The Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, is being accused of heresy for his general audience describing the Communion of the Saints. What is heresy?
Canon 751: “Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”
Canon 1364 §1: “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”
Can. 915 “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”
Heresy must be obstinate. A passing remark, an off-the-cuff comment to the press, an extemporaneous sermon cannot be heresy in and of itself. Then heresy is not any error contrary to the teachings of Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture, but only errors contrary to truths requiring divine and catholic faith.
Can. 750 §1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.
Heresy is obstinately contrary to truths of divine and catholic faith, and those truths must have been taught by the Magisterium, from Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture, under the solemn Magisterium (Conciliar Infallibility or Papal Infallibility) or under the ordinary universal Magisterium. Such teachings are formal dogma, having been confirmed by the Magisterium infallibly. The teachings of Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture not yet confirmed infallibly by the Magisterium are material dogma, but perhaps you have not understood those teachings correctly. You cannot accuse the Roman Pontiff of heresy based on your interpretation of Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture, which is not confirmed by the infallible Magisterium.
Now the teaching that the Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and never-failing faith is infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium, as well as under Conciliar Infallibility (Constantinople III, Vatican I), as proven here. Those who claim that the Roman Pontiff has gravely failed in faith, or has taught grave error, are denying this dogma, which requires belief with divine and catholic faith. They are guilty of at least material heresy, who proclaim any Pope to be a heretic. But in most cases, these persons are simply ignorant. Their main error is that they teach without first having learned. They don’t bother to study what the Popes, Saints, and Councils actually taught on the Roman Pontiff, before teaching the world through the internet. Their main sin is perhaps pride.
As for Pope Francis, he has been accused of heresy many times in his pontificate. Is Francis the valid Roman Pontiff? Some say Benedict is still Pope. The answer is that the Church is indefectible and apostolic. So the body of Bishops, who are the successors to the Apostles, cannot go astray (defect) following a false or invalid successor of Peter. For then the Church would not be indefectible and apostolic, if the body of apostolic successors went astray. A few individual Bishops is not apostolic. So the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops, each alone and both together, are indefectible. But since the body of Bishops has accepted Francis as the Roman Pontiff and successor of Peter, he cannot be a false or invalid Pope or antipope; he must be the valid Roman Pontiff.
And every valid Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and never-failing faith. Therefore, Pope Francis cannot possibly have failed in faith by committing heresy, nor can he have gravely contradicted the truths of faith by teaching heresy.
As for his general audience on the Communion of the Saints, that teaching is non-infallible, and so there is the possibility of less-then-grave error. But whenever the Roman Pontiff exercises his authority from Christ over doctrine and discipline, that is, his authority under the Keys of Saint Peter, what is non-infallible is free from all grave error, and what is infallible is free from all error. If you disagree with some points of that talk, there is no real problem. I myself find that talk to be entirely orthodox. But even if there were some limited errors, that would not prove heresy. For heresy must be obstinate, which generally does not apply to extemporaneous remarks, even in a sermon, and heresy must be contrary to an infallible teaching of the Magisterium, confirming an infallible teaching of Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture, just as Canon Law says (above).
In what is infallible, the Roman Pontiff cannot err, and that is dogma. Whoever says otherwise is a heretic. In what is non-infallible, the Roman Pontiff can err, but only to a limited extent. And this is a dogma also, though one that is less known and often contradicted today. That the errors of the Pope are limited is absolutely certain from the words of Christ and the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church. For the Pope is the Head of the Church and also the foundational Rock of the Church. If the Pope ever failed in faith, or if the Pope ever taught grave error, then the Church could truly be said to have failed in faith or to have taught grave error. But such a situation is impossible due to the prayer of Christ in Luke 22:32, that the faith of Peter and his successors will never fail so that he can confirm the faith of his brethren, the body of Bishops. And it is impossible due to the promise of Christ in Matthew 16:18-19 that the gates of Hell will never prevail over the Church, and that whatever the Pope binds on earth will be bound even in Heaven.
A Pope cannot fail in faith, due to the charism of truth and never-failing faith which is the ancient and constant teaching of the Church — the teaching of Popes, Saints, Doctors, and Ecumenical Councils. Constantinople III taught this doctrine in the letter of Pope Saint Agatho, accepted into the Acts of the Council. Vatican I taught this doctrine in Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 7. Then the teaching of other Ecumenical Councils implies this teaching on the never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff.
The Second Council of Lyons: “If questions will have arisen on faith, they ought to be decided by his [i.e. the Roman Pontiff’s] judgment”.
The Council of Florence, 1438: “the most illustrious profession of the Roman Church about the truth of the faith, which has always been pure from all stain of error.”
Lateran IV: “the Roman church, which through the Lord’s disposition has a primacy of ordinary power over all other churches inasmuch as it is the mother and mistress of all Christ’s faithful”
Lateran IV on the Greeks: “conform themselves like obedient sons to the holy Roman church, their mother, so that there may be one flock and one shepherd.”
Lateran V: “It arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
Lateran V: “the person who abandons the teaching of the Roman pontiff cannot be within the Church….”
If the Pope could be a heretic, then what he teaches and decides (doctrine and discipline under the Keys of Peter) certainly should not and could not be bound in Heaven. But Christ says that it is bound in Heaven, and so heresy and other grave errors cannot be found in the Pope’s exercise of that authority.
If the Pope could be a heretic or teach heresy, then subjection to him would not be from the necessity of salvation. But Lateran V teaches that it is (along with St. Thomas, St. Maximus, and Unam Sanctam). If the Pope could be a heretic or teach heresy, then the person who abandons that teaching would still be within the Church. But Lateran V says that the person who abandons the teaching of the Pope cannot be within the Church. Therefore, that teaching cannot be heresy.
If the Roman Pontiff, who is the head of the whole Church and the head of the Roman church, could be a heretic or teach heresy, then what Lateran IV teaches could not be true, that the Roman church is the mother and mistress of all other churches, and that those who wish to join or reconcile to the Church must “conform themselves like obedient sons” to that Roman church led by the Roman Pontiff. And if the Roman Pontiff could teach or commit heresy, then he would not be the source of unity, which makes the faithful throughout the world into one flock with one shepherd.
And if you argue that the one Shepherd is Christ and not the Roman Pontiff, I will refer you to the teaching of Unam Sanctam (confirmed by Lateran V) and Pope Pius XII, just as the latter states: “Christ and His Vicar constitute one only head” of the one Church. The Roman Pontiff and the Lord Jesus are one head, and so no Roman Pontiff can teach or commit heresy, since he is one with Christ, at least in his headship of the Church.
If the Roman Pontiff could teach or commit heresy, then questions of faith ought not to be decided by his judgment, as Lyons II decided and confirmed. If the Roman Pontiff could teach or commit heresy, then the Roman church would not be pure from all stain of error in her profession of the faith.
All these Councils, in their teaching to the whole Church, along with many teachings of Popes and Saints listed here, reject the very possibility that any Roman Pontiff would ever teach or commit heresy.
“Can. 331 The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”
Finally, the Roman Pontiff has supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power over the whole Church, over all the faithful of very rank and role, which he is always free to exercise. But if God were to permit a Pope to teach or commit heresy, such a power would destroy the faith and the Church. Therefore, God must absolutely prevent every Roman Pontiff, by prevenient grace, from teaching or committing heresy. For the Roman Pontiff certainly does have the supreme power stated in Canon Law — which itself is based on the teachings of Vatican I and II. And the Church certainly is indefectible.
Charism of Truth and Never-Failing Faith
Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 6-7: “Indeed, their Apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of Saint Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ [Lk 22:32].
“This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of Hell.”
This teaching that the Apostolic See is unblemished by any error means that even when his teachings or decisions of discipline are non-infallible, the Roman Pontiff cannot err gravely. For a less-than-grave error in what is non-infallible is not considered a blemish, especially since the faithful are not required to give the full assent of faith to what is non-infallible, and are permitted a limited possibility of disagreement, so the same limited extent that error is possible. Such possible errors, certainly envisioned by the fathers of Vatican I in their limits to what is infallible (i.e. only when all the criteria for infallibility are met), are not considered a blemish or stain.
Now the papal accusers will cite a number of theologians who did not know this doctrine, which is now dogma. It happens sometimes that theologians err. And the fact that they were not rebuked by the Holy See does not prove they were right. The Holy See has never had the practice of correcting every error by every theologian. Then, in any case, the teachings of so many Popes, Saints, and Ecumenical Councils certainly must prevail over the opinions of any number of theologians.
A few Saints did consider the sheer possibility that a Pope might teach or commit heresy. But this was prior to the teaching of Vatican I, and was usually a mere hypothetical. In the case of Saint Robert Bellarmine, he clearly states his belief that no Pope can ever teach or commit heresy, based on the teaching of Christ in the Gospels. Therefore, every Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and never-failing faith, and this teaching is confirmed as the constant teaching of Popes, Saints, and Ecumenical Councils from ancient times. As a result, all opinions or considerations to the contrary are to be rejected as contrary to faith. See this past article for more.
It is not possible for any Roman Pontiff to teach or commit heresy. And Pope Francis has been accepted by the body of Bishops as the true current Roman Pontiff. Therefore, as a dogmatic fact, that is, as a fact necessarily implied by dogma, Pope Francis cannot possibly have taught or committed heresy. If it seems so to your own judgment, then you are the one who has erred.
It is quite disturbing to hear so many persons, who claim to be devout Catholics, proclaiming one Pope after another to have taught heresy, to be a heretic, or to have erred gravely. They never consider that they are the ones who are the heretics, as they contradict the teachings of the ordinary universal Magisterium and of Vatican I that each Pope has the charism of truth and never-failing faith.
And how can the Church be one in faith, if the chief teacher of the Church on earth, the Roman Pontiff, might possibly be a heretic? If a Pope could teach or commit heresy, then the faithful under every Roman Pontiff would be left to judge every teaching of every Pope, wondering if it is heresy and the path to Hell, rather than divinely revealed truth and the path to Heaven. If that were so, then some persons under every Roman Pontiff would sow dissension and doubt because they disagree with what the Pope teaches or decides. There is no Roman Pontiff whose teachings and decisions are accepted by everyone. Even some of Christ’s disciples found His teaching to be too difficult, and so they no longer walked with him (John 6).
The accusers of Pope Francis want the faithful to listen to them, instead of to the Church. That is why they accuse Popes and Councils of error at every turn. So that their teachings and judgments will prevail over that of the Pope and the body of Bishops. It is as if they are claiming, implicitly, to be infallible or to have a never-failing faith. They think that Popes have often erred gravely and often failed in faith. They accuse Ecumenical Councils, which is the same as accusing those Popes and Bishops who taught at that Council and who subsequently accepted and taught from that Council. They tear down the authority of the Church, so as to assert their own pretended authority.
But that is not the plan of God. Instead, the Lord Jesus has wisely given Peter and his successors a set of papal charisms, which keep the Church indefectible and which protect the teachings and disciplines of the Church from grave error. These papal charisms include the charism of truth and never-failing faith as well as other divinely conferred gifts.
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