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

July 31, 2018 (Steven O’Reilly) – [MOST RECENT UPDATE: September 10, 2019. Previously updated: July 9, 2019, 6/21/20199/13/2018, 10/29/2018 and 1/8/2019] – This blog post is an update and expansion of an article first written in August of 2017, updated again July 31, and after a few more updates — yet again now (7/9/2019). 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.

Jesuit Vows and Ecclesiastical Office

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? and Against the Arguments that Claim Benedict XVI 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.

Generally, 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 Popeany 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. As Thomas Massaro, S.J., notes, they are to “decline the nomination before being prevailed upon ecclesiastical authorities,” but “always with the permission of legitimate superiors.” In a Jesuit’s case, that is a pope — if one is living(!) — or the Superior General of the order. For example Jean Danielou, S.J. resisted Pope Paul VI’s efforts to make him a cardinal until he at last relented, just as St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. had resisted Pope Clement VII [See Note 1].

Jesuit Vows and Jesuit Surprise: The election of Cardinal Bergoglio S.J.

Thomas Massaro, S.J., quoted above, explicitly states the same applies even to the office of pope. Such would explain the surprise of a good many Jesuits to the election of Cardinal Bergoglio. The day after the election, Fr Jose Quilongquilong SJ, rector of the Loyola House of Studies, in Manila stated in part: “We always had this consciousness that a Jesuit could never be a pope” (see here). The Georgetown Voice, commenting on the election of Jorge Bergoglio wrote: “”A Jesuit pope is unprecedented because there are so few in church leadership. Jesuits vow to not seek higher church offices, and Father David Collins, SJ, explained that “one of [the reasons] was that Ignatius didn’t want that kind of ambition to taint the society. [Another reason] was that when you think of a religious order as a team, you want to keep your best members”” (see here). An article in The Catholic Sun, which interviewed Jesuits on the election, wrote (emphasis added):

Jesuit Father Edward Reese, president of Brophy College Preparatory, said the election of a Jesuit was unusual in that the order is a relatively new one in the Church. Beyond that, he said, there was another reason the selection was exceptional.

“Jesuits typically don’t become bishops or cardinals or anything like that,” Fr. Reese said. “In fact, we make a promise not to do that unless asked — and I mean asked in a serious way — by the pope himself.”

In a March 13, 2013 transcript of an National Public Radio interview with Fr. Robert Ballecer of the Jesuit Conference of the United States, Melissa Block asked the followed question followed the election Pope Francis (emphasis added):

BLOCK: I gather that there’s a vow taken by those in the Jesuit order not to seek offices of honor or prestige. It doesn’t get much more prestigious than the papacy. So how do you square those two things?

BALLECER: Right. We have a vow that we will not seek out office, but there have been cases where office seeks us out. We see this time and time again when we have Jesuit bishops or Jesuit cardinals. And in each case, the story goes that they refused the first time, maybe even a second time, maybe even a third time. But being obedient priests and being obedient Jesuits, if they’re asked again and again to serve their church, they will.

Here again we see the notion that the Jesuit being asked to assume higher office resist, although the reality of the vow requires dispensation by the Jesuit superior in absence of a reigning Roman Pontiff.  But, even the latter point aside, there is absolutely no evidence from the many tales of the conclave that Cardinal Bergoglio S.J., resisted his election in any way.

Even the New York Times noted at the time that Fr. Spadaro S.J., editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and closely associated with Pope Francis, when asked by journalists before the conclave if Bergoglio could be pope had replied “Not at all, because he’s a Jesuit” and that “We are used to serving a pope, not to be a pope” (see New York Times article). (NB as of 7/9/2019. My thanks to ‘Angie’ who brought a 4Christum blog article to my attention while commenting on another Roma Locuta Est article. The 4Christium blog cited this Spadaro quote from the NYT in a 7/18/2016 4Christum blog on this same topic here).

This fact might then explain the “shock” of Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., at the election of a fellow Jesuit to the papacy. The National Catholic Reporter on March 14, 2013–the day after the election of Pope Francis–reported on Lombardi, S.J., (Vatican spokesman at time of Francis’ election) and his reaction as follows (emphasis added):

The Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, told reporters: “Personally, I’m a bit shocked to have a Jesuit pope. Jesuits think of themselves as servants, not authorities in church.”

Jesuits resist being named bishop or cardinal. To be named pope — wow,” Lombardi said. “Must have been result of strong call.”

Source: National Catholic Reporter article “Society of Jesus members pleased, surprised by election of Jesuit pope,” by Dennis Coday, March 14, 2013. [NB: As with Note 1, I want to thank Mary Smith who in the comments section below brought Fr. Lombardi’s comments to my attention]

Clearly, Fr. Lombardi S.J., was shocked. He too appears to have presumed, like Massaro S.J., above, that Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., would have–or could have only accepted election to the papacy if under a “strong call” to do so. However, I am unaware of any reporting on the 2013 conclave that suggests Cardinal Bergoglio was under any strong pressure to accept the papacy, or that he at any point “resisted” such pressure.

Scripture, St. Thomas Aquinas and Canon Law on Vows

The remainder of this article goes into the question of even the relevance of such pressure, even if it had been applied, absent a prior dispensation from a pope or a dispensation from the Jesuit Superior General prior to the acceptance of the papacy, i.e., whether absent both of these conditions Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., would have had the freedom to accept his election.

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 II-II, Q 88, A 3, R 3)

Three things stand out to me from St. Thomas Aquinas. 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.”  There are quite a number of verses on vows in the Old Testament, similar to that cited by St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” (Eccles. 5:4-6). Also, similar verbiage is found in the book of Numbers: “If any man make a vow to the Lord, or bind himself by an oath: he shall not make his word void but shall fulfill all that he promised” (Numbers 30:3).

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, echoing St. Thomas Aquinas and Scripture, says of a vow: “A vow, that is, a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good, must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion” (Canon 1191).

Cardinal Bergoglio’s Jesuit Vows:  Dispensed or Broken?

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 use sources friendly to Pope Francis:  Austen Ivereigh, Gerald O’Connor, Theodore McCarrick, 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 Cardinal 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” 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) According to a LifeSiteNews book review of Gerald O’Connell’s book, The Election of Pope Francis, O’Connell reports that of the same English Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor discussed above by Mr. Ivereigh (emphasis added):

Just before the conclave began, the English cardinal spoke with Bergoglio when coming out from St. Peter’s after Mass, and after a small conversation, he told the Argentine prelate: “’Stai attento!’ (Watch out!). He nodded, ‘Capisco!’ (I understand!).” (LifeSiteNews book review of Gerald O’Connell’s book, The Election of Pope Francis)

Clearly, Cardinal Bergoglio knew politicking was underway on his behalf–and he did not resist it. There is no other way to explain his response to Murhpy-O’Connor’s warning other than to conclude he did not resist or oppose efforts on his behalf. The ex-Cardinal McCarrick relates how he was visited some time between the 1st and 3rd of March by an “influential Italian gentleman” who asked McCarrick to ‘talk up Bergoglio.‘  Fastforward, O’Connell’s book reports on a large group of Cardinals meeting on the eve of the conclave to discuss the vote, and in this meeting they tallied about 25 potential votes for Bergoglio (see here) (NB: In the first round of voting, it actually turned out Bergoglio received 26 votes, one more vote than the cardinals tallied the night before. Did he vote for himself? IF so, how is that “resistance”!). While the identity of this “influential Italian” (see Note 2) is for the moment unknown, that McCarrick would be visited before the pre-conclave congregations and asked to “talk up Bergoglio,” and that there were later pre-conclave discussions, inclusive of vote tallying, certainly points to an organized campaign for Bergoglio.

That there was such campaign is clear from the accounts of Mr. Ivereigh, Mr. O’Connell and ex-cardinal McCarrick. Protests to the contrary are even less credible when we consider Henry Sire’s book The Dictator Pope.  Sire reports that when Pope Benedict XVI publicly announced on February 11, 2013 his intent to resign, the news “took almost the whole world by surprise; not Bergoglio and his associates, however, as eyewitnesses discovered” (p.46). The book also recounts Cardinal Bergoglio received “calls of personal congratulations” (p.46) and he was said to be “exultant.”  As the author’s source reported (Emphasis added):

“One Argentinian friend, however, less well informed than the others, rang up to ask about the extraordinary news, and Bergoglio told him: “You don’t know what this means.” (Source: “The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy.”  Marcantonio Colonna. Regnery Publishing. Washingon, DC. 2017, p. 46)

It seems rather evident from the evidence that an “exultant” Cardinal Bergoglio desired the papacy, and was both aware and was certainly not “resistant” to any campaigning conducted on his behalf.

(3) 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 the 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?

(4) 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.  Electors in an ecclesiastical election do not take the place of a superior in cases where a superior’s permission is required to accept an election, at least according to the Second Council of Lyons (1274 AD), an ecumenical council [See Note 3]. 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 or a religious superior (i.e., the Superior General of the Jesuits). Nor does the Code of Canon Law appear – again to my admittedly very amateur eyes – to allow an out here (see Canons 1191-1198 here: 1983 Code of Canon Law). 

If not, what a Supreme Pontiff must dispense must remain “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 II-II, Q 88, A 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.

Final Thoughts

The seriousness of the Jesuit vows certainly explains the half dozen reactions we surveyed regarding the election of Cardinal Bergoglio (e.g., Fr. Lombardi, S.J., Fr. Spadaro, S.J., and others). The collective reactions we surveyed might be best summed up by Fr Jose Quilongquilong S.J., who, quoted earlier, said “We always had this consciousness that a Jesuit could never be a pope.

The particular vows in question require a Jesuit” never strive for or ambition any prelacy or dignity outside the Society” and “never consent to my election unless I am forced to do so by obedience to him who can order me under penalty of sin.” We have seen some expert commentary on these vows by Fr. Hardon, S.J., and Fr. Massaro, S.J., and have seen this applies to offices such as bishop and pope. Fr. Massaro states (as quoted above) that one can only accept the offered office “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.”  The conclusion above is also clear from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Scripture and Canon Law. In sum, vows must be kept or dispensed by a legitimate superior.

Obviously, there was no pope in the conclave to dispense Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., from his vows, so it would seem the Superior General of the Society of Jesus should have been the one to do so. However, 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. Indeed, there is no reporting which suggests the Superior General dispensed Bergoglio from these vows in the Conclave, before his acceptance.

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 or the Superior General of the Jesuits. 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. There are no indications in the reports he was pressured to accept the papacy. There is no sign he “resisted” his election.

If Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., had not already been released from his vows before his election. There are a couple troubling questions. First, as indicated in this article, there appears to be some grounds to believe he had in fact “ambitioned” for the papacy before the conclave.  Second, if Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., had not already been dispensed from his vows before the conclave, who dispensed him from his vows during the conclave?

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 conclave commentary of Mr. Ivereigh and the 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?

Addendum (10/11/2019): I have attempted to get someone with canon law experience to comment on the article above. I did manage to engage one such individual (a priest) on the issues raised by the article. A summary of our discussion may be found in A Discussion of Cardinal Bergoglio’s Jesuit Vows and the 2013 Conclave.  If others with such background would like to comment or discuss, my contact information is provided below. Anonymity guaranteed.

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, entitled Pia Fidelis, set during the time of the Arian crisis. The first book of the Pia Fidelis trilogy. The Two Kingdoms, should be out later this summer or by early fall 2019 (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).


Note 1:  I want to thank Mary Smith who brought the case of Jean Danielou, S.J., to my attention in the comments section below.

Note 2: Note as of June 21, 2019, the potential identity of this “influential Italian gentleman” will be a subject of a separate article. I believe this Italian visited McCarrick not only on behalf of Bergoglio’s candidacy, but with his direction and or knowledge as well (see the discussion in a three part series;  Part I: The “Influential Italian Gentleman”, Part II: Questions Regarding the “Influential Italian Gentleman”, and Part III: Bergoglio and Tornielli together on conclave eve – what was that about?).

Note 3: On the question of whether the electors can “command” someone to accept his ecclesiastical election irrespective of any obligation he may be under which would otherwise require the permission of a superior – or alternatively, that someone is free to accept his election without obtaining permission in such a case, the proceedings of the Second Council of Lyon (1274) would seem to suggest not.  This Council established rules governing papal and other ecclesiastical elections at the time. In its second Constitution entitled “On election and the power of the elected person” in section 5 it is stated (emphasis added):

5. {12} Not only do the laws bear witness but also experience, that effective teacher of reality, makes clear how damaging to churches is their vacancy, how dangerous it usually is to souls. Desirous, then, of counteracting the long duration of vacancies by suitable remedies, we make a perpetual decree that after there has been an election in any church, the electors are obliged to inform the elect as soon as conveniently possible and to ask his consent. The elect in his turn is to give it within a month from the day of being informed. If the elect delays beyond this, he is to know that from then on he is deprived of the right he would have acquired from his election,unless perhaps his condition is such that he cannot consent to his election without his superior’s leave, on account of a prohibition or some disposition of the apostolic see {13} . The elect or his electors must then earnestly seek and gain the superior’s leave as quickly as his presence or absence will permit. Otherwise, if the time has expired, even with the allowance made for the presence or absence of the superior, and permission has not been obtained, the electors are then free to proceed to another election. Furthermore, any elect must ask for confirmation of his election within three months after giving consent. If without lawful impediment he omits to do this within such a three-month period, the election is by that very fact null and void. (Second Council of Lyons, Constitutions II, 5)

My point here is to state that the principle is not what Matt Spotts S.J., suggests.  That is to say, contrary to Spotts S.J., that the electors’ can neither “command” the one elected to accept, nor dispense him of the requirement to obtain permission if such is needed. It appears quite evident that where such permission is not obtained, the one elected is not free to accept his election. The Council held that if “permission has not been obtained, the electors then are free to proceed to another election.” While the council is speaking broadly of ecclesiastical elections, the principle would seem to hold in a papal election as well if there is a case where the elected needs permission from a superior to accept. Thus, the solution suggested by Matt Spotts S.J. does not appear to be sufficient on these grounds, if we assume – arguendo – that Jorge Bergoglio S.J. going into the 2013 conclave needed permission from the Superior General of the Jesuit order to accept his election.

33 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


    2. A religious priest is dispensed from his vows when he becomes a bishop. He remains bound by the vow of chastity, which is essentially the same as a secular priest’s promise of celibacy. Jorge Bergoglio needed no dispensation from anybody in order to accept election to the papacy.


      1. Arthur, thanks for the comments. Perhaps you could provide a specific canons that states that. What I have seen are canons that discuss dispensation of those vows which may interfere with being a bishop, such as poverty – since a bishop must control property

        However, there is nothing inherent in a vow to not pursue higher office that needs to be dispensed. One only needs to be dispensed to assume the office one is offered–not the next one higher. Thus, it seems to me, unless that vow is specifically dispensed, it persists in validity. Maybe not. But, if not..I just would like to see the evidence.

        Thanks for the comment.



  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,



  4. Some very interesting speculations here about vows and about authority. I remember that Fr Lombardi, who was Director of the Vatican Press Office at the time, was astonished that Bergoglio had accepted. Cardinal Danielou refused the red hat from Pope Paul VI and only accepted it as a direct act of obedience and with the condition that he would not wear all the regalia. I have to say that the idea of Solemn Vows in general has been downplayed somewhat in today’s Church.


    1. Mary, thanks for the comments. Do you have a source/link you can send me on Fr. Lombardi SJ’s “astonishment”…and hopefully the basis of that astonishment? Was it because Bergoglio was a Jesuit? Also, similar question re Danielou SJ. He refused twice and accepted the 3rd time…but did he do so specifically owing to his vows? A source/link too if you have it. Thanks!


      1. I actually remember seeing him say so in some TV news programme straight after the conclave but here is part of an article from the Catholic Herald of 5 April 2013: “The Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ has admitted he was “a little shocked” to have a Jesuit Pope. Jesuits “think of themselves as servants, not Church authorities”, he commented.” As for Cardinal Danielou, when I was very young, reading him opened up huge horizons for me. I saw the report of his elevation to the Cardinalate in L’Osservatore Romano and I am relatively sure that it mentioned his declining because of his Jesuit vows. It would be completely in character. You might be able to find the L’Osservatore report in their archives if you are really keen.


      2. I’ll see what I can find on that…but the L’OR archives that far back are certainly hard copy only. If it is true Danielou rejected the red hat owing to his SJ vows…I will add it as a footnote.

        The other line of inquiry I am curious about is in regard to St. Robert Bellarmine. He was a Jesuit bishop and cardinal. He was actually a papabile going into a couple of conclaves in his life. I was wondering if there are any historical accounts which suggest he recognized he would need to seek and obtain the Superior General’s approval before he could accept a hypothetical election to the papacy. If anyone “out there” has a Bellarmine biography that addresses that very question…please contact me ASAP!


    2. Mary, thanks to your tip…I found this in the National Catholic Reporter from March 14, 2013:

      The Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, told reporters: “Personally, I’m a bit shocked to have a Jesuit pope. Jesuits think of themselves as servants, not authorities in church.”

      “Jesuits resist being named bishop or cardinal. To be named pope — wow,” Lombardi said. “Must have been result of strong call.”


      So….good memory, Mary! It does seem that Fr. Lombardi’s SJ astonishment assumed that Bergoglio would have resisted being named pope–and this resistance (obviously owing to his vows) would have only given way to a “strong call”. However, to my knowledge, there was no strong call suggested in any of the papal conclave reports–at least none that I recall seeing. Granted, they are supposed to be secret, but surely such a report which revealed the great “humbleness” of Francis would have leaked out! Indeed…curiouser and curiouser. Thanks, again Mary. I’ll probably update the article, either adding this info as a footnote–or perhaps in the body of the article itself.


  5. He gave his “assent” so, to my way of thinking, this assent reveals that he was ‘ambitioning’ for the Papacy. One does not give assent to taking over the reins of power for the entire Catholic world … lightly. This kind of assent is not given without prolonged and serious thought combined with discussing and asking advice from (in his case) the Superior General of the Jesuits.

    So he broke his vow which he had taken before God. However that doesn’t answer the question asked. Who dispensed him from his vows? If someone did I would think that we would know about it. Everything about a new Pope is made public usually.


    1. Mary Anne, thanks for the feedback. I quoted lots of Jesuits because I find their comments very interesting. Clearly, they seemed very shocked. No one suggested, in their public comments, that he was previously dispensed from the vows. He remained a Jesuit…thus…he remained under the vows — as I understand it.

      I agree…one would think the answer would be public by now. I wish someone would ask his press spokesman the question…but also…I want to see documentation of it as well. “Trust, but verify!”

      Thanks again for the comment.



      Liked by 1 person

    1. Claudio, thanks for the comments.

      I don’t necessarily disagree with you. Yet, there are certain ‘impediments’ to being a pope where UA does not apply. For example, take as an extreme case where a woman was somehow “elected” pope, something along the lines of the mythological case of the so-called “Pope Joan.” Another case might be the election of someone without the ability to reason and thus the inability to truly accept his election, e.g., an insane individual.

      No amount of seeming acceptance by the faithful will heal the fundamental inability of a female to be a pope. So, the question here essentially is — coming to me from within Jesuit circles: in a case where a man has taken a vow to God not to *accept* his election to the papacy, and then that man is subsequently elected without a ‘dispensation’ from that vow…is he really *free* to accept his election? In that very unique circumstance, is that really something God cures through UA? Or, is it a fundamental impediment that can only be first cured *prior* to accepting one’s election to the papacy?

      You may very well be right God would heal it through UA…but in my opinion it is an interesting question, especially so given how it came to me – and hence the reason I looked into it.

      Thanks for the comment.



      1. I agree that Universal Acceptance (UA) would not heal certain breaches like a woman being elected Pope. However I would respond back by saying that UA is also protected by the Holy Spirit such that if someone was elected Pope by a breach that can not be healed than that someone would not be universally accepted.


      2. Claudio, thanks for the response.

        Certainly, UA is a real “thing.” Like I said, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I do wonder if its conditions have been met in this specific instance. While I accept that Francis is putatively pope, I personally don’t exclude the remote possibility that Francis may one day be ruled an antipope — but any ruling on that must come from a future pope.

        Regardless, the current pontificate poses a number of problems any way one looks at it. There are potential problems regarding various attempts either to explain it, or to explain it away.

        Thanks for the comments.



      3. I completely agree with your assessment of this pontificate. I wanted to let you know that so you don’t think based on my previous comments that I have no problem with this pontificate. I have a lot of problems with this pontificate. What a different world it would have been had Cardinal Burke been elected. Now there is a truly holy prelate.


  6. Assuming worst case scenario where he was breaking his vow and was not dispensed, his universal acceptance as Pope would have healed that breach so that questioning whether he is a valid Pope is not really an issue.


  7. It seems that Bergoglio did have to be persuaded to become pope, according to the author of “Sacred Betrayals.” Persuaded by Cdl Maradiaga of Hondoras. FWIW.


  8. Q. What happens to the vow of obedience to his bishop made by a priest when he himself becomes a bishop? and who dispenses him from it? A. The release is implicit in the elevation to the episcopal office: there is no application for a dispensation, nor a rescript granting release.
    A religious priest, upon becoming a bishop, is released from his vow of poverty, and from the rules and constitutions of the Institute to which he belongs, and from the vow of obedience to his religious superior – which is transferred to the Roman Pontiff.
    So, e.g., a Salesian priest becoming a diocesan bishop remains bound by the vow of chastity, but:
    – is released from the vow of poverty, so he can administer money and resources in his own name as a bishop must do;
    – is no longer bound by the Salesian Constitutions and all that they specify for members, e.g., living in a Salesian house or community;
    – is released from obedience to the Salesian Provincial and to the “Rector Major” (the superior general) in Rome, the superiors who hitherto had decided where he was to work – and this obedience is transferred to the Pope.
    Thus, any vow to refuse higher office, unless commanded, and any other rules specifically of the Society of Jesus, cease to be binding once a Jesuit is ordained a bishop – in order that he may be free to do all that is required of a bishop. He has entered into a new state of life with its own new requirements.


    1. Fr. Peter,

      Thanks for your comments. I believe I covered this issue in a linked post in the article above (see I had asked a canon lawyer to review the thesis, and his response was similar to yours. It may very well be *the* answer.

      However, as you will find in the post I linked to just above, I provided my admittedly non-canon-lawyer observations re such an explanation. Essentially, the canon lawyer in question applied canon 705, arguing any prior vow that is not consistent with being a bishop could be prudently set aside by the newly consecrated bishop.

      However, my response is (See the my comments in the discussion with the canon lawyer) is that while a vow of poverty may certainly be such a vow that impedes one’s office as bishop — and thus, can be prudently set aside per canon 705 — a vow never to seek higher office (in this case pope) is NOT inconsistent with being a bishop. Consider, the prospect of never being able to become pope does not impede one’s office as a bishop in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Buenos Aires. So, while ultimately what you and the canon lawyer suggest may in fact be the answer — it does not seem as clear to me that a vow of poverty and a vow not to become pope are analogous in relation to c. 705. So, I have my amateur doubts c 705 applies, or at least that the case is as clear as you state.

      In other words, the mere possibility of one day being elected pope is NOT a “requirement” of being bishop or for the exercise of his office as a local ordinary. It works no hardship on him, or his flock, if he is held to his vow NOT to accept election to the papacy. This is why I don’t see the argument you make as being very strong.

      Thanks for the comments.



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