Can The Church Depose An Heretical Pope?
Written by Robert J. Siscoe
In Canon law, there are two distinct penalties for the crime of heresy. One is a censure and the other is a vindictive penalty.
The censure of excommunication is incurred automatically by one who knowingly commits any offense that carries the penalty (such as internally denying a dogma within his heart). Such excommunications can be public or occult (secret) (48), and require no warning or declaration, per se. However, when the public good demands it, a declaration must be issued for a person to be considered to have incurred the excommunication in the external forum. (49) And, as the canonists teach, when the person in question is a cleric, the public good does demand it. (50) Therefore, while a cleric may have secretly incurred excommunication in the internal forum, he is not considered to have incurred the censure of excommunication in the external forum, without a declaration by the Church.
But what is important to note is that the censure of excommunication does not result in the loss of office for a cleric. The loss of office is a vindictive penalty, and vindictive penalties always require a warning (usually two). (51) In fact, as mentioned above, even in the case of a more severe vindictive penalty, which is incurred by a cleric who publicly defects from the faith (canon 188.4) by joining a false religion, either formally (sectae acatholicae nomen dare) or informally (publice adhaerere), a canonical warning is required before the office is rendered vacant. (52)
In his commentary on the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Fr. Augustine explains this point. Referring to a cleric who joins a false religion, he wrote:
"A cleric must, besides, be degraded if, after having been duly warned, he persists in being a member of such a society. All the offices he may hold become vacant, ipso facto, without any further declaration. This is tacit resignation recognized by law (Canon 188.4) and therefore the vacancy is one de facto et iure [by fact and by law]." (53)
We can see that even in the extreme case of a cleric who publicly joined a false sect, even though a declaration is not required, a warning is necessary before his office is rendered vacant. This shows how necessary the Church considers a warning to be in establishing pertinacity.
48) Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, Vol V (on Excommunication), p 680
49) A Commentary of Canon Law, Idem, p 278
50) Ibid. p 278
51) Ibid. p 279
52) Ibid. p 279-280
53) Ibid. p 280