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Historical Precedent for a “Heretical” Pope?

In Brief: The Facts on Pope John XXII

At a time when countless supposed “traditional Catholics” don’t think twice about accusing an unquestionably true Pope of the past of teaching heresy or at least grave doctrinal error, it behooves us to remind everyone that instead of simply believing whatever you see posted on a blog somewhere, the safer course is to simply look the stuff up. It’s not like these questions never came up before or that no clear answer was ever put forward.

Where to look it up? Look it up where any Catholic priest would have looked it up before Vatican II: in the most recent dogmatic theology manuals approved by the Church. Why most recent? Because the most recent Church-approved manuals will include the most recent doctrinal pronouncements and clarifications from the Magisterium and also take into consideration any of the latest historical research to shed light on questions pertaining to Church history insofar as it relates to doctrinal matters.

In this post, we will take a brief look at the famous case of Pope John XXII (reigned 1316-1334), who is accused of teaching that the souls of those who die in the state of sanctifying grace cannot see God in the fullness of the Beatific Vision until after the Last Judgment.

In the future we are going to post a carefully-researched essay on this with detailed documentation. For now, however, we will have to content ourselves simply with a brief overview of the facts of the case since the issue is continually brought up to discredit the sedevacantist position and “legitimize”, as it were, Francis’ claim to the Papacy.

The following succinct summary of the John XXII controversy comes from the treatise On the Last Things (De Novissimis) of vol. 4 of the extensive Jesuit dogmatic theology compilation Sacrae Theologiae Summa, which was originally published in Latin in 1956 and was recently released in English for the first time.

St. Bernard [Doctor of the Church, 1090-1153] often taught that deceased just persons immediately after death will obtain immense happiness, but not the beatific vision until the resurrection [of their bodies].

John XXII, the Supreme Pontiff, followed him almost to the letter, and the Friars Minor followed him, as is generally reported. He held that immediately after death some reward is given to the just, like seeing already the humanity of Christ in heaven, and that the wicked are punished in hell in some way; but before the final judgment that neither the face-to-face vision of God is granted to the blessed nor the punishment of fire to the damned.

However, he taught this as a private teacher, not as Pontiff, and he held it theoretically or for the sake of debate, thinking that he could be deceived in these matters and permitting others to think differently until the question should be decided authoritatively. Hence he took care to have the matter studied by the Doctors, and frequently summoning debates in his presence on this point, he was prepared to abandon his opinion if it was shown to be against the faith. Indeed, on the day before his death he ordered a declaration of the true doctrine in the presence of all the Cardinals, etc. He said that previously he thought differently about this matter by pondering it and speaking about it. In this way he prepared the way for his successor, Benedict XII, to proclaim a definition of the true teaching [see Denz. 530-531].

(Fr. Joseph F. Sagüés, S.J., Sacrae Theologiae Summa IVB: On the Last Things, trans. by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. [original Latin published by BAC, 1956; English published by Keep the Faith, 2016], n. 30; italics given; underlining added.)

Pope Benedict XII’s ex cathedra definition of the true doctrine concerning the fate of the departed was issued on Jan. 29, 1336:

By this edict which will prevail forever, with apostolic authority we declare: that according to the common arrangement of God, souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ; also of the holy apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, virgins, and the other faithful who died after the holy baptism of Christ had been received by them, in whom nothing was to be purged, when they departed, nor will there be when they shall depart also in the future; or if then there was or there will be anything to be purged in these when after their death they have been purged; and the souls of children departing before the use of free will, reborn and baptized in that same baptism of Christ, when all have been baptized, immediately after their death and that aforesaid purgation in those who were in need of a purgation of this kind, even before the resumption of their bodies and the general judgment after the ascension of our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, into heaven, have been, are, and will be in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven and in celestial paradise with Christ, united in the company of the holy angels, and after the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ have seen and see the divine essence by intuitive vision, and even face to face, with no mediating creature, serving in the capacity of an object seen, but divine essence immediately revealing itself plainly, clearly, and openly, to them, and seeing thus they enjoy the same divine essence, and also that from such vision and enjoyment their souls, which now have departed, are truly blessed and they have eternal life and rest; and also [the souls] of those who afterwards will depart, will see that same divine essence, and will enjoy it before the general judgment; and that such vision of the divine essence and its enjoyment makes void the acts of faith and hope in them, inasmuch as faith and hope are proper theological virtues; and that after there has begun or will be such intuitive and face-to-face vision and enjoyment in these, the same vision and enjoyment without any interruption [intermission] or departure of the aforesaid vision and enjoyment exist continuously and will continue even up to the last judgment and from then even unto eternity.

Moreover, we declare that according to the common arrangement of God, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin immediately after their death descend to hell where they are tortured by infernal punishments, and that nevertheless on the day of judgment all men with their bodies will make themselves ready to render an account of their own deeds before the tribunal of Christ, “so that everyone may receive the proper things of the body according as he has done whether it be good or evil” [ 2 Cor. 5:10].

(Pope Benedict XII, Apostolic Constitution Benedictus Deus; Denz. 530-531)

Thus we can see that the case of Pope John XXII is in no way comparable to that of “Pope” Francis:

Pope John spoke (1) as a private teacher (2) on a matter not yet settled (3) in order to ascertain the truth of the matter so it could be defined, (4) meanwhile permitting others to differ from him. In other words, the Pope did not exercise his Magisterium; he did not commit heresy; and although his view was erroneous, it was permissible for him to hold at the time. The Church historian Fr. Reuben Parsons explicitly states that in holding his theory, Pope John was “in the full exercise of his right” (Studies in Church History, vol. 2, 2nd ed. [Fr. Pustet & Co., 1896], p. 500).

Contrast this with the apostasy of “Pope” Francis, who (1) issues magisterial documents (such as Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia) and has explicitly stated that he intends to speak magisterially even in interviews; (2) therefore as (putative) Pope; (3) on matters long settled and defined, even directly revealed by God (cf. Ex 20:14); (4) for the sake of changing established church teaching and practice.

On Dec. 3, 1334 — one day before he was to die — Pope John XXII issued a formal retraction of any errors he may have held, in the bull Ne Super His, which was published by his successor, Pope Benedict XII:

In order that those things often said — both by Us and by certain others in Our presence — on the subject of the purified souls separated from the body (whether before the resurrection of the bodies they can see the divine essence with that vision which the apostle calls face to face) — by citing Sacred Scripture and the original sayings of the saints or other modes of reasoning — should not impress the ears of the faithful otherwise than as was said or understood by Us or as is being said and understood [by Us], so We now earnestly declare as follows, in the context of the present [writings] Our opinion that We, together with the holy Catholic Church, have and have had regarding this matter.

We therefore confess and believe that the purified souls separated from the body are gathered together in heaven, in paradise and the kingdom of the heaven [sic], with Christ in the company of the angels, and that they, according to the common precept, clearly see God and the divine essence face to face, insofar as the state and the condition of the separated soul allows.

But if, in any way, other things may have been said, or [said] in another manner, by Us on this subject, We have said them in the disposition of the Catholic faith, and We affirm to have said them thus in discoursing and discussing, and We wish to have said [them] thus. Furthermore, if We, in what pertains to the Catholic faith, Sacred Scripture, or good morals, have said other things in preaching, discoursing, formulating a doctrine, teaching, or in any other way, these, insofar as they are in conformity with the Catholic faith, the Church’s way of thinking, Sacred Scripture, and good morals, We approve; other things, however, We wish to consider as though they were not said, and We do not in any way approve them; rather, insofar as these might not have been in accord with what We have mentioned — the Catholic faith, the Church’s way of thinking, Sacred Scripture, or good morals or any of these — We reject them; and likewise We submit to the judgment of the Church and Our successors all that We have said or written on any subjects wherever and in whatever place and in whatever situation We have or may have had up until now.

(Pope John XXII, Bull Ne Super HisDenzinger-Hünermann 990-991; available online in Latin here.)

Let no one, then, appeal to the case of Pope John XXII as historical precedent permitting refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff. The traditional Catholic teaching on the Papacy remains as true today as it was when enunciated by Pope Pius IX in 1853: “Be vigilant in act and word, so that the faithful may grow in love for this Holy See, venerate it, and accept it with complete obedience; they should execute whatever the See itself teaches, determines, and decrees” (Encyclical Inter Multiplices, n. 7).

Those “traditional Catholics” of our day who think they can find precedent in the Church’s past for resisting the Magisterium of a “heretical” Pope, forget that all these issues were debated extensively at the time of the First Vatican Council (1869-70) as the Pope and the bishops were preparing a dogmatic constitution on the primacy of the Pope and the extent of the infallibility of his Magisterium. The following anecdote was related by Abp. John Purcell of Cincinnati, who had attended the council:

The question was also raised by a Cardinal, “What is to be done with the Pope if he becomes a heretic?” It was answered that there has never been such a case; the Council of Bishops could depose him for heresy, for from the moment he becomes a heretic he is not the head or even a member of the Church. The Church would not be, for a moment, obliged to listen to him when he begins to teach a doctrine the Church knows to be a false doctrine, and he would cease to be Pope, being deposed by God Himself.

(Abp. John B. Purcell, quoted in Rev. James J. McGovern, Life and Life Work of Pope Leo XIII [Chicago, IL: Allied Printing, 1903], p. 241; underlining added.)

Further information on the supposed “heretical” Popes of the past can be found in the following posts:

Historically, those accusing Popes of magisterial error or heresy have typically been the enemies of the Church and of the Papacy (specifically Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Gallicans, and Modernists), whereas those who have defended the Popes from such charges have enjoyed a great reputation for orthodoxy. Of the latter group we need but name a few: Pope Pius IX, St. Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal Joseph Hergenröther, Cardinal Louis-Nazaire Bégin, Dom Prosper Gueranger, and many others. Bellarmine even wrote a little compendium answering charges against a number of very specific Popes:

Those who deride the defenders of the integrity of the papal Magisterium as “Ultramontanists” apparently do not realize how foolish their charge is, because Ultramontanism is Catholicism: “For Catholics it would be superfluous to ask whether Ultramontanism and Catholicism are the same thing: assuredly, those who combat Ultramontanism are in fact combating Catholicism, even when they disclaim the desire to oppose it” (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Ultramontanism”).

The only reason why accusing Popes of the past of heresy or other magisterial aberrations is very popular these days among those who mean to be traditional Catholics, is, of course, the simple fact that Francis’ manifest apostasy combined with an irrational but dogmatic refusal of Sedevacantism leaves such people no other choice but to seek some kind of similar case in history to which they can point and say, “See, this Pope was just as heretical as Francis is, and the faithful resisted him, and no one said he wasn’t the Pope.” Such dishonorable efforts, however, are guaranteed to fail because they aim at finding in Church history a theological absurdity, an utter impossibility.

As we have pointed out many times on this web site before, insisting that Jorge Bergoglio is a valid Roman Pontiff does incalculable damage to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Papacy:

It is tragic to see how many would sooner jettison the true Catholic teaching on the Papacy than recognize that Jorge Bergoglio isn’t a valid occupant of the office.

Alas, people have ironically preferred having a Pope to the very meaning of the Papacy itself. For them, it is more important to have the papal office occupied than to preserve the correct understanding of what the papal office is. And so they have traded the Papacy for a Pope, as it were.

The just punishment of this Faustian bargain is that they now have neither: They have no true Pope, and they no longer have the correct understanding of the Papacy either.

See, then, how dire the consequences are to accepting Francis as a true Pope.