The Vatican II revolution, put in motion by John XXIII, and implemented most notably by Paul VI and John Paul II, has reached its nadir under the pontificate of Pope Francis. The current Pope not only takes the conciliar assault on Catholic doctrine to a new level (e.g., not judging sodomy; denying the immortality of the soul and the reality of hell; declaring capital punishment inadmissible in all cases, etc.), but departs from his predecessors by attacking basic Catholic moral teaching (e.g., indissolubility of marriage; exclusion of adulterers from Holy Communion, etc.). And if Francis has allowed, whether through gross neglect or willful intent, the sodomizing of children and adolescents as Cardinal Vigano’s allegation would seem to suggest, he may go down as the most evil Pope in Church history (and will certainly be one of them).
In light of Francis’ unprecedented attacks on Church doctrine and practice, some traditional Catholics, in seeking a solution to this papal crisis, are unfortunately being tempted to embrace the theology of the Sedevacantists, who hold that if a Pope embraces or teaches heresy (i.e., denying a revealed truth definitely proposed as such by the Church), he automatically loses his office. To justify their rejection of all the post-Vatican II Popes, Sedevacantists for years have claimed that the “nature” of heresy severs a person from the Church, without any judgment from Church authorities. Thus, if Francis’ teachings are heretical, then some traditional Catholics have been tempted to conclude – using the theological argument of the Sedevacantists – that Francis is no longer a member of the Church. And if he is no longer a member of the Church, he cannot be Pope.
Legal vs. Spiritual Separation
Those who make this argument usually appeal to Pope Pius XII’s teaching in Mystici Corporis Christi, where he says:
For not every offense, although it may be a grave evil, is such as by its very own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.
Is it true that a Pope’s act of embracing heresy, by its very nature, severs him from the Church, as the Sedevacantists constantly argue? The answer is a qualified yes, just as Pius XII teaches, when properly understood. The problem is that Sedevacantists have failed to make a fundamental distinction between legal separation and spiritual separation from the Church, and this failure to make the proper distinctions has deceived some Catholics into embracing the Sedevacantist error. When a person knowingly rejects or willfully doubts a doctrine of the Church that must be believed by divine faith, he is guilty of the sin of formal heresy and is spiritually severed from the Church. Being separated from the Church, he no longer shares in the spiritual goods of the Church. This is because a formal heretic immediately loses the supernatural virtue of faith, along with grace and the rest of the supernatural virtues. In this spiritual sense, then, heresy by its nature does sever one from the Church, for there is a metaphysical incompatibility between faith – “the foundation of the supernatural life” - and the mortal sin of heresy.
However, this spiritual separation does not automatically result in a legal separation from the Church. And that means the spiritual separation does not necessarily cause a Pope (or any other cleric) to lose his jurisdiction/office in the Church, since jurisdiction is a legal prerogative, which does not require the interior virtue of faith, or the influx of grace through the Church. This is the key point that the Sedevacantists (and those who reject Pope Francis alone) have not grasped, particularly as they appeal to Pius XII’s teaching in Mystici Corporis Christi. This point is particularly relevant today, when many believe Pope Francis does not have supernatural faith (which would appear to be the case if Francis has been intentionally shielding and even promoting the work of sodomite predators in the Church, for he would have no fear of God’s judgment).
To underscore the spiritual versus legal distinction, a priest who has been commissioned by his bishop to forgive sins can exercise his jurisdiction in the confessional, even if he himself is a formal heretic (i.e., has lost the virtue of faith) and has thereby severed himself spiritually from the Church. Of course, it is the same with the Pope. In this legal sense, then, heresy by its nature will not necessarily sever one from the Church, because there is no metaphysical incompatibility between heresy and jurisdiction (a legal matter of the external forum), like there is between heresy and the virtue of faith (a spiritual matter of the internal forum).
Bellarmine on Legal Separation
In his famous treatise De Romano Pontefice, St. Robert Bellarmine explains what is required for legal separation from the Church. In his explanation, Bellarmine refers to the extreme case of Novatian, and it is critical to understand why the saint and Doctor used this example. It is an extreme example because Novatian didn’t just teach heresy. Rather, he openly left the Church by refusing to recognize Pope Cornelius who was the true Pope (just like the Sedevacantists have done with the conciliar Popes) and even declared himself Pope (as some Sedevacantists have also done). That is, Novatian renounced the Pope and the Church as the infallible rule of faith, and chose another rule (himself, as antipope). Bellarmine’s use of Novatian as his case study reveals quite clearly that he believed one must actually leave the Church (or be declared a heretic by the Church) before he would lose his office and jurisdiction in the Church (legal separation). Wrote Bellarmine:
This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction, and outstandingly that of St. Cyprian (lib. 4, epist. 2) who speaks as follows of Novatian, who was Pope [antipope] in the schism which occurred during the pontificate of St. Cornelius: ‘He would not be able to retain the episcopate, and, if he was made bishop before, he separated himself from the body of those who were, like him, bishops, and from the unity of the Church.’ According to what St. Cyprian affirms in this passage, even had Novatian been the true and legitimate Pope, he would have automatically fallen from the pontificate, if he separated himself from the Church. This is the opinion of great recent doctors, as John Driedo (lib. 4 de Script. et dogmat. Eccles., cap. 2, par. 2, sent. 2), who teaches that only those separate themselves from the Church who are expelled, like the excommunicated, and those who depart by themselves from her or oppose her, as heretics and schismatics. And in his seventh affirmation, he maintains that in those who turn away from the Church, there remains absolutely no spiritual power over those who are in the Church. 
Note that Bellarmine explains that a manifest heretic is one who either (1) is judged a heretic by the Church’s authorities (“expelled, like the excommunicated”) or (2) openly leaves the Church (by “separating,” “departing,” “turning away” from her). In explaining these two ways that one legally separates from the Church through manifest heresy (and, if a cleric, loses his jurisdiction), Bellarmine relies upon John Driedo as his authority, who likewise says that manifest heretics “are in the Church until they are either cut off by the Church’s judgment (the first way), or depart of their own accord” (the second way). Here is the full quotation from Driedo that St. Bellarmine references as the authority for his own position:
All those who have received the sacrament of faith [Baptism], and are visibly attached to the Church, and associating in a peaceable way with the Christian people, are in the Church until they are either cut off by the Church’s judgment (donec vel judicio ecclesiae separantur), or depart of their own accord (vel sua sponte exeant).”
Needless to say, none of the conciliar Popes, including Pope Francis, have been cut off by the Church’s judgment (the first way) or departed from the Church of their own accord (the second way), because they all have publicly acknowledged the Church as the infallible rule of Faith, and always professed to be Catholic, even defending their teachings as legitimate developments of Catholic doctrine, however wrong they may have been.
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How is this relevant to Pius XII’s teaching on the nature of heresy in Mystici Corporis Christi mentioned above? In the paragraph (no. 22) that immediately precedes the Pope’s teaching that heresy “by its very own nature” severs one from the Church (no. 23), the Pope affirms with Bellarmine and Driedo that the legal separation (as opposed to a spiritual separation) would only occur if one would openly leave the Church (separating from the unity of the Church) or be expelled by the Church’s authorities. Pope Pius XII says: “Actually only those are to be numbered among the members of the Church who have received the laver of regeneration and profess the true faith and have not separated themselves from the unity of the body or been excluded by legitimate authority.” What this shows is that while heresy by its nature severs a person from the Church spiritually, the legal separation does not take place unless the person openly leaves the Church, or is cut off by the Church’s judgment, which has not happened in the case of Pope Francis (or any of the conciliar Popes).
Like Bellarmine, Suarez and Driedo, Billuart affirms that the manifest heretic loses his jurisdiction when he leaves the Church (by “departing” from her):
I say that manifest heretics, unless they are denounced by name, or themselves depart from the Church, retain their jurisdiction and validly absolve. This is proved by the Bull of Martin V (…) Our argument is confirmed by the current praxis of the entire Church; for no one today ... avoids his pastor, even for the reception of the sacraments, as long as he is allowed to remain in his benefice, even if the man is, in the judgment of all or at least of the majority, a manifest Jansenist, and rebellious against the definitions of the Church; and so on with the rest. I have said in my thesis, “unless they depart from the Church of their own accord”; for, by the fact that they depart from the Church, they renounce her jurisdiction, and as a result we infer that the Church does not continue to give it to them.
What this means is that if a cleric, including the Pope, publicly professes heresy, but has not been judged a heretic by the Church (the first way), or openly left the Church (the second way), then he would “legally” be considered an occult heretic only (and that only if he committed the sin of heresy). And it is the unanimous opinion of the theologians that occult heretics retain their clerical offices and jurisdiction in the Church, because they retain their legal bond to the Church, even if they have severed the spiritual bond. That means the conciliar Popes, who have neither been judged heretics by the Church nor departed from the Church by openly leaving her, are true and lawful Popes – even if they were spiritually separated from the Church, and even if they professed material heresies externally, including externally sinning against the faith.
The Legal Bond and the “Profession of the True Faith”
As we have seen, a person becomes legally separated from the Church if he openly departs from her on his own accord. In such case, the person severs the external bonds of unity he had with the Church, which includes “the profession of the true faith.” Those who embrace Sedevacantist theology misunderstand what this bond means. They mistakenly believe that if a Catholic makes a heretical statement, then he no longer “professes the true Faith” and hence immediately ceases to be a legal member of the Church. And if the person in question is a Pope, they conclude that he immediately loses his office. This error is rooted in an incomplete understanding of this external social bond of unity, and how the bond is severed.
In his acclaimed book, The Church of Christ, Fr. E. Sylvester Berry explains that “profession of faith” is realized by the external and public submission to the Church’s teaching authority – what Cardinal Billot calls the Church’s “social magisterium.” This external bond of unity does not require that all the dogmatic teachings of the Magisterium be publicly professed with theological precision, nor is the bond severed by the public profession of an erroneous or even heretical doctrine, such as in the case of Pope Francis. What is absolutely necessary for this bond to be preserved is the external profession that one is a Catholic, while remaining united to the visible society of the Church.
Commenting on the teaching of Pope Nicholas, who said “the Church is the gathering of Catholics,” Bellarmine said those who are said to be Catholics are “those who publicly profess that they are Catholics.” He takes this principle so far that he says even manifest heretics “are in the body of the Church while they are joined to the faithful in the bond of profession and obedience.” Professing to be a Catholic is an implicit profession of submission to the Church’s teaching authority, which suffices for the profession of the true faith.
We can further clarify this point by distinguishing between the formal and material aspects of the bond. The formal and essential aspect of the “profession of faith” is submission to the Church’s teaching authority; the material aspect is the understanding and material profession of doctrine. The material aspect can be perfect (i.e., when each doctrine is held and professed with theological precision) or imperfect (i.e., when there is an admixture of error or even material heresy). Since the material aspect of this bond does not require perfection for the bond itself to remain intact, we can understand why Fr. Berry would say “the profession of the faith practically resolves itself into submission to her teaching authority” and why Bellarmine would argue that even manifest heretics are united to the body of the Church if they are Catholics by “external profession.”
The external bond of union known as “profession of the faith,” is not severed by the public profession of a materially heretical doctrine. This is confirmed by The Catechism of the Council of Trent, which teaches that “a person is not to be called a heretic as soon as he shall have offended in matters of faith [material aspect]; but he is a heretic who, having disregarded the authority of the Church [formal aspect], maintains an impious opinion with pertinacity.”
Fr. Berry explains that those who submit to the authority of the Church are not to be considered heretics, even if they profess heretical doctrines. He wrote:
A heretic is usually defined as a Christian, i.e., a baptized person, who holds a doctrine contrary to a revealed truth; but this definition is inaccurate, since it would make heretics of a large portion of the faithful. A doctrine contrary to a revealed truth is usually stigmatized as heretical, but a person who professes an heretical doctrine is not necessarily a heretic. Heresy, from the Greek hairesis, signifies a choosing; therefore a heretic is one who chooses for himself in matters of faith, thereby rejecting the authority of the Church established by Christ to teach all men the truths of revelation. (…) A person who submits to the authority of the Church and wishes to accept all her teachings, is not a heretic, even though he profess heretical doctrines through ignorance of what the Church really teaches; he implicitly accepts the true doctrine in his general intention to accept all that the Church teaches.”
As even the Sedevacantists would be forced to concede, all the conciliar Popes, including Pope Francis, have professed to be Catholic and remained united to the visible society of the Church. This means that even if Modernism has so confused their minds that they professed errors or even heresies, such material professions in themselves would not have formally severed the external and legal bond that united them to the Church (and which, of course, means they retained their office and jurisdiction).
Another Helpful Thomistic Distinction: Quoad Se vs. Quoad Nos
The brilliant Dominican theologian, John of St. Thomas, employed the classical quoad se, quoad nos distinction to explain the spiritual (internal) and legal (juridical) union with the Church. This distinction also helps our understanding. After affirming that heresy, by its nature, separates one from the Church, John of St. Thomas explains that one who denies the faith, even internally, ceases to be joined to the Church quoad se (of himself), but remains united to the Church quoad nos (according to us), until he is declared a heretic by the proper authorities or openly leaves the Church of his own will (affirming Driedo and Bellarmine). This is the same thing as saying that heresy, by its nature, severs one spiritually from the Church (quoad se), but not legally (quoad nos), until the Church formally recognizes the separation. John of St. Thomas then applies this distinction to the case of a heretical Pope. He says:
…for, although heresy separates one from the Church by its very nature, nevertheless, this separation is not thought to have been made, as far as we are concerned (quoad nos), without that declaration. Likewise, we respond to his [i.e., Bellarmine’s] reasoning in this way: one who is not a Christian, both in himself (quoad se) and in relation to us (quoad nos), cannot be Pope; however, if in himself he is not a Christian (quoad se), because he has lost the faith, but in relation to us (quoad nos) has not yet been juridically declared as an infidel or heretic (no matter how manifestly he be such according to private judgment), he is still a member of the Church as far as we are concerned (quoad nos); and consequently he is its head. It is necessary, therefore, to have the judgment of the Church, by which he is proposed to us as someone who is not a Christian, and who is to be avoided; and at that point he ceases to be Pope in relation to us (quoad nos); and we further conclude that he had not ceased to be Pope before [the declaration], even in himself (quoad se), since all of his acts remained valid in themselves.
According to this theological explanation, a Pope who falls into heresy ceases to be united to the Church quoad se (of himself), but he remains united to the Church quoad nos (according to us), until the separation is legally recognized by the Church. And by remaining “a member of the Church quoad nos” (according to us), he remains Pope, not only quoad nos (according to us), but even quoad se (of himself). In other words, as long as a heretical Pope is considered a legal member of the Church, and hence the true Pope quoad nos (according to the Church’s judgment), he remains a true and valid Pope quoad se (of himself) as well.
The quoad se/quoad nos distinction used by John of St. Thomas harmonizes perfectly with the spiritual/legal bond distinction we have discussed in this article (as well as the Body/Soul distinction used by Bellarmine and others that have not been addressed here). Those who are united to the Church quoad nos (according to us) remain legal members of the Church (and if they are clerics, they retain their jurisdiction), even if they are spiritually severed from the Church; whereas those who cease to be united to the Church quoad nos (i.e., those who have openly left the Church or who have been declared heretics), do not. Because God alone knows who truly possesses interior faith and are thereby united to the Church quoad se, if only these individuals (i.e., those who possess interior faith) were members of the Church, the Church would not be a visible society (whose members could be known), but rather “an invisible Church of true believers, known to God alone” which is a Protestant heresy that the Sedevacantists have embraced.
In today’s unprecedented crisis of the papacy, with clerical heresy and sodomy disfiguring the Church in an unthinkable way, Catholics are tempted to seek out a simple solution to put their troubled minds at ease. Indeed, how a true Pope could promote these evils is one of the most difficult conundrums facing scandalized Catholics. This disastrous pontificate has shaken the faith of many, just as Christ’s Passion did to almost all of His disciples. The “solution” to this conundrum that Sedevacantists have been peddling for years is to take matters in their own hands by appealing to the “heresy, by its nature, severs one from the Church” argument.
As explained in this article, we can agree with them, insofar as the spiritual bond is concerned. We affirm that heresy, by its nature, severs one from the Church spiritually (quoad se), and also disposes one to be severed legally (quoad nos, by Church authorities). Said differently, heresy, by its nature, severs the spiritual bond formally, and the legal bond dispositively. As Van Noort said, “internal heresy, since it destroys that interior unity of faith from which unity of profession is born, separates one from the body of the Church dispositively, but not yet formally.”
The legal separation from the Church is actualized when the Church’s authorities externally recognize the separation (by publicly judging that the subject is a heretic or has openly left the Church). In the case of the Pope, note that it is Christ Himself Who severs the bond between the heretical Pope and the papacy (since the Church has no authority over the Pope), and He will not do this in secret, without the Church knowing about it. This is why Christ can continue to give jurisdiction even to a manifestly heretical Pope as long as he is being recognized by the Church as its head. It is possible for Christ to sustain a heretical Pope in office because the relationship between heresy and jurisdiction is not one of total metaphysical incompatibility, and Christ will do so because He will not secretly depose a Pope while he is being tolerated by the Church and publicly recognized as its head.
This is confirmed by the teaching of Pope Alexander III (d. 1181) who taught that “a heretic retains his jurisdiction as long as he is tolerated by the Church; he loses it at the time he is reprobated by Her.” Billuart also teaches that “Christ by a particular providence, for the common good and the tranquility of the Church, continues to give jurisdiction to an even manifestly heretical pontiff until such time as he should be declared a manifest heretic by the Church. Cajetan explains that “the power of jurisdiction… is by man’s appointment: both giving it and taking it away belong to human judgment.” He then notes that the ipso facto loss of jurisdiction requires human judgment and a declaratory sentence, whereas an ipso facto excommunication does not: “more is required to incur deprivation ipso facto, than to incur excommunication, since incurring the censure does not require a declaration, whereas incurring deprivation does, according to the jurists.”
This teaching is also confirmed by the great canonist, Fr. Paul Laymann, S.J. (d. 1632). In his classic book, Moral Theology, he explained that if a Pope were to fall into heresy, and even “notorious heresy,” he would retain the pontifical power as long as he was being tolerated by the Church and publicly recognized as its head:
Observe, however, that, though we affirm that the Supreme Pontiff, as a private person, might be able to become a heretic and therefore cease to be a true member of the Church [spiritually/quoad se] still, while he was tolerated by the Church, and publicly recognized as the universal pastor, he would really enjoy the pontifical power [legally/quoad nos], in such a way that all his decrees would have no less force and authority than they would if he were truly faithful. The reason is: because it is conducive to the governing of the Church, even as, in any other well-constituted commonwealth, that the acts of a public magistrate are in force as long as he remains in office and is publicly tolerated.
This, of course, makes perfect sense. For if God were to secretly sever the bond uniting the man to the pontificate, while the Church continued to recognize him as Pope, the actions of God would effectively deceive His Church into following an antipope – that is, one lawfully elected and publicly presented to the Church as Pope by the authorities, yet secretly deposed by God. Needless to say, such a thing is impossible, for God cannot lie or deceive us.
So, while it is true that heresy, by its nature, severs one’s spiritual bond with the Church, it does not sever the legal bond, unless the person departs from the Church of his own accord, or his heresy has been legally recognized by the Church’s authorities. This means that while Pope Francis may be spiritually severed from the Church (God only knows), he remains a legal member of the Church, since he has not been legally declared cut off by the Church’s judgment, or openly left the Church of his own accord, even if he has professed material heresies or even sinned externally against the Faith.
Nevertheless, we wonder how much longer God will permit Francis to wreak havoc on the Church’s teaching and practice before the lawful authorities take action. Perhaps this unprecedented crisis is a just punishment for the failures of the last eight Popes to obey Our Lady of Fatima’s command to consecrate Russia, and will end only when Her command is finally heeded.
 Mystici Corporis, No. 23, June 29, 1943.
 De Romano Pontifice, bk. 2, ch. 30 (emphasis added).
 Ioannis Driedonis, De Ecclesiasticis Scripturis & Dogmaticos, book 4, Eccles, cap. 2, p. 2., p. 517.
 Billuart, Summa Sancti Thomae Hodiernis Academiarum Moribus Accommodata, Secunda Secundae, 4th Dissertation: “On the Vices Opposed to Faith,” Art. 3.
 In the case of a Pope, the Church judges him indirectly, rather than directly, by performing the ministerial functions necessary to establish that he is pertinacious in rejecting a defined dogma.
 Bellarmine, De Ecclesia Militante, bk 3, ch, 10.
 The Church of Christ p. 126.
 The Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. 96.
 The Church of Christ, p. 128.
 Cursus Theologici II-II, John of St. Thomas, De Auctoritate Summi Pontificis, Disp. II, Art. III, De Depositione Papae, p. 139 (emphasis added).
 Or, to use Bellarmine’s terminology, God alone knows who are united to the Soul of the Church.
 Christ’s Church, p. 242 (emphasis added). Using Thomistic terminology, we can also say the legal separation from the Church due to occult heresy is in potency, but not in act.
 Summa, in C. 24, q. 1. p. 100. Peter Huizing, The Earliest Development of Excommunication latae sententiae,” Studia Gratiana 3 (1955), p. 286.
 Billuart, De Fide, Diss. V, A. III No. 3, Obj. 2.
 Auctoritas Pape et Concilii siue Ecclesie comparata, ch. XIX.
 Laymann, Theol. Mor., bk. 2, tract 1, ch. 7, p. 153 (emphasis added).