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The Question of Papal Heresy - Part 4

February 28, 2017
"And the gates of hell shall not prevail..."

After carefully defining terms, we review the essential question; can the Vicar of Christ be heretical, in the exact meaning of the word?

The author of this series, 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.

Review Part 1 of this series: Introduction to the Problem
Review Part 2 of this series: The Case of Pope John XXII
Review Part 3 of this series: Can a Pope Fall into Heresy?

Part 4: About the Pope and Heresy

Defining Heresy

Heresy must be understood first as a morally bad human act, in other words, a sin. But like the act of faith to which it is opposed, this act is complex, for it depends simultaneously on the intellect and the will. Inasmuch as it follows from the intellect, this act is an error, which can occur in two modes: pure and simple negation; mere doubt. Inasmuch as it follows from the will, this act is the refusal to give the support of the intellect to the truth that is denied or doubted.

Pertinacity or Error

This refusal itself can occur in two modes, depending on whether or not it is culpable. Heresy takes place specifically when there is a voluntary refusal, with full advertence precisely to the simple fact that the truths denied or doubted are proposed by the Church’s authority, and not to the additional fact that the Church’s authority represents that of God and therefore obliges morally. With regard to this second fact, advertence defines heresy not as such but inasmuch as it is culpable. This culpability is tantamount to pertinacity, in other words, to the rejection of the matter of faith inasmuch as, in the view of the person who rejects it, it appears clearly obligatory because it is proposed by the authority of God’s legitimate representative, in this case the Magisterium of the Church.

Non-culpable rejection occurs, on the other hand, in someone who, without fault on his part, does not know that this ecclesiastical Magisterium obliged him inasmuch as it represents the divine authority. It follows therefore that pertinacity concerns directly the internal act of heresy, which is the act of adherence to error.

Formal or Material

At the level of the external act, which is the act of professing truth or error, the simple refusal (culpable or not) to profess the truth proposed by the Magisterium is already sufficient to define heresy specifically. Consequently, when we describe heresy by saying that it is formal or material, depending on whether or not it involved pertinacity, this distinction concerns only the internal act of heresy.

Act of Heresy or Heretical Proposition?

On the level of the external act, the rejection of the authority of the ecclesiastical Magisterium already corresponds to heresy properly so-called, whatever the case may be with regard to possible pertinacity on the level of the internal act. This pertinacity becomes manifest in the external forum when the competent authority intervenes to impose a retraction on the interested party and the latter with full knowledge of the facts refuses to make a retraction. The term heresy designates, secondly, and by the analogy of attribution, the doctrinal value of a proposition that is opposed to and contradicts Catholic dogma. From this perspective, in order to make a determination of heresy, it is necessary and sufficient to apply the simple rules of formal logic. The determination is imposed automatically, like it or not, but it applies to a speculative utterance, a simple literal proposition, apart from the person who utters it.

Occult, Public or Notorious Heresy

On the other hand, understood in the first sense as a morally bad human act, external heresy as such is distinct from internal heresy, which is not manifest at all. It is expressed by signs (words, actions, omissions), even if no one notices them. It is sometimes occult, sometimes public and sometimes notorious. If the expression is known by a small number of discreet witnesses, the heresy is said to be occult. If it is known by most people, it is public. Notoriety is something else again, because it is of a juridical order and is equivalent of a higher degree of public knowledge. Legal notoriety results from a juridical determination by the authority (for example by a judicial sentence passed in a matter that has been adjudicated or by the admission of a delinquent before the tribunal).

Notoriety in fact occurs when the act was performed in such circumstances that no artifice can conceal it and no juridical subtlety can excuse it, for example a flagrant delict (offense against the law) (cf. Raoul Naz, “Délit,” Dictionnaire de droit canonique (Letouzey 1949), 4:1087-1088). Notorious heresy therefore is not a heresy that everyone knows about. It is the sort of heresy that results from acts that the hierarchical authority of the Church denounces juridically as incompatible with the common good of Catholic society. In a strictly juridical sense, we speak only about occult or notorious heresy, and the notion of public heresy is reduced to that of occult heresy. In this juridical sense (which is sense used in canon law), any external act that has not been noted by the authority is occult.

Infallibility and Heresy

Having made these distinctions and clarifications, let us try to frame the problem before us: can the Pope fall into heresy? The Pope is a man called by God to exercise the supreme and universal power of jurisdiction (and therefore of the Magisterium or teaching office) over the whole Church. As a man, he remains, like all his fellow human beings, subject to error. In order for him not to be subject to error, it is necessary for God to have given him an explicit assurance, while specifying the limits within which he will enjoy this infallibility; and this assurance was given by God in restricted circumstances, outside of which there is no reason to say that the Pope is infallible. More precisely, any and all exercise of his function does not fall within these limits, but only one type of particular actions, the performance of which may appear clearly by means of the criteria of locutio ex cathedra (speaking from the teacher’s seat, authoritatively).

All theologians acknowledge that outside these limits the Pope is not infallible even though some of them have gone so far as to maintain that he would ordinarily be inerrant. (For further reading, see Jean-Baptiste Franzelin, De divina traditione (4th ed. 1896), thesis 12, appendix 1, principle 7 and its corollaries, pp. 118-141; Dublanchy, “Infaillibilité du pape, ”Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, col. 1711-1712; Straub, De Ecclesia, nos. 968 ff.; and Lucien Choupin, S.J., Valeur des décisions doctrinales et disciplinaires du Saint-Siège (Paris: Beauchesne, 1913), pp. 87-92). Consider also the words of the Dominican theologian Fr. Thomas Pègues, cited by Choupin, op. cit., p. 55.

It could be, strictly speaking, that this teaching would be subject to error. We have a thousand reasons to believe that it is not. It probably never has been and it is morally certain that it never will be. But absolutely it could be, in the sense that God does not guarantee it as He guarantees teaching that is formulated by way of definition.”

To What Point a Pope Can Err?

It is therefore not a contradiction that the man who is Pope should be mistaken, even in the exercise of his office, and even to the point of heresy. But this conclusion is drawn on the universal level, which is the level of mere possibility, that is, the compatibility of abstract notions; it does not apply to a real risk in matters of fact, or to a greater or lesser probability, much less to a frequency. Consequently, even though it may be indubitable, this conclusion would not be tantamount (at least not yet) to the statement that Pope Francis is heretical.

The Pope can err to the point of at least material heresy: no theologian disputes that. The question being debated is not whether he could fall as far as formal heresy, with pertinacity. In fact, the passage from material heresy to formal heresy depends as such on the internal forum and remains unverifiable. The only question that matters is what may happen in the external forum. From this perspective, it is plain that the Pope can fall into occult heresy: not only private heresy but even public heresy.

Can a Pope Fall in Notorious Heresy?

On the other hand, if we are talking about notorious heresy, it is obvious that he cannot during his lifetime: notorious heresy is in fact heresy that is declared by the competent superior, and since the Pope has no superior here on earth, no one is competent to declare his heresy canonically. From a strictly canonical perspective, the Pope therefore during his lifetime could fall only into occult heresy. Once he has died, his heresy can obviously be declared by his successor and become notorious. But that does not authorize us to say that the Pope could fall into notorious heresy, since by definition this fall could take place only during his lifetime.

This authorizes us only to say that a Pope could be anathematized posthumously, provided that we are not misled by the expression, since a deceased pope is no longer Pope. In reality, this anathema pertains strictly speaking not to his person but to his statements: the heresy is notorious, but it is so if it is understood not in the first sense, as a person’s moral act, but in the second sense, as the doctrinal description of a proposition. 

Fr. Roger-Thomas Calmel, OP, who discussed the question of modern papal heresy

Cases Before and After Vatican II

As for what has happened in fact, the response is twofold, depending on whether it concerns past facts from the period before Vatican II or present facts, from the period inaugurated by Vatican II. In the case of the former, only Pope Honorius was anathematized posthumously, strictly speaking not as heretical but as having favored heresy; on the other hand, his successors, St. Agatho and St. Leo II, never proclaimed the posthumous dethronement of Honorius, who never ceased to be recognized thereafter as a legitimate pope. (For a more detailed discussion, consult the article “Une crise sans précédents” that appeared in the journal of the Institut Universitaire saint Pie X, Vu de haut 14 (automne 2008), pp. 78-95).

In the case of the present period, no canonical declaration has yet occurred to declare juridically the notoriety of what might be the heresy of the conciliar popes. Can we speak nonetheless about an occult heresy? It is at least beyond doubt that the attitude of these popes complies with the presuppositions of liberalism and modernism, which have been condemned by the Magisterium, and that these popes therefore favor heresy, inasmuch as they preach and put into practice the teachings of Vatican Council II and carry out all the reforms that result from it.

Modern Theologians Say Papal Heresy is Impossible

This is why, considering the apparently unanimous statements by theologians of the modern era (who consider the heresy of a pope as improbable), we respond first that their opinion does not deny that the Pope could fall into heresy; it denies that he could fall into formal and public heresy, even if it were not notorious. We respond secondly that the theological tradition is fallible and capable of reform, even if it is temporarily unanimous, since it is not constant. For example, in considering the matter concerning the Scholastic theologians who all thought unanimously that the matter of the sacrament of Holy Orders was the conferral of the instruments, Franzelin comments, op. cit., thesis 17, nos. 360-362:

Even if one could demonstrate that the consensus existed temporarily, it was not constant and, as we said, it is an argument thanks to which we prove that such a consensus, if there was one, pertained not to a firm and certain way of thinking (avis) but to an opinion.”

The episode that we have been going through for fifty years could therefore lead theologians to revise and refine the position that had been followed since the sixteenth century. All the more since one among them, Fr. Dublanchy, op. cit., concluded in very measured terms: “This opinion is worth as much as the reasons that support it; but it is by no means guaranteed by the Church nor adopted by theologians as a whole.” We see clearly also that at the time of Vatican Council I, Msgr. Zinelli, likewise cited by the one raising the objection, affirms nothing categorical. Deeming it at most probable that the Pope will never fall into heresy, he immediately adds that, even if God were to permit it, He would not leave His Church defenseless and at the mercy of that tyranny.

As for the argument from reason which is thought to support this opinion, we respond that even if absolute personal infallibility was advisable for the exercise of the office, this would only be a matter of suitability [convenance]. Such a privilege is not included in the promise of papal infallibility, which concerns the office only; besides, revelation says nothing about it. Sound reason even leads us to think that this infallibility is not strictly necessary: someone who tries to prove too much proves nothing, and one would run the risk of devaluating infallibility while trying to extend it beyond its limits. Therefore it remains possible that the Pope might err personally in the faith, although his office would never be engaged solemnly in the service of heresy.

Recent Popes and Heresies

The events that followed Vatican Council II, incidentally, sufficiently show this. Here is the analysis of Fr. Roger-Thomas Calmel, taken from his unpublished 1973 manuscript L’Église plus grande que le pape, which is preserved in the personal archives of Archbishop Lefebvre at the Saint Pius X Seminary in Ecône.

The privilege of infallibility will always preserve the Pope from changing the religion formally. But, even without formal changes, attempts [to make them] or acts of complicity or cowardice can go very far and become a very cruel trial for Holy Church. The modernist system, more precisely the modernist apparatus and procedures, offer the Pope a brand new occasion of sin, a possibility of evading his mission that had never before been proposed to him. Once the twofold modernist principle was admitted: first, universal reform, especially in the case of the liturgy, in the name of a certain pastoral openness to the modern world; secondly the abdication of regular, defined authority in favor of feigned, fleeting, anonymous sorts of authority that are typical of various forms of collegiality—in short, once the twofold principle of modernism penetrated into the Church, this destructive consequence followed: the apostolic tradition in matters of doctrine, morals and worship was neutralized, although it was not killed—without any need for the Pope officially and openly to deny the whole tradition and therefore to proclaim the apostasy.”

As for the argument that would cite history as its authority, we respond that, certainly, no pope has ever fallen into notorious heresy, but nonetheless some popes favored heresy and some still do. And that one of them was anathematized as “favens haeresim” posthumously.

Considering the statements by theologians from the medieval period, who consider papal heresy probable, even though these theologians think that the Pope can fall into not only material heresy but even formal and public heresy, it must be noted that they nevertheless do not maintain that the Pope’s heresy would be notorious.

As for the facts of history cited by these theologians, they prove at most that the Pope can be materially heretical and favor heresy publicly, but not that he should be formally heretical in a notorious manner.

In the next part of the series, we investigate more completely the case of Pope Francis.