De Romano Pontifice, Book IV, Chapters 6 & 7

Whether a Pope can fall into Heresy as a Private Person?

by Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J.

Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church
Canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930
Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1931
Feast Day: May 13

Translated from the original Latin by Mr. Ryan Grant
used with permission

Chapter VI: On the Pope as a Particular Person

The fourth proposition. It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith.

It is proved:

1) because it seems to require the sweet disposition of the providence of God. For the Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,” that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne. How, I ask, will a heretical Pope confirm the brethren in faith and always preach the true faith? Certainly God can wrench the confession of the true faith out of the heart of a heretic just as he placed the words in the mouth of Balaam’s ass. Still, this will be a great violence, and not in keeping with the providence of God that sweetly disposes all things.

2) It is proved ab eventu. For to this point no [Pontiff] has been a heretic, or certainly it cannot be proven that any of them were heretics; therefore it is a sign that such a thing cannot be [410].

Chapter VII: The Objections are Answered by an Appeal to Reason

Now we take up arguments to the contrary, partly from reason and partly from the examples of various Pontiffs.

1) Many canons teach that the Pope cannot be judged unless he may be discovered to have deviated from the faith, therefore he can deviate from the faith. Otherwise these canons would be to no effect. It is clear from the preceding canon, Si Papa, dist. 40, from the 5th Council under Symachus, from the Eighth general council, act 7, from the third epistle of Anacletus, the second epistle of Eusebius, and from Innocent III [411].

I respond to the first: all of those canons speak on a personal error of the Pope, not a judicial one. For the Pontiff, if he could be a heretic, will only be so by denying some truth that has already been defined; he cannot be a heretic when he defines something new since in that instance he does not understand contrary to something defined by the Church. But the canons cited speak expressly on heresy, therefore they do not speak on the judicial error but personal error of the Pontiff. Secondly, I say those canons do not mean the Pope can err as a private person but only that the Pope cannot be judged; it is still not altogether certain whether the Pontiff could be a heretic or not. Thus, they add the condition ‘if he might become a heretic’ for greater caution.

2) If the Pope alone can infallibly define dogmas of faith then Councils are in vain or at least unnecessary.

I respond: That does not follow. For even if infallibility might be in the Pontiff; still he ought not condemn human and ordinary means whereby one can arrive at a truth of faith in the treatment of some matter. Moreover, a greater or lesser Council is an ordinary medium for the magnitude or paucity of a matter that it treats. That is clear from the example of the Apostles. Certainly both Peter and Paul were able to infallibly define any controversy you like as individuals but they still called a Council in Acts chapter XV.

Next, definitions of the faith especially depend on the Apostolic tradition and the consensus of the Churches, but so that the opinion of the whole Church might be recognized when some question arises, they preserve the tradition of the Church of Christ. There is no better plan to do this than if the Bishops from all the provinces should come together into one to relate the custom of his Church.

Besides, councils are very useful and often necessary to really put an end to controversies by not only making decrees on faith, but also preserving them. For when a general council happens all the Bishops subscribe and profess themselves to embrace that decree, and afterward they will preach in their Churches, but if a general council does not happen, it is not so easy to reduce a decree made on faith to practice. It is possible that some may feign ignorance of the decree; others might complain they were not called and others even openly say the Pope could err, but on this matter we will speak more in the treatise on Councils, chapter X and XI.

3) If the Pope were infallible in a judgment of faith, they would be heretics or at least held in pernicious error and sin gravely, who pertinaciously assert something against a definition of the Pope. But this is false, for St. Cyprian pertinaciously resisted Pope Stephen when he defined that heretics must not be rebaptized, as is clear from the epistle of the same Cyprian to Pompeius, and still not only was he not a heretic, but he did not sin mortally. For mortal sins are not blotted out except through penance, even if one should die for the faith. Still, the Church venerates Cyprian as a saint, even though he does not appear to have ever repudiated his own error. This is confirmed by St. Augustine who says that the Churches gave way on that question and Cyprian, as well as others, could dissent for the sake of charity among themselves until a definition of a general Council would come about [412]. Therefore, Augustine did not think that a judgment of the Roman Pontiff was beyond doubt.

I respond to the example of Cyprian: Cyprian certainly was not a heretic, both because those who say that the Pope can err are not reckoned manifestly heretical, but also because there is no question that Pope Stephen did not define as de fide that heretics must not be rebaptized, although he commanded this not to be done, as is clear from the fact that he did not excommunicate Cyprian and others thinking the contrary. In like manner, Cyprian refused that it be held as de fide where he defined in the Council of 80 Bishops that heretics must be rebaptized, protesting eloquently that he did not wish to separate himself from others because they thought different.

Nor is this opposed to what Eusebius [413] and Augustine [414] write. Pope Stephen did not command lest those baptized by heretics should be rebaptized; but he also sensed that those who did not obey must be excommunicated, that was but a threat. For it is certain from St. Vincent of Lérin in his book on profane novelties of speech, and from Augustine (loc. cit.) that Stephen and Cyprian were always in union.

Through this a response can also be made to confirm it. For after the definition of the Pope he was still free to think otherwise, as Augustine says, because the Pope refused to make the matter de fide without a general Council: rather he merely wished for the ancient custom to be preserved. Whether Cyprian sinned mortally by not obeying the Pontiff is not at all certain. For on his side it did not seem a mortal sin, because he did not sin but from ignorance; for he thought the Pope perniciously erred and standing on that opinion he felt obliged not to obey lest he would act against his conscience. But it does not seem the ignorance of Cyprian was crass, nor feigned, but it is probable and hence excuses from mortal sin. For he knew the Pope did not define the matter as de fide and saw that the Council of 80 Bishops agreed with him. Why else would Blessed Augustine expressly teach that Cyprian only sinned venially and for the sake of charity; therefore it was easily purged by the knife of martyrdom [415]? Augustine also says that this sin was like a blemish in the glory of his holy soul, which the abundance of charity covered.

On the other hand, it seems he still sinned mortally since he did not obey the expressed apostolic precept, and disturbed the Pontiff without measure when he thought correctly. Even if Stephen did not define the matter as de fide, still he lately commanded that heretics should not be rebaptized, as Cyprian himself affirms in his epistle to Pompeius. Cyprian ought to obey his command and subject his judgment to the judgment of his superior, and at least ought not have advanced contumelious words, such as he advanced against Pope Stephen in his epistle to Pompeius, where he calls him proud, unlearned, blind and a fool, etc. Therefore, St. Augustine in his 48th Epistle to Vincentium, while he otherwise tries to defend Cyprian, asserted that where the contumelies are discovered these were either not his writings, or that afterward he did penance for his error and changed his opinion before death, although no retraction was discovered.

4) The African Council asserts in its epistle to Pope Celestine that a provincial council can err less in judgment than the Roman Pontiff: “Perhaps there is not anyone who would believe God can inspire justice of examination in each of us and reject the innumerable priests gathered in Council.” But it is certain provincial councils can err, therefore the Pope can err much more.

I respond: The council speaks not on a judgment of faith but of fact, namely on the cases of Bishops and priests who are accused of some crime. In cases like this, we affirm the Pope does not have the assistance of the Holy Spirit by whose assistance he cannot err. Additionally, we are not necessarily held to believe something these Bishops say in that epistle, especially since it sufficiently appears that they were moved by the crimes of Apiarius who had fled to the Roman Pontiff after he had in some measure exceeded the boundaries of polite speech. That the African Council was confirmed by Leo IV [416] does not oppose this since the decrees of the Council were confirmed, but not of the epistle.

5) Nilus of Thessalonika reasons this way in his little book on the primacy, “The Roman Pontiff can fall into any other vice, like avarice or pride, etc., therefore he can also fall into the vice of heresy. For Paul says some men were shipwrecked in regard to the faith, because beforehand they had lost a good conscience [417]. Likewise the Pope can deny God in deed by living badly, according to Titus I: ‘They confessed that they know God, but deny him with their deeds.’ Therefore, he can also deny in deed for it seems easier to deny by word than by deed.”

I respond to the first argument: Therein it is gathered correctly that the Pope by his own nature can fall into heresy, but not when we posit the singular assistance of God which Christ asked for him by his prayer. Furthermore, Christ prayed lest his faith would fail, not lest he would fall into vice.

To the second point, I say: The Apostle in that place does not understand any evil work you like, but works that proceed from infidelity of heart. For he speaks on the Jews who also profess that they know God not sincerely converting to the faith but nevertheless, deny him by works because by forbidding certain foods as unclean by their nature, they showed that they did not truly know the creator of all things.

Moreover, the Pope does not, nor can, do such works. But if by “deeds” we understand whatever sin you like, it would be false since it is easier to deny God by word than by deed. For who denies by word, denies simply and expressly, who denies by deed, denies him implicitly and in a certain measure, not simply.


410 For more on this see Albert Pighius.
411 Sermon. 2, de consecration Pontificis.
412 De Baptismo, lib. 1, cap. 18 et alibi
413 Histor. lib. 7, cap. 4.
414 De unico Baptismo, cap. 14.
415 Contra Donatistas, lib. 1, ca. 18.
416 Dist. 20, can. de libellis.
417 1 Tim. I: 19.

Source: “De Summo Pontifice” in Robertus Bellarminus, De Controversiis Christianae Fidei: Adversus Hujus Temporis Haereticos (Ingolstadt, 1588). Translation into English by Ryan Grant, as published in St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice: On the Roman Pontiff (Mediatrix Press, 2016), pp. 169-174. Used with permission. Formatting slightly modified to facilitate reading.

See Also:

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On the Roman Pontiff – De Romano Pontifice
by Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.

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by Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.

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On September 17, 1931, Pope Pius XI declared St. Robert Bellarmine a Doctor of the Universal Church, in the decree Providentissimus Deus. This document was published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis XXIII (1931), pp. 433-438, and is available in the original Latin here (PDF) and in English translation at this link.

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