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The Question of Papal Heresy – Part 2

February 14, 2017
Pope John XXII, born Jacques Duèze, who reigned 1316-1334

In this second installation of a 6-part series, Fr. Gleize reviews the persistent legend of the heresies of John XXII during the 14th century.

Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize has been a professor in the SSPX's Seminary of St. Pius X in Econe, Switzerland for 20 years, where he is currently teaching ecclesiology. He is the author of numerous articles in Courrier de Rome and is a consultant to the SSPX commission responsible for doctrinal discussions with the Holy See. Before entering the seminary, Fr. Gleize graduated from Ecole des Chartres, the highest French institution specialized in historical sciences.

Review Part 1 of this series: Introduction to the Problem

Part 2: The Case of Pope John XXII

Legends live on persistently. The legend about the heresy of Pope John XXII is one of the hardier ones. As with other episodes, a partial story has replaced the true one in this case. We do not deny, however, that the lessons of history can be of great help. In fact, very often, in order to understand, it is necessary to compare. And in order to compare, it is necessary to have points of comparison available. Indeed, it is not enough to possess principles. It is necessary also to measure the extent of their significance, by verifying how the light that they shed for us explains concrete experience and how too the concrete reality calls for that light and validates its illumination. “The metaphysical level of abstraction on which our reflections are defined,” Etienne Gilson writes somewhere,1 

allows for great simplicity and facilitates brevity, but we must acknowledge that it does not allow first philosophy to fulfill its function completely....In order to present our abstract conclusions in their intelligible efficacy, it will be useful to show them at work in a particular case, thus giving an example of the sorts of dissociations from ideas to which metaphysics subjects reality, but also of the way in which it sheds light on it by those same analyses."

It is the same with theological reflection, which utilizes philosophy as its tool of preference and which also is the reflection of a sort of wisdom. This latter kind of reflection needs to be projected onto facts in order to be able to validate in them its own light, at the same time it sheds light on them. And these facts are provided by history.

This indicates the extent to which a misunderstanding of history could prove fatal, or at least the source of imbalances. It has been and it can be again.

Read from start to finish the works of the most illustrious Scholastic writers, and they will never make you feel the sense of the individual; they will never let you perceive the relative, changing aspects of things; they deal with the true, without age or date. Most often the truth that they consider does not, in itself, have any relation with praxis, and even when it belongs to a practical science, the manner of proposing and discussing it depends on pure speculation.... It is indisputable that the habit of abstract thought makes them lose their taste for facts and, consequently, for historical studies: the incompetence of the Middle Ages, in this respect, cannot be called into question: we even have difficulty getting any idea of it in an historical, literary age like ours.

"The reader was hardly demanding with regard to the historian; he did not ask him to cite his sources or to discuss them for him; he readily took him at his word, and if the account seemed plausible, edifying or marvelous, he was quite disposed to regard it as true. The art of discovering, selecting and interpreting documents that contain the truth was unknown. One can cite a few exceptions; but they prove absolutely nothing against the general state of mind that we are pointing out. We are indeed obliged to apply to the epochs in history the rule according to which one designates things depending on what predominates in them.”2

This lacuna proves most especially detrimental when the theologian seeks precedents in support of his hypotheses. Recent current events amply illustrate this: the obvious explanation for the sudden infatuation with which the least qualified non-specialists have set out to scrutinize the acts and deeds of Pope John XXII is their intent to endorse the step taken by the four cardinals who dispute Amoris laetitia. Thus writers here or there mention a “joint letter by the theologians of the University of Paris” which, if it really existed, would prefigure and at the same time justify the dubia of our cardinals. Some speak also about a condemnation or ever a deposition of Pope John XXII, which, assuming that they were duly established historical facts, could soon be a useful precedent. What one might call “the analogy of history” is a perfectly legitimate way of proceeding. But still it is necessary to make sure that it rests on adequate foundations.

John XXII’s Life and Writings

Jacques Duèse, born in Cahors, was the immediate successor of Clement V who had taken up residence in Avignon. Jacques Duèse was elected after a 27-month vacancy on August 7, 1316. (Clement V had died on April 20, 1314.) He was elected unanimously; the new Pope was 72 years old. By training he was a canonist; he taught in Toulouse. He was a favorite of the King of Naples, Charles II of Anjou.

Elected Bishop of Fréjus in 1300, he was called to Naples by the sovereign as chancellor of the Kingdom of Sicily in early 1308. He served in this capacity until Pope Clement V transferred him to the See of Avignon on March 18, 1310. Created cardinal with the titular See of Saint-Vital in December 1312, he was promoted to Bishop of Porto in April 1313.

After becoming Pope with the name of John XXII (1316-1334), he served Holy Church meritoriously on more than one count. First, he was the one who canonized Saint Thomas Aquinas on July 18, 1323, and on that occasion he paid a fine tribute to the one who later would be proclaimed the Common Doctor of the Church. “Why look for miracles?” the Pope said, speaking of the Angelic Doctor.

He performed as many miracles as he wrote articles in the Summa theologiae....His life was holy and his teaching cannot have been anything but miraculous; for he enlightened the Church more than all the other doctors, and by reading his works one derives more profit in just one year of study than by studying the teaching of the others throughout one’s life.”3

Secondly, he was the one who pronounced the first condemnation of the false principle of laicism, as it appears in the Defensor pacis by Marsilius of Padua († 1343).4This work dates from the year 1324, and it defends the schismatic attitude of the German Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria. Its ecclesiology would be condemned by Pope John XXII in his Apostolic Constitution Licet juxta doctrinam (October 23, 1327), along with propositions no. 3,5 no. 4,6 and no. 5,7 which are anathematized as “contrary to Sacred Scripture and inimical to the Catholic faith, heretical or similar to heresies and erroneous”.

The Pope adds that “the above-mentioned Marsilius and John [are] heretics, indeed, manifest and notorious arch-heretics.”8Thirdly and finally, we owe to John XXII the great reform of 1316-1317, which revised the territorial allocation of bishoprics in the kingdom of France by modifying the ecclesiastical division of the two provinces of Aquitaine and First Narbonnaise, giving birth on June 25, 1317, among others, to the diocese of Montauban, which was carved out of the diocese of Toulouse.9

Did John XXII have some sinister history and should we see him as the prototype of a “heretical” Pope, subject to the justice of his cardinals? The basic facts of the case are set forth nicely by the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, in the article “Benoît XII”.10 Twice, in 1318 and 1326, John XXII had taught that the souls of the saints enjoyed the beatific vision as soon as they arrived in heaven, and before the general resurrection of all mankind. But from 1331 on he supported the contrary opinion in his preaching: on All Saints Day 1331, then on the Third Sunday of Advent of that same year, again on the Eve of Epiphany 1332, and finally on Ascension Thursday, May 5, 1334. The chief authority on which he relies is Saint Bernard. The latter had been influenced by Saint Hilary, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine, whose language is not always very clear.11

  • 1. Etienne Gilson, Introduction aux arts du beau (Paris - Vrin, 1998), 145.
  • 2. Timothée Richard, “Usage et abus de la scolastique” in - Revus thomiste, 12 (1904) 572.
  • 3. Cited by Jacques Ramirez, De Auctoritate doctrinali sancti Thomae Aquinatis (unpublished dissertation, 1952), 36.
  • 4. See Jeanine Quillet, La Philosophie politique de Marsile de Padoue (Paris - Vrin, 1970), as well as the critical edition of the Defensor pacis, by the same scholar, published by Vrin in 1968.
  • 5. “It is the emperor’s duty to correct and punish the pope and also to install and remove him” (DS 943).
  • 6. “Because of the institution of Christ, all priests, whether pope, archbishop, or simple priest, have equal authority and jurisdiction; but what one has more than another corresponds to what the emperor has granted more or less, and just as he has granted, he can also revoke” (DS 944).
  • 7. “The pope, or the Church taken as a whole, cannot punish anyone—no matter how wicked he may be—with a compulsory penalty unless the emperor gives them authority” (DS 945).
  • 8. DS 946.
  • 9. Léon and Albert Mirot, Géographie historique de la France (Paris - Picard, 1980), 317-318.
  • 10. Xavier Le Bachelet, S.J., “Benoît XII” in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, II/1 (1932), columns 658-669.
  • 11. See Jacques Ramirez, “De hominis beatitudine, 4” in - Opera omnia, vol. 3 (CSIC, 1971), nos. 307-324, pp. 370-401 (Commentary on I-II, q. 4, art. 5 - Is the body required for beatitude?).
Pope John XXII receives the transcripts from Gui de Corvo's interrogation

Accusations of Heresy

The important point is the following one:

John XXII presented himself in his sermons not as Pope speaking ex cathedra but as a private teacher who is giving his opinion (hanc opinionem = this opinion) and acknowledges that it is debatable while seeking to prove it. In his second speech we read these words: ‘I say, like Saint Augustine, that if I am mistaken here, let the one who knows better correct me. This is how it seems to me, nothing else; unless someone shows me a contrary decision of the Church or an authoritative argument from Sacred Scripture that would express this matter more clearly than the above-cited authorities.”

To see here an attitude prefiguring that of the promulgator of Amoris laetitia would be rather bold; spare us such hypocrisy.

But as always in this fallen world, and even well before the invention of the Internet, minds began to fret about this, especially in France, where King Philipp VI already lent an ear to accusations that were hastily leveled against the Pope. He convened in Vincennes on December 19, 1333, a council in which twenty doctors from the University of Paris were assembled. The King of France forwarded the result of this deliberation to the Pope, asking him to be so kind as to explain his thought more precisely.

This was no order from the University of Paris, therefore, but a simple initiative by a temporal sovereign, who for this purpose consulted his theologians.13 Moreover John XXII had already taken the lead by asking for theological research to be done on the debated point, convening for this purpose a consistory of cardinals on December 28, 1333. And above all on December 3, 1334, he made in the presence of these cardinals an explicit, solemn retraction, the terms of which are reprinted by the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique:

This is how we declare the opinion that we presently have and have had on this matter, in union with the Holy Catholic Church. We confess and believe that the souls separated from their bodies and completely purified are in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven, in paradise, and with Jesus Christ in the company of the angels, and that, following the common law, they see God and the divine essence face to face and clearly, as far as the state and condition of the separated soul allow. If in any way we have said something else or have expressed ourselves otherwise on this matter, we said so while remaining attached to the Catholic faith, in habitu fidei catholicae, and while speaking by way of exposition and discussion; this is what we affirm, and this is the sense in which everything must be taken.”14

Then, when he was dying, the Pope submitted to the judgment of the Church and of his successors what he had said and written on this point or on any other.

A Closer Examination of the Matter

One of the first acts of his successor, Benedict XII, would be to publish this retraction in the form of a Bull. There is no heresy in the remarks of John XXII, "since at the time of the controversy the point in question had not yet been sanctioned by the Church, neither by a formal definition nor by a belief that was in fact sufficiently clear and universal.”15No dethronement, no condemnation. Quite the contrary: the dogmatic definition published by Benedict XII is nothing but the repetition of the very statement by John XXII!

Well, then, where does the legend come from? From those whom John XXII had condemned, not only partisans of the emperor’s supremacy over the pope, who were denounced as heretics in the Bull Licet juxta doctrinam, but also the Franciscan rigorists, the “Spirituals” or “Fraticelli” who insisted on an excessive concept of evangelical poverty, so that John XXII had to denounce them also as heretics in the Bull Quorumdam exigit (October 7, 1317).

These recalcitrant groups found their spokesman in the person of William of Occam. He magisterially declared that the Pope had to make a pure and simple retraction, baldly, in these or equivalent terms:

I abjure the heresy that I approved and taught in asserting that the souls of the saints do not have in heaven the clear vision of God.”16

Embittered by his failure and condemnation, Ludwig of Bavaria supported these schismatic intrigues, even going so far as to envisage the meeting of a Council that would depose “Jacques de Cahors”. It must be acknowledged: this is a far cry from Amoris laetitia and Cardinal Burke. One can only compare things that are comparable, and there is no possible point of comparison here.

At most one could acknowledge that there might have been in Jacques Duèse a lack of temperance in his intellectual research, let us say a certain eccentricity resulting from an unbridled theological curiosity. But Pope John XXII had the wisdom not to present this research as a formally magisterial teaching, and above all not to persist stubbornly in these risky views. Furthermore wasn’t this curiosity, along with the research that it led to, the sign of a sort of vitality? Every man naturally desires to know, good old Aristotle could say. And if he was forbidden to do so, the Angelic Doctor adds, he would be deprived of his happiness and frustrated in his natural aspirations. Must we then blame the Pope who canonized the Common Doctor of the Church for having that appetite, even if it was a bit exuberant?

  • 13. Le Bachelet, ibid., col. 666-667.
  • 14. Cited by Le Bachelet, ibid., col. 667.
  • 15. Le Bachelet, ibid., col. 669.
  • 16. Le Bachelet, ibid., col. 668.