Monday, December 11, 2017

The Indefectible Church of Rome

With talk of schism against the Pope heating up in some corners of the Catholic cyberverse (and Catholic television programming), it would be helpful to clarify a few points about papal infallibility and the indefectibility of the church.  We will start with the conclusions and then analyze them:

  1. The Church of Rome is indefectible.
  2. The Pope is infallible when he defines a dogma ex cathedra.
  3. Even when he is not speaking ex cathedra, the Pope is protected from error by the Holy Spirit when he speaks on matters of faith and morals.
  4. It is a pious and probable opinion, held by many, that the Pope cannot err, even as a private person.
  5. Although some scholars have considered it hypothetically possible that the Pope could err as a private person, these scholars are unanimous that the Church of Rome itself could never err in the slightest respect. 

The indefectibility of the Church of Rome

The indefectibility of the Church of Rome is the ancient tradition of the Catholic Church going back to the beginning of the first millennium.  From Saint Irenaeus of Lyons to the Formula of Hormisdas and Pope Saint Agatho I's dogmatic letter  (which the Sixth Ecumenical Council declared to be "divinely written"), it was simply unquestioned in the first millennium that the Church of Rome would never err.  Pope Saint Gregory VII summarized this ancient teaching of the Church in the 11th century: 
"That the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness."  
Indefectibility means "free of faults; flawless", or as the First Vatican Council states, "this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error."

In short, we can always trust the Church of Rome - there isn't even a hypothetical scenario in which it can err.

Papal infallibility ex cathedra

The Church of Rome's indefectibility being unquestioned from the very beginning of the Church, medieval canon scholars began, starting with Gratian in the 12th century, to consider how this indefectibility applied personally to city's bishop.  Oddly enough, no one before this appears to have explicitly written on the relationship between the Indefectible See and the man who presides over it in the place of God. Gratian writes:
"although the Pope can judge everyone else, no one may judge him, unless he, for whose perpetual stability all the faithful pray as earnestly as they call to mind the fact that, after God, their own salvation depends on his soundness, is found to have strayed from the faith." (Decretum, Part 1, Distinction 40, Chapter 6)
This topic soon drew the attention of canon scholars in the 12th and 13th centuries.  Pope Innocent III himself acknowledged (in at least 2 sermons) that the Church of Rome could depose him for heresy: 
"The Roman Church can dismiss the Roman Pontiff only because of fornication - I mean not carnal, but spiritual fornication, for the marriage is not carnal but spiritual - and this fornication is the sin of heresy." (Between God and Man, Sermon Three, page 38)
An important point of historical context for these medieval discussions is the turmoil that engulfed Rome and Italy in the unending wars between Guelphs and Ghibelines, between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, between Normans, Lombards, Byzantines, Germans, French, Spanish and even Muslims.  Pope and Emperor routinely deposed one another, and imperially installed anti-popes in Rome were common while the true Pope was taking refuge, often for decades, elsewhere.  Amidst this turmoil, the true Pope wanted to assure his flock:  "I cannot be deposed except on account of heresy."  This was also a useful tool for the true Popes to use, as it would enable them to depose an anti-pope, since an anti-pope would not be protected by the Holy Spirit from heresy.  Of course the Pope's enemies simply used it as a tool against the true Pope and accused him of heresy (and other sins) whenever they felt like deposing him.

(Please, don't bring back those times.  We haven't had an anti-pope since the 15th century.  Let's keep it that way.)

Development of this principle led to a split among canon lawyers and theologians:  conciliarists believed that a church council could have authority over the Pope, while papal loyalists maintained that the Pope is always supreme, even over church councils.  The papal loyalists eventually won the dispute, and the supremacy of the Pope over church councils was defined at the Fifth Lateran Council in 1516.  It surely isn't a coincidence that the Protestant Reformation broke out the following year.

The relationship between the Pope and his See continued to be discussed by Counter-Reformation apologists such as Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine, who both entertained the hypothetical question of what would happen if a Pope committed heresy.  Finally, the First Vatican Council defined the Pope's personal infallibility when he speaks ex cathedra.

The First Vatican Council confirmed the principle that had long been implied by the doctrine of Rome's indefectibility:  the Church of Rome and its Bishop are one and the same.  The official relatio to the First Vatican Council states this principle as follows:
In what sense can the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff be said to be personal?  It is said to be personal in order to exclude in this way a distinction between the Roman Pontiff and the Roman Church.  Indeed, infallibility is said to be personal in order thereby to exclude a distinction between the See and the one who holds the See.  Since this distinction did not acquire any patrons in the general congregations, I shall refrain from saying anything about it.  Therefore, having rejected the distinction between the Roman Church and the Roman Pontiff, between the See and the possessor of the See, that is, between the universal series and the individual Roman Pontiffs succeeding each other in this series, we defend the personal infallibility of the Roman Pontiff inasmuch as this prerogative belongs, by the promise of Christ, to each and every legitimate successor of Peter in his chair.
Cardinal Alfons M. Stickler, professor of canon law and church legal history and Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church from 1985 to 1988, explains this principle as follows:
[The Pope] and the Church of Rome can never be conceived of as two disjunct or (even less) opposed things: the Roman Pontiff is, in this context, the Church of Rome, and therefore the inerrancy of the Church of Rome is the inerrancy of the Roman Pontiff.
This was, of course, the obvious meaning of the indefectibility of the Church of Rome all along.  Pope Agatho I uses the Church of Rome interchangeably with the successor of Saint Peter in his dogmatic letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council.  Pope Pius II likewise refers interchangeably to the See of Saint Peter and its bishop in Multa hic hodie.  It simply happened that anti-papal factions in medieval Italy found the opportunity to introduce a distinction between Rome and its bishop, and the Church finally resolved the issue at the First Vatican Council.  

The Pope's Ordinary Magisterium

The Second Vatican Council recognized the personal teaching authority of the Pope even when he is not speaking ex cathedra:
In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. (Lumen Gentium 25)
This teaching follows on the statement by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis
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"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.
Pope Saint John Paul II believed the Pope was protected from error in his ordinary magisterium:
Alongside this infallibility of the ex cathedra definitions, there exists the charism of assistance of the Holy Spirit, granted to Peter and his successors so that they do not err in matters of faith and morality and instead give a good illumination to the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases, but embraces in varying degrees the whole exercise of the magisterium.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this protection of the Pope's ordinary magisterium as follows:
Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent" which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it. (CCC 892)

That the Pope cannot err even personally

Finally, many well respected Catholics over the years have held the belief that the Pope cannot err, even as a private person, apart from the extraordinary and ordinary magisterium. This opinion is rooted in the ancient belief that Saint Peter himself "lives and judges in his successors" as the papal legates declared at the Council of Ephesus.  Saint John Chrysostom compared the Pope's relationship with Saint Peter to John the Baptist's relationship with the prophet Elijah:  the Pope goes forth in the spirit and power of Saint Peter. (Discourse on the Acts of the Apostles 2.6).  

Given this mystical personal relationship between the Pope and Saint Peter, it would be quite odd if the Pope, even if in some sense disconnected from his office, could err as a person.  How could Saint Peter let that happen?  Accordingly, Pope Innocent III, immediately after noting that a Pope could be deposed for heresy in the quotation above, observed:
"I, however, can hardly believe that God would permit the Roman pontiff to sin against faith, because he prayed specifically for him in the person of Peter himself." Citing Luke 22:32: "But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren." (Between God and Man, Sermon Three, page 38)
Likewise, Saint Robert Bellarmine, who is frequently quoted for his discussion of the theoretical possibility in which a Pope may err, favored the opinion that the Pope could never err, even as a person:
"It can be believed probably and piously that the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith." 
This again is the obvious meaning of the indefectibility of the Church of Rome.  It doesn't make much sense to believe that the Church of Rome can be considered inerrant if it is possible for its bishop to err, even privately.

But what if the Pope does err?

It is dogma that the Pope cannot err when defining a teaching ex cathedra.  It is doctrine that the Holy Spirit assists the Pope, and he speaks in the name of Christ, when teaching on faith and morals in his ordinary magisterium.  It is a probable and pious opinion that the Pope cannot err at all, even as a private person.

But what about those discussions by Gratian, Pope Innocent III, Suarez, Bellarmine and other scholars about a hypothetical scenario in which the Pope errs?

The first thing to note is that the arguments of Gratian, Suarez and Bellarmine do not bind the Catholic Church.  They may be well reasoned opinions, but they are not church teaching.  Even if Bellarmine sets forth a convincing argument that a Pope who committed manifest heresy would automatically cease to be Pope, that does not make it the teaching of the Catholic Church.  Other than the statements by Pope Innocent III (who taught that the Church of Rome could depose him for heresy), the Catholic Church has never officially adopted any teaching on this hypothetical scenario.  In all probability, that is simply because a Pope never can become a heretic, not even as a private person.

The foremost 20th century scholar on this topic was Cardinal Alfons M. Stickler. Cardinal Stickler believed it was possible that the Pope could err as a private person.  He also agreed with Bellarmine that a manifestly heretical Pope would automatically lose his office. However, Sickler demonstrated that the medieval and Counter Reformation scholars defined this situation very narrowly:  it can only happen when the Pope explicitly contradicts a prior defined teaching of the Church.  He explains this principle as follows:
In this light the principle universally affirmed by the canonists that no one can judge the pope except in questions of faith takes on its true significance:  while in questions of discipline (with the exception of matters that concern the status generalis ecclesie) the Supreme Pontiff is sovereign and therefore able to change earlier decisions of councils and popes, and cannot impose anything irrevocably on his successors, in questions of faith decided by the councils (in which he takes part), by his predecessors, or by himself, even the pope is bound.  
In other words, the Pope cannot err in matters of discipline, nor in defining previously undefined matters of faith.  The only possible way a Pope could err according to canon scholars is where he explicitly contradicts a previously defined doctrine.  This, of course, is a far different scenario from the all too frequently cited examples of Pope John XXII and Pope Honorius I, who even their harshest critics will admit did not contradict any previously defined doctrine.

Cardinal Stickler's explanation answers a difficulty I have long had with Galatians 1:8 - "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema." Saint Paul told the Galatians that he himself, one of the princes of the apostles, was bound by his prior teaching.  In the unthinkable scenario where Saint Paul himself should try to contradict his prior teaching, he would become anathema.

In the historically unprecedented, completely hypothetical, improbable and impious-to-even-think-of-scenario in which the Pope contradicted a previously defined doctrine, to whom would the universal Church then look?  Cardinal Stickler agrees with Pope Innocent III:  the Church of Rome.  He writes:
It is not difficult in this way to see safeguarded the principle of the Roman Church as mother and teacher in faith for the universal Church, as the last, exclusive, and final recourse in questions of faith, as the authority which one cannot resist without becoming a heretic, as the canonists asserted.  The Church of Rome thus appears clearly inerrant and infallible in spite of the possibility that some pope in his own person might become a heretic (and thereby fall from his office and dignity).  Even in this case the Church of Rome, which normally, even in the texts of the canonists, is identified in and with the pope, remains always faithful and therefore a sure guarantee of orthodoxy; see the many texts of the Decretum and of the canonists that affirm that the Church of Rome has always preserved the faith intact, without ever erring.

Application to Today

The possibility of the Pope erring, even privately, is so remote and theoretical, and in the opinion of many wise Catholics, impious, that it is not worth any Catholic's time (aside from perhaps advanced scholars of canon law) to worry about such a possibility.  Moreover, the possibility of the Pope erring in his office (not as a private person) is rejected by all.

Nevertheless, there are voices in social media today who suggest that Pope Francis has erred with the publication of Amoris Laetitia and the promulgation of the Buenos Aires guidelines as his authentic magisterium.  Some critics claim that these must not be magisterial documents, but somehow the work of Pope Francis as a private person, and therefore subject to error.  Some may claim that the Buenos Aires guidelines contradict the discipline that has been the status generalis ecclesie and therefore that Pope Francis has deposed himself.  Even if that were somehow the case, that would leave the Church of Rome.  Cardinal Stickler writes:
From the moment the pope does not exist or does not exist any longer, the Church of Rome continues, as a bridge, the function of guarantor of orthodoxy up to the next pope. 
If we may be forgiven for even imagining that such an impious scenario is currently in effect, then we must look to the Church of Rome itself.  And what has the Church of Rome said regarding Amoris Laetitia?  The Diocese of Rome wrote the following in its implementing guidelines:
But when the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, that is, when their faith journey has been long, sincere and progressive, it can be proposed they they live in continence; if this choice is difficult to practice for the stability of the couple, Amoris laetitia does not exclude the possibility of access to Penance and the Eucharist.
This is the same conclusion reached in the Buenos Aires guidelines.  The Roman guidelines go into more detail than Buenos Aires guidelines (which is appropriate, given that the Roman guidelines are for a particular diocese, whereas the bishops of Buenos Aires were issuing broader guidelines to a group of dioceses), but they both reach the same conclusion:  even where continence is not feasible, there may be cases in which Amoris Laetitia allows access to Penance and the Eucharist.

Catholics can therefore rest assured that Amoris Laetitia and the Buenos Aires guidelines are not heretical.  If they were heretical, then both the Pope and the Church of Rome itself have fallen into heresy, which is an absolute impossibility, even in the most extreme hypothetical scenarios imagined by medieval canonists and Counter Reformation theologians.


There are two key points to keep in mind when discussing this topic. The first is Cardinal Stickler's observation that a "manifestly heretical Pope" in the discussions of the canonists always refers to a Pope who has explicitly contradicted a previously defined teaching of the Church.  Keeping this in mind, the point of the hypotheticals about a Pope becoming a manifest heretic was not to assert that such a thing was actually possible, but to assure the Catholic faithful that the doctrines that the Catholic Church has previously defined can be trusted.  It's the same point Saint Paul was making in Galatians 1:8 - not that it was actually possible that he could become a heretic, but that his previous teachings were absolutely trustworthy.

The second point is that it is not even hypothetically possible for the Church of Rome to err.  The Church of Rome is indefectible and cannot err in even the slightest sense.  Therefore, Catholics don't have to worry about whether the Pope can hypothetically err.  In that hypothetical scenario, Catholics would simply look to the Church of Rome as the unerring mother and head of all the churches in the world.  As Cardinal Stickler observes, "indefectibility concerns the existence of the institution, as to its orthodoxy, that is, as its founder wished it to be." The Church of Rome will always be exactly as its founder, Saint Peter, and, ultimately, Jesus Christ, intended it to be.  There is no hypothetical scenario in which an error of the Pope could corrupt the institution or the orthodoxy of the Church of Rome.  Accordingly, since in the non-hypothetical real world the Church of Rome is following, and always has followed, its bishop, every Catholic should be doing exactly the same.


  1. Concurrent article on the same topic:

  2. Pope Agatho didn't teach Rome was absolutely indefectible, just the probability of it being the case. Even pope Hormisdas claimed he could fall. It was only after the Gregorian reform that this was insisted upon. If the Church believed that Rome was indefectible then She wouldn't had condemned Rome's disciplines on Trullo (accepted by pope Hadrian BTW as the "canons of the 6th council").