An academic Study on the Deposition of a heretic Pope

Par Don Pio Pace

Français, italiano

The acts of a symposium who took place at the University of Sceaux in Southern Paris, in 2017, were compiled in one publication under the direction of Professors Cyrille Dounot, Nicolas Warenburg and Boris Bernabé: The deposition of an heretic pope: Theological places, canonical models, constitutional issues (Mare & Martin, Presses Universitaires de Sceaux, 2019). This symposium followed the publication of the thesis of Laurent Fonbaustier, The deposition of a heretic pope: Starting point of constitutionalism? (1). The rather exceptional success of this university symposium was certainly due to its relation to current church affairs marked by the stupefying pontifical work, to say the least, of Pope Francis.

Most of the symposium addressed the developments on this subject of canonists commentators of the judicial summa that is the Decretum Gratiani (XIth century), and what happened around the Council of Constance, which remedied the Great Schism in the XVth century, by proceeding, for the last time in the history of the Church, to the depositions of popes.

Part of the symposium included looking at modern times. We found rather interesting looking at the presentation of Cyrille Dounot, History of Law professor at the University of Clermont Auvergne, which addressed the regain of interest for the question, his presentation titled: “Paul VI, heretic? The traditionalist discourse on deposition of the pope” (pp. 131-165).

Regarding the current approach on the question, C. Dounot quotes several works, among those, the review Le Sel de la Terre (The Salt of the Earth), which published the writings of Jean de Saint-Thomas on “The deposition of the pope” (2), the translation of Father Jean-Michel Gleize, SSPX, of Cajetan’s work, The pope and the Council (3), the book of Roberto de Mattei, The vicar of Christ: Can we reform the papacy? (4), including a chapter with the question: “Can a pope be heretic?”, and finally the book of Maxence Hecquard, Are the popes of Vatican II legitimate? (5). He also quotes some Americans and could have also mentioned Italians such as Antonio Socci (Non è Francesco, Mondadori, 2014) or Nicolas Bux, a professor at the Ecumenical-patristic Institute in Bari, with various interventions (interview by the Antonio Mari Valli Blog of 13th October 2018, “L’unità si fa nell a verità”).

This discourse finds its genesis under the pontificate of Paul VI, when new directions in the Church was hurting head on the conscience of catholic “traditionalist”, in France and in the world. 

The theme of an heretical pope caught noticeable attention, especially after the publication of the new missal in 1969, from an writer such as Fr. Coache (Bulletin Le Combat de la foi), and various authors such as from Fr. Noël Barbara (Forts dans la Foi), Fr. Michel-Louis Guérard des Lauriers, mentioned by Cyrille Dounot though it seems he did not have access to his writings (Les Cahiers de Cassiciacum), Fr. Georges de Nantes (La Contre-réforme catholique), whose ideas on this particular point have been studied in detailed by Jean Madiran (Itineraires), the Brazilian Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, who looks at the hypothesis of an heretical pope in a writing titled The Ordo Missæ of Paul VI: what to make of it (6), the Argentine Carlo Disandro (in the review La Hosteria Volante) and, last,the Mexican Joaquín Sáenz Y Arriaga, in La Nueva Iglesia Montiniana.

 The two great historic thesis debated by these authors were the one of Cajetan, Papa hereticus depositus est (the heretic pope is deposed), and the one of Bellarmin, Papa hereticus deponendum est (the heretic pope is to be deposed). Roberto de mattei, in his preface to the edition of Ipotesi Teologica di un Papa eretico (which is part of the book above mentioned of Arnaldo Da Silveira, Solfanelli, 2016) develops the idea that these two thesis really meet: indeed, noticing the loss of the pontificate by prelates of the Church is identical to the pronunciation of the deposition by these same prelates. In addition, Cyrille Dounot does not try to distinguish between those who have simply studied the thesis of the deposition and those who have actually considered it fulfilled (the so-called “sedevacantists”). In our opinion, it is for a good reason that C. Dounot does not make this distinction which distinctively exist only since the time of the pontificate of John Paul II.

Cyrille Dounot, concludes with the observation of two failures. First, a theoretical failure: nothing had been planned in the old texts regarding the modalities around the deposition of a heretic pope, which was only dealt with historically in an empirical way, through councils, secular interventions, post-mortem condemnations; likewise, these post-vatican II authors , theologians, canonists or writers, have not elaborated a “user’s manual” of the deposition. Second and most importantly, a human and political failure: indeed, no appeal to the Roman clergy, to the “Catholic bishops”, to the cardinals had any results. To Cyrille Dounot, the solutions Fr. de Nantes sought, seem very significant of the expected failure: the dogma of the First Council of the Vatican having considerably consolidated the adage, the first See is subject to no one’s judgement, the “modern solution”, as Georges de Nantes used to call it, can only be the auto-condemnation of the heretic pope by the infallible pope.

One can ask how a lapsus pope still has the power to declare himself such, unless we say that it is in reality the resignation of the pope that we want to prompt (a resignation to which Constance had forced the pope of Rome). It is actually maybe what all the historic examples of deposed popes come to (including Benedict XIII, Pedro de Luna, in the time of the Great Western Schism who obstinately refused): the Church forced them to abandon their real power by recording their forfeiture, on which a consensus was met. This consensus Ecclesiæ romanæ which actually makes the pontifical elections and which has, in a way, absorbed some of the many incongruities that can be noted in history, is surely also the last word of explanation in regards to the depositions which have “worked” until the XVth century: the Church has noted the forfeiture of such or such pontiff.

But, justly, it is in trying to gather this consensus that the authors mentioned by C. Dounot – to simplify and keeping with the perspective of his study, we will call them deposition theorists – have failed, except, they have caused a breach in a subject of particular importance: liturgy. Cyrille Dounot explains that the debates he presented have essentially appeared with the advent of the new liturgy which these various authors considered inadmissible. The rejection of the Missal of Paul VI by Fr. de Nantes, as well as Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, or Jean Madiran, followed by many others, prompted the survival of the former missal which the Roman authorities eventually legitimized in 1984 with Quattuor abhinc annos, then in 1988 with Ecclesia Dei, and particularly in 2007 with Summorum Pontificum. Because of that, the liturgy, the lex orandi, from before the Council and from before Paul VI, not only still exists, but it was recognized by the successors of Paul VI as legitimate, next to the one which had supplanted it. The rejection of the new liturgy thus co-exists with the new liturgy, as well as the rejection of the Council co-exists with the Council, as a sort of “deposition theory” à la carte.

1. Paris, Mare & Martin, 2016.

2. N° 90, 2014, pp. 112-134.

3. Éditions Courrier de Rome, 2014.

4. Le Drapeau blanc, Fleurance, 2016.

5. Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2019.

6. French translation in Diffusion de la Pensée Française, Chiré-en-Montreuil, 1975. English translation available on the internet, in pdf format.