Thursday, December 7, 2017

Setting the record straight on Pope John XXII

Non enim dixi nec dico hoc aliquid determinando

The good name of Pope John XXII has been maligned extensively in social media recently, with many going so far as to claim that he taught heresy and was "formally corrected" by the Church.

This is not the first time in history that Pope John XXII has been invoked by critics of the Pope.  While John XXII was still alive, William of Ockham (whom John XXII had excommunicated for inciting schism) accused him of heresy and used these allegations to champion the cause of caesaropapism:  Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, rather than the Pope, should have supreme authority over the Church.  200 years later, John Calvin used John XXII to advance his own brand of caesaropapism: John Calvin should have supreme authority over the church in Geneva.

Caesaropapism has fallen out of favor in modern times.  Instead, egopapism is the schism du jour:
I have studied the Bible.  I have studied church history.  Catholicism is a set of propositions that were fully explicated at a certain time in the past and are no longer subject to any change or development.  I know what these propositions are, and anyone who states anything contrary to my understanding of them is a heretic.
Caeasaropapism and egopapism are really just antipapism:  anyone but the Pope.  For antipapists, John XXII is revered not for successfully guiding the papacy through its turbulent early decades at Avignon, nor for blessing the Church with the hymn Agnus Dei, nor for canonizing the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, nor even for defending the church against the schismatic band of Spiritualist Franciscans led by William of Ockham.  No, for antipapists, John XXII is a convenient name to trot out any time they don't feel like obeying the Pope, because they claim that Pope John XXII erred in his sermons on the Beatific Vision.  The fact that only one Pope in 2000 years, one Pope out of 266, is alleged to have erred, and this only in oral sermons that somebody else wrote down (they didn't have stenographers in 1331), doesn't deter them.  John XXII is proof that anyone, at any time, can ignore the Pope whenever they feel like it.

The antipapist will concede that we have to obey the Pope when he is speaking ex cathedra, or repeating the exact same thing that a prior Pope said (preferably before the 1960s), but in every other case, we are free to ignore the Pope, because this might be the second time in history that a Pope is teaching error.

But did Pope John XXII actually err?

The Historical Background

When considering the case of Pope John XXII, we have to consider the historical background of his pontificate.  Pope John XXII was the first Pope to be elected and spend his entire papacy at Avignon.  The church was in turmoil, and Pope John XXII had many enemies, both political and theological.

The political background

History is written by the winners.  In the 14th century, the "winners" were the monarchs and aristocrats of Europe.  Nearly all of them were enemies of Pope John XXII:

  • France:  King Philip VI was the grandson of King Philip III, who had died in the Arogonese Crusade called by Pope Martin IV.  King Philip IV subsequently kidnapped and beat Pope Boniface VIII to death when Boniface refused to submit to Philip's commands.  Philip IV then forced John XXII's predecessor, Pope Clement V, to move the papal residence to Avignon in southern France (technically then part of the Holy Roman Empire but in reality under the dominion of the King of France).  By the time John XXII was Pope, the King of France saw the Pope as little more than a potentially dangerous puppet that had to be manipulated to serve his own interests.  Bias:  Against the Pope.
  • The Holy Roman Empire:  Emperor Louis IV naturally did not take kindly to the Pope leaving Rome (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) to take up residence under the thumb of his primary rival, France.  Louis IV had so little respect for the Pope that he installed his own anti-pope in Rome, Nicholas V.  Louis IV was excommunicated by John XXII and in retaliation patronized the work of caesaropapist intellectuals Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham.  Bias:  Against the Pope.
  • Aragon:  The Aragonese Crusades were still fresh in the memory of Aragon when John XXII was Pope.  In the Aragonese Crusade, Pope Martin IV had ordered France to invade Aragon in response to Aragon's support for the Sicilian Vespers against papal ally Charles of Anjou.  Pope John XXII was now physically residing with the invaders.  What's more, the Aragonese were anxious to expand their newly acquired holdings in Sicily to Italy, which faced a growing power vacuum in the absence of the Pope.  Bias:  Against the Pope.
  • The Byzantine Empire:  100 years before Pope John XXII, the Fourth Crusade had sacked Constantinople and installed the Latin Empire, complete with a papal sponsored Latin Patriarch.  The Byzantines had successfully reconquered Constantinople 50 years before Pope John XXII and had negotiated reunion with Rome at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, but the Byzantine people never liked this council and revoked it as soon as Emperor Michael VIII had passed.  Any remaining possibility of reconciliation vanished when Pope Martin IV supported Charles of Anjou's plot to invade Constantinople, which failed only due to the Aragonese support for the Sicilian Vespers.  By the time John XXII was Pope, the Byzantine Empire simply hated the Pope.  Bias:  Against the Pope.
  • Italy:  The people of Italy had long been divided into petty rivalries.  Ghibellines supported the claims of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy; Guelphs opposed them.  The Popes had been navigating this feud for centuries.  But now the Pope had left Italy for France, and the Pope himself, John XXII, was a Frenchman elected by French cardinals.  This was enough for both Guelphs and Ghibellines to unite against foreign interference in the pan-Italian league of the 1330s. Perhaps not quite as hostile as the Greeks, the people of Italy were nonetheless embittered against John XXII.  Bias:  Against the Pope.
  • England:  Pope John XXII reigned during a period of dynastic turmoil in France that quickly led to the Hundred Years War between England and France.  King Edward III of England saw himself as the rightful heir to the throne in France, and many in England saw the Pope as a puppet of their French enemies.  Bias:  Against the Pope
  • The Avignon Court:  Even at the court of Avignon, the Pope had many enemies.  Cardinal Napoleone Orsini collaborated from behind the scenes at Avignon with John XXII's Franciscan Spiritualist enemies and even with Emperor Louis IV.  Since John XXII did not leave any writings himself setting forth his alleged views on the Beatific Vision, one has to wonder just how trustworthy the oral accounts coming out of Avignon actually were.  Bias:  Against the Pope. 
In sum, Pope John XXII had no friends and plenty of enemies among the kings of Earth.  Europe's rulers despised him at best and hated him at worst.  These rulers were the men who decided what to record (and what not to record) in the history books.

The theological background

There were two main controversies relating to the Beatific Vision in the decades leading up to the pontificate of John XXII:  (1) Will the saints, at some point, enjoy the Beatific Vision? and (2) If so, when would it occur?  The first question had gained incredible importance in the Greek east following the Second Council of Lyons.  A tradition had been developing among the Hesychast monks of Mount Athos that the saints will never truly see God's essence, but will merely participate in his "energy".  Multiple councils were held in Constantinople in the decades following Pope John XXII's death, which ultimately denied that the saints will ever enjoy the Beatific Vision.

In the west, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had preached that the souls of the departed saints do not enjoy full beatitude, but are in an intermediate state until the final resurrection.  Saint Bernard's views became predominant in western monasteries.  In contrast, in the new scholastic university system, a consensus was growing that the souls of the departed saints pass immediately into the full bliss of Heaven.  Nevertheless, even in the scholastic universities, the teaching on the Beatific Vision tended to focus on technicalities regarding its intensity, and many writers in the 13th century had simply been silent on the question of when the Beatific Vision would occur.

Pope John XXII's Writings and Sermons

Pope John XXII reigned for 18 years, from 1316 to 1334.  He took office when he was 72 years old, and died when he was 90.  He was the first Pope to begin (and end) his term at Avignon, spending his entire pontificate away from Rome.  He came into office at a time when the King of France viewed the papacy as a puppet to be dominated and the rest of Europe saw the Pope as an enemy to be defeated.  The Greeks had rejected the reunion of the Second Council of Lyons and were leaning toward an abandonment of the doctrine of the Beatific Vision altogether.  In the west, a split was emerging between the monastics who followed Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and scholastics who believed in beatification prior to the final resurrection.


Pope John XXII wrote three letters on the Beatific Vision during his papacy: his bull of canonization of Louis of Anjou in 1317, a letter to the Armenian church in 1321, and a letter to the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1326.  In all these letters, Pope John XXII affirmed the orthodox teaching that the souls of the departed saints immediately enjoy full beatification in Heaven.  Moreover, John XXII canonized Thomas Aquinas, who had taught the doctrine of a pre-resurrection Beatific Vision, in 1323.


On November 1, 1331, Pope John XXII was 87 years old.  We don't know how well he could see or hear at this point in his life, or how clear his speech was.  Hearing aids had not yet been invented, and reading glasses had only been invented a few decades earlier.  Did John XXII own a pair?  What we do know is that a written copy of a sermon was circulated in which John XXII purportedly recalled a sermon that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had also given for All Saints Day, that the souls of the departed are in an intermediate state and will not enjoy full beatification until reunion with their bodies at the final resurrection.  The surviving written records of this sermon do not indicate any sort of hedging or qualification by John XXII on this question.

A month and a half later, on the Sunday of the Third Week of Advent, Pope John XXII gave a sermon that repeated Saint Bernard's views on the Beatific Vision.  This time, the written record shows that Pope John XXII invited other views on the question.  John XXII repeated this invitation for other views in all of his subsequent sermons on the topic.  In the only written document from the controversy that is attributed to him, John XXII did not set forth any view at all on the Beatific Vision, but simply stated that he had formed a theological commission to study the question.

Analysis:  Did John John XXII teach heresy? 

The Catholic Catechism defines heresy as "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same." (CCC 2087).  Pope John XXII asked the church to consider the issue of the Beatific Vision in all of his sermons except (as far as we know) his first sermon on the topic.  This can in no way be considered a "denial" of a truth.  To ask theologians to study an issue is not a denial.

Nor can it be considered an "obstinate doubt".  The doctrine of the Beatific Vision had not yet been defined in the Church.  Nevertheless, controversy was growing both between east and west and within the monastic vs. scholastic camps in the west.  Charles Trottman notes that theological discussion at the time had devolved into "highly technical speculation about how and with what intensity God works in the souls which see and enjoy him in heaven." Trottman observes that Pope John XXII may have simply intended to shift focus to the more basic question of when the souls of the just enjoy the Beatific Vision.  The dialectic mode of teaching was in full blossom during John XXII's pontificate.  Good teachers such as Thomas Aquinas frequently guided their students to the right answer by leading off with the wrong answer and asking their students to refute it.  John XXII was a theologian by training and had already expressly stated his belief in the orthodox doctrine of the Beatific Vision in three writings.  Who is to say that John XXII was not simply employing the dialectic teaching method to guide the church through a then open theological question that had the potential to divide east from west and scholasticism from monasticism?

When asked about his views on the Beatific Vision, Pope John XXII replied, "Non enim dixi nec dico hoc aliquid determinando" - "It is not something I have said, nor did I say this to determine the question."

Guy Mollat states that even if there were doubts in the mind of John XXII, he never meant to impose any view on the Church: "Far, indeed, from imposing his opinion on others, John XXII made every possible effort to clarify the doubt that had arisen in his own mind. He sought the opinion of the bishops and invited the most learned masters of theology to take part in the controversy. At his request, the famous theologian Durand de St Pourçain wrote a treatise in favour of the beatific vision."

Thankfully for the cause of history, one of the most reliable historians of the time was also a Catholic loyal to the Pope:  Giovanni Villani.  Robert Bellarmine describes Villani's historical account of Pope John XXII:  
"First, it is on good evidence that he never had it in his mind, although he had spoken on this matter, to define the question, rather only to treat to discover the truth. Next, he added that John already thought the opinion was the more probable, that asserts the souls of the blessed enjoy the divine vision even before the day of judgment, and he embraced this opinion, unless at some time the Church would have defined otherwise, and he subjected all his teachings freely to its definition. This retraction simply teaches that the mind of Pope John XXII was always good and Catholic."
Bellarmine, Robert. Papal Error?: A Defense of Popes said to have Erred in Faith (Kindle Locations 1248-1252). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition. 

Of course this will not satisfy antipapists. They can still cling to Pope John XXII's first sermon, in which the written record shows no sign that John XXII was asking for feedback and discussion.  But is it really fair to judge the Pope on the written record of a single oral sermon?  Lumen Gentium 25 states that the mind of the Pope may be known "from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine."  A single sermon isn't enough, especially when the Pope clarifies his views in subsequent sermons.  

Moreover, how do we know that Pope John XXII did not actually qualify his views in his first sermon?  How faithful is the manuscript to what he actually said?  Only fragments remain for many of his sermons.  How faithful are the others?  What knowledge of this period was lost during the Black Death that swept through Europe a decade after John XXII's death?  What information was ignored by the biased historians of France, the Holy Roman Empire, Italy, Greece, Spain and the rest of Europe?

There was no formal correction

We must note that there was never a "formal correction" or "filial correction" of Pope John XXII.  The University of Paris submitted their views to Pope John XXII in a paper complying with his requests for discussion and feedback, but they did not claim to be "correcting" the Pope, nor did they accuse him of heresy.  That ignominious feat belonged to William of Ockham, whom John XXII had excommunicated and was now living under the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV (whom John XXII had also excommunicated).  Ockham brazenly accused Pope John XXII of heresy and purported to send him a formal "correction."  Ockham continued to malign the reputation of John XXII after his death, a view that the biased of rulers of Europe had no trouble accepting and which only gained strength over the course of history as Europe abandoned Catholicism.


Guy Mollat writes, "John XXII was so much disparaged by his contemporaries and his memory has been so mercilessly attacked by his enemies."  

Yet even with all the powers of the world stacked against him, the worst that can be said about John XXII is that he is recorded as giving one oral sermon in which he contradicted his written teaching on the Beatific Vision, and when he was asked about it, said that he wanted the Church to consider the question and report back to him.  That isn't heresy in any sense of the word.  But the rulers of Europe despised both John XXII and the very institution of the papacy.  Disdain for the Pope has only increased in each subsequent generation, as we can plainly see today.  History is written by the winners, but God sees the heart.  The only person who can judge Pope John XXII is Jesus Christ.  When He returns, we will know the whole truth to this story:  "Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. Luke 12:3.  Until then, we are to trust His Vicar.

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