ASK FATHER: Hypothetically, can a Pope dogmatically teach heresy? Wherein Fr. Z speculates.

NB: I revise a bit, below.

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

What if the Pope were to dogmatically declare that [insert major heresy here] was true? I don’t have an answer for this, which means I am utterly dependent on faith that God won’t let such a thing happen.

Still, what if…

So, what if a putative Pope say… what’s a really trendy name… Pope Logan (the second Jesuit to be elected) … were to call everyone to St. Peter’s Square and formally announce:

“We solemnly declare by our Apostolic authority and our office to confirm the brethren and we teach ex cathedra and infallibly so that it must be firmly and immutably held by the faithful that Christ did not rise from the dead in a physical sense, but rather in a spiritual sense in the hearts of His followers at the time.”

That would be pretty bad.

I, too, believe that God would not allow that to happen.  I am with Ratzinger in holding that the role of the Holy Spirit in the election of a Pope is not to choose the Pope, but to ensure that the choice made by the Cardinals is not a total disaster.   A Pope who would attempt to promulgate something obviously contrary to the doctrine of the faith would be a disaster.  Hence, I don’t think that will happen.

As a matter of fact, I suspect that God would end the pontificate before that would occur.  Pope Logan would get to the words “…it must be firmly and immutably held by the faithful that…” and he would more than likely clutch his chest and fall over with a long, “eehhhehhehe” sound.  There is also another less obvious way God could do it, which I’ll touch hereunder.

Theologians have debated about this point.  Most notable among them is the mighty St. Robert Bellarmine.  Bellarmine thought it impossible for a Pope to be a heretic, but he speculated that by holding a heretical view even privately as a material but not a formal heretic, he would cease to be Pope because he placed himself outside the Church, and no one outside the Church can be Pope.  That, however, can’t be entirely right because we would constantly be in doubt about the status of the Pope, if all it takes is private, material heresy.

A Pope might wind up on some point or other being a material heretic, in that it could happen that he doesn’t realize that he has erred.   A whole other pot of caponata would result if the Pope turned out to be a formal heretic, openly teaching heresy, fully culpable for both the sin of heresy and the crime of heresy.

I trust that God will not permit the Pope to be a formal heretic who attempts to promulgate something contrary to the faith.

But say that he does, for the sake of the intellectual exercise.

One problem that rises in this hypothetical discussion is that the Pope cannot be judged formally, as if in a trial.  Not even an ecumenical council could do so.  Only God can do that.

However, it is possible that – while not judging the person of Pope Logan- a council or perhaps the College of Cardinals could make a declaration that a certain thing that a Pope attempted to teach was a formal heresy and, ergo, God Himself as the Pope’s judge, would have caused that Pope’s office to cease, end the pontificate such that the See of Peter was empty from the moment before the Pope taught heresy.

Think about this. A marriage tribunal cannot break a marriage.  A tribunal can only issue a declaration that there never was a marriage.  Tribunals can’t nullify, they can only identify nullity.  Councils can’t take the Pope’s office away, they can identify that God took it away.

A council could declare that Pope Logan had lost his office because of what he had intended and attempted to do.

The Church is indefectible.  The Lord prayed for Peter and his faith.  The Lord said that hell would not prevail.  The Lord said that He would be with Church for all time.  God is faithful to his promises. Because of Christ’s promises, Popes can’t teach formal heresy.

Hence, it seems to me that if God didn’t stop the Pope’s heart, God Himself would take jurisdiction away from the man the instant before he formally promulgated something contrary to the faith.

That is something that a council could deliberate about and declare.

Again, I don’t think this will happen.

It is always important to pray for our Popes.  We are all in Peter’s Barque together.

UPDATE:

I’ve been exchanging some email about this topic and I am considering revising my position.  One of the correspondents suggested that for a Pope to be removed (by God) from his office, which is a sensible, manifest reality, there has to be a sensible, manifest sign that that is what he has done.   Whereas I desired to protect the Petrine Office with my theory that the Pope would lose his office immediately before some formal heretical pronouncement, the alternative is that he would lose his office in the very moment of his pronouncing the heresy.   As my correspondent wrote: “If he acts against that faith, he is signifying his intention of renouncing the office.”  The key is that he has to do something, he has to act.

This is pretty good reasoning.

UPDATE:

LISTEN UP!

Stop submitting Francis bashing comments, or I’ll shut down your user record. They are pointless and they play into the narrative of the libs, who hardly need an excuse to harm everything we love in the Church.

UPDATE: 28 June 2018

I was sent a link to an interesting post with text from St. Francis de Sales about this question: Can a Pope teach error?

Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual by writings and bad example.

But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith.

 

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19 Responses to ASK FATHER: Hypothetically, can a Pope dogmatically teach heresy? Wherein Fr. Z speculates.

  1. Unwilling says:

    I guess that for 100s of millions of years the material universe existed before Adam and Eve were created. Could it be that for comparable periods of time after man is extinct the rest of matter will carry on until Christ comes again in glory? Usquequo, Domine?

  2. ususantiquior says:

    Fr Z, it is not just a matter of personal belief, but it is guaranteed by Our Most Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that what you quoted will never happen.

    It is as sure as the Dogma of the Virginity of Our Lady.

    The Pope (even if he was infiltrated by the Communists) can never make an ex cathedra definition in matters of faith and morals –such as the one you quoted– which is erroneous. It is impossible, and whoever thinks it is possible (after Vatican I) is denying the Dogma of Infallibility:

    “[…]we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy […] So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”
    – Pope Pius IX, Pastor Aeternus, First Vatican Council, A.D. 1870

    http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum20.htm

  3. Dismas says:

    As troubling as some things have been of late, I have noticed that the Holy Father, when forced to speak *clearly and explicitly*, he does manage to reaffirm dogmatic truth. That said, speaking clearly and explicitly is like pulling teeth these days. Hence, I believe that deliberate vagueness that can potentially encompass both the orthodox and heterodox to be the order of the day.

  4. Sawyer says:

    Or, from another angle, if a presumed pope were to make a formally heretical ex cathedra definition, it could be that it was allowed to happen because the man presumed to be the Successor of Peter is not, in fact, the pope legitimately reigning; in other words, he could be an antipope. In such a case, the presumed pope would not be pope and wouldn’t enjoy divine assistance nor protection regarding papal infallibility, so he could say/pronounce/define/enact anything he wanted but it wouldn’t have any binding effect because he would lack the authority and power of the Roman Pontiff.

    Not making any assertions about Pope Francis with this comment; merely adding to the intellectual exercise.

  5. TonyO says:

    Fr Z, it is not just a matter of personal belief, but it is guaranteed by Our Most Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that what you quoted will never happen.

    Right. That’s definite.

    What Fr. Z envisions:

    a council or perhaps the College of Cardinals could make a declaration that a certain thing that a Pope attempted to teach was a formal heresy .

    could happen, but only with regard to something the Pope taught that he did not attempt to teach ex cathedra. Indeed, this has more or less happened, with Pope John XXII, who taught error, and raised an outcry against it by theologians, which forced (or rather, “forced”) him to recant his error. However, nobody at the time seems to have come to the conclusion that the mere fact of his error meant that his office of pope failed, and that there was no valid pope until the next pope was elected. As far as I can find, his later acts as pope were considered to be valid and authoritative. Given that, I would say that the theory that a pope loses his office by the mere fact of teaching a heresy when pope is very doubtful, if not inadmissable.

    On the other hand, there remains a huge open window here: Article 6 of the Papal Bull Cum Ex
    Apostolatus
    , which says:

    6. In addition, [by this Our Constitution, which is to remain valid in perpetuity We enact, determine, decree and define:] that if ever at any time it shall appear that any Bishop, even if he be acting as an Archbishop, Patriarch or Primate; or any Cardinal of the aforesaid Roman Church, or, as has already been mentioned, any legate, or even the Roman Pontiff, prior to his promotion or his elevation as Cardinal or Roman Pontiff, has deviated from the Catholic Faith or fallen into some heresy:

    (i) the promotion or elevation, even if it shall have been uncontested and by the unanimous assent of all the Cardinals, shall be null, void and worthless; …

    (vi) those thus promoted or elevated shall be deprived automatically, and without need for any further declaration, of all dignity, position, honour, title, authority, office and power.

    So, if this means what it seems to mean, a person who was already a heretic and seen to speak heresy before being elected pope, would not be validly elected pope, the election would be void. The Church (in a council or through the College of Cardinals) might attest to this fact, and then go on to hold a new election because the office is already vacant.

    I used the cautionary phrase “if this means what it seems to mean”, because this is pretty much exactly what the Sede Vacantists have been saying through the last 5 popes’ reigns. And I don’t think they are right. It is certainly problematic.

  6. Dan says:

    I do believe that the true pope cannot speak against the faith. I have been pondering another question lately though. What if the father of lies was able to penetrate the perceived church enough that the person presented to the world was not the true pope?
    Could the true church be essentially forced to exile while the MSM reported on the workings of a false pope operating out of the Vatican?
    The seat would not be vacant but filled by a person that only a very small percentage of faithful Catholics recognized. And those thatndid recognise him would be presented to the world as schismatic. No this is not an argument for Pope Michael, but a real scenario I fear could present itself.

  7. JabbaPapa says:

    Whilst a Pope could teach a heresy, he could not declare one to be dogmatically true.

    Not from the nature of what dogma technically constitutes, which is “that body of Christian teaching that constitutes the teaching of God and of His Christ and of His Apostles to His Church and to Mankind”. The Church is not the source of the Dogma, but she is only the spiritual location where the Dogma are to be provided to us by the ministers of God’s teaching Will, clergy, religious, and lay.

    The dogmata can be expressed in new ways, or perhaps in some profusion of detail, or perhaps from a particular perspective, but no dogma can be created ex nihilo by any mortal man, and anything that is contrary to any indefectible teaching simply cannot by very definition be “dogmatic”.

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    If a pope were holding heretical views, making himself not the pope due to material heresy, or was not the pope due to an invalid election after politicking to obtain the office, it may render all of that current pope’s words and actions null, but would this matter if the Bishops support his heresy and therefore do not address it? As Hillary Clinton would say, what difference does it make. The end result is the same.

  9. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Papal trivia time. Today marks 1932 days since Pope Francis’ election. Pope Clement XIV of glorious memory reigned for 1931 days.

    [Ahhhh… Clement. We miss you.]

  10. cengime says:

    Bellarmine did not think that occult heretics cease to be members of the Church. He places great emphasis on the nature of the Church as a visible society and one’s public relationship to it. Bellarmine would therefore say that an occult heretic can hold an office in the Church.

  11. Tom says:

    “However, it is possible that – while not judging the person of Pope Logan- a council or perhaps the College of Cardinals could make a declaration that a certain thing that a Pope attempted to teach was a formal heresy and, ergo, God Himself as the Pope’s judge, would have caused that Pope’s office to cease, end the pontificate such that the See of Peter was empty from the moment before the Pope taught heresy.”

    Possible? I’d love to hear how this could effectively be done, when all “Pope Logan SJ” would have to do to counteract it is to say, “We solemnly declare by our Apostolic authority and our office to confirm the brethren and we teach ex cathedra and infallibly so that it must be firmly and immutably held by the faithful that [the council of late is a Robber Synod of obstinate schismatics whose authority is null and void, and whose acts we hereby solemnly annul by the authority of Blessed Peter and Paul vested in our humble and unworthy selves] [or] [the College of Cardinals, serving as it does entirely at the Pope’s pleasure, is hereby dismissed, any and all of its jurisdiction stripped, revoked and abolished by virtue of our supreme, universal, and immediate episcopal jurisdiction as laid out in Pastor Aeternus], &c &c.” Good luck!

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    cengime :

    Bellarmine did not think that occult heretics cease to be members of the Church

    Nor did Pope Martin V.

  13. James in Perth says:

    To be honest, I worry a lot about Pope Francis. He remains in my prayers.

  14. TonyO says:

    Bellarmine did not think that occult heretics cease to be members of the Church

    Right. It has to be public in order to have any effect of that sort. The problem comes with priests who publicly taught heretical things, and then were elevated to higher office. Even to the papacy, as outlined in Cum Ex Apostolatus. The papal bull seems to suggest that their office is void without need of further action, like a formal declaration. However, I think that reading it more carefully, it should be taken slightly differently: Their office is null upon a formal finding by the Church, and THEN, they are deprived of any other position, dignity, or honor, which are automatically void without any further act to deprive them of said honors or dignities. That is to say, it still takes a formal finding that they taught heresy to land under the workings of Article 6, but once that finding has been made, the censures are automatic and need no further juridical pronouncement.

    I would dearly love to see a canon lawyer opine on the impact of Cum Ex Apostolatus in these sorts of matters. Paging Dr. Peters…

  15. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If Wolverine were pope, the real question would be whether adamantium claws are okay for priests. Don’t even get me started on his skeleton. Or his habit of driving away on his motorcycle to start fights in bars.

    But yeah, a Canadian pope.

  16. JabbaPapa says:

    Suburbanbanshee :

    If Wolverine were pope, the real question would be whether adamantium claws are okay for priests

    eh, unfortunately for those among you desiring some future Uncanny X-Priests, Canon 1041.5 states clearly that a person who has mutilated […] another gravely and maliciously has an impediment preventing Ordination.

    Whereas it is clear that Mr. Logan seems habitually to disobey the Canon.

  17. Dismas says:

    Dan – “What if the father of lies was able to penetrate the perceived church enough that the person presented to the world was not the true pope?
    Could the true church be essentially forced to exile while the MSM reported on the workings of a false pope operating out of the Vatican?”

    As someone who delved into darkness in my youth, I would say that this is more of an end-game scenario, and an unlikely one at that, and as mad as the world has gone now, it is not yet within the pale of allowing this sort of thing to actually work, let alone be a reasonable gambit for the devil to play.

    To summarize, the College of Cardinals would have to elect a real pope from their number, say, Leo XIV, then immediately afterwards, elect an antipope, lock Leo up in a cellar, send up some smoke, and present the world with Pope Arius. For speculation’s sake, we suppose that Pope Leo XIV is actually in on this perfidy, but must be kept away from the public, lest his actual infallibility manage to inadvertently correct his antipapal co-conspirator and/or fellow cardinals.

    This sort of plot requires actual, willful, satanic activists to hold virtually every vote, lest it fail or Leo escapes. Sure, there’s plenty of corruption still residing in high ranks within the Church. Even so, that foulness is still a qualitative leap from being a cat’s paw to a becoming a disciple of Hell.

    Yes, this would be a high-risk/high-reward scenario for Satan, however I don’t see him changing course. His current tactic has gotten him a much larger slice (and growing) of the market share of souls, and I don’t see how such a gambit, which would almost guarantee failure (for instance: 2 Kings 11) in the long run, would tempt him to put forth such an enormous effort.

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  19. Cornelius says:

    I wonder if parts of this argument don’t indulge in the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy, i.e.,

    1. All true Scotsmen eat porridge for breakfast.
    2. Hamish MacGregor eats eggs and bacon rashers for breakfast.
    3. Hamish is not a true Scotsman.

    Applied to the case at hand:

    1. No true Pope would formally teach heresy.
    2. Pope Logan formally teaches heresy.
    3. Therefore, Pope Logan is not a true Pope.

    The fallacy consists in the circularity of defining the group by the quality that is in question to begin with, i.e. formally teaching heresy.

    The fallacy is avoided by defining the group by a quality independent of the quality that is at issue. So, a true Pope is any Catholic male, ordained (or capable of being ordained) to the priesthood (the Pope has to be Bishop of Rome), canonically elected by a valid conclave of Cardinals. Period, that’s it. If he later formally teaches heresy, then we have a true Pope who’s a formal heretic (unless you want to fall into the aforesaid fallacy).

    My assumption is that God would not allow that (though He seems to be giving the present occupant a very long leash). The protection of the Church is up to God in this type of case. We can do nothing, methinks (but pray for the occupant).