Fr. Zuhlsdorf versus Vatican I

Fr. Z. wrote this post: Of gauntlets, spaghetti wall art, and St. Robert Bellarmine replying to Mike Lewis at Where Peter Is blog and to Dr. Robert Fastiggi.

The post contains a great deal of negative rhetoric and personal attacks on Mike Lewis and other unnamed persons. Finally, near the end of the post, we have some theology:

Fr. Z. “Second, Prof Fastiggi seems to have confused, conflated Vatican I’s teaching about infallibility with the notion that a Pope can never get anything wrong about faith or morals, or anything else, either in private thoughts or public statements, a kind of ultramontanism on piety steroids.

Vatican I didn’t say that Popes can’t err at all. Popes can be wrong, about a lot of things. They can even say in public things that are wrong about faith and morals. While St. Robert Bellarmine personally believed that a Pope cannot publicly teach heresy (he was in the minority on this point), he also admitted that his opinion was not certain. On the other hand, Bellarmine did hold as certain that a Pope cannot define a heretical teaching that the faithful are bound to believe. That is what the Church teaches. That is what Vatican I endorsed. Vatican I didn’t endorse Bellarmine’s (minority) belief that a Pope can’t ever be wrong. Vatican I endorsed Bellarmine’s correct position that Popes cannot err when they define doctrine that must be accepted on faith and morals.”

First, no one holds the straw man argument of zero errors, even “in private thoughts … a kind of ultramontanism on piety steroids”. It is very common for those who accuse Popes of heresy to refrain from even an attempt at a sound theological argument. And it’s not what their audience wants, either.

Now Lewis and Fastiggi take the same position as I do, that of defending the Roman Pontiff based on the teachings of the First Vatican Council, as well as other past magisterial teachings and the teaching of Bellarmine. This post will reply to the above quoted claims by Fr. Z.

I’ll speak for myself here, but I believe Lewis and Fastiggi agree with the general position I take on Vatican I.

Fr. Z. claims that Dr. Fastiggi “confused, conflated” Papal Infallibility with the erroneous idea that Popes never err. I don’t know anyone today who is arguing that Popes never err at all. It is certainly not my view, nor that of Dr. Fastiggi (as I know from reading his own articles and comments here).

Fr. Z.’s reply, the straw man of an entirely inerrant Pope, is often used by papal accusers, to misrepresent the teaching of Vatican I on the “charism of truth and of never-failing faith” of the Roman Pontiff and the teaching that “in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished”.

Another false claim is that Vatican I was only speaking about Papal Infallibility. A reading of the text makes it clear that the Council defined at least several definitions on the Roman Pontiff, in addition to Papal Infallibility. See the bolded teachings in this long quote from Vatican I. It is a grave error for Fr. Zuhlsdorf to so badly misrepresent the teaching of an Ecumenical Council.

But if anyone has any doubts about how to interpret the teaching of Vatican I, read this long list of magisterial teachings with the same doctrines. What Vatican I dogmatized was not new at all. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that the Apostolic See cannot err gravely on faith or morals, and that the faith of Peter and every one of his successors is secured as never failing by the promise and prayer of Jesus in Luke 22:32.

Another error that Fr. Z. makes is in assuming that, outside of Papal Infallibility, a Roman Pontiff can err to any extent, even grave errors on faith or morals, even heresy, apostasy, or idolatry.

Since Popes have the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, they cannot fail in faith by apostasy, heresy, or idolatry. And that same charism of truth preserves every Pope from teaching grave error.

I’ll reply to the rest of what Fr. Z. wrote, point by point:

Fr. Z. “Vatican I didn’t say that Popes can’t err at all.”

Vatican I: “For in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine been held in honor.”

Vatican I: “Indeed, their [i.e. the Popes’] 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 Savior 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 [Lk 22:32].’ ”

The Council did say “unblemished by any error”, but this is interpreted as excluding all grave error, and not literally excluding all error, as errors that are less than grave, in non-infallible teachings, are not considered as blemishes on the See. But notice that this gift of freedom from grave error is, according to the Council, based on the promise of our Lord. So, given the promise of our Lord and the teaching of the Council that the Apostolic See is unblemished by error, we cannot, subsequent to Vatican One, accuse any Roman Pontiff of grave error, nor of failing in faith.

Fr. Z. “Popes can be wrong, about a lot of things. They can even say in public things that are wrong about faith and morals.”

Fr. Zuhlsdorf avoids addressing the teaching of Vatican I. He avoids any reference to the promise of our Lord. There are parts of the Gospel and of infallible Conciliar teaching that have been “ghosted” by the opponents of the Roman Pontiff. They simply speak as if these teachings do not exist. They never mention these teachings to their audience. They never quote these words of our Lord, which they have rejected.

Popes can be wrong, but the extent to which they can be wrong on faith and morals is limited by the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, by the teaching that the Apostolic See will be unblemished, and by the indefectibility of the Church.

It is astounding how many times the papal accusers shout that Popes can sometimes err, while never admitting in any diatribe against a Roman Pontiff that the Pope could be right, and they could be wrong. Each papal accuser assumes his own position is infallible. So while they shout that Popes are not infallible in all that they teach, they speak as if they themselves are inerrant. And if anyone criticizes them, they block them online and ignore them.

Fr. Z. “While St. Robert Bellarmine personally believed that a Pope cannot publicly teach heresy (he was in the minority on this point), he also admitted that his opinion was not certain. On the other hand, Bellarmine did hold as certain that a Pope cannot define a heretical teaching that the faithful are bound to believe.”

This is the Bellarmine canard so often used by papal accusers. Absent the opinions of Bellarmine, the teachings of the Magisterium are absolutely clear: in the ordinary universal Magisterium and in Vatican I. We are NOT living in a Church that possesses only the opinion of Bellarmine. Read Vatican I and the other magisterial teachings, Fr. Z.

And what would happen if Pope Francis were to exercise Papal Infallibility, defining a teaching that the faithful are bound to believe — but which is contrary to the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture? Who thinks that the papal accusers would submit their faith to that teaching? Their excuse for rejecting everything Pope Francis teaches is that it is supposedly non-infallible. But they give every indication that they will reject any infallible teachings he might define.

Fr. Z. “That is what the Church teaches. That is what Vatican I endorsed. Vatican I didn’t endorse Bellarmine’s (minority) belief that a Pope can’t ever be wrong.”

Bellarmine never taught that “a Pope can’t ever be wrong”. And no one who knows Bellarmine’s work would make such a claim. It is wrong and false. It may have been Albert Pighius’ view that a Pope can’t ever be wrong, but not Bellarmine.

Fr. Z.: “Vatican I endorsed Bellarmine’s correct position that Popes cannot err when they define doctrine that must be accepted on faith and morals.”

That is not correct. While Vatican I taught Papal Infallibility, the position of Bellarmine is that a Pope cannot teach or commit heresy. And in the Relatio on Vatican I, this is made clear. So what Fr. Z. asserts is again false.

The Church does not teach that the teachings of Popes are ONLY protected from error when they meet the conditions for infallibility. Popes always have the assistance of the Holy Spirit whenever they teach on faith or morals, but this assistance in non-infallible teachings prevents grave error, and helps fill the teaching with wisdom and truth.

The Church also teaches the charism of truth and of never-failing faith and that the Apostolic See is unblemished, due to the promise of our Lord. And the Church also teaches the following:

Pope Saint Agatho, 680 AD: “For Peter himself received from the Redeemer of all, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church. Under his protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.”

“And his authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things.”

“but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end….”

“…the evangelical and apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith, which has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error….” [Letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council 680 AD]

And many similar teachings of the Magisterium are found here. The teaching of the Roman Pontiffs always keeps the Church indefectible, always keeps the Church from turning in any direction of error away from truth, so that the Church and Her teaching always remains undefiled unto the end.

There are only two possible interpretations of the many magisterial teachings like those above: either Popes are always protected from all error, or always from grave error. My position is the latter: Popes can err in their non-infallible teaching, but not gravely so. Vatican I defined the criteria which must be met when Popes exercise Papal Infallibility, and this implies that non-infallible teachings can err short of those criteria. But Vatican I and many other magisterial teachings have taught on the freedom from error of the Apostolic See so many times, across the centuries, that the only tenable interpretation left is that Popes cannot err gravely outside of infallibility and cannot err at all within infallibility.

And now back to Bellarmine. Here is what was said in the Relatio of Vatican I by Bishop Vincent Gasser. It contains the famous quote on Bellarmine and Albert Pighius. Bishop Gasser explains that Pastor Aeternus is not to be interpreted according to the extreme view of any school, but rather according to the view of Bellarmine, with which Albert Pighius agreed, that Popes are “never able to fall into heresy or teach heresy.” So Popes can err in their non-infallible teachings, but never to the extent of any type of heresy or other grave error.

Very often, when papal accusers quote the Relatio, they use ellipses in a deceitful manner. They explain away what the Bishop clearly states, and then they claim that the Relatio proves their position. Here is the full Relatio. See paragraph 40 for the part about Bellarmine. Here is the full section on Bellarmine versus Pighius:

“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. 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.” 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.”

So Pighius lived a generation before Bellarmine. In fact, he happened to have died a few months after Bellarmine was born. I imagine Pighius, as an elderly man, holding the infant Bellarmine and thinking, no, actually saying out loud: “This kid is going to be trouble.” The thing people need to understand about Albert Pighius is that he was a Catholic theologian in good standing, never accused of heresy. Of course, he and Bellarmine had many views in common. We do not reject everything Pighius wrote. How could we, since he was a faithful Catholic? Perhaps Pighius went too far in some of his opinions. But the position that the Council adopted and “raised to the dignity of a dogma” was one where he and Bellarmine agreed: that no Pope could ever teach or commit heresy.

In any case, even without Bellarmine or the Relatio, the teaching of the Magisterium is clear. The teaching of Vatican I is clear, and it is not only Papal Infallibility, but also the charism of truth and of never-failing faith and that the Apostolic See is unblemished by any error. Then, with many other magisterial teachings along the same lines, we can only hold one of two views: Pope never err, or Popes never err gravely. The latter is the only one that accords with teachings, recent and ancient, that Popes can err to a limited extent.

For example, Pope Saint Nicholas I, “We do not deny that the judgment of this See can be changed for the better….” [Denz. 641.] Then there is the implication from the dogma of Papal Infallibility, that if papal teachings are only free from all error when those criteria are met, there must be some extent of error otherwise. Finally, the U.S. Bishops, in “Human Life in Our Day”, taught “licit theological dissent” and its limits, specifically with regard to Humanae Vitae, a papal teaching. So we can dissent from non-infallible teachings or decisions, to a limited extent, because the extent of errors possible is also limited.

Therefore, Popes can err in non-infallible teachings and decisions on discipline, but never to a grave extent.


Blessed Pope Pius IX, Condemned Error: “22. The obligation by which Catholic teachers and authors are strictly bound is confined to those things only which are proposed to universal belief as dogmas of faith by the infallible judgment of the Church.”

Pope Gregory XI, Condemned Error: “19. An ecclesiastic, even the roman pontiff, can legitimately be corrected, and even accused, by subjects and lay persons.” [Errors of John Wycliffe, Condemned in the Letter Super periculosis to the Bishops of Canterbury and London, May 22, 1377; Denz. n. 1139]

Pope Saint Leo IX, 1053 AD: “By the See of the Chief of the Apostles, namely by the Roman Church, through the same Peter, as well as through his successors, have not the comments of all the heretics been disapproved, rejected, and overcome, and the hearts of the brethren in the faith of Peter — which so far neither has failed, nor up to the end will fail — been strengthened?” [In Terra Pax Hominibus, September 2, 1053; Denz. 351]

Pope Boniface VIII: “9. Moreover, that every human creature is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, we declare, we state, we define, and we pronounce to be entirely from the necessity of salvation.” [Unam Sanctam, 1302; Fifth Lateran Council, 1512-1517]

St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) interpreting the words of our Lord in Lk. 22:32, states that “the true exposition” is that Jesus prayed for a privilege for Peter and his successors that “without doubt” (sine dubio) the privilege has been handed down to Peter’s successors, which insures that “in his chair there would never be found someone who would teach contrary to the true faith” (in sede ejus numquam inveniretur qui doceret contra veram Fidem). [On the Supreme Pontiff, book iv, chapter 3]

Pope Leo XIII, 1890: “And since all Christians must be closely united in the communion of one immutable faith, Christ the Lord, in virtue of His prayers, obtained for Peter that in the fulfilment of his office he should never fall away from the faith. “But I have asked for thee that thy faith fail not” (Luke xxii., 32), and He furthermore commanded him to impart light and strength to his brethren as often as the need should arise: “Confirm thy brethren” (Ibid.). He willed then that he whom He had designated as the foundation of the Church should be the defence of its faith. “Could not Christ who confided to him the Kingdom by His own authority have strengthened the faith of one whom He designated a rock to show the foundation of the Church?” (S. Ambrosius, De Fide, lib. iv., n. 56).” [Satis Cognitum 12]

Pope Blessed Pius IX, 1873, on the writings of those who reject the teachings of the First Vatican Council: “For these writings attack and pervert the true power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, who are the successors of blessed Peter and the apostles…. Incredibly, they boldly affirm that the Roman Pontiff and all the bishops, the priests and the people conjoined with him in the unity of faith and communion fell into heresy when they approved and professed the definitions of the Ecumenical Vatican Council. Therefore they deny also the indefectibility of the Church and blasphemously declare that it has perished throughout the world and that its visible Head and the bishops have erred.” (Etsi Multa 22).

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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3 Responses to Fr. Zuhlsdorf versus Vatican I

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you very much for this article. You understand Vatican I and the position of Bellarmine correctly. I did not have time to write a long rebuttal to Fr. Z, but Dave Armstrong kindly posted some of my comments here: I agree that Popes can commit errors in prudential judgments, and some of their ordinary teachings are subject to qualification and revision. The charism of truth and never-failing faith given to Popes (and affirmed by Vatican I), however, is incompatible with formal papal heresy. If Popes are only protected from heresy in dogmatic ex cathedra definitions then any ordinary papal teaching is potentially heretical. This would undermine what the Church has taught about the “full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the Church” enjoyed by the Roman Pontiff and affirmed by Florence and Vatican I (cf. D-H, 1307 and 3059). Thank you also for the other supporting citations from various Popes.

    God bless you,

  2. Thomas Mazanec says:

    Grave error, and
    Nongrave error

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is for the Church to define the limits of error possible in magisterial non-infallible teachings. However, no errors can lead the faithful away from the path of salvation, as this would be contrary to the indefectibility of the Church.

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