The Church is indefectible. This truth is a dogma taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium; it is an infallible teaching. But if any valid Pope could fall into heresy, then the Church would not be indefectible. It is a severe contradiction to believe in the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church, while supposing that a valid Pope could at any time believe or teach heresy. For the Pope is the Rock on which the Church is founded. If the Rock fails, then the House that is built upon that Rock would fail. Since the House cannot fail, neither can Her Rock.
First Vatican Council: “This charism of truth and of a faith that never fails was, therefore, conferred by God on Peter and his successors in this chair; so that they may administer their high office for the salvation of all….”
The Council taught that each Roman Pontiff possesses, as a divinely-conferred gift, “a faith that never fails” along with the charism of truth. The charism of truth is the ability to teach infallibly by his own authority, or with the body of Bishops; it is also the gift to never fail to accept and adhere to the essential truths of a divine and catholic faith. Therefore, it is impossible for any Pope to fall into apostasy, heresy, or schism.
No Pope can ever teach heresy, because then we could say that his faith had failed or that the charism of truth had lapsed. The gift of a faith that never fails is given to each Pope for the sake of the salvation of all. But teaching heresy gravely harms the salvation of all. Moreover, this gift to each Pope is called the “charism of truth” by the Council. So it could not be more clear that a “faith that never fails” must include both freedom from committing the sins of apostasy, heresy, and schism as well as protection from teaching any heresy.
Bellarmine discusses four possible positions on the topic:
1. that the Pope may be a heretic and may “teach heresy”, even when he is defining a doctrine with an Ecumenical Council.
2. that the Pope may be a heretic and may teach heresy, as long as he is NOT defining a doctrine with an Ecumenical Council.
3. that the Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy”, regardless of whether he is teaching alone or with an Ecumenical Council.
4. that the Pope, regardless of whether he can or cannot fall into heresy, cannot define a heresy as a teaching to be believed by the whole Church.
Bellarmine then evaluates each of the above four positions. He wrote that the first position is heretical, and that the second position is “altogether erroneous, and proximate to heresy”.
He then wrote that the third position is “probable, but not certain.” So Saint Bellarmine thought the opinion probable that the Pope could not be a heretic and could not teach heresy. My own theological position is the same: the Pope cannot be a heretic, nor can he teach heresy. And given the above-discussed teaching of the First Vatican Council, this “probable” position is now the teaching of the Magisterium.
Bellarmine then termed the fourth position “most certain, and to be asserted.” But this fourth position is often misstated and misunderstood. The fourth position is NOT that the Pope is able fall into heresy, yet he cannot teach heresy. Rather, the fourth position is asserted without answering the question as to whether or not the Pope can personally fall into heresy. The fourth position is that the Pope absolutely cannot define a heresy as a teaching to be believed by the whole Church.
Those who oppose Pope Francis have a tendency to adhere to the false opinion that a Pope can possibly teach heresy or can possibly fall into heresy. In their harsh criticism of the Pope, they seem to assume that a Pope can commit formal heresy personally or that he can teach material heresy. They express no confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit to protect a Pope from falling into heresy. They assume that if a Pope commits heresy, he would thereby cease to be truly the Pope. Some also think that a validly elected Pope might become invalid by going astray in doctrine or discipline. For them, the Rock on which the Church is founded is not the Roman Pontiff, but conservatism or traditionalism or their own understanding. It is as if Pope is only the Rock, and is literally only the Pope, if he conforms to their will and whims.
But in truth, no Pope can ever teach heresy, and no Pope can ever fall into heresy at all. The prevenient grace of God absolutely prevents the Pope from adhering to any heretical idea and from teaching any heresy, for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church and the surety of the path of our salvation. The promise of Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 16:17-19; Lk 22:32) guarantees both the public teaching and the personal faith of the Pope.
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