Curiouser and Curiouser: Who Dispensed Jorge Bergoglio SJ from his vows?

July 31, 2018 (Steven O’Reilly) – UPDATED 9/13/2018 – This blog post is an update and expansion of an article first written in August of 2017, updated again July 31, and yet again now. The idea for the article originated within Jesuit circles in the year following the election of Jorge Bergoglio S.J. The issue, in a nutshell, was this: Jesuits profess a number of vows. A couple of these vows certainly appear to be obstacles or at least serve as a speed bumps for a Jesuit who might become a pope – unless the obligations of these vows were dispensed by the proper religious authority.

I was intrigued by the thought there were doubts whether Jorge Bergoglio S.J. had been properly dispensed from his vows. I was also puzzled by the Jesuit writers I’ve come across – and who idolize Francis, but who are at the same time rather clumsy and weak in their attempts to explain the issue of the vow away. It seemed to me there might be an exposed raw nerve here. The relevant Jesuit vow is given here (emphasis added):

“I also promise that I will never strive for or ambition any prelacy or dignity outside the Society; and I will to the best of my ability never consent to my election unless I am forced to do so by obedience to him who can order me under penalty of sin.” (see here)

Therefore, looking at the election of Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., to the papacy in the 2013 conclave and wondering who forced him to accept (i.e., to ‘consent to his election‘) the papacy by obedience, I asked a simple question:   who dispensed Jorge Bergoglio SJ from his vows?

But, before proceeding to examine the question anew, I want to make clear I am not one prone to conspiratorial plots regarding Pope Francis or the conclave that elected him.  I have rejected and rebutted the “Benedict is still pope” theory a number of times in a number of ways (see Thoughts on Free Will and Hypothetical Papal Plots  and Benedict is NOT pope  and Benedict is STILL not Pope  and A Filial Correction of those who believe Benedict is still Pope?).  I believe the “Benedict is still pope” theory to be utterly absurd – and adherents to it to be barking up the wrong tree.

I am not in the conspiracy business. I am just curious.  As a former intelligence officer, I do not like loose ends. But, sometimes, when you tug at loose ends, the thread keeps coming out as one pulls at it. I had hoped the August 2017 article might generate some answers to my question, but things seem to have only gotten “curiouser and curiouser” (NB: I still invite feedback and will protect anonymity of responders as requested). Let us review some background that explains my puzzlement.  I have already quoted the Jesuit vow in question, and now provide additional background from this Wikipedia quote from an article on Jesuit Formation (emphasis added):

“The professed of the Four Vows take, in addition to these solemn perpetual vows five additional Simple Vows: not to consent to any mitigation of the Society’s observance of poverty; not to “ambition” or seek any prelacies (ecclesiastical offices) outside the Society; not to ambition any offices within the Society; a commitment to report any Jesuit who does so ambition; and, if a Jesuit does become a bishop, to permit the general to continue to provide advice to that bishop, though the vow of obedience to Jesuit superiors is not operative over matters the man undertakes as bishop. Under these vows, no Jesuit may “campaign” or even offer his name for appointment or election to any office, and if chosen for one must remind the appointing authority (even the Pope) of these Vows—if the Pope commands that the Jesuit accept ordination as a bishop anyway, the Jesuit must keep an open ear to the Jesuit general as an influence.”  (Jesuit Formation.  Wikipedia)

Further, of these vows, the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J., wrote the following (emphasis added):

The third vow besides the solemn vow is to never seek or accept unless under formal obedience and pain of mortal sin from the Pope, any dignity in the Church: we are forbidden under pain of mortal sin to become bishops. And the fourth vow to protect the third – we are bound under sin to resist every effort to advance us in the Church.” (History of Religious Life: St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus, by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.)

Another Jesuit, Fr. Thomas Massoro, S.J. wrote an essay on Pope Francis which, while noting the oddity of a Jesuit pope, described the vow in terms similar to Fr. Hardon S.J., above (emphasis added):

“At the time of the election of Francis, some observers wondered aloud why it had take 450 years of Jesuit history for the order to supply a pope to the universal Church.  The inquiry is easily answered upon examination of the content of the vow that Jesuits take upon solemn profession. Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola was so convinced of the necessity of binding members of the Society of Jesus to the intention never to ambition to high ecclesiastical office that he included in the Jesuit Constitutions a solemn vow never to actively seek (or even accept if offered, at least initially) positions such as bishop and pope. The rare Jesuit who does become a bishop or cardinal represents an exception to the rule, justified by especially pressing needs of the church, and only after a process that includes an initial attempt to decline the nomination before being prevailed upon by ecclesiastical authorities, and of course always with the permission of legitimate superiors.”[(Pope Francis as a Global Actor: Where Politics and Theology Meet, editors Alynna J. Lyon et al.  Palgrave Macmillan. Chapter 3: “The First Jesuit Pope: The Contribution of His Jesuit Charism to His Political Views” by Thomas Massaro, S.J., n. 7 p. 55)]

The citations above demonstrate that a fully professed Jesuit vows to “never seek or accept unless under formal obedience and pain of mortal sin from the Pope, any dignity in the Church” and they are “are bound under sin to resist every effort to advance” them in the Church.  Massaro explicitly states this applies even to the office of pope. Given the above, the question of Jesuit vows and papal elections is an interesting one. St. Thomas Aquinas took up the question of vows in the Summa Theologica as to whether one is bound to a vow (emphasis added):

The obligation of a vow is caused by our own will and intention, wherefore it is written (Deuteronomy 23:23): “That which is once gone out of thy lips, thou shalt observe, and shalt do as thou hast promised to the Lord thy God, and hast spoken with thy own will and with thy own mouth.” Wherefore if in taking a vow, it is one’s intention and will to bind oneself to fulfil it at once, one is bound to fulfil it immediately.

But if one intend to fulfil it at a certain time, or under a certain condition, one is not bound to immediate fulfilment. And yet one ought not to delay longer than one intended to bind oneself, for it is written (Deuteronomy 23:21): “When thou hast made a vow to the Lord thy God thou shalt not delay to pay it: because the Lord thy God will require it; and if thou delay, it shall be imputed to thee for a sin.” (Summa Theologica, Question 88, Article 3, Reply to Objection 3)

Three things stand out to me from St. Thomas. God commands that one “shalt do as thou hast promised” and that God will “require” the vow to be fulfilled, and if one does not keep it, “it shall be imputed to thee for a sin.” Therefore, in light of all the above, I find the question regarding the dispensation of the Jesuit vows taken by Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., an intriguing one. Having thus framed the question, for the remainder of the article I will only use sources friendly to Pope Francis:  Austen Ivereigh, Fr. James Martin, S.J., and Matt Spotts, S.J.

(1)  Austen Ivereigh tells us that Cardinal Bergoglio was approached at the 2013 conclave by those who worked on his behalf to elect him pope. Speaking of the effort to elect Cardinal Bergoglio in 2013, Mr. Ivereigh’s account is quoted in an article in The Telegraph:

“Spotting their moment, the initiative was now seized by the European reformers who in 2005 had pushed for Bergoglio,” Mr Ivereigh, who once served as Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s press secretary, explains in the book.” (Pope Francis: how cardinals’ Conclave lobbying campaign paved way for Argentine pontiff, by John Bingham in The Telegraph, November 22, 2014)

The article continues with Mr. Ivereigh’s narrative (emphasis added):

“They had learnt their lessons from 2005,” Mr Ivereigh explains. “They first secured Bergoglio’s assent. Asked if he was willing, he said that he believed that at this time of crisis for the Church no cardinal could refuse if asked.

“Murphy-O’Connor knowingly warned him to ‘be careful’, and that it was his turn now, and was told ‘capisco’ – ‘I understand’.

Then they got to work, touring the cardinals’ dinners to promote their man, arguing that his age – 76 – should no longer be considered an obstacle, given that popes could resign. Having understood from 2005 the dynamics of a conclave, they knew that votes travelled to those who made a strong showing out of the gate.” (Pope Francis: how cardinals’ Conclave lobbying campaign paved way for Argentine pontiff, by John Bingham in the Telegraph, November 22, 2014)

If we are to trust Mr. Ivereigh, a number of cardinals campaigned for Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., at the 2013 conclave.  That cardinals campaigned for him is not in itself a problem.  However, Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., was bound by a vow – unless previously dispensed from it – not to “ambition” for any office in the Church, of which the papacy, assuredly, is one.  Yet, Mr. Ivereigh informs us the cardinals campaigning for him “first secured Bergoglio’s assent.” On the face of it, taking Mr. Ivereigh as a truthful source, it appears that Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., clearly violated one of his Jesuit vows – that is, unless he had been previously dispensed from it with regard to the 2013 conclave. Now, perhaps, it may be argued that Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., only gave a passive assent to the campaigning on his behalf.  However, one may then rightly ask whether giving assent to others to seek a dignity on one’s behalf runs afoul of the spirit of the Jesuit vow not to “ambition” or seek “any dignity.” Fr. Hardon was quoted earlier in this article on the vow: “and the fourth vow to protect the third – we are bound under sin to resist every effort to advance us in the Church.”

Did Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J.,  “resist every effort” not to advance him? If we are to trust Mr. Ivereigh’s account, the efforts on Bergoglio’s behalf only began after he gave his “assent.” It is difficult to believe that the cardinals who campaigned for Cardinal Bergoglio would have done so had he withheld his assent, and had instead “resisted” their approach.  Therefore, it seems to me – assuming arguendo the truth of Mr. Ivereigh’s account – to the question “did Cardinal Bergoglio resist every effort to advance himself in the Church” – the answer must be a definitive “no. If Jorge Bergoglio had not been released from this vow prior to the 2013 conclave, then clearly he was still bound by this vow “under pain of mortal sin” per the authority of Fr. Hardon, S.J.  But, surely, Jorge Bergoglio was dispensed by somebody, right?  Surely, he must have been.  I just would like to know by whom.

(2) I came across an old article written by Fr. Martin, S.J., dating back to March 21, 2013 for the Jesuits’ own review, America – just days after the election of Pope Francis (see Is the Pope still a Jesuit, by Fr. James Martin, S.J.). The most interesting tidbit was a seeming throw-away line in the last paragraph of Fr. Martin’s article (emphasis added):

“And to answer two other questions that have come up frequently: Yes, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus is obedient to Pope Francis, not the other way around.  In a few days, Father General will meet with the Pope Francis to “formally” to offer his own obedience, as Superiors General have done with every Pope. And no, I seriously doubt that Cardinal Bergoglio asked the permission of the Superior General to accept his election as pope; besides, he was locked away in the conclave.

I found this statement interesting, as here we have a Jesuit, Fr. Martin, clearly suggesting Cardinal Bergoglio S.J. was not dispensed from his vow by the Superior General of his order (Fr. Adolfo Nicolás), excusing it in passing because “he (i.e., Bergoglio) was locked away in the conclave.” Now, while it is true Bergoglio was locked away in a conclave, the cardinal electors could have easily sent for Superior General and had him brought across the Tiber to the Vatican within the half hour to provide a dispensation. I have seen no reporting to suggest this happened. Indeed, an article in Crux by Austen Ivereigh on the reminiscences of Fr. Nicolás regarding his conversations with Pope Francis indicate the “first ever” conversation between Bergoglio as Pope and Fr. Nicolás occurred days after Bergoglio’s election (see here). Furthermore, there is no indication in the article that Pope Francis asked Fr. Nicolás for a dispensation from his vows when they finally did meet after the election. However, even if Fr. Nicolás had given a dispensation at this point, i.e., after the fact, such a dispensation would still appear problematical because Jorge Bergoglio should not have consented to his election at all until he had first obtained it. With this in mind, we again call to mind Fr. Hardon who in his work on the Society of Jesus (see here) stated a Jesuit cannot accept any Church dignity “unless under formal obedience and pain of mortal sin from the Pope.” Thus, there being no living pope being able to do so and no Superior General of the Jesuits present in the conclave of March 2013 – nor even sent for, it appears fair to ask: who then dispensed Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., from his vows not to accept any selection or election to any dignity or office in the Church?

(3) Recently, I came across an article in the Jesuit Post by yet another Jesuit, Matt Spotts, S.J., entitled What’s So Weird about a Jesuit Pope dating back to March 14, 2013, soon after the conclave that elected Cardinal Bergoglio. Perhaps sensitive – even back in those days immediately following the election of Francis – to the questions such as I am asking here; Matt Spotts, S.J., offered his take on an answer (emphasis added):

At times a pope commands that a Jesuit lay aside his life under the Jesuit rule and take up an entirely different role as a bishop.  And yesterday, for the first time in our history a conclave told a Jesuit bishop to take up the office of Bishop of Rome.  A honest and faithful Jesuit must strive to balance the the requirement not to seek honors and the Jesuit obligation to obediently serve the mission of the Church.

Like Fr. Martin, the writer appears to recognize the lack of a pope or anyone else to dispense Cardinal Bergoglio S.J. from his vows to be something worthy of comment.  In order to get around this difficulty Matt Spotts S.J. asserts the “conclave told a Jesuit bishop to take up the office of Bishop of Rome.”  However, this proposed solution to the problem seems to me to be an insufficient one. The difficulty here is that cardinal-electors in a conclave cannot command or order or “tell” anyone to accept the papacy, nor do they have the authority to dispense vows which require the authority of a pope or the Superior General of the Jesuits. Consider, what the papal legislation governing conclaves (Universi Dominici Gregis, 1:1) declares regarding the authority of the cardinals in a conclave:

During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, the College of Cardinals has no power or jurisdiction in matters which pertain to the Supreme Pontiff during his lifetime or in the exercise of his office; such matters are to be reserved completely and exclusively to the future Pope. I therefore declare null and void any act of power or jurisdiction pertaining to the Roman Pontiff during his lifetime or in the exercise of his office which the College of Cardinals might see fit to exercise, beyond the limits expressly permitted in this Constitution. (Universi Dominici Gregis, 1:1)

Thus, we read, the College of Cardinals does not have the “power or jurisdiction in matters which pertains to the Supreme Pontiff.”  This, at least as it appears to my amateur eyes, would suggest the College of Cardinal cannot dispense someone from vows which would otherwise require the authority of the Supreme Pontiff. Nor does the Code of Canon Law appear – again to my admittedly very amateur eyes – to allow an out here (see Canon 1191-1198).  If not, what a Supreme Pontiff must dispense must remained “undispensed” until another pope is elected; as the principle of non-contradiction would prevent Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., from dispensing himself of his own vows. That aside, it is quite clear that no one can “command” someone to accept their election as pope against their free will or if their will is bound by the obligation of a vow that has not been dispensed. St. Thomas Aquinas speaking on the question as to “Whether the authority of a prelate is required for the commutation or dispensation of a vow” says the following (emphasis added):

 I answer that, As stated above (1 and 2), a vow is a promise made to God about something acceptable to Him. Now if you promise something to anyone it depends on his decision whether he accept what you promise. Again in the Church a prelate stands in God’s place. Therefore a commutation or dispensation of vows requires the authority of a prelate who in God’s stead declares what is acceptable to God, according to 2 Corinthians 2:10: “For . . . have pardoned . . . for your sakes . . . in the person of Christ.” And he says significantly “for your sakes,” since whenever we ask a prelate for a dispensation we should do so to honor Christ in Whose person he dispenses, or to promote the interests of the Church which is His Body. (Summa Theologica, Question 88, Article 12)

Therefore, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, it appears it would have been necessary for the proper ecclesiastical authority to dispense Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., from his vows (NB: again, per Fr. Hardon, S.J., quoted earlier:  “The third vow besides the solemn vow is to never seek or accept unless under formal obedience and pain of mortal sin from the Pope, any dignity in the Church…”). Absent such a dispensation of his vow to God, it does not appear to me Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., would have been free to accept his election as Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church because God cannot contradict himself.  That is, it would seem a contradiction to suggest God would confer something on one specifically (i.e., the office of the papacy), which one has vowed generally to God not to accept (i.e., any dignity or office in the Church – of which the papacy is one). Was Jorge Bergoglio’s will free to act or was he bound by one or more vows in God’s eyes?  If that is a proper question to ask, who then dispensed Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., from the vows which bound him to neither seek nor accept any office, even if elected to it, under pain of mortal sin.

Obviously, there was no pope to dispense Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., from his vow, and even Fr. Martin ‘seriously doubted’ Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., asked the Superior General of the Society of Jesus for permission to accept his election as pope. We have also seen that the cardinal-electors in a conclave do not and cannot command or order anyone to accept the papacy – nor do they appear a proper authority to release someone from a vow reserved to a pope. Furthermore, there is no indication Bergoglio even ‘initially refused’ to accept the papacy – something which we might have heard by now if this had happened.  But, certainly, Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., must have been released from his vows by someone. Otherwise, if – hypothetically – Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., was still subject to his vows going into the conclave of 2013, he should not have accepted his election.  And, if Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., should not have accepted the papacy, there is another curious hypothetical to ponder: while his election might have been valid in form and procedure, would his acceptance of the papacy have been null and void because he was not free – per his vows to God – to give it [e.g., “the Lord thy God will require it” (Deuteronomy 23:21)]?   

I am not alleging anything. There may be a simple answer. This, I readily admit.  I just found the commentary of Mr. Ivereigh and the four cited Jesuits raising – indeed begging – more questions than they answered. As I said, I do not like loose ends, and this seems to be one: who dispensed Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., from his Jesuit vows?

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA)


10 thoughts on “Curiouser and Curiouser: Who Dispensed Jorge Bergoglio SJ from his vows?

  1. Excellent, Your Excellency! I knew about this rule reading that Bellarmine had to be virtually tackled by the Pope (St. Pius V?) to take the Cardinalate, so assumed at the time that when Bergoglio was made bishop, that had cleared the path for even higher rank. I also assumed that since it wasn’t an issue in the blogosphere it must be so. Is it possible that GB was given such a blanket permission? You’re so right that the handful of Cardinals, who are true Cardinals, could elect a solid Pope. Thank you for struggling so mightily and keeping the Hope level high! Vera Schraa


    1. Thank you for your response, Vera. Yes; it could very well be that Jorge Bergoglio SJ did receive a blanket dispensation from these vows. That would be the simple explanation. Curiously though, that is not the explanation suggested by the few Jesuits that have noted and commented on the issue – or at least of these I have found to date.

      If such a blanket dispensation is the explanation; documentary evidence of it should exist. Regards.


  2. Bergoglio was slated to be elected Pope at the time of the election of BXVI, and came in a very close second. So he had already made this “agreement” or gotten the dispensation in 2005. Kolvenbach (from the Netherlands) was the superior at that time, and had succeeded the awful Arrupe. And while he was better, he wasn’t a lot better, just quieter. So it could have been Kolvenbach, if Bergoglio was already planning on being pope in 2005. Adolfo Nicolás, a Spaniard elected in 2008, would have been the black pope during the election to replace BXVI.

    On the other hand, Bergoglio simply may have gone ahead and said nothing to anybody but just assumed that his power would be such an aphrodisiac to the Jesuits that they would throw themselves at his feet no matter how many vows he broke. And judging by his attitude in his dealings with the clergy, vows are just not that important…just another part of the bad old pre-VII universe.


    1. Isabel, thank you for your comments. Your speculations are as good as mine. I just find it curious that the Jesuits I cited don’t make that case, or – for that matter – any other case based on any specific canon. The two SJs cited in the article really just throw gasoline on the question, at least in my opinion. I am quite sure no SJ will publicly raise the doubt, even as a hypothetical – even if privately that might at least wonder. It would be great to get some private emails from some SJs on the question – anonymity guaranteed, of course Regards, Steve


  3. The first and probably only explicit dispensation that Bergoglio required would have been due in 1992, before he was consecrated as Bishop. Subsequently John Paul II. created him Cardinal in 2001. I am a complete amateur in this but assume that such creation would automatically include a papal dispensation to accept the papacy if that were to happen. So while I agree that these Jesuits’ statements are somehow weird – and thank you so much for sharing your research and insights on this, I find this question utterly fascinating! – I do not think that a dispensation at that late stage in 2013 (or 2005) would have been necessary; it must have been given earlier, either explicitly for the consecration as Bishop, or implicitly by JP II in the creation as cardinal.


    1. George, thanks for the comments. I do agree with you that the solution, if there is one – by process of elimination – must involve an action by JP II.

      That may be the case, perhaps it is even most likely the case. However, as you noted as I have, that does not not appear to be the working assumption/understanding in the commentary among Jesuits which I have found to date (or know through private conversation) – either “for” or “against” a Bergoglian papacy. Separately, though not evidence in itself, I do find it curious that the issue has not figured in any biographical descriptions of his becoming a bishop, a cardinal or a pope – at least none of which I am aware.

      Consequently, I just would like to see a definitive explanation with supporting documentation.

      (Note: If there are any Jesuits “out there” reading this…feel free to email me private ( and share your views with me: I will keep your identities confidential).

      Thanks again, George – for reading the article and for your comments. Much appreciated.

      God bless,



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