In his Catholic World Report article, When do popes teach infallibly?, Dr. Edward Feser argues that the non-infallible teachings of the ordinary papal magisterium can err to almost any extent. Then he reviews the positions of Emmett O’Regan and Stephen Walford, who hold that the ordinary papal magisterium has very limited possibility of error. Feser rejects their views as too close to infallibility, as if there were little to no difference between infallible and non-infallible exercises of the papal magisterium. But this argument by Feser sets up a false dichotomy, as if there were only two choices: error to any extent, even heresy; or near infallibility, in the non-infallible papal magisterium.
[Edited to add: It seems clear now that Dr. Feser misrepresented the views of Emmett O’Regan (and therefore, perhaps also Walford). See the Comments after the article.]
But I’d like to make it very clear that Dr. Edward Feser is NOT in the category of far right opponents of Pope Francis, who find grave errors in nearly everything Pope Francis says and does. Feser holds that grave errors, even heretical errors, are possible in non-infallible papal teachings, but he is not quick to accuse any Pope. He does not present a long list of Popes who allegedly committed heresy or other grave failings of faith. Neither does he accuse Ecumenical Councils of grave error or heresy, as some opponents of Pope Francis have done. And his complaints about Pope Francis are not the exaggerated and harsh claims of the far right.
Instead, his position is generally faithful to Popes, Ecumenical Councils, and the body of Bishops dispersed in the world. He speaks about Pope Honorius I and the allegation of heresy against him in his recent article, and considers he may have been guilty of some lesser but still grave error. However, Feser does link to two of his own blog posts on Honorius, in which he does opine that Honorius committed heresy.
Dr. Feser’s main point seems to be that Popes are capable of errors on faith and morals, to almost any extent, when not teaching under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary universal Magisterium. He then attempt to refute the views of O’Regan and Walford, who hold (as far as I can tell) that the deficiencies possible in non-infallible teachings on faith and morals are very limited, and can never reach to the extent of an actual positive error being taught.
My position differs from the aforementioned authors. I hold that Popes can err to a greater extent that O’Regan and Walford claim, but that Popes cannot err gravely on doctrine or discipline, as Feser claims. And I find ample evidence in the teachings of Church Fathers, Doctors, Saints, Popes, and Councils that no Pope can err gravely in any non-infallible exercise of the Keys of Saint Peter over doctrine and discipline. Certainly, infallible teachings under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, and the ordinary universal Magisterium cannot err at all; neither can dogmatic facts (which I categorize under discipline). But the issue here is the extent of possible error in the ordinary non-infallible Papal magisterium.
The Main Problems with Feser’s Position
First, there are many sources from Popes, Councils, Fathers, Doctors, and Saints throughout the history of the Church teaching that Peter and his successors have the charism of truth and never failing faith. See this compilation of quotes and sources here. If a Pope were to teach material heresy, or any grave error on faith or morals, this would contradict the charism of truth. If a Pope were to fail in faith by formal heresy (or apostasy, schism, idolatry, etc.), this would contradict the charism of never-failing faith. The charism is one divinely-conferred gift with two aspects: truth and faith. Any grave error on faith or morals, even in a non-infallible teaching, would be incompatible with that charism. Vatican I confirmed this “charism of truth and never-failing faith” in Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 7, as an authoritative interpretation of Luke 22:32. And the teaching of the Church from ancient times has always interpreted that verse as a promise of never-failing faith to Peter and his successors, which excludes the teaching of heresy and the commission of heresy by any valid Pope.
Second, Feser assumes that the only other position, apart from his own, is to think that the Pope cannot err on faith and morals at all when teaching under the magisterium. That is (nearly) the position of Walford and O’Regan, with a few differences between them, positions Feser rejects. I think Feser is right to conclude that, if the degree or types of errors possible in what is called non-infallible is too slight, it is essentially just infallibility. And Vatican I solely applies Papal Infallibility to those papal teachings which meet all of the criteria stated in the dogma. If one or more criteria is not met, the papal teaching cannot be infallible.
A third position, which Feser does not seem to consider, is that papal teachings under the ordinary magisterium are neither infallible (or nearly infallible as some describe it), nor subject to any degree or type of error at all. Instead, the non-infallible teachings of the papal magisterium have a limited possibility of error. Non-infallible papal teachings cannot err gravely on faith or morals, nor can the theological virtue of faith of any successor of Peter fail by heresy or any other grave failure. But some errors are possible. These extend beyond merely deficiencies in the form or completeness of the teaching. These possible errors are not mere trivial points or minor discrepancies. However, the charism of truth and never-failing faith, and the indefectibility of the Church, prevent grave errors on doctrine or discipline in the papal exercise of the Keys of Peter.
For if the Pope were to defect from the faith by teaching or committing heresy, or even by teaching grave error inadvertently, then the indefectibility of the Church would be gravely harmed or lost. For the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the Church, and the Rock on which the Church is founded. His role as Rock is stated in the very Gospel passage on the indefectibility of the Church (Mt 16:18). That Peter is the Rock on which the Church is founded, and that the Church is indefectible, since the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it, are stated in the same breath by Christ the Lord.
Origen, quoted first by Saint Robert Bellarmine, then by Pope Leo XIII:
Origen, 184-253: “It is manifest, even if it were not expressed, because the gates of Hell can prevail against neither Peter, nor the Church, for if they prevailed against the rock on which the Church was founded, they would prevail against the Church.” [Mt 16:18] 
Origen, 184-253: “neither against the rock upon which Christ builds His Church, nor against the Church, shall the gates of Hell prevail.” 
And it is this third position, that of a limited possibility of error in non-infallible papal teachings, that I have been advocating for years now. It stands between the two extremes: on the one hand, as if non-infallible teaching were essentially infallible with no positive errors expressed, and on the other hand, as if the errors possible were without any limit and could include even heresy. Both of these positions are, in my view, incorrect. However, the positions of O’Regan and Walford each do little harm to the faithful. It is the position of Feser that is harmful, in that he tells the faithful that Popes cannot be trusted to always avoid heresy and grave error in their teachings.
One problem is that, even if a Pope, by himself, teaches heresy, the Church would lose Her indefectibility. As the navigator and pilot of the sole Ark of Salvation, how could the Pope guide the Ark to go astray, to run aground, or to crash upon the rocks, while teaching non-infallibly, and only guide the Ark of Salvation aright when exercising infallibility? Such a plan for salvation would be foolish. The Church must always be guided by the Pope at least well enough to avoid grave errors on doctrine and discipline; otherwise, the salvation of the whole world would be endangered and many souls would be lost by the very teaching of the Vicar of Christ, contrary to the plan of Christ and the universal salvific will of God.
Also, it is not always clear if the Pope is teaching non-infallibly, or participating in the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium. Priests and theologians disagree, and there are continually many contrary voices commenting on whatever the Roman Pontiff is teaching from the Apostolic See. Some argue that the condemnation of contraception is still not an infallible teaching under the ordinary universal Magisterium. But Germain Grisez and others have argued that this teaching was already infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium before Humanae Vitae.
I argue that every exercise of the Keys of Saint Peter by the Roman Pontiff is protected from every type of grave error on doctrine and discipline, even though only that which is infallible has the full protection from all error. I would consider this protection to be an extension of infallibility, just as the assent required for non-infallible teachings is not the full assent of faith required for infallible teachings, but rather religious assent “which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.” Lesser assent, lesser protection from error — not no protection from error.
It would be contrary to truth and faith, if the faithful were required to give religious assent to non-infallible papal teachings, which could err gravely, even to the extent of heresy. You can reply by saying that heresy would therefore not require assent, but the faithful often cannot tell heresy from doctrine. Many priests and theologians, as well as a few Bishops, also seem unable to make that distinction.
Also, I object strongly to the claim that only theologians have the ability to faithfully dissent from a possible less-than-grave error in a non-infallible teaching or decision of discipline. The Church gives no such special permission to theologians over the rest of the faithful. Just as theologians cannot exercise the Magisterium at all, unless they are also Bishops, so also they have the same obligations to assent to Church teachings, whether infallible or non-infallible.
If Popes could err gravely, the faithful would be put in the position of having to judge continually every teaching of the Roman Pontiff: Is it infallible under Papal Infallibility or a participation in the ordinary universal Magisterium? Is it a non-infallible teaching that errs gravely? Is it heresy? The Pope would then not be suitable to be, what the Church infallibly teaches that he is: the Supreme Shepherd of the whole flock; the father and teacher of all Christians; the Vicar of Christ; the Supreme Judge of all the faithful; and the sole person on earth who can judge and then reject or confirm the teachings of an Ecumenical Council, whether it teaches infallibly or non-infallibly.
Feser cites certain past examples of Popes who supposedly taught heresy or at least erred gravely in magisterial teachings: Honorius and John 22. But many opponents of Pope Francis have attempted similar accusations against a long list of Popes and Ecumenical Councils. The problem here is that any evaluation of a particular case is subject to error on the part of the person accusing that Pope (or Council). Consider how many Catholics have accused Vatican II of grave error or heresy! Every particular case proposed by a member of the faithful is subject to error in its evaluation by that person. How often the accusers of Popes assume themselves to be the ones who are infallible, while undermining the protection from error given to the Pope, whom they accuse. But Honorius and John XXII are easily defended, and have been defended by many since the time of their alleged heresies.
At one point, Feser cites “approved theological works of undeniable orthodoxy.” This is a laughable basis for accusing the Roman Pontiff and Vicar of Christ of heresy. If the Supreme Shepherd who is the visible Head of the Church, and the Rock on which the Church is founded, who alone can approve or reject an Ecumenical Council or any of its particular teachings, can err to the extent of heresy, then such “approved” works by theologians can also err to that extent. If one can deny a teaching of a Roman Pontiff, because it is supposedly gravely erroneous or heretical, how can such “theological works” have an “undeniable orthodoxy”? And do you not know that Arianism was widely “ecclesiastically approved” by individual Bishops, local groups of Bishops, and various priests and authors? But the Roman Pontiff Liberius did not fall into that error, nor did the Bishops as a body. Theologians, in any number, have no charism of truth and never-failing faith, nor are they successors to the Apostles chosen by Christ.
The theological works of theologians and priests are, in general, useful to the Magisterium. But they are not above the Magisterium to declare that the papal non-infallible magisterium has erred gravely, nor can they possibly be used to prove that the Magisterium can err to such an extent. For if the papal Magisterium could err to the extent of heresy or grave error, as Feser maintains, then what prevents theologians from the same degree of error? Is it their number, or their credentials, or their own self-opinion?
But instead, Christ said to Peter that his faith would never fail, and neither would the faithful of each successor of Peter, as the Church has continually taught from ancient times, as proven here.
Feser continues with his assertion that Popes can err gravely by adding “such works were ecclesiastically approved and widely used for the education of priests and theologians.” This type of expression turns the authority of teaching in the Church upside-down. An imprimatur does not guarantee an absence of moral or doctrinal error, despite the very wording of that declaration. For the granting of an imprimatur is not infallible, and falls under discipline, not doctrine. A Bishop, in granting an imprimatur, does not teach what the book teaches, but only rules that the book may be printed: “imprimatur” means “let it be printed”. And “nihil obstat” means “nothing stands in the way”. Neither is an exercise of the Magisterium. And even if it were, the individual Bishop can err to any extent, as Pope Leo XIII points out in Satis Cognitum 15. But the Church has always taught the never-failing faith of Peter and his successors, beginning with the words of Christ in Luke 22:32.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote and published a book entitled, “Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.” In the preface of that book, he writes:
“It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.” (Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. xxiv.)
It “goes without saying” because any book of theology, even one written by a present-day Roman Pontiff, can err. And therefore “ecclesiastically approved and widely used” books by theologians do not require assent, even when these books express the supposed majority opinion of theologians. Everyone is free to contradict them. But everyone is not free to contradict the non-infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff, as such teachings require religious assent. This assent can be required because of the protection of such teachings from grave error. The non-infallible teachings of the papal magisterium as a set are necessary to the path of salvation, and cannot err gravely, so they require assent. If such teachings could err gravely, even to the extent of heresy, it would not be right to require the assent of the faithful.
Elsewhere, Dr. Feser continues the error of raising the opinions of individual theologians or groups of theologians to the level of the Magisterium. Feser refers to “the ordinary magisterium of the Church – the everyday teaching of popes, bishops, and ecclesiastically-approved theologians as they convey the Faith in encyclicals, sermons, books, and the like,” — as if these “ecclesiastically-approved theologians” could exercise the infallible teaching authority given by Christ the Lord only to the successors of the Apostles. That claim is a grave error. All the faithful are called to spread the Gospel, each in his or her own way, and to whatever extent the providence, grace, and abilities of each one allow. But theologians do not exercise even the ordinary non-infallible magisterium, let alone participate in the ordinary universal Magisterium. No or set of theologians, however learned they may be, has the same teaching authority (non-infallible when teaching on their own) as a Roman Catholic Bishop, nor as the Roman Pontiff, nor as the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff.
Dr. Edward Feser, in his previous Catholic World Report article, takes a teaching of the Second Vatican Council — “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” — and attempts to apply it to theologians as a body: “What is true of the faithful as a whole is also true of theologians as a whole.” Wrong. NOTE WELL that the Church has never taught that theologians as a whole “cannot err in matters of belief”. And it is sad to see Feser attempt to give infallibility to the body of theologians, while claiming that Popes can err gravely, even to the extent of heresy. Also, which theologians are “ecclesiastically-approved” is a matter of disagreement and uncertainty. Recently a Bishop accused a Cardinal, publicly, of heresy. Is the Cardinal and that Bishop not ecclesiastically-approved? Many theologians now openly oppose the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, and many have opposed the Second Vatican Council.
Feser quotes Tuas Libenter by Pope Pius IX on this claim. But Pius IX was merely saying that the ordinary universal Magisterium, exercised by the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops dispersed in the world, is able to be recognized in its particular infallible teachings through the work of theologians. Pius IX was not adding theologians to the body of Bishops as those who can exercise that infallible magisterium. Neither was he detaching the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium from the Pope and all Bishops, assigning it to the body of ecclesiastically-approved theologians. This claim, read from time to time in different author’s works, is contrary to the teaching of the Church on the teaching authority of the Pope and Bishops, which is from their place as successors to the Apostles chosen by Christ. But the Lord did not choose a group of theologians, to add to the Apostles, who would also have the teaching authority of Christ.
The Teaching of the Church
Feser is correct that non-infallible papal teachings can err, to some extent. And I would disagree with O’Regan and Walford that such errors as are possible are very limited, for several reasons.
1. When Pope Honorius I was accused by some fathers of the Third Council of Constantinople, Pope Saint Agatho intervened with a letter accepted into the acts of the Council (action XVIII), making his teaching on the never-failing faith of Popes the teaching of the Council.
What does Pope Saint Agatho say? Due to the guidance of the Pope, the Church “has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.” And he says that the whole Church and the Ecumenical Councils follow the Roman Pontiff. Then Saint Agatho says that the Church “has received the Christian faith” from the Popes, who are “the princes of the Apostles of Christ”. And that this faith therefore remains “undefiled unto the end”. He also teaches that the “uprightness of the orthodox faith” has been established upon Peter and that “by his grace and guardianship” the faith “remains free from all error”. Thus, no grave errors are possible by any Roman Pontiff, nor can a Roman Pontiff fail in faith.
Then Agatho also teaches: “since it is the Lord and Savior of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, how it is known to all that the Apostolic pontiffs, the predecessors of my littleness, have always confidently done this very thing….” Thus, no Pope can fail in faith by committing heresy, not even as a private person.
And after Agatho died, when some Council fathers again rose up against Honorius, despite the teaching of Agatho, Pope Saint Leo II, in the three Latin letters approving of the Council, also changed the sentence against Honorius from heresy to negligence.
Catholic Encyclopedia: “Pennacchi, followed by Grisar, taught that by these words Leo II explicitly abrogated the condemnation for heresy by the council, and substituted a condemnation for negligence.”
Pope Leo II to the Bishops of Spain: “Honorius, who did not immediately extinguish the flame of the heretical teaching, as would befit the apostolic authority, but supported it by his negligence”.
Pope Leo II to the king of Spain: “Honorius of Rome, who allowed the immaculate rule of apostolic tradition that he had received from his predecessors to be stained….”
Pope Leo II to the Roman emperor: “And, we in like manner, anathemized the inventors of the new error, namely, Theodore, Bishop of Pharan, Cyrus of Alexandria, Sergius, Phyrrus … and also Honorius, who did not purify this apostolic Church by the doctrine of the apostolic tradition, but rather he allowed the immaculate [Church] to be stained by profane treason.”
From the example of Honorius, we see that Popes can err in a substantial way, such as by negligence in defending the Faith from heretical error. But it is also clear that claims that Honorius actually taught or committed heresy are refutable.
Pope Paul IV, in his well-known document “Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio”, did not, as many wrongly claim, asset that Popes could be heretics. Rather, the Roman Pontiff is not mentioned in the long list of persons who might commit heresy (except that a man might commit heresy before becoming Pope). However, Paul IV does propose that the Pope might deviate from the faith to some lesser extent:
Paul IV: “the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God, and of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted, if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.”
This deviation from the Faith cannot be that of apostasy, heresy, or schism, as Paul IV considers all manner of persons who might commit such sins, such grave failings of faith, but never the current valid Roman Pontiff. So when Paul IV says a Pope might deviate from the Faith, he means a lesser deviation. Then, when Pope Saint John Paul II, citing Pope Innocent III, both say that the Pope cannot deviate from the Faith, they mean grave errors and grave failings of faith:
John Paul II: “In foretelling the triple denial which Peter would make out of fear during the passion, Jesus also predicted that he would overcome the crisis of that night: ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail, and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers’ (Lk 22:31-32). With these words Jesus guaranteed Simon a special prayer for the perseverance of his faith, but he also announced the mission entrusted to him of strengthening his brothers in the faith.”
“This is what Innocent III wrote in the Letter Apostolicae Sedis Primatus (November 12, 1199), citing the text of Luke 22:32 and commenting on it as follows: ‘The Lord clearly intimates that Peter’s successors will never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith, but will instead recall the others and strengthen the hesitant’ (DS 775). That medieval Pope felt that Jesus’ statement to Simon Peter was confirmed by the experience of 1,000 years.”
So we see that Popes can err to some lesser extent, even so much that Pope Saint Leo would accuse a predecessor of negligence in defending against heresy, or that Pope Paul IV would accuse a hypothetical Pope of possibly deviating from the Faith. But ample other sources in Church teaching here also establish that Popes cannot fail gravely in faith (Lk 22:32) and cannot err gravely in exercising the Keys of Peter.
So Dr. Feser is right to criticize Emmett O’Regan and Stephen Walford for their position which makes the non-infallible teachings of the papal magisterium not much different from infallible teachings. However, Feser fails to consider that the Lord Jesus, in His solicitude for souls and their salvation, would protect Peter and his successors from failing in faith and from grave error, for the sake of the Church and the path of salvation of those whom the Church is tasked by Christ to save.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
1. per Unam Sanctam
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church 892
3. All are offered salvation, but not all accept that offer.
4. Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 160). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.
5. Origenes, Comment. in Matt., tom. xii., n. ii; quoted by Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 12.
Thank you for writing this very informative article (and for the time you put into it).
Lumen Gentium, 12 has been cited by some to claim that the entire body of the faithful must receive a teaching as infalible before it can be considered infallible. This is the false notion of “the theology of reception.” LG, 12 makes it clear the the “sensus fidei” of the faithful must be exercised under the guidance of and in obedience to the sacred teaching authority of the Church.
Dr. Feser seems to give the same interpretation to Pius IX’s 1863 letter, Tuas libenter, that many liberal theologians give to it. Some years back, I was asked by an ecclesiastical authority to comment on some works of a contemporary Catholic theologian. This theologain cited Tuas libenter in support of his claim that the consensus of theologians justifies dissent from magisterial teachings. These were my thoughts on the matter (which harmonize with your own):
“(Prof …) claims that the consensus of the theologians serves as the determining factor for the discernment of the infallibility of the universal ordinary Magisterium. In the actual text, however, Pius IX is affirming the obligation of theologians to submit with divine faith not only to what is defined by express decrees of ecumenical councils or Popes but also ‘to those matters which are handed on as divinely revealed by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church dispersed throughout the whole world and, for that reason, are held, by the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians, as belonging to the faith’ (ideoque universali et constanti consensu a catholicis theologis ad fidem pertinire retinentur). The Latin, ideoque, in this context means “and therefore” or “and for that reason” or “and on that account.” Joseph Hoffmann’s French translation of Denz.-Hün., 2879 has ‘et, par conséquent.’ The ideoque indicates that the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians follows as a result of the universal and ordinary teaching of the Magisterium. It’s a complete misreading of the text to say that Pius IX is establishing the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians as a condition for the infallibility of the universal ordinary Magisterium! The entire context of Tuas libenter is a response to German theologians like Döllinger who wanted to downplay the need for theologians to submit to magisterial teachings. It is inconceivable that Pius IX, in this context, wanted to make the universal consensus of theologians the condition for determining what is taught by the universal ordinary Magisterium.”
Thanks very much. I too have read some theologians making similar claims, which vary somewhat from one to another. Theologians must submit to the teachings of the Magisterium, just like all the faithful.
Emmett O’Regan replied to one of the articles of Feser in Catholic World Report. and I think his comments are worthy of consideration:
Emmett O’Regan (in reply to Dr. Feser)
DECEMBER 22, 2022 AT 9:33 AM
Thank you for taking the time to respond to one of my articles on Vatican Insider, Dr Feser. I’ve read your work on Aquinas, which I found to be quite excellent. The above subject is the topic of my doctoral thesis, and I would like to point out that my position is being misrepresented here. I don’t hold to an infallible ordinary papal Magisterium. As Prof. Fastiggi notes above, the non-definitive teachings of the authentic Magisterium can contain limited errors, such as in the area of particular facts, among other areas, or even concerning its prudential judgments in matters of discipline. My position is a lot closer to Michael Lofton’s, which he presents in the podcast he has linked to above. Basically, my thesis is that any errors in the non-definitive teachings of the authentic Magisterium can never amount to the level of heresy or sententia haeresi proxima corresponding to the first two levels of assent in the Professio fidei. The meat and bones of my real argument is based on Bishop Gasser’s statement in the relatio of Vatican I, that St Robert Bellarmine’s “fourth proposition” concerning the impossibility of a Roman Pontiff falling into formal heresy or teaching heresy to the universal Church in his public capacity as pope would be raised to dogmatic status upon the ratification of Pastor aeternus. I’ve briefly outlined this thesis in a follow-up article on Vatican Insider, which you haven’t engaged with above:
I think I can successfully demonstrate exactly how St Robert Bellarmine’s position was raised to dogmatic status in Pastor aeternus, as stipulated by the relatio. This is the only point where I would differ with Michael Lofton, in his argument that the idea of a pope teaching heresy in the non-definitive exercise of the authentic Magisterium is merely a theological error. If St Robert Bellarmine’s view on a heretical pope was raised to dogmatic status, then it is actually heresy to claim that a pope is capable of teaching heresy to the universal Church in his public capacity as Roman Pontiff.
Thanks for clarifying the positions of Emmett O’Regan and Stephen Walford. I believe it is an open question as to the degree and types of errors that are possible in the non-infallible papal magisterium. However, it is already certain that Popes cannot teach or commit heresy, and that some errors are possible when the decision is non-infallible. O’Regan’s position, clarified above, excludes from non-infallible expressions errors that are heresy or proximate to heresy. My position has a greater degree of exclusion, ruling out all grave error. But at this point, the distinctions are arguable. Walford, I think, has a greater degree of exclusion of error than myself or O’Regan.
In any case, Feser’s position that Popes can teach or commit heresy is contradicted by many Church sources.
The level of assent to non-infallible papal teachings seems to be the crux of the matter in many controversies these days, with extremes on each side digging their trenches ever deeper as the other side dogs theirs.
In my own ponderings I keep coming back to chapter 3 of Pastor Aeternus. It is just as dogmatic as chapter 4 which defined papal infallibility but doesn’t seem to get as much attention. In chapter 3 the Council fathers “teach and declare” that we are all “bound to submit” to the Roman Pontiff “not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world.”
So the way I see it is roughly as follows:
—God would never bind us to something damaging or endangering to our souls (sin, impiety, something that sends us to hell, etc).
—The Magisterium at Vatican I—with God’s authority—dogmatically binds us to submit to the pope even in non-infallible promulgations of both doctrine and discipline, and our souls are in jeopardy if we disregard this.
—Therefore, it stands to reason that even in non-infallible things (whether doctrines or practices) we cannot be in danger for following or believing the pope’s non-infallible but binding promulgations. There is a safety with “simply following the pope” and trusting that the Holy Spirit is in control, even when we don’t fully understand everything.
The logic is the same from a different direction:
—I know for a fact that I, a simple layman, can be in danger (fatally erroneous) following my own personal interpretations; whether of Scripture, capital-T Tradition, sensus fidei, authentic development, what is “best” in liturgy, etc.
—Therefore, there is a safety to not relying on myself, following the pope and Magisterium, and trusting that the Holy Spirit is in control, even when I don’t fully understand everything.
What do you think about that line of thought?
Figuring out the intricacies of some of these questions seems dangerous for normal laymen like myself and a simple “just follow the pope” sometimes seems like the safest route.
“Seek not what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your power.” Sirach 3:21
That line of thought is perfect. Well said.
Thank you. I’ve been working on my own blog post on this and feedback is always helpful. Sometimes I worry I’m missing something.
With the coming storm from the German synod with its decision to recommend the bishops to start “blessing” couples who cannot or do not want to have sacramental marriage (notice the difference from the “gay marriage” that the most protestant churches already adopted), in the next days and weeks before Easter we will see an avalanche of accusations from both sides. I bet the traditionalists will be very vocal demanding excommunications, while at the same time they did not find anything wrong when openly condemned the pope and Vatican II council.
And the pope will have to balance wisely, as he does. While in fact the German synod does not go as far as it was expected to go, it will be the cause of the schism. Not that the pope will excommunicate those whom he favors. Rather the opposite. The traditionalists will radicalize even more seeing their hardline is not being adopted.
That all will culminate in the next conclave with the impossibility both camps to elect one single person. Because it would mean to elect one conservative candidate. And the liberal cardinals in the Church will never accept that again. Not after they have gone so far.
Only pope Francis can decide when that event will happen, when he resigns, because he is far from natural death with 5-10 years at least (nobody knows, yet he is not in the situation of St John Paul II for years before he died). For now, he prefers to balance and he is doing it as good as humanly possible. How long the situation will be possible to be balanced in that way? I think this Easter will come the breaking point.
It is bizarre for Catholics who are openly schismatic, rejecting the authority of Pope Francis, Vatican II, and even Vatican I, to then call for other Catholics to be excommunicated. Formal schism carries the penalty of automatic excommunication. I’m not sure if blessing same-sex couples rises to the level of heresy. But I think the German Synod is in danger of progressing toward heresy and schism, by small steps. Pope Francis already decided against some of their proposals, and against having a Synod as a permanent body. But they seem to be ignoring him.
Another question somewhat related but I don’t know where best to post it.
Is it heresy to claim something is dogma when in fact it is not? For example, when someone says the death penalty or burning people at the stake are infallible judgments of the Church. Those are not infallibly defined (from what I can discern) but some claim they are. Would that error itself fall under the condemnation of heresy?
No, that would not be heresy, unless the claimed dogma conflicts with actual dogma. It can be difficult to discern which teachings are infallible under the ordinary universal magisterium (OUM).
The death penalty as a form of punishment that is not intrinsically evil seems to be infallible under the OUM, plus it is in the OT and NT. Burning people at the stake cannot be a teaching, as it is a particular version of the death penalty (and probably immoral due to cruelty).
Ron, I believe there are people in the Church today who are ready to go to the extremes, if the civil authority allows it again, as it allowed it in the Middle ages. We are not talking only of the developed West that is unlikely to give any more extreme power to those fanatics. We are talking also of third world countries in which there are severe punishments for sexual misbehavior or sin. No surprise pope Francis spoke against those laws that criminalize the gay conduct that he called sin but not crime. There are bishops in those countries who support those laws. And we hear from the blogosphere that many traditionalists including priests also support those laws. Just now fr. R. speaks as if the Flood has happened because of that.
Let leave the judgment to God alone, and not play petty semi gods in judging our neighbor, so we are not being judged together, as Sr Agnes Sassagawa reports the heavenly message: good will perish together with the bad in the fire from heaven…
What if tomorrow an unjust law envisions death penalty for something that might be sin but is not crime, or not crime that deserves the biggest punishment? Here we reach easily to the burning or “just killing” of people. The mentality of some catholic priests and bishops is not much farther than that of the bishop who condemned Jeanne d’Arc. Was she the lonely case of Inquisition to be reinstated and canonized? Why didn’t the Catholic Church make throughout revision of her less than honorable practices and make historic retribution for her unholy, unworthy ministers, many of whom may well be burning in Hell as we speak? Devils cannot rejoice more than seeing people being killed in the name of the Love Incarnate. Yes it happened some 300 years ago. A brief time in the world history. And the future is not as secure in freedom as many believe. An apocalyptic type of event, and everything can go back. Some people dream of it. Frankly, I would not like to live in such a world to be judged for belief (even if wrong). I would prefer to die in the cataclysm as martyr, than to be in the hands of inquisitors because I say what I think
Hello Ron, how are you, I have a doubt, I saw a sedevacante saying that Pope Francis committed heresy by saying that the holy virgin Mary felt the pains of childbirth, this constitutes heresy, in his case his basis is this homily.
He did not say pain in childbirth, but rather: “We can imagine when they reached Bethlehem, Our Lady was beginning to feel some pain, Joseph did not know where to go, he knocked on many doors, but there was no room.” There is no dogma saying Mary never felt pain. Certainly, Jesus felt pain at the Passion and Crucifixion, so Mary would not be pain-free her entire life. Also, I’m not aware of Mary’s pain-free childbirth being defined as a dogma, though it is a well-established doctrine. So it is not heresy, which is contrary to dogma. Also, a passing remark is not obstinate, so it is not formal heresy.
ron is following the news of the schism of the german synodal path? They literally went against the determinations of the roman pontiff by the discarium for doctrine of the faith… it seems that they already officially separated from the Church.
I’m not sure if they are in schism yet. Some of the things they have been criticized for saying, such as women deacons, or more married priests, is not heretical or schismatic. They were told not to institute the Synod as a permanent fixture in Germany. But in any case, the Pope can nullify anything they try to do, just as he can for an Ecumenical Council.