Text of John of St. Thomas O.P.

Translated from the Latin and annotated by Fr. Pierre-Marie O.P. (Avrillé. France)

and published in Le Sel de la Terre [No. 90, Fall 2014]

Translated from French to English by Fr. Juan Carlos Ortiz


John of St. Thomas (1589-1644) is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Thomistic theologians. His contemporaries unanimously called him a second Thomas, a bright star in front of the Sun (St. Thomas Aquinas) and always he was placed, in the company of Cajetan and Báñez, alongside the Angel of the School.  His doctrine is none other than that of the Angelic Doctor, profoundly understood and faithfully expressed.”  (J.M. Ramírez, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, “Jean de Saint-Thomas”, col. 806)

He was born in Lisbon, was educated at Coimbra University, then at Louvain University, before joining the Dominicans in Madrid at the age of 23. He was long time a professor at Alcalá (Madrid University).  The last year of his life he was the confessor of King Philip IV of Spain (1605-1665, king in 1621).  It is, moreover, much against his will and by obedience that he accepted this honor while telling his brothers in religion, “This is the end of my life, Fathers; I’m dead, pray for me.”

“His life was a living reproduction of the virtues of the Angelic Doctor, from whom he had taken the name to mark his devotion to him.  In fact, he joined to his hard intellectual work, a great love of prayer and a burning desire for religious perfection.  Students flocked to his courses, attracted by the depth and solidity of his doctrine.” (Ibid. col. 804)

We give here the first [French] translation of the main passages of his dissertation on “Can the Pope be deposed by the Church as he is elected by Her, and in what case?” (Disputatio II, articulus III, in II-II, q. 1 a. 7, p. 133-140 in the edition of Lyon, 1663) which he wrote while commenting the first question of the II-II of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.

This is a matter whose importance will not escape our lectors.  However, the book of Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira, La Nouvelle Messe de Paul VI: Qu’en penser?  1 often considered the reference on the question on the “heretical pope” does not have this opinion.  John of St. Thomas is not even mentioned in the extensive bibliography of the book.  In fact, Xavier da Silveira agrees with the opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine, while Cardinal Journet affirms that the studies of Cajetan and John of St. Thomas on this point are more penetrating than those of the Jesuit doctor.

As we have remarked in the report we did in Le Sel de la Terre 52 (p. 205), Father Jean-Michel Gleize [SSPX] thinks that this “thesis [of Cajetan on the deposition of heretical pope] does not hold” since St. Robert Bellarmine’s S.J. studies (1542-1621), and declares not being satisfied with the answers John of St. Thomas gave to the Jesuit theologian. (Thomas de Vio Cajetan, The Successor of Peter, annotated translation by Father Gleize in Courrier de Rome, 2004, n. 65, p. XXII and n. 473, p. 138.)

Nevertheless, a century after John of St. Thomas, Billuart (1685- 1737) also qualified this thesis of Cajetan and John of St. Thomas as ‘more common’. (See the text given in the Appendix.)  It seems, to us, to be solidly supported.  With the text published here and the appendices that follow, the readers may judge by themselves.

The subtitles and the notes are ours.

Le Sel de la Terre [No. 90, Fall 2014]


“I affirm that the Pope can lose the pontificate in three ways: through natural death, by voluntary renunciation, and by deposition.

About the first case, there is no difficulty.

About the second case, there is an express provision [in Canon Law2 ], where it is established that the Pontiff may resign, as it was the case with Celestine V; at the Council of Constance, the resignation was asked to the doubtful pontiffs in order to finish with the schism as did Gregory XII and John XXIII. […]

About the third case of losing the Pontificate, many difficulties arise: to make this brief, we reduce all these problems to two main headers: [1] Under what circumstances a deposition can be made?   [2] And by which power this deposition should be made?

On the first point, we will mention three main cases in which a deposition can take place.  The first is the case of heresy or infidelity.  The second case is perpetual madness.  The third case is doubt about the validity of the election.”

[COMMENT: Here we are only interested in the first case dealt with by John of St. Thomas: the deposition for cases of heresy or infidelity, as it is the case currently concerning us with Pope Francis.]

Can a deposition occur in cases of heresy or infidelity?

“Concerning the case of heresy, theologians and Canon lawyers have disputed very much.  It is not necessary to dwell at length.  However, there is an agreement among the Doctors on the fact that the Pope may be deposed in case of heresy: we will mention them in the discussion of the difficulty.

Arguments from authority

  • A specific text is found in the Decree of Gratian, Distinction 40, chapter “Si Papa”, where it is said:  “On earth, no mortal should presume to reproach (redarguere) any faults to the Pontiff, because he who has to judge (judicaturus) others, should not be judged (judicandus) by anyone, unless he is found deviating from the Faith.” (Pars I, D 40, c. 6)   This exception obviously means that in case of heresy, a judgment could be made of the pope.
  • The same thing is confirmed by the letter of Hadrian II, reported in the Eighth General Council [IV Constantinople, 869-870], in the 7th session, where it is said that the Roman Pontiff is judged by no one, but the anathema was made by the Orientals against Honorius, because he was accused of heresy, the only cause for which it is lawful for inferiors to resist their superiors. (MANSI, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova collectio amplissima, Venice, 1771, vol. 16, col. 126)
  • Also Pope St. Clement says in his first epistle that Saint Peter taught that a heretical pope must be deposed.3

Theological argument

The reason is that we must separate ourselves from heretics, according to Titus 3:10: A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid (devita) him.”   Now, one should not avoid one that remains in the [Sovereign] Pontificate; on the contrary, the Church should instead be united to him as her supreme head and communicate with him.  Therefore, if the pope is a heretic, either the Church should communicate with him, or he must be deposed from the Pontificate.

The first solution leads to the obvious destruction of the Church, and has inherently a risk that the whole ecclesiastical government errs, if she has to follow a heretical head.  In addition, as the heretic is an enemy of the Church, natural law provides protection against such a Pope according to the rules of self-defense, because she can defend herself against an enemy as is a heretical Pope; therefore, she can act (in justice) against him.  So, in any case, it is necessary that such a Pope must be deposed.

Response to an objection.

An objection: Christ the Lord tolerated, in the chair of Moses, infidels and heretics, like the Pharisees: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses.  All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not. (Mt 23: 2-3).  But the Pharisees were heretics and taught false doctrines according to various superstitions and traditions, says St. Jerome in his commentary on Chapter 8 of Isaiah.  St. Epiphanius lists their errors (Panarion, 1. 1, c. 16), and Josephus (Jewish War, 1. 2, c 7 on the end) and Baronius (Annals, v. 7).   So on the Chair of Peter, too, one must tolerate a heretic and an infidel, because he can define a heresy or an error, and thus the Church will always remain free of heresy.

I answer that Christ the Lord did not order that Pharisees be tolerated in the chair of Moses, even if they are declared heretics, or that any heretic or infidel should be kept in the priesthood or in the Papacy, but he only gave this counsel in case they are tolerated there.  If they are not yet declared and deposed from their chair, the faithful should listen to them and obey them, because they keep their power and jurisdiction; however, if the Church wants to declare them heretic and no longer tolerate them, Christ the Lord does not prohibit it by the words reported above.

Two conditions.

But we need to know if the Pope can be deposed in any case of heresy and in whatever form of being a heretic; or if some additional conditions are needed without which heresy alone is not sufficient to depose the Pontiff.

I answer that the pontiff cannot be deposed and lose the pontificate except if two conditions are fulfilled together:

  1. That the heresy is not hidden, but public and legally notorious;
  2. Then that he must be incorrigible and pertinacious in his heresy.

If both conditions are fulfilled the pontiff may be deposed, but not without them; and even if he is not unfaithful interiorly, however if he behaves externally as a heretic, he can be deposed and the sentence of deposition will be valid.

Concerning the first requirement, some among Catholics are of a different opinion, saying that even for an occult  heresy [Editor:  occult = “hidden”, “not visible”], the Pontiff loses his papal jurisdiction, which is based on the true Faith and right confession of Faith; supporting this opinion we have Torquemada (1, 2, 2 p. from v. 18 and 1. 2, c. 102), Paludanus, Castro, Simancas, Driedo […]

Others think that it is necessary that the heresy must be external and proved in the external forum in order that the Pontiff can be deposed of the pontificate; thus Soto (4 Sent. D. 22, q. 2. 2); Cano (from Locis, 1. 4), who believes that the contrary opinion is not even probable; Cajetan (On the Pope’s power, De Comparatione auctoritatis papae and concilii cum apologia eiusdem tractatus; Rome, Angelicum, 1936; c. 18 and 19), Suárez, Azorius, Bellarmine (On the Roman Pontiff, c. 30).

The principle is that occult heretics, as long as they are not condemned by the Church and being separated [by her], belong to the Church and are in communion with her, as like being moved from the exterior, even if they do not receive any more interiorly the vital movement; therefore the Pontiff, if he is an occult heretic, is not separated from the Church; therefore, he can still be the head, since he is still a part and a member, even if he is not a living one.

A confirmation of it is that the priests of a lower order can exercise the power of order and jurisdiction without Faith because a heretical priest can confer the sacraments and give absolution in cases of extreme need […]

The second condition, in order to be able to depose the Pope, namely that he is guilty of incorrigible and pertinacious heresy, is evident, because if someone is ready to be corrected and is not pertinacious in heresy, is not considered to be heretical (Decree of Gratian, No. 24. 3. 29 “Dixit Apostolus.”); therefore, if the Pope is ready to be corrected, he should not be deposed as a heretic.

The Apostle [Paul] prescribes to avoid heretics only after a first and a second correction: if he comes to repentance after the correction, he should not be avoided; therefore, as the Pope must be deposed for heresy under this apostolic precept, it follows that if he can be corrected, he should not be deposed. […]”

On the Deposition of the Pope

“It remains to deal with the second problem: by what authority should the deposition of the Pope be done?    And the whole issue revolves around two points:

  1. The declarative sentence by which the Pope’s crime is declared: should it be made by the Cardinals or by the General Council?  And if it is by the General Council, by what authority should it be assembled, and on what basis could this Council judge the case?
  2. The deposition itself which must follow the declarative sentence of the crime: is it made by the power of the Church, or immediately by Christ, being supposed made the declaration?

1. Who should pronounce the declarative sentence of the crime of heresy?

The declarative sentence should not be made by the Cardinals

On the first point, we must say that the statement of the crime does not come from the Cardinals, but from the General Council.

It first appears from the practice of the Church. Indeed, in the case of Pope Marcellinus (Pope from 296 to 304) about the incense offered to idols, a Synod was convened, as stated in the Decree of Gratian. (Distinction 21, Chapter 7, “Nunc autem”)   And in the case of the Great [Western] Schism during which there were three popes, the Council of Constance was assembled to settle the schism.  Likewise in the case of Pope Symmachus (Pope from 498 to 514), a Council was convened in Rome to treat the case against him, as reported in Antoine Augustin in his Epitome juris pontificii veteris (Title 13, Chapter 14. See also Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope St. Symmachus); and the places of Canon Law quoted above, show that the Pontiffs who wanted to defend themselves against the crimes imputed to them, have done it before a Council.

Then we see that the power to treat the cause of the Pontiff, and what concerns his deposition, was not entrusted to the Cardinals.  In the case of deposition, this belongs to the Church, whose authority is represented by the General Council; indeed, to the cardinal is only entrusted the election, and nothing else, as can be seen in Canon Law [John of St. Thomas refers to what he said earlier in his works]: see Torquemada (Summa, 1. 2, c. 93), Cajetan (De Comparatione auctoritatis papae), and the Canonists (On the Decretal of Boniface VIII (in 6th), chap. “In fidei de haereticis” and the Decree of Gratian, Dist. 40).

The declarative sentence must be made by a General Council

[…] This council can be convened by the authority of the Church which is in the Bishops or the greater majority of them; the Church has, by divine law, the right to separate herself from a heretical Pope, and therefore she has all the means necessary for such a separation; now, a necessary means in itself (per se) is to be able to legally prove such a crime; but we cannot prove it see legally unless if there is a competent judgment, and in such a serious matter, we cannot have a competent judgment except by the General Council, because it is about the universal head of the Church, so much so that it depends on the judgment of the universal Church, that is to say, of the General Council.

I do not share the opinion of Father Suárez who believes that this can be treated by Provincial Councils; indeed, a Provincial Council does not represent the universal Church in a manner that this case can be treated by such authority; and even several Provincial Councils have no such representation or such authority.

If this is not about the authority under which one must judge, but about the one which has the authority to convene the [General] Council, I believe that this is not assigned to a specific person, but it can be done either by the Cardinals who could communicate the news to the bishops, either by the nearest bishops who can tell others so that all are gathered; or even at the request of princes, not as a summons having coercive force, as when the Pope convenes a Council, but as an “enuntative” convocation that denounces such a crime to the bishops and manifest it in order that they come to bring a remedy.  And the Pope cannot annul such a Council or reject it because he is itself part of it (quia ipse est pars), and that the Church has the power, by the divine right, to convene the council for this purpose, because she has the right to secede from a heretic.

2. On which authority is the Pope deposed?

The diverse opinions

On the second point, namely on which authority the declaration [of heresy] and the deposition are to be made, there is dissension among theologians, and it is not clear by whom that statement should be made, because it is an act of judgment and jurisdiction, which no one can exert on the Pope.  Cajetan, in his treatise On the Pope’s authority, refers to two extreme positions and two middle positions. (De Comparatione auctoritatis Papae and concilii; Angelicum, Rome, 1936; chapter 20)

The two extremes: one says that the Pope is removed without human judge by the mere fact of being a heretic (Bellarmine and Suárez); on the opposite, the other said that the Pope has truly a power above him by which he can be judged (this opinion is not sustained anymore; Cajetan considered it false).

The two middle positions: one says that the pope has no superior [on earth] in absolute terms, except in case of heresy; the other says that he has no superior on earth, neither absolutely, nor in the case of heresy, but only in a ministerial way: just as the Church has a ministerial power to choose the person [Pope], but not to give power, as this is done immediately by Christ, in the same manner, in the deposition, which is the destruction of the bond by which the Papacy is attached to such person in particular, the Church has the power to depose him in a ministerial manner; but it is Christ who deprives [his power] with authority.

The first opinion is that of Azorius (the church is above the Pope in case of heresy).  The second is that of Cajetan who develops it extensively.  Bellarmine quotes it and combats it (The Romano Pontifice, c. 20), especially on two points:  Cajetan said that the manifest heretic Pope is not ipso facto removed and that the Pope is actually deposed really and authoritatively by the Church.  Similarly Suárez (De fide Predisputatio, Sec. 6, num. 7) reproaches Cajetan for saying that the Church, in the case of heresy, is above the Pope as a private person, but not as a Pope.  This, in fact, Cajetan did not say: he holds that the Church is not above the Pope absolutely, even in the case of heresy, but she is above the link joining the Pontificate with such a person, and that she dissolves it, in the same manner as the Church has joined it in the election, and that this power of the Church is ministerial, because only Christ the Lord is simpliciter superior to the pope.

Bellarmine and Suárez therefore think that the Pope, by the very fact that he is a manifest heretic and declared incorrigible, is immediately deposed by Christ the Lord and not by any authority of the Church.

The opinion of Cajetan

Thus the opinion of Cajetan contains three points.

1.  The first is that the heretic pope is not deprived of the Pontificate and deposed by the mere fact of heresy, considered separately.

2.  The second is that the Church has neither power nor superiority over the Pope about his power, even in the case of heresy; never is the Church’s power above the power of the Pope, and consequently above the Pope absolutely.

3.  The third is that the Church’s power has for its object:

  • the application of the papal power to such person, in designating him by the election, and
  • the separation of the power with such a person, by declaring him heretical and to be avoided by the faithful.

Therefore, although the declaration of a crime is like an antecedent disposition preceding the deposition itself and that it relates to it only in a ministerial manner, however, it reaches the form itself of this dispositive and ministerial manner; insofar as it reaches the disposition, so it aims mediately to the form: in the same manner as in the generation and corruption of a man, the begetter neither produces nor educts the form, and the one who corrupts it does not destroy it, but the first one produces the combination of the form, and the second one the separation, immediately reaching the dispositions of the matter to the form, and through them, the form.

Cajetan’s FIRST POINT:  The heretical pope is not deprived of the Pontificate and deposed by the mere fact of heresy considered separately

The first point is obvious and is not legitimately opposed by Bellarmine.  His truth appears thus:

- First, because the Pope, no matter how real and public may be his heresy, by the moment he is eager to be corrected, he cannot be deposed, and the Church cannot depose him by divine right, for she cannot nor should avoid him since the Apostle [Paul] says, “avoid the heretic after the first and second correction; therefore, before the first and second correction he should not be avoided, and consequently he should not be deposed; therefore it is wrong to say that the pope is deposed (ipso facto) as soon as he is a public heretic: he may be a public heretic, but not yet corrected by the Church, nor declared incorrigible.

- Then, because (as Azorius rightly noted) any heretical Bishop, no matter how visible is his heresy, and although he incurs an excommunication, does not lose ipso facto the Episcopal jurisdiction and power until he is declared [such] by the Church and deposed; indeed only the excommunicated “not tolerated” [vitandus] loses jurisdiction ipso facto, namely those specifically excommunicated or those who manifestly struck a cleric (manifesti percussores clerici).  Therefore, if a bishop or some other prelate loses not ipso facto his power by the mere external heresy, why the Pope would lose it [even] before the Church’s declaration?   Especially since the Pope cannot incur excommunication: on the one hand, no excommunication at all – I suppose – is carried by divine law itself;  on the other hand, he cannot be excommunicated by human right, because he is superior to any human right.

The Church has neither power nor superiority over the Pope concerning his power of Pope, even in case of heresy

Thesis to be proved

The second point of Cajetan is proved by the fact that the power of the Pope absolutely (absolute) is a power derived from Christ the Lord, and not from the Church, and that Christ has submitted to that power the entire Church, namely, all the faithful without restriction: that is certain of faith [de fide] as we have shown it above.

Therefore, in no case the Church can have a power superior to him, except in a case where the power of the Pope would be made dependent to the Church, and inferior to her: and by the fact that it is made inferior in this case, his power is changed and remains the same as before, since before it was above the Church and independent from her, but in this case it is made dependent and inferior: thus, it never happened that the Church has [had] power over the pope formally, because in order to have a higher power than the papal power in a particular case, it is necessary that the papal power be formally other, and not so extensive and supreme as it was before.

Argument from authority

And one cannot cite any authority stating that Christ the Lord has given in such a manner to the Church a power above the Pope.  Those who were cited in the case of heresy, do not indicate any superiority over the Pope formally, but only speak about avoiding him, getting separated from him, to refuse the communion with him, etc., all things which can be done without a power formally above the Pope’s power.

Lack of foundation of the opposite opinion

There is no basis for the proposition which allows to affirm that Christ the Lord, who gave unrestricted, supreme, and independent power to the Pope and to the Holy See, has determined that, in the case of heresy, such a power would be formally as a power (in ratione potestatis) dependent on and inferior to that of the Church, which implies that it would remain subordinate to that of the Church, and not superior as before.


Theological argument

This second point of Cajetan (the Church has never, in the strict sense, a superior power to the Pope), is widely proved by what has been said above, since the Church must be submitted to the Pope and the power of the Pope did not originate from the Church, as a political power, but immediately from Christ, of whom the Pope is the Vicar.

That, even in the case of heresy, the Church is not superior to the Pope, as a Pope, it appears:

  • On the one hand, because the power of the Pope is in no way derived from the Church, nor does it come from her, but from Christ, therefore never is the power of the Church superior [to that of the Pope].
  • On the other hand, because the power of the Pope, which originated in that of Christ, is established as a supreme power above all other powers of the Church here on earth (as we have shown above with many authorities); no case has been excluded by Christ in which this power [of the Pope] would be limited and subjected to another, but always and in relation to all [powers], He speaks of it as a supreme power and as a monarchy.   When He deals with the case of heresy, He does not assign any superiority [of someone] in relation to the Pope, but He prescribed only to avoid the heretic, to be separated from him, not to communicate with him, all things that do not show any superiority, and which can exist without it.  Therefore, the Church’s power is not superior to the power of the Pope, even in the case of heresy.

Canonical argument

Finally, Canon Law also gives us this conviction when it says that “the First Seat is judged by no one,” and this applies even in cases of infidelity, for the Fathers gathered to examine the case of Pope Marcellinus said: “Judge thyself.”

Cajetan’s THIRD POINT:  The power of the Church has as its object the application of the Papal power to a person

Theological argument

The third point follows from the previous two.  For the Church can declare the crime of the Pontiff and proclaim (proponere) to the faithful that he should be avoided according to divine law, decreeing that a heretic must be avoided.

Now, a pontiff who must be avoided by this provision is necessarily prevented from being made the head of the Church, for he is a member which she must avoid, and therefore he cannot have an influence on her; this is why, by virtue of such a power, the Church dissolves ministerially and dispositively the link of the pontificate with such a person.  The implication is clear: an agent that can induce in a subject a disposition that necessarily causes the separation of the form, a disposition without which the form cannot exist in the subject, has power over the dissolution of the form, and acts mediately on the form, in order to separate it from the subject, and not to destroy it; it is clear in the case of an agent who corrupts a man: he does not destroy the form [the soul], but it induces the dissolution of the form, by putting in the matter a disposition without which the form cannot subsist.

Thus, since the Church can declare the Pontiff as a person to be avoided, she can induce in that person a disposition without which the pontificate cannot stand; the pontificate is so dissolved ministerially and dispositively by the Church, by the authority of Christ, in the same manner as the Church, in choosing the pontiff by the election, she ultimately disposes him to receive the collation of power by Christ the Lord.

Explanation of the words of Cajetan

When Cajetan says that the Church acts with authority (auctoritative) on the conjunction or separation of the Pontificate with the person, and ministerially on the Papacy itself, we must understand it in the sense that the Church has the authority to declare the crime of the Pope, as she has [the power] to choose him to the Papacy, and that what she does with authority in this declaration, acts at the same time ministerially on the form [the Papacy] to join or to separate [the person]: for the form itself, absolutely and in itself (absolute et in se), the Church cannot do anything because the Papal power is not submitted to her.

Canonical argument.

This is congruent with the provisions of the law that sometimes affirm that the deposition of the Pontiff belongs only to God, and that sometimes in case of heresy he can be judged by his inferiors: both are true,

  • On the one side, the “ejection” or deposition of the Pope is reserved only to God in order to be done with authority and from above (auctoritative et principaliter), as stated in the Decree of Gratian, Distinction 79 (Pars I, D 79, c. 11) and in many other places of the law, which say that God has reserved to Himself the judgment of the Apostolic See;
  • Secondly, the Church judges the Pontiff in a ministerial and dispositive manner, by declaring his crime and by proposing him to be avoided, as stated in the Decree of Gratian, in Distinction 40, chapter “Si Papa” (Pars I, D 40, c. 6) and in Part II, Chapter “oves” (q. 7 c. 13).

(To be continued)

  1. This book edited in France by DPF (Chiré-en-Montreuil) in 1975 has in fact not been marketed at the request, it seems, of the author. Some copies were circulated and the book is still considered a serious reference.
  2. Decretal of Boniface VIII (in 6th), 1. 1, T. 7, cap. 1 De Renunciatione. In the Code of Canon Law of 1917, the Canon 221 says: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, neither the acceptance of the Cardinals, nor any other acceptance is necessary for the validity this renunciation.”
  3. We did not find this passage in the 1st Letter of St. Clement to the Corinthians, the only one considered authentic today.