Bellarmine on Papal Error

Ryan Grant has translated and published a booklet excerpted from Saint Robert Bellarmine’s larger work on the papacy. The title of this brief book is: “Papal Error?: A Defense of Popes said to have Erred in Faith

The book offers a defense of 40 past Popes, accused of errors against the faith. It also argues that no Pope can teach or commit heresy, not even privately, and certainly not as a teaching to be held by the whole Church.

‟It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‛Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith.”

‟It is proved: 1) because it seems to require the sweet disposition of the providence of God. For, the Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: ‛I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,’ that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne. How, I ask, will a heretical Pope confirm the brethren in faith and always preach the true faith?

And then the second way that this probable opinion is proved is by the fact, after the careful examination of cases where Popes are so accused, none is found to be guilty of heresy. I will add that, in the present day, Fr. Iannuzzi has made the same argument, and has found that none of the popularly accused Popes is actually guilty of heresy.

Furthermore, both Bellarmine and Iannuzzi see the passage from Scripture — I have prayed for you, that your faith shall not fail — as indicating the protection of the Pope from any type of heresy, material or formal. And this is exactly what the First Vatican Council taught:

“This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.”

If a Pope could teach heresy, even privately or materially, then he would not have the gift of truth. If a Pope could commit heresy, whether publicly or hidden in his heart and mind, then he would not have a never-failing faith.

This is a matter of faith for us. Jesus’ prayer will not fail. The prevenient grace of God cannot be refused by anyone, Saint or sinner. The providence of God also protects the faith of the Pope. Providence brings the right advisors and the right words to his ears and eyes. Providence makes certain that he has the right experiences to dispose him to continue in faith. And grace prevent the sin of heresy absolutely, since prevenient grace does not require cooperation.

Is this fair to the free will of each Pope? Yes, because he freely accepts his office, and he can freely resign. So free will is not harmed by violence.

The souls in Purgatory cannot sin at all, by the prevenient grace of God. The Virgin Mary in this life could not sin, by the same type of grace, to a most full extent. So it is not unthinkable that the Roman Pontiff would have this gift, so as to keep the Church indefectible, and to prevent the Ark of Salvation from becoming a shipwreck — which is certainly what would happen if the Church and her Head did not have the grace and providence of God.

by
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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49 Responses to Bellarmine on Papal Error

  1. Maurilio Piazza says:

    Rico,

    you asked for my answer to your 2nd question:

    “Is there anywhere in that dogma [rectius: “doctrine”] that indicates that the successors of Peter (currently Pope Francis) can mislead the Church and make the flock eat poisonous food?”

    Again, here’s the text of the doctrine:

    “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. (First Vatican Council)”

    My answer is: “no”.

    Here’s why. The way you worded your question suggests that misleading the Church would consist in precisely making the flock eat poisonous food. I agree. You took the expression “poisonous food” from the text of the Council’s doctrine. The complete expression as found in that text is “the poisonous food of error”, so “error” is the poisonous food the Council is talking about. But just what kind of error? Let me quote the preceding paragraph of the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution:

    “Indeed, their [the Popes’] apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”

    So, as is clear from the context, “error” is correlated to “teaching” and “faith”, so the error in question is doctrinal, as opposed to moral or behavioral.

    The Council, right after quoting Jesus’ words “… that your faith may not fail…”, characterizes the gift divinely conferred on Peter and his successors as “gift of … never-failing faith”. That “never” is absent in Jesus’ wording, so its addition is proper to the Council’s magisterial interpretation of Jesus’ words: whatever “faith” means in this context, the gift makes it “never-failing”, and since its opposite, i.e. a failing faith, is correlated to doctrinal error, and the gift of never-failing faith was diviney conferred precisely “so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from” doctrinal error, there is absolutely no room for a kind of doctrinal error that would make a pope’s faith fail according to the Council’s mind.

    Now, we know that a pope can err to the extent of directly contradicting non-infallible, non-definitive magisterial doctrines; therefore, there is no other kind of error left which the gift of never-failing faith absolutely prevents a pope from incurring but that which directly contradicts either infallible, definitive doctrines (“heresy” in wider sense) or infallible, definitive judgments on dogmatic facts [“By a dogmatic fact, in wider sense, is meant any fact connected with a dogma and on which the application of the dogma to a particular case depends” – Catholic Encyclopedia].

    This is the kind of error and poisonous food the Council is talking about, and absolutely no pope can ever mislead Christ’s flock into that.

  2. Rodney Ford says:

    Defection of the faith is accomplished by public heresy “Ipso facto” without any declaration. From any ecclesiastical office.(Council of Constance) So, even though Vatican I says,”a Pope cannot be judged by anyone.” The Pope(Bergoglio) is judged by his own actions. Once heresy is public, then that person ceases to be a member of the Church. [Pope Innocent III] Therefore he ceases to be Pope.

    • Rico says:

      How do we distinguish between these two judgments?
      1. A pope being judged by his own actions.
      2. A pope being judged by a person, for example, SSPX Bishop Fellay or you.
      Is there an objective and rational way of distinguishing the two? In my eyes, they look the same.

    • Ron Conte says:

      There is no such thing as a Pope being judged by his own actions. That is just a euphemism for people judging the words and deeds of the Pope.

    • Rodney Ford says:

      This is a de fide Catholic teaching of the Church. According to St. Robert Bellarmine all the Fathers taught this through the ordinary Magisterium.

    • Rico says:

      Rodney,
      Your conclusion (“therefore, he ceases to be Pope”) is based on two arguments and references:
      1. “Defection of the Faith is accomplished by public heresy ‘ipso facto’ without any declaration from any ecclesiastical office.” (Council of Constance)
      2. “Once heresy is public, then he ceases to be a member of the Church.” (Pope Innocent III)

      But those two arguments are based on one unspoken assumption: That your interpretation of those references are correct. So… is there anything to guarantee me that your understanding of your citations are indeed correct? If so, how do we know this to be the case?

      Ever since those references were recorded, hundreds of theologians have read them throughout the centuries. It would be absurd to think that every single one of them exactly agrees with you. For my part, I have not read them. But suppose I do, and find myself disagreeing with your interpretation. What should we do if we hit an impasse and refuse to accept each other’s interpretation? The only logical recourse is to appeal to a higher authority.

      Fortunately, for us Catholics, Holy Mother Church in her wisdom has taught us who that higher authority is. It is not the Superior General of the schismatic SSPX.

      For if SSPX Bishop Fellay can declare Pope Francis a heretic, based on his interpretation of Church doctrine, then what stops a layman like me from declaring Bishop Fellay schismatic based on my interpretation of Church doctrine? Is there anything in the dogmatic decrees of the Church that should stop me from judging Bishop Fellay?

    • Rodney Ford says:

      For your info.
      Bishop Fellay does not represent my position, or some other SSPX persons. He is compromising us back into Rome, which is the true schism that broke from Catholicism after Vatican II. He wanted our priests to swear an oath accepting Vatican II, the schismatic Novus Or do misse; each member of the SSPX will first have to make the 1988 form of the profession of faith, then, secondly, accept explicitly the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar period, and finally, thirdly, recognize not only the validity, but also the legitimacy of the new mass and sacraments of Vatican II. Thank God the deal fell through! The Novus Ordo rite is a new religion. Not Catholic! I am sorry if I do not agree with your idea of private interpretation, I am not relying on my own personal interpretation, but that of the Church. This does not include the blasphemous teachings of the post-councillor Popes. I apologize again, but “to be silent before error is to be repulsive to God.”

    • Rico says:

      Rodney,
      I did not mention SSPX Bishop Fellay because he represents you, but rather because he has judged Pope Francis to be in heresy (see Correctio Filialis). Likewise, you have done the same by saying “Therefore, he ceases to be Pope.” That is a judgment you have publicly rendered on Pope Francis whom you disrespect by simply calling him Bergoglio as though you and he were on the same level. But in your blindness, you cannot see the fact that you have just judged the Holy Father.

      As Ron has pointed out, the Pope is not judged by his actions. That’s just a silly euphemism employed by his critics to hide the obvious fact that they are judging him.

      And now you say that you are “not relying on personal interpretation, but that of the Church.” Well, in your opinion, you think you’re not. But in my opinion, you are. So whose opinion is right? Both of us cannot be correct at the same time. Who then will be the final judge between us two?

      I think you should answer that question and cite references from Catholic dogma. Otherwise, I suspect you are no longer Catholic but Protestant. Because that is what Protestants do. They know the Pope is the antichrist, and they know exactly what the Bible means.

      They just don’t agree with each other. Just like the SSPX.

    • Rodney Ford says:

      He has, by the way, called himself Fr. Bergoglio What gives you and Ron the authority to say what you do? I have a canon lawyer, Fr. Gregory Hesse and Fr.Paul Leonard Kramer who back up my opinion. Who do you have? A self proclaimed theologian.
      Bergoglio has to be the worst Pope in the Church’s almost 2000 year history. If you like this guy and his goofy ideas of playing at church, then you better check the spiritual condition of your heart or you’ll find yourself stoking the fires of hell with the rest of these scarlet clad prelates who fill Francis’ chambers.

      First it was Amoris Laetitia and it’s allowance of public adulterers. Now full fledged acceptance of homosexual unions! This is not just breaking the 6th commandment of adultery, but sinning against the law of nature.This church, or sect or whatever you want to call it is in full APOSTASY! I cannot speak for all the individual members (God only knows their hearts), but the leadership, with a few exceptions, are total HERETICS!This so called Pope, Father Bergoglio, is a complete liberal maniac, and is in the process of destroying our One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. After Vatican II, Novus Ordo Misse, and Amoris Laetitia we no longer have a Church but a sect, a new religion. Since this article I have sought out an SSPX chapel to practice the traditional faith. Who knows, pretty soon true Catholics will have no place to worship but in their own hearts.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I’m sorry, Rodney Ford, but I can’t allow you to continue posting these harmful claims on my blog. No further posts will be accepted along these lines.

  3. Maurilio Piazza says:

    One final word: we’re talking about faith and heresy-degree doctrinal error, not behavior. Faith is a free act: as St. Augustine says, “nemo credit invitus”, i.e. “no one believes against one’s own free will”; conversely, no one errs in belief against one’s own free will. This accounts for the kind of denial that St. Peter and his successors have not been made exempt from by the gift of never-failing faith, as is evident from the gospels, i.e. a denial of truth not because of a change of one’s own mind, but out of fear, e.g. under threat or duress. Historically, Pope Liberius, after years of exile and out of moral prostration, seems to have materially subscribed to a semi-arian creed, thus incurring that kind of denial, but as soon as he regained his freedom, he immediately championed orthodoxy, just as he had done before. Now, were a pope in our days to incur such a denial, this could possibly result in many being scandalized, yet might in no wise be characterized as a pope misleading the Church.

    • Rico says:

      I guess I agree with much of your assessment. When Peter denied Jesus, it was not on the basis of his knowledge of who Jesus was. Peter knew Jesus was the the Christ, the Son of the living God. Rather, he denied being associated with him when accused by bystanders who recognized him. His knees began to shake at the prospect of dying with his Lord. Perhaps he could not see how the Kingdom of Heaven will be restored if he and the rest of the apostles were to die that night.

      At the same, he did not fully grasp what the Christ came to do. His idea of Christ was not the same as what Jesus had in mind. But Jesus could not correct that defective belief until after the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost.

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