High Noon: Musings on a Formal Correction of a Pope

August 20, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) – A potential “correction” of Pope Francis is in the news again. The latest on it comes from the Wanderer’s interview of Cardinal Burke which appears in an article dated August 14, 2017 in the online Catholic paper (here). In the Wanderer interview, Cardinal Burke outlined in broad terms what a formal correction of a pope might look like:

“The process has not been frequently invoked in the Church, and not now for several centuries. There has been the correction of past Holy Fathers on significant points, but not in a doctrinal way. It seems to me that the essence of the correction is quite simple. On the one hand, one sets forth the clear teaching of the Church; on the other hand, what is actually being taught by the Roman Pontiff is stated. If there is a contradiction, the Roman Pontiff is called to conform his own teaching in obedience to Christ and the Magisterium of the Church. The question is asked, “How would this be done?” It is done very simply by a formal declaration to which the Holy Father would be obliged to respond.”

The “why” of a formal correction with respect to Pope Francis is obvious. The Pope’s Amoris Laetitia is ambiguous and confusing on the question of communion for adulterers and requires clarification on various other doctrinal points. Amoris Laetitia has already led to erroneous interpretations that contradict the teaching of previous popes (e.g., bishops of Malta, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere allowing communion for adulterers in at least some instances). The finer points of the who, what, when and where of any formal correction were not addressed in the interview – and appear yet to be determined. However, what Cardinal Burke did say is highly significant. Based on what he said, I will suggest what I think the correction will look like – should we ever see it.

In a recent article Edward Pentin reminds us that Cardinal Brandmuller said any correction of the Pope would first be done in camera caritatis (i.e., in private with the pope). Unfortunately, Pope Francis has not accommodated the once four – now three – Dubia Cardinals. He has simply refused to meet with the cardinals and has ignored their requests for a meeting (see here). There is no reason to expect the Pope will change his avoidance tactics at this point in the game. However, this papal tactic can only delay the inevitable while at the same time weakening the Pope’s position if and when the formal correction finally makes its long-awaited appearance.

I suspect by now the Dubia Cardinals have again requested a papal audience, this time not to seek answers to the dubia, but instead to formally correct the Pope. I just hope by this point other cardinals have signed on to the effort. There have long been suggestions that other cardinals privately support the Dubia Cardinals. Now is the time for good men to stand up and be counted. After all, it would be harder for the Pope to reject 30-40 cardinals who together sought a papal audience to discuss Amoris Laetitia and a correction.  Harder, yes. Impossible, no. Yet, dodging such an audience should only stiffen resolve in the Sacred College of Cardinals. That said, it remains an open question how many spines there are in the Sacred College that can be “stiffened.” I do wonder if the secret support for the Dubia Cardinals will evaporate at the critical moment of need, just as it did for Gary Cooper in the movie High Noon.

As to the precise nature of a “formal correction,” one can only speculate. However, speculation may be informed by Cardinal Burke’s interview in the Wanderer where some tidbits suggest what may be coming. In that interview, speaking of a potential formal correction of a pope, the cardinal said (emphasis added):

“The question is asked, “How would this be done?” It is done very simply by a formal declaration to which the Holy Father would be obliged to respond.”

The suggestion that there can be a “formal declaration” to which a pope “would be obliged to respond” is quite remarkable. Thus far, with regard to the dubia, it is clear the Pope has not felt “obliged” or impelled to answer. In view of this, in what sense would the Pope be “obliged to respond” to a formal correction or “formal declaration”? My thoughts on the question are as follows. Cardinal Burke is not speaking of a moral obligation to respond, but rather seems to intend something akin to a legal one, i.e., one where failure to respond properly bears a consequence. What is that consequence? I think Cardinal Burke tells us in the Wanderer interview what he has in mind when he states: “The Popes are all to proclaim and be obedient to the one true Catholic Faith. If not, they have been deposed, as in the case of Pope Honorius.” Thus, it seems quite evident Cardinal Burke is thinking of a potential deposition of a pope, i.e., that a pope might be obliged to respond to a formal declaration in that failure to do so would result in his deposition. How this might be so, I get to below.

As an aside, while what Cardinal Burke says of popes needing “to proclaim and be obedient to the one true Catholic Faith” is true, I am not aware of the “they” he references – i.e., popes who have been actually deposed. For example, I do not believe what he says specifically of Honorius being “deposed” is factually the case. Honorius never resisted the Church while he lived, and he was long since dead – some forty years – by the time he was condemned as a “heretic” by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. The fault of Honorius has been a subject of dispute, i.e., was he truly a monothelite or only one whose negligence “fostered” heresy. It is my view that Pope Honorius was condemned as a “heretic” in the latter sense, i.e., as one who “fostered” or favored heresy through his negligent silence (see Why the Case of Pope Honorius Matters, Mr. Alt).

The above said, while Cardinal Burke might have a different view, I do believe he is on to something with regard to Honorius and how that case might relate to a hypothetical formal correction and deposition of a living pope. Let us consider the following historical ‘thought experiment.’ Remembering Honorius was not condemned until long after he had died, what if he had been confronted by bishops of his day while he still lived? What might we conclude? First, these bishops would have been justified in confronting Honorius. This is evident from the course of Church history (i.e., read what the Sixth Ecumenical Council and Pope Leo II said of Honorius). Second, given Honorius objectively favored heresy, these bishops would have been justified in attempting to “correct” him, i.e., demanding that he affirm the orthodox faith and reject monothelite teachings. Yet, Honorius was condemned because he did not “extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence” (Pope Leo II, see Catholic Encyclopedia). I have my doubts that ‘fostering heresy by negligence’ or “favoring heresy” alone would be sufficient cause in itself to depose a pope. However, formal heresy – if possible for a pope to fall into – would result in his deposition. While my opinion is a pope cannot fall into formal heresy [1], I do recognize this position is not a defined dogma.  As I wrote in a previous article:

The reader, having bravely come this far in this rebuttal, may be a surprised to hear it–but I agree with Bellarmine. I do not believe a pope could become a public heretic or an occult heretic. The case for this opinion–based on Sacred Scripture, Tradition and past papal teaching–is a strong one in my opinion. Still, even though Bellarmine held this opinion to be probable, he admitted it was not certain. In fact, Bellarmine said that the opposite theological opinion–that a pope could become a public heretic–was the common one. Until the Church definitively adopts the Bellarmine position, the question remains open. St. Paul warns us to be on guard (cf. Galatians 1:8), as does the Catholic Catechism when it speaks of a “religious deception” to come (cf. CC 675). Therefore, as a matter of prudence, one should not hold it to be a definite impossibility that any living or future pope, Francis included, could never fall into heresy–so that one not be deceived in the event. (Pope Francis’ Predecessors come to the defense of his Magisterium? Well – Yes and no, Mr Walford, February 19, 2017)

Thus, whether a pope could fall into formal heresy and be deposed must be considered an open question. In the case of Honorius, the pope seemed to misunderstand the issue at hand (i.e., the nascent monothelite heresy), though he should have and could have dealt with it given adequate diligence on his part.  However, what if we press the example? Assume it was an open question as to whether a hypothetical pope intended to write an ambiguous document that – while it defined nothing – lent itself to conflicting orthodox and heterodox interpretations of doctrines and practices.  As in the case of  the bishops confronting Honorius in our ‘thought experiment,’ it would be justifiable for cardinals and bishops to demand and expect a sufficient answer from the Roman Pontiff that clarified the matter. We might see cardinals presenting the hypothetical pope above with a formal declaration regarding a disputed point (“X”) for which they seek a definitive answer. This formal declaration might say something along the lines of:

“The Catholic faith taught by your predecessors is “X.” 

Holy Father, your writings are interpreted by many to affirm “not X.” Is “not X” your meaning?

If you do not within the next 6 months explicitly reject “not X” and affirm “X,” your silence will be interpreted as agreement to the proposition “not X.”

This, in a bare bones format, appears to me to be something of what Cardinal Burke means by a formal declaration which would oblige a pope to respond. A pope would be obliged to respond by the very nature of the question and declaration – and its implication. To refuse or fail to answer – even by silence – would be perilous for a pope where “not X” is a proposition in contradiction to the magisterium of prior popes. Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit (“who is silent seems to agree, where he ought to speak and was able to”). In such a case, it would appear that the Church could rightly interpret silence as a clear sign of a pope’s consent to “not X”, i.e., his formal heresy or apostasy from the Catholic Faith of his predecessors. It seems on the surface a fair conclusion. If this conclusion can be supported by Church history (e.g., perhaps based on precedents from past heresy trials), silence would not save this hypothetical pope. The silent pope of our scenario would be considered ‘self-deposed‘ and the See of Peter vacant at the end of the period given him to respond.  I might be missing something, but this seems to me to be the only way a pope could be said to be “obliged to respond.”

If it ever comes to a real-life “formal correction” of Pope Francis, the theologians and canon lawyers will closely examine its text and implications. Unfortunately, the Church divided as it is, I doubt the laity will find any more unanimity among them then with regard to a formal correction than they did with regard to the dubia. While I do not believe the worse case hypothetical (i.e., a formally heretical pope) is possible[1], I cannot absolutely exclude it as a possibility. What I do believe is, there is a need for a “formal correction” to move forward – and we might all learn together whether Bellarmine, God forbid, was wrong. But whether the formal correction comes or not, the faith of many will be shaken in the months ahead. We have yet to see the worst of this crisis. Let us pray Pope Francis will understand that and then remember the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat.  But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).



  1. I will not go into that argument here in detail, other than to say this is suggested to me by scripture (e.g., Luke 22:31-32), and among other things, seems at least implied in the Formula of Hormisdas and Pope Agatho’s letter to the Emperor and the fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council.


Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He  has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com.

26 thoughts on “High Noon: Musings on a Formal Correction of a Pope

  1. “If you do not within the next 6 months explicitly reject “not X” and affirm “X,” your silence will be interpreted as agreement to the proposition “not X.”

    Interesting thought.

    He’s had 338 days to consider already. Give him 24 hours or less. Given too much time, he could clause much trouble and great damage to the Church and the faithful.

    What if he agrees with them publicly? Is everything now all good? This could go on for quite some time.


    1. John, thanks for the comments. While it is true it has been a long time since the dubia were addressed to the pope. . .these were ONLY dubia – which asked for the pope to give his understanding. The assumption was…”we” did not know the pope’s meaning. However, with a “correction” the assumption has shifted, i.e., it appears the Pope intended “not X” (per my article) – i.e., many interpret his words in a heterodox fashion. In which case, he is now asked to reject those interpretation, while affirming only an orthodox interpretation. If he affirms orthodoxy with regard to the dubia -then all is “all good” with regard to the dubia; because the correction would require a clear affirmation of orthodoxy and rejection of heresy. Liberal bishops could no longer hide behind heterodox interpretations of AL. Pray for the pope. Remember the words of our Lord to Peter…Satan wanted to sift Peter like wheat. Pray for the pope.


  2. The deposition of popes is nothing new. Several popes have been deposed, but in the past it usually was accomplished by force. It is difficult to see how that would work nowadays.

    – DJR


    1. DJR, thanks for the comment. Deposing a pope by force from occupying the See of Rome does not remove him from the Petrine office. I do not think any human agency can truly “depose” a pope in the latter sense. A pope can resign, and if it is possible to fall into formal heresy or apostasy – to ipso facto lose his office on that account and of his own accord, a “self-deposition” so to speak.


      1. Catholics are not adequately familiar with the history of the papacy.

        The history of the Church contains instances of popes who were deposed and they were replaced by men whom the Church accepts as lawful, valid popes. Therefore, those who were deposed most certainly lost the Petrine office.

        Read the history of Benedict IX, who was pope three separate times. (See below).

        In the latter part of the 9th century, Pope Sergius III was validly elected as pope.

        His political enemies then proceeded to elect a rival, John IX, who is considered a true pope. Sergius was subsequently deposed and John installed by the emperor.

        The Church considers John IX a true pope, not an antipope.

        John then proceeded to excommunicate Sergius, and Sergius was exiled.

        Years later, Sergius marched on Rome and took the papacy by force, with the aid of Count Theophylact.

        There was a true pope at the time Sergius took the papacy (Leo V) as well as an antipope (Christopher).

        Sergius’ forces overthrew Christopher, and both Christopher and Leo were put to death, allegedly on orders of Sergius.

        However, Sergius is considered a true pope also, not an antipope.

        Sergius dated his reign from the first time he was elected years before, and he considered all the others in the meantime to be usurpers.

        Benedict IX was deposed and replaced with men whom the Church considers true popes.

        From Catholic Encyclopedia:

        Taking advantage of the dissolute life he (note: Benedict IX) was leading, one of the factions in the city drove him from it (1044) amid the greatest disorder, and elected an antipope (Sylvester III) in the person of John, Bishop of Sabina (1045 -Ann. Romani, init. Victor, Dialogi, III, init.). Benedict, however, succeeded in expelling Sylvester the same year; but, as some say, that he might marry, he resigned his office into the hands of the Archpriest John Gratian for a large sum. John was then elected pope and became Gregory VI (May, 1045). Repenting of his bargain, Benedict endeavoured to depose Gregory. This resulted in the intervention of King Henry III. Benedict, Sylvester, and Gregory were deposed at the Council of Sutri (1046) and a German bishop (Suidger) became Pope Clement II.

        If Benedict did not lose his office, then Gregory VI would have been an antipope, and so would Clement II. However, the Church considers both of those men to be true popes.

        Likewise, if Gregory VI did not lose the Petrine office, then Clement II would be a usurper and an antipope.

        But the Church considers Clement a true pope.

        There are several other instances of such things.


      2. DJR, thanks for your comments.

        I think it is generally accepted a pope cannot be deprived of his office against his will, formal heresy and apostasy being the hypothetical exception. Some Catholics pin their hopes on Benedict XVI still being pope on the theory he was forced to resign against his will. If forced deposition were a real possibility, beyond the hypothetical reasons mentioned (formal heresy and apostasy), even the premise of their argument is flawed. That said, I do not share their opinion that Benedict XVI was forced off the throne.

        I do not have time at the moment to rebut each instance above in great detail…but I will touch upon each. With regard to the case of Sergius III and John IX, JND Kelly in his Oxford Dictionary of Popes (p. 116) specifically says of this disputed election: “The scanty records of this turbulent period have left the course of events and their dates obscure.” Thus, I would not base a theory of forcible deposition (i.e., as a valid means of validly removing a pope) on such questionable cases (the one above, and the one below) as you do.

        Now, in regard to the case of Benedict IX. . . according to the source of your own choosing (which is fine), Benedict IX was deposed and replaced by an antipope – evidence that his deposition had not been valid – hence his successor is considered an antipope. Later, Benedict IX left the papacy after resigning the papacy in favor of John Gratian who became Gregory VI. This departure from office was valid. However, the Catholic Encyclopedia also notes that Gregory VI later gave up his office (see article Gregory VI) and was succeeded by Clement II. Upon Clement II’s death, Benedict was able to gain back the papal throne until at last he resigned it again.

        In summary – and with respect, I do not believe the cases you have suggested make your case in the least. The principle has always been and remained, the “the Apostolic See is judged by no man.” This make no sense if you essentially add the proviso (as your argument by implication does)- “but he may be forcibly removed by the caprice of man.”


      3. “Benedict was able to gain back the papal throne until at last he resigned it again.”

        That is contrary to the historical record. Benedict did not “resign again.” He was forcefully ejected from the papacy and was replaced by Damasus II, who was directly appointed by the emperor. After he was deposed for the last time, he continued to insist that he was the pope.

        As far as Sergius III was concerned, there is no reason to believe his first election was not a valid election. He himself maintained that it was.

        And it if was, then he was deposed.

        From the Encyclopedia Brittanica: Sergius held a synod that reaffirmed the “Cadaver Synod”—which had formally deposed the exhumed body of Pope Formosus—by once again invalidating all of Formosus’ ordinations, thus causing the church grave disorders. He considered John, Pope Benedict IV, Leo, and Christopher all as antipopes.


      4. It seems to me you are equating the accomplishment of physical ejection to actual loss of the Apostolic See, which cannot be judged by anyone but God. You seem to be suggesting the proviso I mentioned which suggests a pope can’t be judged by man, but can be tossed out by him….The logic of the argument is suspect.

        Now, with regard Benedict IX, he may have “insisted” he was still pope for a time, but the Catholic Encyclopedia states: “On the saint’s advice, Benedict definitely resigned the pontificate and died in penitence at Grottaferrata.” (See CE article on Benedict IX).

        Regarding, Sergius III you cannot have it both ways. It is true Sergius III dated his pontificate from the first (disputed) election (898 AD I believe). If you find Sergius III’s *opinion* of his first election to be the determining factor, then it would undermine your argument in that he considered his deposition unlawful and invalid and without effect (hence his early dating of his pontificate). Thus, Sergius seems to insinuate by this device his deposition was invalid and his pontificate *uninterrupted* (which is what you are trying to deny). However, Sergius III’s opinion of his first election is not the determinining factor. He underwent papal consecration to enter into office in 904 AD, so his actions undermine his dating, so his position was self-contradictory. The early dating had as an ulterior motive – undoing the policies of his predecessors. Regardless, his dating was no more than opinion, and I do not know of any indication he officially proclaimed it as a dogmatic fact.

        What I said in my prior response addresses the status of our knowledge of the details and timing of the events. Rome was divided by various factions in those times, so one must not be too quick to concede that a faction’s choice for pope was really *the* pope (even if they were quicker to the punch). As I suggested before with the JND Kelly quote, the information from that ‘turbulent’ age is too uncertain for you to make any solid argument. Now, if you’d like to go on with this discussion, feel free to send your arguments/points to my email, given on the site. Regards, and thanks for reading.


      5. In addition to the others, John XII was deposed and replaced with Leo VIII. Leo VIII was a valid pope.


      6. Finally, with regard to your points above, see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Leo VIII (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09160b.htm). The account given here does not contradict my position. John XII was physically deposed, but was not un-poped (so to speak). He returned to Rome and condemned the – at the point – antipope LEO who had taken his place. Only later, after John’s death, can Leo be regarded as a true pope (see CE article on LEO VIII, and also its discussion of a Benedict between them). The bottom line is, the cases of John XII and Leo VIII do not prove your points. Okay…any more of these examples, feel free to email them to me. Regards.


  3. Why do some conflate “correcting” with “deposing”? Or that a correction must include deposing or a threat thereof?
    From Card. Burke and Brandmüller recent utterances [respectively: http://thewandererpress.com/catholic/news/frontpage/interview-with-cardinal-burke-discriminating-mercy-defending-christ-and-his-church-with-true-love-2/ & https://onepeterfive.com/cardinal-brandmuller-tradition-making-papal-professions-faith/%5D and Abp Fernández [it is said that he is the ghostwriter of AL] coming out swinging but this time on the defensive and touching on what the dubia raised [https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2017/08/21/papal-confidante-says-amoris-critics-locked-death-trap-logic/], I speculate that the correction in camera caritatis may have been given.


    1. Thanks for your comment F M. I concur with your speculation. The hornets next is stirring. As for correcting…it need not include deposing; but Cardinal Burke’s reference that the pope ‘would be obliged’ to respond suggests to me *this* formal correction/declaration would carry such an implicit or explicit ‘threat’ or consequence. Hypothetically, I don’t see the threat of deposition is necessary in the declaration; because an affirmation of a heretical proposition would accomplish this.


    1. Thanks “thewarourtime” for the comment. I do not think correcting must include the idea of deposing or a threat of it. As I commented above, I found Cardinal Burke’s statement that the pope would be obliged to respond, remarkable. I do not see how this could be possible in the case we are discussing, unless the substance of the declaration implicitly or explicitly suggested it – as I point out in the article. If you can suggest to me how a pope might otherwise be said to be “obliged to respond”. . .I am more than willing to hear it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with FM that a correction need not include or even imply imminent or even threatened deposition. In fact, it could be just as Cdl Burke said it was originally, a fraternal act of love {which could have been received with fraternal appreciation!}.

        Having said that, and having some of the same thoughts you both have expressed vis a vis the likelihood of a correction having already been made in private, I myself am “obliged” to wonder “How?” if the Pope will not receive the Dubia Brothers!? Did one or more scale the Vatican wall and sneak in to meet the Pope over his morning coffee? Was a note of correction tied to a rock and tossed thru the Pope’s bedroom window?

        Thus, since we have been told the Pope refused to meet the Cardinals, I am of a mind to believe the word “obliged” does indeed imply a threat. I do not think Burke is just pulling words out of the air, either. I do not know just exactly what “obliged” means, but I am of a mind to think the players involved will include more than merely Cardinals Burke, Caffarra and Brandmüller.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Rod, thanks for your comments. I am only speculating the correction happened due to the hornets buzzing about. It seems someone has whacked their nest. Admittedly though…based on the dubia cardinals audience track record – it is hard to see logistically how it might happen. If a large number of cardinals asked for a meeting – I think it would be harder, but not impossible for the pope to keep dodging. Another scheduled meeting with cardinals could be hijacked for this purpose. Ultimately, if a private meeting turns out to be impossible, the cardinals would be justified in going straight to a public correction. That they would do so seems clear – thus, it seems to me strategically (from the pope’s standpoint) the pope would take the meeting, hoping to do what he could to head off a public correction, or at least gather more intelligence on his opposition if he fails in doing so.


  4. Yes, I actually sort of fear this particular Pope making an orthodox affirmation as I suspect it would be likely a case of, for lack of a better word, taqiyya.

    Affirm anything and then go ahead and allow anything, just as has been going on for a long time.

    Before this “religious deception” of Protestantization {CCC 675} is purged, proofs in the form of sweeping excommunications, interdicts and laicizations are, I am becoming more and more convinced, going to need to be a large and essential part.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s