Pope Francis and the Indefectibility of the Church

The Church is indefectible. This truth is a dogma taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium; it is an infallible teaching. But if any valid Pope could fall into heresy, then the Church would not be indefectible. It is a severe contradiction to believe in the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church, while supposing that a valid Pope could at any time believe or teach heresy. For the Pope is the Rock on which the Church is founded. If the Rock fails, then the House that is built upon that Rock would fail. Since the House cannot fail, neither can Her Rock.

First Vatican Council: “This charism of truth and of a faith that never fails was, therefore, conferred by God on Peter and his successors in this chair; so that they may administer their high office for the salvation of all….”

The Council taught that each Roman Pontiff possesses, as a divinely-conferred gift, “a faith that never fails” along with the charism of truth. The charism of truth is the ability to teach infallibly by his own authority, or with the body of Bishops; it is also the gift to never fail to accept and adhere to the essential truths of a divine and catholic faith. Therefore, it is impossible for any Pope to fall into apostasy, heresy, or schism.

No Pope can ever teach heresy, because then we could say that his faith had failed or that the charism of truth had lapsed. The gift of a faith that never fails is given to each Pope for the sake of the salvation of all. But teaching heresy gravely harms the salvation of all. Moreover, this gift to each Pope is called the “charism of truth” by the Council. So it could not be more clear that a “faith that never fails” must include both freedom from committing the sins of apostasy, heresy, and schism as well as protection from teaching any 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 teach heresy. And given the above-discussed teaching of the First Vatican Council, this “probable” position is now the teaching of the Magisterium.

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 is able fall into heresy, yet he cannot teach heresy. Rather, the fourth position is asserted without answering the question as to whether or not the Pope can personally 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.

Those who oppose Pope Francis have a tendency to adhere to the false opinion that a Pope can possibly teach heresy or can possibly fall into heresy. In their harsh criticism of the Pope, they seem to assume that a Pope can commit formal heresy personally or that he can teach material heresy. They express no confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit to protect a Pope from falling into heresy. They assume that if a Pope commits heresy, he would thereby cease to be truly the Pope. Some also think that a validly elected Pope might become invalid by going astray in doctrine or discipline. For them, the Rock on which the Church is founded is not the Roman Pontiff, but conservatism or traditionalism or their own understanding. It is as if Pope is only the Rock, and is literally only the Pope, if he conforms to their will and whims.

But in truth, no Pope can ever teach heresy, and no Pope can ever fall into heresy at all. The prevenient grace of God absolutely prevents the Pope from adhering to any heretical idea and from teaching any heresy, for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church and the surety of the path of our salvation. The promise of Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 16:17-19; Lk 22:32) guarantees both the public teaching and the personal faith of the Pope.

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

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8 Responses to Pope Francis and the Indefectibility of the Church

  1. decker2003 says:

    Are you aware of any other theologians who conclude that the First Vatican Council raised Bellarmine’s 3rd option the level of a teaching of the Church’s Magisterium? I have not come across any one else who interprets the First Vatican Council in that manner

  2. Fr Joseph says:

    Ron, with regards to this topic and to the previous post, it was called to my mind a certain Fr. Malachi Martin who according to him was given permission to read the Third Secret of Fatima in 1960. Several Catholics quote him or find evidence through some comments that he made of there being in the future some sort of corrupt teaching from the summit of the Church and from that people are deducing that from a pope would come about the big Apostasy before the Antichrist. Can you shed some light on who this priest was, did he actually insinuate that and if he is credible? Perhaps through this Fr. Malachi and other sources as well, there is this idea I sometimes hear of people saying that the so-called ‘unrevealed’ part of the secret of Fatima is that Our Lady predicted a schism or the council itself and that it in turn has promulgated the ‘smoke of Satan'(using Paul VI phrase) into the Church, and naturally of course, popes and cardinals have not wanted to reveal it because the secret refers to themselves and some sort of error that they commit. It becomes logical why a bunch of traditionalist/conservatives could think along all of these terms if they in fact believe this was true because it discredits their authority. i think there is a lot more controversy to all of this and maybe you are more abreast as to what is true and what is mere hearsay and that’s why I inquire.

    • Ron Conte says:

      My understanding, from my study of eschatology, is that the tribulation is divided into two parts. In each part, there is a false Church, set up to oppose the true Church. But in each case, the head of that false Church is over a separate Church from the institutional true Church. In the first part of the tribulation, the schismatics (liberals, I think) hold an invalid election, and elect an antipope. But he is over those Catholics who had already departed from the true Church (under the very next Pope after Francis, I think). At the same time, there is a true Pope over the true Church.

      Then, during the second part of the tribulation (the greater tribulation), the Antichrist sets up a false Church, which takes elements from Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, so as to have a formal religion to worship him as god. But at the same time, the true Church exists, with its dioceses and Bishops etc. So no antipope or evil pope or false prophet ever reigns over the true Church, not even the institutional true Church (as if the only true Church would be a hidden remnant opposed to the Pope and the Bishops).

      False private revelations often claim the contrary, that an evil pope, antipope, false prophet, or the Antichrist takes over the true Church. But that claim is contrary to the indefectibility of the Church.

      I don’t know which priest that is, concerning the secret of Fatima. I think that the whole secret was disclosed, and that there was some confusion, such that persons who read a secret from a different private revelation confused it with the Fatima one. In any case, it certainly is true that, in some periods of time, the Cardinals and Bishops are particularly sinful and weak in faith, and that sometimes we have a true Pope with various serious faults. This will be worse whenever the faithful themselves are filled with grave sins and are weak in faith. For the leaders come from the people.

  3. Mark P. says:

    The term “great apostasy” seems to imply that large numbers of Catholics will leave the Church within a relatively short amount of time. But who exactly are these Catholics? Will they be merely baptized Catholics, or those who fully participate in the faith? Also, “great” seems to insinuate that this apostasy will occur at the point of the largest number of available Catholics in the history of the Church, perhaps at the point of “peak Church” for lack of a better term. But based on numbers like Mass attendance, marriages, and the amount of Catholics who support issues contrary to the faith, it would appear that we are already in the midst of an apostasy. So I guess the question is, is this the “great” one? Because if it is not, then the implication is that there will be a resurgence of faithful Catholics which will build into the population of faithful who will eventually apostasy. So right now are we in a state of apostasy, or resurgence? In some ways it seems like we are in both at the moment.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think the great apostasy of the first part of the tribulation is imminent. It will consist of most Catholics leaving the Church. Many conservatives will depart, soon, under Pope Francis. And many more liberals will depart under the next Pope.

  4. Mark P. says:

    Won’t the point of the tribulation then to bring these people back into the Church? Otherwise the faith seems to be reduced to a “battle of wits” to see who can “stick it out” during certain papacies.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Yes, I think the tribulation eventually brings the faithful back, but not at the outset. It’s faith, not wits. That is one of the errors of conservatism, the demand that all teachings accord with one’s own understanding.

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