In the book The Ecumenical Council and the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808–1892) explains the position of Doctor of the Church, Saint Robert Bellarmine on Popes and heresy. Bellarmine discusses four possible positions on the topic:
1. that the Pope may be a heretic and may “teach heresy”, even when he is defining a doctrine with an Ecumenical Council.
2. that the Pope may be a heretic and may teach heresy, as long as he is NOT defining a doctrine with an Ecumenical Council.
3. that the Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy”, regardless of whether he is teaching alone or with an Ecumenical Council.
4. that the Pope, regardless of whether he can or cannot fall into heresy, cannot define a heresy as a teaching to be believed by the whole Church.
Bellarmine then evaluates each of the above four positions. He wrote that the first position is heretical, and that the second position is “altogether erroneous, and proximate to heresy”.
He then wrote that the third position is “probable, but not certain.” So Saint Bellarmine thought the opinion probable that the Pope could not be a heretic and could not teach heresy. (My own theological position is the same: the Pope cannot be a heretic, nor can he ever teach heresy.)
Bellarmine then termed the fourth position “most certain, and to be asserted.” But this fourth position is often misstated and misunderstood. The fourth position is NOT that the Pope can fall into heresy, but cannot teach heresy. Rather, the fourth position is asserted without answering the question as to whether or not the Pope can fall into heresy. The fourth position is that the Pope absolutely cannot define a heresy as a teaching to be believed by the whole Church.
The position of some Catholics today is a distortion of this fourth position. They claim that the Pope can define a heresy as to be believed by the whole Church, and that, if he does so, he ceases to be Pope, loses his authority to teach, and the definition is not of the Magisterium and not binding. They also claim that a Pope can teach heresy without defining a definition, as a personal opinion or as a teaching that is not a definition, and that again he would lose his authority and cease to be Pope. But this is NOT what Saint Bellarmine wrote. In fact, this position is essentially the second one above, which Bellarmine termed as “proximate to heresy”.
So the writings of Saint Robert Bellarmine do NOT support the view of some misguided Catholics today about the Pope and heresy. Rather, his words condemn their position. He believed it probable that no Pope could fall into heresy, nor publicly teach heresy at all. He believed it certain that no Pope could ever define a heresy as something to be believed by the whole Church (regardless of whether he could or could not personally fall into heresy). He did not believe that a Pope could propose a heresy as if it were a definition of doctrine to be held by the whole Church.
As for the assertion of some Saints and theologians, that IF a Pope were to fall into heresy, he would cease to be Pope, it is a counter-factual hypothetical. It is like Saint Paul saying: “if Christ has not risen, then your faith is vain” (1 Cor 15:17). Paul was not asserting that perhaps Jesus never rose or that perhaps our faith is in vain; it was merely a hypothetical. And this point is further confirmed by the fact that no Saint or Doctor of the Church has ever accused any Pope of heresy.
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