March 20, 2019 (Steven O’Reilly) – Rorate Caeli (here) published an op-ed by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan. The bottom line of the bishop’s commentary (see Guest Op-Ed – Bishop Schneider: On the question of a heretical pope) is that there is no way to depose a heretical pope.
That Bishop Schneider wrote this commentary only a couple of weeks after his – along with the other bishops of Kazakhstan – ad limina meeting with Pope Francis (see here). This makes his article even more interesting. Bishop Schneider stated he and the other bishops had raised various doctrinal problems with Pope Francis, ones which have Francis as a common thread. Among these were communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and communion for protestants in mixed marriages. Also discussed was the Pope’s signing of a questionable statement (NB: heretical in its obvious sense) on the diversity of religions, i.e., that God had will the diversity of religions.
That Bishop Schneider would write such an opinion piece regarding what does one do with a heretical pope, certainly informs us there is no cause for near-term hope that Francis, of his own volition, will fix things. Readers should read the article on Rorate Caeli. I won’t quote much, but Bishop Schneider’s concluding paragraph well summarizes his central point.
“The act of deposition of a pope because of heresy or the declaration of the vacancy of the Papal chair because of the loss of the papacy ipso facto on behalf of a heretical pope would be a revolutionary novelty in the life of the Church, and this regarding a highly important issue of the constitution and the life of the Church. One has to follow in such a delicate matter – even if it is of practical and not strictly of doctrinal nature – the surer way (via tutior) of the perennial sense of the Church. Notwithstanding the fact that three successive Ecumenical Councils (the Third Council of Constantinople in 681, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, and the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 870) and pope Saint Leo II in 682 excommunicated Pope Honorius I because of heresy, they did not even implicitly declare that Honorius I had lost the papacy ipso facto because of heresy. In fact, the pontificate of Pope Honorius I was considered valid even after he had supported heresy in his letters to Patriarch Sergius in 634, since he reigned after that another four years until 638.”
Bishop Schneider’s opinion is that one cannot depose a heretical pope, nor does a heretical pope lose his office ipso facto. However, the Bishop’s view is different from the one previously expressed by Cardinal Burke. For example, in an interview with Catholic World Report (12/19/2016), in response to the interview question (“CWR”), Cardinal Burke replied as given below:
CWR: Some people are saying that the pope could separate himself from communion with the Church. Can the pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?
Cardinal Burke: If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.
Whether Bishop Schneider’s view is now the consensus of the few bishops and cardinals who comprise the loyal ‘resistance’ to the Pope, I cannot say. If Cardinal Burke’s position remains unchanged from the 2016 CWR interview above, then Bishop Schneider’s op-ed reveals not just a tactical, but a fundamental disagreement among the few good bishops we have left. Not only would there be a fundamental disagreement over whether a heretical pope can be deposed, but — based on other comments made by Bishop Schneider — disagreement also extends to the practical question of whether there even ought to be a correction.
This is unfortunate, which is not to say we might expect a formal correction ever from Cardinal Burke, et al. We have waited several years now already! But, while the Dubia Cardinals have done nothing visibly to correct Francis, they seem to at least flirt with the idea…and seem to tease a correction might eventually come. Not so Bishop Schneider. He seems opposed to one, for practical reasons. For example, last July, the Bishop argued (emphasis added):
“I think that – humanly speaking – a formal correction will not change the position of the Pope. What is the meaning of a formal correction? One also has to be realistic and prudent, and ask what is the best manner to serve the Church, to help the faithful? When we can foresee that the correction will not have an effect on the Pope, then, I think, it would be meaningless to make a formal correction. On the other side, we have to do all what we can, the cardinals and bishops, to strengthen the faithful. Therefore, we published several declarations in order to strengthen the faithful. I see no other possibilities for the moment.Of course, the basic requirement is to pray, to pray very intensively for the Pope that God may illuminate him. Then of course, we can hold conferences to stress this theme according to the constant Catholic sense. Maybe we could also make and spread a kind of oath against the most dangerous errors of our time. This could be made maybe by a group of theologians, and then spread. Then individual bishops can with their faithful or parish priests in the parishes publicly profess these Catholic truths. This would be, in my opinion, a concrete and efficacious means of help to address the current doctrinal confusion. The ultimate change comes only when God intervenes, when he illuminates the Pope or when He will give us a future holy and courageous Pope. (“CATHOLIC CHURCH: WHERE ARE YOU HEADING?” Theologian Dániel Fülep’s interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana Astana, Kazakhstan, July 2018, p. 40-41 [interview link here])
As we see above, Bishop Schneider said a correction of Francis is “meaningless,” at least if one “foresees…it will not have an effect on the Pope.” There is no apparent change in this position in Schneider’s recent op-ed. Instead, perhaps informed by his own recent conversation and experience with Pope Francis, the Bishop appears to have concluded his prudential judgment was reinforced, i.e., it would be meaningless to correct Pope Francis because “it will not have an effect” on him.
While silent on correcting Francis in his more recent op-ed piece, Schneider restricts any positive comments about the possibility of a formal correction for the case of a future heretical pope, i.e, obviously post-Francis. Bishop Schneider suggests:
“A pope who is spreading obvious theological errors or heresies or helping in the spread of heresies by his actions and omissions should be obligatorily corrected in a fraternal and private form by the Dean of the College of Cardinals.”
I have the greatest respect for Bishop Schneider. He is, undoubtedly, one those few, good bishops of our time — and of which his article speaks: “When by an inscrutable permission of God, at a certain moment of History and in a very rare instance, a pope spreads errors and heresies through his daily or ordinary non-infallible Magisterium, Divine Providence awakens at the same time the witness of some members of the episcopal college,
and also of the faithful, in order to compensate the temporal failures of the Papal Magisterium.”
The above said, I do, respectfully disagree with Bishop Schneider, at least in part. Regarding his view that a heretical pope cannot be deposed, my opinion is Bishop Schneider has the stronger, more probable argument (NB: my personal opinion remains a pope cannot fall into formal heresy. The fault of Honorius was that he was a favorer of heresy, something I have written about here and here, on this blog in various articles). However, I do disagree with Bishop Schneider’s apparent opinion there is no point in correcting Francis now, and that a formal correction is only to be pursued in the future if we are confronted with a heretical pope.
Taking the latter point first, a canonical obligation may require what it will, but it cannot force the Dean of the College of Cardinals to actually correct a heretical or erroneous pope. Part of our problem today is that there are so many bishops and cardinals who have either accepted error and heresy or who, if they haven’t, are afraid to speak at all. Bishops as successors of the Apostles are obliged to defend the faith, yet they have for the greater part failed in this calling. Further, there is no guarantee the future Dean of the College will not himself be infected by the same errors as the future heretical pope, and thus fail to see or admit there is any error at all. A process solution is neither the answer nor a substitute for a few courageous bishops willing to speak out. Bishop Schneider recognizes this, as he provides in his suggestion for binding norms that would allow any cardinal or bishop to offer a correction if the Dean of the College fail to so; and that even the laity may do so — should cardinals and bishops fail in this task. However, this only brings us back to our present dilemma — what do we do now?
Bishop Schneider may very be correct in his judgment that Pope Francis will be unmoved by a formal correction, but even if that may be the case, in charity, someone in error or heresy must be corrected. A correction also serves as a reminder to the faithful, so that they will be properly instructed at a time when a pope is either in error or silent.
Bishop Schneider has many great suggestions in his article, though I do not see why they must be restricted for future exigencies….we have one of our own…now. For example, Bishop Schneider suggests in the case of a future heretical pope the following:
At the same time the Dean of the College of Cardinals should publish a formula of a Profession of Faith, in which there would be rejected the theological errors that the pope teaches or tolerates (without necessarily naming the pope).
This is a fabulous idea, but as I indicated earlier, I do not see why it must be saved for future exigencies. The threat to the Church and to souls is quite real and in quite present at this moment. If Bishop Schneider and Cardinal Burke, et al, cannot get the current Dean of the College of Cardinals to issue such a formula or Profession of Faith with regard to Pope Francis, then I suggest they draft their own and circulate it worldwide for bishops to sign and profess within their own dioceses. In our own present difficulty, if for no other reason, such a document — signed by Catholic bishops from around the world — would be something beneficial for the next conclave to have before it as it gathers to elect the next pope.
In sum, the answer to the question “what do we do with a heretical pope” cannot be “nothing” — nor can we afford to punt that question or its answer to a future generation when we are dealing with error in our own time. Charity demands there be a public correction, both for the benefit of the pope and the faithful. While we may not be able to depose a heretical pope, the few good bishops and cardinals who have publicly taken a stand can draft a formula or profession of Faith — of the sort suggested by Bishop Schneider; but let’s do it now. This formula or profession should be circulated to all Catholic bishops around the world. Those willing to sign it should also be asked to profess it publicly in their own dioceses. This is something a few good bishops, ‘awakened by Divine Providence for this time,’ can do now. Such a document would be something the next conclave should have before it, as it would frame the debate and their deliberations over who the next pope should be.
Bishop Schneider is certainly correct we should pray for Pope Francis. Let us pray for Pope Francis that he remembers 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).
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, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).