Thursday, September 26, 2019

Papal Nullification: Revisiting the Cadaver Synod

The crisis precipitated by the Franciscan pontificate has faithful Catholics struggling to come to terms with the state of the Church and desperate for any means of redressing the calamities we have witnessed since 2013. Some are speculating that Benedict XVI did not validly resign and is still in fact pope; others are hoping that a future convocation of bishops of cardinals declare that Francis has vacated the papal office. All thoughts are bent on ways to undo or at least halt the unprecedented damage that this man continues to do to the Church every day he remains in office.

One frequently overlooked remedy to the current crisis is that a future pope can annul the acts of a previous pope. This has occurred on various occasions throughout Church history, but probably the most striking example of it was in the conflict between Pope Formosus and Pope Stephen VI, the popes of Cadaver Synod fame.

It is beyond the scope of this brief essay to trace the background of the controversy between the two parties; much of it is political and bound up with the affairs of the late Carolingian dynasty. Pope Stephen VI (r. 896-897) famously dug up the corpse of Pope Formosus and put him on trial for alleged crimes committed during the episcopal career of the latter, which resulted in the body of Formosus being desecrated and sunk in the Tiber. The Cadaver Synod is usually presented as an exemplar of papal corruption during the era of the Saeculum obscurum, the period in the late 9th and early 10th centuries when political corruption and immorality brought the papacy to its moral nadir--and indeed, the Cadaver Synod does exemplify this age of scandal most spectacularly.

But here I am more concerned with the acts of the Synod, rather than its shock value. The Cadaver Synod was a synod convened by Pope Stephen VI and held before the Roman clergy in January of 897. The synod published several acts, which were confirmed by the decree of Pope Stephen:

  • Declared Pope Formosus had been "unworthy" of the papacy
  • Declared his papal election invalid by reason of the violation of the 15th canon of the Second Council of Nicaea prohibiting the holding of multiple benefices by clergy (Pope Formosus had been elevated to the papacy while simultaneously exercising jurisdiction over the See of Porto)
  • Nullified all the decrees of Pope Formosus
  • Declared the orders conferred by Pope Formosus null by virtue of the illegitimacy of his papal election

The nullification of Formosus' orders was politically motivated, aimed at purging the Italian clergy of partisans of Formosus' party. To that end, his election had to be invalidated, to which the appeal of Second Nicaea was an afterthought. In other words, the architects of the Cadaver Synod did not think Formosus' election was invalid and ergo nullified his ordinations; rather, they began by wanting to nullify his ordinations and thus declared his papal election invalid as a means to that end.

Pope Stephen died shortly after the synod, murdered while imprisoned. Stephen's acts were wildly unpopular. The nullification of Formosus' orders had caused widespread chaos in the Church, as many of these clergy had already ordained others, whose own ordinations were now being called into question. The subsequent pope, Theodore II, annulled the decisions of the Cadaver Synod in 897, declaring all of Formosus' ordinations valid.  Another pope, John IX, confirmed the acts of Theodore II in two future synods, one held in Rome and another at Ravenna in 898. The latter synod not only nullified the acts of the Cadaver Synod but ordered them destroyed. The Synod of Ravenna also excommunicated the seven cardinals involved in the Cadaver Synod and henceforth prohibited the trial of any deceased person.

The story does not end there, though. In 904 Pope Sergius III ascended the Chair of Peter. An enemy of Formosus' party, Sergius tried to undo what his predecessors had done; he formally nullified the decrees of the synods of Theodore II and John IX and reaffirmed the decrees of the Cadaver Synod, declaring the orders conferred by Formosus to be invalid.

The interesting thing is that, while Sergius' decrees were never themselves invalidated, they were subsequently ignored. The Church continued to uphold the prior decrees of Theodore II and John IX while simply ignoring those of Sergius III, which are technically the last canonical judgment on the Cadaver Synod. The Church essentially acted like the decree of Sergius III never happened.

It gets even messier—Sergius declared the orders of Formosus invalid. If this were the case, then Sergius' own episcopal orders would be invalidated as well, as he received his own episcopal consecration from Pope Formosus in 893. Theodore II had declared Sergius' episcopal consecration valid by a special decree during his brief pontificate, but if Sergius annulled the synod convened by Theodore II then it is difficult to see how he did not annul his own episcopal consecration. This would not have invalidated his papacy, but it could have invalidated the holy orders he conferred during his own papacy.

The era of the Cadaver Synod controversy spanned 14 years. During this time we see popes frequently having recourse to nullifying the decrees of their predecessors:

  • Stephen VI annulled the acts of Formosus
  • Theodore II annulled the Cadaver Synod and its acts
  • John IX reaffirmed the annulment of Theodore II and had the acta of the Cadaver Synod destroyed
  • Sergius III annulled the decrees of Theodore II and nullified the two synods of John IX

By the time of Sergius' final decrees of nullification, the Church apparently got tired of the back and forth and simply ignored the acts of Pope Sergius.

It is not relevant to this post which partisan was correct or whether these decrees of nullification were abused. The point is that the episode provides a striking piece of historical testimony to the ability of the popes to nullify the decrees of their predecessors—even nullifying entire synods. No pope, theologian, or canonist at the time or since disputed that the popes had the power to do this.

The problem with the Cadaver Synod, canonically speaking, is that Stephen reached too far. He should have been content with condemning Formosus as "unworthy" of the papacy and nullifying his decrees and episcopal appointments. This is within the authority of any pope. But when Stephen tried to declare Formosus' orders invalid he went too far, for rather than seeking to undo the acts of a single man he struck out at an entire swath of the clergy with a judgment which, if true, would have thrown the hierarchy into chaos.

Incidentally, the charge that Formosus was invalidly elected is without merit; the 15th canon of Second Nicaea does prohibit a cleric from holding two offices simultaneously. But it does not state that this cannot be validly done, only that it "savours of merchandise and filthy lucre" and that a cleric "ought" to hold only one office at a time, but it does not say he loses his office if he disobeys the canon. There is no indication that this canon would invalidate Formosus' papal election. And even if his papal election were invalid, this would not invalidate the Holy Orders conferred by Formosus, as the validity of ordination flows from episcopal orders--and nobody had ever denied that Formosus was a legitimately ordained bishop.

The moral of the story is this: it is within the authority of a future pontiff to nullify the decrees of a current or former pontiff. Taking the pontificate of Pope Francis for example, a future pope could nullify Cor Orans, nullify Francis' acts with regards to the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the Knights of Malta; while Francis' episcopal consecrations could not be nullified, all of his administrative appointments could be--that is, a future pope could say "Every cleric who holds an office by appointment of Pope Francis shall immediately cease exercising authority in that office and is to be considered removed from said office" while he takes time to figure out what to do with them. Furthermore, he could declare that the Synods of the Family, the Synod on Youth, and the Synod of the Amazon were all annulled--along with their subsequent Apostolic Exhortations. He could decree that Pope Francis was "unworthy" of the Chair of St. Peter and issue what amounts to a damnatio memoriae of the Franciscan pontificate.

Or, following the example of the Church in the age of Sergius III, a future pope could simply ignore the age of Pope Francis as thoroughly as Francis ignores the his predecessors prior to 1963.

Is it likely that all of this will happen? I doubt it. I suspect the next pope will probably try to out-Francis Francis. But the point is there is a way to undo this sort of damage without having to resort to Sedevacantist or Bennyvacantist hypotheses, or hoping that some sort of gathering of cardinals will declare that Francis has vacated the office. The course I have explained here is a much more realistic way of proceeding, because it has happened before, and on more occasions than just those narrated here.

Of course, like any other hypotheses, what I have written here makes the massive assumption that a future pope will actually want to undo what Francis has done and have the testicular fortitude to do so. Bu given the zeitgeist, I'm not holding my breath. We have much longer to suffer through our own age's Saeculum obscurum.

And what does it say about our own troubles when I have to reach back to the Cadaver Synod to find some precedents for digging ourselves out of them?


Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Boniface, such a breath of fresh air to contemplate such an articulate, level-headed argument.

Karl said...

I have a sense of this as well. We all imagine some great council or pope to reverse what has happened, and that it won't be reversed itself later. What's more likely to happen is that slowly we'll return to tradition which will merge with the novelties, and then this embarrassing period will be forgotten, perhaps hundreds of years from now.

SeeGee said...

Hi Boniface, two problems here I'm hoping you can shed light on:

1) Wouldn't the principle of the Peaceful and Universal Acceptance of a Pope (apparently a Dogmatic Fact) "override" the ability of Stephen VI to declare the papal election of Formosus invalid? More on PUA here:

2) If Sergius III had the last word on the matter, do his acts still stand or are they simply considered errors and ignored? In other words, can the Church simply "ignore" the disciplinary decrees of Sergius III if there have never been officially invalidated?

Boniface said...


1) Probably? In the whole history of the Church no papal election has ever been successfully contested. There are grounds for a papal election to be considered invalid, but they've never been met. That's why I argue in the article that Stephen was way overreaching when he tried to argue Formosus' invalidity. Of course the principle you reference was not worked out or understood then, so I am assuming Stephen was ignorant of it.

2) The Church has never considered that his acts stand. They never stood. They were a dead letter when he issued them. I can't explain that, but that's the fact.

c matt said...

I would imagine not just Francis, but the entire Vatican II era will be forgotten/ignored like 1970s polyester leisure suits.

Anonymous said...

Great work as always, sir. Keep 'em coming.

donnie said...

"The Church has never considered that his acts stand. They never stood. They were a dead letter when he issued them. I can't explain that, but that's the fact."

I think James Larson's take* on this fact is most sensible - Popes do not have the authority to judge their predecessors. Sergius's acts were a dead letter when he issued them because they were outside the scope of his authority. Indeed, the Cadaver Synod's original decrees with regard to Pope Formosus were a dead letter upon issuance for the same reason.

In general I think it is wrong-headed to imagine that the successor of Peter can be effectively "impeached", whether today or after his death, like a common secular President. The Pope is basically a (very human) monarch. People have forgotten how to be when it comes to monarchs.

*Larson's thoughts can be found about two-thirds of the way through the below essay, which is well worth reading in its entirety:

Boniface said...

I'm familiar with Mr. Larson's work; I myself edited and published one of his books.

Nobody is saying that a pope can judge a previous pope, but a pope certainly can undo his juridical acts, which is what this is all about. It happened all the time.

donnie said...

In that case I agree with you, and likely misunderstood your point. I guess I'm just puzzled as to why you would choose the Cadaver Synod as an example of how papal juridical acts can be reversed since, as you note, papal juridical acts are reversed all the time and if anything the Cadaver Synod is a textbook case in how not to go about it.

Boniface said...

I chose it for two reasons:

(1) Popes often undo the actions of previous popes just because they need to be updated or they want to do something new; this episode provides examples of popes doing it out of a desire to condemn the memory of the previous pope, which is more akin to what we'd see in the future vis-a-vis Francis.

(2) It is just a very striking and memorable episode. The real problem with these stories is simply the attack on the Orders of Pope Formosus. If that was omitted, I don't think this would have been handled that poorly.

Pulex said...

There is an additional consideration about the Pope Stephen's claim that Formosus was not validly elected. Should a future Pope claim this about Francis, it would mean that the successor himself, too, is no Pope at all because most of his electors were no cardinals.

rohrbachs said...

Pulex put his finger on the problem.

SeeGee said...

@rohrbachs This is why I'm more and more convinced that the idea of the Peaceful, Universal Acceptance of a Pope is a dogmatic fact. Otherwise you have chaos.