Rorate Caeli

Don Pietro Leone: Is Pope Francis Pope, and If Not, What Then?

[Rorate editor - Just to be clear: Rorate's editoral position is that Francis is indeed the Pope -- his election was obviously valid, as Don Pietro Leone explains below - and a new one will be elected by an upcoming conclave. NC]

Don Pietro Leone, who has contributed many articles for Rorate Caeli for more than 13 years, offers our readers the following essay on the much discussed and delicate  matter of the validity of Pope Benedict's demission and the validity of Pope Francis' election. His primary motive for writing this essay  'is to rebut false theories, offer the faithful an understanding of the status quo according to the Catholic Faith' and define the competent authority through which this contentious issue must be judged.     F.R.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Part I
Is Pope Francis Pope?



A quantity of eminent prelates, learned academics (priestly and lay), renowned journalists (Catholic and atheist), faithful, and seers of different shades have addressed this question and have answered variously: Yes, and No. There has been an attempt to apply principles of Faith and Reason to the question, but also much reliance on emotions (as if in the state of Fallen Nature they were not disordered) and preternatural locutions or illuminations (as if any locution or light could not be imitated by the devil). No less than ten faithful have abandoned the author’s current apostolate because he refused to celebrate the Mass “in union with Pope Benedict in the heart” after Pope Benedict’s death (although some seers “teach” that he is still alive).

Sensationalism has not been lacking either, in particular in the case of the Italian journalist who presented the question like a code to crack (as if this were the way in which God would speak to the Church), and in the case of the Testamento Omega: the vision of a nun, in a South American convent “not in union with Francis”, with whom Pope Benedict is reputed to have spoken after death (still upholding the “Hermeneutic of Continuity” - now from Heaven), explaining, in a most realistic and vivid manner reminiscent of a “thriller”, how he had been murdered by Monsignor Gaenswein at the behest of Pope Francis. Pope Benedict was supposed to have learned this, incidentally, from the loudspeaker of the secretary’s mobile telephone, which the latter repeatedly forgot to turn off.


In all of this, few people have asked themselves whether or not they have the competence to resolve the question at all.

We shall proceed by applying in the briefest possible outline the relevant theological and logical principles to what we take to be the central questions. The sections, in their correct logical order, are the following: 

 A.The Validity of the Demission of Pope Benedict;

 B.The Validity of the Election of Pope Francis

  C.  The Adherence of the Moral Totality of the Church to Pope Francis;

  D.   The Orthodoxy of Pope Francis;

  E.  The Competence for Determining who is Pope.


A.        A. The Validity of the Demission of Pope Benedict

    a) The Demission

 On 11th February 2013 Pope Benedict declared in writing that he no longer had the strength necessary to administer adequately the Petrine office (munus petrinum); that he was well aware that the office (munus) according to its spiritual essence should be accomplished not only by actions and words, but no less by suffering and prayer; that he was renouncing the ministry (ministerium) of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, so that the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter, would be left vacant and a Conclave could be convoked to elect a new Pope (Summus Pontifex) by those who had the competence to do so.


 b)        Theological Ground for the Thesis of the ‘Extended Ministry’


 Commenting on this action in a speech at the Gregorian University on May 20th 2016, Archbishop Georg Gänswein explained that, after the election of Pope Francis, there were not now two Popes, but rather ‘an extended ministry with an active member and a contemplative member… that the Petrine Ministry was not the same as before… [but]… transformed.’ This was why Pope Benedict had not given up his name or the white soutane, he added, and was still living on Vatican precincts. The intention of Pope Benedict was to participate in the munus petrinum in its sense of ‘service/duty/guide/gift’ and he had built up ‘a personal office with a collegial and synodal dimension.’ The Pope’s Private Secretary also said: ‘He left the Papal throne but has not abandoned the ministry – something quite impossible after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005’ [1].


Clearly the Pope’s vision of a extended Petrine Ministry derives in some way or another from the doctrine of “collegiality”, that doctrine of the Second Vatican Council which purports to limit the Church dogma of the Monarchical Hierarchy of the Church and particularly of the Papal Primacy [2]. We know that the cleric who was later to become Pope Benedict, even when already present at the Council as an expert, was an ardent supporter of the doctrine. In the book ‘The Episcopate and the Primacy’ for example we read [3]: “The Church is not like a circle, with a single centre, but like an elipse with two foci, papacy and episcopate”.


 c)    The Case for the Invalidity of the Demission


c  On the basis of Pope Benedict’s Declaration, as expounded by his private Secretary’s speech from which we have just quoted, it has been claimed that his demission was invalid because it relied upon an error: the error, namely, that the Petrine office could be divided into two parts the Munus petrinum (envisaged as a contemplative part of the Papacy) and the active ministry; the truth being rather that the Petrine ministry constitutes an integral and indivisible whole.


The claim that the demission was invalid is of the legal order, and is based on two Canons of the Codex of Canon Law 1983. Canon 126 states of juridical acts that: ‘An act placed out of ignorance or out of error concerning something which constitutes its substance or which amounts to a condition sine qua non is invalid... Actus positus ex ignorantia aut ex errore, qui versetur circa id quod eius substantiam constituit, aut qui recidit in condicionem sine qua non, irritus est’; similarly Canon 188 states that: A resignation made out of… substantial error… is invalid by the law itself’: Renuntiatio…errore substantiali. … facta, ipso iure irrita est.’


Those that claim that the demission was invalid on the basis of these two Canons, hold that Pope Benedict’s error concerning the possibility of an extended Papal ministry is a “condition sine qua non” of, or a “substantial error” regarding, the demission. In other words they hold that Pope Benedict’s error about the extended ministry was such as to invalidate his resignation. They conclude from this that he remained Pope until his death and that Pope Francis’ election was invalid. 


  d)    Questions arising in regard to the Invalidity of the Demission



d)  Since the invalidity of Pope Benedict’s demission can only be established by a process of law, then at most only an opinion can be given as to the strength of the case. To do so, various questions must be addressed:


The first question is one of evidence. To demonstrate that his demission was invalid, one would have to show that, at the time of demission, he was prey to an error of the type that we have just specified. But no such error is apparent in the declaration of demission. All that Pope Benedict writes in it corresponds entirely to a simple renunciation of the Papacy:


a)    As to himself, he expresses no intention to remain Pope in any sense: it is true that he mentions the Munus Petrinum (the Petrine Office) and the Ministerium (ministry) of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, but he does not define either function, nor express any intention to exercise either in any way.

b)    As to a prospective successor, he explicitly states (as we have already quoted above) that he is “renouncing the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, so that the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter, would be left vacant and a Conclave could be convoked to elect a new Pope by those who have the competence to do so”. He expresses no intention to hamper or to limit the actions of any potential  successor in any way at all.


The evidence that Pope Benedict intended to remain Pope in a certain (spiritual) sense derives not from the declaration but rather from the speech of his private secretary (albeit with the putative agreement of Pope Benedict), and at a distance of more than 3 years from the date of the declaration. To demonstrate the invalidity of the demission at a distance of a further 7 years, its advocates would then first have to show that his secretary’s claim corresponded precisely to the Pope’s intentions, and second, to his intentions at the very time of the demission.


The second question is whether the error, namely the erroneous thesis of the “extended ministry”, was such as to invalidate the act of demission. To show this, one would have to show three things:


a)    What the thesis of the “extended ministry” is;

b)    In what sense it is an error;

c)    How this error would invalidate an act of demission.


(a)  In the most general terms, the thesis of the “extended ministry” is the thesis that a Pope who resigns can remain in some sense Pope even when a new Pope is elected;

(b)  It is an error because prima facie this contradicts the dogma that there is only one Head of the Church: the (one) Pope;

(c)  It would invalidate the act of demission because this act would consist in embarking upon a course of action not corresponding to the truth.


In the light of these clarifications, we must ask in what sense Pope Benedict manifested his belief that he remained Pope after his demission. To do so, we refrain from speculating on his personal opinion as a theologian - was his mind not inscrutable? was his not one of the most brilliant and subtle minds of our times? - expert in reconciling contradictions by the Neoconservative “Hermeneutic of Continuity” - and no greater symbol nor example of such a Hermeneutic was there to be than that of the “extended Petrine ministry”. Instead we limit ourselves to his official words in the declaration of demission and to his subsequent actions.


He did not purport to share the Papal ministry with his successor on equal terms, for example governing the Church in the Eastern hemisphere while his successor governed it in the Western; nor did he purport to exercise a purely spiritual ministry, with his successor exercising a purely active ministry like a chamberlain. Rather, both in his document of demission and in his subsequent life, he envisaged his successor as exercising the Petrine ministry fully: both actively and spiritually, while he himself was effectively to supplement this  ministry with a spiritual contribution of prayer and suffering after the model of the Bishop Emeritus.


Such a course of action clearly does not contradict the dogma of the unicity of the Papacy - even though it obscures it, especially by his insistence on being dressed and addressed as Pope - ; nor does it thereby invalidate his demission. 


Those, by contrast, who claim that his act of demission was invalid, would have to defend Pope Benedict from the charge of heresy and from the forfeit of the Papal office. For in imputing to Pope Benedict the error that there can be two Popes, they have imputed to him a prima facie heresy, which again prima facie would have made him forfeit the Papacy.   


The third question is whether Pope Benedict’s election was valid. For if Pope Benedict’s flawed vision of the Papacy can in some way cast doubt on the validity of his demission, then with all the more reason can it cast doubt on his election to the Papacy. For if he had a mistaken view of the Papacy on election [4], as seems eminently likely, then one could argue that his consent to the Papacy would have been invalid [5], and from the time of his putative election to the See of Rome, the See would in fact have been vacant, which, in its turn, would have rendered the election of Pope Francis prima facie valid - unless of course we wanted to argue that the election of Pope Francis was not valid either [6] - but where do we stop?


The fourth question is whether a case that Pope Benedict’s demission was invalid would be likely to succeed. If such a law-suit were to be brought, it would have to be brought by the Church, that is concretely by the Pope himself, since only a Pope can adjudicate a Pope. Yet, if Pope Francis were to undertake such a process, it is unlikely that he would judge the demission to have been invalid.


One of the reasons for this is that any law-suit based on the word and the spirit of the Code of Canon Law of 1983 would a priori favour Pope Benedict’s thesis of an extended ministry, since the Code of Law has been brought into conformity with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including collegiality, and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, particularly on collegiality, correspond perfectly to Pope Benedict’s views.


We conclude that if it is proved that Pope Benedict resigned in order to exercise an extended ministry, then it has not been proved that this invalidated his demission; that, if it were capable of so doing, then it would be capable of invalidating his assent to the Papacy; that it is unlikely that Pope Francis or the Code of Canon Law would favour the invalidity of Pope Benedict’s demission.



B.                B. The Validity of the Election of Pope Francis


We here refer to the ‘St. Gallen Conspiracy’ which issued in the election of Pope Francis. This conspiracy is presented by those who do not recognize him as Pope as invalidating his election. When we study Church History, however, we witness many similar, and even greater, examples of conspiracy, pressure, and dishonesty in the process of Papal elections, which did not in fact invalidate them. Take the election of Pope Urban VI effected by popular pressure on the Cardinals; take the election of Pope Alexander VI secured by simony; the election of Pope John XXIII, following Cardinal Siri’s renunciation of the Petrine office as a reaction to the threat of schism of approximately half the College of Cardinals.


After Cardinal Siri’s death, Cardinal Stickler confided to a French priest friend of the writer of this article that he was in fact elected thrice in three different papal elections. He said: “We all know this in Rome. We must pray for his soul.” It was also said that the Cardinal Siri had been threatened with the death of family members if he accepted election. In conclusion, then, if irregularity could invalidate election, no less than 5 of the last 6 Popes would not have been Popes at all.  



C.    The Adhesion of the Moral Totality of the Church to Pope Francis [7]


Now the primary object of Infallibility are Truths immediately revealed; the secondary object are Truths and Facts deduced from such doctrines, as required for the formulation, defense, or application of the former. The former are known as ‘Divine Truths or Doctrines’; the latter as ‘Catholic Truths’, or ‘Ecclesiastical Doctrines’.


An example of a Divine Truth is the dogma of Apostolic Succession (credo… apostolicam Ecclesiam): the dogma, namely, that the Church was founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ on Peter and his successors, who constitute, in an uninterrupted and continuous chain, the Foundation and Universal Pastors or Heads, of the Church. An example of a Catholic Truth, by contrast, is the doctrine deduced from this, that the pacific adhesion to a putative Pope of the moral totality of the Church (universae ecclesiae adhaesio) demonstrates that he is truly the Pope.


In regard to the possibility of a heretical Pope, Cardinal Billot SJ, one of the major theologians of the last century, states that: ‘a morally unanimous adhesion of the  Church Universal will in itself always be the infallibile sign of the legitimacy of a given Pontiff’ (de Ecclesia Christi, Roma, Gregoriana1903 vol. I, pp. 612 – 3).


Here we have an authoritative confirmation that Pope Francis’ heterodoxy would not preclude him from being Pope, if he were acclaimed Pope by the Universal Church when the See of Peter was vacant. At the same time, however, such an Acclamation would clearly be insufficient to prove that he is in fact the Pope if there were doubt as to whether the See were vacant at the time of his election.


The doctrine of the Adhesion of the Universal Church is, as we have just seen,  a criterion for the validity of election required by the dogma of Apostolic Succession: it does not apply to a situation as complex and anomalous as the purported Dual Papacy of Benedict and Francis.


Before we can establish the validity of Francis’ election, we  clearly need to establish the validity of  Benedict’s demission. We have  argued above that Pope Benedict’s demission was valid, but this is as yet unproven.


If the demission of Pope Benedict were valid, the fact of the Adhesion to Pope Francis would be relevant and would in fact render Pope Francis’ election valid; if the demission of Pope Benedict were invalid, by contrast, and Pope Benedict remained Pope until his death, then the fact of the Adhesion to Francis would be irrelevant, because his putative election during the reign of Pope Benedict’s would have been invalid.   



D.   The Heresy of Pope Francis  


On the basis that a Pope ceases to be Pope on grounds of heresy, we bring to the reader’s attention the long list of heresies imputed to him on the Hispanic site Denzinger Bergoglio. Are these not enough to show that he is not Pope? Is not even one sufficient?


Treating this subject with the maximum possible brevity, we merely remark that a distinction must here be made between two types of heresy: formal, pertinacious, and manifest on one side (that is to say the direct, obstinate, public denial of a dogma), and material, not pertinacious, occult on the other. The type of heresy which renders its proponent a formal heretic and excludes him from the Church is the former type: that which is formal, pertinacious (and manifest) (cf. Canon 751, CIC 1983). 


If Pope Francis, using the formula required for the infallible definition of dogma had defined a heresy as a dogma, then he would obviously ipso facto have ceased to be Pope, but this has not been the case. Clearly all the heresies that he may have declared, are manifest - and more manifest they could not be - but all of them, as well as all the heretical actions that he may have committed (including the veneration of the idol of a fertility “goddess” in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome), are not sufficient to render him a heretic in a formal and pertinacious, but only in a material, sense.   


Those who deem themselves competent to brand him a heretic and therefore not an authentic Pope, typically deem all previous Popes to be authentic and therefore not heretical in the sense in which they consider Pope Francis to be. This, however, is incoherent, given that his predecessors were also prone to heresy in words or deeds: Pope John Paul II kissing the Koran and presiding over gatherings of the “other religions” in Assisi, Pope Benedict following suit in the latter practice; Pope John XXIII and Paul VI convoking and promoting the Second Vatican Council, which was to signify the formal entry of heterodoxy within the Church. Pope Francis’ words and deeds do not essentially differ from these other Popes in any way. His judges should draw the conclusion that either all of these 5 Popes are heretics or none at all. Tradition teaches that none of them are.



Conclusion to Sections A-D


The conclusions that we have reached in the above sections may be summarised as follows:


A          A. The Demission of Pope Benedict: valid;

B           B. The Election of Pope Francis: valid;

C          C. The Adherence of the Universal Church to Pope Francis: valid, if (A) and   (B) are valid;

D          D. The Heresy of Pope Francis: insufficient for invalidating his Papacy.


However, we repeat that all these conclusions are simply an attempt to apply the relevant theological principles to the facts: our motive is to rebut false theories and to offer the faithful an understanding of the status quo according to the Catholic Faith. At the same time we declare that we have no competence at all for determining the issue, nor does any other individual or body of men (with the possible exception of Pope Francis in the matter of the validity of Pope Benedict’s demission that we mooted above).


Some-one, and especially a “seer”, might object that he (or she) is certain that Pope Benedict was Pope until his death, or that Pope Francis was validly elected Pope and remained Pope despite any heresy into which he might have fallen. He or she might give the example of a couple who married in the last few decades who were not properly formed on the nature of marriage (like so many). He or she might say that for that reason it was obvious that their marriage was invalid, so that no law-suit was necessary.


In reply, we hope that we have shown above the complexity of the issue at hand, for which reason it would be rash to suppose that we could gain any certainty about the issue without recourse to the competent authority. The Church is able to provide legal solution to all such doubts: for doubts as to the validity of marriage there are the marriage tribunals; for doubts as to authenticity of a Pope, there is the judgment of the Church Herself, as we have stated above.


If we wished to compare the question of the authenticity of the Papacy of either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis to the validity of a given marriage, we should know that a marriage is deemed valid by the Church unless and until it is declared null by the courts, and not otherwise. 


     E.   The Competence for Determining who is Pope


We have seen above that once we start trying to adjudicate the last 6 Popes, whether in respect of their election or of their orthodoxy, we can find motives for doubting the authenticity of no less than 5 of them. If we do not necessarily want to fall into a facile and emotive sedesvacantism, we should first ask ourselves whether we do in fact have any competence to adjudicate them at all.


The question that one should rather ask oneself, which is logically prior to the question: Is Pope Francis Pope? is the following: Who has the competence to decide whether Pope Francis is Pope? The answer is nemo: no-one.


Pope Nicholas 1 declares in the Brief Proposueramus quidam to the Emperor Michael in the year 865: ‘… Neither by the Emperor, nor by the whole clergy, nor by Kings, nor by the people, can the Judge be judged… the First See shall not be judged by any-one: Neque ab Augusto neque ab omne clero neque a regibus neque a populo iudex iudicabitur… Prima sedes non iudicabitur a quoquam…’


Not even a Council has the competent authority, as Pope Pius II declares in no uncertain terms in the Bull Exsecrabilis of 1460: ‘The execrable and hitherto unheard of abuse has grown up in our day, that certain persons… presume to appeal to a future council from the Roman Pontiff... we condemn all such appeals and disprove them as erroneous and detestable’: Exsecrabilis et pristinis temporibus inauditus tempestate nostra inolevit abusus, ut a Romano pontifice… ut a future concilio provocare praesumant…. Huiusmodi provocationes damnamus ac detestabiles reprobamus.


Similarly the First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus cap.3 in 1870, states: ‘The judgment of the Apostolic See, than which there is no greater authority, can be retracted by no-one: nor may any-one judge of its judgment’: ‘Sedis… vero apostolicae, cuius auctoritate maior non est, iudicium a nemine fore retractandum, neque cuiquam de eius licere iudicare iudicio.


How then can the matter be decided? There is no means of deciding it during the life-time of the presumed Pope, unless of course he adjudicates the validity of Pope Benedict’s dismissal itself, which is unlikely. It could only be decided by the Church at some future date, as it was at the time of the election to the Papacy of Cardinal Roncalli in 1958, when the Church, by designating him ‘Pope John XXIII’, entailed that the prelate that had been known as ‘Pope John XXIII’ since  the 15th. century, had never in fact been the Pope at all.


The matter could be decided by a future Pope who adjudicated all the questions we have examined above: the validity of Pope Benedict’s demission; of Pope Francis’ election; of the adherence of the Universal Church to Pope Francis; of Pope Francis’ heresy. We would, then, be able to know for certain whether Francis is the Pope or not, only if and when the Church expresses its judgment on the matter, even if this does not occur during our lifetime.



"Narcissus" by Caravaggio

We have seen that Faith and logic favour the opinion that Pope Benedict was validly elected and validly resigned; that Pope Francis was validly elected and remains Pope at the time of writing. We have also seen, however, that this can only be known with certainty if and when the Church declares it to be so.


And yet the fundamental problem is not the validity of Pope Benedict’s election or demission; nor of Pope Francis’ election or continuing reign; nor of the New Code of Canon Law’s incapacity to provide a fair and just solution to our evils.


The problem is the heresy propagated and celebrated in our churches, furthered by our Popes, enshrined in the Law, overflowing from the Church, as the Higher Reality into the lower reality which is the World, fed and injected into our infants and fragile youth, into adults and the elderly; smothering us with its narcissistic embraces; choking and asphyxiating us with its mortiferous fumes: “…and the smoke of the abyss arose, as the smoke of a great furnace. And the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke of the abyss.” [8]

O when will the Sun of Justice shine upon us again and expel from us the angels of night? When will He show us again His glorious face and we shall be saved?


Mater Misericordiae, Ora pro nobis!  


Part II of this series of three articles will follow in the near future, Deo volente, under the title of ‘Una Cum’.


[1] One may speculate that the Archbishop is here referring to the concept of a potential received on Episcopal Consecration which is later actualised by the Hierarchy by analogy with diocesan jurisdiction (see Nota Praevia, 2). For once the potential to become Pope has been actualised by election and acceptance, it clearly cannot be relinquished.  We have written about this in our (not yet published) revised version of The Eclipse of God, a critique of Vatican II’.

[2] This it did in order to accord greater importance to the Episcopacy, although that was of course irrelevant to Pope Benedict’s demission.

[3] 1962, co-authored with Father Rahner. p.43,

[4] As indeed he had already at the time of the Council we have already seen in the previous footnote.

[5] We shall not further pursue the question of the validity of Pope Benedict’s election here, since it is not a subject of current debate.

[6] as Archbishop Viganò has argued, on the basis that he accepted election not in order to benefit but to harm the Church.

[7] We rely in this section largely on a paper by Don Curzio Nitoglia, although we reach a different conclusion from his.

[8] Apc. 9.1-2