Catholic Family News

Finding Peace in the Crisis, Part II

(Photo: The cathedra or chair of the Pope, located in the apse of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. See here to take a virtual tour of the magnificent church.)

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the current issue (Nov. 2018) of Catholic Family News (click HERE to subscribe; current subscribers can access the E-Edition HERE). CFN is pleased to make it available here today (Nov. 9), on the Feast of the Dedication of the Archbasilica of Our Savior (aka St. John Lateran), a glorious church which, like St. Peter’s Basilica, is a powerful reminder of the beauty, order, and permanence of Holy Mother Church herself. May this series of articles (with one final installment still to come) serve to instruct and console those whose faith is being tested by the decades-long crisis in the Church, which seems to be reaching a terrible climax under Pope Francis.



In the first part of this paper, we examine the question of whether or not what is now occurring in the Church is, in fact, possible, in terms of her own teaching about her nature, examined the thesis that Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was invalid or “not accepted,” and discussed the infallible certainty that dogmatic fact theology provides.

Next, we will discuss the assertions that Pope Francis has “lost his office,” either due to the sin of heresy, or to “manifest heresy” in the public forum and discuss the dogmas of the Church’s perpetual visibility and indefectibility (one or both of which is violated when one denies that the Pope is the Pope).

A person who denies or obstinately doubts that Francis is the Pope of the Catholic Church, and who also does not believe that Benedict XVI is still Pope, is a Sedevacantist. A person who denies or obstinately doubts that Francis is the Pope but who does believe that Benedict XVI is still Pope is clearly not a Sedevacantist, since for him the chair has an occupant, yet he is still in serious error, denying a dogmatic fact, and implicitly denying the formal visibility of the Church, as we will see below.

We must distinguish between those souls who are honestly confused by the crisis and tempted to believe someone like Francis cannot really be Pope, and those who dogmatically and publicly deny or doubt that reality. These are very different states and actions, with the former being possibly an honest, sincere, holy reaction.

However, rather than bringing peace to the soul, these errors invariably fester into a bitterness that attacks, rather than prays with, the Church.

The Sin of Heresy and Church Membership

Catholic theology makes an important distinction between the Soul and the Body of the Church. These are not two different Churches, but, rather, two aspects of the same Church. That the Body of the Church is visible, perpetually and formally, is dogma; and ecclesiastical office lies in the Body. We will expound on this below.

Those who claim that the sin of heresy severs one from the Church are half right: Formal heresy (heresy held pertinaciously in the will) divests one of the theological virtue of Faith, entirely, severing him from the Soul of the Church, and leaving him a dead member of the Body.

The quickest way to refute the error that the internal virtue of Faith is required for membership in the visible Body of the Church is to explain that the common theological position is that no internal virtues whatever are needed for Church membership.

This became the common theological opinion many centuries ago, when it was realized that the contrary leads to the material heresy of an invisible Church.[1]

Theologian Fr. Sylvester Berry gives the common theological definition in enumerating the three conditions for membership in the visible Church. In his classic work, The Church of Christ, in the section entitled, “Summary of Conditions for Adults” under “The Conditions for Membership,” he states:

“(a) Initiation by Baptism, which gives the right to participate in all the benefits of the Church;

(b) External profession of the true Faith, which is had by submission to the teaching authority of the Church;

(c) Submission to the ruling authority of the Church.”[2]

In explicating these conditions, he notes, “…perfect observance of the unities is not required for mere membership in the Church; a person need not make explicit profession of faith at all times, nor conform all his actions to it… his transgressions will not exclude from membership unless they amount to total rejection of authority” (emphasis mine).[3]

The last sentence, which I highlighted, is crucial: the nature of heresy, its defining characteristic, is rejection of the Church as teacher. This is apparent from the literal meaning of the Greek word (hairetikos), which is “choosing” – the heretic chooses his own will as the rule of faith, rather than submitting it in whole to the Church. This becomes crucial in making private condemnations of individuals for the sin of heresy: A person who denies or doubts a doctrine, materially, but believes that he does so in obedience to the Church is not a heretic, formally, as he still holds the Church as the rule of faith.

Furthermore, since “submission to the teaching authority of the Church” is the defining characteristic of obedience to the Faith, it is clear that to condemn churchmen who spout error as “not Catholic” – no matter how evil, tragic, and offensive to good Catholic sensibility such things are – is not accurate, if one is speaking in the sense of actual Church membership.

The insidious error of Modernism inverts the very nature of revelation, having it “spring up” from man rather than come down from God, which undermines the very existence of objective truth. Once this error has invaded the intellect, a sort of “diabolical disorientation” (Sister Lucia of Fatima) is often the result, whereby the subject might actually believe he is behaving in a manner faithful to the Church, while holding beliefs that are materially erroneous or heretical. (This confusion is not meant to imply the subject is inculpable; darkening of the intellect is often a punishment for sin.)

Formal heresy in the internal forum – the commission of the sin of heresy – cannot be determined by any other person for another subject. Even the Church herself does not judge internals (de internis ecclesia non judica).[4]

St. Bellarmine says that those with Faith are the elect, which is by no means identical with the Church, which is visible:

“…[the elect are] without a doubt those who steadfastly hear from the heart, and retain the word, St. Augustine shows; although, since it cannot be known who it is in fact that hears with their heart, this cannot be a visible mark of the Church, but is a mark of each individually…”[5]

“Rather, it [the Church] will be gathered by those who exercise the authority of Christ, such as are legitimately ordained bishops, and those succeeding them, and so on and so forth back to the apostles, whom Christ at first left behind in His place.”[6]

As Fr. Berry says above, a defining characteristic of Church membership is union with her bishops.

On refuting Luther’s “mark” (of his false church) of “true prayer,” Bellarmine explains: “It is refuted, because if one should speak on invocation, which proceeds from the heart, it is an invisible mark.”[7]

The Protestant revolutionaries, in rejecting the Church hierarchy, immediately retreated to the notion of an invisible church, which was promptly condemned.

Manifest Heresy

The notion that the internal sin of heresy can sever a churchman from his public office is, it must be said, a very naïve error, yet one routinely promoted by Sedevacantists. It is a common error, but probably their single most common argument is that manifest heresy can be determined by some individual. Manifest or notorious public heresy does, in fact, sever one from the Body, but in the public forum, there is no doubt that it is the Church itself that makes the critical determination of its existence.

St. Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, is surely the theologian quoted most by those who claim that Francis has lost his office, and other Sedevacantists, in support of their position. However, as has been thoroughly demonstrated by others[8], their position is based on a misunderstanding of Bellarmine and on their assumption of what he meant by manifest heresy.

In his tome On the Roman Pontiff (Book II, Chapter 30), St. Bellarmine notes that a pontiff will never fall from office without some action by the Church itself – specifically, those that elected him:

“…for jurisdiction is certainly given to the pontiff by God, but with the agreement of man, as is obvious.  Because this man, who beforehand was not Pope, has from man that he would begin to be Pope, therefore, he is not removed by God unless it is through men.”[9]

He also makes it clear that those that are separated from the Body are those who have been excommunicated or have publicly rejected the Church: “…they who are cast out as excommunicates, or leave on their own and oppose the Church, are separated from it as heretics and schismatics… those who have departed from the Church maintain no spiritual power over those who are in the Church.”[10]

There is no authority that those who claim that Francis has lost his office due to manifest heresy could name to support their position that some private individual can determine manifest heresy. There is simply no theologian who ever taught anything of the sort; the error arises from pure assumption on their part.

Furthermore, it should be noted that there is not even a theological consensus that the manifest heresy immediately deposes a Pope from office, with no other action from the Church. This was Bellarmine’s opinion, and is certainly probable, but it is not a universal theological opinion, much less a doctrine of the Church.[11]

As discussed in the first part of this series, the notion that private individuals can make determinations regarding who actually occupies ecclesiastical office, contrary to what the Church herself says, quickly brings down the entire Church like a house of cards. It is a self-consistent system of insanity.

Of course, primary blame for the terrible confusion in the Church today must be placed at the feet of Pope Francis and his Modernist cohorts (including his predecessors). They have co-opted the Church, not only refusing to teach the true, defined Faith with clarity, but propagating a myriad of confusing, vague, contradictory, erroneous, and even materially heretical statements that have left the Church, materially, in shambles.

Infallibility and Assent

In my experience, those who make the claim that “what’s happening now should not be possible” are never precise in their assertion. Rather than relying on actual Church teaching, their basis is some internal sense that the Pope “shouldn’t be allowed to say things like this.” However, such internal, subjective, emotional hunches are not what drive the reality of the Church.

First, it is good to distinguish between the possibility of error in a given statement versus the Catholic requirement to give assent to it. These are related but quite distinct.

Regarding the former, it is a tautology to say that a teaching that is not infallible can be erroneous – the charism of infallibility is exactly the protection from error.

The Church, of course, formally dogmatized papal infallibility at Vatican Council I:

“The condition of the Infallibility is that the Pope speaks ex cathedra. For this is required: (a) That he speak as pastor and teacher of all the faithful with the full weight of his supreme apostolic authority; if he speaks as a private theologian or as the Bishop on his Diocese, he is not infallible; (b) that he have the intention of deciding finally a teaching of Faith or Morals, so that it is to be held by all the faithful. Without this intention, which must be made clear in the formulation, or by the circumstances, a decision ex cathedra is not complete. Most of the doctrinal expressions made by Popes in their Encyclicals are not decisions ex cathedra.”[12]

It is apparent from this statement that the charism is extremely narrow in scope. It should also be readily apparent to educated Catholics that not one Pope from John XXIII onward has even one time engaged the charism of infallibility attached to the Papal office.

The vague, contradictory, heterodox, unnecessarily voluminous tomes that Pope Francis calls encyclicals have not come close. Surely no one would argue that any of them had “the intention of deciding finally a teaching of Faith or Morals…to be held by all the faithful.” So far from this are they that the Pope even refuses to answer simple, direct questions regarding the meaning of his statements!

Francis is merely continuing the post-conciliar papal trend of declining clear, precise teaching. He, like his immediate predecessors, eschews the power to bind the faithful. But this is not really coincidental; it is inherent to the very nature of Modernism to avoid the type of precision that is a necessary component of binding teaching. Rather than defining truth, Modernism, like a rat, chews at the foundations of it.

But God is adept at bringing good out of even the greatest evil. Modernism’s essence is its flaw; its inherent lack of objectivity makes it unsuited to the formulation of clear, precise teachings.

Beyond that, the Holy Ghost’s protection of His Church is made evident by the fact that these popes have neglected to attempt to bind the faithful to any new teaching.

In his classic On the Roman Pontiff, St. Bellarmine – who incidentally held the minority position that a pope could not become a heretic – spoke regarding papal protection from error:

“With these things being noted, all Catholics and all the heretics [non-Catholics] agree on two things. Firstly, that the Pontiff, even as Pontiff, can err in particular controversies of fact, even together with a general Council, because these depend especially on the testimonies of men. Secondly, the Pope can err as a private teacher from ignorance, even in universal questions of law concerning both faith and morals, just as what happens to other teachers.”[13]

A question arises as to the precise meaning of the phrase “private teacher” in this and other, similar passages. The Brazilian theologian/canonist Arnaldo de Silveira wrote an exemplary treatise on the possibility of a heretical pope in 1975, which speaks to the query:

“The reading of some of the texts which we have just presented, and even more of the ones which we shall present shortly, reveals a curious and unexpected fact. On studying the question of a Pope heretic, both the ancients as well as the moderns have considered only two kinds of Papal acts: the infallible pronouncements, and the private ones. The official but not infallible documents do not appear to exist.”[14]

So, the Pope is a “private teacher” in the theological sense any time he is not defining a doctrine – this, as noted above, puts all of Pope Francis’ documents and statements in that category.

Dom Paul Nau, O.S.B, summarizing the teaching of many authorities, describes the proper attitude of Catholics towards ecclesiastical teachings as “that of inward assent, not as of faith, but as of prudence, the refusal of which could not escape the mark of temerity, unless the doctrine rejected was an actual novelty of involved a manifest discordance between the pontifical affirmation and the doctrine which had hitherto been taught.[15]

From Dr. Ott, quoting his Fundamentals again: “The ordinary and usual form of papal teaching activity is not infallible. Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible. Nevertheless, normally they are to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See (assensus internus supernaturalis, assensus religiosus). The so-called silentium obsequiosum, that is ‘reverent silence’, does not generally suffice. By way of exception the obligation of inner agreement may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives with a positive conviction that the decision rests on an error.”[16]

It is certainly apparent that there is no Church teaching that Catholics must give unqualified assent to all papal statements. Such a teaching would do great violence to basic logic, given that is it acknowledged that not all such statements are protected from error.

Bellarmine goes on to examine the four different opinions among Catholics concerning popes in error.  He calls only the fourth “certain”: “… whether the Pope can be a heretic or not, he cannot define a heretical proposition that must be believed by the whole Church in any way. This is a very common opinion of nearly all Catholics.”[17]

In the end, though we might desire more, that is all we really need.

The Church is Visible

We will now expound in greater detail on the dogma of the Church’s perpetual, formal visibility.

Ott[18] notes that the Council of Trent teaches “a visible sacrifice” and “a visible and external priesthood” in the Church, and that St. Peter was the “visible foundation” of the Church. He notes that, “[t]he visibility of the Church was denied by the Spiritualistic Sects of the Middle Ages, by Huss and the Reformers. According to Huss, the Church consists of the communion of the predestined. Calvin had held the same view. Luther taught that the Church is ‘the assembly of the saints’ (= the faithful) in which the Gospel is properly taught and the Sacraments are properly administered.”[19]

In other words, the notion of an invisible Church is a (Protestant) heresy. He goes on to note that, “[t]he rejection of the hierarchy evidently led to the doctrine of the invisible Church.”[20]

It is interesting that the Sedevacantists’ formal rejection of the present hierarchy has led them to the same material heresy.

Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution (Dei Filius) on the Catholic Faith:

“And since, without faith, it is impossible to please God, and to attain to the fellowship of His children, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life, unless be shall have persevered in faith unto the end. And, that we may be able to satisfy the obligation of embracing the true faith and of constantly persevering in it, God has instituted the Church through His only begotten Son, and has bestowed on it the manifest marks of that institution, that it may be recognized by all men as the Guardian and Teacher of the revealed Word” (emphasis mine).[21]

As Fr. Berry notes, the Council dogmatized formal visibility: “The Church of Christ is formally visible, not only as a Church, but also as the true Church of Christ. This is an article of faith, having been defined by the Vatican Council…”[22]

A society is materially visible when it is simply, plainly, observable. What is meant by formal visibility is that said body can be recognized in form – its essence is recognizable; in terms of the Church, she is recognizable as the true Church (by her marks).

God could not require men to enter the Church to gain their salvation if she were not recognizable as such.

The objection might be raised that those who do not recognize Francis as Pope still recognize the visible Church at large – they recognize the hierarchy as the hierarchy (unlike “longer-term” Sedevacantists, who generally start at John XXIII, and generally consider the entire “Vatican II church” to be false, materially and formally). However, formal visibility of the Body requires visibility of its head, as we will see below. Rejecting Francis as Pope is merely the beginning of denying the Church itself.

Another potential objection is the suggestion that the Church still exists, and is still visible, but is some subset of the visible Church (those with true faith, generally). But that is really the same error as an invisible church (and an argument identical to Luther’s and Calvin’s). The Church that is materially visible must be the Church, formally, or the Church is not really visible. As we saw above, the Church in Body is not composed of true believers only, and the Church does not require for membership any internal virtue.

Let us examine what one of the greatest theologians of all time, St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, had to say regarding the visibility of Christ’s Body, in two of his landmark works.

St. Bellarmine devotes a long discussion to proving the visibility of the Church. In part:

“…it is proved from the very beginning and progress of the Church. So as to pass over the Old Testament we note that the Church was so visible that they carried the visible sign of circumcision in their flesh. In the New Testament the Christian Church was whole in the beginning in the apostles and disciples of Christ, who were so visible that the Holy Spirit visibly descended over them on the day of Pentecost.”[23]

And, “…if the Church is a gathering of men using the same sacraments and professing the faith of Christ, under the rule of legitimate pastors… It necessarily follows that it is visible.”[24]

St. Bellarmine makes the point that identifying the Church is far “easier” than identifying true doctrine (which individuals are actually incapable of on their own); the former is the source of the latter:

“Without a doubt what the true Church may be is more knowable than what the true preaching of the word might be; for we learned this from the Church, as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, and all the Fathers teach” (emphasis mine).[25]

“…Doctrine is sought from teacher, not the other way around. Therefore, the Church is a mark of true preaching, rather than true teaching a mark of the Church.”[26]

Union With the Church’s Pastors

We saw above that, to the consternation of those who would prefer to depose prelates at will (and happen to consider themselves the very best Catholics while doing so), membership in the visible Church is actually determined, in part, by union with the Church’s official pastors.

Says St. Bellarmine: “…in no way can the Church exist without shepherds and bishops[;] as St. Cyprian rightly teaches, the Church is the people united to the bishop, and the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop.”[27]

In speaking about the fact that Lutherans claimed Catholic bishops “deposed” due to heresy – in the exact same fashion some Catholics today declare the same about the Pope and other bishops – he says, “…it is certain that Catholic bishops were not condemned by any legitimate judgment. For who condemned them, apart from the Lutherans? But these are accusers, not judges.”[28] Only the Church can sever a bishop.[29]

Few today are aware that an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church condemned any Catholic who would refuse formal submission to his bishop apart from an official judgment of the Church. The Fourth Council of Constantinople, Canon 10, states: “… this holy and universal synod justly and fittingly declares and lays down that no lay person or monk or cleric should separate himself from communion with his own patriarch before a careful enquiry and judgment in synod, even if he alleges that he knows of some crime perpetrated by his patriarch, and he must not refuse to include his patriarch’s name during the divine mysteries or offices.”[30]

Union With the Church’s Head

Now we come to the most pertinent aspect of the formal visibility of the Church for those who would deny that Francis is Pope: such formal visibility necessarily includes the visibility of the head, Christ’s Vicar on earth.

There is one particular dogma regarding the visibility and structure of the Church that Sedevacantists never actually engage:

“Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord Himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.”[31]

This dogma means not only that the office of Peter will always exist, but that it will always have an occupant. Obviously, interregnums are an exception, of necessity, since popes are mortal. Outside of them, however, Peter’s successors are perpetual.

(During schisms, when there are multiple public claimants, there is still a true Pope, even if his identity is not generally known.)

It is good to dwell on this teaching, because it is little known in our time. We can and should definitely hope and pray for good popes, rather than ones who confuse and even harm the Church, but it may be that at times God gives us the latter. (In such a case, as St. Thomas points out, it is morally licit and appropriate to pray that such a tyrant be taken from us by death.)

“The seventh Mark is the union of members among themselves and with the head; for the Church is one body, one spouse, one flock, as Scripture teaches everywhere, as well as in the creed of the Council of Constantinople, where we say, ‘one Church.’ Moreover, the particular union of the body consist in the union of the members with and among themselves… union with the Roman Pontiff was always held as a mark of the true Church among the ancient Fathers” (emphasis mine).[32]

In speaking of the crisis of Arianism, which is, according to most Traditionalists, the closest analog we have to today’s crisis of Modernism, Fr. Berry points out that, despite rampart material heresy, the hierarchy did not fail formally. In speaking of the councils of Arimini and Seleucia, which did not formally teach Arianism but did not condemn it, that they did not formally defect from the Faith, as they did not formally embrace heretical doctrine as a whole. They “…did not err in regard to faith, but simply failed to meet the occasion, as they should have done, by a direct and decisive condemnation.”[33]

Some of today’s Traditionalists are very fond of repeating certain doctrines yet are oblivious to others. Yet, of course, every Catholic dogma, implicit or explicit, must be believed with divine and Catholic faith. There is irony in condemning and “deposing” a pope whom they deem has become a manifest heretic in the legal sense, while ignoring, say, the dogmatic papal bull Unam Sanctam, which declares, “…we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

The proposition in this bull is an ex cathedra pronouncement on faith and morals and thus infallible – this can be discerned from the use of the phrase, “we declare, we proclaim, we define…” And note that it clearly presumes there will always be a Roman Pontiff.

Unfortunately, the notion of an exemplary, orthodox Catholic who rejects formal union with the Pope is a contradiction in terms. “No Peter, No Church” – don’t recognize him and you’re not part of it, whether or not it is pleasant to do so. This is the Church Christ has given us, and today we have the Pope He has allowed us (no doubt as a punishment for decades of apostasy), like it or not.

Treating Benedict XVI as Pope also destroys the formal visibility of the Church. If the head is secret, the Body is not visible.

To be concluded next month.

Want more great Catholic content? SUBSCRIBE to Catholic Family News and help support our efforts!

See here for Part I of this series and here for Part III.


[1] Even those relatively few theologians who took the minority position that the virtue of Faith is necessary for membership even in the Body were careful to point out that those who lost Faith were not severed from any ecclesiastical office they held, except and until the Church herself severed them.

[2] Rev. E. Sylvester Berry, STD, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise (Wipf and Stock, 2009), p. 126.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The signers of the Correctio filialis make this clear in their “Elucidation” (third and final section of the document), distinguishing between the “sin of heresy” (internal forum, a matter for the Sacrament of Penance) and the “canonical crime of heresy” (public doubt or denial “after having been warned by competent ecclesiastical authority”).

[5] St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., On the Marks of the Church (De Controversiis) (Mediatrix Press, 2015), p. 7.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 9.

[8] John Salza and Robert Siscoe, True or False Pope? (St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, 2015).

[9] St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis, Vol. I) (Mediatrix Press, 2015), p. 312.

[10] Ibid., p. 317.

[11] Suarez and others held that an “imperfect council” (one sans pope) must be convened to actually make official the deposition of the Pope who has condemned himself by holding pertinaciously to heresy in the face of public ecclesiastical warnings.

[12] Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (TAN Books, 1974), p. 287.

[13] Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, p. 472.

[14] Arnaldo de Silveira, Theological Hypothesis of an Heretical Pope (Veracruz, 1975), p. 197, courtesy of Robert Siscoe.

[15] Dom Paul Nau, The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church Theologically Considered, p. 26

[16] Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 10.

[17] Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, p. 473.

[18] Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 301.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Denzinger, 3012.

[22] Berry, The Church of Christ.

[23] St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., On the Church Militant (De Controversiis, Vol. II) (Mediatrix Press, 2016), p. 114.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bellarmine, On the Marks of the Church, p. 5.

[26] Ibid., p. 6.

[27] Ibid., p. 36.

[28] Ibid., p. 41.

[29] See also St. Thomas on “Usurpation of Judgment”.

[30] Salza and Siscoe, True or False Pope?, p. 207.

[31] Vatican Council I, Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 2, n. 5.

[32] Bellarmine, On the Marks of the Church, p. 63.

[33] Berry, The Church of Christ, p. 268.