Can A Pope Go To Hell?

Certainly a Cardinal, Bishop, priest, deacons, monk, nun, or any layperson can possibly die unrepentant from actual mortal sin and suffer eternal punishment in Hell. It is the teaching of the Church that not all Christians will reach eternal life [Denz. 717b]. But is it possible for a valid Pope, as the head of the Church, to die unrepentant from actual mortal sin and be condemned to Hell?

Many commentators are quick to answer: “Yes, it is possible.” But I wonder whether the indefectibility of the Church, which implies the indefectibility of the Pope, might also preserve him, not from mortal sin itself, but from dying unrepentant from actual mortal sin.

Some Popes are certainly Saints, who go directly to Heaven when they die. Then there are undoubtedly some non-Saint Popes, who spend some time in Purgatory before going to eternal life in Heaven. We can even assert that some few Popes, in the distant past, were guilty of grave sins, which became publicly known. But it is not so clear whether any Popes were so sinful that they did not repent from actual mortal sin through the last moment of life.

The point of this article, though, is not to accuse or exonerate any particular Pope, but to consider the sheer possibilities.

I suppose it is possible that God has decided to preserve each and every valid Pope, by providence and grace, from failure to repent from actual mortal sin, so that each and every Pope reaches Heaven. God might make this decision because the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and the Head of the Church on earth. Just as it was fitting for God to give special graces to the Blessed Virgin Mary, due to her role as the Mother of God, it may perhaps be fitting for God at least to preserve every Pope from eternal hellfire, even if some of them have sinned much and will require a long stay in Purgatory.

On the other hand, we know that Peter the Apostle (before he became Pope) committed the grave sin of betraying Christ three times. He did repent and serve the Lord in holiness. But this event establishes the principle that the Pope can sin gravely. And we know of some Popes during the Middle Ages who committed grave sins (though we cannot be certain, at this point in time, if any Pope is guilty of all sins of which he has been accused). It seems clear, then, that God permits some Popes to commit actual mortal sin. So perhaps God also permits such a Pope to refuse to repent through the last moment of life, thereby committing the sin of final impenitence, which alone deserves eternal punishment. Cardinals and Bishops can commit grave sins and end up in Hell. As long as the Pope is prevented from teaching heresy, and from committing the particular sins of apostasy, heresy, and schism, the indefectibility of the Church is not harmed if the Pope sins personally and does not repent.

I am currently undecided on this question. I wrote this post to present the possibilities to the reader, and to reply to those persons who make the baseless assumption that some Popes may suffer eternal punishment. We should not be so certain on this point, because the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, with a special role pertaining to the Ark of Salvation. Perhaps, then, God does not permit any Pope to die without the state of grace.

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

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2 Responses to Can A Pope Go To Hell?

  1. Francisco says:

    According to this Wikipedia article:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_canonised_popes

    Out of a total of 266 Popes in the history of the Church, there have been 81 canonized Saints (the first canonized saint being 1.Pope Adeodatus I, the 68th Pope in the list), 10 Blesseds, 1 Venerables and 3 Servants of God.

    Now, from this other list, we can see that the total # of non-canonized saints are 56 (Counting from St. Peter until the 67th Pope in the list)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_popes

    The first 35 Popes in a row are Saints! Pope Liberious (#36) was the first Pope not to be recognized as a “Saint”.

    The total count give us with 137 Pope Saints, 10 Blessed, 1 Venerable and 3 Servants of Gods for a total of 151 “holy” Popes out of 266 Popes. This give us a remain of 115 Popes who do not have any sanctity title. I’m sure that out of those 115, the majority can be considered “good will” Popes and only a few can be considered “sinful” Popes.

    Now, out of those “sinful” Popes, we have to consider if their grave sins, even if they were mortal, they might have been only objective mortal sins, but not “actual” mortal sins which is the state that sends a person to eternal hellfire. They might have thought that their acts were permissible (when in fact, they were not). This is what happened to Saul who thought that persecuting Christians, and even stoning them to death (as when he approved the death of St. Stephen), was according to the Mosaic law. But it was only by a Divine Revelation from God (Acts 9:4) that he realized that what he was doing was wrong.

    Let’s consider Jesus’ prayer for Peter, and thus, the Papacy:

    {22:31} And the Lord said: “Simon, Simon! Behold, Satan has asked for you, so that he may sift you like wheat.
    {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.”

    Satan wants any Pope to join him in Hell, but Jesus has especially prayed for Peter so he may not go to join Satan in Hell.

    Some may argue that this is for when the Papacy only, once the Pope resigns this prayer ceases its effect, but this would be like saying that Jesus love for this person is only if he stays in one position only, but we have to consider is that when Pope resigns, he might be also be doing the will of God, and therefore, God’s graces are still effective on that person. For example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is still a holy person (I believe he will one day be declared at least a Blessed). He resigned because it was the will of God, his particular papacy reached to an end even though he is still alive and Jesus prayer for him, as a person (not for his “assignment time” or title), is still in effect.

  2. Francisco says:

    Correction:

    Just wanted to correct my previous post. The Wikipedia list of Popes recognized as “Saint” does include the canonized and non-canonized Saints. So the total of Pope Saints is: 81 (not 137), math needs to be revised. Other than that, the rest remains as-is.

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