Can a Pope Commit Heresy? (“Heresy” Defined)

Q: In theory, can a Pope commit heresy?  If so, I’m trying to figure out who could declare that he was a heretic. What would happen? –Thomas

A: This question had already been asked, before the September 24 announcement that a group of Catholic scholars from around the world had issued a “filial correction” to Pope Francis, warning him that some of his statements and writings have caused heresy to spread within the Church.  Needless to say, the news renders this discussion more timely than ever.

A Catholic who commits heresy is excommunicated latae sententiae, as per canon 1364.1. (The little understood concept of latae sententiae penalties was discussed at length in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?”)  Could a Pope ever commit heresy, causing him to be excommunicated?

Theologians and canonists have discussed different aspects of this question on and off for centuries.  In the nearly 2000 years of the Catholic Church’s existence, it has never actually happened—although we may possibly have come close on a couple of occasions!—so these discussions have been hypothetical.  There is no explicit canon law on the subject, so we can only apply the canons that we’ve got, together with Catholic theological teachings on the concepts of the papacy, heresy, and excommunication.  This theology is basically centered around Christ’s words to Peter, found in Matthew 16:18-19:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

On the one hand, these words are quite clear, as they indicate that God will always be with the Church, and it will never be destroyed by the forces of evil.  On the other hand, these words don’t specifically tell us that Peter himself (or one of his successors) will never fall into error in some way or other.  In short, when it comes to answering specific questions about Popes and heresy, we are forced to extrapolate, which means that readers who expect to find a definitive answer to these questions here will be disappointed—because there simply isn’t one.

That said, there are at least some aspects of this issue that can be clarified further.  In any legal discussion it’s imperative first to define our terms, so let’s look at the notion of heresy.  Catholics often assume that they can recognize a heresy when they hear it—and they’re often wrong.  Heresy has a very precise, circumscribed definition in the Code of Canon Law, in canon 751: it is the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.  Let’s take this phraseology apart and look at the different elements carefully.

Heresy involves obstinate denial or doubt.  This means that a person must embrace a heretical belief and persist in it, even after church authorities point out to him that his belief constitutes heresy.  If you hold to a heretical position, but abandon it once you’re told that it’s heretical, that means you’re not a heretic!  It sometimes happens, for example, that a theology professor writes a book which includes poorly worded phrasing that can be interpreted in a heretical way.  (See “Was Theologian Hans Küng Ever Excommunicated?” for more on this topic.)  When the diocesan bishop or the Vatican contacts the author and points this out, his reaction might be one of amazement—because it never occurred to him that his words could be understood in that sense!  Once it’s made clear to him, the theology professor may instantly agree that his writings need to be clarified, to avoid misinterpretation.  In short, the whole thing was a mistake.  Such a person is obviously not obstinate, so he is not a heretic.

Heresy involves denial of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.  This might sound beautifully poetic—but in reality, “divine and Catholic faith” is a precise phrase pertaining to a specific category of the Catholic Church’s teachings.  In his 1998 Apostolic Letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, Pope John Paul II attempted to clarify the varying degrees of importance attached to the different levels of these teachings.  (See the abovementioned “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for more on this document.)  Among other things, in this Apostolic Letter John Paul rewrote canon 750, to better explain which sorts of teachings fit into which levels.  The first paragraph defines what “divine and Catholic faith” means:

Those things are to be believed [credenda sunt] by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium.  All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines. (c. 750.1)

That’s immediately crystal-clear to everyone, right?  In all seriousness, we’ll come back to the question of what this means, and which beliefs fit into this category in a moment.

In Ad Tuendam Fidem, John Paul II described for the first time the second category of Catholic beliefs, and ordered this category to be included in a new, second paragraph of canon 750:

Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the Magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained [tenenda sunt]; therefore, one who refuses those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. (c. 750.2)

There’s also a third category, which even before Ad Tuendam Fidem was already found in canon 752:

While the assent of faith is not required, a religious submission of intellect and will [voluntatis obsequium] is to be given to any doctrine which either the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops, exercising their authentic Magisterium, declare upon a matter of faith or morals, even though they do not intend to proclaim that doctrine by definitive act.

Failure to hold those aspects of Catholic teaching which fall into the second and third categories is certainly objectionable, but it does not constitute heresy.  As canon 1371 n. 1 tells us, a person who obstinately rejects the sort of teachings mentioned in canons 750.2 (regarding the second category) and 752 (regarding the third category) is to be punished with “a just penalty,” which can of course vary from case to case.

Well, what’s the difference between the first category of teachings (denial of which constitutes heresy), and the second and third categories?  If you’re unsure, you’ve got a lot of company.  That’s why when Ad Tuendam Fidem was issued back in 1998, it was followed just a few weeks later by a Doctrinal Commentary from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  (The English text of the Doctrinal Commentary can be found here, right after the text of Ad Tuendam Fidem itself.)  With his characteristic razor-sharp precision, Ratzinger tried to explain more clearly the sorts of teachings which fall into each of these categories—but instead of speaking only in the abstract, he also gave some concrete examples, “without any intention of completeness or exhaustiveness”:

To the truths of the first paragraph belong the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the spiritual soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.

With respect to the truths of the second paragraph, with reference to those connected with revelation by a logical necessity, one can consider, for example, the development in the understanding of the doctrine connected with the definition of papal infallibility, prior to the dogmatic definition of the First Vatican Council [because after the dogmatic definition it fell into the first category]….  The doctrine on the illicitness of euthanasia, taught in the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, can also be recalled….  Other examples of moral doctrines which are taught as definitive by the universal and ordinary Magisterium of the Church are: the teaching on the illicitness of prostitution and of fornication.

As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression. (11)

This explanation is unquestionably helpful, but still, let’s be frank: it’s not always immediately clear to anybody which category a particular tenet of our faith falls into.  If it falls into the first category, obstinate denial of it constitutes heresy.  If it falls into the second or third category, obstinate denial of it is a punishable offense—but it isn’t heresy.  In a nutshell, it’s possible for a Catholic to refuse to accept some elements of the Catholic faith without ipso facto being a heretic.  In a genuine case of uncertainty, when nobody is totally sure whether a teaching falls into the first category or not, it would be necessary for theologians at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (with the ultimate involvement of the Pope, of course) to examine the issue and make a determination.  As a general rule, though, canon 18 tells us that laws establishing penalties are subject to a strict interpretation—which means that if you’re not sure whether somebody has actually committed a crime or not, you should err on the side of caution and conclude that he hasn’t.

Another common type of disagreement with the Church which doesn’t amount to heresy involves purely administrative sorts of  decisions/statements.  It’s quite possible for a Catholic to be convinced that “the Pope made a really dumb move when he named Father X as the Bishop of our diocese,” or “Bishop Y’s decision to fire the principal of the diocesan high school was extremely unjust.”  If you think about it, this sort of statement doesn’t even involve faith, much less a divinely revealed truth.  Members of the Catholic hierarchy make such decisions every day, and we Catholics don’t have to always like them, much less agree with them!  We do, however, have to acknowledge the lawful authority of the person who made them (a distinction that was discussed in detail in “Can Our Pastor Kick Us Out of the Parish?”).

Now let’s take all this information and apply it to a Pope.  If, let’s say, a Pope were to deny that Jesus died on the Cross in atonement for our sins, and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, that would certainly involve “denial of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.”  If he completely understood that this constitutes heresy, and still persisted in his denial… it would only be logical to conclude that this imaginary Pope would ipso facto be a heretic.  This has never happened in the history of the Church.  To be fair, in centuries past a couple of Popes opined on open, undefined theological questions, and their positions were later condemned by subsequent Popes as heretical.  Pope Honorius, mentioned in “Can You Be Both a Catholic and a Sedevacantist?” is arguably an example of this, as is the 14th-century Pope John XXII.  But as we’ve already seen above, this doesn’t meet the definition of heresy at all.  You can’t time-travel backwards, and condemn someone for heresy if he believed something which wasn’t heretical at the time.

If, on the other hand, a Pope were to (let’s say) refuse to fire some Vatican official who’d been caught stealing money intended for charity; or to ignore altogether the complaints of Catholic schoolteachers, who justifiably objected to the inadequate catechisms that their bishop required them to use… there’s no heresy involved.  Maybe this imaginary Pope was basing his decision on false information he had been given; maybe he wasn’t—it doesn’t even matter.  His statements/actions in situations like these might perhaps be irrational, stupid, unjust, and/or offensive, but they wouldn’t constitute heresy, because they don’t involve “obstinate denial of a teaching which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.”  It’s as simple as that.

It’s a safe bet that these latter sorts of scenarios have happened at one time or another, during every single pontificate in the history of the Church.  After all, a man who has been elected Pope doesn’t magically become omniscient.  Becoming Pope brings with it a flood of grace and divine assistance—but it doesn’t instantly make a man more intelligent or knowledgeable than he was before.  Since Popes make important decisions every day, it’s pretty inevitable that here or there, they’ll make one that turns out to be a bad idea.  Bad decisions, however, are not synonymous with heresy.

Back in the 1600’s, Catholic missionaries to China were struggling to convert the followers of Confucius to Christianity.  A practical-yet-theological question arose, regarding the Confucian practice of venerating one’s ancestors.  Did this veneration constitute some sort of pagan worship, or not?  Could a Chinese convert to Catholicism continue to venerate his ancestors, or not?

Jesuit missionaries examined the religious intent of these ancestor-worshippers, and decided that it was not incompatible with Christianity.  Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, however, reached the opposite conclusion.  Complicating the matter even further was the fact that a very definite enmity had unfortunately developed between the missionaries of these different religious orders—so it wasn’t clear if their disagreements were truly based on theology, or on petty rivalries.  The whole mess was sent to Rome, and Pope Clement XI was asked to weigh in.

Poor Pope Clement!  He was a well educated man, and a competent ruler, and also appears to have been a genuinely good cleric, who sincerely wanted to do what was right.  But how on earth could he safely make a decision about matters which he understandably knew almost nothing about?  The opposing sides tried to explain to him the relevant elements of Chinese culture, the full meaning of the Chinese word for “veneration,” and so forth; but Clement XI could only rely on the information he was being given.  In the end, he ruled against allowing new Chinese Catholics to continue venerating their ancestors in the Confucian style—and many Chinese converts left the Church as a result.

This was a tricky and important theological issue that had to be decided by the Pope himself.  And he may or may not have made the right decision.  Certainly there were many Catholic missionaries who were heartbroken by the damage Clement XI’s ruling caused to their work in China.  Many missionaries there on the ground, who understood the issue thoroughly, were sure that the Pope had made a horribly bad call.  But did the Pope commit heresy here?  Of course not.  Arguably bad decisions do not automatically constitute heretical ones.

The moral of the story is that the term heresy has a very precise theological/canonical meaning, and so it shouldn’t be tossed around indiscriminately.  This means that any suggestion that a Pope is involved in heresy must be made with tremendous caution.  As we’ve just seen, not every objectionable religious statement constitutes heresy—far from it!  At the same time, however, Catholics certainly can, and sometime do, embrace heretical positions; and if they stubbornly refuse to back down, the consequences can be serious indeed.  Let’s pray for unity in Catholic orthodoxy, along the same lines as Our Lord Himself, in John 17:11-12:

Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.  While I was with them, I kept them in Thy name, which Thou has given Me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost…

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