Pope’s infallibility – CAN a pope become an heretic?

State of the question :

A pope cannot fall in heresy because Jesus prayed (Luke 22:32) : “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

We will answer this false statement at the end of our article.

Papal oath of Pope Saint Agatho (678-681)

It was recognized in the Papal Oath used from the time of Pope Saint Agatho until the eleventh century that a pope could go against the tradition of the Church and therefore be excommunicated from her:

“… I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church. I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be someone else or I.

“If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou willest not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice.

“Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone – be it ourselves or be it another – who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction of this constituted evangelical Tradition and the purity of the orthodox Faith and the Christian religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture.” (Liber Diurnus Pontificum)

Gratien the Great Canonist (12th century)

We find in Gratien’s Decretum this assertion attributed to Saint Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, and already cited under his name by Cardinal Deusdedit (+ 1087), as well as by Yves de Chartres, Decretum, v, 23, that the Pope can fail in faith: “Hujus (ie papae) culpas istic redarguere prœsumit mortalium nullus, quia cunctos ipse judicaturus a nemine est judicandus, nisi deprehendatur a fide devius” who judges everyone, cannot be judged by anyone, unless they are found to be deviating from the faith ”). Decretum, part. I, dist. XL, c. 6.

The other Canonists

The canonists of the 12th and 13th centuries know and comment on Gratien’s text. All admit without difficulty that the Pope can fall into heresy as in any other serious fault; they are only concerned with finding out why and under what conditions he can in this case be judged by the Church. This is for some canonists the only exception to the papal inviolability, “Non potest accusari nisi de haeresi”, is it in the Summa Lipsiensis (before 1190).

The decretist Rufin (c. 1164-1170)

He sums up the opinions of his time as follows: “In ea (causa) quae totam Ecclesiam contingit, (papam) judicari potest, sed in ea quae unam personam vel plures (contingit), non”. “In matters which affect the whole Church, the Pope may be judged, not in matters which concern one or a few persons.” The same author specifies that we must understand this rule in case of stubborn heresy: “Prima sedes non judicabitur a quoquam nisi in fidei articulis relevaciter erraverit”. Which supposes, for Jean de Faênza that the guilty pope was “second and thirdly commonitus” “admonished two or three times”. In this case, it is no longer necessary to invoke the primacy: for Huguccio (+ 1210) the pope is then “minor quolibet catholico” “less than any other Catholic”.

Pope Innocent III (1216)

The doctrine that a pope can be judged for heresy, is found even among the most convinced supporters of pontifical privilege. Innocent III refers to it in one of his sermons: “In tantum fides mihi necessara est ut, cum de ceteris peccatis solum Deum judicem habeam, propter solum peccatum quod in fide committitur, possem ab Ecclesia iudicari”, (translation: “Despite the fact that for other sins I have God alone as Judge, I need to be judged by the Church, only for the sin, which would be committed against faith ”), PL, t. CCXVII, col. 656.

He solemnly acknowledges that, if for his other sins he has God alone as judge, “in matters of heresy he may be judged by the Church,“ propter solum peccatum quod in fide committitur possem ab Ecclesia judicari ”. Serm., 11, in consecrat, pontif., P. L., t. ccxvii, col. 656. If the pope confesses that he may be tried for a sin against the faith, he confesses in himself that it is possible for him to fall into that sin.

Saint Antoninus (1389-1459):

“In the case in which the pope would become a heretic, he would find himself, by that fact alone and without any other sentence, separated from the Church. A head separated from a body cannot, as long as it remains separated, be head of the same body from which it was cut off. A pope who would be separated from the Church by heresy, therefore, would by that very fact itself cease to be head of the Church. He could not be a heretic and remain pope, because, since he is outside of the Church, he cannot possess the keys of the Church.” (Summa Theologica. Quoted in Actes de Vatican I)

Cardinal Cajetan (Thomas de Vio, +1534)

Cardinal Cajetan rightly asserted that “As soon as the bishop of Rome ceases to be faithful, he also ceases to be the successor of Peter. “

“De Divina institutione pontificatus totius Ecclesie in persona Petri apostoli libellus” (1521)

So a pope can cease to be faithful and therefore cease to be a pope.

Paul IV

Cum ex Apostolatus Officio (From our apostolic office …) is the name of a papal bull published by Pope Paul IV on February 15, 1559:

“§ 1. We consider the current situation serious and dangerous enough for the Roman Pontiff, Vicar of God and of Our Lord Jesus Christ on earth, clothed in the fullness of power over nations and kingdoms, judge of all men and not capable of being judged by anyone in this world, may however be contradicted if he deviates from the Catholic Faith. ”

and: “The Roman Pontiff could be rejected as false if he were caught deviating in the faith. “

Saint Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church (1542-1621):

“Therefore, the true opinion is the fifth, according to which the Pope who is manifestly a heretic ceases by himself to be Pope and head, in the same way as he ceases to be a Christian and a member of the body of the Church; and for this reason he can be judged and punished by the Church.

This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction, and outstandingly that of St. Cyprian (lib. 4, epist. 2) who speaks as follows of Novatian, who was Pope [i.e. antipope] in the schism which occurred during the pontificate of St. Cornelius: ‘He would not be able to retain the episcopate [i.e. of Rome], and, if he was made bishop before, he separated himself from the body of those who were, like him, bishops, and from the unity of the Church.’ According to what St. Cyprian affirms in this passage, even had Novatian been the true and legitimate Pope, he would have automatically fallen from the pontificate, if he separated himself from the Church.

This is the opinion of great recent doctors, as John Driedo (lib. 4 de Script. et dogmat. Eccles., cap. 2, par. 2, sent. 2), who teaches that only they separate themselves from the Church who are expelled, like the excommunicated, and those who depart by themselves from her or oppose her, as heretics and schismatics. And in his seventh affirmation, he maintains that in those who turn away from the Church, there remains absolutely no spiritual power over those who are in the Church.”

St. Bellarmine indicated also that the ancient Fathers based their arguments not on any ecclesiastical law but taught that heretics lose any Church office, including the papacy, by the unalterable divine law because of the very nature of heresy.

“There is no basis for that which some respond to this: that these Fathers based themselves on ancient law, while nowadays, by decree of the Council of Constance, they alone lose their jurisdiction who are excommunicated by name or who assault clerics. This argument, I say, has no value at all, for those Fathers, in affirming that heretics lose jurisdiction, did not cite any human law, which furthermore perhaps did not exist in relation to the matter, but argued on the basis of the very nature of heresy. The Council of Constance only deals with the excommunicated, that is, those who have lost jurisdiction by sentence of the Church, while heretics already before being excommunicated are outside the Church and deprived of all jurisdiction. For they have already been condemned by their own sentence, as the Apostle teaches (Tit. 3:10-11), that is, they have been cut off from the body of the Church without excommunication, as St. Jerome affirms.” (De Romano Pontifice, lib. II, cap. 30)

Saint Frances de Sales, Doctor (1567-1622):

“Now when [the Pope] is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church.” (The Catholic Controversy)

Pope Symmachus by Saint Alphonsus de Liguori (1787)

Saint Alphonsus of Liguori developed his reflection by saying that “the Fathers of the Council of Rome, held under Pope Symmachus, proclaimed that the Pope is the supreme Pastor, who, apart from the case of heresy, is not subject to the judgment of anybody “

.. because “in the latter case, the Pope would not be deprived of the pontificate by the Council, as if the latter were superior to him, but that he would be deprived of it directly by Jesus Christ, because he would then become a subject completely incompetent and stripped of his office.”
Complete works of S. Alfonso de Liguori, Volume II, Part III, Chapter IX, p. 165 and 308.

He therefore considered that if “the manifest heretic is ipso facto deposed” – that is to say “before any excommunication or judicial sentence” – then “A pope who is a manifest heretic automatically ceases to be the pope and head, in the same way that he automatically ceases to be a Christian and a member of the Church. This is why he can be judged and punished by the Church. “
From Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chapter 30.

Saint Alphonsus of Liguori summed it up perfectly by explaining that “God has granted to the Church, that is to say to the college of cardinals, or to the council in the case of a dubious or heretical pope, the power to elect the sovereign pontiff, but by no means the papal power. “
Complete works of S. Alfonso de Liguori, Volume II, Part III, Chapter IX, p. 220

Doctor of the Church St Alphonsus Liguori:  “If ever a pope, as a private person, should fall into heresy, he would at once fall from the pontificate.” (Oeuvres Completes 9:232.)

The 1st Vatican Council 1870

There was a question and answer during the council, heard and known to the Pope and all the bishops of course, and it was not denied that it was impossible for a Pope to become a heretic, but it never happened, never existed until now. But if that would occur “the Council of Bishops could lay him down for heresy, because from the moment he becomes a heretic he is neither a head nor even a member of the Church.” So the possibility was not denied!

The Very Reverend Jean-Baptiste Purcell, D.D., Archbishop of Cincinnati, Ohio (1800-1883) delivered an address at the same Vatican Council, on the infallibility of the Pope as defined at the Council; he explained as follows. “The question was also raised by a cardinal: ‘What to do with the Pope if he becomes a heretic? “It was replied that such a case never happened; the Council of Bishops could depose him for heresy, because from the moment he becomes a heretic, he is neither head nor even a member of the Church. The Church would not, for a moment, be obliged to listen to him when he begins to teach a doctrine which she knows to be false doctrine, and he would cease to be Pope, being deposed by God himself. “If the Pope, for example, said that the belief in God is wrong, you wouldn’t have to believe it, or if he were to deny the rest of the creed, ‘I believe in Christ,’ etc. the supposition is harmful to the Holy Father in the very idea, but serves to show you the fullness with which the subject has been considered and the broad reflection given to all possibility. If he denies any dogma of the Church held by any true believer, he is no more Pope than you or me; and thus, in this regard, the dogma of infallibility constitutes nothing as an article of temporal government or a cover of heresy.
The Life and Work of Pope Leo XIII by Reverend James J. McGovern, D.D., p. 241).

And during this same Vatican Council I, Bishop Zinelli, relator of the conciliar commission on faith, evoked in these terms the possibility of a heretical pope: “If God allows such great evil (namely, a heretical pope ) there will be no lack of means to remedy this situation ”(Mansi 52, 1109).

Theologian Dr Serapius Iragui (1959):

“For this reason, theologians commonly concede that the Roman Pontiff, if he should fall into manifest heresy, would no longer be a member of the Church, and therefore could neither be called its visible head.” (Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae. Madrid: Ediciones Studium 1959.)

Archbishop Lefebvre and Castro de Mayer

“We are faced with a serious, exceedingly serious dilemma which I believe has never existed in the Church: that whoever sits in the seat of Peter should participate in the worship of false gods. I don’t think this has ever happened in the history of the Church. » (Archbishop Lefebvre, Homily in Écône for Easter Sunday, March 30, 1986);

“The thing is very serious. We are on the way to a new Church. It is Rome that pushes souls into heresy. It seems to me that we cannot accept all the documents of Vatican II. There are some that cannot be interpreted according to Trento and Vatican I. ”(Archbishop de Castro-Mayer, Letter of December 8, 1969 to Archbishop Lefebvre, kept in the personal archives of Archbishop Lefebvre, on deposit in Écône).

Mgr. Lefebvre already wrote in 1976:

“This conciliar Church is a schismatic Church because it breaks with the Catholic Church of always. It has its new dogmas, its new priesthood, its new institutions, its new worship already condemned by the Church in many official and final documents.

This is why the founder of the conciliar Church insists so much on obedience to the Church of today, ignoring the Church of yesterday as if she no longer existed.

This conciliar Church is schismatic because it took as a basis for its updating principles opposed to those of the Catholic Church: thus the new conception of the Mass, expressed in n ° 5 of the preface of the Missale Romanum and n ° 7 of the first chapter which gives the assembly a priestly role that it cannot have; so also the natural, that is to say divine, right of every person and of every group of persons to religious freedom.

This right to religious freedom is blasphemous because it is to attribute to God intentions which destroy his majesty, his glory, his kingship. This right implies freedom of conscience, freedom of thought and all Masonic freedoms.

The Church that asserts such errors is both schismatic and heretical. This conciliar Church is therefore not Catholic. Insofar as the Pope, the bishops, priests and faithful adhere to this new Church, they separate themselves from the Catholic Church. The Church of today is the true Church only insofar as she continues and becomes one with the Church of yesterday and always. The norm of the Catholic faith is Tradition …

† Marcel LEFEBVRE, Ecône, July 29, 1976.”


Direct conclusion: if this “church”, or rather, sect of Vatican II is no longer the Catholic Church, its head is no longer the Pope.

Answer to the objection in the state of the question :

A pope cannot fall in heresy because Jesus prayed Luke 22:32 “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Answer : Through this prayer, Our Lord Jesus Christ obtained the extraordinary grace for Peter and his successors, of the charism of infallibility: namely, the “ex cathedra infallibility”, which the Pope enjoys if he fulfills the following conditions laid down by the 1st Vatican Council have been proclaimed infallible : (1) if he, as head of the Church, (2) in matters of faith and morals, (3) proclaims something for every Catholic (4) expressing that he wants to settle this matter definitively, then he is infallible ex cathedra.

If one conditions fails, the pope is not infallible.

In fact Paul VI declared during and after the Vatican II council, that he had not the intention to use his infallibility, so as not to offend Protestants, Anglicans, Eastern schismatics, but to practice an ecumenism by which we all unite by speaking only of what unites us and not of what separates us. The 4th condition of ex cathedra infallibility was therefore missing.

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