Answering a common misconception…

Could Non-Infallible Papal Teaching be Heretical?

A lot of people in the theological camp we call the “recognize-and-resist” position believe that whatever teaching from the Roman Pontiff is not protected by infallibility, that is, whatever papal teaching is not divinely guaranteed to be free from all error, could for that very reason be heretical.

Consequently, they infer that for a Pope to teach heresy “non-infallibly” is entirely within the purview of what is possible in the Church, and therefore Francis’ magisterial heresies cannot be used as an argument that he is not a valid Pope.

Knowing to distinguish the fallible from the infallible, so these “recognize-and-resisters” reason, is the key to understanding why Francis may be a bad Pope, but certainly not a false one. That non-infallible teachings of the Pope are not binding, at least not if one has privately determined them to be erroneous or heretical, goes without saying for them.

Thus they go on their merry way, thinking they have avoided the “Ultramontanist” or “hyper-papalist” extreme, which effectively makes all papal teaching infallible — and the sedevacantist extreme, which makes one reject not just papal error or heresy, but the Pope altogether. Or so they think.

Sound familiar? If you know a non-sedevacantist traditionalist, you have probably heard this line of argumentation before.

In this post, we intend to expose and refute the misconceptions that underlie this specious reasoning, by demonstrating the following:

  1. The mere fact that a papal teaching is not protected from all error does not necessarily mean that it could be heretical
  2. Catholics have an obligation to assent to all papal teaching, infallible or not
  3. The Pope’s teaching cannot be heretical, nor can it contain any other harmful error
  4. We Sedevacantists do not reject submission to the Pope, we reject someone’s claim to being the Pope

So let us proceed, step by step.

(1) The mere fact that a papal teaching is not protected from all error does not necessarily mean that it could be heretical.

Logic can be tricky. Sometimes what seems to follow at first sight, doesn’t follow at all, or at least not necessarily, upon closer examination.

Heresy is a very specific kind of error, in fact, the worst possible kind. It is not just a proposition that is false, it is a denial of what God has revealed. The 1945 Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology defines heresy as: “A teaching which is directly contradictory to a truth revealed by God and proposed to the faithful as such by the Church” (p. 123).

For a Pope to teach heresy would mean teaching the faithful something that denies the Catholic Faith, something that contradicts what the Church has already taught infallibly in the past and requires her members to accept and profess under pain not only of mortal sin but of expulsion from her.

After all, willful assent to what one knows to be heresy makes one automatically cease to be a Catholic, at least insofar as this is manifest externally, since the Church is a visible body:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. …

Nor must one imagine that the Body of the Church, just because it bears the name of Christ, is made up during the days of its earthly pilgrimage only of members conspicuous for their holiness, or that it consists only of those whom God has predestined to eternal happiness. it is owing to the Savior’s infinite mercy that place is allowed in His Mystical Body here below for those whom, of old, He did not exclude from the banquet. For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, nn. 22-23; underlining added.)

A statement that is heretical is obviously not protected by infallibility, else it could not contain heresy, which is an error.

At the same time, a statement that is merely erroneous (false, but not rising to the level of heresy) is also not protected by infallibility, since it too contains error.

Therefore, one cannot conclude, from the mere fact that a statement is not protected by infallibility, that it therefore could contain heresy, for this may very well be ruled out by some other stipulation.

But is there some other reason to suppose that non-infallible teachings of the Pope cannot be heretical?

As a matter of fact, there is:

(2) Catholics have an obligation to assent to all papal teaching, infallible or not.

The Pope is the Supreme Teacher in the Catholic Church. Because he teaches with the authority of Christ, all Catholics are obliged to adhere to his teaching:

We likewise define that the holy Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff, hold the primacy throughout the entire world; and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the entire Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him in blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal Church; just as is contained in the acts of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.

(Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Bull Laetentur Coeli; Denz. 694.)

But the supreme teacher in the Church is the Roman Pontiff. Union of minds, therefore, requires, together with a perfect accord in the one faith, complete submission and obedience of will to the Church and to the Roman Pontiff, as to God Himself. This obedience should, however, be perfect, because it is enjoined by faith itself, and has this in common with faith, that it cannot be given in shreds; nay, were it not absolute and perfect in every particular, it might wear the name of obedience, but its essence would disappear….

In defining the limits of the obedience owed to the pastors of souls, but most of all to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must not be supposed that it is only to be yielded in relation to dogmas of which the obstinate denial cannot be disjoined from the crime of heresy. Nay, further, it is not enough sincerely and firmly to assent to doctrines which, though not defined by any solemn pronouncement of the Church, are by her proposed to belief, as divinely revealed, in her common and universal teaching, and which the [First] Vatican Council declared are to be believed “with Catholic and divine faith.” But this likewise must be reckoned amongst the duties of Christians, that they allow themselves to be ruled and directed by the authority and leadership of bishops, and, above all, of the Apostolic See.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, nn. 22, 24)

All know to whom the teaching authority of the Church has been given by God: he, then, possesses a perfect right to speak as he wishes and when he thinks it opportune. The duty of others is to hearken to him reverently when he speaks and to carry out what he says.

(Pope Benedict XV, Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, n. 22)

…[T]his sacred Office of Teacher in matters of faith and morals must be the proximate and universal criterion of truth for all theologians, since to it has been entrusted by Christ Our Lord the whole deposit of faith — Sacred Scripture and divine Tradition — to be preserved, guarded and interpreted….

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me” [Lk 10:16]; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine.

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, nn. 18, 20)

Therefore, when it is a question of instructions and propositions which the properly constituted shepherds (i.e. the Roman Pontiff for the whole Church, and the Bishops for the faithful entrusted to them) publish on matters within the natural law, the faithful must not invoke that saying (which is wont to be employed with respect to opinions of individuals): “the strength of the authority is no more than the strength of the arguments.” Hence, even though to someone, certain declarations of the Church may not seem proved by the arguments put forward, his obligation to obey still remains.

(Pope Pius XII, Allocution Magnificate Dominum)

Here we see that infallibility is not a criterion which the Pope’s teaching must first meet before the faithful have an obligation to assent. On the contrary, that idea is clearly repudiated.

But if God constituted His Church in such a way that the faithful have an obligation to assent to what the Sovereign Pontiff teaches, by the mere fact that he, the Supreme Teacher, is exercising his magisterial office, then it stands to reason that such teaching, although not always infallible, can never contain any pernicious error; that is, it could never contain anything that could harm the souls who embrace and follow it.

This is not simply speculation by a sedevacantist writer — it is the certain and common teaching of the theologians from before Vatican II.

Fr. Joseph Fenton, one of the finest American theologians of the 20th century who received papal honors in 1954, explains:

Despite the divergent views about the existence of the infallible pontifical teaching in the encyclical letters, there is one point on which all theologians are manifestly in agreement. They are all convinced that all Catholics are bound in conscience to give a definite internal religious assent to those doctrines which the Holy Father teaches when he speaks to the universal Church of God on earth without employing his God-given charism of infallibility. Thus, prescinding from the question as to whether any individual encyclical or group of encyclicals may be said to contain specifically infallible teaching, all theologians are in agreement that this religious assent must be accorded the teachings which the Sovereign Pontiff includes in these documents. This assent is due, as Lercher has noted, until the Church might choose to modify the teaching previously presented or until proportionately serious reasons for abandoning the non-infallible teaching contained in a pontifical document might appear. It goes without saying that any reason which would justify the relinquishing of a position taken in a pontifical statement would have to be very serious indeed.

(Rev. Joseph Clifford Fenton, “The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals, Part I”, American Ecclesiastical Review CXXI [August, 1949], p. 144)

Notice that Fenton says nothing concerning the kind or gravity of error that might be possible. All he says is that despite the fact that the doctrine is not guaranteed to be without error, “a definite internal religious assent” must be given to what the Pope teaches in encyclicals.

Now Fenton does grant, following the theologian Fr. Ludwig Lercher, that in an exceptional situation such assent could conceivably be withheld — however, we must be careful not to jump to conclusions.

First, it is one thing to be permitted to withhold assent, and another to be required to. Heresy or some other serious error would obviously require one to withhold assent, yet, what pre-Vatican II theologian has ever taught that assent to a non-infallible papal teaching might ever have to be withheld — under pain of mortal sin and loss of Church membership?! It is an absurd idea.

Second, in his Dogmatic Theology III: The Sources of Revelation [Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1961], Mgr. Gerard van Noort writes that suspension of internal assent to a non-infallible teaching will be “extremely rare” and would be permitted only to expert theologians who are waiting for a judgment concerning their objections from the Holy See, “meanwhile keeping a reverential silence” (n. 254, p. 275). In other words, someone who is “just a dad with a webcam” wouldn’t be allowed to go on YouTube and blast his dissent all over the internet, trashing the Pope for preaching a “new religion” and encouraging everyone to join him in his “resistance”. Just saying.

The obligation to adhere to everything the Roman Pontiff teaches should really not present a problem for Catholics. The reason for this is found in our next thesis:

(3) The Pope’s teaching cannot be heretical, nor can it contain any other harmful error.

Does this seem excessive? It shouldn’t, for it simply follows from what we just saw. But there is no need to take our word for it, as Father Fenton himself draws this conclusion:

It might be definitely understood, however, that the Catholic’s duty to accept the teachings conveyed in the encyclicals even when the Holy Father does not propose such teachings as a part of his infallible magisterium is not based merely upon the dicta of the theologians. The authority which imposes this obligation is that of the Roman Pontiff himself. To the Holy Father’s responsibility of caring for the sheep of Christ’s fold, there corresponds, on the part of the Church’s membership, the basic obligation of following his directions, in doctrinal as well as disciplinary matters. In this field, God has given the Holy Father a kind of infallibility distinct from the charism of doctrinal infallibility in the strict sense. He has so constructed and ordered the Church that those who follow the directives given to the entire kingdom of God on earth will never be brought into the position of ruining themselves spiritually through this obedience. Our Lord dwells within His Church in such a way that those who obey disciplinary and doctrinal directives of this society can never find themselves displeasing God through their adherence to the teachings and the commands given to the universal Church militant. Hence there can be no valid reason to discountenance even the non-infallible teaching authority of Christ’s vicar on earth.

(Fenton, “The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals, Part I”, pp. 144-145; underlining added.)

The mere fact that a papal teaching is not protected from all error does not mean it is not protected from any error.

Heresy is clearly the kind of error from which God protects the Pope’s ordinary teaching. The Papacy, we must always keep before us, was established by God Himself as the highest teaching office in “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). If we truly believe and trust our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, who is the invisible Head of the Church and whose very Vicar the Roman Pontiff is, why should this present a problem? “O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?” (Mt 14:31).

When our Lord commissioned the 72 disciples, He did not endow them with infallibility. Nevertheless, He said to them: “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me” (Lk 10:16). Even though not infallible, they nonetheless preached with authority, the very authority of Christ Himself.

All this is entirely consistent with reason. It would be of no use for Catholics to have a Pope whom it would be safe to follow only when he teaches infallibly — and at all other times, not only would simple error be possible but even the most obnoxious blasphemies and most dangerous errors, not excluding heresy! What sort of a “pillar and ground of the truth” would this be? How trustworthy would such an institution be?

On what grounds could the Catholic Church credibly condemn the false doctrines of Protestant sects, which don’t claim to be infallible at any time, if she were to issue heretical declarations herself on occasion? Would it not be the height of absurdity if the Pope could, on the one hand, condemn others for teaching heresy, but then at the same time propose heretical doctrine himself — just not infallibly?

What would we think of a mother who guarantees she will never poison her children at Sunday night dinner, or on a few other special occasions, but won’t guarantee that her food is safe for the little ones at any other time of the week? And if this mother then justified herself on the grounds that at all other meals, she’s not requiring her children to eat anything but merely offering them food — what would we think of her? Would we not be aghast at such a wicked and cynical monster? Of course we would!

But is our Blessed Lord not infinitely more solicitous for His “little children” (Jn 13:33) than a mere human mother is for hers? “Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? and if she should forget, yet will not I forget thee” (Is 49:15).

No one cares more lovingly for His flock than the Good Shepherd:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep. But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and flieth: and the wolf catcheth, and scattereth the sheep: And the hireling flieth, because he is a hireling: and he hath no care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know mine, and mine know me.

(John 10:11-14,4-5)

If our Blessed Lord is the Good Shepherd, so are His Vicars, and necessarily so, for He delegated to them His very own mission: “Feed my lambs… Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15,16,17). The Popes are not guaranteed to be holy — in fact, some of them have been appallingly sinful and scandalous in their personal lives — but in the exercise of their teaching office, they are guaranteed to be entirely safe to follow:

It is a most beautiful mystery, but then Christianity is a religion of mysteries.

(4) We Sedevacantists do not reject submission to the Pope, we reject someone’s claim to being the Pope.

From all the preceding it should be evident that we Sedevacantists do not, by any stretch, deny or doubt the Papacy. On the contrary, we affirm the Church’s doctrines regarding the Papacy most firmly. Unlike semi-trad Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, we do not attempt to “rethink” the Papacy to make it fit Jorge Bergoglio. If Bergoglio doesn’t fit the papal office, the problem is not with the Papacy but with Bergoglio.

We do not reject the Pope, we reject Bergoglio’s manifestly false claim to being the Pope. And the same goes for the other five false papal claimants since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.

How do we know they’re false popes? We know it from the fact that the assistance God has promised to His Vicars has manifestly not been operative in them. This increasingly obvious effect requires a proportionate cause to account for it, and the only cause that could possibly produce this effect — given that God is faithful to His promises and can neither lie nor be mistaken — is that they were not in fact true Popes, that is, they never received the papal authority from Christ. Even though they were ostensibly elected in their respective conclaves, for one reason or another they did not actually become Pope (some say it is because their acceptance of the office was vitiated by a contrary intention, whereas others argue that public manifest heresy made them ineligible to be elected validly).

But regardless of what caused the invalidity of their papacies, it is evident that they have not enjoyed the divine assistance, and so their invalidity is certain. Only because they are not actually true Popes do we have the right (and duty) to refuse them submission. After all, submission must be rendered to all true Popes as a condition for eternal salvation: “…we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Pope Boniface VIII, Bull Unam Sanctam).

The Good Shepherd rules and guides His flock: “And when he hath let out his own sheep, he goeth before them: and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice” (Jn 10:4). Our Lord does so through His visible Vicars: “…there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ, who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisible, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth” (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, n. 40).

The sheep follow the Good Shepherd obediently and without suspicion. But a stranger, a hireling, or a wolf the sheep will not hear: “But a stranger they follow not, but fly from him, because they know not the voice of strangers. My sheep hear my voice: and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:4,27).

“The voice of strangers” is precisely what Catholics have been hearing from the Vatican since Cardinal Angelo Roncalli presented himself to the world as ‘Pope John XXIII’ in 1958. Never has this been more obvious than now, under the reign of (t)error of ‘Pope Francis’.

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously, we are living in extremely bizarre and confusing times. However, this does not allow us to throw traditional Catholic teaching out the window. We cannot simply declare pre-Vatican II Catholic doctrine obsolete or suspended and appeal to “diabolical disorientation” as a justification, just so we can have an incredibly visible ‘Pope’ — to whom we then refuse submission because he does not teach Catholicism but a dangerous perversion of it. Surely this is no way to ‘save the Church’ or the Faith.

As the Mystical Body of Christ, it is not surprising that the Catholic Church should emulate her Divine Head in being persecuted and ultimately suffering a mystical Passion of her own. However, in such a Passion the Pope, being Christ’s Vicar, would, like the rest of the Church, be the victim, not the perpetrator.

In no wise could the Ark of Salvation suddenly turn into the Ark of Damnation. Neither could the Immaculate Bride of Christ turn away from her divine mission and become the Whore of Babylon, doing the bidding no longer of Christ but now of Antichrist:

During the lapse of centuries, the mystical Spouse of Christ has never been contaminated, nor can she ever in the future be contaminated, as Cyprian bears witness: “The Bride of Christ cannot be made false to her Spouse: she is incorrupt and modest. She knows but one dwelling, she guards the sanctity of the nuptial chamber chastely and modestly” [De Cath. Ecclesiae unitate, 6].

(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Mortalium Animos, n. 10)

On the other hand, what is possible is that God would allow the “mystery of iniquity” to eclipse the Church for a time by removing, temporarily, His Vicar, who keeps the mystery from prevailing:

Let no man deceive you by any means, for unless there come a revolt first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition Who opposeth, and is lifted up above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself as if he were God. Remember you not, that when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now you know what withholdeth, that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity already worketh; only that he who now holdeth, do hold, until he be taken out of the way. And then that wicked one shall be revealed whom the Lord Jesus shall kill with the spirit of his mouth; and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming, him, whose coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and in all seduction of iniquity to them that perish; because they receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. Therefore God shall send them the operation of error, to believe lying: that all may be judged who have not believed the truth, but have consented to iniquity.

(2 Thessalonians 2:3-11)

Cardinal Henry Manning’s lecture series given in 1871 explores the riches of Sacred Tradition concerning this passage and the frightful days that appear to be upon us now:

Given all of the foregoing, we have seen that the semi-traditionalists cannot argue that ordinary papal teaching may be heretical, simply because it is not guaranteed to be free from all error.

Their recognize-and-resist position is a contrived human pseudo-solution that saves nothing and ultimately reduces the Church to an absurd circus, devoid of all credibility in her claim to being “the true and only Church of Christ” (Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Amantissimus, n. 3), indeed that “one holy Catholic and apostolic Church, outside of which there is no salvation” (Pope St. Pius V, Bull Regnans in Excelsis).

Image source: composite with elements from Shutterstock (Roman Samborskyi and riggleton)
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