James Larson’s Rush To Depose The Theologians

The waragainstbeing.com is an interesting place. There is a lot of good thought there. Of course, in human affairs, there is always some bad with the good. One can accept the good in grateful silence, but the bad sometimes calls for…discussion.

That, I think, is the case with an article by James Larson found here, www.waragainstbeing.com/node/75, and titled A Tower of Babel:The Rush to Depose a Pope. In this article he attempts to show that a pope can never be deposed, not even for formal heresy. He focusses on a critique of John of St. Thomas’ tract on this question.

Larson’s approach is defective from the get go. I suspect he is entirely unaware of this. However, consider:
“Before beginning my analysis of John of St. Thomas’ treatise, I wish to clearly state my own position. I do not believe that a Pope can fall into formal heresy, and therefore be judged as one who has lost the Catholic Faith. Obviously, I therefore do not think he can be deposed.”
He might as well have said: “I want to make it known at the outset that I have no intention whatever of being swayed from the opinions I already hold.”

That might be a reasonable attitude if one had already done *extremely* thorough research. Unfortunately, it’s perfectly clear that he hasn’t. He mentions casually that he was just recently introduced to the theological inquiries made on this by John of St. Thomas, Cajetan, Bellarmine and Suarez. These four men define the whole arena of argument on the deposition of a pope, and are the standard authorities that other theologians reference. As for the current state of the question, he obviously has not read the only thorough and scholarly study on that, found in Salza and Siscoe’s True or False Pope.  Despite this, Larson evidently is prepared to pronounce dogma on the matter. This is at best very imprudent.

To illustrate this, I’ll just point out one major error:
“Sedevacantists focus on the teaching of Bellarmine and Suarez and their teaching that a Pope who is a manifest heretic ipso facto loses his office, without a formal judgment from the Church.”
Bellarmine and Suarez taught that a pope can lose his office, but there had to be a formal declaration (not judgment) of the Church as to his pertinacity in heresy, at which point he would be judged and deposed by Christ Himself. The way Larson puts it is not in itself incorrect (even if unclear), but when he associates that teaching with the Sedevacantist distortion of it, as if the two are identical, that shows he does not understand which is which. Salza and Siscoe thoroughly exposed this Sedevacantist deception. If you’re not up to speed on a basic understanding like this, how can you expect to be taken seriously?

As to the rest, for reasons stated below, I am not going to make a detailed critique of his article. Let’s just say it’s chock full of sophisms and misunderstandings. That’s rather ironic, since sophism is an accusation that he levels often against his antagonists in this article.
And who are these antagonists? Oh, just the aforementioned John of St. Thomas, Cajetan, Bellarmine and Suarez; only four of the greatest theologians the Church has ever had. Larson just turns entirely on its head the understanding that *all* theologians have had of things like Gratian’s Decretal, Si Papa, the inaugural sermon of Innocent III, etc. This is just ludicrous. How is it that Larson is the only one who has ever understood these things correctly?

Larson attempts to show that the dogmatic decree of Vatican I on universal papal jurisdiction, and Canon Law (Old Code 1556, New Code 1404), which states that the First See is judged by no one, forbid the possibility of deposition of a pope. So he has to claim that the traditional opinion of theologians and canonists on this point is erroneous. Hence the sophistical “analysis” of John of St. Thomas. He seems to be unaware, or inconsiderate of, the following:
“[For] those who mistakenly believe the famous axiom ‘the First See is judged by no one’ only originated at the First Vatican Council, and that therefore after Vatican I no theologian or canonist has taught that the Church can judge a pope in the case of heresy, we will provide a citation from a book that was published two decades after the close of the council [Elements of Ecclesiastical Law, Rev. S.B. Smith, 1893]. And we should also note that, following its initial publication, the book was meticulously reviewed by two canonists in Rome. In their lengthy reports…we find five or six inaccuracies that needed revision, but the following was NOT one of them:

Question: Is a pope who falls into heresy deprived, ipso jure [by the law itself] of the Pontificate?
Answer: There are two opinions. One holds that he is by virtue of divine appointment divested ipso facto of the Pontificate; the other, that he is jure divino [by divine law] only removable. Both opinions agree that he must at least be declared guilty of heresy by the Church — i.e. by an ecumenical council or the College of Cardinals.

The two opinions alluded to by Rev. Smith can be classified as the Jesuit Opinion (Suarez and Bellarmine), and the Dominican Opinion (Cajetan and John of St. Thomas)…both opinions agree that a heretical pope must at least be judged [= declared] guilty of heresy by the Church *before* any ipso facto loss of office occurs (Jesuits), or before the Church can [proceed with a judicial sentence to] ‘depose’ a pope (Dominicans).”
(Siscoe, Can the Church Judge a Heretical Pope?, Remnant, Nov. 2016)

To which can be added other post-Vatican I authorities:
J. Wilhelm
Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Encyclopedia Press 1913. 7:261.
“The pope himself, if notoriously guilty of heresy, would cease to be pope because he would cease to be a member of the Church.”

Caesar Badii
Institutiones Iuris Canonici. Florence: Fiorentina 1921. 160, 165.
“Cessation of pontifical power. This power ceases: … (d) Through
notorious and openly divulged heresy. A publicly heretical pope would
no longer be a member of the Church; for this reason, he could no
longer be its head.”

Wernz-Vidal, Jus Canonicum, 1943 (II:453)
“Through notorious and openly divulged heresy, the Roman Pontiff…by that very fact is deemed to be deprived of the power of jurisdiction even before any declaratory judgement by the Church.… A pope who falls into public heresy would cease ipso facto to be a member of the Church; therefore, he would also cease to be head of the Church.”

Udalricus Beste
Introductio in Codicem 3rd ed. Collegeville: St. John’s Abbey Press 1946. Canon 221.
“Not a few canonists teach that… the pontifical dignity can also be lost through manifest and notorious heresy. In the latter case, a pope would automatically fall from his power, and this, indeed, without the issuance of any sentence, for the First See is judged by no one. The reason is that, by falling into heresy, the pope ceases to be a
member of the Church. He who is not a member of a society, obviously,
cannot be its head. We can find no example of this in history.”

Vermeersch-I. Creusen
Epitome Iuris Canonici Rome: Dessain 1949. 340.
“The power of the Roman Pontiff ceases by…notorious heresy.
At least according to the more common teaching, the Roman Pontiff
as a private teacher can fall into manifest heresy. Then, without any
declaratory sentence (for the supreme See is judged by no one), he
would automatically fall from a power which he who is no longer a member of the Church is unable to possess.”

Matthaeus Conte a Coronata
Institutiones Iuris Canonici Rome: Marietti 1950. 1:312, 316.
“2° Loss of office of the Roman Pontiff. This can occur in various
c) Notorious heresy. Certain authors deny the supposition that the
Roman Pontiff can indeed become a heretic. It cannot be proven however that the Roman Pontiff, as a private teacher, cannot become a heretic — if, for example, he would contumaciously deny a previously defined dogma. Such impeccability was never
promised by God. [N.B.: We are speaking here of formal (sinful) heresy, because ‘contumaciously deny’ means to refuse to retract after clear and repeated proofs of the heretical nature of the pope’s belief have been given. Larson claims precisely that this preservation from formal heresy WAS promised by God]. Indeed, Pope Innocent III expressly admits such a case is possible. [Larson claims Pope Innocent III has been misinterpreted]. If indeed such a situation would happen, he would, by divine law, fall from office without any sentence…”

Eduardus F. Regatillo
Institutiones Iuris Canonici 5th ed. Santander: Sal Terrae, 1956. 1:396.
“The Roman Pontiff ceases in office:
… (4) Through notorious public heresy? Five answers have been given:
1. ‘The pope cannot be a heretic even as a private teacher.’ This is pious, but there is little foundation for it.
2. ‘The pope loses office even through secret heresy.’ False, because a secret heretic can be a member of the Church.
3. ‘The pope does not lose office because of public heresy.’ Improbable.
4. ‘The pope loses office by a judicial sentence because of public
heresy.’ But who would issue the sentence? The first See is judged by no one (Canon 1556).
5. ‘The pope loses office ipso facto because of public heresy.’ This is the more common teaching, because he would not be a member of the Church, and hence far less could he be its head.”

Serapius Iragui
Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae Madrid: Ediciones Studium 1959. 371.
“…theologians commonly concede that the Roman Pontiff, if he
should fall into manifest heresy, would no longer be a member of the
Church, and therefore could neither be called its visible head.”

J. Corridan et al., eds.
The [1983] Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America (New York: Paulist 1985), c. 333.
“Classical canonists discussed the question of whether a pope,
in his private or personal opinions, could go into heresy, apostasy,
or schism. If he were to do so in a notoriously and widely publicized manner, he would break communion, and according to an accepted opinion, lose his office ipso facto. (c. 194 §1, 2º ). Since no one can judge the pope (c.1404), no one could depose a pope for such crimes, and the authors are divided as to how his loss of office would be declared in such a way that a vacancy could then be filled by a new election.”

Wernz-Vidal, Beste, Vermeersch/Creusen, Coronata, when they say “before any declaratory judgment of the Church”, or similar, are following the opinion of Bellarmine and Suarez, who held that the Church (ecumenical council or College of Cardinals) DID have to make a simple declaration as to the fact of the crime of heresy, only it wasn’t necessary and/or possible to then follow that up with a legal sentence. Once the public declaration of fact was made by the Church, Christ Himself would judge and depose him. NOTE WELL: There are other explanations/clarifications that would have to be made about these quotes, but the point was simply to show that the opinion that a pope can be declared a formal heretic by the Church, and thus lose his office, is a *commonplace* among theologians and canonists both before and after Vatican I. Therefore, anyone who pretends to dogmatically interpret Vatican I’s dogma of the pope’s universal jurisdiction as forbidding this without any exception is being incredibly pretentious. This common opinion has been around for centuries, and has never been censured by the popes. Though not definitive, it has to be taken as the default doctrine. The only serious disagreement concerns mainly a few questions of practical procedure, especially who has the authority to make a declaration of papal heresy (ecumenical council, College of Cardinals?).

Here’s the bottom line on his article:
Larson is just a lay schmuck like you or I. Now laymen can sometimes do good theology, if they have any training in it. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a smart guy, and he’s done a lot of good thinking in other areas, but having smarts doesn’t mean you’re always right. Even when a real, trained theologian does theology, he doesn’t start with an attitude that he’s going to fight for his own preconceived notions against all theological tradition. That’s what Modernists and Liberals do. This man follows their example in pretending that he knows better than all four of these outstanding and trained minds, not to mention so many others who essentially agree with them, and is trying to replace all their doctrine with his own.
That is why I am not going to waste my time exposing any of those sophisms I mentioned. A layman does not even have a right to be taken seriously when he trashes tradition. I grant we are not talking about Tradition with a capital T; that it’s possible to depose a pope is not dogma. On the other hand, the traditional and common opinion of theologians participates in the Church’s Magisterium to the extent that it is approved by that Magisterium, and should be held unless grave reason indicates otherwise.

Now Larson certainly does think there is grave reason to overthrow the common opinion, for he says:
“The position of John of St. Thomas, and that of the SSPX and others who seek the Pope’s deposition, is however, something which now poses an immense threat to the Church. It portends a descent into chaos which would make the present crisis of disunity and rebellion in the Church look like child’s-play.”
Leaving aside the fact that it is a falsehood that the SSPX is seeking the pope’s deposition, Larson’s view is that deposition of the pope will inevitably lead to a situation far worse than what we have now.
I have to argue that this is completely crazy.
Imagine the following — what I would say is a worst case scenario:
1) The pope is unilaterally “deposed” by a small group of cardinals and/or bishops (rather than an ecumenical council or a majority of Cardinals, as the common opinion says should happen). This group “elects” a new “pope”. The result is huge disagreement as to who the pope is, as in the Great Western Schism. There is thus made an obvious split between the Traditionalist and Modernist factions in the Church. Many Traditionalists, and even Neo-Cons, will follow this new “pope” into what would *possibly* be objective schism. Does this mean they will lose their souls? Hardly likely, because even if the common opinion requires a declaration of heresy against the pope be done by a council or majority of Cardinals, rather than a small group of Cardinals and bishops, an argument could be made that this is not necessary in the present catastrophic circumstances, when most Cardinals and bishops are (at least objective) heretics also. In any case, God is not going to damn anyone for doing what they genuinely thought necessary, as long as it was not through crass ignorance.
Now imagine another scenario:
2) We DO have a pope. Almost everyone agrees who he is, but the pope is a radical Modernist who is destroying the Church as fast as he can by enacting evil laws, crushing Traditional religious orders, fully backing the Masonic New World Order, encouraging the invasion of Christian countries by violently anti-Christian Muslims, encouraging homosexuality in the Church and world, allowing (or asking) that an official Vatican sex education program be produced that is pornographic and destructive of innocence, and, among other things and worst of all, is preaching and trying to enforce situation ethics and moral gradualism, which is the *total* destruction of *all* law and order, whether Christian or not.

Oh, I forgot…we don’t have to imagine that last possibility; it’s what we have NOW.

Re/ #1: As is perfectly clear to many people, the much-feared schism has been with us already for many years, and is by this time quite bitter and acrimonious. It is only going to get worse if things continue as they are. Making it official and out in the open would be an improvement, inasmuch as everyone would be forced to take sides publicly, and a lot of people would have to start learning their faith a bit so as to try to sort out where they should be.
Re/ #2: Well, there’s not much to say, is there? — except that Pope Francis has already lit the fuse of the situation ethics bomb that is literally going to slowblow the entire world to hell. That burning fuse MUST be stomped out, NOW.

Of course, I am not advocating that a small group of Cardinals actually go ahead and unilaterally attempt to “depose” the pope. As far as I’ve heard, no theologian has ever given an argument as to how this could be validly done. But maybe it is time to engage in that argument.
It may also be that Larson is right about what he says several times elsewhere on his website: Our job is just to pray and do penance like never before, and suffer through the crucifixion of the Church, and watch millions be damned by the slaves of Satan who currently are driving the nails.
I can live with that too. I don’t like it, but I can live with it.

Get AQ Email Updates

Leave a Reply