NB: I revise a bit, below.
From a reader…
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.
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.
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.