Can A Pope Be A Heretic? The Answer

Over at Crisis magazine, Jacob W. Wood discusses whether a Pope can fall into heresy. It’s a nice thorough yet concise discussion of the relevant questions. But Wood does not provide any answers. In this post, I will deal with the same questions and provide answers.

Q: “If Church discipline of excluding Catholics who have obtained a civil divorce and remarriage from Communion is based on infallible Church doctrine about sin and repentance, and if the pope tries to change that discipline, wouldn’t that make the pope a heretic concerning that doctrine?”

A: Discipline is not doctrine. Good discipline is based on true doctrine. But a change or revocation of good discipline does not imply a change or revocation of doctrine.

The best example of this is the Old Testament discipline. The Old Testament contains teachings on faith and morals, such as the existence of God, His mercy toward us, and His moral law (e.g. the ten commandments). These teachings cannot change, and in fact Christ said this explicitly:

{5:17} Do not think that I have come to loosen the law or the prophets. I have not come to loosen, but to fulfill.

But discipline is not doctrine. The Old Testament disciplines are part of Sacred Scripture, and so they were established by Divine Revelation. You cannot name any discipline more firmly established as the correct practice than that which has been provided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Divine Revelation. And yet the entire set of Old Testament disciplines have been dispensed by Christ. The legal prescriptions of the Old Testament or the Mosaic law came to an end once our Lord Jesus Christ established the new Covenant. Even the Apostolic prohibition, to abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled, as described in Acts 15:20, has ceased.

So if disciplines established by Divine Revelation can be taken away by Christ, so also New Testament disciplines, which are under the authority of Christ and His Vicar, can be changed, dispensed, or replaced, according to the judgment of the Roman Pontiff or of an Ecumenical Council led by him.

Discipline should be based on doctrine. But changing a discipline does not change doctrine. And dispensing a discipline does not deny a doctrine. Did Christ change the ten commandments by dispensing the Mosaic law? Not at all. See for yourself what He says:

{7:18} And he said to them: “So, are you also without prudence? Do you not understand that everything entering to a man from outside is not able to pollute him?
{7:19} For it does not enter into his heart, but into the gut, and it exits into the sewer, purging all foods.”

{8:4} And they said to him: “Teacher, this woman was just now caught in adultery.
{8:5} And in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such a one. Therefore, what do you say?”
{8:6} But they were saying this to test him, so that they might be able to accuse him. Then Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the earth.
{8:7} And then, when they persevered in questioning him, he stood upright and said to them, “Let whoever is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”
{8:8} And bending down again, he wrote on the earth.
{8:9} But upon hearing this, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest. And Jesus alone remained, with the woman standing in front of him.
{8:10} Then Jesus, raising himself up, said to her: “Woman, where are those who accused you? Has no one condemned you?”
{8:11} And she said, “No one, Lord.” Then Jesus said: “Neither will I condemn you. Go, and now do not choose to sin anymore.”

Jesus does away with the Old Testament dietary rules and even the Mosaic death penalty for adultery, but He does not thereby dispense or change the ten commandments. The commandment “You shall not commit adultery” remains unchanged, even though the Mosaic death penalty for adultery was dispensed by Christ.

{19:16} And behold, someone approached and said to him, “Good Teacher, what good should I do, so that I may have eternal life?”
{19:17} And he said to him: “Why do you question me about what is good? One is good: God. But if you wish to enter into life, observe the commandments.”
{19:18} He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony.
{19:19} Honor your father and your mother. And, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the same way, even if Pope Francis decides to:
* allow married men to become priests
* allow women to have a greater role in the Church
* make changes to the form of the Mass
* permit persons to receive Communion if they are divorced and remarried
no change to doctrine, no denial of doctrine, and no assertion of heresy is thereby implied.

See my list of 12 possible changes to discipline that Pope Francis might make at the October 2015 Bishops’ Synod.

Q: Can a Pope present a heresy to the Church as if it were an infallible teaching or a required belief?

A: No. The infallible teachings of the Magisterium cannot err. If a teaching of any Pope meets the conditions (taught by Vatican I) for Papal Infallibility, and yet someone claims that the teaching is heretical, such a claimant commits heresy himself and falls under the anathema of the First Vatican Council.

The advantage of having a Magisterium that can teach infallibly is that the Magisterium can authoritatively and correctly settle doctrinal disputes. For we can know that a teaching is infallible apart from any judgment about the correctness of its teaching. An assertion falls under Papal Infallibility if 5 conditions are met:

Vatican I:
1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church” [Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4.]

If all 5 conditions are met, the teaching is infallible. There is no sixth condition requiring a judgment and approval by each individual Catholic, or by the traditionalist Catholic community, or by popular Catholic bloggers, or by a subset of the most conservative Cardinals. And as the Second Vatican Council taught:

“And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith.”

The idea that someone can declare an infallible teaching of any Pope to be heresy, and thereby consider that the teaching does not fall under infallibility, is absurd. It makes the individual judging the teaching out to be infallible, not the Magisterium.

A ran across an odd group of alleged Catholics online awhile back. They objected to my statement that the Magisterium often teaches non-infallibly. They said, first, that all teachings of the Magisterium are infallible and cannot possibly err. Then they asserted that “Vatican II taught heresy” and therefore those teachings are not of the Magisterium. So let me see if I understand their position. The teachings of the Magisterium can never err, but if a teaching does err, then it is not a teaching of the Magisterium. And who decides if a teaching of the Magisterium is in error and therefore is not really of the Magisterium? Their own little group. In this type of a system, it is not the Magisterium that is infallible, but the individual or the small group claiming to be able to judge magisterial teaching.

If a teaching of the Magisterium is only infallible when you think it is correct, then you are making yourself out to be infallible. You are not putting faith in the teachings of the Church, but only in your own understanding. And that is exactly what some Cardinals and conservative commentators have proposed concerning Pope Francis. If he teaches anything contrary to their own understanding, if he so much as changes discipline contrary to their liking, they will accuse him of heresy and thereby claim to nullify his authority. Well, it just doesn’t work that way.

When the Magisterium teaches infallibly, the teaching cannot err. Period. If you and all your fellow liberals or conservatives or traditionalists or like-minded Cardinals disagree, then you are in error. The infallible teachings of a Pope or Ecumenical Council are not infallible because you agree, but because Christ promised His Church would be indefectible.

{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.”

Q: Can a Pope present a heresy to the Church as if it were a non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium?

A: No. The Pope teaches infallibly, when the conditions for Papal Infallibility are met. Short of those conditions, the teaching of the Pope on faith, morals, or salvation is non-infallible and subject to a limited possibility of error and reform. However, those errors can never reach to the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation. For the Church is indefectible, and the Pope is the head of the Church on earth.

When the Magisterium teaches non-infallibly, the Holy Spirit protects the teaching from any extensive errors, from any errors that would lead the faithful away from salvation. Now you might debate to what extent those non-infallible teachings might err. But certainly the Magisterium cannot err to the extent of teaching heresy. And when the Pope teaches the Church, he exercises the Magisterium.

Now in the special circumstance wherein the Pope is liberal and you are conservative, are you still obligated to believe his teachings and accept his authority over discipline. Yes. Catholicism is not conservatism. If you choose conservatism over Catholicism, you have chosen to depart from the one true Church.

But what if the conservative Cardinals all disagree with a liberal teaching or decision? Should not we faithful conservatives, who have long put all our faith in conservatism, remain faithful to our conservative principles? You will all be put to the test. God will test you to see if you love the Lord Jesus Christ and worship him, with faith in His Church, or if you love conservatism and worship at the altar of conservatism. You cannot do both. You cannot serve both God and liberalism, or God and conservatism, or God and any other social, political, or philosophical system.

Jesus did not teach conservatism. He did not require the Latin Mass, or a specific set of rubrics for the Mass, or any other specific discipline. Instead, He gave the Pope the authority over discipline, to dispense or change it as he sees fit. You are free to disagree, but you are not free to accuse the Pope of heresy and depart from the Church because you have decided to love a specific set of disciplines more than Christ. This type of exaltation of discipline is pure Pharisaism already sharply condemned by Christ.

And again, the claim that any teaching can be heretical and would then be automatically not “of the Magisterium” is false and unfaithful. The Holy Spirit is not overpowered by the foolishness of us poor fallen sinners. The Spirit guides the Church through the teachings of the Magisterium. Some limited errors are allowed in non-infallible teachings, but certainly not heresy.

Therefore, the magisterial teachings of any Pope are certainly free from heresy and from any type of error that might lead the faithful away from salvation.

In his article, Jacob W. Wood claims that a Pope’s “material heresy might even appear in his non-infallible teaching”. Then he goes on to contradict that assertion by citing CCC 892, which I will quote:

“Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner,’ they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.”

The Pope cannot teach any type of heresy, even in a non-infallible teaching, because Divine assistance is given to the Pope and the body of Bishops led by him for the sake of our salvation.

When a non-infallible teaching is conservative, the conservative commentators treat it as if it were dogma. When a discipline is conservative, they treat that discipline as if it were dogma. If you disagree, they claim you are rejecting the authority of Christ and His Church. But then, if a teaching or discipline seems liberal to them, they utterly reject that teaching, no matter how authoritative it may be. This trend among some conservatives and many traditionalists has been going on for many years. And now they will all be put to the test, to see if they love conservatism more than Christ.

Q: Can a Pope be a material heretic or a formal heretic?

A: No, not at all. A material heretic is someone who mistakenly adheres to an heretical idea as if it were a dogma or doctrine, or who mistakenly rejects a formal dogma. A Pope can be mistaken in his personal theological opinions on any question which the Magisterium has not yet answered definitively. But he cannot reject a dogma, nor adhere to an idea that contradicts a dogma, not even with a sincere but mistaken conscience.

The Holy Spirit protects the Pope from falling into material or formal heresy so as to preserve the Church indefectible. If the Supreme Teacher of the Church fell into heresy, even unwittingly, the Church would not be indefectible. For in such a hypothetical, the Teacher of the Church would be a material heretic, thereby undermining the ability and the authority of the Church to teach sinners the path of salvation. That this can never happen is attested to by Sacred Scripture:

{22:32} But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.”

Jesus has prayed for Peter and each of his successors, so that the personal faith of each Pope will never fail. A Pope can sin, even to a great extent. But he can never commit the sins of apostasy or heresy or schism, nor can he fall into mere material heresy. For the prevenient grace of God prevents it, so that the Pope “may confirm [his] brothers” the Cardinals and Bishops.

The indefectibility of the Church requires that the Pope be prevented by God from teaching heresy and from falling into material or formal heresy, even privately, in his heart and mind. In fact, the extent of errors that are possible in non-infallible papal teachings is far short of heretical error. Even a moderate error of doctrine cannot occur even in his non-infallible teachings, because the Holy Spirit teaches through the Magisterium.

I caution you all. The great apostasy is about to begin. Be very careful not to stray from the fullness of faith found in the one true Church, led by the successor of Peter and the body of Bishops who remain in communion with him.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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