One of the most prevalent themes currently being circulated in some extreme quarters of Catholicism revolves around the manner in which a heretical pope could be removed from the papacy. This discussion has mostly stemmed from the belief that either Pope Francis has already committed heresy at various points throughout the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, or that he has been openly promoting an heretical interpretation of this document, and thus needs to be formally “corrected”. One area which has been greatly neglected in this debate is whether or not a pope actually can fall into formal heresy or teach false doctrines by way of the authentic papal Magisterium. As we shall see, according to the Fathers of the First Vatican Council, the idea of an heretical pope was definitively ruled out through the formal dogmatization of St. Robert Bellarmine’s ideas on the indefectibility of the Church.
During the post-Tridentine period, the topic of an heretical pope was widely discussed by some of the greatest minds in the Church, including the Church Doctor St. Robert Bellarmine, Suárez, St. John of Thomas, among various others. In light of the concerns about the papacy which had arisen during the Reformation, the attempt to address such apocalyptic fears seemed all too urgent. The idea of a future novelty arising in a formally heretical pope had coalesced from the papal antichrist theories handed down from the legacy of the Joachite movement. According to certain strains of Joachite thought, the sea-beast and land-beast of the Apocalypse foretold the arrival of two separate contemporary antichrist figures referred to as the antichristus magnus (the Great Antichrist) and the antichristus mysticus (the mystical Antichrist). In this view, the antichristus magnus would be a tyrannical temporal ruler, while the antichristus mysticus or False Prophet would be a pseudo-pope who would lead the Church into open heresy.
The Joachite dual-antichrist theory was immensely popular during the Middle Ages, and the anxieties that were raised over the possibility of a pope being equated with the False Prophet of the Apocalypse proved to be an extremely difficult concept to dispel, and ultimately culminated in the papal antichrist theories disseminated by the Protestant Reformers. In an attempt to address these fears, various scenarios were mooted by Catholic theologians during the Counter Reformation concerning the possibility of a Roman Pontiff falling into formal heresy. Given that such a nefarious figure would essentially fulfill the role of the False Prophet/antichristus mysticus expected in Joachite prophecy, the specter of an heretical pope has become deeply embedded in the subconscious of popular Catholic piety. A type of papaphobia which occasionally resurfaces in times of perceived crisis within the Church, and tends to instinctively lurch its proponents towards schism...
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