One of my long-time commentators to this blog asked this question in my Christmas Time Q&A:
“Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) writes : “It is beyond question that a Pope can err in matters of faith, and even teach heresy… I say: If by the Roman church you mean its head or pontiff, it is beyond question that he can err even in matters touching the faith. He does this when he teaches heresy by his own judgement or decretal. In truth, many Roman Pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was Pope John XXII (1334)” (IV Sentent, Quaestio De Confirm, quoted by De Boussuet in ‘Oeuvres Completes’ Tome XVI)
“I agree with your position on the Pope, but does this quote mean that he can teach heresy in retrospect (we look back and see he was wrong) or just be a material heretic? I want to know if it is a fake quote too. I was telling people about the Pope being free of heresy and not able to be one today and they gave me this, please help”
I have decided to turn his question and my answer into a blog post. I will lengthen my answer beyond what was stated in the Q&A post.
As I was writing this blog post. I discovered an article in The Old Catholic Encyclopedia, from which it is clear that Adrian did NOT write this when he was Pope. The quote comes from a Commentary (1512) on Book IV of the Sentences of Peter Lombard “which was published without his knowledge from notes of students, and saw many editions.” So some persons published a book without his participation or consent, based on the notes of students. And there were many various editions. Also, it is highly likely, as everyone knows, that some students may have misunderstood or misquoted him.
But even if the book correctly accounts, more or less, what “Pope” Adrian VI said to his students, this occurred long before he became Pope. So that negates any concerns anyone may have, as Popes are not protected from heresy while they are not Pope (i.e. before or after becoming Pope). Adrian was Pope for a short time. Denzinger does not contain any documents from him. He certainly said nothing of the kind while Pope. But I will answer the question above for the light that the answer may shine on Church teaching about Papal error.
First, the Pope cannot teach a grave error on faith or morals as an act of the Magisterium, regardless of whether the teaching falls under the infallible or non-infallible Magisterium. No errors are possible in teachings of faith and morals in infallible teachings, and no grave errors are possible in teachings of faith and morals in non-infallible papal teachings.
Now, can a Pope teach an error that becomes heretical at a later time? In other words, if the Magisterium teaches something as formal dogma years after his pontificate, can he teach an error which would be heresy if he had taught it afterward, but is not heresy at that time he teaches it? Not as an act of the Magisterium. John XXII taught an error as an opinion, in his sermons, on a question that was answered by the dogmatic teaching of his successor, Benedict XII. It would have been heresy if his Pontificate followed, instead of preceded that of Benedict 12.
Could John XXII have taught that error as an act of the Magisterium? It would not be a grave failure of faith for him, as it would not be a grave failure of faith for anyone. For no one accuses Aquinas of a grave failure of faith for his error on the Immaculate Conception (prior to its definition). But it would have been a grave error objectively, and Popes are protected from teaching grave error under the Magisterium, that is, from the Apostolic See, which is ever unblemished. So my opinion is that this type of grave error is not possible for a Pope to teach under the Magisterium — but obviously this type of error is possible for a Pope as his theological opinion. However, it is absolutely clear that John XXII only put forward his position as opinion. Those who say otherwise are ignorant or lying. Read the history of what happened. It was very clear.
So Pope Francis could put forward an opinion that is not an act of the Magisterium, and that is not a heresy, but which later is condemned as a heresy.
Can a Pope teach material heresy under the Magisterium? No. His magisterial teaching is protected from all grave error when non-infallible and from all error when infallible, on faith and morals, of course.
There is no such thing as “a material heretic”. Material heresy is an accusation against an idea. A person who unknowingly teaches material heresy is not any kind of heretic. But the teaching of the Pope is protected from being material heresy because this gift is for OUR BENEFIT. It is more important that the Pope be protected from material heresy than from the personal sin of heresy (but he is also protected from that grave failure of faith). Protecting the teaching of the Pope from even mere material heresy protects many souls from Hell.
Finally, the quote attributed to Adrian VI is students’ recollections and notes of what he supposedly said before becoming Pope. He may have held that opinion, prior to becoming Pope. But so what? We know that Pope Vigilius was an antipope and manifest heretic prior to becoming the true Pope. And once he became true Pope, all heresy was vanquished from his heart and mind by the grace of God.
(By the way, I could not find the quote in the complete words of De Boussuet here — though not finding it is not the basis of my opinion.)
Finally, even if Adrian had said such a thing as a private teacher, prior to becoming Pope, Vatican I infallibly settled the question as to whether or not a Pope can teach or commit heresy. Note that my position on which errors are possible for Popes in magisterial teachings implies that Pope Adrian absolutely could not have written such a thing, as an act of the magisterium, as that position later became heresy.
Ronald L Conte Jr
Notice: I expect proper attribution if anyone writing or posting a video uses the above information that I have published.
Thank you for the exceedingly detailed information and response and happy new years!