Every Roman Pontiff is Indefectible

Based on the teaching of Sacred Scripture, and the very words of Jesus about Peter and his successors, and the teaching of the Sacred Councils, especially the First Vatican Council, I believe that each and every valid Roman Pontiff is always necessarily and entirely preserved, by prevenient grace, from ever committing the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism, and from ever holding or teaching any heresy. Neither formal heresy, nor material heresy, can ever be found in the words, deeds, decisions, or other acts of any Roman Pontiff, nor in his heart or mind, without any possible exception or qualification. The contrary idea, that a Pope can fall into heresy, and that he would thereby cease to be the Roman Pontiff, is contrary to faith and reason. For if a Pope could teach heresy, and thereby cease to be Pope, how would the faith be secure, like a house built upon a rock?

The Church is indefectible. And when Jesus explains the indefectibility of the Church, what does he say? That it is founded on the Rock which is Peter and his successors. So it would be absurd to claim that the Church remains indefectible, while the Rock that makes her indefectible can commit any of the grave sins against faith (apostasy, heresy, schism), or that he may teach heresy. If the Head of the Church were ever to go astray from the faith, by committing or teaching heresy, then the Church would not be indefectible. For if Her head has defected, then She herself cannot be considered indefectible.

For the body cannot call itself indefectible, while making accusations of heresy against its own head. Our Lord Jesus taught: “if your eye has been corrupted, your entire body will be darkened.” [Mt 6:23]. Similarly, if the head has been corrupted, then the entire body will also be darkened. For the Roman Pontiff is the head, and also the eye, of the Church. He guides Her, the Ark of Salvation, just as Noah guided the Ark [cf. Unam Sanctam].

Neither can the body, or any of its parts, presume to judge the head. For each body part has its own role. The lesser authorities in the Church are judged by the greater authorities in the Church. But the highest authority in the Church on earth is the Roman Pontiff. And he himself is judged by no one but God [cf. Unam Sanctam].

Now there is a foolish idea circulating among the faithful, namely, that the Church and the Magisterium are preserved inviolate and indefectible by the supposition that a Pope loses his authority as Pope, as the head of the Church, and as the head of the Magisterium, by teaching heresy.

The problem with this claim is that no one is competent to judge when the Pope has taught heresy. For if Popes can teach heresy, on what basis would anyone claim that the teaching of Pope ‘A’ is heretical? We would have to rely on the teachings of a previous Pope ‘B’. But there would be no guarantee that the teachings of Pope ‘B’ were not also heretical in some way. And if Pope ‘B’ had ever taught heresy on any point, he would then he would have lost all his authority to teach. We could try to rely on the teachings of Ecumenical Councils. But an Ecumenical Council is not an Ecumenical Council at all, unless it has a valid Roman Pontiff as its head. And the validity of each Roman Pontiff would be in doubt, if any of them could teach heresy and thereby automatically lose their role. Therefore, the validity of each Ecumenical Council would also be in doubt.

What if we judged a Pope’s teaching by Tradition and Scripture? The problem is that we would be left only with each person’s own interpretation of Tradition and Scripture, since the teachings of past Popes and Councils would be ever in doubt. And there is much disagreement among the faithful as to the proper interpretation. The Magisterium is the sole authoritative interpreter of Tradition and Scripture. But if the Magisterium can be placed in doubt by that claim a Pope may heresy, then Tradition and Scripture would be left with no reliable interpreter.

Essentially, what some conservative Catholics are tacitly suggesting is that the conservative Catholic subculture has a role to teach and correct any liberal Pope, and that the same subculture would judge if a Pope had taught heresy, and thereby lost his authority. They say “Tradition”, but what they mean is their own interpretation and understanding of Tradition. The conservative Catholic subculture has decided that it is infallible, and that any Pope who contradicts the majority opinion among conservative Catholics must be in error. It is as if they have become a Magisterium to themselves.

And the problem is not, as they claim, Pope Francis. For many of them still look with condescension and doubt upon the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. And any teaching from a past Pope which displeases them, they ignore, or they radically reinterpret it, so as to escape correction by that teaching.

Is Amoris Laetitia the problem? No. Pope Francis is not going to stop teaching. He will continue to issue magisterial documents on a range of topics. He may teach on salvation theology. And conservatives will not accept that teaching. He may teach that no Pope can ever commit heresy. They will reject that teaching also. He may teach that persons who enter the state of grace by a baptism of desire, are children by spiritual adoption, just as baptized Christian are.

Pope Francis will continue to teach, and conservatives will continue to demand that his teaching conform to the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture. And eventually, enough disagreements will accrue for the conservative Pharisees of today to falsely accuse the Pope of heresy. If it doesn’t happen due to the conflict over Amoris Laetitia, it will happen over salvation theology, or some other subject area.

The only safe path for the faithful is just as I have stated in the first paragraph of this post, to believe that no Roman Pontiff can ever teach or commit heresy, and to accept his authority over both doctrine and discipline.

This yoke is sweet and this burden is light. For we are not obligated to agree with the personal opinions of any Roman Pontiff. And we may faithfully and respectfully disagree with any Roman Pontiff in his decisions on discipline. However, we are still bound by those decisions. The faithful even have a limited right of licit theological dissent from non-infallible teachings. So it is not so burdensome to trust in the teachings and authority of the Roman Pontiff.

Is it really too much to ask that the faithful refrain from accusing the Vicar of Christ of teaching or committing heresy? How full of pride do Catholic Christians need to be, to accuse the Rock on which the Church is founded of having crumbled to the ground, while considering themselves to be indefectible and inerrant? Humble yourself before the teaching of Jesus Christ, and accept that, while a number of different types of errors are possible, no Pope can teach or commit heresy. The prevenient grace of God prevents it.

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

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3 Responses to Every Roman Pontiff is Indefectible

  1. Dan says:

    Not all conservatives who have concerns about Pope Francis fall into the same category as those who reject Vatican II. While suggesting that a Pope could teach heresy and lose his authority appears to contradict Vatican II and should not have been vocalized by any of the four Cardinals, Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia are responsible at least in part for the current situation.

    In my opinion, the Pope’s use of vague slogans and lack of clear and concise teaching in certain cases has allowed room for confusion and division. Not only does the Pope need to adress the question of a Pope teaching hesresy, but should also adress the dubia in a clear and conicise maner.

  2. Mark P. says:

    I agree with Dan. In the case of Pope Francis, it is the cumulative effect of his numerous misinterpreted, open-ended, and confusing statements that concern many Catholics. In many cases, the Pope seems to make statements without any clarifying information. For example, he recently gave his opinion that young people who attend Traditional Latin Masses are insecure or compensating for something. In this instance, he was not teaching anything, but just gave an opinion that was hurtful to many people who prefer the Latin Mass. He could have used this as an opportunity to perhaps teach of the dangers of falling in love with the outward signs of piety, but without assuming the unholiness of those who choose to worship that way. It also seemed to be a very unnecessary instigation against conservative Catholics. Now, maybe there was more to his quote that was not reported in the Catholic media outlets, but I did not find anything. So, many Catholics seem to criticize the Pope’s non-infallible personal opinions and style, because his statements often have the air of judging others without evidence, interpretation, or loving correction.

    While a small minority of Catholics may feel he is heretical, a much larger number just find him confusing. However, we must always remember to follow the Holy Father with full faith, even in seemingly confusing times. Another thing we must remember is that he is the Pope of all Catholics, not just Americans. We are very used to being the center of the world’s attention. The previous two popes came from countries much more aligned to the geopolitical affinities of the United States; therefore, their worldview and interests most often mirrored our own. (Granted, this fact should not really matter when pertaining to Catholic issues, but it seems to play a role here.) However, Pope Francis provides insights and thinking from another part of the world with different concerns, which is necessary since we are all God’s children. This arrangement will probably be in place for the next couple of decades, as (Ron has stated) the next Pope will most likely be from Africa, and (my opinion) after that, Asia. I trust in the Holy Spirit that Pope Francis was chosen as the successor of St. Peter at the right time, and we must remember to trust in and pray for him daily.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Pope Francis has faults and mistaken opinions. But he is absolutely right to correct conservatives. It is certainly his role to correct as well as to teach. And conservatives are wrong to respond to correction by saying that it is “confusing”. They seem to use that word whenever his views do not match their own. For many years, conservatives have been speaking and acting as if the majority opinion among conservatives was dogma, and as if conservatism could not err. They have fallen into the error of pride.

      The same is true for most liberals also. They only hear the words that agree with their own understanding, and are not open to correction or teaching.

      Pope Saint John Paul II had some liberal teachings. And had some teachings that were a matter of some dispute as to their interpretation, without subsequent clarification from him (e.g. Veritatis Splendor). But because he was largely conservative, the conservatives did not complain. They simply ignored the teachings they did not agree with (e.g. VS on intrinsic evil and Redemptoris Missio on salvation for non-Christians).

      God is putting conservative Catholics to the test. And they are mostly failing.

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