Trying the Pope for Heresy, or, ‘Mr Bergoglio, tear down these walls!’

Here’s the burning question that students of Reformation History might particularly enjoy. What do you do when the Pope is a heretic? If you were part of the Roman Catholic Church, that is, what would you do? Can you correct Papa? Can you make him stand trial and excommunicate him?

It sounds like I’m about to embark on some Reformation nostalgia. However, this is a live question. In the year in which we mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, its déjà vu. Sixty-two Roman Catholics have written a letter—a ‘correction from sons’, with associated website—accusing Pope Francis of propagating heresy. Correctio Filialis de haeresibus propagatis. http://www.correctiofilialis.org. This isn’t the first strongly worded feedback Francis has received, either. The complaints are accumulating.

OK Protestants, no sniggering down the back there. No snide remarks. Let me say right from the outset that I am only but thankful for the moral voice of the RCC. They have the courage to stand up for the rights of children: children’s right to life; children’s right to parents wherever possible. And let me also say that I quite like Thomas Aquinas. I am in regular contact with him. I have been influenced by him. My Presbytery can come after me later, but how else could it be, given that Aquinas is himself so in contact with Augustine?

Is Francis a heretic?

But what to do with a heretic Pope? First, is Pope Francis a heretic? This is preaching to the choir. My denomination still holds that the Pope is ‘that Antichrist’ (WCF 25.6). I haven’t noticed Francis affirming the Reformation solas. He leads millions into error. #NotMyPope. However, the letter’s concern is with the Pope’s views of marriage, the sacraments and the like. They have valid grounds for their complaints. It’s a little bit like trying Al Capone for tax evasion, but actually, these are serious issues too.

Even by Roman Catholic standards, I’ve never really got this Pope, with his Marxism, environmentalism and populism. Perhaps the Russians influenced his election (are they still Marxists?). Or Green Peace. The previous Pope made sense. He was Roman Catholic. I could read the Council of Trent, and read Ratzinger, and see the continuity. He was wrong, but he was identifiably Roman Catholic.

At the Reformation, as Protestants split into smaller and smaller subgroups, the Roman Church pointed the finger and said, ‘We told you so’. Division was proof of error. The Reformers retorted that the RCC has always been rife with division and contradiction, Popes and councils have frequently disagreed with each other, and the flaunted consistency of the RCC is just an illusion. Now, we can say, ‘We told you so’. You can’t have a succession of Popes that each arrogate to themselves the place of Christ upon Earth and expect everything to be sunshine and roses.

Can a Pope be disciplined?

So what can the RCC do about Francis the heretic? It’s an intriguing question. On what grounds can the RCC correct a Pope? On what theological basis can you take on Christ’s supposed representative on Earth?

Here are the grounds upon which the filial correctors are taking their stand. The writers say they are ‘moved by fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ, by love for the Church and for the papacy, and by filial devotion toward’ Papa. They then justify themselves with the following points. ‘We are permitted to issue this correction by natural law, by the law of Christ, and by the law of the Church’.

  1. Natural law

Subjects only have to obey their superiors ‘in all lawful things’. Thus, inferiors can insist ‘their superiors so govern’. In other words, the governed have the right to be governed in the way that they think they ought to be governed. I broadly agree, too. But it doesn’t fit with the RCC. This is the death of absolute hierarchy, whether monarchy and papacy (both of which belong to Francis).

I wouldn’t put it in terms of ‘natural law’, which is a complicated concept that muddies the waters. Better to show immediately from Scripture what kind of obedience is owed to superiors. Better to state directly Who actually is in charge (God ruling through His Word). But all the same, well said. No leader has the right to rule contrary to God’s Law, no subject has to give unqualified obedience, no leader should claim the obedience that is owed to Christ alone, and no leader should be immune from being corrected. Well said, and just this one point should be enough to sweep away the blight that is the Papacy.

  1. Christ’s law

The letter writers point to Galatians 2. The apostle Paul rebuked Peter. Even Aquinas and Augustine agreed that this sets an example. The Reformers would concur! Our allegiance is to God’s truth above all.

The complainants may well want to say that this only gives them the right to point out error, as opposed to actually disciplining the Pope (though I would have thought that rebuke is discipline, and the letter writers themselves call it ‘correction’). Still, the claim to an authority independent of the Pope is Protestantesque (think priesthood of all believers).

It also has echoes of a pre-16th century movement in the Church that argued for the power of Church councils over the Pope (‘conciliarism’). The Council of Constance, 1415, said, ‘This holy synod of Constance…has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it’. Unfortunately, this didn’t stick in the RCC statute books, though. No Pope was going to let that stand. More on this in a moment.

  1. The Church’s law

Canon Law says that Christ’s faithful can ‘manifest…their views’ to their pastors (canon 312.3). Does that really mean they can accuse the Pope of heresy, though? Roman lawyers will need to sort this out, but it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s particularly a problem since Canon Law receives its authority ultimately from the Pope. In effect, ‘By Papal authority, we tell the Pope that he’s promulgating heresy.’ And an underlying problem: why do these subordinates think they have the ability to accurately interpret Scripture and tradition, that they would presume to lecture the Pope?

Any medieval Pope worth his salt would have known what to do with such insubordination. Think Boniface VIII, and Unam sanctum (1302). The Pope has the plenitudo potestatis—the plenitude of potency or power—and even secular rulers have to submit to him. That’s something that would be interesting to see—Francis going medieval on his accusers. Perhaps give them safe conduct to the Vatican… Read the rest of the history of the Council of Constance to complete that picture.

The reality

What can the letter writers do if Francis ignores their correction? The answer is clear, and they know it full well. There is nothing that they or anyone else in the RCC can do. The letter plainly acknowledges it. There is no way of coercing the Pope to change. The Pope is beyond Church discipline. They are but ‘subjects’, as they put it. They’ve had to be pretty creative just to find grounds to even write the letter without leaving themselves open to the charge of heresy. Early Protestants know this pain only too well. As the Australian expression rather offhandedly puts it, ‘Tell em they’re dreaming’.

The Pope ‘possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely’ (canon 331). He can exercise his power either collegially, or personally, so he can act independently of advice (canon 333.2). There might be room to discuss his off-hand media comments, but there is no recourse against his sentence and decree (canon 333.3).

To those who have a problem with the Pope, here is all you can do: cross yourself and your fingers and hope Francis recants, retires or dies. Perhaps in the future, the RCC should try appointing 90 year olds to the Papacy, so that they’re too tired to do anything and will die soon after anyway. It’s an office well overdue for neutering. For now, though, only God can bring Francis into line, meaning that death is the only sure solution.

Other options

Notwithstanding the above, let me dreamily suggest some other courses of action.

  1. Appeal to a council

A council of cardinals could be called to try the Pope. This isn’t what the correctional letter is calling for. However, the precedent some have cited for filial letters goes all the way back to the 14th century, with John XXII. He was an Avignon Pope (see below) with an unorthodox view of what happens to Christians when they die. Conciliarism—the power of councils—was one of the direct reactions against the corruption and error of Popes like John. William of Occam confronted John, heading in a conciliarist direction (but with hindsight, wisely chose to recalibrate his position). Conciliarism is based on various premises, including the ability of individuals to think for themselves, such as is evidenced by the letter writers. Go on, try it.

Oh, I just remembered. The power of councils over Popes has been tried, and failed. Just in case anyone thinks of trying it, it is actually a crime in the RCC to appeal from Pope to council, an ‘execrable…abuse’ (Execrabilis, 1459). Luther was explicitly condemned for it (in the famous Exsurge Domine, 1520). This is one of the reasons the Reformers were banging their heads against a brick wall. The RCC had only recently shored up the supremacy of the Pope, so there was no correcting him. There can be no ‘appeal from the pope to a future council’. The Papacy is final.

  1. Appoint an rival Pope

Get some cardinals to appoint a Pope Freddie and depose Pope Frankie. Dub Francis the anti-Pope, the non-Pope. This isn’t just my idea. There is a school of thought in the RCC that says that there’s been no real Pope since the 1950s (sedevacantism. Cf. True or False Pope: A Refutation of Sedevacantism and Other Modern Errors’, John Salza and Robert Siscoe, 2015). These sedevacantists are just wishing that someone would appoint a Freddie.

Since anti-Pope Francis obviously won’t want to vacate the Vatican Apartments, how about moving the Papal residence? Just picking a random place on the map, how about going to Avignon, getting towards the beach down there in Southern France?

Oh, I just remembered. Appointing rival Popes has been done before, and it wasn’t a good look for the RCC. This is Church History 101: the Avignon Captivity of the Church, followed by the Western Schism, with one stream of Popes living at Avignon and the other staying at Rome. The RCC even had three Popes for a while. The Schism was ‘solved’ in 1417 (there’s another anniversary that we could celebrated this year), but they never really sorted out the underlying problem of what to do when a Pope goes rogue. There can be argy bargy, a bit of letter writing, now even a website created, but there is no formal mechanism for fixing it.

The Reformers had an idea to solve this problem: don’t have a Pope at all. Christ rules through His Word.

  1. Did anyone call for a suspicious death in the Vatican?

I’m obviously not advocating this position, but there is a long list of murdered Popes, across the 9th to 14th centuries. It was standard operating procedure for a while. And then there was Pope John Paul I from the 1970s, if you buy into the conspiracy theories. But Francis would need to have ticked off the mafia for this, or the Freemasons. At this stage, he’s only ticked off pedantic Roman Catholics and what he calls the ‘stupid’ climate change deniers.

  1. Leave

In all seriousness, there is at the heart of the RCC an insurmountable problem. The current representative of Christ on Earth disagrees with previous representatives of Christ on Earth. Is Christ divided? This is an absurd situation, it has obviously always been a problem, and always will be. The single most definitional aspect of the Roman Catholic Church is an unworkable fraud. The Pope claims to be something that he is not. It’s hardly a surprise to see a litany of other theological abuses in the RCC: pride breeds error.

There’s no fixing this in the RCC system. This is the nature of the beast. Attempting to change it is but banging your head against a brick wall.

Summary of options

To summarise the options for correcting a Pope, first, remember that Christ’s teaching doesn’t apply to a Pope. One would have thought that Christ’s teaching was clear. ‘Tell him his fault…tell it to the Church’. There’s no indication that anyone is exempt from that. Peter was not immune to correction (as the letter writers point out). But Pope Francis is. Go figure. Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur. ‘The First See is judged by no one’ (canon 1404).

Secondly, if the Pope digs in, refuses to recant, and doesn’t drop dead, then you’re up the creek without a paddle. Actually, you’re the one at fault, not the Pope. In the good old days, for the temerity of taking on a Pope, you may well have found yourself on the wrong end of a heresy trial. The best thing that the current Pope could probably do is stay quiet or issue a few platitudes to hose things down, but that’s entirely his call.

Now, the tone of this mightn’t sound overly conciliatory, but this is very serious. There is the audacity of a man making himself above rebuke. That itself is outrageous. But this man claims to rule the Church. What an insult to Christ, the only King and Head of the Church. And what an unworkable tyranny imposed upon the people of God. I’m meant to unswervingly believe whatever the Church believes, but the Church can’t get its story straight.

Luther spoke of the three walls by which the RCC hierarchy protects itself from correction (Address to the Christian Nobility, 1520).

First, if pressed by the temporal power, they have affirmed and maintained that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over them, but, on the contrary, that the spiritual power is above the temporal.

Secondly, if it were proposed to admonish them with the Scriptures, they objected that no one may interpret the Scriptures but the Pope.

Thirdly, if they are threatened with a council, they pretend that no one may call a council but the Pope.

Luther added that ‘if the Pope acts contrary to the Scriptures, we are bound to stand by the Scriptures to punish and to constrain him, according to Christ’s commandment, ‘tell it unto the Church’ (Matt. xviii. 15-17)’. ‘Therefore when need requires, and the Pope is a cause of offence to Christendom, in these cases whoever can best do so, as a faithful member of the whole body, must do what he can to procure a true free council’.

Some Roman Catholics might be wishing now that the walls weren’t so impregnable. ‘Mr Bergoglio, tear down these walls!’ That really would be worth seeing. But Protestants know only too well that this is just dreaming.