Can the Church Depose an Heretical Pope? No and No.

Can the Church Depose an Heretical Pope? No and No.

A Pope cannot be heretical, and so a Pope cannot be deposed.

This article is a refutation of an article: Can the Church Depose an Heretical Pope? by Robert J. Siscoe [6]

The article begins with two quotes. One quote is from John of St. Thomas, a Dominican friar, not a priest and not himself a Saint. The other quote is from Robert J. Siscoe, the author of the article. He quotes himself, prominently, in his own article.

Then, above those two quotes is a picture of Pope Vigilius, who approved of the Second Council of Constantinople. That Ecumenical Council is valid because it received his approval as Roman Pontiff. Yet the image of the Pope has this text below it: “Excommunicated by the Second Council of Constantinople, 553”. That is a patently false claim. Pope Vigilius along with the emperor Justinian summoned the Council. Here is what the Council says about Vigilius:

Constantinople II: “The most religious Vigilius happened to be present in this imperial city and took part in all the criticisms against the three chapters. He had frequently condemned them by word of mouth and in his writings. Later he gave a written agreement to take part in our council and to study with us the three chapters so that we could all issue an appropriate definition of the true faith. The most pious emperor, prompted by what was acceptable to us, encouraged a meeting between Vigilius and ourselves because it is proper that the priesthood should impose a common conclusion to matters of common concern. Consequently we asked his reverence to carry out his written undertakings. It did not seem right that the scandal over these three chapters should continue and that the church of God should be further disturbed. In order to persuade him, we reminded him of the great example left us by the apostles and of the traditions of the fathers.”

“Vigilius was frequently invited by us all, and most distinguished judges were sent to him by the most pious emperor. Eventually he promised to give judgment personally on the three chapters.”

The Council has nothing bad to say about Pope Vigilius, other than hinting that they wished he was there in person. There was no excommunication of Vigilius by Constantinople II, an Ecumenical Council he called and which he later approved. Did the author of the article, Robert J. Siscoe, place that image of Vigilius at the head of the article, with the false statement below it? Or did Remnant Newspaper add that line? Vigilius is not mentioned in the body of the article, so I have to wonder.

The introduction to the article makes this statement:

“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.”

The above statement is a good summary of the article’s principle errors. One error is that the article relies on theologians and canonists, ignoring the teachings of Popes and Councils on the same subject. Infallible teachings of the Magisterium are ignored, and the faulty opinions of theologians, contradicting magisterial teachings, are the basis for the article and its faulty conclusions. Then the claim that the author has navigated through many possible errors is the opposite of the truth; the author has fallen into error at every turn. And the heresy of Conciliarism is certainly implied by the article, since the proposal is that only an Ecumenical Council, one without a Pope as its head, could judge and depose a Pope. Then the claim that it is really the Church that is judging and deposing the Pope is absurd. Without the Pope, the body of Bishops lack the authority to do anything. Then Vatican I prohibited appealing to an Ecumenical Council against a Pope. So how can “the Church” be judging and deposing the Pope, when the body of Bishops and the Pope are lacking from “the Church” that judges and deposes?

Can a Pope fall into Heresy?

To settle this important question, Siscoe quotes Fr. Paul Laymann, S. J. (d. 1635), a theologian. That quote has no relevance at all. There are magisterial teachings from Popes and Councils on this point, so the opinion of a priest from the 17th century has no bearing at all. It matters not at all that four hundred years ago, a priest said that Popes can fall into heresy and be deposed. The weight of this evidence is that of a tiny portion of a feather.

Next, St. Francis de Sales is quoted as saying: “Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII; or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was.” Thus, de Sales only accused John 22 of an error in opinion; he therefore exonerates John as a heretic. But Siscoe ignores this assertion by Saint Francis de Sales and later in the article accuses John of heresy. Then about Honorius, de Sales only says “perhaps” Honorius was a heretic. This is no basis for declaring to the whole world that Popes can fall into heresy and be deposed. The Saint only says perhaps Honorius was a heretic — yet the case against Honorius is the strongest against any Pope. It is strongest, comparatively, but the case is not strong. Many have defended Honorius, throughout the centuries. Thus, the quote from St. Francis de Sales does not help Siscoe’s case much. Then de Sales lived before the First Vatican Council, which decided that Popes cannot fail in faith, nor be judged by anyone, not even by an Ecumenical Council.

Robert Siscoe next makes the false claim that “Pope Adrian VI († 1523) went further by saying ‘it is beyond question’ that a Pope can err in matters of faith, and even ‘teach heresy’ “. Siscoe then gives the alleged papal quote, which ends with “In truth, many Roman pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was Pope John XXII….”

But the truth is that Pope Adrian wrote no such thing. The quote is from a book, attributed to theologian Adrianus Florentius, who later became Pope Adrian VI. The book is dated 1520, which makes it seem like he wrote it before becoming Pope. But as a matter of fact, Pope Adrian did NOT write this book at all, neither before nor during his Papacy.

That book, attributed to Adrianus Florentius, is a commentary on Book IV of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, “which was published without his [Adrianus’] knowledge from notes of students, and saw many editions.” So that means that Adrianus may have said something that his students misunderstood, or he might not have said anything at all like this. Students often misunderstand their teachers. The book was not written by him, nor by any particular student of his. He did not edit or approve of the book, and it is unknown which students’ notes were used. Then, as Pope, he said nothing remotely like that claimed quote. Such a source is so unreliable as to be absurd to use to try to establish that Popes can teach heresy.

Next, Siscoe discusses the opinion of Saint Robert Bellarmine, and he words the opinion in such a way as to undermine what the Saint teaches and so as to support the opposing view:

“While St. Bellarmine personally held to what he called the ‘pious opinion’ of Albert Pighius, namely, that a Pope could not fall into personal heresy, he conceded that ‘the common opinion is the contrary’.”

Why is pious opinion in quotes? Saint Robert Bellarmine said the opinion is pious. Also, Bellarmine’s view was not merely that a Pope could not fall into “personal heresy”. Instead, the Saint and Doctor of the Church stated the following:

Saint Robert Bellarmine: “The Pope is the Teacher and Shepherd of the whole Church, thus, the whole Church is so bound to hear and follow him that if he would err, the whole Church would err.” [1]

“Now our adversaries respond that the Church ought to hear him [the Roman Pontiff] so long as he teaches correctly, for God must be heard more than men. On the other hand, who will judge whether the Pope has taught rightly or not? For it is not for the sheep to judge whether the shepherd wanders off, not even and especially in those matters which are truly doubtful. Nor do Christian sheep have any greater judge or teacher to whom they might have recourse. As we showed above, from the whole Church one can appeal to the Pope; yet from him no one is able to appeal; therefore necessarily the whole Church will err, if the Pontiff would err.” [2]

Bellarmine, on Lk 22:32: “Therefore, the true exposition is that the Lord asked for two privileges for Peter…. The second privilege is that he, as the Pope, could never teach something against the faith, or that there would never be found one in his See who would teach against the true faith. From these privileges, we see that the first did not remain to his successors, but the second without a doubt did.” [3]

“A general Council represents the universal Church, and hence has the consensus of the universal Church; therefore, if the Church cannot err, neither can a legitimate and approved Ecumenical Council err.” [4]

“It must be held with Catholic faith that general Councils confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff can neither err in faith nor morals.” [5]

Popes cannot err because the whole Church is bound to follow their teachings, and the Church cannot fall into error. She is indefectible. Now indefectibility does not preclude less than grave errors in non-infallible teachings, and so Popes can err to a limited extent. But grave errors are excluded, as is clear from the many teachings of Popes, Saints, and Councils in this summary and in this set of quotes. And then Saint Bellarmine also believed that an Ecumenical Council could not err at all in any of its teachings on faith or morals, as long as the Council is approved by the Roman Pontiff.

But notice that Bellarmine does not hold merely that Popes could not fall into personal heresy, the Pope also “could never teach something against the faith” and could only err as much as the Church Herself might err (as we might rephrase it).

Then quote #2 from Bellarmine above absolutely rejects the idea that a Pope could be deposed. A Pope cannot teach heresy, and he cannot err gravely, or the Church would have erred gravely. Then there is no greater judge to whom we might appeal: “Nor do Christian sheep have any greater judge or teacher to whom they might have recourse. As we showed above, from the whole Church one can appeal to the Pope; yet from him no one is able to appeal; therefore necessarily the whole Church will err, if the Pontiff would err.”

But Siscoe does not present these quotes from Doctor of the Church, Saint Robert Bellarmine. Instead, he gives us a quote from a priest and theologian from the 1600’s, a quote from himself, a false quote from “Pope Adrian” and a quote from St. Francis de Sales that doesn’t really support Siscoe’s view. What kind of argument is this?

Siscoe then continues to undermine his own argument. He references an article stating that Pastor Aeternus from Vatican I is to be understood as teaching that no Pope can fall into personal heresy (because no Pope can fail in faith). He then dismisses the argument as “novel”. But there are many quotes from the Magisterium and the Saints teaching this same truth, that Peter and his successors each have the charism of never-failing faith. This is based on the prayer of Jesus stated in Luke 22:32. And as Siscoe already stated, Saint Robert Bellarmine holds that same view. So it is not novel. When Pastor Aeternus is read in the light of past magisterial teachings, many of which assert the never-failing faith of the Pope, it is clear that the meaning is that Popes cannot fail in faith by heresy, which is certainly a failure of faith.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Canon law both define heresy as follows: “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith.” The teaching of Pastor Aeternus on this point says the following:

“This charism of truth and never failing faith was therefore divinely-conferred on Peter and his successors in this See….” [Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 7]

The charism is of truth, which implies that Popes cannot teach material heresy, nor any grave errors, as this is gravely contrary to truth; and the charism is at the same time of faith, which implies that the Popes cannot commit formal heresy, nor any other grave failures of faith, such as apostasy or idolatry. And notice that, in the definition of heresy, that sin is opposed to “truth” and to “faith”. For the divinely-revealed truths, taught by the Church definitively, require the full assent of faith. Thus one charism protects the Roman Pontiff from every kind of heresy and from related sins and errors against truth and against faith.

Siscoe then goes on to try to use the Relatio of Bishop Gasser to claim that this charism of truth and of never-failing faith does not protect the Roman Pontiff from personal or public heresy. What does this charism mean, then, Mr. Siscoe? We never find out from the article because Siscoe does not even quote the infallible teaching of the First Vatican Council on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff. He does not tell his readers what the Council taught. Instead, he substitutes his own misunderstanding of what Bishop Gasser said. But the Council’s teaching is infallible, and the explanation of Bishop Gasser, as useful as it is, nevertheless is not a document of the Council and so is not an infallible teaching of the Council.

Here it is important to avoid a common error in interpreting the teachings of Popes and Councils, the error whereby a document of lesser or no authority is relied upon so heavily that it seems to nullify or change a teaching of the Church which has greater authority. When a Pope or Council teaches infallibly, the meaning is that stated in the teaching, and not a different meaning that is imposed on the teaching by radical reinterpretation. Vatican I taught: “this charism of truth and never-failing faith” is given to each Pope. The claim that heresy is not a failing in faith, when the very definition of heresy says otherwise, is patently false. Whoever has a charism of both truth and faith certainly cannot teach or believe an idea so thoroughly contrary to revealed truth and articles of faith that it is condemned as an heretical idea. A gift of truth and of never-failing faith precludes any type of heresy.

And then what Bishop Gasser (of Brixen, Austria) said, in his explanation to the Council fathers on the idea they were about to raise “to the dignity of a dogma”, absolutely supports the understanding that Popes cannot teach or commit heresy. So Siscoe misrepresents what Gasser said.

Bishop Gasser says that the deputation (sent to the Council from Pius IX) is “unjustly accused of wanting to raise an extreme opinion, viz., that of Albert Pighius, to the dignity of a dogma”. Then he goes on to explain that this opinion is not extreme, but is the opinion of Saint and Doctor of the Church Robert Bellarmine. So Gasser is not rejecting the idea that Popes can never fall into heresy or teach heresy as extreme, but rather was rejecting the accusation that such a pious opinion should be called extreme at all.

Here’s the full quote from the Relatio of Vatican I, which makes this point clear:

Gasser: “As far as the doctrine set forth in the Draft goes, the Deputation is unjustly accused of wanting to raise an extreme opinion, viz., that of Albert Pighius, to the dignity of a dogma. For the opinion of Albert Pighius, which Bellarmine indeed calls pious and probable, was that the Pope, as an individual person or a private teacher, was able to err from a type of ignorance but was never able to fall into heresy or teach heresy. To say nothing of the other points, let me say that this is clear from the very words of Bellarmine, both in the citation made by the reverend speaker and also from Bellarmine himself who, in book 4, chapter VI, pronounces on the opinion of Pighius in the following words: ‘It can be believed probably and piously that the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith.” From this, it appears that the doctrine in the proposed chapter is not that of Albert Pighius or the extreme opinion of any school, but rather that it is one and the same which Bellarmine teaches in the place cited by the reverend speaker and which Bellarmine adduces in the fourth place and calls most certain and assured, or rather, correcting himself, the most common and certain opinion.’ ”

So “the doctrine in the proposed chapter” (Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 7, on the charism of truth and never-failing faith) is not an extreme opinion, but the opinion of Bellarmine from book 4, chapter VI. Let’s look at that text from Bellarmine, in its entirety:

CHAPTER VI: On the Pope as a Particular Person THE FOURTH proposition.

It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith. It is proved:

1) because it seems to require the sweet disposition of the providence of God.

For the Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,” that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne. How, I ask, will a heretical Pope confirm the brethren in faith and always preach the true faith? Certainly God can wrench the confession of the true faith out of the heart of a heretic just as he placed the words in the mouth of Balaam’s ass. Still, this will be a great violence, and not in keeping with the providence of God that sweetly disposes all things.

2) It is proved ab eventu. For to this point no [Pontiff] has been a heretic, or certainly it cannot be proven that any of them were heretics; therefore it is a sign that such a thing cannot be.

[Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 171). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

When Bishop Gasser defended the proposed doctrine in Pastor Aeternus chapter 4, n. 7 on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff, he stated that it is the same teaching found in Book 4, Chapter VI of Bellarmine, quoted in full above. And clearly, the doctrine is that Popes cannot preach heresy and cannot fail in faith by personal heresy.

So Robert Siscoe misrepresents what Bishop Gasser says in his Relatio, and Siscoe also declines to tell his readers what the First Vatican Council taught, that very doctrine Gasser was defending, the charism of truth and of never-failing faith.

Siscoe then resumes undermining his own position by quoting Msgr. van Noort, who says: “some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy.” This quote seems to support Siscoe’s position. Some theologians, called competent by Msgr. van Noort, believed as Siscoe believes. But the full quote tells another story:

van Noort: “Theologians disagree, however, over the question of whether the pope can become a formal heretic by stubbornly clinging to an error in a matter already defined. The more probable and respectful opinion, followed by Suárez, Bellarmine and many others, holds that just as God has not till this day ever permitted such a thing to happen, so too he never will permit a pope to become a formal and public heretic. Still, some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy.” [Van Noort’s 1957 Dogmatic Theology]

Wow. Siscoe left out the part of the quote that undermines his position. Van Noort says “The more probable and respectful opinion” is the one that I hold, which opposes the opinion of Siscoe. And he fails to tell his readers that truth about the Van Noort quote, just as he fails to tell his readers what Vatican I actually taught. But “some competent theologians” disagree. Right, but there are always some theologians who disagree with the “more probably and respectful opinion”. And then there are dozens of quotes from Saints and Popes supporting the view that a Pope cannot err gravely in doctrine or discipline, and cannot fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry: here and here. The Pope can err in ways that are less than grave; but all grave errors are precluded as the Apostolic See is always unblemished, as Vatican I also taught.

So, after Vatican I, there were some competent theologians who believed that the Pope, when not speaking infallibly, could fall into heresy. Siscoe tries to make this assertion support his position. But there are always some theologians who disagree. Some theologians even today do not accept Vatican I or Vatican II. But the authority of Popes and Councils is greater. So all we have in this point from Siscoe is that some theologians continued, after Vatican I, to reject the “more probable and respectful opinion”.

But I will add here that Van Noort errs by calling this position an opinion. By the time of Vatican I, considering the many teachings of Popes, the Sixth Ecumenical Council in its acceptance of the Letter of Pope Saint Agatho, and the teaching of Vatican I (which Gasser says was raised to the dignity of a dogma), we must hold that this position is dogma, not opinion. Popes and Councils have a higher authority than any theologian. Thus, no Pope can fail in faith by heresy, and that position is now dogmatic.

Next, Siscoe states a grave error on Papal Infallibility, claiming that it is only a negative charism, which does nothing but prevent him from teaching error. That is a serious error. Papal Infallibility is a dogma, and Siscoe’s error gravely contradicts that dogma, depriving it of most of its power and effectiveness. The exercise of Papal Infallibility, according to the definition, gives the Roman Pontiff that “divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter” which is “infallibility…in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” This assistance is full, not bare — just like all the gifts Christ gives to His Church. It is one of the charisms that makes Peter the Rock on which the Church is founded. (Another such charism is that of truth and never-failing faith.) To reduce this divine assistance, when defining revealed truth, to the mere exclusion of error contradicts the definition itself, which promises “divine assistance” in the very exercise of defining a doctrine. Nothing in the definition limits this assistance to only preventing error.

Moreover, the divine assistance given to Ecumenical Councils and the ordinary universal Magisterium is similarly an infallibility of the Magisterium. Where do these truths come from, for these three types of infallible teachings, if the only divine assistance is in preventing error? Infants never err at all on faith or morals. But they cannot teach truth. Must the Church rely for Her most important and most certain divinely-revealed truths solely on the understanding of fallen sinners, with no help except a negative charism? Why would the Lord Jesus, in fulfilling this promise to Peter, only exclude error and offer no help at all in understanding and defining these doctrines on faith and morals? The idea is patently absurd, and shows a lack of faith in the assistance of Christ to the Magisterium of His Church.

And what Vatican II states about this infallibility confirms that it is not merely a negative charism:

Lumen Gentium 25: “And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.”

First of all, these infallible definitions “are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” This teaching directly refutes the error of Robert Siscoe that Papal Infallibility is merely a negative charism that prevents error. The definitions have the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Then this charism is said to be “individually present” in the Roman Pontiff, and to also reside in the body of Bishops. The gift of the Holy Spirit to teach truth can reside in individual Popes and in the Bishops as a body, but it is hard to see how a mere negative charism could be said to reside or be present in someone. Indeed, it is difficult to see how a charism can be nothing but a negative, an exclusion. The Lord Jesus is Truth. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. And yet the gift to the Church which resides in the Roman Pontiff is merely an exclusion of error, not also and mainly to assist in teaching doctrines of faith and morals? This type of reduction of the gifts of Jesus to His Church is harmful to the Faith. Certainly, what is infallible cannot err at all. But the way that this teaching becomes error free is by the assistance of the Holy Spirit positively to understand and teach truth to the Church.

Now it is assumed by many persons that when the Pope is not teaching infallibly, he can err to any extent. But that is a false assumption. The teaching that the Apostolic See is unblemished, unsullied, spotless, etc. cannot exclude all error in what is non-infallible, but it certainly excludes all grave error. And this implies that the Pope cannot err gravely in doctrine or discipline, even when his teaching or judgment is non-infallible. So the charism of truth and of never-failing faith does not only apply when the Pope is exercising infallibility.

Now the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff, and the freedom from grave error of the Apostolic See is well-established in magisterial teaching. See the proof of these teachings in this summary and in this set of quotes.

Therefore, from all of the above, no Pope can teach or commit heresy. And neither can a Roman Pontiff err gravely in doctrine or discipline, nor fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry or the like. This removes every possible justification for deposing a Pope.

Deposing a Pope

Robert Siscoe, having incorrectly concluded that a Pope can teach or commit heresy, then goes on to try to show that a Pope can be deposed. Again, he ignores the teachings of Popes, Saints, and Councils, summarized in my articles above. Instead, he cites theologians and canonists. And it doesn’t matter if these persons were good theologians and canonists. Their views are simply not to be held in opposition to the teachings of Popes and Councils. The never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff was not only taught by Vatican I, it was taught by many Popes and Saints. This teaching that Popes cannot fail in faith excludes heresy and therefore excludes papal deposition. And we cannot expect even the best theologian or holiest Saint to anticipate and adhere to future teachings of the Church. So the citing of theologians or even Saints, when they are contradicting the future teaching of Vatican I, does not prevail. The Magisterium is above the opinions of Saints and theologians. Why cite the opinion of Saint Robert Bellarmine then? Because the First Vatican Council dogmatized his opinion. Why cite other Saints in the links above? Their opinions agree with the ordinary universal Magisterium on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff and the unblemished Apostolic See. But to quote a Saint in opposition to a later definitive teaching of the Magisterium is never valid.

Siscoe: “John of St. Thomas, Suarez, Cajetan, and others all teach that a general council alone would be the competent authority to oversee the matter of an heretical Pope.”

To support this claim, Siscoe cites the Council of Sinuesso, which supposedly considered the alleged idolatry and apostasy of Pope Marcellinus. Then he tells us a fairy tale about the events of that Council. Here is Siscoe’s claim:

a council was called, and the Pope, through shame, deposed himself. But this tragic story had a happy ending. For the bishops were so edified by his public repentance that they re-elected him to the Papacy. Pope Marcellinius went on to die as a martyr for the Faith and is now a canonized saint. Here we see the good fruit that followed such a council.

“Story” is right. Wow. What a tall tale! A Pope who is a Saint and who died a martyr, supposedly committed apostasy, abandoning the Christian Faith entirely, to adhere to a pagan religion instead, and then offered incense to idols! But he is Pope Saint and a martyr. Then a Council, not Ecumenical, was called and the Pope supposedly repented through “shame” and “deposed himself” and then, LOL, the Bishops of the Council re-elected him as Pope again, despite his alleged apostasy and idolatry, and he promptly went off to die as a martyr for the faith by refusing to commit apostasy and idolatry. This set of claims is deserving of ridicule.

For the set of claims is patently ridiculous and also heretical. First, it is a dogma of the First Vatican Council that every Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith. Since apostasy and idolatry are failings of faith, a valid Pope cannot possibly fail in faith by apostasy and idolatry. It is therefore a dogmatic fact that Pope Saint Marcellinus is innocent of these claims. Thus, he did not depose himself out of shame for these sins which we are obligated under pain of heresy to believe that he did not commit. And it is absurd to claim that a Council would reelect a resigned Roman Pontiff, after he was supposedly guilty of apostasy and idolatry. As a counter-factual hypothetical, if a Pope did commit such sins, he would not be reelected as Pope. Then Councils, especially those that are not Ecumenical, cannot elect or reelect a Pope anyway. Furthermore, this Council of Sinuesso did not exist at all.

The Wikipedia article titled Pseudo-Council of Sinuessa explains:

It is generally accepted[1][2][3] that the gathering never took place and that the purported council documents were forged for political purposes in the 6th century during the schism between Symmachus and Laurentius, who both claimed the Holy See. The collection of forgeries, including the Council of Sinuessa, is collectively known as the Symmachian forgeries.

The Wikipedia article cites the Catholic Encyclopedia in support of this assertion: “The spuriousness of those acts is almost certain”. So the argument of Robert Siscoe, based on the Pseudo-Council of Sinuessa, is false.

Siscoe also cites the Council of Constance, an actual real historical Council. However, the Council only deposed antipopes John 23 and Benedict 13, not the true Pope, Gregory 12, who resigned. Before Pope Gregory XII was elected by the Cardinals, he and all the other Cardinals had vowed, no matter which one of them would be elected, to obtain the resignation or removal of the antipopes, and then to resign himself, despite being the true Pope, so as to remove any confusion about who the valid Pope would be. So the solution to having multiple Antipopes was for the true Pope to obtain their resignation or removal, and then voluntarily resign, not be deposed. Why not just have the Council of Constance carry out the plan of the Cardinals and remove all the claimants to the papacy, regardless of whether one was the true Pope? because Councils cannot depose Popes.

Now the Council of Constance, in session 5, taught conciliarism in the document Haec Sancta, but this teaching was never approved by any Roman Pontiff. Then the heresy of Conciliarism was rejected by the Councils of Lateran V and Vatican I.

Lateran V: “For it is clearly established that only the contemporary Roman pontiff, as holding authority over all councils, has the full right and power to summon, transfer and dissolve councils. This we know not only from the witness of holy scripture, the statements of holy fathers and our predecessors as Roman pontiffs, and the decisions of the sacred canons, but also from the declarations of the same councils.”

Since the Roman Pontiff, in the infallible teaching of Lateran V, is the only one who can summon, transfer, and dissolve Councils, no Ecumenical Council can be summoned by persons who accuse the Roman Pontiff of heresy, for the purpose of deposing him. Otherwise, the Pope could immediately dissolve said “Ecumenical Council”, depriving it of all power — power which it falsely claimed to have from the beginning. That dogma, along with many other dogmas discussed in this article, opposes the opinions of theologians and canonists used by Siscoe to claim Popes can be heretics and be deposed by an Ecumenical Council (an imperfect Council, one opposed to the Pope, something that cannot be valid).

It is useless for Siscoe to cite Constance, as it only deposed two antipopes, not any true Pope. Instead, the example of Constance supports the idea that Ecumenical Councils may not depose true Popes. For Pope Gregory XII, the true Pope, resigned of his own free will, in accord with a vow that he and the other Cardinals took before the conclave that made him Pope. Why didn’t Constance simply depose him along with the others? They could not, as he was the true Pope.

And now we come to the dogma that the Roman Pontiff is judged by no one, and that no one may appeal from the judgments of the Roman Pontiff to an Ecumenical Council as if to a higher authority. These dogmas are of the ordinary universal Magisterium, as well as Vatican I. See the two articles linked above for many references teaching that the First See is judged by no one. The First Vatican Council taught as follows:

Vatican I: “Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.” [Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3, n. 8]

Siscoe’s position that a Pope may be deposed by an imperfect Ecumenical Council, that is, by an Ecumenical Council that is opposed to the Pope, is contrary to multiple dogmas. It is contrary to the dogma of the charism of truth and of never-failing faith; the Pope cannot have committed any offense worthy of removal from office. It is contrary to the dogma that the Pope is the Supreme Judge of all the faithful; whoever would judge the Pope is acting as if they were not under his judgment, but as if he were instead under their judgment. Then Vatican I teaches that it is not lawful to appeal to an Ecumenical Council from the judgments of the Roman Pontiff, and that such a Council is not an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff. Finally, Lateran V teaches that a Pope alone can summon, transfer, and dissolve an Ecumenical Council.

Vatican I condemns appealing to an Ecumenical Council against a judgment of the Roman Pontiff. So if the Pope teaches something considered by some to be heresy, they may not appeal that teaching from the Pope to an Ecumenical Council. And while Siscoe tries to avoid the heresy of Conciliarism, he cannot help but fall into that error. When an Ecumenical Council is said to be able to judge a Pope — despite the dogmas that the First See is judged by no one and that the Roman Pontiff is the Supreme Judge of all the faithful — and is said to be able to remove the Pope, such a Council is clearly taking a role and authority above the Roman Pontiff. That is the heresy of conciliarism. It also includes the denial of the other dogmas stated above.

And there is no sense in saying that it is really “the Church” that judges, as this “Church that judges” is opposed to the Roman Pontiff, and cannot include an Ecumenical Council or the body of Bishops considered in any other way, as both an Ecumenical Council and the body of Bishops are unable to exercise authority over the Pope.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 22: “But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church, and made him shepherd of the whole flock”

Vatican II says that the body of Bishops has “no authority” without the Roman Pontiff as its head. So a group of Bishops cannot gather and depose a Pope. Without the head of the Apostolic Body, the Pope, they have no power. The power of the Bishops can only be exercised “with its head the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head.” The consent of the Roman Pontiff is required.

So if one tries to say that it is “the Church” that judges and deposes, this Church is acting without its head, the Roman Pontiff and without the Bishops, who have no authority without the consent of the Roman Pontiff. So what is left of “the Church” to judge and depose? If the entire body of Bishops cannot judge or depose the Roman Pontiff, then no one can. And the Church is Apostolic. Any group of Catholics, considered without the successors of the Apostles, is not the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Siscoe tries to avoid the above described problem by saying this: “While the Church does not possess the authority to judge a Pope, it does possess the competency and the right to judge whether or not a proposition professed by a Pope is materially heretical. This is an objective judgment, and therefore makes no difference if the proposition was professed by a pope or a non-pope.”

If a group of Bishops decides that a Pope has taught or committed heresy, and then decides to depose him, that is the judgment of authority. And if these Bishops merely decided that a particular idea is heresy, that does not imply that the Pope taught or committed said error. A subsequent and substantially different judgment is needed to determine if a Pope taught or obstinately held such a material heresy. And without that subsequent judgment, the Pope would not be removed. So the argument that they merely judge a proposition to be material heresy fails. They need to prove that a Pope actually professed that error, which is not so simple. The words of the Pope are subject to interpretation. An opponent of the Pope will give an interpretation that accuses him, while a supporter of the Pope will give an interpretation that exonerates him.

And there is another problem, “the Church” as proposed by Siscoe, lacks the participation of the Roman Pontiff in this determination of material heresy. And we know that Ecumenical Councils have erred by heresy, except that the Roman Pontiff did not approve of that error. Conciliarism of Constance and Basil was not approved. Canon 28 was not approved in the Council of Chalcedon. And Pope Saint Leo II did not approve of the condemnation of Pope Honorius for heresy; he changed the charge to that of negligence, as his three letters approving of the rest of the Council’s acts clearly state three times. (This reminds me of the three statements by Pilate, in the face of false accusations against Jesus, “I find no case against him.” Jn 18:38.)

So without the Roman Pontiff to confirm a determination as to what is and is not heresy, the persons whom Siscoe claims are “the Church” lack their head. And without the Roman Pontiff, this collection of Bishops can err by heresy. They absolutely can mistakenly think that a Pope has taught heresy. Then we have the dogma that the Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, preventing him from teaching or committing heresy. And so this is not a simply objective judgment, and not a judgment that anyone has the authority to make, and not a judgment that can possibly be true. Peter and his successors are given a never-failing faith, and so they cannot fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry.

Siscoe says otherwise, but it does make a difference whether a proposition was professed by a Pope or a non-Pope. If the latter, the Pope can join with the Bishops to condemn the heresy infallibly. If the former, infallibility cannot be exercised by the body of Bishops apart from the Pope, and they have no authority without his consent.

In addition, this continual use of the phrase “the Church” as the body which judges and deposes the Pope is a subterfuge. The phrase refers to a gathering of Bishops in an imperfect Council, and without their head, the Roman Pontiff, so they are not exercising any Church authority, and they do not represent the Church in any action to judge or possibly depose the Roman Pontiff. It is also highly unlikely that a group of Bishops large enough to credibly claim to be an Ecumenical Council could even be gathered in opposition to the Roman Pontiff. That is not how Bishops behave, by the grace of God.

As for Siscoe’s references to Canon Law, the Roman Pontiff is above all things in the law of the Church that are changeable or dispensable. Some canons are simply direct assertions of teachings on faith or morals. So the Pope is not above those Canons; but they are also not per se of the law. Whatever is per se of the law of the Church, and not of divine law or teachings on faith or morals, can be ignored, dispensed, or nullified by the Pope.

Bellarmine Again

Siscoe returns to use Bellarmine to support his position. But Bellarmine clearly believed, quite strongly, that no Pope could teach or commit heresy. He only considers what would happen otherwise as not everyone agreed with his opinion on that point. And when the First Vatican Council dogmatized his opinion that Popes cannot teach or commit heresy, his views on deposition became null and void. Once the Church has infallibly decided a question, we may not use the position of Saints who lived prior to that infallible decision to reject the dogma.

Siscoe cites persons who lived prior to Vatican I, as saying that a Pope can be judged or can be judged specifically by a Council. Those opinions are null and void, as Vatican I prohibits appealing to an Ecumenical Council against a Roman Pontiff, and because Vatican II says that the body of Bishops have no authority without their head, the Pope, nor without his consent.

Response of the Pope

In all these deposing the Pope scenarios, the Roman Pontiff is portrayed as doing nothing, and as accepting the decision of this body of Bishops. That is unlikely. Popes have supreme power in the Church. The Pope could excommunicate and laicize any Bishops who oppose him in such an action. He could remove from the Cardinalate any Cardinals who participate. The Pope could use Papal Infallibility to define his alleged heresy as dogma, requiring the Bishops who oppose him to believe what they have claimed to be heresy. The Pope could ignore any decisions made by such a body of Bishops, and continue to rule over the Church.

The Pope could also issue a judgment against an imperfect Council gathered to accuse him of heresy and to depose him, just as the Pope, at Lateran V, issued judgment against the quasi-council of Pisa:

“We condemn and reject the aforesaid quasi-council and its transfer, and each and every thing done by it, and also those taking part in it or giving support, approval or consent, directly or indirectly, to whatever extent and in whatever manner, from the day of the summoning of the quasi-council until the present day….”

In such a condemnation, everyone involved is condemned and subject to possible excommunication or even laicization. Cardinals can be removed from the Cardinalate; Bishops can be deprived of jurisdiction and all authority, as well as being laicized. It is foolish to assume that a Pope would remain silent and inactive in the fact of such a threat to his authority as the Vicar of Christ.


Siscoe’s conclusion says this: “In light of what the theologians and canonists have taught throughout the centuries, it is clear that the Church does possess a remedy by which she can rid herself of an heretical Pope.” To the contrary, it is clear from the teachings of Popes and Councils that no Pope can teach or commit heresy, no Pope can err gravely in doctrine or discipline, and no Pope can fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. Then it is also clear that the Roman Pontiff is judged by no one, that one cannot appeal from a decision on doctrine or discipline by the Pope to an Ecumenical Council, and that the body of Bishops has no authority without the participation and consent of their head, the Roman Pontiff. Thus, both papal heresy and papal deposition are impossible.

This idea of a gathering of Bishops that removes a Pope for teaching heresy — that is, for teaching a truth that is claimed to be heresy by the ignorant or the weak in faith — is nothing but the idle fantasy of those faithless souls who refuse to accept that the Roman Pontiff has the authority to determine what they must believe. They wish to decide that for themselves. They do not want the Roman Pontiff to rule over them.

There has never been a valid Pope deposed by an imperfect Council. Multiple clear dogmas make such an action by any group of Bishops nothing by the schismatic acts of heretics. So if you find yourself opposed to what the Roman Pontiff teaches, pray for the faith to accept it. There is no way to judge and depose the Supreme Pontiff. That’s why we call him Supreme. Forward in Faith.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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