Dear Papal Accusers, Was Saint Thomas Aquinas validly Canonized or Not?

My answer is “Yes”, but the position of the accusers of Pope Francis implies an answer of “No.”

My answer is is that the Roman Pontiff who canonized Thomas is the true successor of Peter, and he never departed from the true Faith by apostasy, heresy, or idolatry. Thus, he never lost his jurisdiction, making the canonization of Thomas valid.

But the position of those who say “Recognize and Resist” and those who, in order to build a case against Pope Francis, accuse Pope John XXII of heresy, implies that Saint Thomas Aquinas was not validly canonized. You see, it was Pope John XXII who canonized Thomas Aquinas. But manifest heretics lose all jurisdiction. And that would make John XXII, who held and taught his error both before and after becoming Roman Pontiff, an invalid Pope — if he was a manifest heretic.

On the one hand, some of the papal accusers — those who accuse Pope Francis and other Popes of heresy — say that Pope Francis is not a valid Pope because he is a heretic. And that position is consistent with the teaching of Bellarmine and the Church fathers. But it also means every heretical Pope has lost his jurisdiction, not only Francis — again, if he were a manifest heretic.

On the other hand, certain papal accusers take a Recognize and Resist position, which claims that Pope Francis must be resisted for manifest heresy, but that he is nevertheless the valid successor of Peter. This claim that a manifestly heretical Pope can retain his full authority is untenable. (And, really, they only hold that position so that they will not be seen for the schismatics that they are.)

Now the fifth of the five opinions is called true by Bellarmine, namely, “that a Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction….” [Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis Book 1). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

“All the ancient Fathers”, Bellarmine tells us, “teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction.” So if a Pope could be a heretic, something the Magisterium has definitively decided can never be, but if that were the case, then the Pope would lose all jurisdiction. And neither can one assert, based on a select set of theologians, that an heretical Pope would retain his full authority, as we are forbidden from contradicting the unanimous teaching of the Church fathers, as the Council of Trent taught.

Council of Trent: “In addition, in order to restrain insolent clever persons, [the Synod] decrees that no one, by his own ingenuity, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, shall dare to interpret the same Sacred Scripture, conforming the meaning of Sacred Scripture to his own mind, contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, who is to judge the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, has held and does hold; or even contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers, even if such interpretations were never at any time [intended] to be brought to light. Any who oppose [this] shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and shall be punished with the penalties established by law.”

Did the Church fathers teach that Popes could be heretics? No. See the teachings quoted here. They taught that all manifest heretics in the Church lose jurisdiction, not that Popes could be heretics.

By the way, the meaning of Sacred Scripture in Lk 22:32 has been taught by the Magisterium, by holy mother Church, many times, and it certainly means that no Pope can ever teach or commit heresy, nor fail in faith in any other way, nor err gravely in doctrine or discipline, as all these errors are contrary to the fullness of the true Faith and therefore contrary to the charism of never-failing faith given to Peter and his successors. This is taught by many Popes and Saints, as well as by multiple Ecumenical Councils.

But the point here is that “the unanimous agreement of the Fathers” is that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction. Therefore, those who accuse ANY Pope of heresy must either contradict the Fathers and the Council of Trent, and claim that the head of the Church is a heretic who nevertheless has authority over them, which is absurd, or admit that every Pope whom THEY accuse of heresy must have lost all his jurisdiction.

But said loss of jurisdiction, in the case of Pope John XXII, would make his canonization of Saint Thomas Aquinas invalid, as only the Roman Pontiff can canonize a Saint. And John XXII held his error before and during his papacy, including during the time of the canonization of Saint Thomas Aquinas, on 18 July 1323. If John were in manifest heresy, he would not have had the jurisdiction to canonize Thomas.

Again, my position is that no Pope can ever teach or commit heresy. But since Pope John XXII erred, how can he not have been a heretic? His error, as Saint Francis de Sales also says, was a personal one. And this is clear from the historical situation. Pope John XXII taught the error that the departed faithful, upon entering Heaven, do not yet have the Beatific Vision, until the general Resurrection.

Fr. E. Sylvester Berry explains: “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.” [The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise, n. 500.]

Pope John XXII was clear that he was only expressing an opinion. He permitted and encouraged theological arguments on both sides. He stated he would work towards a decision under the Magisterium. He changed his position before he died to the correct teaching. And it was left to his successor to define the dogma, that the faithful have the Beatific Vision as soon as they enter Heaven, and they do not have to wait for the general Resurrection in order to have the Beatific Vision.

John’s error was not heresy, as the dogma was not yet defined by the Church. Some try to make the majority opinion into a type of pseudo-dogma, but that is not the case. Pope John XXII was not bound by the majority opinion of theologians, nor are the faithful. And we cannot expect Popes, in their private theological opinions, to be either infallible or to anticipate future dogmas of the Magisterium. A Pope is not a crystal ball for predicting future dogmas. So John’s error was in his private theology, on a matter not yet defined by the Church.

But those who accuse many Popes of heresy, including Pope Francis, are caught in a dilemma. They cannot say that a Pope whom they accuse of manifest heresy retains his jurisdiction, for this contradicts Bellarmine and the Church fathers. Nor can they say that a manifestly heretical Pope loses his jurisdiction, as then they would be seen as rejecting the authority itself of Pope Francis, breaking their communion with Rome, and would be known by all as schismatics. As it stands, they pretend the Pope retains his jurisdiction, so that they will not be seen for the schismatics that they are. For they argue against Pope Francis at every turn, on doctrine and discipline, adhering to nothing he decides based on faith or religious assent. They only accept what is in agreement with their own minds, and this extends even to Vatican I and II, as well as to all the recent Popes from John 23 onward. Nothing could be more clearly heretical and schismatic.

I should also point out that St. Thomas argued against similar heretics and schismatics in his day. Certain scholars claimed that the authority of the Pope was limited, and that if they considered anything he taught or decided to be against doctrine or against the traditional structures of the Church, they would claim that the Pope exceeded his authority. And St. Thomas refuted them (as explained by Ulrich Horst, O.P.) by saying that “the pope enjoyed an authority in matters of doctrine because the Roman church is the ‘mother of faith’,” and that “Christ gave the church this privilege ‘so that all would obey her like Christ.’ ” [The Dominicans and the Pope, p. 10; inner quotes are from St. Thomas.]

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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2 Responses to Dear Papal Accusers, Was Saint Thomas Aquinas validly Canonized or Not?

  1. Robert L Fastiggi says:

    Thank you, Ron, for this perceptive and persuasive article. You are quite correct that John XXII’s opinion was on a matter not yet defined by the Church. The Profession of Faith read out at the 1274 Second Council of Lyon stated that the purified souls of the faithful departed “are received immediately into heaven” (Denz.-H, 857). The Profession, however, took no position on whether the blessed souls experience the full beatific vision in heaven prior to the general judgment. By the 13th century, however, the general theological consensus was that the souls in heaven do enjoy the full beatific vision prior to the general judgment. This opinion was upheld in 1241 by the University of Paris and later by St. Thomas Aquinas (ST Suppl. q. 92, a. 1–2), but it could not claim the status of a definitive magisterial judgment. It should also be noted that John XXII himself affirmed the position of the full beatific vision in his bulls of canonization of 1317, 1320, and 1323 (cf. X. Le Bachelet, “Benoit XII” in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique [DTC] 2:659). John XXII’s subsequent study of Scripture (Rev. 6: 9–11), the Church Fathers, and theologians such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux led him, though, to a different position, which he presented in three homilies of 1331–1332. As Joseph Ratzinger writes: “In the texts of the fathers he [John XXII] discovered the doctrine of waiting for heaven which, as we have seen, dominated the entire patristic period and could still be found, in living continuity with that period, at more than one point in the works of Bernard of Clairvaux [c.1090–1153]” (J. Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 2nd. Ed., trans. M. Waldstein, CUA Press, 2006, pp. 136–137). So if John XXII was a heretic so was St. Bernard of Claivaux.

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