His Excellency weighs in on the question of the true Pope.
By His Excellency Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of St Mary in Astana
St. Robert Bellarmine’s opinion is that “a pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church” (De Romano Pontifice, II, 30). The opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine and other similar opinions on the loss of the papal office for heresy are based on the spurious decree of Gratian in the Corpus Iuris Canonici. Such an opinion has never been approved explicitly by the Magisterium or supported by an explicit teaching about its doctrinal validity by the Roman Pontiffs during a considerable period of time. In fact, this matter has not been decided by the Church’s Magisterium and does not constitute a definitive doctrine pertaining to the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium. This opinion is supported only by theologians, and not even by all the Fathers of the Church from antiquity. This opinion was not taught unanimously and universally by the bishops and the popes in their constant Magisterium. Neither Gratian nor St. Robert Bellarmine, nor St. Alphonsus, nor other renowned theologians asserted with their opinions a doctrine of the Magisterium of the Church. Even some interventions of individual Fathers of the First Vatican Council, which seem to support the opinion of the automatic loss of the papacy for heresy, remain their personal opinion, but not a formal teaching of the First Vatican Council. And even if some few popes seemed to support such an opinion (as e.g. Innocent III or Paul IV), this does not constitute a proof for the constant teaching of the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium. One also cannot cite Pope Gregory XVI to support the opinion of the automatic loss of the papal office for heresy. For he supported this thesis in his book The Triumph of the Holy See and the Church Against the Attacks of the Innovators before he became pope, hence not in his papal Magisterium.
The automatic loss of the papal office by a heretical pope touches not only on the practical or juridical aspects of the life of the Church, but also on the Church’s doctrine — in this case, on ecclesiology. In such a delicate matter, one cannot follow an opinion, even if it has been supported by renowned theologians (such as St. Robert Bellarmine or St. Alphonsus) for a considerable period of time. Instead, one must wait for an explicit and formal decision by the Magisterium of the Church — a decision which the Magisterium has not yet issued.
On the contrary, the Magisterium of the Church, since Popes Pius X and Benedict XV, has seemed to reject such an opinion, as the formulation of the spurious decree of Gratian was eliminated in the Code of Canon Law 1917. The canons that address the automatic loss of an ecclesiastical office for heresy in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (canon 188 §4) and in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 194 §2) are not applicable to the pope, because the Church deliberately eliminated from the Code of Canon Law the following formulation taken from the previous Corpus Iuris Canonici: “unless the pope is caught deviating from the faith (nisi deprehendatur a fide devius).” By this act, the Church manifested her understanding, the mens ecclesiae, regarding this crucial issue. Even if one does not agree with this conclusion, the matter remains at least doubtful. In doubtful matters, however, one cannot proceed to concrete acts with fundamental implications for the life of the Church, such as, e.g., not to name an allegedly heretical or an allegedly invalidly elected pope in the Canon of the Mas or preparing for a new papal election.
Even if one supports the opinion of the automatic loss of the papal office for heresy, in the case of Pope Francis, the College of Cardinals or of a representative group of bishops has not issued a declaration regarding the automatic loss of papal office, specifying the concrete heretical pronouncements and the date when they happened.
According to the opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine, a single bishop, priest, or lay faithful cannot state the fact of the loss of papal office for heresy. Consequently, even if a single bishop or priest is convinced that Pope Francis has committed the crime of heresy, he has no authority to eliminate his name from the Canon of the Mass.