Of Course A Pope May Be Heretical



Edward Feser is a philosopher not a historian, but he reminds us of a piece of Catholic history that the powers that currently be within the Church seek to ignore:


The Church has for centuries allowed among theologians free discussion of the possibility of a heretical pope.  Cajetan, Suarez, and Bellarmine are among the eminent theologians who have entertained this possibility and debated its ramifications.  (Canon lawyer Ed Peters offers a primer on the matter.)   Once again to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia:

[An] exceptional situation might arise were a pope to become a public heretic, i.e., were he publicly and officially to teach some doctrine clearly opposed to what has been defined as de fide catholicâ… [I]n this case many theologians hold that no formal sentence of deposition would be required, as, by becoming a public heretic, the pope would ipso facto cease to be pope.  This, however, is a hypothetical case which has never actually occurred…

In an earlier post I discussed in some detail the conditions under which a pope speaks infallibly, the many ways a pope may fall into error when his words do not meet those conditions, and many further examples of popes who have fallen into error and done grave damage to the Church.  As I there emphasized, one cannot properly understand the authority of the pope and the doctrine of papal infallibility unless one also understands the limits of papal authority and the ways in which a pope is fallible.

I have quoted extensively from the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia for a reason.   There is a certain kind of well-meaning but overzealous and under-informed Catholic whose theological horizon does not extend beyond the debates that have riven the Church since Vatican II.  When you tell him that it is possible for a pope to fall into doctrinal error, his hackles rise and he assumes that you simply must be either a Lefebvrist traditionalist or a dissenting theological liberal.  As the example of the Catholic Encyclopedia shows, nothing could be further from the truth.  The Encyclopedia predated by many decades Vatican II and the progressive and traditionalist movements that arose in reaction to it.  It was an ecclesiastically approved work by mainstream Catholic scholars loyal to the Magisterium, and intended to be a reliable resource for the faithful.  And it quite matter-of-factly allows for the possibility of popes committing doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra.

Nor is the possibility of correction of the pope by his subordinates some post-Vatican II progressive or traditionalist novelty.  As Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val wrote in his 1902 book The Truth of Papal Claims, responding to caricatures of the doctrine of papal infallibility:

Great as our filial duty of reverence is towards what ever [the pope] may say, great as our duty of obedience must be to the guidance of the Chief Shepherd, we do not hold that every word of his is infallible, or that he must always be right.  (p. 19)

After noting that St. Paul “had resisted even Peter” and then recounted this resistance in the Letter to the Galatians, the cardinal says:

[E]ven to-day a Bishop might… expostulate with a Pope, who, in his judgment, might be acting in a way which was liable to mislead those under his own charge, and then write to his critics that he had not hesitated to pass strictures upon the action of the successor of S. Peter… The hypothesis is quite conceivable, and in no way destroys or diminishes the supremacy of the Pope.  And yet an individual Bishop does not occupy the exceptional position of S. Paul, a fellow-Apostle of the Prince of the Apostles.  Even a humble nun, S. Catherine of Siena, expostulated with the reigning Pontiff, in her day, whilst full acknowledging all his great prerogatives.  (p. 74)

Go here to read the rest.  The Catholic Faith is not simply whatever the Pope of the moment says it is, and Catholics who speak up for the true teaching of the Faith, even in the face of a mistaken Pope, have a glorious history on their side.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Given the outrageous statements of Pope Francis on a variety of subjects it is remarkable that so few Bishops and Cardinals critique him. This is probably for the same reasons there are so few saints.

  2. I bet you a hundred dollars you can’t provide an authentic source for that spurious quote from Pope Pius IX. You know why? Because there isn’t one. I have looked into it, and I assume you have not.

    Check your facts. It’s nothing but an internet meme that people keep passing around to get Francis (and Paul VI, JPII and Benedict) of the hook for being blatant heretics and keeping them as popes.

    Pius IX never said such a thing, and the Papacy doesn’t need our help by bearing false witness.

  3. Mike, you are a guest on this blog so watch your tone. I will look into this when I have time to do so, my duties in the law mines being onerous for the remainder of this week. In the meantime I throw out your challenge to the readership of TAC and ask for any input they may have. I would recommend checking out Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser, who was Prince-Bishop of Brixen, Austria in the South Tyrol during Vatican I. He wrote the official relatio on infallibility at Vatican I. It has been translated into English and published as The Gift of Infallibility, but I do not have a copy of the book.

  4. Re: Mike question/accusation.

    Venerable Pope Pius IX († 1878) recognized the danger that a future pope would be a heretic and teach contrary to the Catholic Faith, and he instructed, do not follow him.

    If a future pope teaches anything contrary to the Catholic Faith, do not follow him.” (Letter to Bishop Brizen)

    Source: http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php?topic=62286.0

    And this is from the man whom under his pontificate, Papal infallibility was dogmatised
    Venerable Pope Pius IX († 1878) recognized the danger that a future pope would be a heretic and teach contrary to the Catholic Faith, and he instructed, do not follow him.

  5. In 2 Peter 2 and other inspired words of God about false teachers, I cannot find an exception that says “Follow no heretic, but if the heretic is the Pope, then follow the Pope.”

    Amazing how God in His wisdom inspired 2 Peter 2-read it all – it is as if God wrote it today.

    Here is a tantalizing sample:

    ” then the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust unto the Day of Judgment to be punished,

    10 but chiefly those who walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise governance. Presumptuous are they and selfwilled; they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities,

    11 whereas angels, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord.

    12 But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not, and shall utterly perish in their own corruption,

    13 and shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as those who count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceptions while they feast with you,

    14 having eyes full of adultery and who cannot cease from sin, beguiling unstable souls; their hearts they have exercised with covetous practices; accursed children!

    15 They have forsaken the right way and have gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages ofunrighteousness,

    16 but was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with a man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet.

    17 These are wells without water, clouds that are carried by a tempest, for whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever.

    18 For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh and through much wantonness those who had clean escaped from those who live in error.

    19 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for by whom a man is overcome, by the same is he brought into bondage.”

    Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

  6. Mike by your first paragraph I though you were a Francis defender, but by your last paragraph I see that you are not even a recent pope defender. I feel sorry for you – and really for many many people in this very confusing time. We have recourse to prayer. A great prayer and foundation for our thinking is legend on the bottom of the picture of Divine Mercy “Jesus I trust in You”

  7. This would not be the first time that Rome has refused to clarify its pronouncements in the face of controversy.

    In 1653, Innocent X condemned the famous Five Propositions, describing them as contained in the Augustinus of Cornelius Jansen.(Cum Occasione)

    In 1656, his successor, Alexander VII declared, “Since some still insist that those propositions were not to be found in the Augustinus, or were not meant by the author in the sense in which they were condemned, we furthermore declare that they are contained in the Augustinus, and have been condemned according to the sense of the author.” (Ad Sanctam Beati Petri Sedem) He did not take this opportunity to point out the offending passages.

    Many Jansenists and their sympathizers, whilst loud in their condemnation of the Five Propositions, continued to deny that they represented Jansen’s thought. Some, like Pascal, insisted that, while the condemnation of the Five Propositions was a matter of faith, whether they were contained in the Augustinus was a mere question of fact that the pope had no authority to decide.

    Rather than issue any clarification, in 1664, Alexander VII imposed on the clergy subscription to a formula that included, “with a sincere heart, I reject and condemn the five propositions taken from the book of Cornelius Jansen entitled Augustinus and in the sense understood by that same author, just as the Apostolic See has condemned them.” (Regiminis Apostolici)

    How anyone could subscribe that formula in good conscience who had not read the Augustinus or who differed from the Pope’s interpretation is an interesting question. Were they required to make a submission of faith to the Pope’s judgment on that question?

    Clement IX withdrew the Formula in 1664 in the so-called “Peace of Clement IX,” but in 1703, some 50 years after Cum Occasione, Clement XI condemned the distinction of law (dogma) and fact (Cum Nuper). Then, in 1705, he condemned “respectful silence” as insufficient (Vineam Domini Sabaoth) and re-imposed the Formula.

  8. Sorry, my tone came across as very rude. Please accept my apology. I turn up here with guns blazing and that was wrong of me.

    Michael Dowd links to a website run by schismatics and heretics, and inserts a link to prove his point. The problem is, Michael, that that quote goes nowhere. There was no Bishop Brizen. Check it out from Catholic sources. Don’t go to schismatics to prove the Faith.

    Lucius, the quote definitely did not come from a pope. There’s another quote attributed to Pope Adrian IV doing the rounds at the moment about popes teaching heresy, which is entirely false.

    How far are people willing to go to distort the papacy in order to keep Bergoglio?

    We have front row seats to this almost universal apostasy, and it started right after Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Missae – and people keep defending the revolution.

  9. “Sorry, my tone came across as very rude. Please accept my apology. I turn up here with guns blazing and that was wrong of me.”

    No problem Mike. I have a deep love of history and I enjoy having a historical puzzle to solve. If the quote can’t be sourced to Pio Nono I will take it down.

  10. I am the eldest of five children. I have two brothers and two sisters. And I am the only one still attending Mass; and, I am the only one left who still considers himself Catholic.
    I have seven grandsons and four granddaughters, and three great grandchildren,two girls and the youngest is a boy.
    I do not agree with everything going on with MY Church. But I am going to bite the bullet,
    and set my face like flint, and try to give all of the young ones an example. Please pray for me and my family !
    Timothy Reed copsforchrist@gmail.com

  11. Timothy Reed,
    Will pray. Amy Welborn today quotes Pope Benedict Emeritus writing about St. Peter Canisius thusly:
    ” This was a characteristic of St Peter Canisius: his ability to combine harmoniously fidelity to dogmatic principles with the respect that is due to every person. St Canisius distinguished between a conscious, blameworthy apostasy from faith and a blameless loss of faith through circumstances.
    Moreover, he declared to Rome that the majority of Germans who switched to Protestantism were blameless.”
    I think we lost millions of people in the US while gaining millions in the African bush in great part and subconsciously due to the sex abuse by priests and the lack of any Pope etc. turning the tables on them as Christ did to the money changers….immediately. One might apply Canisius’ idea to our time in some cases not all.

  12. The Pius IX quote is on the net: AZQUOTES, so . . . Further hits were not helpful as to the veracity. I don’t have access to an extensive library to track it down.
    Two other quotes I liked were to the effect that one, If Pius IX led an army saying the Rosary, he could conquer the World; and two, the Rosary is responsible for more miracles than any other source.
    I apologize in advance: Sometimes on hearing/reading of Francis’ renovations, I think of words spoken by some rough men with whom I spent youthful “quality” time, “Don’t urinate on my brogans and tell me it’s raining.” .

  13. Bill Bannon is correct in assigning some blame to the sex scandals in the Church, combined with the Hillary Clinton cum Justice Department like slickness of abandonment of justice.
    The Nazi’s blamed the Reichstag fire on a homeless schizophrenic. Just like the Bengazi tragedy was the result of a homemade tape. Evil has no honor.
    Timothy Reed

  14. One of the attractive aspects of TAC is that at any moment, there may be “guns blazing”. Intellectually, that is, but interesting nonetheless.
    Regarding Pius IX, neither do I know of any letter to a “Bp. Brizen”; but in Pastor Aeternus, part IV, there is this, which every one here I am sure has read:
    “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

    So, no successor of Peter might disclose or “make known some new doctrine.” Rather like St. Vincent of Lerins (d. ca. 445) famous “rule” (to paraphrase, Catholic orthodoxy is what has always been taught and believed by all, everywhere, at all times). Or:

    “To preach any doctrine therefore to Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful, never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty” (The Commonitorium, St Vincent of Lerins, 9.25).
    Hey, Pope Frank, peace on earth, and I hope your are listening!

  15. I would recommend checking out Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser, who was Prince-Bishop of Brixen, Austria in the South Tyrol during Vatican I. He wrote the official relatio on infallibility at Vatican I. It has been translated into English and published as The Gift of Infallibility, but I do not have a copy of the book.

    On Amazon, search for “teach,” page 59, it describes the notion that the Pope can’t be privately heretical as “extreme” and “exaggerated,” and strongly states that it is not being advanced.

  16. Regarding Pope Francis’ new approach on divorce and remarriage (which I think is heretical), please read this:
    I did not realize what immediately preceded today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi, and the role that that had in the life of John the Baptist when he confronted Herod and Herodias. Do you think the Pope might have picked up on that?

  17. “CWR also asked if a Pope could be “declared in
    schism or heresy”? Cardinal Burke said, “If a
    Pope would formally profess heresy he would
    cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic.
    And so, that could happen.”
    If that were to happen, members of the College
    of Cardinals in the Church would have to declare
    that the Pope is in heresy, explained Burke. At that
    point, the papacy would be vacant and the cardinals
    would elect a new Pope.”

  18. I think I need to finish what I was saying on 12/21. By the way, I have been following what all of you have been saying with great interest. I feel like I am in good company. I am pleased to meet all of you.
    Anyway, I said, and meant, that Evil has no honor. So we MUST, my friends. I firmly believe that sin not only offends God; but sin makes one a dishonorable person. Yes, there is HONOR in doing and saying what is right.
    Timothy R

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