The Truth About Papal Claims

© Copyright 2008, T. Stanfill Benns 
(All emphasis within quotes is the author’s unless indicated otherwise.)


What is the definition of doubt in Canon Law? Rev. Amleto Cicognani (“Canon Law”) tells us that the word doubt comes from the Latin root du meaning two. So a doubt of law or fact is withholding assent between two contradictory propositions — such a one was validly elected Pope, or he was not validly elected Pope. This amounts to a lack of certitude, and as Cicognani points out, the common good demands certitude concerning the validity of acts. (Here we again encounter Can. 21.) This is especially true since the valid election of a Pope constitutes a dogmatic fact. Rev. A.C Cotter (ABC of Scholastic Philosophy) tells us that formal certitude is “Firm assent (or dissent) based on motives in themselves infallible and [which are] known to be infallible.” Cicognani says doubt must be absolutely removed by a reflex principle. Rev. Pierre Gury gives some of these principles in his work, Dogmatic Theology. Here we have a doubt of fact, e.g., whether this or that person truly was able to become pope. Gury says that this fact must not be merely presumed, but must be demonstrated. What is provided below will help demonstrate what is necessary to resolve doubts concerning the validity of papal claimants.

Theologians on legitimate papal election

Traditionalists quote the theologian Billot as follows: “God cannot…permit that the whole Church accept as Pontiff him who is not so truly and legitimately. Therefore, from the moment in which the Pope is accepted by the Church and united to her as the head to the body, it is no longer permitted to raise doubts about a possible vice of election or a possible lack of any condition whatsoever necessary for legitimacy. For the aforementioned adhesion of the Church heals in the root all fault in the election and proves infallibly the existence of all the required conditions.” When the Church (bishops, priests, religious laity) once again can reunite and when the hierarchy can elect a Pope, then and not till then can this principle be applied.

From Rev. Francis Connell we read: “What certainty have we that the reigning Pontiff is actually the primate of the universal Church – that is, that he became a member of the Church through valid baptism, and that he was validly elected Pope? We have human moral certainty that the reigning Pontiff was validly elected in conclave and accepted the office of Bishop of Rome, thus becoming head of the universal Church. The unanimous consensus of a large group of Cardinals composing the electoral body gave us this assurance… For if we did not have infallible assurance that the ruling Pontiff is truly in the eyes of God the chief teacher of the Church of Christ, how could we accept as infallibly true his solemn pronouncements? This is an example of a fact that is not contained in the deposit of revelation but is so intimately connected with revelation that it must be within the scope of the Church’s magisterial authority to declare it infallibly. The whole Church, teaching and believing, declares and believes this fact, and from this it follows that this fact is infallibly true. We accept it with ecclesiastical – not divine – faith, based on the authority of the infallible Church.”

These two theologians both agree that only when the election itself is certainly valid and the Church as a whole accepts a man as pope (meaning clergy first of all, then people, since St. Antoninus below tells the people to follow the clergy) can he be considered truly pope. There must be at least moral certainty concerning the validity of the election. All this is necessary because we must have “infallible assurance that the ruling Pontiff is truly in the eyes of God the chief teacher of the Church of Christ,” in order to be able “to accept as infallibly true his solemn pronouncements,” and infallible assurance comes only from the laws and teachings of the Popes and councils defining. Rev. Journet and John of St. Thomas — as well as others — agree with the theologians above, as shown below.

Rev. Charles Journet wrote, in his The Church of the Word Incarnate, (under validity and certitude of election): ”[The papal] election, remarks John of St. Thomas, may be invalid when carried out by persons not qualified, or when, although effected by persons qualified it suffers from defect of form or falls on an incapable subject, as for example, one of unsound mind or unbaptized [or an apostate, heretic or schismatic]. But the peaceful acceptance of the universal Church given to an elect as to a head to whom it submits is an act in which the Church engages herself and Her fate. It is therefore an act in itself infallible and is immediately recognizable as such. (Consequently and mediately, it will appear that all conditions prerequisite to the validity of the election have been fulfilled.) Acceptance by the Church operates either negatively, when the election is not at once contested; or positively, when the election is first accepted by those present then gradually by the rest.

”The Church has the right to elect the Pope, and therefore the right to certain knowledge as to who is elected. As long as any doubt remains and the tacit consent of the universal Church has not yet remedied the possible flaws in the election, there is no Pope; papa dubius, papa nullus. As a matter of fact, remarks John of St. Thomas, insofar as a peaceful and certain election is not apparent, the election is regarded as still going on. And since the Church has full control, not over a Pope certainly elected but over the election itself, she can take all measures needed to bring it to a conclusion. The Church can therefore judge a Pope to be doubtful. Thus, says John of St. Thomas, the Church judged three popes to be doubtful, of whom two were deposed and the third resigned.” Journet also writes, under loss of the pontificate: “The Pope was considered as having resigned when he was so placed that he could not possibly exercise his powers. ‘It appears that in those times when a bishop was removed from his see…by death, exile or resignation, or an equivalent measure…the see was considered as vacant,’” (Duchesne, The Early History of the Church, Vol. III).

Determining papal legitimacy

Now by Church must always be understood the Church’s own definition of Herself as established by Christ: bishops, priests and laity. So immediately someone is going to object: only the clergy can determine if a Pope is doubtful. And I answer here that this is not about not any certain “pope.” This is not the same as questioning the integrity of a thing already accepted by many Catholics as certainly existing, as happened during the Western Schism. This is about a candidate’s ability to qualify for election according to Church and Divine law PRIOR to any election event that is being questioned here. Any man can walk up to any person on the street and tell them: “I was elected governor by 50 people from three different counties last night and you must follow me and do what I say.”

But does that make him governor? Wouldn’t you consult the laws of the State to see if he really could be elected this way? Wouldn’t you demand proof of his integrity, expect him to prove his citizenship and to provide proof of previous experience in some branch of government? Would you follow him as governor without conducting such an investigation and obey his “laws,” even though they were not the same as those observed in your state? (Well you could, but you might land in jail.) All this is simple common sense. This reasoning concerns only secular authorities: how much more must we demand from those who hold our eternal salvation in their hands?! No one goes from desk clerk to CEO overnight, unless Daddy dies and he inherits the business. Every man is answerable to those he intends to represent, or can be made answerable by the people. The Church is a divinely instituted society, so Her laws are a little different. But all the same basic principles remain, as further demonstrated below.

Cardinal Manning’s nephew, Rev. Henry Ryder, likewise writes: “The privilege of infallible teaching belongs only to an undoubted Pope; on the claims of a doubted, disputed Pope, the Church has the right of judging [as occurred at the Council of Constance.]…During a contested papacy, the state of things approximates to that of an interregnum. The exercise of active infallibility is suspended” (Catholic Controversy, 1882). This statement only reflects the teachings of Journet and John of St. Thomas, also Cardinal Cajetan, and is the long practice of the Church in the matter of “rival” papacies. It has taken the Church hundreds of years in some cases to decide whether this or that papacy was true or false, even with what would appear to us now as solid evidence. For example, Pope Gregory XII was not determined to be the true Pope during the Western Schism (14th and early 15th century), until the 19th century despite the fact that a) He resided in Rome and b) by accepting his resignation as Pope, the Council of Constance implicitly recognized his legitimacy.

The Church demands a high degree of certitude where electing a Pope is concerned. And without the participation of valid and licit clergy in the selection and nomination process, also the actual election, we cannot obtain that degree of certitude. Cardinal Zabarella, writing in the 14th and 15th centuries, believed that in the event of a contested papacy, a General Council (the “universal Church…or congregation of the faithful”) was to decide which claimant was the true Pope, (The Origins of the Great Schism, Walter Ullmann, 1948). Even here, however, Zabarella restricts the actual decision to those at the Council deemed the most capable and senior in position. The Canonist Baldis de Ubaldis, Zabarella’s student, disagrees with Journet, stating that “Canon Law lays down the dictum that in a doubtful situation, the man elected has to be held as Pope,” (Ullmann). But yet another author qualifies this statement. According to “an ancient canon…the first election should be considered valid until the contrary is proved: ‘the Church ordains that the preference shall always be given to him who, at the request of the people, with the consent and concurrence of the clergy, has been first placed by the Cardinals in the chair of Blessed Peter.’ Now Peter de Leone and his party proceeded to the second election without attempting to prove the invalidity of the first which, as not being self-evidently null, gave Innocent at least a presumptive right,” (St. Bernard, by Ailbe Luddy, 1927).

We must make several distinctions in what is quoted above. First of all, it must be realized that Ullmann’s quotes came from a cardinal and his student forced to deal with the Gallicanist heresy, then rampant in the Church. Secondly, Rev Luddy is quoting an ancient canon that was extant during the first millennia of the Church, a canon that contradicts what some are trying to say about how elections by the clergy and laity were conducted and who conducted them. The laity may have chosen a candidate; but it was the CLERGY who elected or confirmed him, or not, as the sense of the canon indicates. And finally, it was the CARDINALS who actually elected or placed him, since the first law limiting the election to cardinals was enacted by Pope Stephen IV in 769, although it was not faithfully observed until the 13th century. It must be noted here that nowhere is it stated that the election of the pope was ever limited to the laity; all the laity ever had the right to do is to nominate a candidate to be approved by the clergy and elected by the cardinals or the clergy (bishops and priests) of Rome; the extent of the laity’s role in this bare nomination has been long disputed by various theologians and Catholic historians. So only the CLERGY, assisted to an unknown degree by the laity, ever presented these nominees to the cardinals or senior clergy for election.

In stating that a pope could be cleared of any irregularities save heresy by election and acceptance of the election, Ubaldis (and Luddy) assume it will be the cardinals electing. Even though medieval canonists had considered the case of a layman elected Pope, and Ubaldis was a contemporary of these canonists, no one considered the case of the election of a layman who could not be ordained for an extended length of time. Ubaldis himself did observe that only a General Council could remove a Pope guilty of “notorious heresy” who will not abdicate. But it must be remembered that he wrote before the infallible Bull of Pope Paul IV, “Cum ex Apostolatus Officio” was issued, which decrees that when a Pope publicly teaches heresy, this means he was never a pope because he was a heretic pre-election and hence can be disposed of even by the civil power. This Bull removes the necessity of the Church to declare the one elected a heretic and request deposition by stating that the heresy itself deposes. It requires only that the fact of the heresy be demonstrated and the offender corrected and removed.

Journet, citing Hurtaud refers to the interesting case of Pope Alexander VI: “By divine law, he who shows himself to be a heretic is to be avoided after one or two admonitions, (Titus 3: 10). There is therefore an absolute contradiction between the fact of being Pope and the fact of persevering in heresy after one or two admonitions…Savonarola, [Hurtaud says] regarded Alexander VI as having lost his faith…Savonarola wished to collect together the Council, not because, like the Gallicans, he placed a Council above the Pope, (the letters to the Princes are legally and doctrinally unimpeachable) but so that the Council, before which he would prove his accusation, should declare the heresy of Alexander VI in his status as a private individual.” (Journet further notes here that Savonarola’s case is still open.) It must be pointed out here that Savonarola was not dealing with heresy publicly manifested; only with heresy committed in a “private capacity,” as Journet says. Also, once again, Savonarola lived prior to the issuance of Pope Paul IV’s infallible bull, which teaches that anytime a “Pope” appears to commit heresy of any kind, he was never validly elected Pope. “Cum ex…” basically states that whenever it appears that a “Pope” has committed “an error in respect of the faith,” he committed the initial error pre-election and may be judged. This dispenses with any question of private heresy.

Catholic Encyclopedia on doubtful elections

Under “Elections,” the Catholic Encyclopedia states that an ecclesiastical election may be disputed, hence become doubtful “by whoever is interested in it,” (see The article lists the following reasons why an ecclesiastical election can be called into question.

1. Unless there has been a frank and fair discussion of the merits of the candidate(s), “Some maintain that an election without such a discussion is null or could be annulled.”
2. “The principle duty of an elector is to vote according to his conscience…In order, however to fulfill his duty, the elector has a right to be free and entirely uninfluenced by the dread of any unjust annoyance which might affect his vote, whether such annoyance be…civil or ecclesiastical.”
3. An election may be defective…if the electors are not properly qualified.” The Encyclopedia article states that persons eligible for election (including that of the pope) are those who “meet the requirements of common ecclesiastical law, or special statutes, for the charges or function in question; hence, for each election it is necessary to ascertain what is required of the candidate.” This is in perfect agreement with the need for a canonical provision under Canons 20 and 147.
4. If the one elected is unfit or unworthy
5. If all the qualified electors were not summoned, (Revs. Bouscaren-Ellis under Canon 162 state that if one-third of the lectors are not summoned, the lection is invalid.)
6. The election of an unworthy person is to be annulled. (See # 4.)

Journet and others were quoted in the book Will the Catholic Church Survive…? pre-election on the subject of universal acceptance of the election, which is a means of remedying any possible defects in the election form. In the absence of such an acclamation, the election is still technically in progress, as Cardinal Cajetan observes above. It would be imprudent, to say the least, if the opinions of Journet and John of St. Thomas were set aside because no acclamation could be obtained. So the following facts support the opinion that all other things aside, the papal election is still underway. Therefore, until the clergy are located, it is not possible to elect a true pope.

On obeying doubtful popes

According to the opinions of seven different theologians, fulfilling the requirements of Can. 20 and the moral prerequisites for establishing true probability, “There is no schism involved…if one refuses obedience [to a pope] inasmuch as one suspects the person of the Pope or the validity of his election…” (“The Communication of Catholics with Schismatics,” Rev. Ignatius J, Szal, A.B., J.C.L.). Of course one would need to offer valid reasons for such doubts, reasons provided elsewhere by this author. Notice that one need only suspect that the man claiming to be Pope is a heretic or invalidly elected, (Can. 2200). What Szal presents, then, is a solidly probable opinion, one which establishes certitude, and according to the laws and teachings of the Church it may be followed at will. Consequently, no one may accuse one following their conscience in this matter of being in schism, since the Church condemns those as heretics who believe that “It is not permitted to follow a (probable) opinion, or among the probables, the most probable,” (condemned as absolute tutiorism (rigorism) by Alexander VIII; DZ 1293).

Furthermore, in his bull Cum ex Apostolatus Officio, Pope Paul IV has exonerated all those from heresy or schism who rightfully denounce an heretical usurper: “…all may implore the aid of the secular arm against those so advanced and elevated. Nor shall they be liable to reprisal through any censure or penalty, as renders of the Lord’s robe, for departing, for the reasons set forth above, from fealty and obedience to said promoted and elevated persons…” And Pope Paul IV’s laws on heresy and schism are retained in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.We also have this from St. Antoninus, who in commenting on the Great Western Schism noted:

“The question was much discussed and much was written in defense of one side or the other. For as long as the schism lasted each obedience had in its favor men who were very learned in Scripture and Canon Law, and even very pious people, including some who – what is much more – were illustrious by the gift of miracles. Nonetheless the question could never be settled without leaving the minds of many still in doubt. Doubtless we must believe that, just as there are not several Catholic Churches, but only one, so there is only one Vicar of Christ who is its pastor. But if it should occur that, by a schism, several popes are elected at the same time, it does not seem necessary for salvation to believe that this or that one in particular is the true pope, but just in general whichever of them was canonically elected.

The people are not obliged to know who was canonically elected, just as they are not obliged to know Canon Law; in this matter they may follow the judgment of their superiors and prelates.” In the absence of the hierarchy, we can only obey the laws and teachings of the Fathers speaking unanimously, all the Popes and the General Councils; these have always been the measure of Divine Faith. But we do NOT need to heed or obey the dictates of those passing themselves off as “pope” or some other leader, for they have a vested interest in claiming our allegiance, and their deductions, when not in strict accord with Church law and teaching are worthless. Without certainly valid and licit clergy electing, there can be no true pope.

The laity may not validly elect a pope and have never elected a Pope; this statement contradicts Divine law as expounded in Can. 107 and results in heresy. No such papal claimants elected outside the laws of the Church are certainly valid, and a doubtful pope is no pope unless elected by the cardinals according to the sacred canons. Pope St. Pius X’s 1904 election law revised by Pope Pius XII’s 1945 election law abrogate all previous papal election laws, as every canonist consulted in the matter states. Pope Pius XII’s election law stands until a future Pope is elected, as the law itself states.

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