Reply to Robert Siscoe

My initial post on this topic is here: The Errors of John Salza and Robert Siscoe on the Papacy. Yesterday (Sept. 16), Robert Siscoe replied with an article on his site: Ron Conte’s Dangerous Errors on Vatican I and the Unfailing Faith of Peter, Robert J. Siscoe (September 16, 2020).

It is fine for various members of the faithful, theologians or not, to disagree with my theological positions and to write contrary views. But Mr. Siscoe has made false accusations which are contrary to fact, and not merely a contrary opinion.

Siscoe: “According to Mr. Conte, this promise not only prevents a Pope from erring when he teaches “ex cathedra” (according to the conditions contained in the dogma), but it ensures that every teaching of the Roman Pontiff will be unblemished by any error, and furthermore will prevent a Pope from falling into personal heresy.”

Wrong. I never said that “every teaching” of a Pope will be “unblemished by any error”. I do believe that the promise of Jesus (Lk 22:32) prevents a Pope from falling into heresy, even a heresy hidden in his heart and mind.

Now, the phrase “unblemished by any error” is found in my article — where I am quoting the First Vatican Council! My interpretation is that this phase has a two-fold meaning: The Pope’s infallible teachings are free from all error, and his non-infallible teachings are free from all grave error. Then, of course, any non-magisterial “teachings” would actually be categorized as theological opinions of the Pope. A papal theological opinion can err, but never to the extent of heresy, due to the charism of truth and never failing faith promised by Jesus to every successor of Peter.

In his article, in the section “Ron Conte and the Old Catholic Heretics”, Robert Siscoe compares me to the Old Catholics (who reject Vatican I) and he says the following:

Siscoe: “The Old Catholics knew that if they could convince Catholics that every declaration the Pope issued from is pastoral office was necessarily infallible, they could easily convince them that the dogma of Papal Infallibility was false, since such an extreme understanding of infallibility will never hold up to historical scrutiny.”

Of course, as someone who has many times taught from the First Vatican Council, it is clear that I accept Vatican I as well as Vatican II. Further, I believe that the non-infallible teachings of Popes can err, though not to a grave extent. And I certainly teach that the infallible teachings of the Pope, those that fall under Papal Infallibility, are without any error. So the comparison to Old Catholic heretics is incorrect.

Siscoe talks Bellarmine and says: Mr. Conte disagrees. He believes the second privilege guarantees that “every teaching of a Roman Pontiff” is necessarily “unblemished by any error” – not only the ex cathedra pronouncements – but every teaching of a Pope.

I don’t remember writing that. Hmmm.

Google: No results found for “every teaching of a Roman Pontiff” site:ronconte.com.

That’s right, readers. The quote from Robert Siscoe, where I supposedly say “every teaching of a Roman Pontiff”, that phrase, is phony. Even the two-word phrase “every teaching” is only found in one place in the article to which Siscoe is replying, here: “every teaching of every Ecumenical Council is infallible.” I also could not find the phrase “of a Roman Pontiff” as a phrase in that article, nor the phrase “a Roman Pontiff.”

Now for the quoted phrase “unblemished by any error”. That phrase is found 6 times in my article, 4 times as a quote from the First Vatican Council. The other two times are here, with bolding added:

1. “Can a Pope teach heresy? No. Such a claim is contrary to the teaching that the Apostolic See remains unblemished by any error.”

2. “Therefore, the See of Peter only remains unblemished by any error if the Holy Spirit guard the Roman Pontiff from every heresy at every time, and from every grave error, when teaching non-infallibly, and also from all possible error when teaching infallibly.”

Notice that in one of the only two times that I use “unblemished by any error” as my own words, not a Vatican I quote, I clearly state that it means non-infallible teachings are free “from every grave error”, not from every error whatsoever.

Siscoe finds a stumbling block in the teaching of Vatican I that the See of Peter is unblemished by any error, as it is irreconcilable with his view that a Pope can teach or commit heresy. He wants to narrow that teaching to apply only to Papal Infallibility, which is not used by every Pope, nor even by most Popes.

Here’s the implicit view: The See of Peter can always be depended upon as the Rock on which the Church is founded because Peter, once in a great while, teaches without error. But it just doesn’t work. The idea that a Pope can be a heretic and can teach heresy, except when teaching infallibly is not a workable plan for the Church. You know what is a workable plan: the Holy Spirit protects every Pope, even those that are supposedly “bad”, from teaching grave error at any time, and from teaching any error when conditions for infallibility are met. And prevenient grace keeps the faith of Peter from failing, always. With that plan, Peter is a Rock and the Church, founded upon Peter and his successors, is secure.

The plan of the papal accusers is that Popes can be heretics and can teach heresy, so we have to always be on guard against them, as if our Supreme Shepherd could at any time be or turn into a wolf. But don’t worry, little lambs, because you can always count on the infallibility of the conservative theologians. And really, in all seriousness, that is the assumption of papal accusers, that they themselves cannot teach heresy or fail in faith and be heretics because they are conservative. I find this claim that Popes can teach or commit heresy very self-serving, because it is left to the papal accusers to take the role of saving the Body of Christ from the Vicar of Christ by blogging, by the signing of petitions, and by the issuing of “documents” proclaiming alleged truths that the Magisterium has never taught.

Back to what Siscoe was saying.

Siscoe: “If the “gift of truth and never-failing faith” which was “divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See,” guarantees that every teaching of a Pope is necessarily “unblemished by any error,” as Mr. Conte claims, why would the precisely worded definition of Papal Infallibility contain conditions? Why would it say the Pope possesses “the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter” when he teaches ex cathedra, if he enjoyed the same divine assistance when he did not teach definitively?”

The answer is Because the Pope can err in his non-infallible teaching, just not to a grave extent and certainly not to the extent of heresy. Otherwise, if a Pope could teach heresy, then the Council would not have taught that the See of Peter is unblemished by any error. A papal heresy would blemish the See of Peter, whereas a non-grave error in a non-infallible teaching does not blemish the See of Peter. And as to the divine assistance, it varies: when teaching infallibly, he has the divine assistance to avoid all error; when teaching non-infallibly, he has the divine assistance to avoid grave error. But if Peter only has divine assistance when teaching ex cathedra, then he is not often assisted by Christ and would not rightly be called the Vicar of Christ.

The gift of truth and never-failing faith guarantees NOT that every teaching of the Pope is without any error, but that the Pope cannot teach or commit heresy. Teaching heresy is contrary to truth, and committing heresy is contrary to faith, it is a grave failure of faith. So the Pope can err, to a limited extent, in non-infallible teachings. This all works very well as a plan for the Church, as it never leaves the Church to be saved by bloggers and persons who publish books only occasionally available by mail. Rather, it leaves the Church in the hands of Peter, holding the two keys:

{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

If Peter could teach or commit heresy, then the Church cannot be founded upon him, for then the Church would be founded upon heresy and heretics. If Peter could teach or commit heresy, then the gates of Hell would already have prevailed by taking over the See of Peter, as some have now claimed. And if Peter could teach or commit heresy, then he would not have been given the keys to the kingdom. And Jesus would not have permitted the Popes to have such authority, if they could be heretics or teach heresy.

Notice the rhetorical device used by Siscoe. He attributes the teaching of the First Vatican Council, that the See of Peter remains “unblemished by any error,” to me, so that he can attack it. For if he were to accept that teaching, he would have to admit that no Pope can teach heresy (certainly not as an act of the Magisterium), otherwise, his See would be blemished by the grave error of heresy. And then he would have to admit that the charism of truth and never failing faith is incompatible with teaching or committing heresy.

But in any case, unblemished by any error does not mean that papal magisterial teaching is always infallible. And I never taught that error.

The Main Point

Siscoe identifies the charism of truth and never failing faith with the second privilege of Bellarmine. Then he goes on to give various theological opinions on the second privilege. That is a diversion. He is using opinions on the second privilege as if they were commentary on the First Vatican Council, yet these opinions are from before the Council. It doesn’t matter what the common theological opinion is, or was hundreds of years ago, on the second privilege.

We have the infallible teaching of an Ecumenical Council, authoritatively interpreting Sacred Scripture, and specifically interpreting the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. So I don’t care what Fr. Berry taught. Not interested. The topic of discussion is the dogma of Vatican I, which is not only required belief under pain of heresy, but is also the key to deciding whether to accept the teaching of Pope Francis or to reject the current Pope as a heretic and teacher of heresy. And that is why any of Siscoe and Salza’s readers care about this subject at all. They want to know if it is possible for Pope Francis to be a heretic.

Siscoe is not really arguing with me about the second privilege. (Peter was given to privileges by Christ, one for himself only, and the other to be handed down.) He’s arguing that Pope Francis can be and is a heretic. He’s arguing that Pope Francis can and has taught heresy. That is the subtext. A subtext that, in this case, is screaming at the top of its lungs. So let’s not ignore it. The Main Point is that Vatican I infallibly taught, that the Promise of Jesus to Peter is that every Pope will have the grace (prevenient grace) to avoid teaching or committing heresy. But instead of teaching this truth as a negative: Popes cannot teach or commit heresy, the Council, clearly teaching in the Holy Spirit, taught with great wisdom in the positive, that every Pope has the Charism of Truth and of never-failing Faith. Notice the difference. Instead of God holding the Pope back from teaching evil, God infuses the Pope with faith and with prevenient grace, so that he will teach Truth and be guided and enlightened by the theological virtue of faith — no matter who the Pope may be, even if he sins gravely and loses the theological virtues of love and hope. He will never lose the virtue of faith, and he will never teach gravely contrary to Truth.

This teaching of Vatican I is much wiser and more profound than merely asserting that Popes cannot teach or commit heresy. However, that is a necessary and certain consequence of the Charism. Teaching heresy is contrary to the Charism of Truth, and committing heresy, even privately, is contrary to the Charism of unfailing Faith. And since the threefold Commission to Peter to feed the sheep is to the person of Peter, it makes sense that the Charism of never-failing Faith is to the person and includes freedom from heresy found only in the heart and mind.

The False Ex Cathedra Claim

I’m not going to delve into Siscoe’s irrelevant quotes from non-magisterial sources. But I will point out one grave error that Siscoe makes, which he uses to attack the teaching of the First Vatican Council, his claim that the phrase “ex cathedra”, prior to Vatican I, nevertheless refers to Papal Infallibility. Even today, after Vatican I and II, ex cathedra does not always refer to Papal Infallibility. The Pope teaches from the Chair of Peter at Ecumenical Councils, and his teaching from the Chair also applies to his participation in the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Moreover, Vatican I used ex cathedra broadly, as a synonym for teaching infallibly, but Vatican II used it narrowly, meaning that the Pope is teaching in his magisterial role, and then the other things that Vatican I makes to be parts of ex cathedra broadly considered, Vatican II sets out as distinct conditions in addition to speaking from the Chair. So ex cathedra can refer to the Pope teaching as Pope, i.e. a papal magisterial teaching, and not necessarily teaching infallibly.

But then, prior to Vatican I, the phrase ex cathedra does not refer to Papal Infallibility, but rather refers to magisterial teachings in general. Confusing this point is the fact that, prior to Vatican I, many theologians thought that the teachings of the Pope were always without error (their view, not mine). This view is even found in more recent authors, such as Fr. William Most. So when these authors prior to Vatican I, say “ex cathedra” and speak about the Pope’s ex cathedra teaching being free from all error, they are not actually referring to Papal Infallibility per se. They mean “magisterial” when they say ex cathedra, and they thought that all magisterial teachings of the Pope were infallible.

Before Francis, I recall Fr. Z and Fr. Scanlon opining that Popes could hardly err at all and even non-infallible teachings had very little room for disagreement. Then came Francis, and what a difference a day makes! Many conservatives suddenly changed their view from “the Magisterium never errs” (because if it does err, it isn’t of the Magisterium) to “all Popes can teach and commit heresy all day long”. And they started frantically searching for quotes to support their views. Conservatives used to argue that Popes could hardly err at all, and now they are adamant that Popes can commit heresy. And the point, the subtext, is finding a theological position they can use to accuse Pope Francis of heresy.

Siscoe and Ebert

I love their movie reviews. But I have to say that this latest article, by Siscoe without Ebert, has fallen short of the mark. His claim that I think Popes never err shows he doesn’t have any idea what my position is on the papacy. And his repeated lengthy boring diversions into the opinions of Fr. Berry (whom Siscoe seems to idolize) and other conservative theologians, are merely a way to avoid the main point, which is the Charism of Truth and Never-Failing Faith.

Is Papal Infallibility the same as the charism of truth and of never-failing faith? No. Papal Infallibility does not, strictly speaking, rely upon the personal faith of the Pope. And this charism cannot only be exercised with the rarity of Papal Infallibility. That interpretation fails. Rather, the charism of truth and of never-failing faith is a gift that constantly protects the Church and the Faith. The Roman Pontiff has this charism from the time that he becomes Pope to his valid resignation or death. And it’s wrong to look for guidance to a retired former Pope, or to pre-Vatican I theologians, or to the internet. The Roman Pontiff is the Rock. He holds the Keys. And he has the Charism. These things are incompatible with the claim that a Pope can teach or commit heresy.

The result is that conservative and traditionalist Catholics have to accept that liberal Popes are valid Popes and that their teachings are BINDING on your very soul. Deal with it. Stop acting as if conservatism were Catholicism. Stop throwing an internet temper-tantrum every time a liberal Pope says something liberal. The Spirit prevents the Pope from teaching or committing heresy, by a positive act, by this grace-filled charism of truth and unfailing faith. So the Church does NOT need to be saved from Herself by bloggers who implicitly assume they are infallible at all times, by ultra-conservative rants from the pulpit, nor by persons like myself. She does just fine with the Roman Pontiffs and the body of Bishops as the successors to the Apostles.

All Brothers

Here’s a new question for you, Robert Siscoe: What are you going to say if Pope Francis teaches, in his next encyclical (All Brothers) that non-Christian believers and non-believers can be saved by Christ without converting to Christianity nor to belief in God? What if he uses Papal Infallibility to teach the same? What will you say about your backed-into-a-corner theological position on Vatican I — that it’s limited to Papal Infallibility — if the Pope teaches an alleged heresy using Papal Infallibility?

“That can never happen.”

Oh, really? Wait and see.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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