Pope Francis, Saint Bellarmine, and the Two Privileges of Peter

Ah, how the opponents of Pope Francis love Bellarmine! They like his hypothetical consideration of what would happen if a Pope were a manifest heretic. But Bellarmine did not believe any Pope had ever or could ever teach or commit heresy. It was a hypothetical. And they like to distort Bishop Gasser’s Relatio to the fathers of Vatican I, which relies partly on Bellarmine, in order to undermine the actual dogmas of the Council — thereby undermining greater authority, dogma by a Council, with lesser authority, a particular interpretation of a Saint’s position. But if we follow Bellarmine, and read him in accord with the Popes, Councils, ordinary universal Magisterium, and the other Saints and Doctors, we inexorably find that Popes cannot be heretics, nor can they err gravely in doctrine or discipline.

One point of dispute in Bellarmine is the two privileges of Peter, the first of which is only for Peter, and the second of which is for Peter and his successors, the Roman Pontiffs. So whatever is said to be the first privilege would then be implied to be excluded from the Roman Pontiffs. The problem is that Saint Robert Bellarmine is unclear and probably himself uncertain as to what the first privilege is.

The discussion of this second privilege, the one handed down from Peter to all of his successors, begins with Luke 22:31-32, which is translated thusly in Bellarmine (trans. Ryan Grant),

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has asked for you that he might sift you like wheat, yet I have prayed for thee that thy faith would not fail, and that, thou later being converted, confirm thy brethren.”
[Lk 22:31-32 in Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 156). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

My Comments

There are three assertions in verse 32: that Peter’s faith would not fail, that Peter will confirm his brethren, and that one or both of these occurs after Peter is converted. The ancient and constant teaching of the Church is that the never-failing faith of Peter was given also to each of his successors, without exception, as proven here. And while Peter and his successors certainly confirm the faith of the entire body of believers, in so far as they put their faith in magisterial teachings, the verse is most often applied to the body of Bishops, who are the apostolic brethren of the Roman Pontiff.

Now Peter seems to have failed in faith when he denied Christ three times, at the Passion. But this was certainly before Peter became Roman Pontiff. And since this never-failing faith is of the Roman Pontiff, the same would apply to Peter. He does not receive the charism of never-failing faith until he becomes Roman Pontiff. The First Council of Lyons (and also Pope Pius XII in Mystical Body of Christ, n. 40) teach that Peter became Roman Pontiff at the Ascension, not before. Thus, Peter was not the Roman Pontiff when he denied Christ three times. But this also establishes that a valid Pope can be someone who, in the past before his election, has failed in faith.

Then Peter and his successors can only confirm their brethren, the body of Bishops, once each becomes the Roman Pontiff. For only the Pope has the authority to teach and correct the Bishops, confirming what is of the faith and condemning what is gravely erroneous.

And now it becomes clear why Jesus says that he prays that Peter would have a never-failing faith and would confirm his brethren, both it seems after his conversion. Since these two charisms apply only to the Pope, the conversion of Peter occurs, in this restricted sense, when he becomes Roman Pontiff at the Ascension, and then receives the papal charisms, which include the charism of truth and never-failing faith and the charism to confirm the other Bishops in faith.

Why is the point of becoming the Roman Pontiff considered by Christ to be a type of conversion? One reason is that any failures or substantial weaknesses of faith are converted into a rock of never-failing faith at that point. This never-failing work of grace is seen very clearly in the heretical antipope Vigilius, who later became the true Pope, and then, says Bellarmine:

Bellarmine: “From this time neither error nor feigning of error was discovered in Vigilius, but rather, supreme constancy in the faith even to death, as it shall appear. For he received with the pontificate the strength of faith and he was changed from a weak chaff into the most solid rock.” [Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 197). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

Whatever conversion is needed in the new Pope to establish this never-failing faith is given by prevenient grace, which no one can resist. In many Popes, this is not as apparent as in the case of Vigilius, but it is an article of faith that this never-failing faith is always given to every Roman Pontiff. And even a Pope Saint, prior to becoming Pope, does not have such a gift of faith; the charism is given only to the Roman Pontiffs. (And while it is true that the Blessed Virgin Mary had a faith which could not fail, her charism is not the same as that of the Roman Pontiff. She could neither lose grace, nor love, faith, and hope, nor sin at all, whereas the Popes have only a never-failing faith.)


Saint Robert Bellarmine begins his commentary on Lk 22:32 by describing a position held by “the Parisian Theologians”: that the never-failing faith applies only to the Church Herself, and not to each and every Roman Pontiff. Bellarmine says that this position would only be true in the sense that Christ prayed for the visible head of the Church, Peter and his successors, and so also implicitly prayed for the body of the Church led by each Pope. The Pope is given a never-failing faith so that he can lead the Church in faith, and so confirm the indefectibility of the Church and confirm the body of Bishops in their never-failing faith (which they possess only as a body). But the position of the Parisian Theologians was different. For they denied the charism of never-failing faith to the Roman Pontiffs, and attributed it only to the Church. Bellarmine states: “This exposition is false.”

Bellarmine points out that Christ speaks particularly to Peter in this verse, not to the whole Church. Also, Jesus says to Peter, “thou later being converted”, which cannot apply to the whole Church, “unless we were to say that at some time the whole Church was corrupted and later converted again” — which would be contrary to the dogma of indefectibility. Therefore, Christ spoke particularly to Peter, not to the whole Church, when He spoke of the charism of never-failing faith. Then, too, the charism to confirm the body of Bishops cannot be given to the whole Church, since they are leaders in the Church and since the Church, apart from the Bishops and the Pope, cannot correct the body of Bishops. Such a role is given only to the Roman Pontiff, who teaches and corrects everyone in the Church, even the highest prelates, since none is higher than the Pope in the Church on earth.

Another false exposition of Luke 22:32 is rejected by Bellarmine, which is the idea that the Lord Jesus gave a charism only to Peter, and not to his successors. While Peter had the gift of final perseverance, since we know that as a Saint, Peter died in the state of grace, this was not handed down to all the Roman Pontiffs; for they each must follow the path of salvation that they teach, and must each be subject to judgment and possible condemnation by God at the particular judgment. Instead, the privilege handed on is never-failing faith:

Bellarmine: “Fourthly, the gift asked for Peter in this citation [Lk 22:32] also pertains to the successors. For Christ prayed for Peter to the advantage of the Church; but the Church always needs someone by whom she is confirmed, whose faith cannot fail.” [Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 156). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

So the second privilege, of never-failing faith, cannot be solely for the Church as a whole; it must be for Peter and his successors, to the benefit of the Church, of which each Roman Pontiff is the head. The Church “always needs someone” whose faith is never-failing. And this charism was promised by Christ to Peter and his successors.

Bellarmine: “Therefore, the true exposition is that the Lord asked for two privileges for Peter. One, that he could not ever lose the true faith insofar as he was tempted by the Devil, and that is something more than the gift of perseverance, for he said to persevere even to the end, which although he fell in the meantime, he still rose again in the end and was discovered faithful, since the Lord prayed for Peter that he could not ever fall because he held fast to the faith. The second privilege is that he, as the Pope, could never teach something against the faith, or that there would never be found one in his See who would teach against the true faith. From these privileges, we see that the first did not remain to his successors, but the second without a doubt did.” [Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 156). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

The privilege given to Peter AND passed on to each of his successors is called “second” and it is the charism of never-failing faith. The result of this never-failing faith is that “the Pope” is never permitted by the grace of God to “teach something against the faith”. In other words, “there would never be found one in his See who would teach against the true faith.” But these are the results of the charism; the charism itself, as confirmed many times in the continual teaching of the Church, is a faith that is never able to fail. And this faith is possessed by the person of the Roman Pontiff, that is, by Peter and each of his successors, sinner or Saint. So the Pope can never be personally guilty of apostasy, or heresy, or schism, or idolatry, or any other grave failing of faith. He can never desire or plan or attempt to corrupt the true faith or to corrupt the teachings or disciplines of the Church. For that would be contrary to the gift of never-failing faith; it would be a failure of faith if the Pope even so much as desired or planned such a corruption. Thus, it is impossible as it is contrary to the prevenient grace promised by Christ.

But in addition, as Bellarmine says, this same charism prevents any Pope from teaching contrary to the faith. Thus, material heresy in papal teaching — whether the teaching is infallible or non-infallible — and formal heresy are prevented in every Roman Pontiff. The infallible teachings are free from all error, but by this papal charism, even the non-infallible teachings are free from every grave error, including mere material heresy (i.e. even if the heresy were taught inadvertently).

And this charism is correctly termed by Vatican I as the “charism of truth and never-failing faith”, since it is not only a never-failing faith in the person of the Roman Pontiff, but a never-failing ability to teach without grave errors, which would harm or contradict the true Faith of the Church.

The First Privilege

The nature of the first privilege is not clear in Bellarmine. He describes this privilege variously: “that he could not ever lose the true faith insofar as he was tempted by the Devil, and that is something more than the gift of perseverance, for he said to persevere even to the end, which although he fell in the meantime, he still rose again in the end and was discovered faithful, since the Lord prayed for Peter that he could not ever fall because he held fast to the faith.” So is the first privilege final perseverance, or the inability to lose the faith? Those are two different things, as a Christian could possibly die with faith but without love and hope, due to unrepented actual mortal sin. So Bellarmine is uncertain and unclear as to the first privilege.

Is the first privilege the grace of final perseverance? That may be correct. The Council of Trent does not allow that anyone be sure of his own salvation, unless it is divinely revealed. It may be that Christ intended to express both privileges to Peter, including the first that is not handed on to Peter’s successors, a gift of sure salvation. Such a privilege is not handed on to every successor of Peter. For every Pope must walk the same path of salvation that he must teach. So he must be subject to the same possibility of judgment and eternal punishment.

However, Bellarmine cannot be correct in saying that the first privilege is that Peter cannot lose the faith or be unfaithful. That he cannot lose the true faith is entirely encompassed by the charism of never-failing faith, and so this cannot be the first privilege (the one not given to successors). So the correct understanding of the first privilege must be final perseverance (surety of salvation), given to Peter at a certain point in time. For Christ knew that Peter would deny Him three times, but He granted to Peter to know that he would be given the grace to repent and to persevere in grace unto eternal life. And this is not given to every successor of Peter; it is not handed on.

Now a false claim is made about the first privilege, by some opponents of Pope Francis, i.e. by certain papal accusers. They use the slight confusion in Bellarmine as to the first privilege to claim that a never-failing faith is the privilege that is not handed on. In this way, they open the door for accusations of grave failings of faith against any Roman Pontiff, except Peter. (But, contradicting themselves, they sometimes also accuse Peter.) This interpretation is easily refuted by the constant teaching of the Church, by the teaching of Popes, Saints, Doctors, and Ecumenical Councils, that every Roman Pontiff has a charism of truth and of never-failing faith. So the first privilege is not that of faith, but of perseverance in grace (after Peter repents, “thou later being converted”).

Pope Francis

The Church is indefectible and apostolic. Therefore, the body of Bishops, successors to the Apostles, cannot go astray following a false successor of Peter. Now Pope Francis has been accepted as Roman Pontiff by the body of Bishops (and even those who oppose him say “Recognize”, that they recognize him as legitimate Pope). Therefore, Pope Francis is the true successor of Peter, and must have the charism of truth and of never-failing faith.

This charism guarantees from the promise and prayer of Christ that Pope Francis can never fail in faith by committing apostasy, heresy, or idolatry. It also guarantees that Pope Francis can never fail in truths of the faith by grave errors in doctrine or discipline. For as the opponents of the Pope have pointed out so many times, discipline is closely connected to doctrine, and therefore a grave error in discipline has grave consequences for the faith and the faithful. So it must be the case that this charism of truth and never-failing faith not only guarantees the personal faith of the Roman Pontiff, and his teachings on faith and morals, but also guarantees his decisions of discipline for the Church. Some errors are possible in what is non-infallible in both doctrine and discipline, but grave errors are excluded in doctrine and discipline, just as grave failings of faith are excluded.

Pope Francis has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith and therefore he did not err gravely in Traditionis Custodes, nor in any teaching or decision of discipline. Pope Francis has the second privilege, the one given to Peter and his successors in every case.

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

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2 Responses to Pope Francis, Saint Bellarmine, and the Two Privileges of Peter

  1. Penanoke says:

    When Pope Benedict resigned from the papacy, did he lose the charism of never-failing faith that he possessed while he was the Roman Pontiff?

    If so, is the proper way to understand it that God withdrew the charism at the moment Benedict’s resignation became effective, or did Benedict himself relinquish the charism when he resigned? Was it God’s act or Benedict’s act that resulted in the charism being lost? If charisms “gratiae gratis datae” are purely gifts of God, it would seem the former. Yet, because the loss of the charism resulted from a voluntary act made by Benedict, it would seem the latter.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Roman Pontiff possesses the papal charisms only while he is the valid Pope. So the resignation of Benedict, at the moment it is effective in the eyes of God, results in the withdrawal of the papal charisms, by God’s act, as a result of the free decision of Benedict to resign. This is analogous to an adult deciding to be baptized, yet the act by which the adult is baptized is solely of God, an act of prevenient justification. The adult in choosing baptism does not give himself the state of grace. Similarly, Benedict cannot reliquish the papal charisms, which are of prevenient grace; he can only decided to relinquish the office, and God by His sole act, operating not cooperating, removes the charisms.

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