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In Defense of Fr. Kramer on Never-failing Faith
This article by Robert Siscoe: Fr. Kramer’s Error Concerning “The Unfailing Faith of Peter” argues against a particular assertion by Fr. Kramer on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff and his freedom from heresy. I will abbreviate his assertion to emphasize the main point that will be discussed here:
So the positon of Fr. Paul Kramer is that Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, teaches that each Roman Pontiff has the charism of never-failing faith, and this necessarily implies that no Pope can fall into formal heresy.
Note that Fr. Kramer believes that Pope Benedict XVI is still the valid Pope, and that Francis is not the valid Pope. I certainly disagree. I consider it a dogmatic fact that Pope Francis is the true Pope, especially since he has been accepted by the body of Bishops, the successors of the Apostles, as the true successor of Peter. The Church being Apostolic, the body of Bishops cannot go astray by following a false Pope, otherwise the Apostolic Church would have defected, which is contrary to the dogma of indefectibility. Also, Pope Francis has the universal peaceful acceptance of the Church, and again the indefectibility of the Church means he must be the true Pope. Despite his error on the supposedly invalid resignation of Benedict, Fr. Kramer is certainly correct on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff and his freedom from heresy.
On the website “trueorfalsepope.com”, Robert Siscoe has argued against this simple faithful understanding by Fr. Paul Kramer of the teaching of the First Vatican Council on the “charism of truth and of never-failing faith”. Siscoe’s position is a grave error, contradicting the teachings of two Ecumenical Councils and the ordinary universal Magisterium. He claims that “Vatican I did not teach, directly or indirectly, that a Pope is unable to fall into personal heresy, nor is it ‘strictly implied’ by a ‘logical necessity’….” Siscoe also calls Kramer’s position “private interpretation of doctrine (backed up by nothing)….” As we shall see, Kramer’s position is “backed up” by the perennial teaching of the Church.
Then the argument of Robert Siscoe, in contradiction to Fr. Paul Kramer, is based on the opinions of a series of theologians. It is a grave error to ignore the teachings of Councils and Popes, in favor of theologians. Ecumenical Councils and Roman Pontiff teach with the authority of Christ, even if their teaching is non-infallible. And these magisterial teachings must be given the religious submission of mind and will, for what is non-infallible, and the full assent of faith for what is infallible. Siscoe ignores dozens of magisterial teachings which contradict his position, and instead quotes the opinions of theologians.
This article will present ample evidence from Popes and Saints and Councils that the never-failing faith of Peter and his successors is the perennial teaching of the Church, and therefore of the ordinary universal Magisterium. At the same time, I will show that the same set of evidence proves the Roman Pontiff and the Apostolic See have always been free from all heresy, according to the same sources. No Pope can ever teach material heresy, nor can any Pope ever commit formal heresy.
Vatican I and Logical Necessity
If a Pope ever fell into heresy, then his See would not have been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine would be dishonored by that heresy. If a person asserts material heresy inadvertently, he might not be guilty of mortal sin. But for the Pope to teach material heresy, under the ordinary Magisterium, would nevertheless cause grave harm to the indefectibility of the Church and the salvation of the faithful. So even the inadvertent teaching of material heresy by the Roman Pontiff is prevented by the prevenient grace of God, for our sake.
If a Pope ever taught or committed heresy, his See would not have remained unblemished by any error. And this freedom from blemish in his See is explicitly linked by Vatican I to the prayer of Jesus that the faith of Peter and his successors may not fail. This gift of faith is personal; it is not an office that has faith, but the soul of a created person. When Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter, in response to Peter’s personal faith in the Son of God, the Lord Jesus showed that the Roman Pontiff is not merely an office, but a person entirely dedicated to God and His Church. When Jesus gave Peter his three-fold commission to feed His sheep, it was in response to Peter’s personal love for the Lord. This charism of truth and of never-failing faith is given to the person, so that his infused theological virtue of faith cannot fail. It is also a gift to his office, so that in the exercise of the Keys of Peter, his teaching cannot gravely contradict the truth.
Note well that the non-infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff, while free from grave error, are not necessarily free from all error. Less than grave errors are possible in non-infallible teachings; but these are not considered to blemish or sully or stain the See of St. Peter. In any case, heresy of any kind would be a blemish on the See of Peter.
The reason for this gift of truth and never-failing faith is our salvation. And as shown above, this charism keeps the See of Peter unblemished by grave error. Therefore, both material heresy, which is contrary to truth, and formal heresy, which is contrary to a never-failing faith, are excluded by the charism.
By logical necessity, if a person has the divinely-conferred gift of truth AND never-failing faith, he cannot be a heretic. For heresy is defined in Canon Law as a failure of truth and faith.
The never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff absolutely excludes heresy, as by definition heresy is a grave failure of faith. It is a failure to give the full assent of faith (called divine and catholic faith) to a revealed truth taught by the Magisterium infallibly, including the teachings of the ordinary universal Magisterium. As will be shown below, the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff and his freedom from heresy and grave error is infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium.
The charism of truth and of never-failing faith cannot be interpreted as applying solely to the use of Papal Infallibility by the Roman Pontiff. First, one does not need a never-failing faith to teach infallibly, as shown by the true prophecy of Caiaphas (Jn 11:51). Second, the ordinary universal Magisterium clearly teaches that the never-failing faith of Peter applies at all times — hence the term never-failing! Third, the purpose of the charism of truth and of never-failing faith is to keep the faithful away from “the poisonous food of error”, which would not be accomplished if the Pope himself could teach heresy whenever he was not teaching infallibly. Fourth, if the Pope could teach or commit heresy, at any time, then his See would not be unblemished, unsullied, and so many other expressions shown below. Fifth, if a Pope were to teach heresy to the whole Church, in some non-infallible magisterial teaching, this would cause grave harm to “the salvation of all”.
Therefore, by logical necessity, the charism of truth and of never-failing faith given to Peter and his successors necessarily must keep the Roman Pontiff from material heresy, which is contrary to truth, and from formal heresy, which is a grave failure of faith, per Canon Law. To claim otherwise is absurd. How can a Pope have a never-failing faith and also be guilty of heresy, one of the most grave failings of faith? When a person commits an actual mortal sin, usually they lose the infused theological virtues of love and hope, but retain the virtue of faith. But if their actual mortal sin is against faith itself, such as by apostasy, heresy, schism, or idolatry, they lose love, faith, and hope Thus, the sin of heresy can cause the total loss of the virtue of faith, and therefore it is incompatible with faith. Heresy is opposed to Faith, as St. Thomas says:
Heresy is contrary to a never-failing faith. And then the Council of Trent teaches:
Apostasy, heresy, and schism are each types of unfaithfulness. By these sins, committed with full culpability, “even faith itself is lost”. So we see that heresy is opposed to faith. And even if a heretic, by confusion of his fallen sinful mind, might fall into heresy without full culpability, nevertheless, the sin of heresy is contrary to the infused theological virtue of faith, which is of the human person not of an office, and therefore the charism of never-failing truth and faith prevents every kind of heresy.
The Letter of Pope Saint Agatho to the Sixth Ecumenical Council teaches that no Pope can fail in faith, and his See is always free from heresy. This excludes formal heresy, as it is contrary to a never-failing faith, and material heresy, which is contrary to truth. Since his Letter was accepted into the Acts of the Council (Acts 18), the teachings of that Letter are the teachings of an Ecumenical Council.
The above quote is from the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, n. 12. The “paper and the ink” refers to the Letter of Agatho. The Council shows its approval by saying that the Pope “the chief Prince of the Apostles was fighting” on their side, and by saying that “Peter spoke through Agatho”. Thus, the Letter of Agatho is a teaching of the Ecumenical Council. And while his Letter is not a formal definition, no Ecumenical Council has ever been known to err on any teaching of faith or morals.
Pope Saint Agatho teaches that the Lord promised “that Peter’s faith should not fail” and that his also keeps the Roman Pontiff from failing in faith. Then he also teaches that the Church cannot go astray, nor be “depraved by yielding to heretical innovations”, specifically because She receives the Christian faith from her successive founders, the Roman Pontiffs, and as a result, She remains undefiled. So we see that the indefectibility of the Church, founded on Peter and his successors, means that the Roman Pontiffs cannot lead the Church astray by teaching heresy. And since “it is the Lord and Savior of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail”, this means that Peter’s faith is secured by the faith of Christ, which implies freedom from heresy. Agatho teaches that the Church never yields to heresy because the Roman Pontiffs have the never-failing faith promised by Christ.
This teaching of Pope Saint Agatho is the teaching of a Pope, of a Saint, and of an Ecumenical Council. And while this next point is opinion, not dogma, it has a firm basis. No Ecumenical Council has ever been known to err on faith or morals:
It is my opinion that the definitive teachings of Ecumenical Councils, even when not dogmatic definitions, are nevertheless infallible. But even if one has a different opinion, the non-infallible teachings of an Ecumenical Council ranks higher than any other non-infallible teaching, and certainly higher than the opinions of theologians, no matter how scholarly or respected they may be. This teaching on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff and his freedom from heresy has been taught so many times by the Magisterium as to be infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium.
The ordinary universal Magisterium
The perennial teaching of the Church is an expression of Her ordinary universal Magisterium, which is infallible. When the Church has always taught the same doctrine, definitively to be held, that doctrine is infallible under the OUM.
Pope Saint Lucius teaches that the Roman Church, that is, the Apostolic See, has never wandered from Apostolic tradition, nor succumbed to heresy, specifically because of the gift of never-failing faith promised by the Lord Jesus in Luke 22:32.
Pope Saint Felix says that this never-failing faith of the Pope, citing the same verse, has kept the Christian Faith unsullied. If Popes could be heretics, this would not be true.
Pope Damasus makes it clear that the First See and the Roman Church refers to the See of Peter and his successors, and that this See has no stain or blemish or the like. But if a Pope taught or fell into heresy, his See would be stained or blemished.
Saint Bernard taught that the faith cannot be lacking in the Apostolate of the Roman Pontiff. But how can “dangers to the faith” be mended there, if the Roman Pontiff could teach or commit heresy? They could not. And again, he bases this teaching on Luke 22:32, which Vatican I interpreted as granting the charism of truth and of never-failing faith to Peter and his successors.
Saint Cyril, in his commentary on Luke 22:32 in the golden catena of St. Thomas, states that this promise of the Lord Jesus guarantees that the Apostolic Church of Peter is free from “all leading into error or heretical fraud”. This is yet another example of the never-failing faith of Peter and his successors impling freedom from heresy.
Bishop Theodotus, a father of the Council of Ephesus who supported Saint Cyril against the Nestorians, taught that the holy See of the Roman Pontiff has authority over all the other Churches because she is always free from heresy.
Pope Saint Gelasius says: The Apostolic See cannot be polluted by any “crack of depravity and altogether no contagion”. These are figures for grave errors on faith or morals, which excludes heresy as well as any other grave error.
Pope Pelagius affirms that the faith of Peter cannot be falsified, nor shaken or changed. This is the never-failing faith of Peter and his successors. And Saint Theodore teaches the promise that the gates of Hell cannot prevail applies to the Supreme See, which holds the “keys of the faith”, and that the words of heretics cannot prevail over that See.
Pope Leo IX taught that the faith of Peter has never failed and up to the end will not faith. But he also teaches that “the comments of all the heretics” have been overcome by the See and Roman Church of Saint Peter and his successors.
Pope Leo XIII taught, in the words of Augustine, that if you dissent from the Roman faith, if you do not teach that “the faith of Rome is to be held” you are not holding the true Catholic faith. This certainly excludes heresy from the teachings of the Roman Pontiff. Pope Leo XIII goes on to teach, in the words of Saint Maximus, that if you do not want to be or to be called a heretic, be in communion with the Roman See. And this, too, implies freedom from heresy in the Roman Pontiff.
There are many more such sources. Find them here.
The above quotations prove that the assertion of Robert Siscoe is false, where he says: “The Church has never taught that Christ’s promise to St. Peter that his “faith will fail not,” means a successor of St. Peter is unable to fall into personal heresy and lose the faith.” There are ample teachings above excluding all heresy from the Roman Pontiff. And then it is clearly implied by a never failing faith that the Pope cannot lose the faith. What greater failing is there of faith than to lose the faith? For Siscoe claims a Pope can “lose the faith”. If the Roman Pontiff were to lose the Faith, then certainly his never-failing faith would have failed, contrary to the promise and prayer of He who can never lie. It is not merely an issue of the Pope holding a private opinion that might err. Siscoe claims the faith of the Roman Pontiff might be entirely lost. He then inexplicably claims that the Vatican I dogma on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff does not imply that a Pope cannot “lose the faith”. And he falsely claims that the Church has no teaching on this subject.
Robert Siscoe versus Fr. Paul Kramer
Again, I do not hold the views of Fr. Kramer (that Benedict is still Pope). But I have to defend him against the false accusations made by Robert Siscoe, who refers to Kramer’s position, that the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff means he is also free from heresy, as “private interpretation of doctrine (backed up by nothing)”. We have already seen above that this position is backed up by the teachings of Popes, Saints, and Councils — and by the very theologians that Siscoe cites!
Siscoe again says: “In response to Fr. Kramer’s assertion (again, back up by nothing) that Vatican I taught that ‘the efficacious prayer of Christ to His Father that Peter’s faith not fail, was also for Peter’s successors, [so that] like Peter, THEIR FAITH CANNOT FAIL,’ we provide the following quotations from theologians after Vatican I.”
The problem here is two-fold. First, Siscoe ignores many sources of higher authority than the theologians he cites — the Magisterium of Councils and Popes quoted above — and instead bases his argument on only the opinion of theologians and a few opinions from Saints writing before Vatican I. Second, theologians do not agree on these questions. So these citations do not prove his position.
Siscoe quotes Cardinal Mazzella as saying: “the theologians and canonists are not in agreement among themselves concerning it,” meaning whether a Pope can become “a heretic as a private person”. So if theologians do not agree, how is Siscoe’s position established to such an extent that he can accuse Kramer of having nothing to back up his contrary position?
Siscoe then quotes Msgr. G. Van Noort (1957): “… with regard to the pope when he is not speaking ex cathedra. All theologians admit that the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith and morals when so speaking: (…) some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy.” (Christ’s Church. p. 294).
Notice the missing text indicated by (…). Here is that text, in full:
“All theologians admit that the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith and morals when so speaking: either by proposing a false opinion in a matter not yet defined, or by innocently differing from some doctrine already defined. Theologians disagree, however, over the question of whether the pope can become a formal heretic by stubbornly clinging to an error in a matter already defined. The more probable and respectful opinion, followed by Suárez, Bellarmine and many others, holds that just as God has not till this day ever permitted such a thing to happen, so too he never will permit a pope to become a formal and public heretic. Still, some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy.” [Msgr. G. Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p. 294, 1957]
Siscoe quotes Noort to establish that “some competent theologians” hold Siscoe’s position. But Siscoe omits from the quote the assertion of Noort that the more probable and respectful opinion, which is held by Bellarmine, is that God has never permitted a Pope to be a formal heretic and that God will never permit such a thing. Well, that backs up Fr. Kramer’s position quite well. But Siscoe leaves that part of the quote out, so that his readers will not know that Van Noort supports Kramer more than Siscoe.
Sisco quotes Horatius Mazzella, S.J. (1915) as saying that theologians disagree on whether a Pope can be a formal heretic. Again, this does not establish the claim of Siscoe and does led support to Kramer’s position, as it implies that some theologians agree with him.
Siscoe quotes Fr. Berry only once:
Fr. E. Sylvester Berry (1955): “The Council declared the Roman Pontiff personally infallible when speaking officially as head of the universal Church, but left untouched the question whether the Pope in his private capacity, or in his official capacity as bishop, primate or patriarch, can fall into heresy or teach heresy. Some theologians maintain that he can. Straub cites Hadrian II and Innocent III as favoring this opinion.” (The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise, p. 273)
Fr. Berry, a theologian, not a Pope or Saint, opines that Vatican I did not decide whether a Pope can teach or fall into heresy. But other teachings of the Church clearly assert that the Pope is free from all heresy. The main problem, though, with Siscoe’s quote from Fr. Berry is that it does not represent fairly what Fr. Berry actually wrote.
First, here is the rest of the quote given by Siscoe. Immediately after writing that Hadrian II and Innocent III favor this opinion, Berry adds:
Berry: “Cardinal Bellarmine, Suarez, and many other eminent theologians consider the opposite opinion more probable. Suarez says: ‘God could provide that no injury would accrue to the Church from an heretical pope, but it seems more in accord with His divine providence to preserve the pope from heresy in consequence of the promise that he shall never err in defining faith. Furthermore, as such a thing has never happened in the Church, we may conclude that, in the providence of God, it cannot happen.’ ” [ n. 478]
Notice that Berry quotes Suarez as explicitly linking the freedom from heresy of the Roman Pontiff to the promise of never-failing faith. This quote, omitted by Siscoe, absolutely contradicts his assertions about Kramer’s position. Again, Siscoe does not give this part of the quote because it undermines his position and supports the position of Fr. Kramer. Siscoe twice asserts that Fr. Kramer’s position is backed up by nothing. Yet it seems clear from Siscoe’s own quotes (and what he chooses to leave out of them), that he knows Fr. Kramer’s position is not baseless.
As for the assertion of Pope Innocent III, I’m not aware of that quote, and Siscoe does not provide it. I’ll see if I can dig it up later.
Further reading in the writings of Fr. Berry
Fr. Sylvester Berry:
“Finally, if a pope, in his private capacity as an individual, should fall into manifest heresy, he would cease to be a member of the Church, and in consequence would also cease to be her supreme pastor. But this is another purely theoretical hypothesis, since no Pope is known to have fallen into heresy, and it is most probable that the vicar of Christ is divinely protected from such a misfortune, although the Church has never defined anything in the matter. ” [ n. 401]
Berry on Honorius:
“the Council of Constantinople condemned Honorius as an abettor of heresy. He had not actually taught any heretical doctrine, but his failure to condemn it promptly and decisively made its propagation easier. This, at least, is the sense in which Pope Leo says that he approved the condemnation by the council….” [ n. 500]
Berry on John XXII:
“Before ascending the papal throne, John had written works in which he maintained that the souls of the just do not enjoy the Beatific Vision until after the resurrection of the body. After becoming Pope, he still maintained the opinion as probable, but distinctly stated that he did so in his capacity as a private theologian. He justified this action on the ground that the question had never been defined by the Church and was therefore open for discussion by theologians. The question of infallibility is in no way involved in the matter, which was not definitely decided until the time of Benedict XII.”
Fr. Berry exonerates Honorius and John XXII from teaching or committing heresy. Those are the two most commonly cited cases to support the claim that a Pope can teach or commit heresy.
Finally, Siscoe quotes a little known Cardinal, and misrepresents his opinion:
Cardinal Alfons Stickler: “In fact, no theologian today, even if he accept unconditionally the infallibility of the Roman pontiff, asserts thereby that the pope, speaking in the abstract, cannot personally become a heretic”
Siscoe: “Cardinal Sticker said no theologian believes a Pope is unable to fall into formal heresy.”
His name is “Stickler”, not “Sticker”. Further, he did not say “no theologian”, but “no theologian today”. And such a broad assertion, made in an article, not a book and not a magisterial document, is unsupportable. What proof is there that “no theologian today” holds the opinion of Bellarmine, Suarez, and all the Popes and Saints I quoted above? Siscoe finds a patently false statement by a Cardinal, and distorts it to sweep away all the examples that Siscoe himself gives (!!!) of statements that theologians disagree, but that the more probable opinion (we read in the omitted parts of Siscoe’s quotes) is that Popes never have and never will fall into heresy.
A single sentence from a single Cardinal does not establish the complete absence today, of an opinion taught by Popes and Saints, as well as many theologians in the not so distant past. What a deceitful use of quotes by Siscoe. The Berry quote omits the Suarez statement that follows. The Van Noort quote omits the middle of the quote. The Stickler quote is an entirely unsupportable claim that contradicts the previous quotes that theologians disagree. And then the teachings of many different Popes is ignored.
As for the position of St. Bellarmine, Siscoe misrepresents it. But this article is already too long. See my past articles on Bellarmine and Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican I.
Fr. Kramer’s position on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff and his complete freedom from teaching or committing heresy is a dogma of the ordinary universal Magisterium. Many theologians also agree that no Pope has ever fallen into heresy, which is a sign that God will never permit any Pope to fall into heresy.
Siscoe’s position contradicts the teaching of Councils and Popes and Saints, misrepresents the opinions of theologians, relies on theological opinion while ignoring magisterial teaching, deceitfully omits text from the quotes he presents, and falsely accuses Fr. Kramer of a position that is “backed up by nothing” when Siscoe’s own sources (and mine) prove that Kramer’s position is well-supported.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian
1. On Councils, book II, chapter 2.
2. De Controversiis, On the Church, Book II, trans. Ryan Grant, Mediatrix Press, 2017, chapter 2, p. 122.
3. Ott, The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma Revised and Updated Edition (London: Baronius Press, 2018), p. 321.
4. Pope Saint Lucius I, Martyr, 253-254, Epist. I ad Episcopos Hispaniae et Galliae
5. Pope Saint Felix I, quoted by Saint Robert Bellarmine. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) p. 157-158, Mediatrix Press.
6. Pope Damasus I, quoted in Ray, Stephen K., Upon This Rock (Modern Apologetics Library: Ignatius Press) p. 85
7. Saint Bernard, Epist. 190 ad Innocentium, Letter to Pope Innocent
8. Catena Aurea of St. Thomas on Mt 16:18
9. Theodoret, Epistola ad Renatum Presbyterum Romanum; translated from the Latin text in: Antonii Possevini de Societate Jesu, Epistola ad Stephanum primum, Poloniae regem serenissimum. Aduersus quendam Volanum haereticum Lituanum, Google Books, p. 86.
10. Pope Pelagius II, writing to the Bishops of Istria, quoted in: Cardinal Manning, The Vatican Council and Its Definitions; p. 88.
11. Willis, The Teachings of the Church Fathers, n. 171.
12. Theodore the Studite, PG 99:1281.
13. In Terra Pax Hominibus, September 2, 1053; Denz. 351.
14. Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, n. 12, 13