I find it difficult to fathom the amount of power the Pope can potentially wield. According to book 2, part 2, section 1, chapter 1, article 1 of the Code of Canon Law the Pope basically has ultimate, irrefutable, supreme power for life. Nothing and no one can remove him from office except for himself if he were to decide to resign.

"The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.." (canon 331, Code of Canon Law).

"If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone." (canon 332 §2).

You obviously don't make it to the position of Pope without being a good guy, but I think any rational individual would agree that there are still serious risks attached to electing one man into a position of supreme power for life. Literally, he can say or do anything without recourse.

"No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff" (canon 333 §3).

It doesn't even matter what state of health the Pope is in, and I assume that also means state of mental health, the Pope maintains supreme power.

"When the Roman See is vacant or entirely impeded, nothing is to be altered in the governance of the universal Church; the special laws issued for these circumstances, however, are to be observed." (canon 335)

There is no way to remove him from office, or question anything he does, no impeachment process, no appeals, no nothing. If the Pope speaks ex cathedrâ, then it's written in stone.

There have been occasions where a Pope has spoken heresy (see Papal Infallibility and teaching heresy?). The church later repudiated the heretical positions under the claim that they were not spoken ex cathedra. This repudiation would have happened after the death of the Pope.

It seems to be commonly agreed that the Pope would never lead the Church astray, and I don't want a series of answers that go into detail about how unlikely it would be for a wayward Pope to abuse his power. From a secular perspective, the potential exists for one man to take advantage of the amount of power that is given to the Pope.

Here is my question:

If the Pope were to start declaring things ex cathedrâ like, the creeds were null and void, and that all Catholics were required to wear a colander on their heads at all times and pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, what would happen? Would every Catholic be required to comply? Would it be binding and irreformable teaching forever? Could the next Pope undo his decree ex cathedrâ? Or could something be done to remove that Pope from power besides pressuring him into resigning?

Other than relying on God or the Spirit to prevent the Pope from abusing his power, what can be done to prevent the Pope from exercising unrighteous dominion?

  • 1
    Great question but possible duplicate of Papal Infallibility and teaching heresy?.
    – user13992
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 7:05
  • 1
    I reference that question in my question. It doesn't include when something was spoken ex cathedra.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 7:17
  • 2
    I'd assume other Catholics would say his claim to be speaking ex cathedra is a lie. As a Protestant I'd consider all such claims to be lies anyway ;) So I'm not sure there's much here that wouldn't be answered by the older question. The only real new thing I can see is asking if there's a way to force the pope to resign.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 8:20
  • The thing is, various popes have abused their power, which has resulted in the church essentially ruling most of Europe for centuries.
    – Zenon
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 14:09
  • Removing an unrighteous Pope from power was meant to be the focus of this question, I've edited it to better communicate this.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 15:48

2 Answers 2


First of all, it is important to understand the very strict conditions under which a Pope declares things ex cathedra. To begin with, he can only make such a declaration about doctrine.

Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Papal infallibility:

891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals." [...] When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed," and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith." This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself. [The documents quoted are Lumen Gentium 25 and Dei Verbum 10 of the Second Vatican Council.]

Nothing that is strictly disciplinary would enter under that protection. Even in real praxis, Canon Law is never "forever;" it can be changed by the legislator (the pope) as needed. So, for example, requiring Catholics to wear colanders and to pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster (however ridiculous and scandalous that is) cannot be the subject of an ex-cathedra pronouncement.

In this extremely unlikely scenario, there is a basic principle of the Catholic theory of law that would apply: since a law must be for the sake of the common good, an unjust law does not bind in conscience. St. Thomas Aquinas, reiterating a principle already elucidated by St. Augustine, says,

[Unjust laws] are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says, "a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all." [See De libero arbitrio, I, v, 11.] Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance... (Summa theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 96, a. 4, corpus).

A law can be unjust because it is excessively burdensome, or else because it commands people to act sinfully. Imposing the colander would clearly be excessively burdensome; requiring worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be a kind of idolatry (or at best simply ridiculous and hence excessively burdensome).

So no, Catholics would not be bound to follow such decrees. Of course, if any Pontiff were to behave in this way, he would cause untold scandal and damage to the Church. Thankfully, no pope, not even the infamous Renaissance popes, or the (even worse) popes in the era following the fall of the Carolingian empire, has ever attempted anything of the kind. (They certainly abused their power in other ways, of course.)

Declaring the Creeds null and void would, however, enter into the domain of faith and morals. We have to keep in mind that—as the passage from the Catechism explains—when the Pope defines something ex cathedra, he has to

  • Intend to act as the universal pastor. (I.e., it is not enough for him to give his personal opinion or even to act simply as the bishop of Rome.)
  • Intend to proclaim whatever it is as to be held definitively by all the faithful.

It is the same intention and conditions that an ecumenical council has when it teaches.

In this case, Catholics believe that the Church as a whole (and therefore the Holy Father, by virtue of his office) is protected from teaching error. Nullifying the Nicene Creed, say, is clearly an error, and so the Church (and therefore the Pope) is prevented from performing that kind of action.

And in fact, no Pontiff has ever attempted such a reversal. (If you think about it, even the most disgraceful holders of the office would have had little motivation to do so.)

Supposing that the constitution of the Church were different, and that the Roman Pontiff were not protected from error, then, naturally, the faithful would not be bound to follow such erroneous decrees. (Such a scenario would, however, make it difficult to determine exactly which doctrines were the "correct" ones; the infallibility of the bishop of Rome, in the Catholic perspective, is an essential guarantee of the infallibility of the Church as a whole.)

(Another question, which perhaps the original poster had in mind is, "Could a pope privately be a heretic?" Could an closet Arian be elected the bishop of Rome? Could he confuse people by expressing his questionable or heretical personal opinions? The answer, at least in theory, is "yes." He would, however, be unable to impose his heresies "officially" as dogma.)

To answer the final question in the original post, in the case of a grossly misbehaved Pontiff, the only course of action would be to bring some kind of moral or political pressure to bear on him. Such a pope would be morally obligated to resign, but he would have to do so freely.

  • This is a good answer assuming that the Pope is protected from error, which no doubt most Catholics believe. But your answer basically states that divine intervention is the only way to prevent a Pope from abusing his power. Does that mean that Catholics would be bound to follow an unrighteous Pope if the Lord decided not to intervene?
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:16
  • @ShemSeger If the unrighteous Pope were teaching good doctrine and mandating nothing immoral or excessively burdensome, then yes, Catholics would be bound to obey him. That is what happened in the case of, say, the notorious Pope Alexander VI. Naturally, no one is bound to follow error, still less immorality, under any circumstance. Also, I don't think the "divine intervention" in this case is as dramatic as some people imagine. There is very little motivation for a Pope to reverse a defined dogma, and God makes use of that. (Indeed, Popes have acted unilaterally very seldom in history.) Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:33
  • How can you know that the Pope is acting in error? There seems to be a contradiction here; "Listen to the Pope, because the Pope cannot be wrong, but when he is wrong then don't listen to him." I'm struggling to find the logic in this argument.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:55
  • @ShemSeger If by "acting in error" you mean "acting immorally," then you can tell if a Pope is acting wrongly the same way as for any man: by using your reason. Of course (as with any authority figure), just because a Pope has an immoral personal life doesn't remove his authority as such. In the hypothesis that the Pope were teaching erroneous doctrine officially (which the Church holds cannot happen), then we would have to suppose that Christ had instituted some other standard to be able to tell truth from error. Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 17:20
  • That is not true with any authority figure, in my church if a leader in any position commits an immoral act, "Amen to the priesthood of that man." Depending on the seriousness of the act that man could be discipled up to excommunication as part of his repentance process, and he would not be considered for another leadership position until he had fully repented. And does not having a church leader who is living an immoral life contradict Christ's teaching in Matt 7?
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 17:35

The doctrine of infallibility is that the pope cannot abuse his power when declaring and defining a dogma. In other words, infallible means that he will not teach heresy when speaking ex-cathedra. Catholic believe that Holy Spirit will protect him from erring when doing so.

...Catholics were required to wear a colander on their heads at all times...

Ex-cathedra statements apply only to statements made regarding Faith and morals.

...and pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster,..

Catholics believe that such claim cannot be made by a pope ex-cathedra. Holy Spirit will protect him from doing so.

what would happen? Would every Catholic be required to comply? Would it be binding and irreformable teaching forever?

If it is done, then it will be binding on all Catholics. (Again such situation cannot happen, else dogma of infallibility itself is not a valid one)

Could the next Pope undo his decree ex cathedrâ?


could something be done to remove that Pope from power besides pressuring him into resigning?

Assuming pressure meaning political (civil and military) and economical pressure. It has happened in the past that popes are forced or lured into resigning. But a pope cannot be deposed by anyone else. Popes have been deposed out of Rome, and new popes elected. (As in deposing of Pope John XII and Pope Leo VIII's first election) But the new popes are considered as anti-popes. Not legitimate successors. How ever bad a Pope may be unless he gives up his post on his own, no one can depose him.

  • I like how simple and direct this answer is.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:22
  • Furthermore, in the case of an ex-cathedra pronouncement, the Pope does not do it alone. He has to be in union with all the bishops of the entire Church, such as in an ecumenical council defining a doctrine of the Church. To define a doctrine is not to invent a new one, but to make official (and must be believed/obeyed) something that has been the belief from the earliest days of Christianity. Examples: the divinity of Christ (Nicea); the title of Mary as the Mother of God (Ephesus); the two natures of Christ, human and divine, being united in the one divine person (Chalcedon); etc. Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 14:25

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