Can a Pope teach Material Heresy?


Material heresy is an idea that is contrary to an infallible teaching of the Magisterium, i.e. a teaching which requires the full assent of faith. Formal heresy is the sin of believing or teaching material heresy, knowing that it is contrary to an infallible teaching of the Magisterium. So formal heresy always includes material heresy. See my post: Material versus Formal Heresy.

A mistaken opinion, on a question which has not been answered definitively by the Magisterium, is never any kind of heresy. A disagreement with a non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium, even if taught by a Pope or a Council, is never any kind of heresy. Only when a teaching is infallible under Papal Infallibility, or Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium can the contrary be properly called material heresy.

Can a Pope commit formal heresy?

No, he cannot. The prevenient grace of God prevents it. For everyone who commits formal heresy thereby separates himself from the Church. But the Pope is the head of the Church. If a Pope were to commit formal heresy, the head of the Church would be lost. And such a scenario is not permitted by God because Jesus promised to keep His Church indefectible. The Church cannot go astray, and therefore Her head cannot go astray. No Pope can commit formal heresy.

{16:16} Simon Peter responded by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
{16:17} And in response, Jesus said to him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven.
{16:18} 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.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

Christ also said, not only about Peter, but about all his successors, that their faith will not fail.

{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.”

Do you think that Jesus only prayed for Peter and not for every Pope? Or do you think that Jesus only confirmed the faith of one Vicar of Christ, and not all the rest? The faith of the Pope cannot fail, due to the promise of Christ and the grace of God. And the purpose is so that he can confirm and lead them his brother Bishops, and confirm and lead the whole Church on the path of salvation.

Can a Pope teach material heresy?

No, he cannot. The prevenient grace of God prevents it, for the same reasons stated above. For if a Pope were to teach material heresy, the Church and the path of salvation of Her members would be gravely harmed. The Magisterium infallibly teaches that the Church is indefectible; She can never go astray, nor lead anyone astray. So if the Pope, the head of the Church, were to teach material heresy, the Church would not be indefectible, since he is the Supreme Teacher of the Universal Church.

Doctor of the Church, Saint Robert Bellarmine believed that the Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy”. In other words, no Pope can commit formal heresy (“be heretical”), nor can any Pope teach material heresy. See my post: What Saint Bellarmine really said about Popes and Heresy.

Moreover, the First Vatican Council infallibly taught that each Pope has the gift of truth and a faith that cannot fail.

“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.”

The gift of a faith that cannot fail prevents the Pope from falling into apostasy, heresy, or schism, and the gift of truth prevents him from ever teaching material heresy. To accuse any Pope of teaching material heresy is to accuse Jesus of failing to keep his promise that the Church will always be indefectible and that the faith of the Pope will never fail.

Heresy and Schism

If you publicly accuse the Pope of teaching material heresy, are you guilty of the sin of formal schism? Yes. For a member of the Church cannot truly be subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff and remain in communion with him while accusing him of teaching heresy.

All heresy is gravely contrary to the definitive teaching of Christ through His Church on some important matter of faith, morals, or salvation. Teaching material heresy does grave harm to souls. If a Pope were to teach material heresy, the harm done to millions of souls would be immense — therefore, the accusation itself is equally immense. You cannot accuse any Pope of teaching material heresy, even if you opine that he is doing so unknowingly so that he avoids formal heresy, without separating yourself from the Church of which he is the Supreme Teacher and Supreme Judge and Supreme Shepherd. By the very act of accusing any Pope of teaching heresy, you choose to separate yourself from communion with him, from subjection to him, and from communion with the Church led by him.

“It arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” — Fifth Lateran Council

The Accusers of the Pope

Suppose that a Catholic publicly accuses the Pope, any Pope, of teaching material heresy. Unfortunately, that person has thereby committed the sin of formal schism, and is automatically excommunicated. They are not permitted to receive holy Communion, until and unless they repent and confess.

As I explained above, there is no possibility that the accuser is right and the Pope is wrong. A Pope can err in his personal opinions, and even to a limited extent in his non-infallible teachings. But such errors do not justify an accusation of teaching heresy.

What causes someone to make such a false accusation against the Pope? Ignorance and arrogance. The accuser has badly misunderstood Catholic doctrine, and yet has arrogantly made himself judge over the Pope.

The Church is in a dire state today. Most of the faithful are poorly catechized. Many false teachers have risen up to mislead the faithful. Grave errors on doctrine are commonly asserted by Catholics who discuss the faith in online discussion groups and who write Catholic blogs and articles. Even many Catholic teachers are guilty of teaching grave errors on faith and morals.

In some cases, the accuser himself is guilty of adhering to material heresy. To a heretic, a faithful Pope seems like a teacher of heresy. For he teaches ideas contrary to the heretic’s understanding of the faith. The heretic sees a speck in the eye of the Pope, some erroneous mere opinion, and he does not see the plank in his own eye of his own heretical beliefs and grave misunderstandings of doctrine.

The Pope’s accusers are certain that the Pope has taught heresy, and even more certain that they themselves cannot possibly have gone astray. The accuser always assumes himself to be without possibility of error. The teaching of the Pope does not accord with the version of Catholicism in the accuser’s mind, so he assumes that the Pope must have erred. The assumption is that the accuser himself cannot err is arrogant in the extreme.

In some cases, the accuser is simply ignorant of Catholic doctrine. The accuser adheres to a greatly oversimplified version of Catholicism, which lacks many teachings and theological distinctions. Most of the accusers of Pope Francis today have no theological qualifications. They have not studied or written theology in any substantial way. They have not read the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils. They have not studied magisterial documents. They are not qualified to teach an introductory course in Catholicism.

But, amazingly, they think themselves qualified to judge and condemn the teachings of the Pope. The arrogance of considering one’s self fit to publicly accuse the Pope of teaching heresy, while lacking any kind of theological study or training is astounding. Not only do such persons commit formal schism by such an accusation, but they also commit a grave sin of pride, by speaking as if they understand the Catholic faith better than the Pope.

In my book, In Defense of Pope Francis, I explain the theological reasons, based on Scripture and Church teaching, why no Pope can ever commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, nor ever teach heresy. This post contains only a brief summary. But of course, the accusers of the Pope don’t bother reading theology, nor do they write theology themselves. Their arrogance in accusing the Vicar of Christ of teaching heresy is exceeded only by their ignorance of the teachings of Christ through His Church.

Every Pope, including Pope Francis, is:
* Our Holy Father
* Supreme Head of the whole Church
* Father and Teacher of all Christians
* Supreme Pontiff
* True Vicar of Christ
* Supreme and Universal Pastor
* Ruler of Christ’s whole fold
* Supreme Judge of the faithful
* Successor to Saint Peter
* Supreme Teacher of the Universal Church
* Rock on which the Church is founded
* Pilot and Helmsman of the Ark of Salvation

And no one can be all of those things and also teach material heresy or commit formal heresy.

Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, and Theologians

The accusers of Pope Francis often point to certain few Cardinals and some bishops, priests, and theologians who have publicly criticized the Pope and asked him to clarify his teaching. These accusers propose that these Cardinals and others are so holy, faithful, and scholarly that their judgment should be trusted above that of the Pope. Well, that proposal is contradicted by the words and example of Christ.

Jesus founded the Church on Peter and his successors, not on any set of Cardinals, Bishops, priests, and theologians. Peter cannot go astray. But recall that Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, did go astray. So while a Pope can never teach material heresy, not fall into the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism, these other persons can, no matter how holy or faithful or eminent they may seem.

When the Church was shaken by the Arian heresy, it is said that 300 Bishops went astray. When the great schism of 1054 occurred, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and very many Cardinals and Bishops in the East departed from communion with the Pope and the Catholic Church. So it is foolish to claim that an accusation of teaching heresy against any Pope is justified because some Cardinals, bishops, priests, and theologians have criticized the Pope themselves.

Oh, and one more thing needs to be said, which applies as much to the Pope as to anyone else: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

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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5 Responses to Can a Pope teach Material Heresy?

  1. Dan says:

    Dan says: One of the reasons why about 220 Council Fathers at Council Vatican 1 in 1870 refused to vote in favor of Papal Infallibility is that ALL Popes would have to be recognized as having been infallible.

    Ron replies: False. Papal infallibility does not imply that the Pope is infallible in all his teachings. It is very narrow in scope. But, yes, all Popes have had the ability to teach infallibly. Also, the teaching of Vatican I on the topic is infallible. It doesn’t matter if a minority of Council Fathers disagreed.

    Dan: In reality, this would mean that not even one Pope could have ever contradicted any of his Papal predecessors down through a time period of over 1,900 years!

    Ron: False. Most papal teachings are non-infallible. Also, decisions on discipline and personal theological opinions can err.

    Dan: Pope Adrian VI infallibly taught that some previous Popes before him had been heretics!

    Ron: that assertion by Pope Adrian does not meet the conditions for infallibility. And it is not a teaching, merely an opinion about some past Popes. Adrian VI erred in that opinion.

    Dan: The Sixth Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church formally excommunicated Pope Honorius I: Did this Ecumenical council err? Pope Adrian II also confirmed and sanctioned the minutes of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third Council of Constantinople
    The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicæa , 787 A.D., ], also condemned Pope Honorius I as a heretic.

    Ron: Yes, the Council erred. Like Popes, Councils are only infallible when teaching, not in matters of discipline, and then only if their teaching meets certain conditions.

    Dan: Sacred Tradition and Conciliar history creates difficulties for Cardinal Bellarmines’s position.

    Ron: No, they don’t. You have simply misunderstood infallibility. Bellarmine is a Saint and Doctor of the Church. His understanding is better than yours.

    Dan Falcone

  2. Joshua says:

    Mr. Conte, I need your help. Some people claim that Pope Francis has admitted that he could potentially teach heresy. They point to this YouTube video:

    And here is the text from the video:

    “Together today, I here in Rome and you over there, we will ask our Father to send the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and to give us the grace to be one, “so that the world may believe”. I feel like saying something that may sound controversial, or even heretical, perhaps. But there is someone who “knows” that, despite our differences, we are one. It is he who is persecuting us. It is he who is persecuting Christians today, he who is anointing us with (the blood of) martyrdom. He knows that Christians are disciples of Christ: that they are one, that they are brothers! He doesn’t care if they are Evangelicals, or Orthodox, Lutherans, Catholics or Apostolic…he doesn’t care! They are Christians. And that blood (of martyrdom) unites. Today, dear brothers and sisters, we are living an “ecumenism of blood”. This must encourage us to do what we are doing today: to pray, to dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds of brotherhood.”

    How would you respond to this? Thank you in advance.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It “may sound … heretical” to some people. And he’s right. Every time the Church has an Ecumenical Council and defines a new doctrine, some people claim it is heretical. For example, Vatican I, which defined Papal Infallibility, was seen as heresy by some persons and they left the Church. And some persons still claim that Vatican II taught heresy.

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    I could see maybe thinking a Pope should clarify the wording of some teaching, but not that the teaching itself is in error.

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