Question of an heretical pope 3 : history

History : it happened already ?

It is possible that we are in an interregnum (the time between the decease of a pope an the election of his successor)

In addition to the foregoing authorities, we cite the following to support the possibility that there is sometimes no pope but an antipope.

St. Hippolytus

Saint Hippolytus of Rome (died about 236) was a sedevacantist, believing that Callistus was a heretic and therefore no pope. Hippolytus’ followers elected him pope.

When Callistus, to whom he showed a strong personal enmity, was elected Pope, Hippolytus, who had become Bishop of Pontus, set himself to oppose him, and declaring that a heretic could not be Pope, and that those who adhered to him were not the faithful, but formed “a school” and not the Church, he came to the conclusion that he himself was Pope, and that such as remained to him of his flock in the Tiburtine Way were the true Church.” (Butler et al., Jesus, Peter and the Keys, 1996, p.217)

This is the man whose canon is supposedly the basis of Eucharistic Prayer no. II in the Novus Ordo mass. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Hippolytus was the most important theologian and the most prolific religious writer of the Roman Church in the pre-Constantinian era.” He is remembered in the Roman Martyrology on August 13th.

St. Felix

Pope Liberius is said by some of the early Fathers to have subscribed to the Aryan heresy. The Church went over to Felix II (355-358) who the Church recognizes as pope and martyr. He died before Liberius and could only have been pope if Liberius had ceased to be. The claim of Saint Felix to rank among the popes was discussed during the reign of Gregory XIII (1572-1585) and his sarcophagus was opened to see whether any miraculous help might aid. The words ‘Pope and Martyr’ were found inscribed on his body as a supernatural testimony.

St. Robert Bellarmine: “In addition, unless we are to admit that Liberius defected for a time from constancy in defending the Faith, we are compelled to exclude Felix II, who held the pontificate while Liberius was alive, from the number of Popes: but the Catholic Church venerates this very Felix as Pope and martyr. […] Then two years later came the lapse of Liberius, of which we have spoken above. Then indeed the Roman clergy, stripping Liberius of his pontifical dignity, went over to Felix, whom they knew to be a Catholic. From that time, Felix began to be the true Pontiff. For although Liberius was not a heretic, nevertheless he was considered one, on account of the peace he made with the Arians, and by that presumption the pontificate could rightly be taken from him: for men are not bound or able to read hearts; but when they see that someone is a heretic by his external works, they judge him to be a heretic pure and simple, and condemn him as a heretic.” (On the Roman Pontiff)

Felix is commemorated as “pope and martyr” in the Roman Martyrology on July 29.

At Rome, on the Aurelian Way, the burial day of holy Felix the Second, pope and martyr, who was cast out of his see for his defence of the Catholic faith by the Arian emperor Constantius, and died gloriously, being secretly slain by the sword at Cera in Tuscany. His body was taken thence by the clergy and buried on the same road, but having been afterwards taken to the church of SS. Cosmos and Damian, it was found there under the altar by Pope Gregory XIII, together with the relics of the holy martyrs Mark, Marcellian and Tranquillinus, all together buried in the same place again on July 31.”

The heretic Honorius

Three ecumenical councils posthumously anathematized Pope Honorius (625-638) as a heretic who positively taught heresy in official papal letters. The ecumenical council Constantinople III (680-681) excommunicated him from the Church. All newly elected popes had to profess his condemnation before they could assume their office until the eleventh century and all Latin priests recited it in their breviary until the sixteenth. We give a brief summary from the acts of Constantinople in his regard.

We find that these documents [including those of Honorius] are quite foreign to the apostolic dogmas, to the declarations of the holy Councils, and to all the accepted Fathers, and that they follow the false teachings of the heretics…there shall be expelled from the holy Church of God and anathematized Honorius who was some time Pope of Old Rome, because of what we found written by him to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines…To Honorius, the heretic, anathema!… [The devil] has actively employed them [including Honorius]…we slew them [including Honorius] with anathema, as lapsed from the faith and as sinners, in the morning outside the camp of the tabernacle of God.”

The condemnation of Honorius is discussed further here.

Papal oath

It was recognized in the Papal Oath used from the time of Pope Saint Agatho (678-681) until the eleventh century that a pope could go against the tradition of the Church and therefore be excommunicated from her.

I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein;

To the contrary: with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort;

To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order, should such appear; to guard the Holy Canons and Decrees of our Popes as if they were the divine ordinances of Heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, whose place I take through the grace of God, whose Vicarship I possess with thy support, being subject to severest accounting before thy Divine Tribunal over all that I shall confess;

I swear to God Almighty and the Savior Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared.

I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church. I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be someone else or I.

If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou willest not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice.

Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone – be it ourselves or be it another – who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction of this constituted evangelical Tradition and the purity of the orthodox Faith and the Christian religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture.” (Liber Diurnus Pontificum)


Formosus, who ruled as pope from Rome between 891-896, was posthumously declared by Pope Stephen VI in 897 to have been an antipope because he was barred by the law of the Church from valid election to the papacy as he held another see than that of Rome. Pope Sergius III (904-911) later upheld the decision. Never has the Church denied the possibility that a pope ruling from Rome could be declared an antipope.

Stephen VI lent himself to the revolting scene of sitting in judgment on his predecessor, Formosus. At the synod convened for that purpose, he occupied the chair; the corpse, clad in papal vestments, was withdrawn from the sarcophagus and seated on a throne; close by stood a deacon to answer in its name, all the old charges formulated against Formosus under John VIII being revived. The decision was that the deceased had been unworthy of the pontificate, which he could not have validly received since he was bishop of another see. All his measures and acts were annulled, and all the orders conferred by him were declared invalid. The papal vestments were torn from his body; the three fingers which the dead pope had used in consecrations were severed from his right hand; the corpse was cast into a grave in the cemetery for strangers, to be removed after a few days and consigned to the Tiber.” (J. P. Kirsch, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914, Pope Formosus)

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921) did a painting of Stephen declaring the corpse of Formosus to be an antipope at the Cadaver Synod.

Pascal II

Pope Pascal II (1099-1118) was suspected of heresy because he delayed to withdraw support for lay investiture when the coercion applied by the Emperor Henry V had ceased and he was admonished by saints, cardinals and bishops. A movement arose to depose Pascal.

St. Bruno, bishop of Segni and abbot of Monte Casino led the opposition to Pascal in Italy. He wrote to him as follows.

We have the canons; we have the constitutions of the fathers, from the time of the apostles up to you. The apostles condemned and expelled from the communion of the faithful all those who obtained charges in the Church by means of secular power. This determination of the apostles is Catholic and whoever would contradict it, is not a Catholic.”

Pascal resolved to depose Bruno first, from control of the monastery, before he had him deposed from the papacy. He wrote as follows.

If we do not remove him from the rule of the monastery, he with his arguments will take away from me the government of the Church.” (Cited by Baronus, Annales)

In 1112, Archbishop Guido of Vienne, who went on to become Pope Calistus II, convened a local synod against Pascal. St. Hugo of Grenoble and St. Godfrey of Amiens attended and, with the other bishops, they revoked Pascal’s decrees on investiture and sent a threatening letter to him.

If, as we absolutely refuse to expect, you choose another way, and you refuse to confirm the decisions of our authority, may God help us, for thus you will be separating us from obedience to you.” (Cited by Bouix, Tract. de Papa)

Pascal wrote a letter confirming the decisions taken by the bishops at Vienne and praising Guido for his zeal. (Hefele-Leclercq, tom V, I, pp. 536-7)

The view of the other saints, that a pope would lose his office in the case of heresy, is corroberated by St. Ives, bishop of Chartres, who wrote as follows.

We do not wish to deprive the principal keys of the Church (that is, the pope) of their power, whoever be the person placed in the See of Peter, unless he manifestly departs from the evangelical truth.” (PL, 162, 240)

Innocent III

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) recognized the possibility that a pope could fall into heresy and be “cast out”.

The pope should not flatter himself about his power, nor should he rash glory in his honour and high estate, because the less he is judged by man, the more he is judged by God. Still the less can the Pontiff glory, because he can be judged by men, or rather, can be shown to be already judged, if for example he should wither away into heresy, because he who does not believe is already judged. (John 3:18) In such a case it should be said of him: ‘If salt should lose its savour, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled under foot by men.’” (Sermon 4)

St. Francis

Shortly before he died, St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) called together his followers and foretold the reign of an antipope.

The time is fast approaching in which there will be great trials and afflictions; perplexities and dissensions, both spiritual and temporal, will abound; the charity of many will grow cold, and the malice of the wicked will increase. The devils will have unusual power, the immaculate purity of our Order, and of others, will be so much obscured that there will be very few Christians who will obey the true Sovereign Pontiff and the Roman Church with loyal hearts and perfect charity. At the time of this tribulation a man, not canonically elected, will be raised to the Pontificate, who, by his cunning, will endeavour to draw many into error and death. […] Sanctity of life will be held in derision even by those who outwardly profess it, for in those days Jesus Christ will send them not a true Pastor, but a destroyer.” (Works of the Seraphic Father St. Francis Of Assisi, Washbourne, 1882, p. 248)


Some fourteenth century Franciscans, known as Beguin, were sedevacantists regarding John XXII who facilitated changes in Franciscan culture, which shows that the possibility of a pope and his prelates ipso facto losing office and jurisdiction was well-known at that time; never was it condemned. The case is interesting also because John XXII is notorious for having pertinaciously denied that the saints would have the vision of God before the final judgement. Bernard Gui wrote as follows about the Beguin in his Inquisitor’s manual.

Again, they say that Pope John XXII, in issuing a certain constitution beginning Quorumdam, which dispenses or concedes to the Brothers Minor that they may store wheat and wine for the future in granaries or cellars at the discretion of their leaders, acted against evangelical poverty and hence, as they say, against the gospel of Christ. Thus they say that he has become a heretic and consequently lost the papal power to bind, loose and do other things (granting that he perseveres in this course of action), and that the prelates created by him since he issued the constitution have no ecclesiastical jurisdiction or power. Again, that all the prelates and others who consented to the issue of said constitution or now knowingly consent to it by this very act have become heretics if they pertinaciously continue to do so and have lost all ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Again, they say that the Brothers Minor who asked for the constitution, or who now consent to it and accept it, or who make use of it, have by their action become heretics. […]

Again, they say that the aforementioned Lord Pope commanded or consented or still consents that the aforesaid four Friars Minor should have been condemned as heretics by the inquisitor. Through this he has become a heretic himself, the greatest one of all, since as head of the church he should defend evangelical perfection. Thus, as they say, he lost papal power, nor do they believe him to be pope or to be obeyed by the faithful, for from that moment he vacated the papacy.”

William of Ockham

The Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham (1280-1349) was also a sedevacantist, believing that John XXII was a heretic who had automatically lost his office for what he argued about the souls of the saints. “He is considered, along with Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, one of the major figures of medieval thought and found himself at the center of the major intellectual and political controversies of the fourteenth century.” He spent his last 20 years campaigning to have John and his next two successors deposed as heretics or supporters of heresy. He published various writings to this end, in particular showing and refuting John’s arguments on the saints. “The ultimate purpose of his tract on heresy [Dialogous], moreover, was to establish the possibility of papal heresy and to consider what action should be taken against a pope who had become a heretic.” (John Scott, Theologians vs Canonists on Heresy)

According to Ockham, a pope cannot create new articles of faith. The head of the Church has the power to proclaim the faith and to settle disputes, but he must arrive at his views by ordinary theological reasoning, and he must get it right. […] If speaking as pope, and purporting to impose orthodoxy on others, he tries to impose something that is in fact not part of the faith, then he is ipso facto a heretic and no longer pope. […] This was Ockham’s accusation against John XXII, that he was trying to impose his errors on the Church.” (John Kilcullen, William of Ockham and Early Christianity)

Again, it is clear that the sedevacantist thesis was very well known at that time and never was it condemned by the Church even though it would have suited the claimants of the time. The most obvious reason for this is that it is correct.


The Dominican Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was a sedevacantist regarding Alexander VI. Numerous popes and saints have been devoted to Savonarola. St. Philip Neri attributed miracles to his intercession. Savonarola wrote as follows.

The Lord, moved to anger by this intolerable corruption, has, for some time past, allowed the Church to be without a pastor. For I bear witness in the name of God that this Alexander VI is in no way pope and cannot be. For quite apart from the execrable crime of simony, by which he got possession of the [papal] tiara through a sacrilegious bargaining, and by which every day he puts up to auction and knocks down to the highest bidder ecclesiastical benefices, and quite apart from his other vices – well known to all – which I will pass over in silence, this I declare in the first place and affirm it with all certitude, that the man is not a Christian, he does not believe any longer that there is a God; he goes beyond the final limits of infidelity and impiety.” (Letter to the Emperor)

Julius II

Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and the V Lateran Council decreed that papal elections are invalid if obtained through simony. As in Cum Ex Apostolatus of Paul IV, it was recognized that someone could be invalidly elected to the papacy by the unanimous consent of all the cardinals and that he would not be pope even if he were enthroned, acted as pope and was recognized as pope by all of the cardinals for any length of time. His appointments and his acts would all be entirely void.

Julius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, for an everlasting record. From a consideration that the detestable crime of simony is forbidden by both divine and human law, particularly in spiritual matters, and that it is especially heinous and destructive for the whole church in the election of the Roman Pontiff, the vicar of our lord Jesus Christ, we therefore, placed by God in charge of the government of the same universal church, despite being of little merit, desire, so far as we are able with God’s help, to take effective measures for the future with regard to the aforesaid things, as we are bound to, in accordance with the necessity of such an important matter and the greatness of the danger. With the advice and unanimous consent of our brothers, cardinals of the holy Roman church, by means of this our constitution which will have permanent validity, we establish, ordain, decree and define, by apostolic authority and the fulness of our power, that if it happens (which may God avert in his mercy and goodness towards all), after God has released us or our successors from the government of the universal church, that by the efforts of the enemy of the human race and following the urge of ambition or greed, the election of the Roman Pontiff is made or effected by the person who is elected, or by one or several members of the college of cardinals, giving their votes in a manner that in any way involves simony being committed by the gift, promise or receipt of money, goods of any sort, castles, offices, benefices, promises or obligations by the person elected or by one or several other persons, in any manner or form whatsoever, even if the election resulted in a majority of two thirds or in the unanimous choice of all the cardinals, or even in a spontaneous agreement on the part of all, without a scrutiny being made, then not only is this election or choice itself null, and does not bestow on the person elected or chosen in this fashion any right of either spiritual or temporal administration, but also there can be alleged and presented, against the person elected or chosen in this manner, by any one of the cardinals who has taken part in the election, the charge of simony, as a true and unquestionable heresy, so that the one elected is not regarded by anyone as the Roman Pontiff. A further consequence is that the person elected in this manner is automatically deprived, without the need of any other declaration, of his cardinal’s rank and of all other honours whatsoever as well as of cathedral churches, even metropolitan and patriarchical ones, monasteries, dignities and all other benefices and pensions of whatever kind which he was then holding by title or in commendam or otherwise; and that the elected person is to be regarded as, and is in fact, not a follower of the apostles but an apostate and, like Simon, a magician and a heresiarch, and perpetually debarred from each and all of the above-mentioned things. A simoniacal election of this kind is never at any time to be made valid by a subsequent enthronement or the passage of time, or even by the act of adoration or obedience of all the cardinals. It shall be lawful for each and all of the cardinals, even those who consented to the simoniacal election or promotion, even after the enthronement and adoration or obedience, as well as for all the clergy and the Roman people, together with those serving as prefects, castellans, captains and other officials at the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome and any other strongholds of the Roman church, notwithstanding any submission or oath or pledge given, to withdraw without penalty and at any time from obedience and loyalty to the person so elected even if he has been enthroned (while they themselves, notwithstanding this, remain fully committed to the faith of the Roman church and to obedience towards a future Roman pontiff entering office in accordance with the canons) and to avoid him as a magician, a heathen, a publican and a heresiarch. To discomfort him still further, if he uses the pretext of the election to interfere in the government of the universal church, the cardinals who wish to oppose the aforesaid election can ask for the help of the secular arm against him. Those who break off obedience to him are not to be subject to any penalties and censures for the said separation, as though they were tearing the Lord’s garment. However, the cardinals who elected him by simoniacal means are to be dealt with without further declaration as deprived of their orders as well as of their titles and honour as cardinals and of any patriarchal, archiepiscopal, episcopal or other prelacies, dignities and benefices which at that time they held by title or in commendam, or in which or to which they now have some claim, unless they totally and effectively abandon him and unite themselves without pretence or trickery to the other cardinals who did not consent to this simony, within eight days after they receive the request from the other cardinals, in person if this shall be possible or otherwise by a public announcement. Then, if they have joined themselves in full union with the said other cardinals, they shall immediately stand reintegrated, restored, rehabilitated and re-established in their former state, honours and dignities, even of the cardinalate, and in the churches and benefices which they had charge of or held, and shall stand absolved from the stain of simony and from any ecclesiastical censures and penalties. Intermediaries, brokers and bankers, whether clerical or lay, of whatever rank, quality or order they may have been, even patriarchal or archiepiscopal or episcopal, or enjoying other secular, worldly or ecclesiastical status, including spokesmen or envoys of any kings and princes, who had part in this simoniacal election, are by that very fact deprived of all their churches, benefices, prelacies and fiefs, and any other honours and possessions. They are debarred from anything of that kind and from making or benefiting from a will, and their property, like that of those condemned for treason, is immediately confiscated and allotted to the treasury of the apostolic see. If the aforesaid criminals are ecclesiastics or otherwise subjects of the Roman church. If they are not subjects of the Roman church, their goods and fiefs in regions under secular control are immediately allotted to the treasury of the secular ruler in whose territory the property is located; in such a way, however, that if within three months from the day on which it was known that they had committed simony, or had part in it, the rulers have not in fact allotted the said goods to their own treasury, then the goods are from that date considered as allotted to the treasury of the Roman church, and are immediately so considered without the need for any further pronouncement to the same effect. Also not binding and invalid, and ineffectual for taking action, are promises and pledges or solemn engagements made at any time for that purpose, even if prior to the election in question and even if made in any way through persons other than the cardinals, with some strange solemnity and form, including those made under oath or conditionally or dependent upon the outcome, or in the form of agreed bonds under whatever inducement, whether it be a deposit, loan, exchange, acknowledged receipt, gift, pledge, sale, exchange or any other kind of contract, even in the fuller form of the apostolic camera. Nobody can be bound or under pressure by the strength of these in a court of justice or elsewhere, and all may lawfully withdraw from them without penalty or any fear or stigma of perjury. Moreover, cardinals who have been involved in such a simoniacal election, and have abandoned the person thus elected, may join with the other cardinals, even those who consented to the simoniacal election but later joined with the cardinals who did not commit the said simony, if the latter are willing to join with them. If these cardinals are not willing, they may freely and canonically proceed without them in another place to the election of another pope without waiting for another formal declaration to the effect that the election was simoniacal, though there always remains in force our same current constitution. They may announce and call together a general council in a suitable place as they shall judge expedient, notwithstanding constitutions and apostolic orders, especially that of pope Alexander III, of happy memory, which begins Licet de evitanda discordia, and those of other Roman pontiffs, our predecessors, including those issued in general councils, and any other things to the contrary that impose restraint. Finally, each and every one of the cardinals of the holy Roman church in office at the time, and their sacred college, are under pain of immediate excommunication, which they automatically incur and from which they cannot be absolved except by the canonically elected Roman pontiff, except when in immediate danger of death, not to dare, during a vacancy in the apostolic see, to contravene the aforesaid, or to legislate, dispose or ordain or to act or attempt anything in any way, under whatever alleged pretext or excuse, contrary to the aforesaid things or to any one of them. From this moment we decree it to be invalid and worthless if there should happen to be, by anyone knowingly or unknowingly, even by us, an attack on these or any one of the foregoing regulations. So that the meaning of this our present constitution, decree, statute, regulation and limitation may be brought to the notice of everyone, it is our will that our present letter be affixed to the doors of the basilica of the prince of the apostles and of the chancellery and in a corner of the Campo dei Fiori, and that no other formality for the publication of this letter be required or expected, but the aforesaid public display suffices for its solemn publication and perpetual force. Let nobody therefore… If anyone however… Given at Rome at St Peter’s on 14 January 1505/6, in the third year of our pontificate.”

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