What Happens if a Pope is a Heretic?

So firstly let me make very clear - I am not insinuating that any Pope past or present is a heretic or holds heretical beliefs.
However, I’m obviously reflecting on this question due to the current controversy over what Pope Francis did or didn’t say about civil unions. I’m going to choose to hope that it was a misinterpretation or misquote until further evidence arises.
Anyway, my question: Has there ever been, in the past, a Pope who was a public heretic (obviously if someone held heretical beliefs privately we’d never know), and what happened to them as a result? Is there a canonical process for such a situation?
If a Pope in the future were to say they believed something that was fundamentally opposed to Church teaching, for example, that they believed women should be ordained or that the devil didn’t exist, how would that affect their position as Pope?

Obviously I know that regardless of a Pope’s own opinion or beliefs Church teaching is protected by the Holy Spirit from alteration. I know the gates of Hell shall not prevail. Just curious about this hypothetical. :slightly_smiling_face:

Nothing happens. Life goes on.

If a Pope were to defect from the Church through heresy and cease to be the Pope (which is possible since the visible head needs to be a visible member, but such heresy is more than just being wrong), the Church would recognize it like she always does when she is deprived of her head (whether by death or positive or tacit resignation) and proceed to elect a new one.

The First Vatican Council defined as a dogma that there is to be a perpetual succession of Roman Pontiffs in the primacy. Along those same lines, the Council of Constance definitively condemned the heresy that the Church could simple choose to proceed without such a head.

Therefore, the Church always retains the papacy either in act (ie a living Pope) or in potency (ie the ability to appoint a new one) and must be able to recognize when she is deprived of her head, even by divine assistance if necessary. Otherwise she could proceed indefinitely without a head and/or follow a false head, which is impossible according to the divine constitution of the Church.

The following ecclesiastically approved theology manual provides additional reasoning:

Hunter’s Outlines of Dogmatic Theology Vol 1:

First, then, the Church is infallible when she declares what person holds the office of Pope; for if the person of the Pope were uncertain, it would be uncertain what Bishops were in communion with the Pope; but according to the Catholic faith, as will be proved hereafter, communion with the Pope is a condition for the exercise of the function of teaching by the body of Bishops (n. 208); if then the. uncertainty could not be cleared up, the power of teaching could not be exercised, and Christ’s promise (St. Matt. xxviii. 20; and n. 199, II.) would be falsified, which is impossible.

This argument is in substance the same as applies to other cases of dogmatic facts. Also, it affords an answer to a much vaunted objection to the claims of the Catholic Church, put forward by writers who think that they find proof in history that the election of a certain Pope was simoniacal and invalid, and that the successor was elected by Cardinals who owed their own appointment to the simoniacal intruder; from which it is gathered that the Papacy has been vacant ever since that time. A volume might be occupied if we attempted to expose all the frailness of the argument which is supposed to lead to this startling conclusion; but it is enough to say that if the Bishops agree in recognizing a certain man as Pope, they are certainly right, for otherwise the body of the Bishops would be separated from their head, and the Divine constitution of the Church would be ruined. In just the same way the infallibility extends to declaring that a certain Council is or is not ecumenical.

To sum up, in the highly unlikely event a Pope were to defect and cease to be a visible member of the Church, the Church would recognize it–just as she recognizes when a Pope has died or resigned (this is why those who claim Benedict’s resignation was invalid are certainly wrong)–and proceed to continue the perpetual succession.


Thank you for that great explanation. It’s an interesting question!

When you stated this…

…are you meaning that his heretical belief automatically means he has defected and ceased to be a member or must he himself defect and cease to identify with the Church? The second scenario would then bring up…how is he removed if he doesn’t want to go? He still insists he’s pope?


Pope Honorius I at first was anathematized for heresy (posthumously), it was later clarified that he was anathematized for silently permitting heresy…

…in either case it was/is not a good situation.


The heresy would need to be a manifestly obstinate denial of a truth that must be believed with divine faith–some canonists describe it as obstinately refusing the infallible judgment of the Church–or a public profession into some non-Catholic religion (a formal conversion). Someone who is wrong, but thinks what they are saying is consonant with the faith, is not such a heretic.

Actual heresy would separate him, God forbid a Pope ever actually was guilty for it. The Church “is an entity with visible delineation” (Lumen Gentium 8) and the Pope is its “visible head” (Lumen Gentium 18) and “visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium 23). Finally, “[t]he bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion” (Lumen Gentium 14).

Anyone who deliberately breaks those visible bonds ceases to be a visible member of the Church–and that includes the preeminent visible member, the visible head.

As an extreme example, if the Pope were to formally convert to Islam or Hinduism or Lutheranism, there would be no controversy–even without an explicit resignation, all would agree that since the prior one visibly left the Church, the visible Church would need to elect a new visible head.

This power to recognize when the Church needs to elect a new head (whether due to death, resignation, or otherwise) resides formally in the Church of Rome, which itself holds the primacy over all the other Churches, and in practice is carried out by certain officers of that Church defined by law (the Cardinals, for example, are all clergy of Rome, even those who also govern Sees outside Rome). By necessity this may also devolve to the entire episcopate as representative of the universal Church, as happened at the Council of Constance.

Neither the entire Church of Rome, nor entire body of the episcopate would not err in this matter. But there would no doubt be divisions, like the during the Great Western Schism. It would be messy, so let’s pray it never happens.


Thanks again!

One final question…how would they handle it if the pope became insane in some way…or severe dementia. He starts believing his delusions yet won’t step down. Still the same?

Btw, has that ever happened?

It hasn’t happened, but the closest analogy is a Pope being imprisoned (which has happened). Here’s an article on it. Essentially it seems the Church would just carry on with the person as Pope, but the vicar would carry on the day to day responsibilities (minus those things particular to the person of the Pope alone.) The author below argues its time for some canonical legislation in this regard.


Excellent article!

Am I terrible person because this paragraph made me laugh?

“The camerlengo is a very trusted cardinal named by the pope to this special job. He would appear to be the logical one to make the determination that the pope is impeded. He needs to rely on truly competent experts in determining that the pope is dead; the same would be true in determining if the pope is impeded.“

Sorry, it just made me chuckle to picture having to call in an expert to determine if he was dead…verify, ok. But determine? :joy:

Anyway, thanks so much. I hope my questions weren’t out of bounds. I had just never though of these scenarios and how they would be handled! :heart::heart::heart:


Jesus didn’t promise impeccability to the leader of the Church. Technically being a heretic and teaching heresy are two different things.


What happens is that you keep your hand to the plow and keep taking care of what’s yours to take care of. You are a soldier in God’s army. Bullets may fly past you, bombs may go off, you keep doing what you are supposed to do. That’s all you have control over.


My u nderstanding is there have been bad men who became pope, but even then, error was not taught. The Holy Spirit will not allow error to be taught. So a bad guy who’s a pope can say this or that but everything out of his mouth isn’t infallible. So just make sure you know what the Church really teaches (Canon Law, Catechism) and pray for our vicar, whoever he is.


A long time ago, there was a Pope who started acting pretty crazy. They solved the problem by imprisoning and murdering him. I would hope that would not happen today, although there would likely be subtle ways of bumping off a Pope by poisoning or an “accident”.

I always figure if the Church could survive popes like Stephen VI, it must truly be under God’s care and protection.


I hope this article by Brian Harrisson (a highly regarded Theologian is of assistance

Also, I like Heretic and Schismatic have been abused so much by both supporters and opponents of he current Pope that they have most of their meaning, the same way BLM/Antifa have basically rendered the word = “racist” as a meaningless slur. We should not use suhc terms unless we are fully aware of the Canonical definition thereof, and it would actually be appropriate in the circumstances.


Heresy is defined as “belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religion”. So a person’s idea of what constitutes “heresy” depends first on what they consider “orthodox” belief - which invariably seems to include a healthy dose of their own personal opinion, unless we’re discussing one of the old historic heresies like Donatism or Jansenism.


Thanks for your replies, very helpful. Just re the above, what exactly would be required to constitute heresy? You said someone who is wrong, but thinks what they are saying is consonant with the faith is not a heretic - surely that doesn’t apply to any and all of the Church’s teachings?
Would simply disagreeing with some Church teaching or other not make someone a heretic? If a Pope, to use my earlier example, were to say that Satan was not a person but merely an analogy, or something, would that be actual heresy? Or what would?

Here you go


Very interesting and very complicated! Definitely helps answer my question to the extent that any clear answer is available.

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The article posted by Inbonum was good. My understanding of this comes primarily from the book “Papal immunity and liability in the writings of the Medieval Canonists” by Fr. James Moynihan in 1961 (he would later become bishop of Syracuse).

The necessary heresy would either be a visible separation through a public profession of faith in another religion (say, if the Pope formally converted to Lutheranism) or an obstinate public refusal of a truth that the Church says must be believed with faith. Sometimes this is described as publicly refusing the infallible teaching authority of the Church (e.g. if he publicly, explicitly, and obstinately refused to assent to a particular dogmatic definition). There seems to be a general consensus that it can’t be a new heresy–which would be why, say John XXII or possibly Honorius I, did not fall into this category (the heresies they are associated with were condemned after their deaths)–because in those cases there can be a presumption that person is arguing in good faith that their doctrine is consonant with the deposit of faith.

Given the the Pope himself is the supreme teacher, the circumstances where a Pope could public manifest his direct opposition to the infallible teaching authority seem pretty narrow and unlikely. Regardless of whether Pope Francis or any recent (or prior) Pope is in error or not, they all clearly think what they are doing is consonant with the faith and a legitimate development of it and there are always at least colorable arguments for it. Modern sedevacantists generally make their decision based on theological conclusions they disagree with (not direct opposition by a Pope to a particular definition) or actions that in prior law might have made one “suspect of heresy” (even then, there were exceptions)–but that phrase was just a first step in a canonical process. It never meant by itself that one was actually guilty of heresy.


There is the rub. Who has enough authority over the Pope to define heresy? I guess I do not mind these type of hypothetical questions, as long as no one takes them too seriously. They really are extremely hypothetical. It might not take an infinite improbability drive, but it is not something we will see.

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