The Right and Duty to Resist a Pope
The Popes, Saints, Fathers, Doctors and approved theologians of the Roman Catholic Church have told us through the ages that a pope can be a heretic against the Roman Catholic faith and attempt to destroy the Church through inappropriate policies. Such a pope is to be disobeyed and resisted as a matter of duty.
St. Peters instruction
The first pope St. Peter ( 67) gave us the general principle of disobedience to, and resistance of, corrupt hierarchies and their commands when he was forbidden to preach Christ by the apostate Jews. When there is a conflict between the will of a religious superior and God, we are to obey God.
But Peter and the apostles answering, said: We ought to obey God, rather than men. (Acts 5:29)
The Doctor Saint Thomas Aquinas O.P ( 1274) used this incident as an indication that all superiors are to be disobeyed should their commands be against the Will of God.
It is written: We ought to obey God rather than men. Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore, superiors are not to be obeyed in all things. (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Q. 104, A. 5)
The theologian Juan Cardinal De Torquemada O.P. ( 1468) expressly related that Bible passage to the duty to resist a wayward pontiff.
Although it clearly follows from the circumstances that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not, it is said in the Acts of the Apostles: 'One ought to obey God rather than man'; therefore, were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands, to be passed over. (Summa de Ecclesia)
So, superiors are not to be obeyed in all things; a pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done and we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things. A pope can command against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law and then he ought not to be obeyed.
St. Pauls example
Pope St. Peter I himself was publicly resisted to his face by St. Paul because he endangered the truth of the Gospel.
But when Cephas [Peter] was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. (Galatians 2:11)
The Fathers of the Church explained that the incident shows us the correctness of resisting wayward ecclesiastics, even popes. The great Scripture commentator Cornelius a Lapide ( 1637) wrote as follows:
Superiors may be admonished by their subordinates in all humility and charity so that truth may be defended: this is the basis (Galatians 2, 11) on which St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, St. Gregory, St. Thomas and many others who are quoted support this opinion. They teach quite unequivocally that St. Peter, although superior in authority to St. Paul, was admonished by him. St. Gregory rightly states that, Peter remained silent so that, being first in the hierarchy of the Apostles, he might equally be first in humility. St. Augustine writes, By showing that superiors admit that they may be rebuked by their subordinates, St. Peter gave posterity an example of saintliness more noteworthy than that given by St. Paul, although the latter showed, nonetheless, that it is possible for subordinates to have the boldness to resist their superiors without fear, when in all charity they speak out in the defence of truth. (Commentary Ad Gal., II, 11.)
So, the Doctor St. Augustine told us that we should boldly resist superiors, including the Pope, without fear, when we are defending the Faith.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the Scripture passage shows that a pope who errs from the Faith must be resisted openly and publicly because of the danger which exists for the Faithful to be corrupted and led into error.
There being an imminent danger for the Faith, prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects. Thus, St. Paul, who was a subject of St. Peter, questioned him publicly on account of an imminent danger of scandal in a matter of Faith. And, as the Glossa of St. Augustine puts it (Ad Galatas 2.14), 'St. Peter himself gave the example to those who govern so that if sometimes they stray from the right way, they will not reject a correction as unworthy even if it comes from their subjects. (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Q. 33, A. 4)
He also commented on it as follows:
The reprehension was just and useful, and the reason for it was not light: there was a danger for the preservation of Gospel truth. [ ] The way it took place was appropriate, since it was public and manifest. For this reason, St. Paul writes: 'I spoke to Cephas,' that is, Peter, 'before everyone,' since the simulation practiced by St. Peter was fraught with danger to everyone. (Super Epistulas S. Pauli, Ad Galatas, 2, 11-14 (Taurini/ Rome: Marietti, 1953), lec. III, nn. 83f.)
That is how a heretical pope and his errors are to be resisted: boldly, without fear, publicly and before everyone, because he is a danger to everyone. That is the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
The instruction of the popes
Various popes have also told us that popes can err from the Faith and should then be resisted.
Pope Innocent III ( 1216) stated that a pope can wither away into heresy and not believe the Faith.
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. (St. John 3:18) 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. (Sermo 4)
Pope Adrian VI ( 1523) stated that it is beyond question that a pope can err in matters touching the Faith, he can teach heresy in decrees. He also stated many Roman Pontiffs were heretics.
If by the Roman Church you mean its head or pontiff, it is beyond question that he can err even in matters touching the faith. He does this when he teaches heresy by his own judgement or decretal. In truth, many Roman pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was Pope John XXII ( 1334). (Quaest. in IV Sent.; quoted in Viollet, Papal Infallibility and the Syllabus, 1908).*
(* According to the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia, this work was published in 1512 from the notes of his student and without his supervision, but as it saw many editions it would appear that the pope did not repudiate the passage as not his own, in a work attributed to him.)
Venerable Pope Pius IX ( 1878) recognised the danger that a future pope would be a heretic and teach contrary to the Catholic Faith, and he instructed, do not follow him.
If a future pope teaches anything contrary to the Catholic Faith, do not follow him. (Letter to Bishop Brizen)
Pope Adrian II ( 872) admitted that papal heresy renders lawful the resistance of subordinates to their superiors, and their rejection of the latter's pernicious teachings.
We read that the Roman Pontiff has always possessed authority to pass judgment on the heads of all the Churches (i.e., the patriarchs and bishops), but nowhere do we read that he has been the subject of judgment by others. It is true that Honorius was posthumously anathematised by the Eastern churches, but it must be borne in mind that he had been accused of heresy, the only offence which renders lawful the resistance of subordinates to their superiors, and their rejection of the latter's pernicious teachings.
However, I must disagree with Pope Adrian when he said that heresy was the only offence that justified resistance: the Saints and Doctors have informed us otherwise, as we shall see.
Further, Pope Honorius I ( 638) was not merely accused of heresy or anathematised by the Eastern Churches: he was anathematised as a heretic by the ecumenical Council of III Constantinople, whose Acts were confirmed by Pope Leo II ( 683).
We foresaw that, together with them, also Honorius, before Pope of Old Rome, is cast out of the Holy Catholic Church of God and anathematized, for we have found by his writings sent to [the heretic] Sergius, that he followed the thinking of the latter in everything, and continued his impious principles. [...] To Sergius, the heretic, anathema! To Cyrus, the heretic, anathema! To Honorius, the heretic, anathema!
So we see that popes have told us that a pope can wither away into heresy and not believe the Faith; that it is beyond question that a pope can err in matters touching the Faith, he can teach heresy in decrees; that many Roman Pontiffs were heretics; that a pope may be a heretic and teach [ ] contrary to the Catholic Faith, in which case we are to follow the instruction do not follow him; and that papal heresy renders lawful the resistance of subordinates to their superiors, and their rejection of the latter's pernicious teachings.
The teaching of the saints and theologians
The Saints and theologians have told us the same thing through the ages: we must not obey but rather resist wayward pontiffs and their corrupt hierarchies.
The first Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius ( 373), told us that Catholics faithful to Tradition can be reduced to a handful. He wrote during the Arian crisis, when the global episcopacy defected to Arianism and Pope Liberius ( 366) went into heresy, signed a heretical Arian creed and invalidly excommunicated St. Athanasius, as did the heretical bishops of the East.
Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ. (Epistle to the Catholics)
St. Vincent of Lerins ( 445) is the Father of the Church most associated with the defence of unchanging doctrinal tradition. It is the subject of his main treatise, the Commonitory. He foresaw that if the whole Church should go into heresy we must keep to the traditional Faith handed down from the Fathers.
What then should a Catholic do if some portion of the Church detaches itself from communion of the universal Faith? What choice can he make if some new contagion attempts to poison, no longer a small part of the Church, but the whole Church at once? Then his great concern will be to attach himself to antiquity which can no longer be led astray by any lying novelty. (Commonitory)
A general corruption of the hierarchy has been foreseen and has happened before and the Saints have told us how we are to respond: we are to keep to the traditional, true Catholic Faith which has been handed down from the Fathers and to reject the lying novelties of the pope and the hierarchy.
The theologian Sylvester Prieras, O.P. ( 1523) discussed the resistance of a corrupt pope at some length. He asked, What should be done in cases where the pope destroys the Church by his evil actions? and What should be done if the pope wishes unreasonably to abolish the laws of church or state? His answer was as follows:
He would certainly be in sin, and it would be unlawful to allow him to act in such a fashion, and likewise to obey him in matters which are evil; on the contrary, there is a duty to oppose him while administering a courteous rebuke.
Thus, were he to wish to distribute the Church's wealth, or Peter's Patrimony among his own relatives; were he to wish to destroy the church or to commit an act of similar magnitude, there would be a duty to prevent him, and likewise an obligation to oppose him and resist him. The reason being that he does not possess power in order to destroy, and thus it follows that if he is so doing it is lawful to oppose him.
It is clear from the preceding that, if the pope by his commands, orders or by his actions is destroying the church, he may be resisted and the fulfilment of his commands prevented. The right of open resistance to prelates abuse of authority stems also from natural law. (Dialogus de Potestate Papae)
It would be unlawful to allow him to act in such a fashion, without any resistance, and likewise to obey him. There is a duty to prevent him, and likewise an obligation to oppose him and resist him. As he has papal power only to build up the Church and not to destroy it, it is lawful to oppose him. He is to be resisted and the fulfilment of his commands prevented. Open resistance is a right and a duty.
The theologian Tommaso Cardinal de Vio Gaetani Cajetan O.P. ( 1534) declared: It is imperative to resist a pope who is openly destroying the Church. (De Comparata Auctoritate Papae et Concilio). Such a pope must be resisted, his policies opposed and prevented and true Catholic Faith and practice maintained. Resistance must be established and advanced.
The canonist and theologian, Fr. Francisco de Victoria, O.P. ( 1546) told us the same.
According to natural law, violence may lawfully be opposed by violence. Now, through the acts permitted and the orders of the kind under discussion, the Pope does commit violence, because he is acting contrary to what is lawful. It therefore follows that it is lawful to oppose him publicly. Cajetan draws attention to the fact that this should not be interpreted as meaning that anybody whosoever can judge the Pope, or assume authority over him, but rather that it is lawful to defend oneself even against him. Every person, in fact, has the right to oppose an unjust action in order to prevent, if he is able, its being carried out, and thus he defends himself. (Obras, pp. 486-7)
All of the Faithful have the right to oppose the actions of a corrupt pope and to try to prevent his harmful policies from being carried out. It is lawful to oppose him publicly.
The theologian, Francisco Suarez S.J. ( 1617), said likewise.
If the pope gives an order contrary to right customs, he should not be obeyed; if he attempts to do something manifestly opposed to justice and the common good, it will be lawful to resist him; if he attacks by force, by force he can be repelled, with a moderation appropriate to a just defence. (De Fide, Disp. X, Sec. VI, N. 16)
The Doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. ( 1621), wrote a treatise on the Papacy which was used as a basis for the definition of the limits of papal infallibility which was made at Vatican I. He wrote as follows:
Just as it is lawful to resist the pope that attacks the body, it is also lawful to resist the one who attacks souls or who disturbs civil order, or, above all, who attempts to destroy the Church. I say that it is lawful to resist him by not doing what he orders and preventing his will from being executed. (De Romano Pontifice, Lib. II, Ch. 29)
A pope who attempts to destroy the Church is not to be obeyed but it is lawful to resist him by not doing what he orders and preventing his will from being executed.
Council Vatican I (1870) defined that a pope has no power or right to come out with new doctrines or to change the Faith which has been handed down from the Apostles but only to maintain and preach it.
For the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or Deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles. (Pastor Aeternus, cap. 4)
A pope has the right to do nothing but to maintain the true Catholic Faith, exactly as it has been received. If he attempts to do otherwise, he is to be denounced and opposed along with all the doctrinal innovations he attempts to impose on the Faithful.
Summary and recap of perennial teaching
We have seen that tradition instructs us that the global episcopate can fall away from the Faith and that true Catholics can be reduced to a handful. Popes can defect from the Faith and teach heresy in their decrees. They can destroy the Church with their acts. Then we must not obey but must openly resist the pope and the hierarchy and try to stop their policies from being implemented.
Pope St. Peter I instructed us that we must obey God rather than men when there is a conflict between the two. The Doctors and theologians of the Church emphasised this by telling us superiors are not to be obeyed in all things; a pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done; and we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things. A pope can command against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, and then he ought not to be obeyed.
Further, St. Paul publicly resisted Pope St. Peter to his face because he was endangering the Faith. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church emphasised that we should boldly resist superiors, including the Pope, without fear, when we are defending the Faith; a pope who errs from the Faith must be resisted openly and publicly because of the danger which exists for the Faithful to be corrupted and led into error.
Popes have told us that a pope can wither away into heresy and not believe the Faith; that it is beyond question that a pope can err in matters touching the Faith, he can teach heresy in decrees; and that many Roman Pontiffs were heretics; that a pope may be a heretic and teach [ ] contrary to the Catholic Faith, in which case we are to follow the instruction, do not follow him; and that papal heresy renders lawful the resistance of subordinates to their superiors, and their rejection of the latter's pernicious teachings.
And finally, we have seen that the Saints and approved theologians through the ages have told us that it can happen that some new contagion attempts to poison, no longer a small part of the Church, but the whole Church at once, and it can come to pass that Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful. Should this happen the great concern of each will be to attach himself to antiquity which can no longer be led astray by any lying novelty and it is the Catholics faithful to tradition who are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ. Further, a pope can destroy the Church through his evil actions and then it would be unlawful to allow him to act in such a fashion; on the contrary, there is a duty to oppose him; there would be a duty to prevent him, and likewise an obligation to oppose him and resist him; he may be resisted and the fulfilment of his commands prevented with open resistance. Again, it is lawful to oppose him publicly; every person, in fact, has the right to oppose an unjust action in order to prevent, if he is able, its being carried out. Indeed, it is imperative to resist a pope who is openly destroying the Church. He should not be obeyed and it is lawful to resist him if he acts contrary to justice and the common good. A pope has no right to teach novelty. It is lawful to resist him by not doing what he orders and preventing his will from being executed should he destroy the Church.
St. Peter denied Christ three times