Dr. Taylor Marshal says (about 25 minutes in) that a pope could be removed by the college of cardinals for reasons of insanity like powers that the 25th Amendment to the US. Constitution gives to the Vice President and Congress.

Has this ever actually happened or has it ever been attempted in the history of the papacy?


1 Answer 1


Has a pope ever been removed for reasons of insanity?

The short answer is no. But does not mean it could not happen. In a word, it would be extremely complex. I do think it would be not impossible, in a modern setting.

Historically speaking some have claimed that past popes may have been deposed, but the situation and the acts of the various parties involved make it doubtful if the various historical points actually took place in a legitimate manner. Even the Church has reasonable cause to doubt the validity of these situations.

For example, some claim that Pope Benedict IX was deposed. But upon looking into the situation more closely, he obtained the papacy through bribery which would make it morally a non-valid assent to the papal throne. In October 1032, Benedict's father obtained his election through bribery.

Pope Benedict IX (c. 1012 – c. 1056), born Theophylactus of Tusculum, was the bishop of Rome and ruler of the Papal States for three periods between October 1032 and July 1048. Aged about 20 when first elected, he is one of the youngest popes in history. He is the only person to have been Pope more than once and the only person ever accused of selling the papacy.

Benedict was the nephew of his immediate predecessor, John XIX. In October 1032, Benedict's father obtained his election through bribery. However, his reputedly dissolute activities provoked a revolt on the part of the Romans. Benedict was driven out of Rome and Sylvester III elected to succeed him. Some months later, Benedict and his supporters managed to expel Sylvester. Benedict then decided to resign in favor of his godfather, Gregory VI, provided he was reimbursed for his expenses.

Benedict subsequently had second thoughts, returned, and attempted to depose Gregory VI. A number of prominent clergymen appealed to Henry III, King of the Romans, to restore order. Henry and his forces crossed the Brenner Pass into Italy, where he summoned the Council of Sutri to decide the matter. Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI were all deposed. Henry then had Clement II elected in December 1046.

If a pope could possibly be removed from Office, it could only be through a General Council within the Church or the College of Cardinals as a united ecclesiastical body.

It is though that the only two grounds a pope could be deposed would be either though immorality or heresy. Of these two, most Catholic theologians beehive that only on the grounds of heresy, could a pope possibly be deposed. This is my personal belief also.

In modern times, we understood the intricate nature of the health of the individual better now, than in the Middle Ages. So a pope who is physically incapable (obs incapacitas) of fulfilling the Office of the Papacy could in theory be deposed either by a General Council or by the College of Cardinals, but only after the consultation of proper medical professionals we could vouchsafed as to the physical and/or mental situation and impossibility of a pope to be able to be the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Can a council depose the pope?

This question is a legitimate one, for in the history of the Church circumstances have arisen in which several pretenders contended for papal authority and councils were called upon to remove certain claimants. The Councils of Constance and Basle, and Gallican theologians, hold that a council may depose a pope on two main grounds:

  • ob mores (for his conduct or behaviour, e.g. his resistance to the synod)
  • ob fidem (on account of his faith or rather want of faith, i.e. heresy).

In point of fact, however, heresy is the only legitimate ground. For a heretical pope has ceased to be a member of the Church, and cannot, therefore, be its head. A sinful pope, on the other hand, remains a member of the (visible) Church and is to be treated as a sinful, unjust ruler for whom we must pray, but from whom we may not withdraw our obedience.

But the question assumes another aspect when a number of claimants pretend to be the rightful occupants of the Apostolic See, and the right of each is doubtful. In such a case the council, according to Bellarmine (Disputationes, II xix, de Conciliis) has a right to examine the several claims and to depose the pretenders whose claims are unfounded. This was done at the Synod of Constance. But during this process of examination the synod is not yet Ecumenical; it only becomes so the moment the rightful pope assents to its proceedings. It is evident that this is no instance of a legitimate pope being deposed by a legitimate council, but simply the removal of pretender by those on whom he wishes to impose will.

Not even John XXIII could have been deposed at Constance, had his election not been doubtful and himself suspected of heresy. John XXIII, moreover, abdicated and by his abdication made his removal from the Apostolic See lawful. In all controversies and complaints regarding Rome the rule laid down by the Eighth General Synod should never be lost sight of: "If a universal synod be assembled and any ambiguity or controversy arise concerning the Holy Church of the Romans, the question should be examined and solved with due reverence and veneration, in a spirit of mutual helpfulness; no sentence should be audaciously pronounced against the supreme pontiff of the elder Rome" (can. xxi. Hefele, IV, 421-22).

But what really happens when the Papal Throne is impeded?

Canon 335: 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.

Obviously the Church has some sort of protocols set in place, in the event the pope is impeded somehow of fulfilling his duties, even if these protocols are not shared publicly, they are nevertheless in place. My guess is that the Church hopes that such situations will not happen!


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