The Question of Papal Heresy - Part 3

February 22, 2017
Source: District of the USA
St. Robert Bellarmine, who wrote with clarity on this conundrum.

Errors condemned throughout history have been presented as truth from Rome during the past 50 years. How are we to think?

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.


Part 3: Can a Pope Fall into Heresy?

At first glance it would seem that this is an improbable thesis. In fact, the negative answer to this question is the common opinion of theologians of the modern era. They say, in effect, that the pope could not become a formal, obstinate heretic, in other words a deliberate, culpable heretic, although he could become a material heretic, through non-culpable ignorance or because of a simple error and not by reason of ill will. The main advocates of this thesis are the Dutch theologian Albert Pighi (1490-1542) (author of the treatise Hierarchiae ecclesiasticae assertio, which examines this question), St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) (De Romano Pontifice, Book 4, chapters 6-14), and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) (De fide, disputatio 10, sectio 6, §11, Opera omnia, 2:319). Just before Vatican Council I, this opinion was held also by the French canonist Marie-Dominique Bouix (1808-1870).

During that Council, Bishop Zinelli, speaking in the name of the Deputation of the Faith, praises this opinion of Bellarmine and Suarez: according to him it is probable that the pope will never be a formal heretic:

Since these things have been entrusted to supernatural Providence, we think it sufficiently probable that they will never come about” (Mansi, vol. 52, col. 1109).

In the wake of the Council, Cardinal Billot (1846-1931) reiterated the same opinion in L’Église, II–Sa constitution intime, question 14, thesis 29, part 2, nos. 940-949. Fr. Dublanchy too adopted it after him in “Infaillibilité du pape,” Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 8/2:1716-1717. Finally, during the reign of Pius XII, the classic manual by Father Salaverri, De Ecclesia Christi, thesis 14, §657, mentions this question about the personal heresy of a pope as a matter for theological debate and presents as probable the opinion of Bellarmine and Suarez that was praised by Bishop Zinelli.

The Twofold Argument

The argument of this explanation is twofold, and it remains invariable in the writings of all the authors who adopt this position. First there is a theoretical argument that is presented as a matter of convenience: the infallibility of the office promised in Luke 22:32 would make personal indefectibility in the faith morally necessary. Indeed, St. Robert Bellarmine remarks in De Romano Pontifice, Book V, chapter 6 that the order established by God absolutely requires that the private person of the Supreme Pontiff not be able to fall into heresy, not even by losing his faith in a purely internal way.

For the pope must not and cannot preach heresy; not only that, but he must also teach the truth always, and there is no doubt that he will always do so, since the Lord commanded him to strengthen his brethren. But how can a heretical pope strengthen his brethren in the faith, how will he always preach the true faith? No doubt, God is still capable of extracting the profession of the true faith from the heart of a heretic, just as he once made Balaam’s ass speak. But there would be violence in that, and not an action in keeping with divine providence, which arranges all things smoothly.”

There is also a second factual argument, following from the first, which logically leads all the advocates of the theory to prove that never in all the history of the Church has any pope been formally heretical (see ibid., chapters 7-14).

The Premodern Opinion

Nevertheless, the theologians of the modern era are latecomers. And one might object that even before them, from the 12th-16th centuries, theologians commonly thought that the pope can fall into heresy. We encounter this idea in the 12th century in Gratian’s Decretum, specifically Book 1, distinction 40, chapter 6 entitled Si papa. Gratian says that the pope cannot be judged by anyone else, except in the case in which he strayed from the faith. This statement is attributed to St. Boniface, Archbishop of Milan, and it is cited under his name, before Gratian, by Cardinal Deusdedit and Yves de Chartres. It is the text that will serve as a basis for all the reflections of the medieval canonists and will henceforth support a common opinion: “The canonists of the 12th and 13th centuries,” Fr. Dublanchy says,

...know the passage from Gratian and comment on it. All admit without difficulty that the pope can fall into heresy, as into any other serious sin; their only concern it to investigate how and in what conditions he can in this case be judged by the Church” (Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, col. 1715). 

Cajetan again supports this thesis. Albert Pighi in the 16th century would be the first to break with a theological and canonical tradition that had been unanimous until then. But even in the modern era, the new opinion introduced by Pighi would not be absolutely unanimous. In fact, Pighi was rather quickly refuted by Melchior Cano (1509-1560) (De locis theologicis, Book 6, chapter 8, §§21-23) and Domenico Bañez (1528-1604) (Commentary on II-II, q. 1, art. 10, folios 183-212 of the 1587 Venice edition). The Dominican Charles-René Billuart (1685-1757) shares the same opinion with these two theologians in his De fide, dissertatio 5, art. 3, §3, objectio 2; De regulis fidei, dissertatio 4, art. 8, §2, objectiones 2 et 6 and De incarnatione, dissertatio 9, art. 2, §2, objectio 2.

Finally, in the aftermath of the Vatican Council, Father Palmieri defends this thesis in Tractatus de romano pontifice, thesis 32, scholion, pp. 630-633. 

Archbishop Lefebvre, during the sermon of the 1988 consecrations, discussed this grave topic

Lessons from History and Today

Consider also that the facts of history are undeniable. There have been in the Church one or two popes who favored heresy, and there are today, since Vatican II, popes who have caused serious problems for the conscience of Catholics, who are rightly perplexed. For instance, Pope Honorius I (625-640) was anathematized by his successors, Ss. Agatho (678-681) and Leo II (682-684) during the Third Council of Constantinople in 681 for having favored the Monothelite heresy. (For more detailed information, see the article “Une crise sans précédents?” that appeared in the journal of the Institute Universitaire saint Pie X, Vu de haut 14 (Automne 2008), pp. 78-95.)

On the other hand, it is clear that since Vatican II, Popes Paul VI, John Paul II. and Benedict XVI have taught—and Pope Francis still teaches—theological opinions that would be difficult to reconcile with the substance of Catholic dogma. But in both cases, the import is essentially the same. And these facts have been noted by persons whose judgment has a certain moral authority, although it lacks juridical authority.

Consider the words of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, delivered in his sermon at the June 30, 1988 episcopal consecrations at Ecône.

Indeed, since the Council, what we [the popes before 1962] condemned in the past the present Roman authorities have embraced and are professing. How is it possible? We have condemned them: Liberalism, Communism., Socialism, Modernism, Sillonism. All the errors which we have condemned are now professed, adopted and supported by the authorities of the Church. Is it possible?”

Recent events, no doubt, are more serious than situations in the past. Here again is the Archbishop, this time from his March 30, 1986 Easter sermon:

We find ourselves facing a serious, extremely serious dilemma that I think has never existed in the Church: the fact that the man seated on the chair of Peter participates in the worship of false gods. I do not think that this has ever happened in the history of the Church”  

And, finally, attention must also be paid to the comments Bp. de Castro-Mayer made to Archbishop Lefebvre in a letter dated December 8, 1969:

This is a very serious matter. We are on the way to a new Church. Rome is the one driving souls into heresy. It seems to me that we cannot accept all the documents of Vatican II. There are some that cannot be interpreted according to Trent and Vatican I. What do you think?”

All this leads us to think, no more no less, that the first opinion that regards as improbable the fall of a pope into heresy is itself improbable. In other words, the arguments from theological authority along the lines of a negative answer to the question posed are insufficient to win adherence. It must still be shown, therefore, how right reason, enlightened by faith, could justify an affirmative answer.