That Quote from Innocent III and Torquemada

The papal accusers like to use a particular quote alleged to be from Pope Innocent III:

“Thus it is that Pope Innocent III states [De Consuetudine] that, it is necessary to obey the Pope in all things as long as he, himself, does not go against the universal customs of the Church, but should he go against the universal customs of the Church, he need not be followed.” Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468).

First, this quote cannot be verified from any sources that I could find. The document De Consuetudine is on the topic of the liturgical rites of the Church, specifically Pope Innocent III writing to the Greeks not to mix elements from Greek and Latin rites. Thus, the encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV, July 26, 1755, states the following, citing Innocent II among others:

Pope Benedict 14th: “Canon Law decrees that the Oriental and Greek rite should not be mixed with the Latin rite. See the entire Decretal of Celestine III in Gonzales, chap. Cum secundum: de temporibus Ordinationum; in the decretal of Innocent III, see chap. Quanto: de consuetudine; chap. Quoniam: de Officio Judic. Ordinar.; and the Decretal of Honorius III, chap. Literas: de celebrat. Missar.”

Note that De Consuetudine is a decretal, which is on a matter of discipline, not a teaching document specifically. Also, the quote so often attributed to Pope Innocent III is actually the words of Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, writing an article of private theology, not teaching under the Magisterium. Torquemada was born 172 years after the death of Innocent III, which means he is writing over 200 years later. He did not quote Innocent III directly, but only paraphrased him. He was likely paragraphing from memory, if not from another work that also referenced Innocent III. This quote has been discussed previously online, and no one was able to find the full text of the document, with the alleged text used by Torquemada.

The other problem is that Torquemada, writing in the 15th century, takes a position that conflicts with the teachings of many Popes, Saints, and Ecumenical Councils, by claiming that a Pope can possibly commit heresy or fall into schism. Such a position is easily refuted by reference not only to the ancient and constant teaching of the Church, but also to Lateran V and Vatican I, both Councils occurring after the lifetime of Torquemada. So Torquemada has something of a bias in remembering and paraphrasing the quote by Innocent III.

Worse still, Torquemada applies the paraphrase of Innocent III to his own position, which is extreme and certainly not in accord with the known teaching of Innocent III.

Pope Innocent III, 1198-1216: “The Fathers, for the sake of the Church, understood especially in regard to articles of faith that those words [Lk 22:32] refer to the See of Peter, who knew the Lord had prayed for him, lest his faith would fail.”80

Pope Innocent III: “To him [Peter] the Lord committed his sheep to be shepherded by a thrice-repeated word, so that anyone who wishes not to have him as his shepherd, even in his successors, should be deemed an alien to the Lord’s flock.”81

Pope 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….”82
[numbered references are here]

The teaching of Pope Innocent III is that the faith of Peter and his successors cannot fail, and that this is the correct interpretation of the words of the Lord Jesus in Luke 22:32. Innocent even states that the meaning of this never-failing faith is that Peter’s “successors would never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith.” Certainly, a never-failing faith which does not deviate from the Catholic Faith excludes apostasy, heresy, and schism as well as idolatry and other grave sins against faith.

Now the paraphrase Torquemada presents from Innocent III merely says that if the Pope should ever go against the universal customs of the Church, he need not be followed. This references customs only, not the Roman Pontiff committing apostasy, heresy, schism, or idolatry (as Pope Francis has been variously falsely accused). In addition, it only seems to regard the behavior of the Pope himself, since it does not speak of the Pope teaching error, nor imposing an error by decree. So if the Pope were ever to go against universal customs of the Church, then the faithful could simply decline to imitate him.

This interpretation of the alleged paraphrase from Innocent III is compatible with Sacred Scripture, in that Saint Peter ate only with the Jewish converts to Christianity, until he was corrected by Paul. But Peter did not err in his teaching, nor did he impose his own behavior on the Church. So if a Roman Pontiff gives a bad example in his own life, since he is a fallen sinner like the sheep he pastures, the faithful can decline to imitate him. That is not objectionable and is certainly a requirement of all the faithful.

Concerning heresy and schism, Pope Paul IV, as explained here, considers that a Pope would never fall into heresy or schism. However, a Pope might “deviate from the faith” in the sense of a less than grave error in what is non-infallible, or in the sense of a personal sin or bad example. In such cases, Paul IV states, the Pope may be “contradicted”. This type of deviation is different from the use of the same term in Innocent III. In Paul IV, a deviation is clearly a lesser error, as one might find in a non-infallible teaching or decision. Alternately, we might interpret Paul IV to be referring to a personal deviation by way of sin. In the one case, the faithful can disagree with a non-infallible teaching or ruling. In the other case, the faithful can decline to imitate the bad example of a Pope.

But Torquemada goes much further; he goes far astray from the teaching of Innocent III that the successors of Peter will never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith. After saying that the Pope can fall into schism, Torquemada gives the following absurd examples:

“The Pope can also separate himself from the Church…. He also does this if he refuses to do what the Universal Church does…. Especially is this true with regard to the Divine liturgy…. Such would be the case if he did not wish to celebrate Mass with the sacred vestments or with candles, or if he refused to make the Sign of the Cross in the same manner as other priests do. The same holds true for other aspects of the liturgy….” Torquemada, quoted in “The Destruction of the Christian Tradition” [Google books]

The idea that the Roman Pontiff would be a schismatic if he celebrated Mass without the right vestments, or without candles or if he made the Sign of the Cross in a different manner is absurd. Certainly, what constitutes schism applies to every member of the Church in the same way. What happens to a priest, then, who lives in a nation under religious persecution? He cannot use candles, as his Mass is in secret. He may not have access to sacred vestments. Is he then a schismatic? Certainly not. Nor does Christ consider such a priest to have separated himself from His Body, in such a manner.

So Innocent III might have said something along the lines of the faithful not imitating the Pope, if the Pope personally does not follow the universal customs of the Church. But Torquemada is absolutely wrong to apply this to his own extreme opinion that considers any Pope to be a schismatic, who is separated from the Church, merely by using the wrong customs. Such a view is clearly Pharisaical, as it exalts details of exterior form in the liturgy to the level of dogma.

And it is futile to puff up the opinion of Torquemada by praising his reputation as a theologian. In this particular matter, he contradicts the teaching of the Magisterium and so Torquemada is the one who should not be followed.

There is another, more general problem, with the way the alleged quote from Innocent III is used by Torquemada, but also by the papal accusers today. The quote begins by saying it is “necessary to obey the Pope in all things”, but then the individual Catholic is exempted from this obedience whenever he judges that the Pope has erred or gone astray. That is not obedience to the Pope or the Church. It is only obedience to oneself. For even an atheist will seem to “obey the Pope” whenever he is of the very same opinion. True obedience follows the teachings and decrees of the Vicar of Christ especially when it is contrary to one’s own understanding or judgment.

Pope Saint Paul VI objects to this type of disobedience, which uses the pretext of obeying God or following tradition:

“It is so painful to notice it: but how can we not see, in this attitude — whatever the intentions of these people may be — that they place themselves outside of obedience to, and communion with the Successor of Peter and therefore the Church?”

“Since this, unfortunately, is the logical consequence, that is, when it is argued that it is preferable to disobey on the pretext of keeping one’s faith intact, of working in one’s own way for the preservation of the Catholic Church, while denying it effective obedience. And it is said openly! Indeed, they do not hesitate to assert that the Second Vatican Council lacks binding force; that faith would also be in danger because of the post-conciliar reforms and orientations, which one has the duty to disobey in order to preserve certain traditions.”

“What traditions? It is this group of men — but not the Roman Pontiff, not the Episcopal College, not the Ecumenical Council — who wish to become those who establish a binding decision on which of the innumerable traditions are to be held as norms of faith! As you see, our venerable Brothers, this attitude speaks as if it were judge over that Divine will which placed Peter and his successors at the Head of the Church, so as to confirm his brethren in the faith and so pasture the universal flock (Lk 22:32; Jn 21:15 ff.) and thus establish him as guarantor and custodian of the deposit of the Faith.”164

Saint Newman: “I say with [Saint Robert] Cardinal Bellarmine whether the Pope be infallible or not in any pronouncement, anyhow he is to be obeyed. No good can come from disobedience.”

Saint Robert Bellarmine: “Now our adversaries respond that the Church ought to hear him [the Roman Pontiff] so long as he teaches correctly, for God must be heard more than men. On the other hand, who will judge whether the Pope has taught rightly or not? For it is not for the sheep to judge whether the shepherd wanders off, not even and especially in those matters which are truly doubtful. Nor do Christian sheep have any greater judge or teacher to whom they might have recourse. As we showed above, from the whole Church one can appeal to the Pope; yet from him no one is able to appeal; therefore necessarily the whole Church will err, if the Pontiff would err.”100

Therefore, this idea of resisting the Roman Pontiff, by claiming he is a heretic, is not faithfulness to God, nor to Tradition, nor to Christ in any way. Rather, it is “faithfulness” to one’s own ideas, devoid of faith in what Christ teaches through His Church and His Vicar.


“Thus it is that Pope Innocent III states [De Consuetudine] that, it is necessary to obey the Pope in all things as long as he, himself, does not go against the universal customs of the Church, but should he go against the universal customs of the Church, he need not be followed.” Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468).

This saying is not a quote from Innocent III. It may be a paraphrase. In any case, it does not justify opposing the Roman Pontiff on doctrine or discipline, wherein he certainly cannot err gravely nor fail in faith. For Innocent III himself teaches that the meaning of Christ’s prayer in Luke 22:32 is that Peter and his successors would never deviate from the Catholic faith. Certainly, schism and heresy are deviations from the faith. But if the meaning is only that one need not imitate the Roman Pontiff, if he errs or sins in some personal behavior, then the saying is not in error. But in that case, the saying also does not justify opposing the teachings or decisions of the Roman Pontiff under the Keys of Saint Peter, since he cannot deviate from the Faith in doctrine or discipline.

Saint Robert Bellarmine: the Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy.”103

[numbered references are here.]

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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3 Responses to That Quote from Innocent III and Torquemada

  1. The fact that the papal accusers and rebels are trying so hard to find something that pleases their own interest or agenda by heeding to a non proven quote which was note even written by the alleged Pope they point out; but by another person over 200 years later, is ridiculous! Why they don’t go to the many Magisterial teaching on Pope’s authority? – The papal accuser’s approach is not an honest way to look for the truth.

  2. Carl says:

    There are some people who put Francis on the list of bad popes, like Alexander VI, John XII, Benedict IX. But is this really true ?

    Do you have an article that addresses bad popes ?

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