The Argument from Past Papal Error is not Valid

Many critics of Pope Francis justify their accusations against the successor of Peter by pointing to the alleged errors of past Popes. The argument is quite simple: “past Roman Pontiffs erred to the extent of apostasy and idolatry (Pope Marcellinus) and heresy (Honorius et alia); therefore, Pope Francis could possibly err to the same extent.” This argument fails for a number of reasons.

First, the dogma of Vatican I states that each Pope has the “charism of truth and of never failing faith divinely-conferred”, and that gift is clearly incompatible with teaching any grave error, including heresy, as this would be contrary to truth; it is also incompatible with any grave sins against faith, such as apostasy, heresy, or idolatry. How can this be possible, since the Pope has free will? He freely accepts his office and he can freely lay it down, therefore his free will is not contradicted. It is the prevenient grace of God, which acts before and apart from free will that makes this possible. This is the type of grace that kept St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist free from all personal sin, and that keeps the holy souls in Purgatory free from all personal sin as well. It is the type of grace that keeps the Church infallible by the indefectibility of the Pope and by the indefectibility of the body of Bishops.

Since it is an infallible teaching of an Ecumenical Council that Popes have this charism, any claims to the contrary must be rejected on the grounds of faith.

Suppose that anthropologists discover the “real” tomb of Jesus, along with his bones, and they supposedly verify that the bones are His (in this hypothetical, by comparison with the DNA in the Shroud of Turin). Science then will have proved that He died and did not rise. Would you believe this scientific evidence? Would you abandon the Christian faith? No? They why abandon the teaching of Vatican I and the many past teachings of the Church on the same point as listed here? It is an article of faith that Popes cannot teach any grave error, that is, when exercising the Magisterium — whether infallibly (no possibility of error) or non-infallibly (no possibility of grave error). No argument from some person with an axe to grind — i.e. seeking a way to justify accusations against Pope Francis — should be accepted, regardless of the contents of the claim. Stand on faith and reject these arguments.

Second, even if past Popes did so fail in faith that they had committed apostasy, heresy, or schism, idolatry, sacrilege, or blasphemy, a counter-factual hypothetical, that does not proves that Pope Francis has so failed.

Third, the body of Bishops supports Pope Francis in all that he says and does. The dogma of the indefectibility of the Church certainly implies that the body of Bishops could not continue to follow an apostate, idolatrous, or heretical Pope, otherwise the Church would have gone astray. The support that Francis has from the body of Bishops exonerates him, as otherwise the indefectibility of the Church would be broken.

In addition, when the subject is such an important question as to whether the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, can lead the faithful away from the path of salvation by teaching heresy, it is not acceptable to condemn the very office of the Roman Pontiff, by the conclusion that they ALL were subject to the possibility of heretical error, with arguments that leave open reasonable doubt. Saint Bellarmine and many others in the history of the Church have exonerated Pope Honorius, therefore, his case cannot be used to prove that all Popes are subject to the possibility of heresy in their teachings. One cannot reach such a severe conclusion without A PROPORTIONATE CASE, and that means absolute proof, and not a set of examples, each of which has already been refuted by faithful Catholics.

Therefore, it is of no use to present such arguments. They will never be able to be presented beyond doubt, as is needed for the evidence to be proportionate to the gravity of the matter. So such arguments are not fit for the question.

It’s like asking someone to take a medication that some say is poison. It will never be sufficient to point out that some others say it is not poison. If there is any reasonable chance it might be poison, you don’t take it.

No Popes have ever committed heresy or apostasy or idolatry. Faith requires us to believe that it is impossible. Therefore, I stand on faith. Those of you who think you can reason your way into Heaven, good luck with that.


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1 Response to The Argument from Past Papal Error is not Valid

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you for another important and helpful article. I like your emphasis on the prevenient grace of God protecting the popes from heresy. In a similar way, Bellarmine and Suárez expressed their confidence in the protection of divine providence from there ever being a heretical pope. In fact they both came to believe there cannot be (non posse) such a heretical pope.

    In Book 4, chapter 6 of De Summo Pontifice,, when speaking of the Pope as a particular person, Bellarmine maintains that “it is probable and can piously be believed that the Supreme Pontiff not only cannot err as a Pontiff, but also that as a particular person he cannot be a heretic, by obstinately believing something false contrary to the faith.”

    Bellarmine then provides two proofs for this position. First, “because the gracious disposition of divine providence seems to require it. For the Pontiff not only should not but cannot preach heresy, but also should always teach the truth, and without doubt he will do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brothers” (Nam Pontifex non solum non debet nec potest haeresim praedicare, sed etiam debet semper veritatem docere et sine dubio id faciet, cum Dominum illi juserit confirmare fratres suos). The second proof is from the events of the past (ab eventu): “Because there has never been a heretical pope up till now, or certainly it cannot be proved that any Pontiff was a heretic. Therefore, this is a sign that it cannot happen.” (ergo signum est, non posse est).

    The Jesuit theologian Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) argues that not only could God prevent a heretical pope from harming the Church, but by His divine providence it seems more likely that He would also insure that there would never be such a heretical pope.On whether a pope could fall into heresy, Suárez says: “Even though many affirm this as more probable, nevertheless to me (in brief) it seems more pius and more probable that a Pope could indeed err as a private person out of ignorance but not out of contumacy. For although God is able to prevent a heretical Pope from harming the Church, nevertheless it is more agreeable to the way of divine providence that—since God has promised that the Pope would never err in his definitions—He would insure that there would never be such a heretical Pope. And since up till now there has never been one in the Church, it should consequently be thought that, by the ordination and providence of God, there cannot be one.” De Fide, disp. 10, sect. 6, no. 10: Opera Omina, Vivès ed. Vol. XII, 319.
    (Quod licet multi verisimiliter affirment, mihi tamen breviter et magis pium et probabilius videtur, posse quidem Papam, ut privatam personam, errare ex ignorantia, non tamen ex contumacia. Quamvis enim efficere Deus possit ut haereticus Papa non noceat Ecclesiae, suavior tamen modus divinae providentiae est, ut, quia Deus promisit Papam definientem numquam erraturum, consequentur provideat ne umquam ille haereticus sit. Adde, quod hactenus in Ecclesia numquam accidit, censendum ex Dei ordinatione et providentia accidere non posse).

    What these two Jesuit theologians believed could not happen was confirmed by Vatican I’s affirmation of the “charism of truth and of never-failing faith” conferred upon Peter and his successors (Denz.-H, 3071). We need to thank God for this charism given to Peter and his successors and have faith it this special charism.It’s very sad that certain bishops and theologians today are undermining faith in this clear doctrine of the Catholic Church.

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