The Great Theological Question of Today

The great theological controversies of the Church’s past, and the great heresies and schisms, often boiled down to a single question. Does Christ have one will, or two? Are the Father and the Son of the same substance, or not? [Answers: two wills; same substance]. And we live in such a time, a time when a great schism, based upon a single grave theological question, is tossing the Ark of Salvation upon the waves and threatening the salvation of many. And that question is simple and yet essential to the Catholic Faith:

Does God permit the Roman Pontiff to err gravely on doctrine or discipline, or to fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry?

The answer to that question is the basis for the entire controversy. It can be phrased in other ways: Does God permit Popes to teach or commit heresy? Can the Church and Her leaders go astray and lead us astray? But the central point is the same. To what extent does God absolutely limit the possibility of error or failure of the successors of Peter and the successors of the other Apostles? For the Church is Apostolic.

What If The Answer Is Yes?

Over time, criticism of Pope Francis turned into accusations, and accusations accumulated and worsened. Pope Francis was accused of many grave errors on doctrine and discipline; he was accused of heresy, apostasy, and idolatry. But if you can judge and condemn Pope Francis, why not judge other Popes? And judge they did. Soon other recent Popes were accused of teaching grave error. The canonizations of John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II were placed in doubt. John Paul II was accused of idolatry, for praying with the leaders of other religions at Assisi. And next the papal accusers began to offer lists of Popes prior to Vatican II, whom they accused similarly. Are any Popes above reproach? The papal accusers even put themselves above Saint Peter, to judge and condemn him [1].

As soon as you answer “Yes” to The Great Question, the result is that no Pope is trustworthy. Any individual Catholic can find something in the words or deeds of that Pope to turn into an accusation of grave error or grave failure of faith. The implicit position of the papal accusers is that we cannot trust Peter or his successors to teach us the Gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully. But they don’t accuse every Pope. So who has the role to judge and condemn or exonerate each Pope? The practical answer is: any conservative Catholic with an online following. If a liberal Catholic were to judge and condemn Pope Saint Pius X for some alleged errors, the papal accusers would vehemently reject such a claim. It’s only the conservatives and traditionalists who have given themselves this role above the Roman Pontiff.

What about Ecumenical Councils? The criticism of Vatican II from conservatives escalated, until some accused the Council of heresy, and others said the Council should be rejected “en bloc”. Then Vatican I was accused of ultramontanism, and worse.[2] Are any Councils still secure against these accusations? It is like the situation with Popes, where the accusers decide which Councils to reject and which to exonerate. They do not accuse the Council of Trent.

Or do they? When Pope Francis extended the term “children of God” beyond Christians, some papal accusers responded by claiming that only baptized Christians are children of God by spiritual adoption. But as it turns out, that latter position is a heresy; it contradicts the dogma of the Council of Trent. For those who receive a baptism of desire are children of God by spiritual adoption, as are those who receive a baptism of water [4]. So the children of God by spiritual adoption include many persons who are not baptized Christians.

In addition to accusing Popes and Councils, the papal accusers have brought very many complaints against a large number of different Bishops, especially those supporting the Pope. So the body of Bishops is also treated as an unreliable Teacher and Shepherd of the faithful.

Then, finally, the Church Herself was said to have been leading the faithful astray for many years. A particular book, “Infiltration” by Taylor Marshall, claimed that the Church has been infiltrated by evil men, as a result of a Satanic plot — and that the conspiracy was successful in perverting the doctrine and discipline of the Church across many Popes, over the course of 150 years.[3] This book has become very popular among the papal accusers. It is like their Bible.

But of course, the Church is indefectible. She is the body of Christ, with Christ Jesus has Her Head and with the Holy Spirit as Her soul. To accuse the Church of being infiltrated by Satan at the highest levels, such that her doctrines and discipline would be from evil, and not from God, is not only heresy against the dogma of indefectibility, it is also blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The body of Christ cannot be possessed by Satan, nor can the Church go astray or lead astray [Mk 3:22-29; Mt 16:18-19].

Notice the progression. If one Pope can teach or commit heresy, then they all can. If Popes can err so gravely, then so can Ecumenical Councils, as nothing is formally “of a Council” unless approved by the Pope. And since a Council is the body of Bishops gathered with and led by the Roman Pontiff, if Popes and Councils can go astray, then so can the body of Bishops.

And what is left? If Popes and Councils can err gravely on discipline and doctrine; if Popes can teach or commit heresy, or even be guilty of apostasy or idolatry; if Ecumenical Councils can have their doctrines nullified; and if the Church Herself can be infiltrated at its highest levels by Satan or by a conspiracy of evil men, then the Catholic Faith is shattered into ten thousand shards. Each person believes whatever they wish. If the Pope, the body of Bishops, or the Ecumenical Councils teach the contrary, the “faithful” can accuse them of erring, to any extent, and of failing in faith. Each Catholic then believes whatever they wish. The foundation of the Church would be Sand, and not Rock. The Ark of Salvation would become lost at sea and would sink in a storm.

All this results from the answer to The Great Theological Question, only if the answer is “Yes, Popes can teach and commit heresy”.

And while some papal accusers state a hope for a future conservative Pope who will set things right, how would that be done? The number of accusations, the number of Popes and Councils accused, would require such a future “great Pope” to correct multiple Ecumenical Councils and to issue very many corrections against the teachings of dozens of prior Popes. How is that a solution? On what basis would we believe a single future Pope, speaking against multiple Ecumenical Councils and against many of his predecessors? Such a proposal is not a solution. If Popes and Councils can err gravely, then no Pope future Pope would be any less susceptible to grave error. Then if you follow him instead of the past Ecumenical Councils and many past Popes, you are really just following a conservative subculture, not the teaching of the Church.

The only solution to the problem is found by answering the question in the negative.

What If The Answer Is No?

What would the Church be like if God does not permit Popes to err gravely on doctrine or discipline, or to fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry?

We could then trust every Pope not to err gravely on doctrine or discipline, and never to fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. And since Ecumenical Councils require approval of the Roman Pontiff for the decisions on doctrine and discipline, we could also trust Ecumenical Councils, just as we would trust the Pope. Then the body of Bishops, being the successors to the Apostles in our Apostolic Church could also be trusted in the same way, as long as they remain in communion with, and obedient to, the Roman Pontiff. Each Pope and the body of Bishops and every Ecumenical Council would be indefectible (unable to err gravely and unable to fail in faith). And this would secure the indefectibility of the Church beyond any doubt.

Which blueprint would God choose for the sole Ark of Salvation? Which plan would Jesus Christ choose for the foundation and structure of His own body, the Church? And which plan causes the Church to be like a House built on a Rock, versus on Sand?

It is already clear, then, that the answer must be “No”. God does not permit Popes, the body of Bishops as a body, the Ecumenical Councils, or the Church to err gravely on doctrine or discipline, or to fail in faith.

But there are those who would still argue and object.

Reply to Objections

* Perhaps God is unable to prevent such errors and failures in the Pope, due to free will?

God is all-powerful, and so He can prevent Popes from teaching grave error and from failing in faith. To say otherwise is blasphemy, as if God were weak. Neither is it contrary to free will to preserve the teachings and decisions of the Pope from grave error, as it is not contrary to free will to preserve the Pope from all error in infallible teachings or in dogmatic facts. Then we know that all the holy souls in Purgatory are preserved by the grace of God from all sin, even though they have free will (and do not have the Beatific Vision of God yet). So God can prevent the Pope from committing only certain particular sins against faith (apostasy, heresy, idolatry, any grave failure of faith). Therefore, it is not contrary to free will, nor to the plan of God for human persons for God to sometimes intervene to prevent error or failure in faith.

* The papal accusers will reply that it is a matter of fact that some Popes have erred gravely in doctrine or discipline, that some Popes have committed heresy, apostasy, and idolatry, and that some Councils have erred gravely, particularly Vatican II. And they have already publicly proposed many such cases.

The weakness in their position, of course, is that every such accusation is a matter of prudential judgment. Saint Robert Bellarmine argued that every Pope accused of grave errors in teaching or of grave failures in faith was innocent. Why should we believe the evaluation that claims a Pope is guilty?

Did Pope Marcellinus actually sacrifice to idols and apostatize from the Faith? Well, he has been revered by the Church for many centuries as a Saint and a Martyr — who died refusing to commit those very same acts. So I conclude he did not commit those acts.

Did Honorius teach heresy in his two letters to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople? Saint Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, believed Honorius to be innocent. And Cardinal Manning, a father of Vatican I, noted that many theologians have written in defense of Honorius.

My answer is that nothing is “of a Council” unless approved by a Pope. During the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Pope-Saint Agatho rebuked the Council fathers for accusing Honorius of heresy. His letter teaching that the faith of Peter and his successors can never fail, nor can any Pope lead the Church or the faithful astray, was accepted as among the acts of the Council. It is therefore a teaching of that Council. Then, after the Council, Pope-Saint Leo II accepted all the teachings and decisions of the Council, except the condemnation of Honorius for heresy. Leo II changed the accusation against Honorius from heresy to negligence. And this was done three times, within the three letters sent out to notify the Church and the world that he had approved the Council [cf. Jn 18:38; 19:4; 19:6]. Since the Roman Pontiff is the highest authority in the Church, he can refuse to accept a decision or teaching of a Council, or he can change it. Therefore, the Sixth Ecumenical Council actually did not condemn Honorius for heresy, as that point was rejected by Pope-Saint Agatho during the Council and was changed to negligence by Pope-Saint Leo II in his very letters of approval of the Council.

And I could go through every accusation against every Pope and Council, and make an argument in their defense. But this, too, would be a matter of prudential judgment. The first point is that every such accusation is a judgment that could be mistaken; you cannot prove that any Pope or Council has in fact erred gravely, nor that any Pope has failed in faith. Can I prove that every Pope and Council is innocent of these accusations? Yes, but not with a prudential argument.

For the second point supersedes the first: the Church has infallibly taught, at Vatican I and in the ordinary universal Magisterium, that the Roman Pontiff cannot err gravely in doctrine or discipline, and cannot fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. And this implies the same about Ecumenical Councils, since the decisions of a Council must be approved by the Roman Pontiff. And then, from the last part of Luke 22:32, we learn from our Lord that the body of Bishops, the successors to the Apostles in the Church that is called Apostolic, also is confirmed in faith, by our Lord and by their fellow Bishop and Chief Apostle, the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, the body of Bishops, only as a body, cannot fail in faith, nor err gravely on doctrine or discipline as well, as long as they remain led by the Pope.

So, even if you cannot think of a proper defense for a particular accusation against a Pope, you need only stand on faith. For the teachings of the Faith require us to believe that no Pope is guilty of teaching grave error, nor of failing in faith. The papal accusers cannot prove their case beyond doubt. But the papal defenders have a case that rests upon the infallible teachings of the First Vatican Council and the ordinary universal Magisterium. And whoever reject those infallible teachings is a heretic and a schismatic.

The answer of the papal accusers is that God does permit grave errors in the teachings of Popes and Councils, and that God does permit the Roman Pontiff as well as the body of Bishops (as a body) to fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, and idolatry. But if that answer were correct, then the Faith would not stand. It is very much like the saying of Saint Paul: “If Christ has not risen, then our faith is in vain.”

[1 Cor]
{15:12} Now if Christ is preached, that he rose again from the dead, how is it that some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
{15:13} For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not risen.
{15:14} And if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is useless, and your faith is also useless.
{15:15} Then, too, we would be found to be false witnesses of God, because we would have given testimony against God, saying that he had raised up Christ, when he had not raised him up, if, indeed, the dead do not rise again.
{15:16} For if the dead do not rise again, then neither has Christ risen again.
{15:17} But if Christ has not risen, then your faith is vain; for you would still be in your sins.

If all the sources of truth in the Church can fail to teach truth, then our faith is in vain. We would be left, like the Protestants, to forever argue among ourselves about what to believe. And this is one proof that the answer the papal accusers give to the Great Question of today is wrong.

To whom, then, would we turn for answers to theological controversies? The papal accusers want the faithful to turn to them. They wish to replace the Popes, the body of Bishops, and the Councils as Teachers of the Faith. They wish the faithful to distrust even the Church Herself, so as to trust only them.

Fortunately, their answer is not correct. The wise man builds his house on Rock, not on Sand, and Christ was wise in planning His Church (Mt 7:24-27). The Church is founded on Peter, as on a Rock; therefore, Popes cannot teach grave error, nor fail in faith. God does not permit any Pope to teach grave error, nor to commit heresy, apostasy, and idolatry. The result is that the body of Bishops have their faith confirmed by the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff, as Jesus promised and taught in the Gospel of Luke:

{22:32} But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.”

And since neither the Roman Pontiff, nor the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff, can teach grave error, nor fail in faith, the decisions of an Ecumenical Council on faith and morals cannot err. This answer to the question conforms to the Gospel teaching, and solves all of the problems caused by the claims of the papal accusers.

{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.

The Teachings

For a detailed explanation of the magisterial teaching that Popes cannot err gravely in doctrine or discipline, and cannot fail in faith, see the following articles:

* Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, on the Indefectibility of the Pope
* The Roman Pontiff: Immunity from Error and Never-failing Faith

The answer to the Great Question of our day is found in the teachings of Vatican I. But it is also found in teachings of the Magisterium throughout the history of the Church. And these many teachings confirm that my explanation of Vatican I is not merely one interpretation; it is the meaning of the teaching. So it is not correct to say that Vatican I meant something else by the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, or by an Apostolic See unblemished by any error. In addition, the letter of Pope-Saint Agatho to the Sixth Ecumenical Council was accepted by the Council, and so is a teaching of an Ecumenical Council. And the teaching is the same: “it is the Lord and Saviour of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail” and “under [the Roman Pontiff’s] protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.”

These teachings are the dogma of Vatican I and of the ordinary universal Magisterium. But, if the papal accusers would argue that the level of authority of these many teachings (or rather, many reassertions of the same few teachings) is not infallible, know that the rejection of the authority of the Roman Pontiffs or the Ecumenical Councils is always the sin of schism, by definition. So they cannot hide behind a perverse interpretation of magisterial teaching throughout the centuries.

It is not possible that Vatican II or Pope Francis or any other Pope or Council taught grave error on doctrine or discipline. Nor is it possible that any Pope was truly guilty of heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. For the promises of the Lord are faithful and true.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian


1. Peter is accused in “Magisterial Authority” by Fr. Chad Ripperger, and in, “Lessons from Church History: A Brief Review of Papal Lapses” by Peter Kwasniewski.

2. See, for example,, Peter Kwasniewski, “The Second Vatican Council Is Now Far Spent”, 11 Dec 2019.

3. Marshall, Taylor. Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within.” Sophia Institute Press.

4. Trent, Sixth Session, Decree on Justification, Chapter IV.

This entry was posted in commentary. Bookmark the permalink.