If the Pope is accused of heresy, how do we decide if the accusation is true?
My readers know that the dogmatic answer is that each Pope has the charism of truth and never failing faith, and that his Apostolic See (the Pope’s use of the Keys) is always unblemished, never succumbs to heresy, and never wanders from the path of Apostolic tradition.
But let’s take the point of view of the papal accusers, or in this case the “papal deposers”. So in the rest of this post, I’ll assume a counter-factual hypothetical that Pope can commit heresy. What would THAT Church be like?
Is heresy manifest? If you are faithful and knowledgeable, heresy should be manifest in many cases. But the Holy Spirit teaching through the Church surprises us. The wording of a dogmatic definition, even of a teaching of the Church that seems settled doctrine, can sometimes have a subtle additional wisdom that shows the Spirit at work.
We have Ecumenical Councils and a Roman Pontiff so as to settle disputes about what is heresy and what is dogma. The holy Abbott Joachim accused Peter Lombard of heresy. The Fourth Lateran Council decided against Joachim, but did not condemn him of heresy, because he submitted his mind and heart to whatever the Council would decide. His position was heresy, though.
It is not always clear to the fallen sinner what is and is not heresy. Vatican II is accused of teaching heresy. But Ecumenical Councils are the way that the Church decides between dogma and heresy, so that can’t really be true. If Popes can teach or commit heresy, then how do you know which teachings are true and which are false? You would have to pick and choose, based on your own judgment, which Popes and Councils to accept.
To be dogma, to be required believe with divine and catholic faith, a teaching has to be both in Tradition or Scripture AND be taught by the Magisterium infallibly. But if Popes and Councils can err to the extent of heresy, we lose our way of determining what is dogma and what is heresy.
Then it is said that Popes and Councils cannot err when teaching infallibly, but this is also a matter of dispute. Paul VI stated, in his letter to archbishop Lefebvre, that Vatican II did teach infallibly along with some non-infallible teachings. The same people who say that Pope Honorius MUST have been guilty of heresy because the Sixth Council (supposedly) said he was, also do not accept the teachings of the 21st Council (Vatican II). Decisions of prudential judgment of a Council are often said to be fallible and subject to even grave error (though I disagree on that point). So why believe the 6th Council on Honorius, but reject Vatican II on dogmatic matters?
Once you say that Popes can teach heresy, Councils also become a matter of doubt, as nothing is of a Council unless approved by the Pope. The Council of Chalcedon was approved, except for Canon 28. You have pulled the rug out from under the Magisterium, if you say that Popes can teach heresy. We then do not know what is or is not dogma or heresy, since all is in doubt.
Back to the idea of Manifest Heresy: Saying that Christ has only one will is heresy. Honorius used the phrase “one will” in speaking of Christ. Is that manifest heresy? Ss. Bellarmine, Maximus the confessor, Pope John IV all say, No. Honorius meant one will in his human nature, not the type of will in fallen humans that is divided by concupiscence. Pope Saints Agatho and Leo II did not agree with the 6th Council that Honorius taught heresy.
By the way, and this is an important point, Vatican I used language clearly taken from the Letter of Pope Saint Agatho to the Sixth Council in its dogmatic pronouncement that the Apostolic See is unblemished by error. And that Letter argued that Honorius was innocent of heresy. So the fathers of Vatican I seem to have taken the side of Agatho in the debate about Honorius, that Honorius was innocent of heresy.
Vigano accuses Francis of heresy. I accuse Vigano of heresy. He thinks Francis’ heresy is manifest; I think Vigano’s heresy is manifest.
When fallen human persons are judging whether a statement is heresy, biases can enter the decision. The conservative Catholics judging a liberal Pope are very included to accuse him, and just as inclined to exonerate Vigano.
During the Arian heresy — After the First Ecumenical Council already condemned Arianism and before the Second Council condemned it again — some local Councils of Bishops decided in favor of Arianism and against correct dogma. A Council had already condemned Arianism, and yet it did not seem manifest to many Bishops that Arianism was heresy. Athanasius was forced into exile by Arian Bishops and the Roman emperor.
Heresy should be manifest. But when a Pope is accused, to say that the position of the accusers is “manifest” or “obvious” would be rejected even from the courts of the unbelievers. A prosecutor would be kicked out of court for saying that his accusations against the defendant are obvious, and so requires no case and no judgment of that case. But that is essentially the claim of those who say Popes can be deposed for “manifest heresy”. You have to prove your case against the Pope. You can’t simply assume that you are right, and he is wrong, and then expect a process to go forward, without a case being presented and judged, for the removal of an “obviously heretical Pope”.
But what if a Pope teaches that Confession in kind and number, a dogma, no longer requires “number”? What if a Pope teaches that contraception is only immoral within marriage? What if a Pope were to teach that only persons who receive the formal Sacrament of Baptism with water are children of God by spiritual adoption? Those are all examples of heresies that have been taught by conservative Catholics, and the conservative subculture did not disagree or even seem to notice.
If Popes can teach heresy, and are to be removed, then some person or group must judge, infallibly, whether or not that teaching is in fact heresy. But the removal of a Pope for heresy puts all of his past teachings in doubt, and might invalidate his approval of a Council. So the person or persons who judge the Pope in a case of heresy must be infallible in that judgment. The only persons who can exercise infallibility, other than the Pope, would be…God. An Ecumenical Council can err to the extent of heresy, apart from the approval by the Pope of the Council’s teaching. Without a Pope to guide and approve of the Council, it is not able to teach infallibly, and it is not able to judge a case infallibly. And no other body or persons have infallibility to judge the Pope, except God.
If God were going to set up a situation where Popes can be judged and removed, the judge would need freedom from heresy himself. So why not just give that gift of freedom from grave error to the Pope himself? And that is what God has done. No Pope can teach or commit heresy. It has never happened, and it will never happened, due to the charism of never failing faith.