On Saint Thomas and correction of the Pope

Some opponents of Pope Francis have cited Saint Thomas Aquinas in order to justify their accusations against the Roman Pontiff.

St. Thomas: It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”

The quote is from Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 33, Article 4, Reply 2. See the full set of Articles on II-II, Question 33, here. Thomas’ position is not fully represented by the above quote alone. And when we consider the teaching of the Church throughout the centuries, the behavior of those who accuse Pope Francis is condemned, not justified.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Article 1

In article 1 of Question 33, Thomas teaches:

I answer that, The correction of the wrongdoer is a remedy which should be employed against a man’s sin. Now a man’s sin may be considered in two ways, first as being harmful to the sinner, secondly as conducing to the harm of others, by hurting or scandalizing them, or by being detrimental to the common good, the justice of which is disturbed by that man’s sin.

The subject of Question 33 is fraternal correction, which considers the sin as harmful to that sinner, and possible harm to others by scandal (bad example) or other harm to the common good. This topic is very general, as we are all sinners. It is not a Question particular to the correction of the Roman Pontiff. The assumption that everything Thomas says on fraternal correction can be applied to the Vicar of Christ is not justified by anything Thomas says. The Question and its articles are on fraternal correction generally, with little mention of Peter and his successors.

Why is fraternal correction different for the Pope? The Roman Pontiff is the Supreme Judge of all the faithful, father and teacher of all Christians, Vicar of Christ, and has the special help of God in the form of the papal charisms. Vatican I taught us that the Pope has the charism of truth and never-failing faith; this teaching, based on Luke 22:32, is the ancient constant teaching of the Church throughout the centuries. This charism limits the degree and type of errors possible when the Pope exercises the Keys of Peter (over doctrine and discipline), even non-infallibly, and absolutely prevents any grave failure of faith in the person of the Roman Pontiff, thereby necessarily excluding sins of apostasy, heresy, and idolatry.

I should also point out that, in general, while a subordinate might correct a superior in the Church, the Bishops and the Pope have the formal role, on a continuing basis and with authority, to teach and correct all the faithful. If subordinates offer correction to a Bishop or Pope, they cannot be certain that their correction is actually correct. The main fault with those who correct or accuse the Roman Pontiff Pope Francis is that they assume that they themselves cannot be mistaken. But the Bishops, especially as a body, and the Roman Pontiff have the special help of God when exercising the Magisterium.

Cardinal Ratzinger, Donum Veritatis, 1990: “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the Apostles teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a ‘definitive’ pronouncement…”

But those who propose to correct the Pope, the body of Bishops who support him, or even, in their arrogance, propose to correct Ecumenical Councils, have no such divine assistance and do not possess anything like the papal charism of truth and never-failing faith.

And while the body of Bishops teaches with and under the Pope, no one has the role, formally, to teach or correct the Pope. Whether or when the Pope can be corrected is discussed further in this article. But the Pope, who is the Supreme Pontiff, has divine authority from Christ to teach and correct at any and all times, in any and all circumstances, throughout the world. If there is any possibility of correcting the Pope, as Paul corrected Peter, it very limited as compared to the same Pope’s authority to teach and correct everyone. Thus, Peter as given the role and authority from Christ to teach and correct even Paul — an Apostle by divine revelation (on the road to Damascus) — while Paul does not teach or correct Peter with authority.

Now notice what Saint Thomas Aquinas says: “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.” So it remains for the superior, especially a Bishop or Roman Pontiff, to decide whether or not the proposed correction is correct and on that basis to accept or reject it. Thomas puts the decision on a response to a correction with the superior, so that only “if…they should happen to stray”, then they themselves would decide not to disdain that correction.

But a subordinate, most notably with regard to the Roman Pontiff, cannot decide that their correction cannot be wrong, and then insist that the Pope stand corrected, gather groups of persons, issue petitions, letters, etc. against the alleged error of the Pope, and even claim that God Himself has removed the Pope for an alleged error of heresy. How do these persons, who are neither the Roman Pontiff nor the body of Bishops with and under him, know that their claimed correction (or more commonly their accusation) is true? Do you not know that the Roman Pontiff has the authority to reject a decision of the body of Bishops, gathered in an Ecumenical Council? The 28th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon (explains Pope Leo XIII in Satis Cognitum) was rejected by the Roman Pontiff, and so “is admitted by all to be worthless.” If you offer a correction to the Roman Pontiff, and he spurns it, consider yourself to be the one who has been corrected by the Vicar of Christ.

Peter could have spurned the correction of Paul, and in such a case Paul would have no recourse. Paul must accept the authority of Peter over him, but no one on earth has authority over Peter and his successors.

But it is a very different situation when a group of persons, instead of a simple correction on a particular point, extend their correction to a broad set of grave accusations, going to far as to accuse Pope Francis and other Popes, and Vatican II, and sometimes other Ecumenical Councils of grave errors and grave failings of faith. Such behavior is schismatic and heretical; it is not a charitable and fraternal correction of anyone. For these persons are first and foremost rejecting the divine authority of the Church and the successors to the Apostles over themselves. It is clear from their behavior that they do not imitate Saint Paul correcting Saint Peter. Rather, they seek to correct the Church Herself, to correct multiple Popes and even multiple Ecumenical Councils (especially Vatican I and II). That is not fraternal correction in any sense of the word. It is a refusal to be taught and corrected by the successors of Peter and the successors of the other Apostles as a body; it is a refusal to listen to the Church.

{13:17} Obey your leaders and be subject to them. For they watch over you, as if to render an account of your souls.

Those Catholics who refuse to obey and be subject to the Roman Pontiff, the body of Bishops, and any Ecumenical Council cannot offer fraternal correct to the Pope, as they do not listen to the Church:

{18:15} But if your brother has sinned against you, go and correct him, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you will have regained your brother.
{18:16} But if he will not listen you, invite with you one or two more, so that every word may stand by the mouth of two or three witnesses.
{18:17} And if he will not listen to them, tell the Church. But if he will not listen to the Church, let him be to you like the pagan and the tax collector.

Jesus the Lord must be heeded and obeyed as a matter of faith. He allows fraternal correction, from an individual or a group. But notice that the final authority on such matters rests with the authority of the Church. Those who “will not listen to the Church” are to be treated, Christ tells us, like the unbelievers (pagans) and unrepentant sinners (tax collectors, who used violence to collect more than was due).

Those who cite the charity of fraternal correction to justify correcting the Pope, are not really correcting Pope Francis in charity, nor are they really offering a correction, but rather a severe set of accusations. They exalt themselves above every Pope and Council, make themselves out to be the definitive arbitrators of what is and is not Tradition, and accuse the Church Herself of being infiltrated by evil, of being a “pornocracy”, and of having gone astray from the true faith since Vatican II (or earlier). When did Saint Paul the Apostle, or any Saint, Father, or Doctor behave in such a manner? Never. Their own behavior, in accusing the Popes, body of Bishops, and Ecumenical Councils proves that they are the ones who have erred gravely, not the Church.

According to the teaching of Christ in the Gospel, there is no fraternal correction of the Church Herself, for She is the supreme authority on what is and is not sin and error. Those who refuse to listen to the Church, says Christ in his teaching on fraternal correction (Mt 18:15-17), have failed in faith like the pagans and have sinned like the tax collectors, and must be treated as such.

The mere claim that one is offering charitable fraternal correction does not make the correction true, and this is especially the case in those who seek to correct the Pope.

They say “Paul corrected Peter”. Yes, but none of the disciples dared to correct Peter. It is absurd to claim that, of the more than one billion Catholics in the world, any one or more of them can “correct” the Pope whenever their understanding of the Faith differs from that of the Supreme teacher and judge of the Church. Correction of the Roman Pontiff is not the same as fraternal correction generally.

Paul was an Apostle. If a Pope supposedly errs, in a non-infallible decision of doctrine or discipline, it primarily falls to the successors of the Apostles to correct him. We have only one example, other than by Christ, of Peter being corrected, and it was by Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles and author of multiple books of the Bible. We do not read that anyone else ever corrected Peter. And the error for which Paul corrected Peter was in his interactions with others, his personal behavior, and not in a decision on doctrine or discipline for the universal Church:

Tertullian, 155-220: “But if Peter was reproved because, after having lived with the Gentiles, he separated himself from their company out of respect for persons, surely this was a fault in his conversation, not in his preaching.”

When an Ecumenical Council decides a matter of faith or morals, and the Roman Pontiff follows and continues that teaching, it is not fraternal correction to disagree; rather, it is a sin against faith to disagree. Schism and heresy are not excused by being presented as a type of fraternal correction. Martin Luther, who was at one time an Augustinian monk, was not offering fraternal correction in his 95 Theses. Rather, he was refusing to listen to the indefectible Church, and rejecting the teaching and authority of Her Roman Pontiffs.

Pope Francis has many times offered correction to these persons who themselves claim to correct the Pope. And they have not only refused his correction from the chair of Peter, but also have openly opposed his very authority as Roman Pontiff. They say “recognize and resist”. In this context, “recognize” means to acknowledge that Pope Francis is the true successor of Peter and valid Roman Pontiff. So they are proclaiming themselves to be schismatics, in that they resist him whom they recognize as the successor of Peter. This is in no way a fraternal correction. Instead, it is a grave scandal and a grave harm to the common good, on the part of those who oppose Pope Francis. Their behavior calls for correction, not his. And yet they stand uncorrected to this day.

Subjection to the Roman Pontiff

Thomas’ only reference to the Pope is the correction of Paul, which concerned Peter’s personal behavior and example, not his exercise of the Keys.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Contra Errores Graecorum: “For it is revealed that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is from the necessity of salvation” This teaching became dogma at Lateran V.

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….”

Saint Thomas quoting Saint Cyril: “According to this promise of the Lord, the Apostolic Church of Peter remains pure and spotless from all leading into error, or heretical fraud, above all Heads and Bishops, and Primates of Churches and people, with its own Pontiffs, with most abundant faith, and the authority of Peter. And while other Churches have to blush for the error of some of their members, this reigns alone, immovably established, enforcing silence, and stopping the mouths of all heretics; and we, from the necessity of salvation, not drunken with the wine of pride, confess, together with it, the formula of truth and of the holy apostolic tradition.” [From the golden chain of Saint Thomas Aquinas, attributed incorrectly to Saint Cyril, but approved by Thomas.]

Pope Paul IV writes about heresy and schism among leaders in the Church and in society of every rank — but he never considers that the Pope could err to that extent (except that a man could err prior to becoming Pope). And he says that if the Pope “deviates” from the faith only that he can be contradicted, not judged, opposed, condemned, etc. Such a deviation is clearly a lesser error.

By contrast, Innocent III and Pope Saint John Paul II taught that Popes cannot deviate from the Faith (in a different sense, that of grave errors) —

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….”

John Paul II: “Moreover, Peter — and like him each one of his successors and head of the Church — has the mission of encouraging the faithful to put all their trust in Christ and in the power of his grace, which he personally experienced. This is what Innocent III writes in the Apostolic Letter Sedis primatus [the First See] (November 12, 1199), quoting the text of Luke 22:32 and commenting on it thus: ‘The Lord clearly signifies that Peter’s successors will never deviate from the Catholic faith. Rather, they will help the deviating to return and will strengthen the vacillating’ (DS 775). That Pope of the Middle Ages considered that the declaration of Jesus to Peter was confirmed by the experience of a millennium.”

Accusations are not Corrections

The accusers of Pope Francis have repeatedly attempted to nullify the authority of Pope Francis, by claiming that he is a heretic, apostate, or idolater. They have repeatedly proposed ways that he might be punished for these alleged offenses, with eventual removal from the Chair of Peter. And they have claimed that they are acting based on infallible Tradition, as if they could not err in their positions and corrections. They have also presumed to judge and condemn the teachings of Popes, the body of Bishops, and Ecumenical Councils. Thus, they act as if they were prelates over the whole Church, usurping the role of Christ, the eternal Head of the one Church.

The alleged correctors of Pope Francis do not act as subordinates correcting a prelate in the Church, as St. Thomas sometimes allows in fraternal charity. Instead, they act as if they could not possibly be wrong, since they are correcting the Pope supposedly from Tradition. But Scripture and Tradition are material dogma, and their teachings are only formal dogma when confirmed infallibly by the Magisterium. And only the Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture and Tradition. So they can err to any extent in interpreting infallible Tradition. And yet they speak as if they were above the Pope, because, as they say, the Pope is bound to Tradition, meaning that Tradition is above the Pope. Certainly, the Pope and the Magisterium more generally teach from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. But the idea is a pride-filled absurdity that these papal accusers — who oppose not only the current Pope, but past Popes, the body of Bishops continuously since at least Vatican II, and the clear teachings of Vatican I — cannot err gravely in their understanding of Tradition. Their extensive attempted correction of the Magisterium and the Church Herself proves that their correction is not charitable, not fraternal, not faithful, and not true.

Instead, the Roman Pontiff is the supreme teacher and judge of all the faithful. The First See is judged by no one but God. This is the ancient and constant teaching of the Church, and a Canon in both the current (1983) and previous (1917) codes of Canon Law. And so any consideration of fraternal correction of any Pope is limited by these dogmatic teachings:

Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, “8. Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the Apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman Pontiffs to an Ecumenical Council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.”

Pope Saint Boniface I, 418-422: “No one has ever boldly raised his hands against the Apostolic Eminence, from whose judgment it is not permissible to dissent; no one has rebelled against this, who did not wish judgment to be passed upon him.”

Pope Saint Nicholas I (the great), 858-867: “Neither by the emperor, nor by all the clergy, nor by kings, nor by the people will the judge be judged…. The first See will not be judged by anyone….”

Pope Saint Leo IX, 1053: “By passing a preceding judgment on the great See, concerning which it is not permitted any man to pass judgment, you have received anathema from all the Fathers of all the venerable Councils…. As the hinge while remaining immovable opens and closes the door, so Peter and his successors have free judgment over all the Church, since no one should remove their status because ‘the highest See is judged by no one.’ ”

Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, 1302, approved by the Fifth Lateran Council: “Therefore, if the earthly power goes astray, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a lesser spiritual power goes astray, it will be judged by its superior; and truly, if the highest power goes astray, it will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone. And so the Apostle testifies, ‘The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.’ [1 Cor 2:15]”

Pope Gregory XI, 1377, condemned the error: “An ecclesiastic, even the Roman Pontiff, can legitimately be corrected, and even accused, by subjects and lay persons.”

Canon 1404: The First See is judged by no one.
[Current Code of Canon Law, 1983]

Canon 1556: The Primatial See can be judged by no one.
[Previous Code of Canon Law, 1917]

Notice that Pope Gregory condemned the error that prelates, especially the Pope, can be corrected and accused by subjects and the laity. This condemnation of error does not entirely exclude fraternal correction of the Pope, as is clear from Sacred Scripture on the correction of Peter by Paul. However, it certainly condemns the type of extensive accusations against the Roman Pontiffs and Ecumenical Councils currently proposed by many persons.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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1 Response to On Saint Thomas and correction of the Pope

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you very much for this lucid and well-documented essay. I think of the example of Pope Francis who was willing to accept correction regarding clerical sexual abuse in Chile. He was following the example of Peter who accepted correction by Paul on a matter of personal behavior not a matter of doctrine.

    God bless you,

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