Dr. Ed Peters vs. First Vatican Council

The Magisterium

The First Vatican Council taught the following:

“6. For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter, not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the Revelation or Deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles.

“Indeed, their 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’ [Lk 22:32].

“7. 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. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.”

The First Vatican Council taught that “this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error.” And that each successor of Peter has the “gift of truth and never-failing faith”, which is “divinely conferred”. The purpose is to keep the whole flock of Christ away “from the poisonous food of error”.

Whosoever claims that any valid Pope can possibly commit the sin of heresy, privately or publicly, even hidden in the recesses of his heart and mind, or that he can possibly teach heresy in any way, thereby contradicts the teaching of the First Vatican Council. For the gift of a never-failing faith prevents the Roman Pontiff from committing the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism, privately as well as publicly. And the gift of truth prevents the Roman Pontiff from ever holding or teaching heresy at all, even mere material heresy.

We can debate whether the above teaching is infallible or non-infallible. But at the very least, this teaching supersedes and overrules any contrary theological opinions by Cardinals, Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, canon lawyers, theologians, and all other commentators. No Ecumenical Council has taught the contrary. No Pope or Council has overruled the First Vatican Council, as if it had erred. All things to the contrary notwithstanding.

I don’t care how many seemingly devout and eminent Catholics today loudly opine that a Pope can possibly commit or teach heresy, or what types of explanations or limitations they propose. The First Vatican Council teaches that each Pope has the divinely-conferred gifts of truth and of a faith that cannot fail. Therefore, he cannot hold or teach heresy at all.

A Canon Lawyer

Recently, canon lawyer Ed Peters took to his blog to opine that a Pope can commit heresy and can publicly teach heresy. The only limit, according to Peters, is that the Pope cannot bind the Church to a heresy.

Peters also cites some opinions to the contrary. For example, he says:

“And the great Felix Cappello, Summa Iuris I (1949) n. 309, thought that the possibility of a pope falling into public heresy should be ‘entirely dismissed given the special love of God for the Church of Christ [lest] the Church fall into the greatest danger.’ “

Fine. Cappello’s opinion is consonant with the official teaching of the Magisterium by the First Vatican Council.

Then Peters quotes Franz Wernz in what he describes as a “summary of the various canonical schools of thought about the possibility of a papal fall from office due to heresy”.

Franz Wernz: “Now, concerning this matter there are five views, the first of which denies the basis for the entire issue, namely, that a pope could, as a private scholar, fall into heresy. While this opinion is clearly pious and probable, it cannot be said to be certain and common.”

So Wernz says that it is “pious and probable” to deny that a Pope could ever fall into heresy, even privately. And this view would also exclude the public teaching of heresy by a Pope. Again, we have a sound opinion that is consonant with the teaching of the First Vatican Council.

These are two sources, quoted by Peters, who disagree with Peters’ opinion that a Pope can commit heresy and can publicly teach heresy.

Then Peters goes on to quote Wernz, making claims about the position of Bellarmine. But these claims are not correct. Bellarmine’s position is often misrepresented.

In truth, Saint Robert Bellarmine said it was “probable, but not certain” that the Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy”. And he condemned as “proximate to heresy” the very idea proposed by Peters, that the Pope may be a heretic and may teach heresy, as long as he is NOT defining a doctrine infallibly. See my previous post: What Saint Bellarmine really said about Popes and Heresy. See also Cardinal Manning’s book on the First Vatican Council.

What does Peters say about the First Vatican Council and its teaching that each Pope has the gift of truth and of a never-failing faith? Nothing. He is either unaware of that teaching, or he is disregarding it. Instead, he cites a few canon lawyers and misrepresents Saint Robert Bellarmine on the topic.

In any case, the publicly-stated position of Dr. Ed Peters on Popes and heresy is incompatible with the teaching of the First Vatican Council on the successors of Peter. If every Pope has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith, then no Pope can commit heresy, even privately, and no Pope can teach heresy. A faith fails if it falls into heresy, even a non-public heresy. It would be absurd to propose that a Pope’s faith has not failed, if he commits the sin of heresy, or that it fails only if the heresy comes to light. And though the gift of truth does not protect every Pope from every error, it would not be the gift of truth if he could teach heresy in any way.

Therefore, readers should decide whether they wish to follow the ideas on the blog of a canon lawyer, or the official magisterial teaching of the First Vatican Council. You cannot hold both. They are clearly and fundamentally incompatible.

Analysis of Peters’ position

I won’t quote his position at length, but you can read it here. Basically, Peters quotes Wernz, and then mostly just agrees with him. So Peters’ position is discerned by reading that quote.

I will comment on two of his claims:
(1) that a Pope who falls into heresy secretly (privately) is not entirely separated from the Church, and therefore does not cease to be its head, and,
(2) that a Pope who falls into heresy publicly is automatically separated from the Church, and therefore ceases to be both a member of the Church and its Head.

In the first scenario, a hypothetical Pope falls into the grave sin of formal heresy privately, but does not publicly teach or express his heretical belief. Peters supposes that such a Pope remains a member and also the head of the Church. Thus, he is proposing the possibility of a Pope who is a white-washed tomb: he is has heresy inside his mind and heart, but he does not publicly teach that heresy.

Such a claim is incompatible with the teaching of the First Vatican Council. Even secret heresy is a great failure of faith. We cannot take a Pharisaical position and only condemn sins that are manifest. However, the teaching of Sacred Scripture, in the very words of Jesus, is that Peter’s faith cannot fail (Lk 22:32). The First Vatican Council interpreted and taught, from this passage, that each successor has a faith that cannot fail. And the opinions of canon lawyers, no matter how “great” or “incomparable” they may be, is chaff before the teaching of an Ecumenical Council.

I will also point out, to canon lawyer Ed Peters, that Canon law states that anyone guilty of formal heresy is automatically excommunicated (Canon 1364). And while interior sins of formal heresy cannot be judged in the exterior forum, unless they are publicly expressed, the penalty still applies under the eternal moral law. Therefore, as a counter-factual hypothesis, if a Pope ever committed heresy, interiorly only, he would nevertheless be automatically excommunicated, just as any Cardinal or Bishop or other member of the Church would be.

How then can we know whether a Pope has committed heresy secretly, and has therefore lost his authority? If heresy were at all possible in a Pope, we could not know, and the surety of faith would be lost. For we could never be sure which Popes were still the Head of the Church, and consequently which Ecumenical Councils were validly called and led by the valid Pope. But, as I said, all that is counter-factual.

Happily, the prevenient grace of God entirely prevents each and every Pope from committing the sin of heresy, and from teaching heresy. And this is accomplished so that the Church, founded on the Rock of Peter and his successors, will remain indefectible. It is contradictory to propose that a Pope can commit or teach heresy, and yet that the Church, led by said Pope, would somehow remain indefectible. If the Church is indefectible, then so is Her Head.

The Church is the Ark of Salvation. Peters’ claim that the Ark can have, as its pilot and navigator, a Pope who is a white-washed tomb — who holds heresy secretly in his heart and mind — implies that the Ark of Salvation is misguided and can therefore run aground or sink. It is contradictory to hold, as Peters does, that the Church can remain safe and indefectible, regardless of whether the Pope commits heresy secretly or publicly.

In the second scenario, the Pope publicly proclaims his heretical view, and he is deposed automatically. And then some type of declaration is made, not as an official judgment, but just as a recognition of that fact. Strangely, Wernz claims that some type of “general council declares the fact” of the Pope’s public heresy.

The problems with this second claim are extensive. First, an Ecumenical Council (also called a general council) does not exist, and is not in fact an Ecumenical Council at all, if the current Pope is not its head (per the teaching of Universi Dominici Gregis).

Second, the First Vatican Council taught: “they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.” The opinion of Wernz and Peters SEEMS to avoid this condemned error, by stating that the general council would not be passing judgment, but merely declaring a fact. But since the “fact” is an accusation of very grave weight, which implies that the Pontiff has been automatically excommunicated, it is a judgment all the same.

Third, a similar claim, that a group of Cardinals, however small or numerous, can declare a Pope to be in a state of heresy is even more absurd. If an Ecumenical Council — representing the whole body of Bishops and Cardinals on earth — cannot do so, then certainly a smaller group comprised of only some Cardinals also cannot. For neither an Ecumenical Council apart from the Pope, nor the college of Cardinals, nor the conservative Catholic subculture has “an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff”.

Fourth, if a Pope could teach heresy, though not under infallibility, how would anyone know which teachings of the Pope to accept? The tacit premise of this claim is that the critics of the Pope cannot fall into heresy and cannot err, when they are judging the teachings of the Pope. They say that the Pope is clearly contradicting the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, but in reality he is only contradicting their own understanding of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Perhaps he has erred to a limited extent. But they err much more gravely by exaggerating his errors, in order to make a false accusation of heresy against him. And when they explain their own understanding on the same topic (as, for example, found in the Filial Petition), they err more so that he ever did.

Fifth, the Magisterium is the sole authoritative interpreter of Tradition, Scripture, and past magisterial teachings. But the Magisterium is hierarchical. So when the Pope teaches a particular interpretation, even non-infallibly, lesser authorities in the Church may faithfully disagree, but they have no authority whatsoever to correct, rebuke, or overrule the Roman Pontiff. The idea that the Cardinals would issue a “formal correction” of the Pope is schismatic at its very core. It is a false assertion of an authority superior to that of the Roman Pontiff. And it assumes that the Pope can err to any extent, and that they cannot err at all.

Sixth, Peters states that “No one in a position of ecclesial responsibility … [has] accused Pope Francis of being a heretic or of teaching heresy.” Well, that’s not really true.

“In a new interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, one of the four Cardinals of the dubia [Cardinal Walter Brandmuller] has said, ‘Whoever thinks that persistent adultery and the reception of Holy Communion are compatible is a heretic and promotes schism.’ ” [Life Site News]

The Cardinal implies that, if Pope Francis refuses to correct Amoris Laetitia or respond favorably to the Dubia, he would then be a heretic and be guilty of promoting schism.

Cardinal Burke has also made ominous comments, along the same lines.

Cardinal Burke: “If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.”

CWR: “Who is competent to declare him to be in heresy?”

Cardinal Burke: “It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.” [One Peter Five]

Burke has already laid the ground work for an accusation of heresy against Pope Francis by the Cardinals. But what will happen if the majority of the Cardinals do not join him in his accusations against the Pope? Is it really true that a minority of the Cardinals can overrule the majority of Cardinals, the majority of Bishops, and the Roman Pontiff? On what basis?

Some commentators say that the Cardinals are only asking questions and requesting a clarification in the Dubia. But that is not true. The questions do not seek teaching and correction. Rather, certain objections to Amoris Laetitia are stated in the form of a question, with wording that indicates that the questioners believe they have understood the matter more clearly than the Roman Pontiff. They do not seek an explanation from the Pope as to why they are wrong and he is right. Rather, they seek to correct the Pope by means of these questions.


In my opinion, the four Cardinals of the Dubia (and some of their ardent supporters as well) are already in a state of schism. They have already publicly spoken as if they were above the Roman Pontiff, to judge and correct him. They have already made it clear that they will not submit to his authority over doctrine and discipline, unless his decisions accord with their own understanding.

Amoris Laetitia does, in my opinion, contain some limited errors. But these do not rise to the level of heresy. And no one has the authority, other than God, to correct the Roman Pontiff. If these Cardinals issue a formal correction, it will be a formal declaration of their own sin of formal schism. For they would be publicly asserting a role above the Supreme Pontiff, and such an assertion would be entirely incompatible with submission to the Roman Pontiff.

And now the Order of Malta, which has Cardinal Burke as its patron, is in danger of falling into schism. For they have publicly rejected the authority of the Roman Pontiff over the choice of their leader [Fox News]. If Burke falls into schism, they will have to decide whether or not to join him.

Are Popes bound by canon law?

Canon law contains two types of things:
1. direct expression of teaching of the Church on faith and morals
2. rules and regulations of the Church

The first type binds all the faithful, including the Pope. However, Canon law is not infallible in its expression of magisterial teaching. So a Pope can amend such a Canon to clarify what the Magisterial in fact teaches. And he can issue a new definition of doctrine, and then add this teaching to Canon law.

The second type is not binding on the Pope, since rules and regulations, no matter how important they may be, can be dispensed, changed, or replaced by Papal authority. This type of Canon is per se of Canon law, and not also of the Magisterial, which is why the Pope is certainly above it.

If anyone says ‘Popes are not bound by Canon law’ meaning only those Canons that are per se of the law, and not also (and primarily) of the Magisterium, then he has spoken truly. But without that qualification, the expression would be false.

My book on the subject

Can a Pope ever fall into heresy? Can the body of Bishops ever fall into heresy as a body? Why not? See my book on the subject:
In Defense of Pope Francis

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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4 Responses to Dr. Ed Peters vs. First Vatican Council

  1. Jack Gallagher says:

    All well and good. You may be correct in your opinion, your inferences regarding the four Cardinal’s thinking and motives, and then again you might be incorrect. Setting that aside, If the four, or even one, chooses to limit any further action to a correction of Francis solely on the point of discipline regarding the receiving of holy communion by the divorced and civilly remarried, how would that be different from St. Paul’s correction of Peter on that particular and different matter of discipline?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Paul corrected Peter for Peter’s own behavior, not for Peter’s use of his authority as Pope. Paul did not assert any pretended authority over Peter. The Cardinals are speaking as if they have the authority to correct the Pope. Cardinal Burke has even claimed that a Pope could commit heresy, and that the Cardinals could make a declaration of his heresy and try to replace the Pope. And, point of fact, they are not merely accusing Pope Francis of a poor decision on discipline. They say that the discipline implies a denial of doctrine. That is very clear from the Dubia and various public remarks.

  2. Dan says:

    Pope John XXII has been cited as an example of where a pope has taught error, if only while expressing his personal theological assertion. How should Vatican I be interpreted in light of this?

    In your opinion, you have implied that Dr. Peters, Cardinal Burke, and others have expressed viewpoints that contradict Vatican I. I agree, especially concerning the possibility of a pope formally teaching heresy and subsequently ceasing to be pope. Deverging interpretations on Vatican I are no different than the deverging opinions on Amoris Laetitia in the sense that if Pope Francis continues to remain silent and choose not to exercise his office to settle these issues, confusion and error will only spread.

    • Ron Conte says:

      John 22 expressed a theological opinion. It was a minority view at the time. The Magisterium had not yet settled that question definitively. Vatican I does not exclude erroneous opinions on open questions.

      I certainly see some limited errors in AL, and wish that the Pope would correct them. But the Cardinals do not have any authority to issue a formal correction. And certainly, no Pope can teach or commit heresy.

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