Suppose that a man of low morals and poor character, a fallen away Catholic who uses religion for his own exaltation, wishes to be Roman Pontiff. He is willing to sin gravely to obtain that position. He finds himself unable to become Pope, so he accepts a role as an antipope. He falsely proclaims himself to be the true Pope, even though the real Pope is currently reigning from Rome. Furthermore, as antipope, he publicly teaches heresy and seeks to advance this heresy by placing a fellow heretic on the See of Constantinople, if ever he should obtain control of the Church, as the Bishop of Rome. What would happen if the true Pope next passes away, and this antipope is installed as the Bishop of Rome, accepted by the clergy and people of Rome as the Roman Pontiff, and subsequently accepted by the body of Bishops as Roman Pontiff? Would he be invalid? Is he still an antipope? This is a man who publicly taught grave heresies; he is a manifest heretic elected to the See of Peter.
The most popular position on this question would be that a manifest heretic elected as Roman Pontiff is invalid, for a heretic is cutoff from the Church and is not a member. As a non-member, a heretic cannot also be the head of the body of which he is not a member. His election is invalid. He simply remains an antipope.
Really? Is that true? But I forgot to mention that, as the Bishop of Rome, this antipope and manifest heretic who became Bishop of Rome approved an Ecumenical Council, one of the 21 general Councils. It is a dogmatic fact that the Council he approved is valid. But a Council can only be valid if approved by a valid Roman Pontiff. Do we discard that Council as well?
This situation actually happened. It was antipope Vigilius, who became Pope Vigilius. I say that he was of low character, since he was willing to teach heresy and appoint a heretic to the See of Constantinople if the Emperor and Empress would appoint him as Pope. Yet after the true Pope Silverius died, Vigilius was appointed as Bishop of Rome, accepted by the clergy and people as the true Pope, and accepted by the body of Bishops also. He approved of the Second Council of Constantinople. It would be entirely untenable to claim that Vigilius was not a valid Roman Pontiff. But prior to becoming the true Pope, he was an antipope and a manifest heretic.
Bellarmine: “From this time neither error nor feigning of error was discovered in Vigilius, but rather, supreme constancy in the faith even to death, as it shall appear. For he received with the pontificate the strength of faith and he was changed from a weak chaff into the most solid rock. When the Empress Theodora, having relied upon the secret letters as well as the promise of Vigilius, asked from him that he would restore the aforementioned Patriarch Anthemius, as he had promised, he wrote back that he had promised rashly and gravely sinned in that promise. Therefore, he could not, nor would, fulfill what he had promised, lest he would add sins to sins. For that reason, when the Empress became angry, he was sent into exile, and miserably tortured even to death.”
Once Vigilius became the true Pope, the prevenient grace of God vanquished within him all traces of heresy or schism. He became the Rock on which the Church is founded. He refused to teach the heresy that he had previously, sinfully, agreed to teach to obtain the See of Peter. He refused to keep his agreement with the Empress to place a heretic on the See of Constantinople. And this proves that the faith of the Pope is secured by the grace of God, apart from free will. It is the prevenient grace of God that keeps the Pope secure in the true faith, and also secures his teaching from any grave error. The Pope freely takes up his office, and he can freely lay it down. But otherwise, grace guarantees the faith of the Pope, even if he is a poor morals and a manifest heretic, prior to becoming Pope.
This prevenient grace is the same grace that preserved the Blessed Virgin Mary from all sin, that preserved Saint Joseph and Saint John the Baptist from all personal sin, that preserves the souls in Purgatory from further sin, and which keeps the Church indefectible. It does not depend upon free will, but upon the will and mercy of God.
A heretic who has sinned gravely and who becomes Pope is the true Roman Pontiff. He has the gift of truth and a never failing faith. He can no longer adhere to heresy, or teach heresy at all. All apostasy, heresy, and schism is vanquished from his whole person entirely, as soon as he becomes the true Pope. And this does not depend upon the holiness of the individual, but upon the graces that flow from the Cross of Christ.
So on the question of Pope Francis, he may well be a Saint. But even if he were a great sinner, as Roman Pontiff he is unable to commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, and his teachings and decisions on discipline are preserved from every type of grave error. A Pope cannot commit heresy, as is proven by the example of an antipope and manifest heretic, who promised to teach and promote heresy, if only he was given the See of Peter. But once he became Pope, he was transformed by grace into the Rock on which the Church is founded. Therefore, we must conclude that Pope Francis is unable to teach or adhere to heresy, even interiorly. And we need not fear that anyone who becomes true Pope would harm the Church, or teach grave error, or lead the Church astray by a disordered discipline. We need only put our faith in Christ and in the Vicar of Christ, and we will be preserved from every grave error on faith, morals, salvation, and discipline.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
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