Each Pope receives special graces from God. For in him, the fullness of Church authority dwells. He has the help of God when he exercises the teaching authority as well as the temporal authority. For the teaching authority (Magisterium) includes the ability to teach doctrine without error (infallible teachings), as well as the ability to teach doctrine without grave error (non-infallible teachings). Then the temporal authority includes the ability to assert dogmatic facts, and this cannot be done infallibly without the help of God’s grace. So the Pope has help from God in both doctrine and discipline.
Vatican I: “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….”
1. Can a Pope teach heresy?
The Pope is unable to teach heresy. The prevenient grace of God keeps each Pope from teaching heretical errors, whether deliberately or inadvertently. The reason is that, in either case, the Church would be gravely harmed by that error. If a Pope inadvertently taught heresy, the harm to the Ark of Salvation would still be immense. And deliberately teaching heresy would be even worse. So grace prevents a Pope from erring in this way, for the sake of the Church and the salvation of souls.
The case of deliberately teaching heresy is a two-fold prevention. Not only does God keep the Pope from teaching an error that reaches to the extent of heresy, but He prevents the Pope from intending to do so. The heart of the Pope is guarded by grace so that he cannot wish to teach anything contrary to formal dogma.
Here the case of Pope John XXII is instructive. His error was in the realm of theological opinion, the idea that the souls who die in the state of grace, after purification in Purgatory if needed, wait in Heaven without the Beatific Vision of God, until the general Judgment. His error was not heresy at the time that he presented it, in sermons, as opinion. Everyone rushes to say that he changed his mind on his deathbed about this error, but that point is irrelevant. The idea was in the realm of mere opinion at the time. Then the subsequent Pope, Benedict XII, defined as dogma that the departed faithful do have the Beatific Vision as soon as they enter Heaven.
So a Pope can err in personal opinion, even if that error subsequently becomes a heresy. This implies that a Pope can contradict an infallible teaching of Tradition or Scripture (material dogma); he can err to that extent. But he cannot contradict formal dogma, an infallible teaching of Tradition or Scripture confirmed infallibly by the Magisterium.
2. Can a Pope commit apostasy, heresy, or schism?
No Pope is able to commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, whether publicly or privately. No Pope can harbor apostasy, heresy, or schism, hidden in his heart or mind. For the Church is indefectible, and the Pope is the head of the Church. If the Pope went astray, even secretly, the Church could not be said to be indefectible; a secret defection is still a defection.
The Church would be harmed, in Her work of salvation, if any Pope were permitted by the grace of God to commit apostasy, heresy, or schism. Even a secret heretic would not be a trustworthy shepherd for the flock of Christ. And God would not appoint an evil shepherd to be the Vicar of Christ. As the representative of Jesus, each Pope must have sufficient prevenient grace — working prior to free will — so that he is unable to fail in faith, just as the First Vatican Council taught.
Therefore, no Pope can choose to teach or commit heresy, nor can he commit apostasy or schism. For a Pope, schism would be his deliberate separation from the body of Bishops who have remained faithful to Christ and His Church.
3. Can a Pope intend to harm the Church or Her work of teaching truth and saving souls?
No Pope can have such an intention, not even one thwarted by God at every turn. These intentions are contrary to the gifts of truth and of a never-failing faith. These intentions are contrary to the indefectibility of the Church. For a Church led by a Shepherd who intends to teach falsehoods or to lead souls away from salvation would no longer be an Ark of Salvation, and that would be contrary to indefectibility. A ship of salvation cannot be said to be unable to go astray if its pilot and navigator is seeking a way to run the ship aground, or set her course into error.
4. To what extent can a Pope err in teaching on faith, morals, and salvation?
He can err to a limited extent, to an extent which does not lead souls away from the path of salvation. The error of Pope John XXII did not lead anyone away from salvation. He misunderstood when the elect in Heaven receive the Beatific Vision. That error is substantially limited in its effect on the path of salvation.
A Pope can err, to a limited extent, in his non-infallible teachings under the ordinary papal Magisterium. He can also err, to a greater extent, in his personal theological opinions. But even in matters of opinion, his ideas cannot err to the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation.
The teachings of a Pope which meet the conditions for infallibility are certainly without error. And any dogmatic facts he decrees are likewise free from all error.
5. Can a Pope be truly corrupt or evil, in matters apart from his office?
What if a Pope is unassailable in his work as Shepherd, but in his personal life he sins gravely and without remorse? Is this situation possible? Essentially, the question boils down to whether a Pope can be unrepentant from actual mortal sin, so that he has faith, but not love or hope. Such a Pope would be, on a personal level, truly evil or corrupt, though prevenient grace keeps him from doing harm to the Church or to the salvation of souls.
My opinion is that God does not permit evil or corrupt men to become Pope, nor does He permit a Pope to become an evil or corrupt person after his election. Venial sins are permitted by God, just as limited errors are permitted in his teaching and theology. Mortal sins that are objectively grave are permitted, just as Pope John XXII was permitted to teach an error that later became a heresy. But I don’t believe that a Pope can commit actual mortal sin.
I’ve considered this question before, and I’ve gone back and forth on my answer. Some Popes have been accused of various grave sins. I believe that most of these accusations are false; they are the work of political or religious opponents. For the rest of the accusations, I think it is possible for a Pope who is lacking in holiness to commit an objective mortal sin without it being also an actual mortal sin.
(A) So perhaps God prevents each Pope from committing any actual mortal sins, but permits objective mortal sin.
(B) Or perhaps God permits actual mortal sin, but also brings the Pope to repentance promptly afterward, so that he would not be an evil or corrupt person. That is another tenable opinion on this point. But the actual mortal sins permitted would have to also be far removed from causing harm to the Church.
One or the other position, A or B, must be true. For God would not permit a Roman Pontiff to both commit actual mortal sin and to remain unrepentant for any substantial length of time. If an evil or corrupt man led the Church, She would not be properly called indefectible.
6. Who is competent to judge of the Pope has erred, to whatever limited extent he is capable of error?
No one has that role. The First See is judged by no one. It is wrong for the Catholic faithful of whatever rank to publicly speak against the Roman Pontiff, alleging grave sin and grave error. No Cardinal, Bishop, or group of persons has the role to judge the Supreme Pontiff, or to say when they think he has gone astray based on their own fallible understanding.
The Pope is not merely an office which issues decisions on doctrine and discipline. The role of the Pope is as a father of all God’s children, and as a shepherd of Christ’s whole flock. Therefore, God’s grace does not permit any Pope to be corrupt or evil in soul, heart, or mind.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian