by Rev. Fr Stephan Maessen

[Subheadings, captions and endnotes are editorial.]

One can hardly blame a faithful Catholic who, given the way the present Pope is exercising his office, lets his thoughts run away with him and tortures his mind with the following question: “Can a Pope who does and teaches things which were formerly considered to be heretical still genuinely be Pope?” Is not the very idea abhorrent that perhaps a heretic, one perhaps outside the Church, might simultaneously be the head of the very Church from which he has separated himself precisely by his heresy? Can one be the head of a Church of which one is no longer a member? And are there not renowned theologians who maintain: “Papa haereticus, Papa nullus”: an heretical Pope is not a Pope at all? Now, doesn't that sound so simple and so clear?

But let us beware! Not everything which sounds simple, clear and logical hits the mark on that account! An example:

In the battle over the rightful succession to the episcopal see of Carthage during the fourth century, the Donatists maintained against the Catholics that a bishop or a priest living in a state of grievous sin could neither ordain nor administer the sacraments validly. The “proof” for this was very simple and compelling; a knockout, in fact: The Sacraments of the Church are there in order to convey grace to us. But how can someone give what he himself does not possess? How can someone who is not in a state of grace convey grace to others? Those who held this opinion appeared at first glance irrefutable. This was a far simpler, and, moreover, much more logical and idealistic way of arguing than that of the 'lax' Catholics. And yet this doctrine has gone down in Church History as the heresy of Donatism. Who would ever be able to know if someone was in a state of grace and able to administer Sacraments validly or not? Nothing would ever be certain again, and so the Church condemned this error which had arisen from zeal for the preservation of the sacraments in their purity.1

Archbishop Lefebvre warned over and over again against an all too ardent oversimplification of such a complex problem as that of the recent popes. “One must be capable of making the necessary distinctions in order to remain on a safe path, in order to remain really within the Church.”2

A safer path

But what is this “safe path” which Archbishop Lefebvre himself followed?

Now, in the past there were theologians who supported the above opinion3 as well as those who supported the opposed, more common opinion which is in turn based on the teaching that “the First See is judged by no one”4, not even by a council or a college of cardinals. The Church has never decided this issue with her infallibility. It was discussed speculatively by theologians who more often than not did not even believe that such a thing could ever actually happen. The question remains, consequently, open to discussion.

But if the Church has not yet decided the issue, and the theologians cannot agree amongst themselves, how can any simple Catholic or private theologian decide this question? He remains in doubt. One can of course form an opinion adducing various good reasons, but this position remains nothing more than an opinion, and does not give us the certainty of the Church's Magisterium. What necessity would there be for an infallible Magisterium if it could be replaced by the opinions of private theologians? No matter how much we “theologise”, we cannot get beyond the status and the degree of certainty of a mere opinion. No opinion, however, can possibly supply a sure foundation for making decisions which will have such far-reaching consequences as would be the case in the question of the legitimacy of the acts of an entire pontificate.

“Be that as it may”, one might object, “but are we supposed to put our Catholic life 'on hold', put our hands in our pockets and wait idly until a Catholic Pope decides these things magisterially one day? When will that be? We are living now and we have to decide this problem as best as we can!”

Yes, we must act and decide, but not with uncertainty, or by taking upon ourselves a teaching authority which does not belong to us. If we have to make decisions now to problems which have only doubtful solutions, then a sincere and thinking Catholic must turn to the timeless principles of the moral theology of the Church and her Saints which guide us when we are doubtful as to our course of action. According to these principles we are obliged to act as long as our uncertainty has not been eliminated by a final decision of the Magisterium.

We shall have recourse here to two of these principles.

Ownership is nine-tenths of the law

St Alphonsus de Liguori, Doctor of the Church and Patron of Moral Theologians and Confessors teaches that “in first place above all others is the certain principle 'Melior est conditio possidentis'.”- “the condition of the possessor is better”5. This principle is acknowledged by both civil6 and ecclesiastical law7 and, says the Saint, “can be denied by none”, regardless as to how they differ on other points of moral theology.8 When in doubt as to which of two disputing parties is the rightful possessor of some good or right, the law favours the one who is in fact in possession of this good or right. Possession creates a certain presumption of true ownership in favour of the possessor until the contrary is proved. Consequently it is not for the one in possession of something to prove that he is its rightful possessor, but for the one who claims that his possession is unlawful to prove that it is so. As long as this cannot be proved beyond doubt, he is bound to acknowledge the current owner as the rightful one.

This means that a Pope is to be considered the rightful Pope for as long as the certain loss of his papacy cannot be proved beyond all reasonable doubt. But since the Church has never given a final decision in the case of a Pope favouring heresy, those who doubt his right to be Pope are obliged to acknowledge him as such until such time as the competent authority has passed a final judgment in the matter. And the only authority competent to judge the successor of Peter is a future Pope.

When in doubt, we have tradition!

“But we need to know whether he really is the Pope or not in order to know whether we must follow him or not!” Do we really need to know this? Here we have recourse to a second principle which we find thus expressed in Canon Law: “In doubt whether the law has been changed or not, the presumption is against the change; hence the old law with its interpretations may be relied upon.”9 And are there not enough examples in the lives of the Saints of a lawful authority being rightfully disobeyed when it demands something which against Faith or Morals, something against that which has “been always and everywhere believed by all”?10 In order to remain faithful to the Church it is enough that we do not follow bad pastors inasmuch as they depart from Tradition. It is not necessary to be able to pass a final judgment as to whether their authority is rightful or not in order to reject a wrongful command and thereby keep God's Law.

Concerning an ambiguous decree of the Council of Constance which had nevertheless been approved by two lawful Popes, Pope Eugene IV wrote in his Bull Etsi non dubitemus:

“We are confident that no one is in doubt that the Faith of the entire Church is but one, and that it cannot change, nor could it ever be changed. Should the decree ... contain the truth, then it must agree with the Holy Gospel, the Holy Doctors and the Councils. It must thus be understood in their light, and be one with them as with a firm foundation. For if it does not correspond to the teachings of the Holy Fathers and the rules and definitions of the Church, it cannot contain the truth ... For everything which contradicts this Catholic Truth must of necessity be irreconcilable with the Faith ... You see, therefore, beloved sons, what poisonous seed the enemy of Man's salvation has scattered forth in recent times in order to wound the whole Church and to flay the Body of Christ, which the executioner could not tear asunder at the crucifixion. You see how the door is opened to all heresies once the authority of the Apostolic See, to which all must submit, has been encroached upon. It is for us, beloved sons, to withstand this, and to resist it with all our might that the poison might be made harmless.”

It makes no difference to us, then, whether a Pope who would favour heresy or be himself heretical would consequently fall from office: any pastor who is clearly in error cannot be followed insofar as he has separated himself from Tradition.

But what if...?

“But what if one elected as Pope was already excommunicated? What if he had already fallen into heresy or become a Freemason? Surely his election would not be valid, and then he would not be the Pope!”

Our Lord in His Divine Wisdom founded a visible Church. Her constitution and her laws show this fact forth and aim at protecting the faithful from doubt. In the case of the Papal conclave St Pius X ruled that “ None of the Cardinals may be in any way excluded from the active or passive election of the Sovereign Pontiff under pretext or by reason of any excommunication, suspension, interdict or other ecclesiastical impediment.”11 This means that all possible excommunications are lifted for the time of the election, and, despite any hypothetical electoral abuses, given that all the recent Popes have been acclaimed by the Roman people as such, none of their elections can be proved to be invalid.

“But did not Msgr Lefebvre himself say, that he could not guarantee that the Pope is Pope?” Yes, he did say that, and he was completely right. How could he, as a simple Catholic bishop with neither the office nor the authority to decide such a question with magisterial certainty, guarantee whether the current occupant of the See of St Peter is Pope or not? “Let us not attribute to ourselves an authority which we do not possess”, he repeated again and again, and it is, I believe, a sign of honesty and sincerity when one thinks and acts so. When we no longer know how to distinguish between the infallibly guaranteed teaching of the Church and our own theological opinions, then we replace the illumination of the Holy Ghost with our own intelligence, and consider ourselves to be cleverer than the Magisterium of the Church, which we no longer need. It is unjust and insulting towards this Magisterium of the Church of all times when one declares the vacancy of the Apostolic See to be a dogma, or to be the unconditional foundation for all the Church's pronouncements. One becomes one's own 'pope', and one loses in advance the possibility of submitting to the Magisterium when one day in the future it pronounces on the postconciliar popes. Those groups who have proclaimed 'sedevacantism' dogmatically have all broken up into scattered factions whose dispersion speaks eloquently of the fragility of human thought which can never replace the guaranteed certainty of the Church's teaching authority, itself the foundation of all unity in the Church! It truly is necessary to stay on a magisterially “safe path, in order to remain really within the Church”.

“This Alexander is not Pope!”

We must avoid the zealotry of a Savonarola who in the 15th Century in his blind passion declared the Apostolic See to be vacant during the reign of Alexander VI: “I assure you in verbo Domini that this Alexander is not Pope, nor may he pass for such. For ... not to mention his various other vices which are known to the whole world, I also maintain that he is not a Christian and does not believe in the existence of God, which goes beyond the measure of all unbelief!”12 He held his personal views in ecclesiastical and political affairs to be a “fatum divinum”, a Divine Oracle. None who did not believe him could be a good Christian; he was as incapable of error as God Himself.13

In speaking of the Church's social doctrine Pope Leo XIII admonished Catholics in words that have a universal validity:

“The defence of Catholicism, indeed, necessarily demands that in the profession of doctrines taught by the Church all shall be of one mind and all steadfast in believing; and care must be taken never to connive, in any way, at false opinions, never to withstand them less strenuously than truth allows. In mere matters of opinion it is permissible to discuss things with moderation, with a desire of searching into the truth, without unjust suspicion or angry recriminations.”14

It will only be on this foundation of honesty and sincerity regarding the Church's Magisterium that a deeper investigation and discussion of this problem will take place in the spirit of the Church and bear fruit for souls.
“And they laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple, in a convenient place, till there should come a prophet, and give answer concerning them.”15

Father Maessen is a priest of the Society of St Pius X. His apostolic work has taken him throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland as well as to Hungary and the Czech Republic. He currently lectures Apologetics, Liturgy and Church History at the Sacred Heart Seminary in Bavaria.


1. The Donatists forgot that Our Lord Jesus Christ is Himself the principal Minister of His Sacraments, and that His priests are merely His instruments.
2. Angers, 20/11/1980
3. i.e. “An heretical Pope is not a Pope at all”
4. CIC/1917, c. 1556; CIC/1983, c.1404
5. Confess. Dirett. cap.1, n.11; cf. also Hom. Apost., tr.1, c.2, n.14 and Th. Mor. Ed. Gaudé Lib.I, cap. 2, fn.26a
6. “Ownership is nine-tenths of the law”
7. Regula 65 inVIo
8. Th. Mor. Lib. I, 26
9. CIC/1917, c. 6, 4o; cf. CIC/1983, c. 21
10. St Vincent of Lérins - Commonitorium 3 - 4
11. Apostolic Constitution Vacante Sede Apostolica, 29 of 25/12/1904; cf. Pope John Paul II - Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici gregis, 35 of 22/2/1996
12. L. Von Pastor Geschichte der Päpste Vol. III/1, p. 498
13. Ibid. p. 478
14. Encyclical Immortale Dei 1/11/1885
15. 1 Machabees 4, 46