On Judging and Condemning the Supreme Pontiff

Who is qualified to judge the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff of the Church on earth — ANY Supreme Pontiff at all?

It is scandalous and gravely immoral for Catholics to judge and condemn Pope Francis — or any other Pope. To do so, whether in a private conversation with one other person or secretly in one’s own heart and mind, is sinful, and could perhaps be of grave moral weight. To do so publicly, repeatedly, based merely on extemporaneous remarks of personal papal opinion, is certainly a grave sin. The sin is grave because the Church is harmed and the salvation of souls is impeded by this type of scandalous attack on the Supreme Teacher of the Faith.

Hypocrites! These same papal accusers regularly offer controversial opinions on every topic under the sun. But if the holy Roman Pontiff offers his own opinions, they grind their teeth and murmur against him. They quickly utter vicious calumny against the Vicar of Christ, because he dared to speak his mind freely, just as they do.

The love of God and neighbor — without which no one goes to Heaven — requires us to treat the words and deeds of our neighbors with forbearance and charity. We cannot jump to an accusatory conclusion, nor exaggerate our neighbors apparent error, without sinning against God and neighbor.

And the charitable treatment of our neighbor applies to everyone. Every human person. Even politicians! Even known criminals! Even liberal Popes! Are you kidding me!?! Does Jesus really expect us to be charitable and loving toward even liberal Popes?!? Wow, that Guy is a radical!

And IF it were ever the case, I said IF, that the Pope erred in some way in a personal opinion or an extemporaneous remark, no one on earth has the authority to judge and condemn him. We can discuss his remarks and opinions, CHARITABLY. We can disagree, faithfully, reasonably, and RESPECTFULLY. But NO ONE on earth has the authority to judge the Pope, nor to condemn him.

Moreover, BEFORE anyone disagrees with the Pope, even with his off-the-cuff remarks or personal opinions, they are morally obligated to consider his remarks charitably — before speaking publicly — to see if they themselves might have erred or misunderstood. The Vicar of Christ has the AUTHORITY to teach and correct EVERYONE. If you choose to take up the attitude that the Pope is incapable of teaching or correcting you, because he is liberal or because you have such a high opinion of yourself or for some other reason, then you sin against Christ by that choice. Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ, and when Catholics refuse to treat him as the Supreme Teacher and Shepherd of the Church of Christ, they sin against Christ himself.

When Pope Francis makes “shocking” extemporaneous remarks, learn from him. And I don’t mean learn from his mistakes, as if from a cautionary tale. Pope Francis has good insights into the Faith, and his supposedly harmful remarks always seem to me to express (perhaps imperfectly, perhaps awkwardly) good insights into certain aspects of the Faith.

The Magisterium

The Magisterium has a definitive teaching on who may judge the Pope. Pope Boniface VIII taught on this subject in the Constitution Unam Sanctam (which was renewed and approved by the Fifth Lateran Council).

7. Therefore, if the earthly power goes astray, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a lesser spiritual power goes astray, [it will be judged] by its superior; and truly, if the highest [power] goes astray, it will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone. And so the Apostle testifies, “The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.” [1 Corinthians 2:15]

If secular society or culture or government goes astray, the Church has the authority and ability from God to judge — and to condemn or to exonerate in each case. If a lower spiritual authority in the Church goes astray, or is at least accused, a superior power in the Church will judge, as when the pastor of a parish judges a dispute among parishioners, or when a Bishops judges a dispute about a priest.

However, if the highest power in the Church on earth, the Supreme Pontiff, is accused of going astray, he “will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone.” So the Pope is not able to be judged by a Cardinal or Bishop, nor by all the Cardinals or all the Bishops gathered together, nor by any lesser religious or secular authority, such as a popular priest or speaker or author.

Now as my readers know, I teach and believe unequivocally that no Pope can ever go astray by teaching heresy, nor by committing apostasy, heresy, or schism. But a Pope can go astray, to a limited extent, in other ways. A Pope can err in an extemporaneous remark, or in a personal opinion, even a published theological opinion. He can err in a decision on discipline. He can even err — only to a limited extent — in a non-infallible teaching of the ordinary Papal Magisterium.

Proof that a Pope can err is found in Sacred Scripture. Saint Paul rebuked Saint Peter, the first Pope, for an error in his behavior (eating only with Christians who were former Jews), as described in Galatians 2. And proof that the possibility of papal error is limited is found in the Gospels: “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.” (Mt 16:18).

8. But this authority, even though it may be given to a man, and may be exercised by a man, is not human, but rather divine [power], having been given by the divine mouth [of Christ] to Peter, and to him as well as to his successors, by [Christ] Himself, [that is, to him] whom He had disclosed to be the firm rock, just as the Lord said to Peter himself: “Whatever you shall bind,” [Matthew 16:19] etc. Therefore, whoever resists this authority, such as it has been ordain by God, resists the ordination of God. [Romans 13:2]

Whosoever resists the authority of Peter and his successors, resists what has been ordained by God. You can faithfully disagree with any Roman Pontiff, to a limited extent, charitably, if you have a well-considered reason. But the way that many Catholic commentators treat Pope Francis is far beyond such limits and is in no way charitable or reasonable or well-considered. They have no respect for his authority as Teacher and Shepherd of the Church. If he says anything contrary to their own thoughts, they immediately assume that the Rock on which the Church was founded by Christ has shattered and been crushed into dust. For it seems impossible to them that they themselves may have misunderstood, or may be in need of teaching or correction. Inwardly, they worship only themselves.

9. Moreover, that every human creature is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, we declare, we state, we define, and we pronounce to be entirely from the necessity of salvation.

It is an essential part of God’s plan of salvation that the Church on earth be led by one particular High Priest, who is the representative of Christ himself on earth: the Pope. And so, whoever treats the Pope with contempt, is guilty of a sin against Christ and is guilty of doing harm to the plan, and to the Ark itself, of salvation.

Why are so many Catholics publicly sinfully rebuking the holy Roman Pontiff? Why are so few Catholics speaking out against this sin?

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

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