Vatican I taught that no Pope can teach heresy or be a heretic

First Vatican Council:
Tanner translation: “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.” [Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 7]

The original Latin: Hoc igitur veritatis et fidei numquam deficientis charisma Petro eiusque in hac Cathedra successoribus divinitus collatum est, ut excelso suo munere in omnium salutem fungerentur….

My translation: Therefore, this charism of truth and of never failing faith, was divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this Chair, so that they might exercise their preeminent office for the salvation of all….

If the Pope has the gift of a never failing faith, then he cannot fail in faith by apostasy, heresy, or schism, nor by other types of grave sins against faith, such as idolatry, sacrilege, or blasphemy. And since this gift of never failing faith is also, as one and the same charism, the gift of truth, the Roman Pontiff can never teach grave error or heresy, nor can he ever promote apostasy, heresy, or schism, nor idolatry, sacrilege, or blasphemy.

The above text from Vatican I is the Council’s authoritative interpretation of Luke 22:32, found in chapter 4, n. 6:

“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 Saviour 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.”

Their apostolic teaching refers to the teaching of the Popes. All the venerable fathers of the Church, Doctors of the Church and Saints have reverenced and followed each Roman Pontiff’s apostolic teaching. For “they knew very well that this See of Saint Peter remains always unblemished by any error” and this is as a result of the divine promise of Jesus Christ, that he would pray for each Roman Pontiff, so that their faith may not fail. Since this teaching of Vatican I is an authoritative interpretation of Sacred Scripture, it is infallible. The dogma of Vatican I is that each Pope has the gift of truth and a never failing faith. And this entirely excludes the possibility that a Pope would teach heresy or in any way be a heretic.

And this is the meaning of the text described by Cardinal Manning, one of the fathers of the First Vatican Council:

Manning: “The application of the promise ‘Ego rogavi pro te,’ [“I have prayed for you”] etc. to the infallible faith of Peter and his successors, is made by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Leo, St. Gelasius, Pelagius II., St. Gregory the Great, Stephen Bishop of Dori in a Lateran Council, St. Vitalian, the Bishops of the IV Ecumenical Council AD 451, St. Agatho in the VI. AD 680, St. Bernard AD 1153, St. Thomas Aquinas AD 1274, St. Bonaventure AD 1274: that is, this interpretation is given by three out of the four Doctors of the Church, by six Pontiffs down to the seventh century. It was recognized in two Ecumenical Councils. It is expressly declared by the Angelic Doctor, who may be taken as the exponent of the Dominican school, and by the Seraphic Doctor, who is likewise the witness of the Franciscan; and by a multitude of Saints.”

“The interpretation by the Fathers of the words ‘On this rock,’ etc. is fourfold, but all four interpretations are not more than four aspects of one and the same truth, and all are necessary to complete its full meaning. They all implicitly or explicitly contain the perpetual stability of Peter’s faith….”

“In these two promises [i.e. Lk 22:32, Mt 16:18] a divine assistance is pledged to Peter and to his successors, and that divine assistance is promised to secure the stability and indefectibility of the Faith in the supreme Doctor and Head of the Church, for the general good of the Church itself.”

[Cardinal Manning, “The Vatican Council and Its Definitions: A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy”, p. 83-84]

The verse Lk 22:32 is consonant with Mt 16:18, and they express one idea with different aspects: that the faith of the Pope is never failing, that this makes him the Rock on which the Church is founded, that therefore the Church is indefectible, and that therefore this See of Peter remains unblemished by any error.

Manning goes so far as to call this gift the “infallible faith of Peter and his successors.” And Manning give numerous citations from Saints, Popes, and Councils/Synods which support this interpretation. See also this list of teachings on the same topic.

Therefore, no Pope can fail in faith by teaching material heresy. No Pope can fail in faith by committing formal heresy. And any lesser accusation, cleverly worded, such as that the Pope merely propagated heresy is also excluded as he has the one charism, which is both “veritatis et fidei numquam deficientis” (truth and never failing faith). The term “deficientis” is not restricted to only a complete failure, but also includes any substantial deficiency.

But what if Pope Francis were not a valid Pope? In such a case, he could teach error to any extent. But the last part of Lk 22:32 and the indefectibility of the Church are key to answering this question. The never failing faith of the Pope serves to confirm the body of Bishops, his brethren, in faith, and therefore the successors of the other Apostles, with the Pope, form the basis for the indefectibility of the Church. And therefore also, when the body of Bishops accepts someone as Roman Pontiff, he is certainly a valid Pope and cannot possibly be a false head, an antipope, or an invalid pope. For if the body were to follow a false head, then the Church would have defected. Since the Church is indefectible, and since the Bishops are confirmed by the charism of truth and never failing faith, they cannot mistakenly accept as Pope anyone who is invalid.

Pope Francis has been accepted by the body of Bishops as a valid Roman Pontiff, therefore it is a dogmatic fact that he is a valid successor of Peter with the gift of truth and never failing faith. And his opponents are therefore erring gravely by opposing, at least implicitly, the dogma of the First Vatican Council on the infallible faith of the Roman Pontiff.

Reply to Objections

One objection might be that the teaching of Vatican I on this point is only about Papal Infallibility. But that is patently contrary to the text itself. What a Council teaches is what is in the text. Only the text is inspired of, and protected by the Holy Spirit. The text clearly states the never failing faith of the Pope, and that cannot be identified simply with the next teaching, which says that the Pope’s teaching is infallible when it meets certain conditions. Those are clearly two separate gifts, though they are also interrelated.

Another objection would be that this teaching of Vatican I is not a dogma, but only non-infallible. This objection is answered by my recent posts on the inerrancy of every teaching of every Council. But for those who disagree, another reply to the objection is that such a weighty teaching of a Council cannot be offered as only a non-infallible doctrine. It is too important to the entire foundation of the Church, given that Peter and his successors are that foundation, with the body of Bishops. So it can only be an infallible teaching. It is definitively to be held. It is based on a verse from Sacred Scripture which is also the words of our Lord. And Cardinal Manning, a Council father, understood it to be a definition which is also a perennial teaching of Popes, Saints, and Councils/Synods.

The third objection is that a talk given to the Council fathers by Bishop Gasser, a relatio (an explanation about one of the proposed conciliar documents), states that the meaning is not that the Pope cannot teach heresy or be a heretic. Well, that’s quite clear, right? No. That is an erroneous interpretation of what Gasser said. Here is what Gasser actually said (with the full text here).

“Christ granted the prerogative of infallibility to St. Peter at the same time He gave him primacy in the universal Church…. the prerogative of infallibility belonged ordinarily to Peter and was inseparably connected with his primacy; hence, it passed with the fullness, of his apostolic power into the Apostolic See, and to his successors in this See.”

“The same conclusion follows from the famous words of Christ. For as the words of Christ, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:16), are not bounded by time but will have authority until the end of the world, so the foundation of the Church on Peter and his successors ought always remain unshaken against the proud gates of those who belong to the nether world, that is against heresies and the builders of heresy, as St. Epiphanius says.”

Gasser goes on to express an interesting opinion, that the other Apostles (the Eleven, excluding Judas, or perhaps the Twelve, including Matthias who replaced Judas) also had an individual infallibility. But only the infallibility given to Peter was handed down to his successors. The Bishops, successors of the other Apostles, do not have individual infallibility. My opinion is that this infallibility given to the other Apostles was only as a body, and was handed down to the Bishops as a body.

Now, notice that Bishop Gasser, a father of the First Vatican Council, has the same opinion I have been expressing for some years now (though I had not read him on this point until today) — that the Bishops have infallibility as a body, but not individually, and only as long as they are joined to their head, the Pope:

“In this duty of guarding, communicating and defending the deposit as a treasure of divine truth, the bishops also are helped by the Holy Spirit. But this infallible aid of the Holy Spirit is not present in each of the bishops but rather in the bishops taken together and joined with [their] head, for it was said to all generally and not each individually: “Behold, I am with you all days until the end of time” (Mt. 28:20).”

So the meaning of Lk 22:32, at the end of the verse, is that the charism of truth and never failing faith, individually present in Peter and his successors, is also present in the body of Bishops, but only as a body. But as Bishops Gasser goes on, he asserts that Popes cannot fall into error:

“This prerogative granted to St. Peter by the Lord Jesus Christ was supposed to pass to all Peter’s successors because the chair of Peter is the center of unity in the Church. But if the Pontiff should fall into an error of faith, the Church would dissolve, deprived of the bond of unity. The bishop of Meaux speaks very well on this point, saying: ‘If this Roman See could fall and be no longer the See of truth but of error and pestilence, then the Catholic Church herself would not have the bond of a society and would be schismatic and scattered – which in fact is impossible.’ ”

Gasser clearly states that the Pope cannot “fall into an error of faith” as this would bread the indefectibility of the Church. Teaching material heresy or committing formal heresy certainly fits falling into an error of faith.

Next, Gasser refutes the claim that the indefectibility of the Roman Pontiff is only of his office, not of his person: ‘Let no one say: “Yes, the See of Peter is the center of unity, but from that there only follows the office which the Roman pastor has of confirming and of preserving his brothers in the faith. But the office is one thing, the authority, especially an infallible authority, is something else.” ‘ And he goes on from there at length [009-010] refuting the claim that the gift is only given to the office, not the person of the Roman Pontiff.

Gasser also rejects the claim that the authority of the Pope is not unchallengeable in itself, but only when exercised together with the bishops. Instead, the Pope is the center of authority and unity in the Church, and his authority is “unchallengeable”. Did you read that Bishops Vigano, Schneider, and Burke? Unchallengeable.

“That the infallibility granted to Peter was to have passed to his successors is also proved – to use the words of Cardinal Cajetan – from the fact that when the Pope makes a judicial and definitive decision determining that something is heresy and that it must be held as such by the Church then it is clear that we are all bound to accept his decision and that whoever pertinaciously clings to the opposite view is considered a heretic.”

And if the decision of the Pope determines what is and is not heresy, then his decisions can never themselves be heresy, otherwise how would his decisions be able to decide what is heresy, and be able to protect the unity of the Church against heretics and schismatics? Therefore, the Pope cannot teach material heresy, nor commit formal heresy.

For if the Pope could err by teaching or committing heresy, then the whole Church would be able to err, “following the decision of a Pope, if the Pope in such a definition is able to err.” Gasser is clearly defending the freedom of the Pope from the error of heresy, whether material or formal.

Gasser: “And Melchior Cano dares to add: “Whoever would deny that the power of binding and loosing which Christ is believed to have given to St. Peter is now present in the Bishop of Rome, such a person (i.e., one who would deny this power) is lawfully and rightly held to be a heretic. Whoever would deny to those who have succeeded Peter the strength of Peter for confirming his brothers must be judged to be heretical.” [3]”

Again, if the teaching and authority of the Pope determines who is and is not a heretic, then the Pope cannot in any way teach heresy or be a heretic. Notice that the papal critics today reverse this idea, so that they take a position above the Pope, to decide if anything he says is heresy. And what determines if the Pope has taught heresy? only that he will have contradicted the mere opinion of his critics. Such a plan is absurd and contrary to the teachings of the First Vatican Council. And why is it that only conservative Catholics have the pretended authority to judge and condemn Popes and Councils? Once any Pope or Council can be judged and condemned by any individual or group in the Church, all the Popes and Councils lose their effective authority, and they are each and all judged and condemned by one group or another. Such a plan destroys the indefectibility and the unity of the Church. Gasser is right, and they are wrong. So when they turn to the relation of Gasser to support their position, they are lying. (It’s like a man who is smoking, and when asked to stop, he points to a “No Smoking” sign and says, “See, this sign says I can smoke.” But in fact is says the opposite.)

I would like to note also that Gasser seems to see the never failing faith of the Pope and his ability to teach infallibly as two aspects of the same gift. So the faith of Peter is infallible, and he can teach infallibly. Then the Bishops as a body have an infallible faith, and they can teach infallibly, as a body, with the Pope as their head.

As the relatio of Gasser continues [040], he rejects the idea, still circulating among the weak in faith today, “that all dogmatic judgments of the Roman Pontiff are weak and reformable in and of themselves unless the consent of the Church accrues to them.” In other words, he rejects the idea that the sensus fidelium must approve of a teaching, or that it can reject or correct a papal teaching.

Now the CCC [67] says this: “Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.” But Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium clarifies, rejecting the idea that the faithful need to accept a teaching of the Pope for it to be authoritative: “And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment.”

There is no appeal to any other judgment from a definition by the Pope. And now we come to the basis, in the relatio, of the objection which says that the Council fathers did not mean to exclude the possibility that a Pope would be a heretic.

“As far as the doctrine set forth in the Draft goes, the Deputation is unjustly accused of wanting to raise an extreme opinion, viz., that of Albert Pighius, to the dignity of a dogma. For the opinion of Albert Pighius, which Bellarmine indeed calls pious and probable, was that the Pope, as an individual person or a private teacher, was able to err from a type of ignorance but was never able to fall into heresy or teach heresy.”

So the claim was that an extreme idea was being raised to the dignity of a dogma. Gasser rejects this claim NOT by saying that the idea was itself rejected, but that the idea is not an extreme opinion of Pighius, but rather a point where Pighius and Saint Robert Bellarmine agreed: that the Pope, not only as a teacher of the faith, but also as an individual person and a private teacher was never able to fall into heresy or teach heresy. The Pope can err in private opinions and private teaching, to some limited extent, as by ignorance, but never to the extent of heresy. And so Gasser’s rejection of the claim is based on the assertion by Bellarmine that this particular opinion of Pighius was not extreme, but was “pious and probable”. And this of course implies that the opinion defended by Gasser is found in the document of Vatican I.

So Gasser is not, as the critics of papal indefectibility claim, rejecting the freedom of the Roman Pontiff from all grave failures of faith, including interior heresy or heretical opinions. And notice that there is no doubt raised by either side in this particular debate between “the Deputation” and its critics that the Roman Pontiff is free from heresy and all grave error in his official teachings — whether they fall under Papal Infallibility or not. Gasser continues:

“To say nothing of the other points, let me say that this is clear from the very words of Bellarmine, both in the citation made by the reverend speaker and also from Bellarmine himself who, in book 4, chapter VI, pronounces on the opinion of Pighius in the following words: “It can be believed probably and piously that the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith.” ”

So Gasser defends this view of Bellarmine and he understand it to be a proper interpretation of what the Council taught. The Pope is not able to err and Pope, meaning in his official teachings (more specifically, no errors in infallible teachings; no grave errors in non-infallible teachings), and also “even as a particular person” he cannot be heretical, not even by a hidden belief contrary to the faith.

Gasser: “From this, it appears that the doctrine in the proposed chapter is not that of Albert Pighius or the extreme opinion of any school, but rather that it is one and the same which Bellarmine teaches in the place cited by the reverend speaker and which Bellarmine adduces in the fourth place and calls most certain and assured, or rather, correcting himself, the most common and certain opinion.”

The doctrine in the proposed chapter (chapter 4, n.7) is not an extreme opinion, but “one and the same” with the opinion which Bellarmine taught. Far from restricting that doctrine, so that it does not pertain to being a heretic or teaching heresy, Gasser plainly stated that the doctrine is “one and the same” with what Bellarmine taught: “the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith.” So the First Vatican Council raised to the dignity of a dogma this very opinion of Bellarmine, that no Pope can teach heresy or be a heretic. That is the meaning of that passage in Vatican I, as defended by Glasser in the relatio.

Therefore, no one can narrow the teaching of Vatican I about the Roman Pontiffs, that they have the gift of truth and never failing faith, so as to exclude this meaning: that the Pope cannot teach heresy or be a heretic. In fact, that is the meaning of that passage as understood and defended by Glasser before the whole body of Council fathers. Subsequently, after hearing that this was the exact meaning and that the proposal was to elevate to the dignity of a dogma this opinion of Bellarmine, the Council fathers approved the text, and so did the Roman Pontiff.

It is a dogma of Vatican I that each and every valid Roman Pontiff has the gift of truth and a never failing faith and that therefore no Pope can teach or commit heresy.

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

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