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.
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