Council of Trent on whether a Pope could fall into heresy

Nowhere in the history of the Church there is a Magisterial document teaching that the Supreme Pontiff can fall into heresy, schism, or become an apostate. Quite the contrary, various decrees, such as the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam which teaches that if the highest authority (the Pope) goes astray, it will be judged by no one, but by God alone. However, “IF” this ‘astray’ occurs, it cannot go to the extent of schism, heresy or apostasy because Vatican I infallibly teaches that the Pope receives the gift of truth and never-failing Faith in his See. Such teaching is based on the Word of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself (Luke 22:31).

“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.

But since in this very age when the salutary effectiveness of the apostolic office is most especially needed, not a few are to be found who disparage its authority, we judge it absolutely necessary to affirm solemnly the prerogative which the only-begotten Son of God was pleased to attach to the supreme pastoral office.” – Vatican I.

Since the Holy Pontiff receives the gift of Truth and Never-Failing Faith in this See, no one is able to accuse him of heresy, schism, or apostasy; otherwise, such person is a schismatic and heretic himself.

Are you a Catholic who believes in what the Catholic Church teaches?

Never does not mean “sometimes”, not even “in some rare occasions”. Never means not ever.

If you accuse a valid Pope of at least one heresy, this means that either the teaching of Vatican I went to the floor, or your thinking goes to the floor. Your thinking is not in a position above the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Successor of Peter holds the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, not you, not me.

The only person who receives this gift is the reigning valid Pope of his respective time, such gift was prayed for by Jesus Himself (Luke 22:31).

For more information on this topic see these posts:
Can a Pope Ever Be a Heretic?
The Roman Pontiff: Immunity from Error and Never-failing Faith

In this post, however, I want to focus on what the Council of Trent has to say about it.

Twenty-Fourth Session

“In criminal causes against Bishops, the greater causes shall be taken cognizance of by the Sovereign Pontiff only, the less by the Provincial Council.”

The Sovereign Pontiff is the Bishop of Rome; however, notice that he has supreme power or authority (‘sovereignty’) over the rest of his fellow Bishops.


“The more grave criminal causes against bishops, even of heresy-which may God forfend-which merit deposition or deprivation, shall be taken cognizance of and decided by the Sovereign Roman Pontiff himself only. But if the cause shall be of such a nature that it must necessarily be committed out of the Roman Court, it shall not be committed to any others soever, but metropolitans, or bishops, to be chosen by the most blessed Pope. And this commission shall both be special, and shall be signed by the most holy Pontiff’s own hand; nor shall he ever grant more to those commissioners than this,-that they take information only of the fact, and draw up the process, which they shall immediately transmit to the Roman Pontiff; the definitive sentence being reserved to the said most holy Pontiff.”

Notice how this Council [i] calls ‘Roman Court’ the ecclesiastical court where the Pope is the supreme judge.

The Council considers that Bishops can fall into grave crimes and errors, even to the extent of heresy, in which case, it shall be handled for correction, punishments, and judgments by the Pope only. Despite this portion of the Council being of the prudential order (disciplinary, not dogmatic), the Council acknowledges that Bishops can fall into heresy but does not even mention the case where the Pope himself could fall into heresy. If the Pope himself were able to fall into grave errors to the extent of heresy, then the Council would be missing or avoiding a grave matter which would be leading the faithful away from the path of salvation; which, in turn, would mean that the Church is “defectible”, able to fail and the gates of Hell would have prevailed. But such a case goes against the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church.

What about if the Pope himself falls into heresy? How could that situation be handled and by whom? The Holy Council does not even consider this situation. Did the holy fathers of the most dogmatic of the Councils [ii] forget? Or did they ignore this situation? Of course not! That would be very irresponsible and deceiving. This situation cannot happen. It was “out of the question” for the fathers of the Council to consider – and this was a long, very long Council. The teaching that no one can judge the higher spiritual authority, the Pope, is interpreted from the teaching of St. Paul in Sacred Scriptures (1 Corinthians 2:15) by Pope Boniface VIII and it is taught in his Papal Bull Unam Sanctam.

This Council was putting in practice the teaching that the Sovereign Roman Pontiff can judge anyone, but no one can judge him (only God, of course).

The Council continues:

“….But the less criminal causes of bishops shall be taken cognizance of and decided in the provincial Council only, or by persons deputed thereunto by the provincial Council.”

There is hierarchy in the Church (1 Corinthians 12:28), and the top representative of Jesus is the Supreme Pontiff only.  “The First”, as the Apostle Matthew wrote even though they are not mentioned in numerical order (Matthew 10:2).

I’m going to make a parenthesis here regarding Peter’s primordial role over the rest of the Apostles:

{21:13} And Jesus approached, and he took bread, and he gave it to them, and similarly with the fish.

Notice here that, after our Lord’s resurrection, He ate with the Apostles. Jesus was reunited with His Apostles, they were all present (except Judas Iscariot, of course).

{21:15} Then, when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Here Jesus puts Peter in a situation where may make him uncomfortable for Peter has to answer, in front of the rest of the Apostles, if he loves our Lord “more” than them. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he loves Him more than a specific person, but more than “these”, all of them present there.

Peter simply answers the as follows:

He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Why is the question “more than these”? The answer follows in Jesus’ charge given to Peter:

He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

That “Feed my Lambs” has to be “more than” the rest of the Apostles. That is the way how Peter can show, or prove, or demonstrate, that he loves Him “more than” the rest, by a “more than”, superior, charge.

Jesus would not have asked if Peter loves Him “more than the rest” for no specific reason. Jesus could have simply asked if Peter loves Him without emphasizing the “more than” the rest.   That “Lambs” refers to his fellow Apostles for they are representative of Jesus, His “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20).  And if Jesus is the “Lamb” of God”, NOT the “Sheep” of God”, but the “LAMB OF GOD” (John 1:29); His Apostles, as His ambassadors, are also “lambs”. As you continue reading, you will notice that our Lord then changes to “sheep” (not “lambs”). “Sheep” refers to all of us, His disciples. Remember what Jesus said concerning His sheep “My sheep hear my voice. And I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10: 27). Again, His “sheep” refers to the rest of us, His disciples.

Therefore, Peter and his successor have a superior role over the rest of the Apostles for he has to feed His lambs AND His sheep “more than” the rest.

Close parenthesis, and let’s continue with the Council of Trent disciplinary measures:

As exposed above, the Council shows us that the less criminal (or less severe) causes can be handled by the respective Bishops (handled in a provincial/local Council). This is due to the fact that the other Bishops’ role (or rank) is inferior to the Pope. The Pope is the head of the college of Bishops [iii]. The Bishops cannot exercise the Magisterium being separated from their head, the Pope. The Council of Trent does not propose any other option. Therefore, this is just another indication that the Pope is not able to fall into heresy because if he were able to do so and the Council shows no solution to this grave matter, the Church would not be indefectible for She would be able to lead the faithful away from the path of salvation with presumably heretic teachings of a Pope.

A Universal Council guided by the Holy Spirit [iv] could not have missed so important matter regarding how to proceed in the event of a Pope himself falling into heresy. If the Pope could fall into heresy, then Jesus did not build His Church on the Rock/Peter, but on sand and all the Church would be able to crumble. Jesus did not lie to us because He is God, Jesus did not err for the same reason (Matthew 16:18-19) (Luke 22:31).

Did the Council give no punishments for people in charge at ecclesiastical courts at all?

No, not at all. In a particular court, its judge is the leader. In the Roman Court, the Pope is the leader. Notice, however, that in another court, if the judge himself is involved in an illicit act, the Council gives the answer of how this person shall be punished:


“All causes belonging in any way whatever to the ecclesiastical court, even though they may relate to benefices, shall be taken cognizance of, in the first instance, before the Ordinaries of the places only; and shall be completely terminated within two years at the latest from the time that the suit was instituted: otherwise, at the expiration of that period, it shall be free for the parties, or for either of them, to have recourse to superior, but otherwise competent, judges, who shall take up the cause as it shall then stand, and shall take care that it be terminated with all possible despatch; nor, before that period, shall the causes be committed to any others (than the Ordinaries)…”

This does not refer to the Roman Court for the Pope is not even mentioned. Furthermore, it mentions “judges” and there can be only one valid Pope at a time. It is clear that the Council is not referring to the Roman Court here, but any other ecclesiastical court.

“…But if the judge also should himself be cognizant of, and an accomplice in, this delay, or if he shall in any other way raise obstacles against the entire proceedings being delivered over to the appellant within the term aforesaid, he shall be subjected to the same penalty of paying double the costs, as above..

So how is that the Council answers how a particular judge or judges in other ecclesiastical courts (other than the Roman Court) can be punished if they themselves are involved in illicit acts, but no answer on how the Supreme Pontiff should be judged if he himself falls into illicit acts? It is because, as previously stated, the dogmatic teaching of the Church that no one can judge the Pope, only God.

Another case:

Twenty-Fifth Session:

“A Regular [v] who, not being subject to the bishop, and residing within the enclosure of a monastery, has out of that enclosure, transgressed so notoriously as to be a scandal to the people, shall, at the instance of the bishop, be severely punished by his own Superior, within such time as the bishop shall appoint; and the Superior shall certify to the bishop that the punishment has been inflicted: otherwise he shall be himself deprived of his office by his own Superior, and the delinquent may be punished by the bishop.

Notice here, that in the event of a Regular’s transgression, he shall be subject to the punishment of his own Superior (of the rule where he belongs; i.e. an Abbot); otherwise, this Superior himself shall be punished by his own Superior. But this Council does not give the same treatment for the Supreme Pontiff (the top Superior). Nobody (save God) is in the position to judge the Pope. Each person has his own Superior which goes up to the Pope. The Pope has no Superior save God only. That’s the reason why he is called the Supreme Pontiff. The transcendent Superior of all of us is God, but God has left us with superiors on this earth as well (Romans 13:1-2).

Cases regarding sexual misconduct/scandals performed by the clergy:

Twenty-Fifth Session:

The manner of proceeding against Clerics who keep concubines is prescribed.

“As regards clerics who have not ecclesiastical benefices or pensions, they shall, according to the quality of their crime and contumacy, and their persistance therein, be punished, by the bishop himself, with imprisonment, suspension from their order, inability to obtain benefices, or in other ways, conformably with the sacred canons.”

Their respective Bishops are to punish those clerics. But what about if the Bishops themselves commit these grave crimes? The Council has the answer:

“Bishops also, if, which God forbid, they abstain not from crime of this nature, and, upon being admonished by the provincial Synod, they do not amend, shall be ipso facto suspended; and, if they persist therein, they shall be reported by the said Synod to the most holy Roman Pontiff, who shall punish them according to the nature of their guilt, even with deprivation if need be.”

They shall ultimately be punished by the Roman Pontiff accordingly. But again, this holy Ecumenical Council gives no option on how to proceed in the event of the Roman Pontiff falling himself into these grave crimes against morals. It is clear that this holy Council is putting in practice the teaching that no man or group persons on earth can judge the Pope, no matter how holy they may be, not even all the bishops of the world put together in a Synod [vi] can judge the Pope, for the Pope is the higher spiritual authority left in charge by Christ. Only God can judge the Pope.

Conclusion: This holy Council mentions that Bishops can fall into grave errors even to the extent of heresy and are to be judged by the Supreme Pontiff only, but not anywhere offers the possibility that the Supreme Pontiff himself can fall into these same type of errors, nor gives a way to judge the Pope.

“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.” – Vatican I.

“We are all invited to trust in the Holy Spirit, to trust in Christ, by trusting in Peter.” – (The Primacy of The Successor of Peter in The Mystery of The Church # 15).

-Francisco Figueroa.


[i] An Ecumenical (or Universal) Council is when the Pope and the body of Bishops in communion with him (‘the body of Bishops’) reunite at a particular place for a determinate period of time in order to (a) define doctrine(s) of faith or morals that must be held by the whole Church – teach infallibly; (b) teach non-infallibly; and/or (c) announce decisions of the prudential order (pastoral decisions or discipline). Sometimes the Supreme Pontiff is not present at a Council or in some sessions of a Council but, in such instances, he presides it with his representative(s).  Also some other people may join the Council per invitation.

[ii] The Council of Trent has more than 130 teachings (including Canons) with a ‘let him be anathema’ attached. This Council had to also correct the many errors of the Protestant Reformation prompted by the Augustinian Regular priest (friar) Martin Luther.

[iii] CCC#’s 877, 880, 936.

[iv] “The ultimate and absolute responsibility of the Pope is best guaranteed, on the one hand, by its relationship to Tradition and fraternal communion and, on the other, by trust in the assistance of the Holy Spirit who governs the Church.” – (The Primacy of The Successor of Peter in The Mystery of The Church # 10).

See also: John 16:12-13; CCC#’s 85, 1008; Decree – Presbyterorum Ordinis – On The Ministry And Life Of Priests # 14, n 2 – Vatican II; The Primacy of The Successor of Peter in The Mystery of The Church # 15.

[v] “Regular clergy, or just regulars, is applied in the Roman Catholic Church to clerics who follow a “rule” (Latin regula) in their life, those who are members of religious institutes. Formerly, it meant those who were members of Catholic religious orders, institutes in which at some least of the members made solemn profession. It contrasts with secular clergy.”

“The term secular clergy refers to deacons and priests who are not monastics or members of a religious institute.”

“In the Catholic Church, the secular clergy are ordained ministers, such as deacons and priests, who do not belong to a religious institute.”

[vi] This would be an invalid or headless “Synod” for, as noted above in [iii], the Pope is the head of the College of Bishops.


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2 Responses to Council of Trent on whether a Pope could fall into heresy

  1. Ron Conte says:

    Note that Pope Paul IV in “ex officio” is often mistakenly thought to have said Popes could commit heresy, but a closer reading of the document proves otherwise:

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