Peters on Popes and Heresy, Personal and Public

Famed canonist Ed Peters today at his exceptional blog In The Light Of The Law has a piece that you will want to peruse.

He doesn’t have an open combox, but I do. Read, re-read, pause to think, think again, discuss.

My emphases and comments.

A canonical primer on popes and heresy

No one in a position of ecclesial responsibility—not the Four Cardinals posing dubia, not Grisez & Finnis cautioning about misuses, and not the 45 Catholics appealing to the College, among others—has, despite the bizarre accusations made about some of them, accused Pope Francis of being a heretic or of teaching heresy. While many are concerned for the clarity of various Church teachings in the wake of some of Francis’ writings and comments, and while some of these concerns do involve matters of faith and morals, [NB] no responsible voice in the Church has, I repeat, accused Pope Francis of holding or teaching heresy.

That’s good, because the stakes in regard to papal heresy are quite high. Those flirting with such suspicions or engaging in such ruminations should be very clear about what is at issue.

First. Heresy is, and only is, “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be believed by divine and catholic faith.” 1983 CIC 751. Heresy is not, [NB – canonically] therefore, say, the failure to defend effectively specific truths of Revelation (though that might be negligence per Canon 1389); moreover, privately-held heretical views, even if they are leading to certain observable actions, are not in themselves actionable under law (Canon 1330).


Second. We can dismiss as impossible—indeed, as unthinkable thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit—any scenario whereby a pope commits the Church to a heresy. See Ott, Fundamentals (1957) 287 or Catholic Answers tract “Papal Infallibility” (2004). However grave might be the consequences for a pope falling into heresy, the Church herself cannot fall into heresy at his hands or anyone else’s. Deo gratias.

Those two points being understood, the canonical tradition yet recognizes (and history suggests) that a given pope could fall into personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly, which brings us to some thoughts on those possibilities.


There is quite a bit more after this, so don’t think that you have it all without going over there.

Fr. Z kudos for posting this.

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  1. un-ionized says:

    There are several degrees of theological certainty besides de fide and heresy. One that is probably the most common is something like “a proposition poorly expressed.” Given all the language problems we are having with translations and people from different countries trying to talk to each other about emotional things we see a lot of that I think. In just talking to regular people like myself I hear a lot of things poorly expressed and often spout them myself. So maybe that is part of what is going on. It’s Babel all over again.

  2. bombcar says:

    The idea that a heretical Pope puts himself out of the papacy won’t work, in the long run, I feel, because either he is Pope or he isn’t. If he is, no judgement can be ruled against him (but certainly against his heretical teaching) if he isn’t, then he must have stopped being pope at a time, but when that time is cannot be judged, so the validity of any and all papal actions he did would be in question, therefor damaging the Church.

    I think remembering what “Pope” means is important – he’s our Holy Father, and fathers don’t lose their fatherhood by being heretics. We must submit to the Pope with all reverence, in all things save sin. If he is to be judged the Judge will do so. Can you imagine being in a position where the only people authority above you is God? So little room for error! Obedience is a virtue that’s hard to practice with no one above you.

    Ed Feser’s pot on papal fallibility is required reading in my opinion.

  3. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    I think un-ionized is onto something. Babel is certainly part of the strategy. We have been calling it “ambiguity” but it is studied and deliberate. Those tuned to the right wavelength hear the signal they have been waiting for loud and clear. Some of us fret and frown and seek clarity while Cardinal Kasper charges ahead to the next barricade, intercommunion. The vast majority, I fear, are either unaware of what is happening or really have no problem with it.

    God help us. I hope the Four Cardinals make their next move soon.

  4. un-ionized says:

    I personally don’t think the Babel situation is deliberate, some of the rest might be, if people were taking advantage of people’s inability to communicate clearly, but there are people talking past each other who don’t understand why and who honestly want to understand each other. These people are not being wicked.

    I see this all the time at my work. People who are very precise can’t get their point across because of a language barrier (I work with people from about 50 different countries and even the Americans from different regions often misunderstand each other).

    By the way, it’s the Russians and Chinese here who are usually best at sorting things out.

  5. Sonshine135 says:

    I don’t believe the Pope falls anywhere near to heresy. I would consider that would require quite a bit of strong, direct evidence to even contemplate that. The Pope hasn’t responded one way or the other. Simply calling people you disagree with “rigid” doesn’t make you a heretic. At worst, it makes you uncharitable, and that is only if the intent was to be that way. Were I to contemplate what was going on in the Papal head, I would say that Pope Francis is only interested in bringing people closer to God. Personally, I believe the Pope does want Communion for the divorced and remarried, but he has said nothing definitive on the matter. He is pushing the issue to the limit without coming out and saying it, but I believe the Pope is smart and savvy to his own position. Under that kindly exterior is a political, thoughtful, and calculating individual. I pray for him that he will bring clarity and have a change of heart toward his brothers.

  6. MBinSTL says:

    Excellent write-up by Peters, much food for thought.

    So I’ve been puzzling over some of the words spoken by our Holy Father Pope Francis regarding capital punishment and how they relate to the Church’s teaching in previous centuries. I’ll provide them below, but here’s the kicker:

    The fourth quote, from our Holy Father Pope Francis, seems to be in open and plain contradiction with the other three texts. In all seriousness, how is this not an example of material heresy, at best? I ask out of love for the Catholic Faith and the Petrine Office, not from a desire to “stir the pot”. I understand that the Church’s teaching develops over the centuries; but development can’t cause `X is A` to be reconcilable with `X is not A`. The principle of non-contradiction always holds, does it not?

    The texts…

    “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.”
    – Genesis 9:6 [RSV]

    “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: ‘In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.’ (Ps 101:8)”
    – Roman Catechism (Catechism of Trent), Part III, 5, n. 4,

    “Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”
    – Pope Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System (14 Sep 1952),

    “[The death penalty] is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person; it likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice. Nor is it consonant with any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance. The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty.”
    – Pope Francis, Message to the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty (21 June 2016),

  7. Mike says:

    The methods of the Four Cardinals have been frank, measured, and persistent in charity. Those of Amoris laetitia‘s most vocal and visible defenders have not. A fructibus eorum cognoscimus eos.

  8. Latinmass1983 says:

    “In sum, and while additional important points could be offered on this matter, in the view of modern canonists from Wernz to Wrenn, however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a catastrophe, Deus vetet, would result in the loss of papal office.

    May that fact serve as a check against those tempted to engage in loose talk about popes and heresy.”

    May it also serve as a check against those who encourage the Pope(s) to flirt with confusing statements, teachings, or apostolic exhortations!

  9. Geoffrey says:

    I recall one of the Holy Father’s first press conferences on board Shepherd One…

    Patricia Zorzan: “What is Your Holiness’ position, if we may ask?”

    Pope Francis: “The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.”

    I would think a beautiful statement like that would preclude anyone from being a formal heretic. May it be the “mantra” of us all!

    The Holy Father has also not attempted to officially change doctrine, but rather pastoral practice, which has caused tremendous confusion.

  10. donato2 says:

    I have my own dubia, and they are:

    Would Pope Francis be teaching heresy if he answered the Four Cardinals’ first dubium in the affirmative (i.e., if he taught that the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia can be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio)?

    Would Pope Francis be teaching heresy if he answered the Four Cardinals’ second through fifth dubia in the negative (e.g., if he taught that one no longer needs to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions)?

  11. Huber says:

    I am left to wonder what the difference is between being a heretic oneself, and being an enabler of heresy.

    When one is purposefully vague and promotes situational ethics, and that vagueness enables heresy (lots of modern-day examples and, does not silence give consent to heresy and make one complicit?

  12. EMF says:

    hello -MBinSTL

    What the pope seems to be ignoring is:
    Legitimate defense

    2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. the one is intended, the other is not.”65

    2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

    If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

    2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.66

    Thank you

  13. Aquinas Gal says:

    After reading Peters’ post, the situation still seems confusing. If a pope actually publicly held a true heresy, by that very fact he would no longer be pope. But there is no one who could make that judgment on him, not even a general council. So any statement about it would only be “declarative.” Not sure that really helps very much. It seems we are back to the beginning. If a pope makes heretical statements, really we can only fast and pray. It’s not likely he would step down, and his enablers would cover it all up. I can see that happening….

    [It would have to be done after that “pontificate” ended.]

  14. iamlucky13 says:

    “The idea that a heretical Pope puts himself out of the papacy won’t work, in the long run, I feel, because either he is Pope or he isn’t. If he is, no judgement can be ruled against him (but certainly against his heretical teaching) if he isn’t, then he must have stopped being pope at a time, but when that time is cannot be judged, so the validity of any and all papal actions he did would be in question, therefor damaging the Church.”

    I apologize if you did read to the end and I’m missing how you’re arguing this in reaction to the arguments in Dr. Peter’s post, but the long quote from Wernz digs into this supposition.

    Wernz promotes Bellermine’s argument against the loss of office due to a privately held heresy. This leaves the discussion at dealing with public heresy, which then gives us a concrete moment when he publicly promulgates heresy. Therefore, actions before the heresy are not fundamentally in question. My take on this is that if there was ex cathedra teaching before that time, validly promulgated, it still stands. We trust this due to our faith in the doctrine of infallibility and that the gates of Hell will not prevail. The Catholic Answers tract Dr. Peters linked to is helpful to review in support of this. I didn’t compare the link you provided, so perhaps it also accomplishes the same.

    The heresy is identifiable by contradiction of existing definitively held teaching. Likewise, definitively held teachings promulgated before the heresy do not themselves contradict other existing, definitively held teachings.

    That is not to say that such a event would not damage the Church. It would definitely be an incredibly damaging scandal, especially due to the numerous misconceptions widely held about papal infallibility, but also due to the legitimate difficulty of understanding the ultimate extend of the charism.

    Bellermine is also quoted as arguing, as I interpret you also as saying, that the Pope can not be judged and deposed by the bishops. Rather, he contends a heretical Pope loses his office by his own action, and an ensuing declaration of the bishops more simply recognizes that fact rather than judicially enacting it. And yes, it is my understanding a pope can lose office, unlike a familial father who can not lose his relationship to his child (although he can forfeit his fatherly authority, such as in cases of abuse). Keep in mind Pope Benedict voluntarily lost (gave up) the papacy.

    I also don’t have any expectation of this coming to pass with Pope Francis. The Synod did not recommend Cardinal Kasper’s proposal, and Amoris Laetitia avoided (in fact, it went to great lengths to avoid) directly contradicting even non-doctrinal aspects of Canon law. I do not imagine him taking the forceful tact and directly challenging teaching. Some form of censure to prevent him from straying into error (such as Paul rebuking Peter) is more credible, although I hesitate to speculate on the specific cause and nature of such a censure.

  15. MBinSTL says:

    “What the pope seems to be ignoring is: Legitimate defense”

    @EMF, I would argue that catechesis, which limits application of the death penalty with respect to considerations of safety–defense, is incomplete at best. Examples are Pope St. John Paul II’s catechesis on the subject in Evangelium Vitae, and the relevant texts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    The texts I provided in an earlier comment (above the quote of Pope Francis) among many other magisterial and venerable sources (Doctors, Fathers) indicate that the “safety–defense justification”, which has become almost synonymous with the modern Catholic position on the death penalty, cannot be a true development of the Catholic teaching, because “safety-defense” is regrettably and demonstrably incomplete. For starters, Sacred Scripture establishes that death as a penalty is an inherently fitting punishment for certain crimes, because “God made man in his own image”. Now, even if a kind of punishment is uniquely fitting for certain crimes does not dictate that a different–lesser punishment may not be imposed for considerations over and above the underlying principle: mercy, prudence, and so on ~ these could guide a decision to, say, impose a prison sentence vs. execute the condemned. But abolishment, as such, of a uniquely fitting punishment (e.g. death), must be ruled out, since to make its imposition impossible in all cases would necessarily tend toward injustice, which is contrary to the Christian ethic.

    In any case, that’s a somewhat different discussion from my earlier point. Pope Francis said the death penalty “is an offense to the inviolability of life,” etc. The Roman Catechism teaches that the death penalty, justly imposed, “is an act of paramount obedience to [the] Commandment which prohibits murder.” The two teachings are mutually exclusive, unless one qualifies Pope Francis’ statement such that it applies to some specific context/s. The Pope did not, himself, make any such qualification.

  16. LeeF says:

    Thanks to Father for pointing us to this excellent piece by Dr. Peters, and thanks to Dr. Peters for taking the time to educate us all.

    un-ionized brings up a very good point about the certainties of various dogmas. From my reading many years ago of Ott’s work that Dr. Peters mentioned, that topic is complex and not one that I understood fully even after reading Ott. As to divorce and remarriage without annulment and reception of communion, it must be remembered that our brethern in the Orthodox Church believe and teach differently, yet on the whole, are regarded as merely being in schism, not heresy. However I think the differences in doctrines between our two churches are too often minimized as to the gravity of such differences.

    Regarding Amoris and the dubia, and taking into account Dr. Peters’ views, it seems to me the issue of mechanics of assessment of papal heresy is the key point. There simply does not seem to be such a mechanism *in the present time*. Rather the mechanism is a retrospective one carried out by a future pontiff, either alone or with a council.

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    “We have been calling it “ambiguity” but it is studied and deliberate.”

    Could we, please, stop using the word, ambiguous. Nothing the Pope has written is ambiguous. It is vague and that leads to people reading the words in contradictory fashions, but that does not make for ambiguity, only contradictory interpretations. In order for something to be ambiguous, the statement must be clear and two different, not necessarily contradictory, truths must be expressed by the semiotics. If you can’t tell what something says, it can’t be ambiguous. It is merely vague.

    I work on ambiguity theory. I am the only one working on the mathematics in a deliberate fashion (some computational linguists have some notion of it in their modeling of semantics).

    If the Pope were ambiguous, then the dubia would have been written very differently, since ambiguity assumes clarity in each possible truth statement which may be derived from the sentence structure of the ambiguous statement. If AL were ambiguous, they wouldn’t be asking for clarity, but for filtering out of one or the other interpretations. Lack of clarity = vagueness. Ambiguity has to do with two competing discourse spaces.

    The Chicken

  18. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks Dr. Peters and commentors.

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