda.
The Third Argument is the shortest, and is most easily disposed of. John of St. Thomas writes:
“Also Pope St. Clement says in his first epistle that Saint Peter taught that a heretical pope must be disposed.”
John of St. Thomas apparently picked this argument up from Cajetan. It is absolutely false. There is nothing of the kind in the First Epistle of Clement. Pope Clement I’s Letters are available in English, and anyone can check this out. I do not know how Cajetan or John of St. Thomas fell subject to this piece of historical error.
In addition, even though they are not included in John of St. Thomas’ arguments from authority, I think it is necessary here to include two other such historically based “arguments”.
The first derives from a statement made by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in one of his sermons:
The pope should not flatter himself about his power, nor should he rashly glory in his honour and high estate, because the less he is judged by man, the more he is judged by God. Still the less can the Roman Pontiff glory, because he can be judged by men, or rather, can be shown to be already judged, if for example he should wither away into heresy, because he who does not believe is already judged. In such a case it should be said of him: ‘If salt should lose its savour, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled under foot by men.”
Again, we are here dealing with the question of the meaning of the word “judgment” as employed in this passage. All men should consider themselves subject to judgment, from both superiors and inferiors, if they violate God’s truth. It is a matter of great credit to Pope Innocent III that he possessed the humility to acknowledge this truth. It was he who possessed the nobility and humility to receive St. Francis’ exalted vision for his Order, a vision which was soon to be buried under the compromising legislation of future Popes (see my article St. Francis of Assisi: They Loved You So That They Might Leave You for an extensive treatment of this subject). But such “judgment” is not the same as a judgment of authority which has the power to declare a person formally to be a heretic. Nor does it posses the power and authority to institute juridical actions against him which would depose him of his office. This power only resides in a superior authority who, in the case of a Pope, is God alone.
The final argument, which I think it is necessary to include here, involves the Council of Constance. John of St. Thomas states it quite simply:
“And in the case of the Great [Western] Schism during which there were three popes, the Council of Constance was assembled to settle the schism.”
This, again, is a falsification of history. There were not three Popes, at the time the Council of Constance, but only one – Gregory XII – who resigned from his office, sanctioned the Council itself, and also sanctioned its legitimacy in electing a new Pope. All of this has been examined very clearly and extensively in my article The Religion of Abandonment: Sedevacantism and the Heresy of Conciliarism.
Having established the lack of substance, and the extraordinary superficiality, in all these alleged arguments from authority, we might well question the benefit in proceeding any further. I think, however, that further examination of John of St. Thomas’ program for deposition of a Pope might be of value in unmasking what I have termed the “Tower of Babel” of intellectual sophistry which is now under construction by many Catholics in their attempts to ascend to power over the Papacy of Pope Francis. I will begin with a summary of his position, and afterward offer my analysis.
Deposition of the Pope
John of St. Thomas begins with the scriptural injunction to be found in Titus 3:10: “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid him”. He proceeds: “Now, one should not avoid one that remains in the [sovereign] Pontificate; on the contrary, the Church should instead be united to him as her supreme head and communicate with him. Therefore, if the pope is a heretic, either the Church should communicate with him, or he must be deposed from the Pontificate. John then opts for the second solution because, “The first solution leads to the obvious destruction of the Church....So, in any case it is necessary that such a Pope must be deposed.”
According to John, however, “heresy alone is not sufficient to depose the Pontiff”. Two other conditions must be fulfilled: 1) The heresy is not hidden, but must be “public and legally notorious”; 2) the Pope must be incorrigible and pertinacious in his heresy.
From here, John moves on to what he calls the second problem: “by what authority should the deposition of the Pope be done?” This involves two questions, and two very distinct stages: the Deposition, and the Deposition which follows: 1) “Who should pronounce the declarative sentence of the crime of heresy? And, 2) “On which authority is the Pope deposed?
In answer to the first question, John replies: “On the first point, we must say that the statement of the crime does not come from the Cardinals, but from the General Council.” In response to the second question, he answers, “In the case of deposition, this belongs to the Church, whose authority is represented by the General Council; indeed, to the cardinal is only entrusted the election, and nothing else, as can be seen in Canon Law.”
The summary of John of St. Thomas position can thus be very simply summarized as follows:
1) The Pope can fall into heresy.
2) If such heresy is “public and legally notorious”, if the Pope has been warned, and if he is “incorrigible and pertinacious” in his heresy, he can be, and should be, deposed.
3) A General Council can first declare his heresy.
4) A General Council can then declare him deposed.
Until this final declaration of deposition is made, the Pope is still Pope, and the Catholic faithful are obliged to submission to his supreme authority. The Pope does not lose his office for heresy, whether hidden (occult) or public, until this deposition is declared by the General Council.
As I have noted, John of St. Thomas’ basic program for deposition of a Pope appears relatively simple. This certainly is not true of his attempts to justify it. The complexity of his arguments employed in justifying the four-point agenda listed above is the means by which its errors are masked, and might appear to many to be made acceptable. Having already exposed the lack of substance in his arguments from authority (which were designed to support the first two points), we now move on to the absolutely crucial question as to who has theauthority to make both the declaration of heresy and the declaration of deposition (points 2 & 3).
John begins by first noting the sharp “dissension” which exists among theologians concerning this matter. He refers to Cajetan’s writings in which are enumerated four very opposing positions, two of which are designated as extremes, and two as being middle positions. The first “extreme position” he describes as postulating that “the Pope is removed without human judgment by the mere fact of being a heretic”, and that this is the position of Bellarmine and Suarez. The second extreme position is that the Pope truly has a power above him by which he can be judged. Both these positions are rejected by Cajetan and John of St. Thomas.
The first middle position posits that in the single case of heresy, the Church is above the Pope. This also is to be rejected. And, finally, there is the position of both John of St. Thomas and Cajetan that the Pope “has no superior [on earth], neither absolutely, nor in the case of heresy, but only in a ministerial way.”
I think it also valuable at this point to add Cardinal Burke’s position to this mix. In his interview with Catholic World Report (analyzed in my article Cardinal Burke: The Center Will Not Hold, which is still posted immediately below this present article), he very specifically says that the Pope would cease to be Pope by the very act of formally professing heresy, and that, further, the authority for declaring him to be in heresy belonged to the College of Cardinals. In other words, Cardinal Burke has added a fifth position to what I have called this “Tower of Babel”. Interestingly enough, among all of those who have attempted to pronounce on this issue, Cardinal Burke has held the highest legal office in the Church.
Now, let us return to John of St. Thomas’ position that the Pope “has no superior [on earth], neither absolutely, nor in the case of heresy, but only in a ministerial way.” He continues:
“Just as the Church has a ministerial power to choose the person [Pope], but not to give power, as this is done immediately by Christ, in the same manner, in the disposition, which is the destruction of the bond by which the Papacy is attached to such person in particular, the Church has the power to depose him in a ministerial manner, but it is Christ who deprives [his power] with authority.”
Expressed in somewhat simpler form, what John is saying here (and using the arguments of Cajetan to do so) is that if it is through the ministry of men (Cardinals, under current Papal legislation) that the form of the Papacy is connected (disposed) to a certain person by the power of Christ, so through the ministry of the Pope’s inferiors (a General Council in this case), the connection between the form of the Papacy and the person of a particular Pope can be dissolved by a similar ministry of men.
I would say that upon reading this passage, immediately our Catholic antennae for detecting sophistry should go up. Everything that the Church does is ministry, as is all that is done “in a Church way” by individual Popes, bishops, priests, etc. Nothing is done with a power and authority which proceeds from us, but only through us by the commission, power, and authority of Christ. But at the same time, as we have seen in the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, it is a firm matter of Catholic truth that no ministry is exercised by bishops (or a General Council of Bishops) without the Pope participating in it. To turn this 180 degrees around and declare that somehow we can have an unwilling Pope participating in a declaration of himself as being a heretic, and then also participating in his own deposition, is sophistry and casuistry of the highest order.
Further, the ministerial power by which the Cardinals choose a Pope is totally a matter of a ministry derived from Papal legislation. There is nothing in such legislation which says that either the Cardinals or a General Council of Bishops has the ministerial power to dissolve this bond and thereby depose the Pope. The legislation in place for electing a Pope is clearly according to the “manifest mind and will of the Pope”, and therefore clearly a matter of his “participation” in the process. Any attempt, on the other hand, to depose a Pope against his manifest will, and therefore without his participation, is clearly the opposite. It requires specious reasoning of the highest order in any attempt to do so.
But the reasoning of John of St. Thomas involves not only specious casuistry, but also, as I said earlier, dissolves into simple self-contradiction. As we have seen, it was the position of Robert Bellarmine that the Pope is ipso facto deposed once he becomes a manifest heretic, and this without any formal declaration or judgment by the Church. Bellarmine’s reasoning is simple: A manifest heretic is not a Catholic, and a non-Catholic cannot be Pope. Further, if we are to follow the scriptural injunction, “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid him”, then if we were obliged to consider such a man Pope until he was formally deposed through the declaration of a General Council (which might take years, or never be accomplished at all), during all that time all the faithful would be in a forced position of communicating with, and being subject, to a non-Catholic and heretical Pope.
It is precisely this trap into which John of St. Thomas falls. He writes:
“A non-Christian who is such in itself AND in relation to us (quad se et quoad nos) cannot be Pope; however, if he is not in himself a Christian, because he has lost the faith, but if in relation to us he is not legally declared being infidel or heretic, as obvious as it may appear in a private judgment, he is still in relation to us (quoad nos) a member of the Church and therefore the head.”
In other words, according to John of St. Thomas (and Cajetan), the Antichrist could be (in relation to us) a member of the Church and our “head” – all because of a “legalism” which just couldn’t seem to get it together to have him ministerially declared a heretic. This is the terrible, self-contradictory principle entailing self destruction in John of St. Thomas’ position. As discussed earlier, he says that communication with a heretical Pope “leads to the obvious destruction of the Church”. On the other, in positing the possible existence of a formally heretical Pope, and yet at the same time the necessity of him remaining our “head” for years or even decades until he is declared deposed by a General Council of the Bishops, he is placing us in subservience to “the obvious destruction of the Church”. And of course this is precisely the situation we would now face. Most of today’s bishops probably do not believe in designating anyone a heretic, even less the Pope. For them, it was a medieval thing, which is now totally inappropriate. We only need add that even for Bellarmine, who taught that a heretic Pope would only ipso facto lose his office after he was shown to be pertinacious in the face of warnings, the Antichrist could be our head if he were good enough at keeping a secret (occult heresy), or intimidating and seductive enough to prevent public warnings being issued against him.
After all, once you posit that a Pope can be a formal heretic, there are no limits to just how big of a heretic he might be.
Such is the Rock of the Deposers.
Vatican Council I stated that in the Apostolic Primacy “is found the strength and solidity of the entire Church”. To posit the possibility of a formally heretical Pope who can, and should be, deposed, is to destroy the strength and solidity of the entire Church.
It certainly can be in accord with Catholic truth and charity to believe that Christ is chastising us through the present Papacy, that Satan has infiltrated the Church is a myriad of ways, that the Pope has been severely poisoned by philosophical and theological thinking whose origin lies in an almost universal subjection to reductive science and evolutionary theory, and that he is even malicious in his attempts to impose the implicit or logical consequences of these errors on those faithful who seek to hold onto tradition. But this does not mean that we have a “natural right” to liberate the Papacy from the Pope, but rather that we need to gird our loins in combat for the liberation of the Pope (and the vast majority of Catholics) from the reductive “scientism” and evolutionary theory which hold his mind and heart captive. We need make war on Science. We need also make war on its spouse, the never-ending proliferation of technology, which is the horse that we have ridden for many centuries away from Christ and His Beatitudes, and towards the Antichrist. In having betrayed the blessing of Lady Poverty many centuries ago, we entered upon a long road towards the eventual loss of our Catholic minds.
- James Larson