Can We Correct an Erring Pope?

Saint Paul the Apostle corrected Saint Peter the Apostle and first Pope. Can we not follow Paul’s example? Well, let’s consider the specifics of that example:

[Galatians]
{2:9} And so, when they had acknowledged the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who seemed like pillars, gave to me and to Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we would go to the Gentiles, while they went to the circumcised,
{2:10} asking only that we should be mindful of the poor, which was the very thing that I also was solicitous to do.
{2:11} But when Cephas had arrived at Antioch, I stood against him to his face, because he was blameworthy.
{2:12} For before certain ones arrived from James, he ate with the Gentiles. But when they had arrived, he drew apart and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.
{2:13} And the other Jews consented to his pretense, so that even Barnabas was led by them into that falseness.
{2:14} But when I had seen that they were not walking correctly, by the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone: “If you, while you are a Jew, are living like the Gentiles and not the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to keep the customs of the Jews?”

First, by calling Peter “Cephas”, Saint Paul acknowledges that Saint Peter is the Rock on which the Church was founded by Jesus Christ. The name Peter and the name Cephas refer to the same person, the first Pope. Peter is Latin for “Rock”, and Cephas has the same meaning in Greek.

In my interpretation of this passage from Scripture, James and John figuratively represent the body of Bishops, and Cephas represents each and every Pope. So the first principle of correcting an erring Pope is to put our faith in the indefectibility of the Church, which is based on the indefectibility of each Pope and of the body of Bishops.

Peter, James, and John also figuratively represent Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Only someone who is faithful to the three pillars of truth in the Catholic faith — Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium — can possibly correct an erring Pope. But in order to be faithful to those teachings, one must learn those teachings. Far too often, the persons loudly complaining about Pope Francis (or another Pope) have not studied the Faith in sufficient breadth and depth to know if anyone has erred on faith or morals.

Also, when I say that one must be faithful to Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium to correct the Pope, I’m excluding those persons who speak as if their own understanding of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium could not err. They do not even distinguish between the teaching of the Faith and their own understanding. It is as if the Sacred Deposit of Faith were nothing other than their own thoughts. If you can’t examine your own ideas, and acknowledge that you might have misunderstood something, then you lack in important qualification for correcting anyone: humility.

It is an article of Faith, implied by the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church, that the Pope can never commit the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism, nor can he ever teach heresy. The prevenient grace of God and the promise of Jesus that the Church will remain indefectible absolutely prevent the Pope from going astray, or teaching grave error. For each valid Pope is the Rock on which the Church is founded. And no valid Pope can ever become invalid, for the same reasons.

This very same principle of indefectibility also prevents the body of Bishops throughout the world from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism, as a body, and from teaching heresy as a body (not individually). And no invalid Pope can ever be accepted as if he were valid by the body of Bishops. For the Church is the Body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Neither the head of the Church on earth, the Pope, or the body of Bishops can go astray. All such claims are contrary to the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church.

So when individuals and groups claim that it is their right and duty to “correct an erring Pope”, and then they accuse the Pope of apostasy, heresy, or schism, or of teaching heresy, or of becoming invalid for some reason, they are the ones who have erred. For they are speaking contrary to the teaching of Sacred Scripture on the indefectibility of the Church and contrary to the example of Saint Paul who corrected Saint Peter, without denying his validity and his role as leaders of the Church.

Second, Paul corrected Peter for what is essentially a personal error. The Pope can err in his own actions, for he is a fallen sinner. The Pope can err in his personal opinions, which are not an act of the Magisterium. And so he is subject to possible correction, when he errs in any of these ways, personally.

But Peter’s error, eating only with Christians who were Jewish and not also with Christians who were Gentiles, is a figure for errors in discipline. Some say that an error in discipline is tantamount to an error in doctrine, and therefore gravely erroneous discipline can imply heresy. But if that were true, then the error of Peter would be heretical, and our Faith would be in vain.

For if Peter, the first Pope, the leader of the Apostles, was a heretic, then the entire subsequent progression of Popes (and the Councils they led) would be invalid. No subsequent Pope is greater than Peter; each has his authority from Peter, as Peter’s successor. So we must either conclude that Christ’s promise of the indefectibility of the Church was broken not long after the Ascension, when Peter committed this error, OR we must conclude that a grave error on discipline is never tantamount to an heretical error on doctrine.

Jesus promised us indefectibility, and Peter erred gravely on discipline, so errors on discipline cannot imply heresy.

Peter erred gravely in discipline, and yet he never taught heresy, nor did he ever commit the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism. Paul corrected Peter on a matter of discipline. But Paul NEVER accused Peter of heresy, nor did he ever refuse to acknowledge Peter’s role as the valid head of the Church on earth, the Rock on which the Church is founded, and the Pillar of the Magisterium. All internet claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Third, the infallible teachings of the Papal Magisterium can never err. The grace of God absolutely prevents such an error. For the infallible teachings of the Magisterium are the teachings of the Holy Spirit. The non-infallible Papal Magisterium can err, but never to the extent of teaching heresy, nor of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation.

Saint Robert Bellarmine believed that a Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy”. Papal detractors often claim that Bellarmine thought a Pope could be a heretic, but that is essentially the opposite of what he actually said.

Thus, the extent of error possible in any valid Pope are limited to personal sins, personal opinions, errors on discipline, and limited errors in non-infallible teachings. Since the extent of possible error is limited, so too is the extent of possible correction. No correction of the Pope is reasonable and faithful beyond the extent of possible error.

Fourth, Peter was qualified to judge whether a word or deed of Peter the Pope might possibly be an error. Paul was an Apostle called by Jesus Christ, an author of numerous Epistles in Sacred Scripture, and a scholar (formerly among Jews, and subsequently among Christians). Paul understood the teaching of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture on the point in question.

The vast majority of Catholics who are loudly complaining about Pope Francis are NOT qualified to judge any of the theological questions at issue. They have not studied theology at all. They have no expertise in the subject area at issue. They have not written any works of theology. They cannot write a coherent explanation of the basic teaching of the Church on any theological question. How do I know this? I read their blog posts, online articles, discussion group posts, and online commentary. I argue with some of these persons online. They have a very poor understanding of the basic teachings of the Church. They have badly misunderstood many doctrines. They give distorted explanations of many passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

And while they think to correct everyone who disagrees with them, even the Pope, they themselves never accept correction or instruction from anyone. Their own thoughts are like a god to them. They worship their own misunderstanding, and they refuse to spend the time needed to obtain true knowledge of Church teaching. Each individual wants to be guided only by his own mind and heart. Each individual speaks as if he were superior to the Pope, the Councils, and the Magisterium as a whole. Inwardly, they adore only themselves. And truth is trampled to the ground.

And if the Pope — as a counter-factual hypothetical — could err to any extent whatsoever, these arrogant and ignorant online commentators would not be qualified to decide if he had erred. They did not bother to learn the holy Catholic Faith before they went on the internet to publicly attack the Pope. They speak as if they cannot err in their own understanding, and as if any word or deed by the Pope, contrary to their own thinking must be heretical. They exalt themselves above the Pope and the Magisterium, even though they have not studied theology and couldn’t write a coherent theological argument on any topic if their lives depended on it.

Fifth, if you yourself NEVER accept correction from Popes and Councils, then you are NOT qualified to correct a Pope or Council. And that is the case with many of these papal complainers. Any decision on discipline or doctrine by any Pope or Council, contrary to their own mind and heart, is ignored, radically reinterpreted, or rejected by them.

Summary

A valid Pope can never become invalid. An invalid Pope can never be accepted as if he were valid by the body of Bishops. A valid Pope can never commit apostasy, heresy, or schism. A valid Pope can never teach heresy, nor lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.

The infallible teachings of the Pope can never err, to any extent. The non-infallible teachings of the Pope can only err to a limited extent. Decisions and errors by the Pope on discipline are never tantamount to heresy. The extent of possible correction is limited to the extent of possible error.

Unless you are a faithful son or daughter of the Church, who has extensively studied and written in the relevant field of theology, you are not qualified to decide if a Pope has erred in doctrine or discipline. You are not qualified.

They quote Sacred Scripture: “It is necessary to obey God, more so than men.” (Acts 5:29). But I say that the teachings of the Magisterium, including the teachings of Popes and Councils, are the teachings of God. So when these foolish persons cry out against the Pope, they are the ones obeying men instead of God. For they disobey the teachings of the Son of God through His Church. And they obey their own ideas and the ideas of their peers.

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

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