On the validity of Popes and Ecumenical Councils

Pope Francis is the Valid Roman Pontiff

Pope Francis was elected the Roman Pontiff, Vicar of Christ, after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, in a conclave of Cardinals which is not disputed by the body of Bishops. Then, too, Pope Francis has been accepted as the valid Pope and successor of Saint Peter by the body of Bishops, who are the successors to the other Apostles. Since the Church is indefectible and apostolic, the body of Bishops cannot go astray following a false or invalid Roman Pontiff. Therefore, Pope Francis is the valid Roman Pontiff, and the resignation of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI was a valid and effective resignation from the papacy. The acceptance of both these points by the body of Bishops makes them dogmatic facts. The claim that Pope emeritus Benedict is still the Roman Pontiff, in any sense, under any explanation, is schismatic, as it necessarily implies a rejection of the authority and validity of Francis as Roman Pontiff.

A valid Roman Pontiff cannot fail gravely in faith

The ancient constant teaching of Popes, Councils, Fathers, Doctors, and Saints is that the Lord Jesus promised to Peter and his successors a never-failing faith in his prayer of Luke 22:32 (“I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail”). This teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium was infallibly confirmed by the First Vatican Council in Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 7: “This charism of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See….” Many more teachings proving this dogma are here.

A valid Roman Pontiff cannot err gravely

A valid Roman Pontiff cannot err gravely in doctrine or discipline, when exercising the Keys of Saint Peter, that is, when exercising his authority as Supreme Pontiff in a decision of doctrine or discipline.

The ancient constant teaching of the Church on the Roman Pontiff has not only asserted that Popes are always free from grave failings of faith, including heresy, but also that the Apostolic See (Roman Church, See of Peter, Holy See, etc.) remains always unblemished. This teaching clearly states a protection from grave error on doctrine and discipline in the exercise of the Keys of Peter by each valid successor of Peter. Less-than-grave errors in non-infallible decisions of doctrine or discipline are possible, though even such lesser errors cannot be frequent or habitual (cf. Donum Veritatis 24).

* Pope Saint Gelasius I, 492-496, epistle to the Emperor Anastasius: “This is what the Apostolic See guards against with all her strength because the glorious confession of the Apostle is the root of the world, so that She is polluted by no crack of depravity and altogether no contagion. For if such a thing would ever occur (which may God forbid and we trust cannot be), why would we make bold to resist any error?”

* 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….”

* Saint Robert Bellarmine: “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.”

* Pope Saint Felix I, 269-274, speaking on the Roman Church: “As it took up in the beginning the norm of the Christian Faith from its authors, the Princes of the Apostles of Christ, She remains unsullied according to what the Lord said: ‘I have prayed for thee, etc.’ [Lk 22:32]”

* 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.”

* 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]”

* Pope Saint Damasus I, 366-384: “The First See, therefore, is that of Peter the Apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it.”

The Roman Apostolic Church is certainly the See of the Roman Pontiff, and not the whole Church, as is clear from the assertion that She is “the mother of the Churches of the world”.

Then Vatican I infallibly confirmed this dogma of the ordinary universal Magisterium, first by quoting the profession of faith of Constantinople IV: “For in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished….” and then by its own teaching: “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 St. 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].”

But since Vatican I gave certain criteria to be met for a papal teaching to be infallible, and all admit that other papal teachings, short of the full set of criteria, are non-infallible, less-than-grave errors in non-infallible non-irreformable teachings or decisions of discipline cannot be considered a blemish or “crack of depravity” or “contagion” or “stain” nor anything like it.

Many more teachings proving this dogma of the unblemished Apostolic See here.

Vatican II was a valid Ecumenical Council

Every document of Vatican II (all 16) was approved by the voting Bishops by a margin of greater than 90%, with 10 of those 16 documents approved by more than 99% of the Bishops, 5 approved by more than 95% of the Bishops, and 1 approved by more than 92% of the Bishops [Source]. Every document was also approved by the Roman Pontiff, Pope Saint Paul VI, at the conclusion of the Council. And since the time of the Council, the successive Roman Pontiffs and the body of Bishops dispersed in the world have continued, unceasingly, to teach from the documents of Vatican II. Nearly every magisterial document since that time has incorporated Vatican II teachings, usually very thoroughly, including the teachings of Popes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the teachings of Bishops’ Conferences. No Roman Pontiff, no Bishops Conference, and no group of Bishops of any substantive size has rejected Vatican II.

Since the Church is apostolic and indefectible, the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops cannot have erred gravely in approving of the documents of Vatican II. Neither could they err by continuing to teach from the Council and continuing to manifest their approval of the Council for over 55 years to the present day. An indefectible Church cannot go astray by following false Popes, by following an heretical, apostate, or idolatrous Pope or Popes, nor by accepting and teaching from an invalid or gravely erroneous Ecumenical Council. And since the successive Roman Pontiffs and the body of Bishops are the successors to Peter and the other Apostles, if they went astray, the Church would no longer be apostolic, which is impossible. The indefectible Church is always one holy catholic and apostolic. If She taught grave error, from the papacy and the body of Bishops and from an Ecumenical Council, She would no longer be one, as the faithful would dissent and break away; She would no longer be holy, teaching grave errors that lead away from Christ; She would no longer be catholic (universal), as Her errors would cause the Church to fracture into pieces; She would no longer be apostolic, if the successors of the Apostles (the Pope and Bishops) went astray. Therefore, God who is all-powerful, Christ who is the eternal Head of the Church, His Body, and the Holy Spirit, who is the Soul of the Church never permit the Church to defect, nor to lose Her essential characteristics: one holy catholic and apostolic.

Submission to Ecumenical Councils

Acceptance of each Ecumenical Council and its decisions of doctrine and discipline has always been required of the faithful by the Church.

* Lateran Council of 649 (not Ecumenical): “If anyone does not, following the holy Fathers, confess properly and truly, in word and mind, to the last point, all that has been handed down and proclaimed to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of God by the holy Fathers and by the five venerable ecumenical councils, let him be condemned.”

* Bellarmine: “A general Council represents the universal Church, and hence has the consensus of the universal Church; therefore, if the Church cannot err, neither can a legitimate and approved Ecumenical Council err.”

* Bellarmine: “It must be held with Catholic faith that general Councils confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff can neither err in faith nor morals.”

* Bellarmine: “Firstly, the Pope with a general Council cannot err when he issues decrees of faith or general precepts of morals.”

* Ludwig Ott, The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma: “It has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church from the earliest times that the teachings of the General Councils are infallible.”

* Pope Pius IX, in 1864, Condemned the Error: “The obligation by which Catholic teachers and authors are strictly bound is confined to those things only which are proposed to universal belief as dogmas of faith by the infallible judgment of the Church.”

* Pope Pius IX, in 1864, Condemned the Error: “Roman pontiffs and ecumenical councils have wandered outside the limits of their powers, have usurped the rights of princes, and have even erred in defining matters of faith and morals.”

* Suarez: “it is most certain that a general Council in which the Pope is present is an infallible rule of faith and cannot err in what it defines in matters of faith or in what it approves in matters of morals.”

* Pope Saint Paul VI, Consistory for the creation of twenty new Cardinals, May 24, 1976:

“On the one hand, there are those who, under the pretext of greater fidelity to the Church and the Magisterium, systematically reject the teachings of the Council itself [Vatican II], its application and the resulting reforms, its gradual application by the Apostolic See and the Episcopal Conferences, under our authority, willed by Christ. Discredit is discredited on the authority of the Church in the name of a Tradition, to which respect is attested only materially and verbally; the faithful distance themselves from the bonds of obedience to the See of Peter as well as to their legitimate Bishops; the authority of today is rejected in the name of that of yesterday.
“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.”

* Pope Saint Paul VI, Letter to schismatic bishop Marcel Lefebvre, 1976:

“You want to convince the faithful that the proximate cause of the crisis is more than a wrong interpretation of the Council and that it flows from the Council itself. Moreover, you act as if you had a particular role in this regard. But the mission of discerning and remedying the abuses is first of all Ours; it is the mission of all the bishops who work together with Us.”
“But how can you at the same time, in order to fulfill this role, claim that you are obliged to act contrary to the recent Council in opposition to your brethren in the episcopate, to distrust the Holy See itself — which you call the ‘Rome of the neo-modernist and neo-Protestant tendency’ — and to set yourself up in open disobedience to Us? If you truly want to work ‘under Our authority,’ as you affirm in your last private letter, it is immediately necessary to put an end to these ambiguities and contradictions.”
“What is indeed at issue is the question — which must truly be called fundamental — of your clearly proclaimed refusal to recognize in its whole, the authority of the Second Vatican Council and that of the pope. This refusal is accompanied by an action that is oriented towards propagating and organizing what must indeed, unfortunately, be called a rebellion. This is the essential issue, and it is truly untenable.”
“Christ has given the supreme authority in his Church to Peter and to the apostolic college, that is, to the Pope and to the college of bishops una cum Capite [one with the Head].
“Concerning bishops united with the sovereign pontiff, their power with regard to the universal church is solemnly exercised in the ecumenical councils, according to the words of Jesus to the body of the apostles: ‘… whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’ (Mt. 18:18).
“With the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, the popes and the ecumenical councils have acted in this common way. And it is precisely this that the Second Vatican Council did. Nothing that was decreed in this Council, or in the reforms that we enacted in order to put the Council into effect, is opposed to what the 2,000 year-old tradition of the Church considers as fundamental and immutable. We are the guarantor of this, not in virtue of Our personal qualities but in virtue of the charge which the Lord has conferred upon Us as legitimate successor of Peter, and in virtue of the special assistance that He has promised to Us as well as to Peter: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail’ (Lk. 22:32). The universal episcopate is guarantor with us of this.

“Again, you cannot appeal to the distinction between what is dogmatic and what is pastoral to accept certain texts of this Council and to refuse others. Indeed, not everything in the Council requires an assent of the same nature: only what is affirmed by definitive acts as an object of faith or as a truth related to faith requires an assent of faith. But the rest also forms part of the solemn magisterium of the Church to which each member of the faithful owes a confident acceptance and a sincere application.”
“3. Specifically, what do We ask of you [of archbishop Marcel Lefebvre]?

“A. — First and foremost, a declaration that will rectify matters for Ourself and also for the people of God who have a right to clarity and who can no longer bear without damage such equivocations.

“This declaration will therefore have to affirm that you sincerely adhere to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and to all its documents — sensu obvio — which were adopted by the Council fathers and approved and promulgated by Our authority. For such an adherence has always been the rule, in the Church, since the beginning, in the matter of ecumenical councils.

“It must be clear that you equally accept the decisions that We have made since the Council in order to put it into effect, with the help of the departments of the Holy See; among other things, you must explicitly recognize the legitimacy of the reformed liturgy, notably of the Ordo Missae, and our right to require its adoption by the entirety of the Christian people.

* Blessed Pope John Paul I: “At the second Vatican Council, there was a seemingly new thing which came to be called ‘pastoral approach’, not indeed that which was taught to the pastors, but that which the pastors did to face up to the needs, the anxieties, the hopes of men. This ‘new’ approach had already been applied many centuries earlier by Gregory, both in preaching and in the government”

* Pope Saint John Paul II: “The mainspring of this deepening must be a principle of total fidelity to the Sacred Scriptures and to Tradition, authoritatively interpreted in particular by the Second Vatican Council, whose teachings have been reasserted and developed in the ensuing Magisterium.”

* John Paul II: “I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning….”

* Cardinal Ratzinger: “In any case, it is essential to state that discerning whether the possible ways of exercising the Petrine ministry correspond to its nature is a discernment to be made in Ecclesia, i.e., with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in fraternal dialogue between the Roman Pontiff and the other Bishops, according to the Church’s concrete needs. But, at the same time, it is clear that only the Pope (or the Pope with an Ecumenical Council) has, as the Successor of Peter, the authority and the competence to say the last word on the ways to exercise his pastoral ministry in the universal Church.”

* Pope Francis: “In this regard, I reiterate the words of Saint Paul VI, addressed to the first General Assembly of the CEI after Vatican II: ‘We must look to the Council with gratitude to God and with confidence for the future of the Church; it will be the great catechism of the new times’ (23 June 1966).”

“This is magisterium: the Council [Vatican II] is the magisterium of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point. The Council should not be negotiated….”

“No, the Council is as it is. And this problem that we are experiencing, of selectivity with respect to the Council, has been repeated throughout history with other Councils. It makes me think of a group of bishops who, after Vatican I, left, a group of lay people, groups, to continue the ‘true doctrine’ that was not that of Vatican I: ‘We are the true Catholics’. Today they ordain women. The strictest attitude, to guard the faith without the Magisterium of the Church, leads you to ruin. Please, no concessions to those who try to present a catechesis that does not agree with the Magisterium of the Church.”

* Pope Francis on Vatican II: “To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter] in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”

[References for quotes 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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4 Responses to On the validity of Popes and Ecumenical Councils

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,
    Thank you very much for this article and the previous ones on the papal charisms. I am glad you cited the one quote from Ludwig Ott on the infallibility of the teachings of ecumenical councils. Peter Kwasniewski wrote a favorable review of the 2018 revised edition of Fr. Ott’s book:https://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2018/09/announcing-several-excellent-new-books.html#.YunI4b3MKM8 In light of his endorsement of Fr. Ott’s book, it seems strange that Dr. Kwasniewski’s has downplayed the importance of Vatican II and other ecumenical councils.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Kwasniewski and so many others oppose Popes and Councils, as far as I can tell, because they put their own judgment and understanding above the teachings of the Magisterium, which are to be received with faith. And faith must have a place in our minds and hearts above our own reasonings and judgments.

  2. James says:

    Hey, Ron, you wrote above that the Roman Pontiff cannot fail “gravely” in faith. Did you mean to put “gravely”? I thought he couldn’t fail in faith whatsoever.

    • Ron Conte says:

      He can’t fail in faith, but he is a fallen sinner, so his faith is not guaranteed to be perfect. So you can say simply “never-failing faith”, but this is not like infallibility which excludes all error; what is excluded is grave failings (apostasy, heresy, schism, idolatry) and not any and all failings of any degree.

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