The Pope

Whether the Pope is preserved from Mortal Sin by the Grace of God

Proposed: That every Pope is preserved from actual mortal sin by the prevenient grace of God.

That the Pope can never commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, and can never teach heresy, is certain, since it was taught by Vatican I (this gift of truth and a never-failing faith) implicitly, and by Saint Robert Bellarmine explicitly.

Now I am proposing a point of speculative theology: That the Pope is preserved from every Mortal Sin by the prevenient grace of God. Each and every Roman Pontiff, from Peter, once his pontificate began with the Ascension of Christ, through every valid successor, is preserved by the grace of God, not only from teaching heresy, and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism, as Vatican I and Saint Bellarmine taught, but also from committing any actual mortal sin, even sins hidden in his heart and mind, which have no bearing on his office.

This proposal is speculative. If the Magisterium teaches otherwise, then I will adhere to that teaching. However, if the Magisterium teaches otherwise only at the level of individual Bishops, as a non-infallible teaching, I might decide to faithfully dissent, so that the idea can receive the full consideration that it deserves. Licit theological dissent from non-infallible teachings is permissible in some cases [On Human Life in Our Day].

The Specific Proposal

The prevenient grace of God is received by great Saints as well as great sinners, and everyone in-between. This first grace cannot be given or refused the cooperation of free will. It is God operating, not cooperating.

The prevenient grace of God preserves the souls in Purgatory from all sin. It preserves the souls in Hell from all sin; they are in a state of unrepentant sin, but they cannot sin anew. It preserved Saint Joseph and Saint John the Baptist from all personal sin, despite being conceived with original sin. It preserved the Blessed Virgin Mary from all personal sin, subsequent to her Immaculate Conception. It preserves every Pope from teaching heresy, and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism.

I propose that, for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church and the salvation of souls, the prevenient grace of God preserves every Pope from all actual mortal sin. This gift is not contrary to free will, since the Pope accepts his office freely, and he can freely resign. It does not preserve the Pope from every venial sin, nor even from an objective mortal sin that is not also an actual mortal sin. He can sin venially; he can commit that type of actual venial sin, which is objectively grave in matter, but lacks the full knowledge or full deliberation needed for it to be an actual mortal sin.

Conciliar Teaching

This grace is possible under the teaching of the Council of Trent:

“CANON XXIII — If anyone says that a person, once justified, is not able to sin any more, nor to lose grace, and therefore he who falls and sins was never truly justified; or, on the contrary, that he is able, in all of life, to avoid all sins, even [those that are] venial — except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in the case of the blessed Virgin: let him be anathema.”

The opinion that Joseph and John were preserved from all personal sin does not contradict the above dogma, as they were truly justified. The Canon above permits belief that a person “is able, in all of life, to avoid all sins, even venial” as long as this occurs only by a “special privilege from God” as in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Notice that the Council does not propose that she is the only case.

Since some persons can be preserved from all sins, even those that are venial, by a special privilege, then the proposal that some other persons can be preserved from all actual mortal sins (only), by a special privilege and grace of God, is entirely tenable.

And this special grace and privilege is also compatible with the teaching of the First Vatican Council, that each Pope has the grace and gift to avoid teaching heresy, and to avoid committing apostasy, heresy, or schism.

“7. This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.”

The gift of truth prevents each Pope from teaching heresy, and the gift of a never-failing faith prevents each Pope from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism, by the prevenient grace of God.

Therefore, it is tenable that the gift of truth and faith would work in the Roman Pontiff to such a limited extent as to keep him, not only from certain mortal sins, whether objective only or also actual sins, but also to preserve him from actual mortal sin.

Eschatology

That some persons receive this special grace is found in Sacred Scripture:

[Revelation]
{7:3} saying: “Do no harm to the earth, nor to the sea, nor to the trees, until we seal the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

{14:4} These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are Virgins. These follow the Lamb wherever he will go. These were redeemed from men as the first-fruits for God and for the Lamb.
{14:5} And in their mouth, no lie was found, for they are without flaw before the throne of God.

Scripture proposes two group of persons, one during the first part of the tribulation and the other during the second part of the tribulation, persons who are particularly holy. These persons, in the first case, are given a special grace and privilege, by the prevenient grace of God, never to sin again, neither mortally, nor venially. Then, in the second case, in the distant future, during the worst suffering that the Church will ever see, another group is given the same special grace and privilege as Joseph and John: to avoid all personal sin their entire lives, despite being conceived with original sin.

Actual Mortal Sin

In discussing the election of the Roman Pontiff, and whether there could be elected a Pope who is “corrupt” or “evil” or “a bad pope”, I began to consider the effect that this would have on the Church, and on the office of Pope.

Now, if there are some Popes who are evil or corrupt, this could only mean that they have committed actual mortal sin. We know that even Saints commit some sins; each Pope is a fallen sinner. What would make a Pope supposedly evil or corrupt? It cannot be merely that he err in decisions of administration, as did Pope Saint Celestine V; he erred greatly in this way, but is still a Saint. So the charge that some Popes are evil, bad, or corrupt can only pertain to actual mortal sin. If he were free from all mortal sin, he would not be fittingly called by those terms.

But if some Popes are good and others are bad, then the good Popes would have greater authority. For the faithful would then rightly say to one another: “Let us not believe the teachings of this bad Pope, nor follow his commands. We will wait for the next good Pope.” And that is what some are saying about Pope Francis. They have no intention of being taught or led by him, as they have decided that he is a bad Pope.

This situation is impossible, though, for several reasons:
1. It would justify schism, as the faithful could refuse submission to the Pope on the grounds that he was corrupt, evil, or bad.
2. It would justify heresy, as the faithful would not fear to contradict any teaching of a supposedly corrupt Pope, even if he asserted it under infallibility.
3. It would then prevent the Bishops from having their faith confirmed by the Roman Pontiff, as they would also say (as some are saying even now) that they should teach and correct the Pope, rather than being taught and corrected by him.
4. Each Pope has the full authority given by Christ to Peter.

This last point is a dogma under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. When Christ gave Peter the authority of the Roman Pontiff, that full authority passes down from one Pope to another, unadulterated. It does not decrease in power, and it is not given fully to some, and partially to others.

Since each Pope must have the full authority of Peter, there can be no corrupt, evil, or bad popes. Some are holier than others, but none are without the state of grace, none are guilty and unrepentant from actual mortal sin, and none can commit actual mortal sin, even if he repents promptly.

For actual mortal sin by a Roman Pontiff would lessen his authority, as at any turn the faithful could accuse the Pope, and thereby excuse themselves from believing his teachings or accepting his decisions of discipline — just as is happening now with Pope Francis.

The indefectibility of the Church is also at issue. If a Pope could be evil or corrupt, then the Church would have an evil or corrupt head on earth. The Father and Teacher of all Christians would be a bad man, who could not be trusted by the sheep. Such a situation is contrary to the indefectibility of the Church. Since the Pope is the head of the Church, and the Church is indefectible, the Pope must be indefectible. The only question is to what extent is he indefectible?

Therefore, the prevenient grace of God preserves every Roman Pontiff from:
A. teaching material heresy, even inadvertently, as this is contrary to the gift of truth;
B. committing apostasy, heresy, or schism, as this is contrary to the gift of a never-failing faith;
B. committing any actual mortal sin, as this is contrary to the indefectibility of the Church and would diminish the authority of the Roman Pontiff

There are not two types of Popes, good Popes and bad Popes. Why does the Holy Spirit permit the Cardinals to elect bad Popes? He does not. And, as I explained in my previous two articles, the prevenient grace of God and the providence of God so guide the decisions of the Cardinals in electing the Roman Pontiff, that they cannot elect a corrupt, evil, or bad man. Moreover, when each Pope accepts his office, having been duly elected and duly ordained as a Bishop, any tendency toward teaching heresy or committing apostasy, heresy, or schism are vanquished by grace, and any actual mortal sins are forgiven by implicit perfect contrition, and furthermore, he is given the special grace and privilege to avoid all actual mortal sin in the future.

Related Posts:
* Providence and Grace in the Election of the Pope
* Does God Choose the Pope?

Edited to add: this point is highly speculative, and intended to provoke discussion (cio). Comments so far have been helpful.

Added 8 Sept 2018:

We need to discuss this topic on two levels: historically and theologically. People can cite all kinds of grave sins that Popes supposedly committed. But at least some of that, perhaps most of it, is false accusations by enemies of the Popes. And if a Pope is proven to have committed, historically, an objectively grave sin, was it done with full knowledge and full deliberation? You can hardly prove the state of conscience of the Pope.

So then it comes down to the theological issue: Does God permit evil corrupt men to become Pope? Might God prevent them from sinning gravely by providence and grace? If there truly are evil corrupt Popes, this presents a very serious set of issues which has not been explored much by theologians. So, please do not dismiss this question lightly.

The idea that there are two different types of Popes, the good and sincere versus the evil and corrupt, has radical consequences for the sin of schism, for the primacy of jurisdiction of the Pope and his direct and immediate authority, for the validity and trustworthiness of Ecumenical Councils, for the laws of the Church, for the authority of Cardinals and Bishops appointed by Popes, and ultimately for the indefectibility of the Church.

It is a sign of serious problems in theology today that this type of question is dismissed out of hand.

Updated 15 Sept 2018: I’ve concluded that God does not permit a continuous state of unrepentant mortal sin in any Pope. He does not permit any Pope to be truly evil or corrupt. God does not permit any Pope to teach heresy, nor to commit apostasy, heresy, or schism.

I still wonder whether God might preserve every Pope from actual mortal sin. However, there is no way to prove the point either way. Accusations against past Popes may be false accusations. And objectively grave sins might not have the full culpability of actual mortal sins. Perhaps God permits some mortal sins in some Popes; perhaps not.

See my post:
Are There Two Types of Popes: Good and Bad?

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Categories: The Pope

9 replies »

  1. @Ron

    “Now I am proposing a point of speculative theology: That the Pope is preserved from every Mortal Sin by the Prevenient Grace of God. Each and every Roman Pontiff, from Peter, once his pontificate began with the Ascension of Christ, through every valid successor, is preserved by the grace of God, not only from teaching heresy, and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism, as Vatican I and Saint Bellarmine taught, but also from committing any actual mortal sin, even sins hidden in his heart and mind, which have no bearing on his office.”

    I don’t think that this point is true, we have had Popes who made horrific acts even during their Pontificates, such as Pope Alexander VI, Pope Stephen VI and many others. And as i said they committed their sins during their actual pontificates, not only before their elections.

    “But if some Popes are good and others are bad, then the good Popes would have greater authority. For the faithful would then rightly say to one another: “Let us not believe the teachings of this bad Pope, nor follow his commands. We will wait for the next good Pope.” And that is what some are saying about Pope Francis. They have no intention of being taught or led by him, as they have decided that he is a bad Pope.
    This situation is impossible, though, for several reasons:
    1. It would justify schism, as the faithful could refuse submission to the Pope on the grounds that he was corrupt, evil, or bad.
    2. It would justify heresy, as the faithful would not fear to contradict any teaching of a supposedly corrupt Pope, even if he asserted it under infallibility.
    3. It would then prevent the Bishops from having their faith confirmed by the Roman Pontiff, as they would also say (as some are saying even now) that they should teach and correct the Pope, rather than being taught and corrected by him.
    4. Each Pope has the full authority given by Christ to Peter.”

    I disagree with this point, for the Pope’s authority doesn’t come from his personal holiness, which can be little or non existent. The Pope’s authority stems directly from the teaching of Christ and the teaching about the never failing faith of the Pope.

    If a Pope is the most wicked sinner, we are still bound to accept his teachings, for he doesn’t lose his authority because of sin.

    I obviously agree with the point that the Holy Spirit prevents a Pope from committing the sins of heresy and schism, but the point about the personal holyness of the Pope and his inability to commit actual mortal sin, that, i can’t agree with.

    Also we have the teaching of the Council of Trent

    “If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session VI, Canon XVI on Justification)

    Now, if the Popes were to be prevented from committing actual mortal sins by the virtue of their office, they could be absolutely sure of their salvation. Do we have any evidence that they have this gift and that they believe they are doubtlessly heaven bound thanks to some special revelation?

    We don’t.

    Do we have any evidence that many Popes committed heinous sins during their pontificates?

    We do.

    Shall we believe that their sins were only objective mortal sins but not actual mortal sins? This point can hardly be upheld, for a Pope does have all the necessary knowledge and preparation to be guilty when he commits certain heinous sins, expecially sins of that magnitude of ugliness (i’m talking about Pope Alexander VI and Pope Stephen VI but i could talk about many others).

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    • This is a good point:
      “If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session VI, Canon XVI on Justification)

      We might consider that Popes would “learn this” by revelation, if the Magisterium confirms this proposal, as something implied by Sacred Scripture (Peter as the Rock, whose faith cannot fail, who confirms his brethren, etc.). So it does not contradict the Council of Trent. The same can be said of those who receive the Seal of the Living God (first part of the tribulation) and those who are preserved from sin in the second part of the tribulation. They learn of this by special revelation. So that is not much of an obstacle.

      It is too facile to propose that Popes committed “heinous” sins without proof, and expect it to be accepted as fact. We see what the accusations are like today against the Popes. I believe that many of these accusations against past popes are false or exaggerated. So, I’m not convinced by your arguments. But this is highly speculative.

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  2. And if we want to talk about other Popes, we have Pope Sergius III whose pontificate was characterized by the rise of the pornocracy, that is, a rule of the harlots.

    What about Pope Urban VI, who complained that he did not hear enough screaming when his Cardinals were tortured? Torture is one of the most heinous objective mortal sins and i find it really bizzarre to even argue that a Pope could be subjectively unculpable for this kind of heinous act. Even the most illiterate peasant recognizes the inherent malice of torture, let alone a Pope.

    And i could go on and on.

    Bottom line: i sincerely don’t think that this teaching has any roots in reality and divine revelation whatsoever. On the other hand, preserving the Pope from committing schism and heresy is necessary for the preservation of the Church.

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    • “We might consider that Popes would “learn this” by revelation, if the Magisterium confirms this proposal, as something implied by Sacred Scripture (Peter as the Rock, whose faith cannot fail, who confirms his brethren, etc.). So it does not contradict the Council of Trent”

      If every Popes would learn this by revelation we would know about that. There would be no reason to keep it a secret.

      “It is too facile to propose that Popes committed “heinous” sins without proof, and expect it to be accepted as fact. We see what the accusations are like today against the Popes. I believe that many of these accusations against past popes are false or exaggerated. So, I’m not convinced by your arguments. But this is highly speculative.”

      You cannot discount storiography just because it goes against certain predetermined assumptions, like the alleged impeccability of the Popes.

      “The misunderstanding between Urban and Charles increased after the death of the latter’s enemy, Louis of Anjou; the pope, obstinate and intractable, continued in a half-hostile, half-dependent, attitude towards Charles, and created fourteen cardinals, only the Neapolitans accepting the dignity. He became daily more estranged from the older members of the Sacred College. No one conversant with the ideas current at this time in the Sacred College will wonder that the example of 1378 found imitation. Highly irritated by Urban’s inconsiderate behaviour, the Urbanist cardinals mediated a more practical way of proceeding; they proposed to depose or, at least, arrest him. But their plot was revealed to him, and six of them were imprisoned and their possessions confiscated. Those who did not confess were tortured, and the King and Queen of Naples, being suspected as accomplices, were excommunicated.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15216a.htm

      What is way too easy in my hopinion is making an argument and disregarding every evidence that refutes the argument.

      By that logic, we couldn’t rely on anything teached by history books. I don’t think this is a good way of proceeding.

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    • “If every Popes would learn this by revelation we would know about that. There would be no reason to keep it a secret.”
      I think you misunderstood me. Trent says that an individual cannot assert himself to be necessarily saved. But if the Magisterium were to teach this point, it would not be an individual asserting the surety of his own salvation. The Trent teaching is meant to counter the Protestant claim that by believing in Christ, you can be certain of your salvation. This idea about the Popes is a different matter. The Popes are not learning anything by special revelation. The Magisterium would be teaching based on public revelation.

      I’ve dealt with this same kind of argument on whether Popes can teach or commit heresy. The history books sometimes make it seem obvious and certain that they did, but a closer look shows they did not. Perhaps many of these accusations about the Popes are false or exaggerated.

      You don’t have to believe this; it is very speculative. Your opinion is certainly the majority view, and highly tenable.

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    • @Ron

      “I think you misunderstood me. Trent says that an individual cannot assert himself to be necessarily saved. But if the Magisterium were to teach this point, it would not be an individual asserting the surety of his own salvation. The Trent teaching is meant to counter the Protestant claim that by believing in Christ, you can be certain of your salvation. This idea about the Popes is a different matter. The Popes are not learning anything by special revelation. The Magisterium would be teaching based on public revelation.”

      Yeah, i had misunderstood your argument. Worded like this, it makes more sense, but we have the problem of history and gat history tells us about some of our Popes.

      “I’ve dealt with this same kind of argument on whether Popes can teach or commit heresy. The history books sometimes make it seem obvious and certain that they did, but a closer look shows they did not. Perhaps many of these accusations about the Popes are false or exaggerated.”

      I agree with this, in the sense that the claims that some Popes taught or committed heresy are false.

      But that’s a different kettle of fish, for preserving a Pope from committing that sin is necessary for the good of the Church.

      On the other hand, we have accounts coming from Popes like Victor III that his predecessor Benedict IX was a gravely immoral Pope, during his pontificate.

      And the testimony of Pope Victor III dates back to few decades earlier. If we were to discount his testimony we would have to discount nearly every historical testimony we rely on nowadays.

      Not to mention that Pope Victor III knew the doctrine and he knew that exposing false accusations would have been a very grave actual mortal sin for him, calumny. And even if he weren’t sure of the validity of those accusations he would have refrained himself from writing them, because harming the reputation of another person without solid evidence would be an actual mortal sin as well.

      So we are in a pinch, in the sense that either Pope Victor III committed an actual mortal sin by way of calumny or Pope Benedict IX was truly guilty of many actual mortal sins he committed during his Pontificate.

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  3. Do we want to claim that the accounts of Pope Benedict IX’s life are all false as well, Ron?

    “A successor to the Chair of St. Peter, Victor III, outlined the reasons for Benedict’s unpopularity and first resignation in 1044 in his Third Book of Dialogues: rape, murder, sodomy, and violence. St. Peter Damian, a contemporary Cardinal, judged Benedict IX as ‘a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest’ not least because he, according to both allies and enemies, hosted orgies at the official Lateran Palace. To make matters worse, these orgies involved other men and animals as well”

    Here we have this situation:

    Either Victor III committed the actual mortal sin of calumny by degrading Pope Benedict IX’s memory with false accusations.
    Or the accusations were true and Pope Benedict IX was guilty of many grave sins.

    Tertium non datur.

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    • Those are not the only possibilities. Benedict ix might not have been a valid Pope, or Victor III might not have written the treatise in question. Or Victor might have been mislead.

      I’m not going to post comments that contain every accusation against every Pope that you could find on the internet. Many of these accusations are unsubstantiated, and you are presenting them as if they are fact. This is one of the problems that must be addressed in discussing this proposal. Many claims have accumulated over the years. I don’t think it is fair to God or to the Church to assume that all are factual. Further posts that make this kind of argument will not be posted.

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