The teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior, have been authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church founded by our Lord on Peter as on a Rock, to mean that Peter and his successors, that is, every Roman Pontiff, has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith. Therefore, no Roman Pontiff can ever teach heresy, as this is contrary to the charism of truth, and no Roman Pontiff can never commit heresy, not even as a private person, for this is contrary to never-failing faith. And against those who claim that Popes are only protected from heresy when teaching infallibly are contradicting the Lord Jesus, who said: “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Lk 22:32). The faith of the Pope would truly have failed, if he would ever taught heresy, as teaching heresy to the Church is contrary to faith, or if he would ever believe heresy, even hidden in his heart and mind, as this is contrary to faith.
Both Constantinople III and Vatican I taught the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff. Then the ordinary universal Magisterium, by the constant teaching of the Church throughout the centuries, has taught this same doctrine, that the faith of the Roman Pontiff cannot fail. So how can he teach heresy or commit heresy, while still having a never-failing faith? He cannot. And some teachings of the Magisterium specifically refer to the freedom of the Roman Pontiff from heresy, as will be shown below.
But it must also be understood that the call of the Roman Pontiff is to the person as a whole, and is no mere office. That is why the Lord changed the very name of Simon to Peter, upon hearing his personal assertion of faith in the Son of God. That is why the Lord required of Peter a threefold expression of love, in order to receive the threefold commission to feed His sheep. Faith is a gift to the person, and so a never-failing faith is a person who cannot gravely fail in faith both in his public teaching and in his personal beliefs.
Quotations on the Pope and heresy:
~ My comments and explanations.
Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum 13: “In the same way [Saint] Maximus the Abbot teaches that obedience to the Roman Pontiff is the proof of the true faith and of legitimate communion. ‘Therefore if a man does not want to be, or to be called, a heretic, let him not strive to please this or that man…but let him hasten before all things to be in communion with the Roman See. If he be in communion with it, he should be acknowledged by all and everywhere as faithful and orthodox. He speaks in vain who tries to persuade me of the orthodoxy of those who, like himself, refuse obedience to his Holiness the Pope of the most holy Church of Rome: that is to the Apostolic See.’ ”
~ How can communion with the Roman See be the determinant of whether a Catholic is a heretic, if the head of that See himself could be a heretic? He argues in vain who accuses any Pope of heresy.
Pope Saint Lucius I, Martyr, 253-254: “The Roman Apostolic Church is the mother of all Churches and has never been shown to have wandered from the path of Apostolic tradition, nor being deformed, succumbed to heretical novelties according to the promise of the Lord himself, saying, ‘I have prayed for thee, etc.’ [Lk 22:32]”
~ The Roman Church is the See of St. Peter and his successors, which has never succumbed to heresy, due to the promise of never failing faith in Luke 22:32. Here Pope Saint Lucius specifically teaches that the prayer of Jesus preserves the Pope from heresy.
Theodotus of Ancyra, martyr, fl. 303: “This holy See holds the reign of the Churches of the world, not only on account of other things, but also because She remains free from the heretical stench.”
~ If the Pope could teach or commit heresy, then his See would not be free from “the heretical stench”. Other Sees, even Constantinople, have had their heads fall into heresy, but not the Roman See.
Bellarmine: “If Honorius was a Monothelite heretic, how could [Pope Saint] Agatho disputing in the face of which concerning this very heresy, write that none of his predecessors ever erred?”
~ Bellarmine, Maximus, Pope John IV, Suarez, Cardinal Manning, and many others held that Honorius never taught or committed heresy. As Pope Saint Leo II ruled, Honorius’ error was negligence, not heresy.
Pope Saint Agatho, 678-681: “because the true confession thereof for which Peter was pronounced blessed by the Lord of all things, was revealed by the Father of heaven, for he received from the Redeemer of all himself, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church; under whose protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error, whose 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; and all the venerable Fathers have embraced its Apostolic doctrine, through which they as the most approved luminaries of the Church of Christ have shone; and the holy orthodox doctors have venerated and followed it, while the heretics have pursued it with false criminations and with derogatory hatred. This is the living tradition of the Apostles of Christ, which his Church holds everywhere, which is chiefly to be loved and fostered, and is to be preached with confidence….”
~ How can the Apostolic Church “of his”, that is, of Peter and his successors, never turn away from the path of truth, meaning never fall into grave error, if the Pope could teach or commit heresy? Such a thing cannot be.
Agatho: “For this is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of Almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, 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, according to the divine promise of the Lord and Savior himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, ‘Peter, Peter, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for thee, that (thy) faith fail not. And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.’ Let your tranquil Clemency therefore consider, since it is the Lord and Savior of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, how it is known to all that the Apostolic pontiffs, the predecessors of my littleness, have always confidently done this very thing: of whom also our littleness, since I have received this ministry by divine designation, wishes to be the follower, although unequal to them and the least of all.”
~ The reason the Apostolic Church of Christ, does not fall into “heretical innovations”, teaches Pope Saint Agatho in his letter to Constantinople III, accepted into its acts (Acts 18), is that She receives the Faith from Her founders, the Popes. For each Pope has a never-failing faith, and that faith is the Lord’s faith: “the Lord…whose faith it is”. The faith of each Roman Pontiff is, in some mystical sense, the faith of the Lord.
Pope Saint Leo IX: “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?”
~ How can the words of the heretics be recognized, to be disapproved, be rejected with authority, and be overcome by the Roman Pontiff, if he can teach or commit heresy. They cannot. And we know that when the Church condemns heresy, by a Roman Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council approved by the Roman Pontiff, this condemnation cannot have the full authority of the Church without the Roman Pontiff.
~ Then Pope Saint also teaches directly that this ability to recognize, reject, and prevail over heresy is based on the charism of never-failing faith. But heresy is a failure of faith. Thus, the faith of the Roman Pontiffs, which has never failed and up to the end cannot fail, certainly cannot err by heresy.
Saint Thomas quoting Saint Cyril: “According to this promise of the Lord, the Apostolic Church of Peter remains pure and spotless from all leading into error, or heretical fraud, above all Heads and Bishops, and Primates of Churches and people, with its own Pontiffs, with most abundant faith, and the authority of Peter. And while other Churches have to blush for the error of some of their members, this [Apostolic Church of Peter] reigns alone, immovably established, enforcing silence, and stopping the mouths of all heretics; and we, from the necessity of salvation, not drunken with the wine of pride, confess, together with it, the formula of truth and of the holy apostolic tradition.” [From the golden chain of Saint Thomas Aquinas, attributed incorrectly to Saint Cyril, but approved by Thomas.]
~ The Church “of Peter” is free “from all leading into error or heretical fraud”. And this means that not only can the Pope never teach or commit heresy, but also that he cannot err gravely in doctrine or discipline. For how would the Church of Peter, the Roman See, stop the mouths of heretics, if the Pope were a heretic? That cannot be.
Bellarmine: “I respond: there are five opinions on this matter. The first is of Albert Pighius, who contends that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place.”
Bellarmine: “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.”
Bellarmine: the Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy.”
~ Saint Robert Bellarmine believed that no Pope can ever teach or commit heresy, for the following reason:
Bellarmine, cited by Bishop Gasser in the relatio of Vatican I; book 4, chapter 6: “THE FOURTH proposition. It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as Pope can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith.
It is proved: 1) because it seems to require the sweet disposition of the providence of God. For the Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: ‘I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,’ [Lk 22:32] that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne.”
“How, I ask, will a heretical Pope confirm the brethren in faith and always preach the true faith? Certainly God can wrench the confession of the true faith out of the heart of a heretic just as he placed the words in the mouth of Balaam’s ass. Still, this will be a great violence, and not in keeping with the providence of God that sweetly disposes all things.”
“2) It is proved ab eventu [by events]. For to this point no (Pontiff) has been a heretic, or certainly it cannot be proven that any of them were heretics; therefore it is a sign that such a thing cannot be.”
~ Therefore, the words of Bellarmine, on the mere hypothetical of an heretical Pope cannot be used to claim that Popes can be heretics, as the author of those words firmly believed that was not the case, and the Church has taught the same, throughout the centuries.
Pope Pelagius II, 590 AD, writing to the Bishops of Istria: “For you know how the Lord in the Gospel declares: ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan has desired you that he might sift you as wheat, but I have prayed to the Father for thee, that thy faith fail not, and thou, being converted, confirm thy brethren.’ See, beloved, the truth cannot be falsified, nor can the faith of Peter ever be shaken or changed.”
Pope Saint Gregory I (the great), Doctor, 590-604: “Who does not know that the whole Church was strengthened in the firmness of the Prince of the Apostles, to whom it was said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church … and thou, being converted, confirm thy brethren?’ [Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32]” Saint Bellarmine: “There Gregory clearly teaches the strength of the Church depends upon the strength of Peter, and hence Peter is less able to err than the Church herself.”
Saint Maximus the Confessor, 580-662: “from the incarnate Word’s descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior’s promise, the gates of Hell have never prevailed against her.”
~ The above three quotes again teach that the faith of Peter cannot fail. Then Bellarmine, commenting on Pope Saint Gregory, as one Doctor commenting on another, states that Peter (and his successors) are less able to err than the Church. And this implies freedom from every grave error, not only from heresy. But if heresy were to prevail over a Pope, then the gates of Hell would have prevailed — which is contrary to the promise and prayer of Christ, the Son of God.
Pope Honorius I, 625-638, to archbishop Honorius of Canterbury (c. 634): “We urge you, beloved, to persevere in the work of the Gospel which you have undertaken, as it calls for effort and perseverance on your part rather than shirking. Bear in mind the Gospel precept which says, ‘I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith should not fail; and when you have come to yourself, strengthen your brothers.’ [Lk 22:32] And again, as the apostle Paul says, ‘Be firm and steadfast, knowing that your work is not in vain in the sight of the Lord.’ [1 Cor 15:58] … Meanwhile, you have asked for the powers of your See to be confirmed by a privilege issued on my authority. This we grant freely and immediately…. But if some prelate with inborn arrogance disobeys our command and, acting otherwise, tries to oppose the privileged concessions made to the Church of Canterbury, he must know that he has been cut off from sharing in the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
~ Pope Honorius, often falsely accused of heresy, teaches the never-failing faith of Peter and his successors, and states that those who disobey his command, as a successor of Peter, is cut off from sharing in the body and blood of Christ. Thus, they are not in communion with the Church who are not in communion with the Roman Pontiff.
Pope Saint Leo IX: “Without a doubt, it was for him alone, whom the Lord and Savior asserted that he prayed that his faith would not fail, saying, ‘I have prayed for thee, etc.’ [Lk 22:32]. Such a venerable and efficacious prayer has obtained that to this point the faith of Peter has not failed, nor can it be believed that it is ever going to fail in his throne.”
~ Pope Saint Leo teaches that the meaning of Luke 22:32 is that Peter and his successors can never fail in faith. And this certainly excludes teaching or committing heresy, otherwise it would have no meaning.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Doctor, 1090-1153, writing to Pope Innocent II: “It is fitting that every danger and scandal of the kingdom of God be referred to your Apostolate and especially these which touch upon the faith. For I regard it worthy that there, above all, dangers to the faith are mended, where one cannot think the faith is lacking. For to what other See was it ever said: ‘I have prayed for thee, that thy faith not fail?’ [Lk 22:32]”
~ The See of Peter: where one cannot even think or imagine that the faith is lacking. And to those who say that the Pope can “deviate from the faith”, Pope Innocent III has this to say:
Innocent III: “The Lord confesses at the time of the Passion that he prayed for him: ‘I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail: and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ [Lk 22:32], by this manifestly indicating that his successors would never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith, but rather they would recall others and also strengthen others in such a way as to impose on others the necessity of obeying….”
~ A Pope can deviate from the faith in the sense of erring to a less than grave extent. But when one speaks of deviation from the faith in the sense of any grave error of doctrine or discipline, then Peter and his successors “would never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith”, due to the prayer of Jesus in Luke 22:32.
Pope Pius XII: “After His glorious Ascension into Heaven this Church rested not on Him alone, but on Peter, too, its visible foundation stone. That Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head is the solemn teaching of Our predecessor of immortal memory Boniface VIII in the Apostolic Letter Unam Sanctam; and his successors have never ceased to repeat the same.”
Pius XII: “They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it.”
~ Peter and his successors cannot fall into heresy, for each Roman Pontiff is One Head with Christ. And this is not merely because Christ is the only Head, as of Peter and his successors were not heads, but rather because the mystical body of Christ has a visible head, the Roman Pontiff, which is One with the invisible head, Christ.
There are many more quotes to consider, but these are more than sufficient. No Roman Pontiff can ever teach or commit heresy, nor err gravely in doctrine or discipline, nor fail in faith.
See also: The Heretical Pope Fallacy by Emmett O’Regan
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Thank you, Ron, for this excellent article. It is a good antidote to the position of Bishop Athanasius Schneider:https://onepeterfive.com/bishop-athanasisus-schneider-on-the-question-of-a-heretical-pope/ Bishop Schneider either does not know or he chooses to ignore the position of St. Robert Bellarmine articulated in book IV, chapter VI of De Summo Pontifice. As you note, this was the position endorsed by Vatican I in Pastor Aeternus.