The Roman Pontiff: Doctrine and Discipline

The faithful need the answers to these questions from the Magisterium. Each question is followed by my answer, unless otherwise indicated.


1. Is each and every Pope chosen by God, through providence and grace?

Yes, even the more sinful popes are chosen by ineffable divine wisdom.

2. Can a Pope possibly teach heresy or commit apostasy, heresy, or schism?

Vatican I: No Pope can teach heresy, nor commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, as each Pope has the gift of truth and a never failing faith.

3. Can an invalid Pope be accepted by the body of Bishops as if he were the true Pope?

No. God does not permit any invalid Pope to be accepted by the body of Bishops, as this would be contrary to the indefectibility of the Church.

4. Can a valid Pope become invalid by his own choice?

No. God does not permit any valid Pope to become invalid by his words or deeds. A valid Pope can resign from office, after which point he is no longer protected by grace and providence from certain sins against the faith.

5. Can a valid Pope be removed from office by any means other than death or valid resignation?

No, he cannot.

6. Can a Pope commit grave sins against the Faith, hidden in his heart and mind, or exercised in his words or deeds?

No, he cannot. The Roman Pontiff is not merely an office, but the dedication of the whole person to God and the Church. The Roman Pontiff stands in persona Christi at all times; he represents Christ, not only by official acts, but in word and deeds, in heart and mind. Thus, no Pope can sin gravely against the Church or the Faith, nor can he intend to do so.

7. Can a Pope commit mortal sins?

Position A: Yes, a Pope can commit mortal sins. God does not guarantee salvation for the Roman Pontiffs. He permits the Pope to commit sins, venial or mortal, and possibly to die in a state of unrepentant actual mortal sin.

The problem with position A is that the faithful might decide that a Pope is an unrepentant sinner, and then they would lose confidence in him, refuse to be led by him, and lose their salvation. It is also contrary to the indefectibility of the Church, if the Pope can be guilty and unrepentant from numerous actual mortal sins. Even if the sins were merely objective mortal sin, without the full culpability of actual mortal sin, the problem remains. This position is not favored.

Position B: No, the prevenient grace of God prevents each and every Pope from committing actual mortal sins of any type. (1) However, he can commit an objective mortal sin, without full knowledge and/or without full deliberation. (2) Perhaps the prevenient grace of God keeps the Pope from both types of mortal sin, mere objective mortal sin and actual mortal sin.

The problem with position B1 and B2 is that the Pope would then be sure of his salvation, which would contradict the teaching of the Council of Trent (that we cannot be sure of our salvation apart from a special revelation from God). Another problem with position B1 is that, if the Pope can commit even objective mortal sin, then the faithful might lose confidence in him, refuse to be led by him, and thereby lose their salvation.

This position is not tenable, unless the Magisterium declares that Divine Revelation is to be interpreted such that no Pope can lose his salvation.

Position C: The grace of God permits actual mortal sin and merely objective mortal sin by the Pope, but grace always succeeds in bringing him to prompt repentance, unless he sins shortly before death (in which case he may or may not repent, as free will responds to grace).

This position admits that a Pope might lose his salvation; therefore, it does not contradict the teaching of the Council of Trent. It also has the advantage of keeping the Pope from being an evil or corrupt person, since he repents promptly, just as Peter did. (Since Peter’s sin occurred prior to his taking office as Pope, we cannot conclude that a Pope can sin gravely against the Church or against Christ.) So the faithful can depend on each Pope, to be a good person, and to never harm the Church by intention, word, or deed. This position is most likely, and is currently my theological opinion.

The Dicatus Papae of Pope Gregory

Pope Gregory VII in 1075 AD (is believed to have) published this list of assertions. [Wikipedia]

“22. The Roman Church has never erred. Nor will it err, to all eternity — Scripture being witness.”

“23. The Roman Pontiff, if he has been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter, St. Ennodius Bishop of Pavia bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As it is contained in the decrees of Pope St. Symmachus.”

Number 22 should be interpreted as protecting the infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff (Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, ordinary and universal Magisterium) from all error, and the non-infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff and the Holy See from all grave error. God protects the official decisions of the Roman Pontiff from all grave error, including both doctrine and discipline.

Number 23 might be interpreted as protecting the person of the Pope from all grave sins, and as guaranteeing that he will always be in the state of grace (similar to Position B above). The assertion seems to imply that, when he accepts the office of Roman Pontiff, being validly elected and ordained as a Bishop, he enters the state of grace, if he was not in that state at the time. It also seems to imply that he cannot commit actual mortal sin, thereby losing the state of grace.

Since the Church gives careful consideration before declaring that a deceased Pope is a canonical Saint, number 23 does not imply that every Pope is that type of Saint. In addition, we know that Popes go to confession, so they do sin to some extent. Thus, we are left to wonder to what extent a Pope may sin.


The faithful need these changes to Church discipline about the Pope. Canon Law should be changed to forbid certain behaviors by the faithful concerning the Roman Pontiff. Penalties could range from a just punishment, to excommunication, or laicization.

Canon law should prohibit:

1. public petitions, corrections, or letters, signed by a group of persons, addressed to the Roman Pontiff (explicitly or implicitly), which judge, criticize, correct, rebuke, or chastise the Pope, even in a mild or subtle manner.

2. claims that the Roman Pontiff has committed an objective mortal sin or actual mortal sin, or that his words, deeds, or intentions are gravely immoral in any way.

3. claims that the Roman Pontiff has taught material heresy, or has taught or held any grave error on a matter of faith, morals, or salvation, whether in his magisterial teachings or his theological opinions, whether the grave error constitutes heresy or not.

4. claims that the current Roman Pontiff, accepted by the body of Bishops as a valid Pope, is not a valid Roman Pontiff, regardless of whether the claim is based on an invalid election or an event subsequent to the election or some other reason.

5. claims that the Roman Pontiff is the (or an) antichrist, or false prophet, or another evil figure in eschatology.

6. claims that the Roman Pontiff is an evil or corrupt person, has evil or corrupt intentions, has committed evil or corrupt deeds, or has expressed evil or corrupt ideas.

7. claims that the Roman Pontiff has committed apostasy, formal heresy, or formal schism.

8. claims that the Roman Pontiff is guilty of, and obstinately unrepentant from, any actual mortal sin or any objective mortal sin.

9. claims that the Roman Pontiff, or other persons with his approval or cooperation, is planning or carrying out any word or deed that is intended to cause, or will in any case cause, grave harm to the Church, the Faith, or the salvation of souls.

10. claims that the Roman Pontiff is not acting under his own free will with the grace of God, but instead is being or has been controlled, manipulated, or deceived into acting against his own free will decisions in any matter that concerns doctrine, discipline, or the office of the Roman Pontiff.

The papal critics of today are not helping the faithful; they are not saving souls. Their attacks on the person and office of the Roman Pontiff are harming the confidence of the laity in the Shepherd of Christ’s whole flock, the Father and Teacher of all Christians. Open letters, speaking to the Pope in a condescending manner, serve only to cause division, and to sow doubt and confusion. Yes, it is the response of papal critics which is causing the confusion, not the teaching of the Pope.

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

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1 thought on “The Roman Pontiff: Doctrine and Discipline

  1. The Council of Florence taught that the office of the Pope is superior than the office that Moses had:

    “Session 7—4 September 1439

    [Decree of the council of Florence against the synod at Basel]

    Eugenius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, for an everlasting record. Moses, the man of God, was zealous for the well-being of the people entrusted to him. He feared that God’s wrath would be roused against them if they followed Korah, Dathan and Abiram in their seditious schism. Therefore he said to the whole people, at the Lord’s command: depart from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be involved in their sins. For he had perceived, under the Lord’s inspiration, that those seditious and schismatic men would incur a grievous retribution, as was demonstrated afterwards when even the earth could not bear with them but by God’s just judgment swallowed them up, so that they fell alive into hell.

    Similarly we too to whom, though unworthy, the lord Jesus Christ has deigned to entrust his people, as we hear of the abominable crime that certain wicked men dwelling in Basel have plotted in these days so as to breach the unity of holy church, and since we fear that they may seduce some of the unwary by their deceits and inject them with their poisons, are forced to proclaim in like words to the people of our lord Jesus Christ entrusted to us, depart from the tents of these wicked men, particularly since the Christian people is far more numerous than the Jewish people of those days, the church is holier than the synagogue, *and the vicar of Christ is superior in authority and status even to Moses.”

    Even though Moses was not able to enter the promised land, he carried the Israelite people there and Scriptures teach us that “Moses was a man exceedingly meek, beyond all the men who were living upon the earth” (Numbers 12:3) and that God was angry when Aaron and Miriam criticized His vicar (Exodus 7:1) Moses. God actually punished Miriam (Numbers 12). We have to keep in mind that only the Pope holds the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 16:18-19), the eternal Promised Land.


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