What Is Required When the Pope is Sinful

Every Pope from Saint Peter the Apostle to Pope Francis is a fallen sinner. The Virgin Mary was never Pope. The Lord Jesus therefore did not wish the Roman Pontiff to be the most holy person on earth. Jesus could have chosen to give each Pope the Beatific Vision or at least a type of grace that would exclude all sin or all grave sin; nothing is impossible to God. But instead, Jesus chose to require each Pope to walk the same path of salvation that he must teach and preach. Otherwise, the Pope would be teaching a path of salvation required to reach heaven and to avoid hell, while he himself would have no danger of hell and a different path to walk. That is clearly not fitting. It is better, and this should be clear to fallen sinners and even non-Catholics, to have the Pope be a sinner, just like those he teaches and guides, a sinner who must walk the same path, and who also is in danger of hell if he should sin gravely and not repent.

How should the faithful behave, in cases where the Roman Pontiff commits grave personal sins which are known publicly? A good example of this is Pope Alexander VI, who repented of his grave sins on his death bed, and who then received Confession, Communion, and Extreme Unction. No one accuses Alexander of heresy or other failings of faith.

First, the claim made at OnePeterFive, that a sinful Pope must necessarily be unfaithful and untrustworthy in doctrine, so that his doctrines are corrupted by his sinfulness, is heretical. Jesus established not only that Popes can sin gravely, as they must walk the same path of salvation that Christ preaches through every Pope, but also that every Pope would have special divine assistance, so that, being sinners, they nevertheless would not lead the faithful astray. The papal charisms are certain divinely-conferred gifts given to every Pope, Saint or sinner. And this assistance is integral to the exercise of the Keys of Saint Peter by any Pope, encompassing both doctrine and discipline, including all that is non-infallible. The infallible exercise of the Keys is free from all error, in both dogma (doctrine) and dogmatic facts (discipline). The non-infallible exercise of the Keys is free from all grave error. And this has been the ancient and constant teaching of the Church, confirmed by the First Vatican Council. Therefore, this teaching is dogma and required belief.

It is a common misunderstanding to say that the Pope can err to any extent, even to heresy, when he exercises the Keys non-infallibly. Instead, every Pope has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith and his Apostolic See is unblemished by any grave error. And this is guaranteed, not by the human qualities or personal holiness of the Pope, but by the teaching, promise, and prayer of Jesus (Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32).

This has implications for the faithful, when the Roman Pontiff is allegedly very sinful. We are still required to give our full assent of faith to whatever is infallible:

1. dogmatic teachings of Ecumenical Councils (Conciliar Infallibility)
2. dogmatic teachings of the Pope (Papal Infallibility)
3. the teachings of the ordinary universal Magisterium
4. dogmatic facts proclaimed by any of the above three modes of infallibility

The fourth point above falls under the Key of discipline, while the other three fall under the Key of doctrine.

What tends to happen with fallen sinners is that any infallible teaching, which is contrary to their own understanding or that of the culture to which they adhere, is claimed by them to be non-infallible and is then rejected. So while many heretics and schismatics claim that they are merely rejecting non-infallible teachings that are in grave error, the truth is that non-infallible teachings and disciplines cannot err gravely and that some of what they reject as non-infallible is actually infallible.

Once you submit the teachings of Popes and Councils to your own judgment, going beyond the licit theological dissent from less than grave (at least perceived) error in what is non-infallible, so that you oppose any Pope or Council you find to have erred gravely, full communion with the one Church is lost. We are required to generally accept every non-infallible decision of doctrine and discipline, and our ability to disagree licitly is limited to less than grave claimed error, with mild and only occasional dissent.

It is a grave error and grave sin to say that “true obedience” is only to God, and that the faithful can and must disobey the Popes and Councils whenever the faithful judge their own understanding to be right and that of the Church to be wrong. Instead, the truth is that the Church always has the help of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus promised, even when a teaching or discipline is non-infallible and might err, though only to a limited extent. Accusing the Church of grave error in what is non-infallible is therefore heresy and schism. If the Church is either right, or has erred gravely, She is right. The Church is the body of Christ with Christ as Her head, and so She can never go astray or lead astray.

Thus, a Pope who sins gravely must be treated by the faithful much the same as a Pope Saint, except that we do not follow the personal example of a Pope whose sins are grave and public. On the other hand, we must be careful not to automatically believe every accusation made against every Pope. Otherwise we would be treating the mass media, the internet, rumors, and also the claims of every fallen sinner as if infallible, while possibly falsely accusing the Vicar of Christ. If you favor one politician over another, you would not automatically believe an accusation against him made by his opponent. Grant the Popes the same discretion from your judgment.

Please understand also that the sinfulness of any Roman Pontiff has limits. The Pope is not permitted by God to sin to any extent. Rather, certain sins are prevented by the prevenient grace of God, which no one can resist. The Pope can never desire or seek to corrupt the teachings of the Church, nor Her disciplines. The Pope can never desire or attempt to harm the doctrine or discipline of the Church. For such things, even in mere desire or failed attempt, are contrary to the charism of truth and of never-failing faith given to every Roman Pontiff. Faith fails gravely in any person who desires, seeks, or attempts to corrupt or contradict the Faith of Christ in the Church. Therefore, no Roman Pontiff has ever done so. All such accusations are false and gravely erroneous.

Some persons call one Pope or another, even Pope Francis, “wicked”. But if that term is meant to include what is contrary to the charism of truth and of never-failing faith or contrary to the indefectibility of the Church, then the Pope cannot be wicked in that sense. If that term does not encompass what is contrary to dogma, even so, it is not our place to judge the soul of the Vicar of Christ. We are not to judge any Pope and declare him to be “the worst Pope” or one of the “bad Popes” or a “wicked” Pope. God is judge.

So even if one does not think well of a particular Pope:
* our judgment can err gravely; his judgment has divine assistance
* our understanding of doctrine can err gravely; his teachings cannot
* our preferences for discipline can err gravely; his disciplines cannot
* we are required to believe non-infallible teachings and accept non-infallible disciplines, by faith and obedience in cooperation with grace
* if we resist the Roman Pontiff, we commit the sin of schism
* we have no role to judge the doctrines, disciplines, or soul of the Roman Pontiff

Christ and His Vicar constitute one only head of the one Church. And subjection to the Roman Pontiff is from the necessity of salvation.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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