Thou shalt not bear False Witness against the Pope

The ten commandments of the Old Testament include a negative precept condemning false testimony, also called false witness.

{20:16} You shall not speak false testimony against your neighbor.

In the New Testament, Jesus reiterates the ten commandments. They are not aspects of Old Testament discipline, dispensed by the arrival of the New Covenant. The ten commandments are part of the eternal moral law. And the prohibition against speaking false testimony is one of these commandments.

{10:19} You know the precepts: “Do not commit adultery. Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not speak false testimony. Do not deceive. Honor your father and mother.”

Some commentators have tried to narrow the scope of the precept against false witness to solely or mainly testimony under oath in a trial. But the Roman Catholic Magisterium has rejected that interpretation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church certainly condemns perjury (lying under oath) [CCC 1756], but also any type of lying, which is by its nature wrong [CCC 2485]. The Catechism also condemns calumny, which is defined as “remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.” [CCC 1573]. In addition to false judgments, the Catechism condemns rash judgments and “every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.” [2477].

What should we faithful Catholics say, then, about persons who accuse the Roman Pontiff — the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church — of the grave sin of heresy? Thou shalt not bear false witness against the Vicar of Christ.

1. Pope Francis is a valid Pope. Only three criteria need to be met for a man to be the valid Roman Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church: a) validly elected, b) freely accepts his election, c) is an ordained Bishop [Universi Dominici Gregis n. 87-89]. A valid Pope cannot become invalid by any word or deed. He can freely resign, as Pope Benedict XVI did. Otherwise, he continues to be the valid Pope until his death. And after death, is no longer the current Roman Pontiff. [So the claim of some persons that the current valid Pope is Saint Peter in Heaven is absurd.]

A valid Pope might be a Saint or a sinner. He might be liberal or conservative. He might speak with prudence or imprudence. He might make unwise decisions concerning administrative or political matters. He might err in his private theological opinions. He can even err, to a limited extent, in his non-infallible teachings. But none of these things can invalidate his role and authority as the Roman Pontiff.

2. No Pope can possibly commit heresy.

Can a Pope Ever Be a Heretic?
Could Pope Francis fall into heresy?
Why neither the Pope, nor the body of Bishops, can commit heresy
Can a Pope commit the sin of heresy?
The Rejection of Popes and Ecumenical Councils
Pope Francis is a valid orthodox and holy Pope
What If A Heretic Were Elected Pope?
Can a Pope Ever Be a Heretic?

Jesus promised that the Church would be indefectible (never go stray). For the Church is founded on the Rock that is Saint Peter and his successors. But if a Pope could fall into heresy, the Church would not be indefectible, for he is the seat of the Magisterium and the head of the Church on earth.

{16:16} Simon Peter responded by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
{16:17} And in response, Jesus said to him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven.
{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

Therefore, the grace of God absolutely prevents any valid Pope from falling into heresy.

3. Some teachings of the Magisterium are infallible; other teachings are non-infallible.

A. Infallible teachings — irreformable (unchangeable), no possibility of error. These teachings might be misunderstood by some of the faithful, by they cannot err. Not every teaching of a Pope or Council or the body of Bishops is infallible. Infallible teachings require the full assent of faith.

B. Non-infallible teachings — non-irreformable (changeable), limited possibility of error. The errors possible can never reach the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation. Non-infallible teachings do not require the full assent of faith, but only religious assent. Non-infallible teachings allow for the possibility of licit theological dissent.

C. Fallible opinions and prudential judgment — The Pope might express his personal opinion on a matter of concern to the Church. His opinion on matters where the Magisterium has no particular teaching is fallible; all are free to disagree. The prudential judgments of the Church on matters of discipline are generally binding on the faithful, but they are not infallible. Only teachings can possibly be infallible.

4. When Pope Francis exercises the non-infallible Magisterium, his teaching has the help of the Holy Spirit. God prevents each and every valid Pope from teaching anything under the non-infallible Magisterium that might lead the faithful away from the path of salvation. The ordinary non-infallible teaching of a Pope may err, but only to a limited extent. And again, no Pope is permitted to fall into the sin of heresy by God; the prevenient grace of God absolutely prevents it.

A faithful Catholic may licitly dissent from a particular non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium, without sin, if the basis for his dissent is other teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. If he dissents without such a legitimate basis, his dissent might be illicit and sinful, but still not the sin of heresy. Typically, heresy is dissent from an infallible teaching. However, if a Catholic were to dissent from all non-infallible teachings, or most, or any set such that the result would be that the faith would fail, then that dissent from non-infallible teachings would be heresy.

It is not true that if a Pope teaches any error on any matter of faith or morals, he has fallen into heresy.

5. The arrogance of these false accusers, who speak against Pope Francis, is astounding.

Even in human terms, Pope Francis outranks them; his personal opinion is far more likely to be correct than theirs. He has a Ph.D. in theology, he taught theology at a university for many years. He has been a priest, and then a Bishop and then a Cardinal for many years. And his accusers have few if any credentials. So even on a matter where his opinion is fallible and non-binding, he is much more likely to be correct. And no matter of opinion — an open question not yet decided by the Magisterium — can be heretical. When St. Thomas opined the (as it turned out many years later) incorrect opinion on the Immaculate Conception, he was never branded a heretic. The Magisterium had not, at that point in time, decided the question.

I read what these false accusers have to say, in various places online. They explain the doctrines that they think Pope Francis has violated. Their understanding of Church teaching is distorted, oversimplified, and erroneous. But how full of pride they must be, that when the Pope disagrees with their own understanding of Catholicism, they conclude that the Pope must be wrong. They do not even imagine for a moment that their own ideas could err. It is as if they consider their own understanding of Catholicism to be infallible.

They claim that the Pope has departed (or seems about to depart) from the Church by rejecting Her teaching. But, ironically, it is they who have already departed from the true Church by rejecting her Head and his teaching. To them, the Rock on which the Church is founded is their own thoughts.

Does not the Pope have the role to teach and correct the faithful? But these persons are so arrogant, they think it is their role to teach and correct the Pope.

6. The ignorance of these false accusers, who condemn the teachings of Pope Francis, is astounding.

They mistakenly think that every teaching of the Magisterium is infallible and irreformable. They do not distinguish between infallible and non-infallible teachings, nor between heresy and lesser errors on doctrine. They mistakenly think that the Pope’s role is to maintain and reiterate past teachings, never to teach any new insight into Tradition or Scripture. They reject the idea of the development of doctrine. They scoff at the teachings of Vatican II.

7. Whosoever bears false witness against any valid Pope, bears false witness against Christ. For the Roman Pontiff is the Vicar and Servant of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

See a list of my books and booklets here.

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One Response to Thou shalt not bear False Witness against the Pope

  1. sammy lerma says:

    powerful and well said

Comments are closed.