PopeWatch: Heretic Pope?

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Father Z discusses whether a Pope can teach heresy:


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 were the Pope 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.


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  1. This pontiff’s explicit refusal to uphold the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) pretty much places him in the material heresy column. We are NOT to go and teach all nations and baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost/Spirit.

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