Accusing a Pope of Heresy: How We Got Here

Conservative Catholics used to pride themselves on defending orthodoxy and believing the teachings of the Magisterium, especially the Pope. Liberal Catholics were sharply criticized by conservatives for allegedly being heterodox and unfaithful to magisterial teaching, especially papal teachings. When a liberal would object, saying that a particular teaching is non-infallible, conservatives would reply that even non-infallible teachings require submission of will and intellect.

In response to Vatican II, many conservatives began to question the faithfulness of the Magisterium itself, and to transfer their faith from the Magisterium to the conservative Catholic subculture. This occurred gradually and partially. As long as we had a conservative Pope, conservatives could maintain at least the appearance of accepting his teaching. Any liberal teachings, such as John Paul II on the death penalty or his teachings on salvation, could be reinterpreted or ignored.

Also, certain Catholic theologians, such as Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, were deemed to be heterodox, and so their entire body of work was rejected. Formerly, Catholic theologians drew insights wherever they might be found, even in the works of Protestants, Jews, or the pre-Christian philosophers (!!!). Now any theological argument using any non-orthodox sources (as judged by the conservative Catholic subculture) would be rejected out of hand. If you quoted Rahner, you’d be guilty by association as the culture had condemned him as heterodox.

With the rise of the internet, conservatives banded together online, increasing and reinforcing the influence of the conservative Catholic subculture. Eventually, it seemed that the subculture was the authoritative interpreter of the Magisterium. Nothing any Pope taught was acceptable unless approved by the culture.

And this gave the teachings and leaders of the conservative Catholic subculture much power. They became the rulers over the Catholic religion, going so far as to decide even minor questions of doctrine and discipline according to their own mind, without regard for Church authority. Anything contrary to the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture or the separate traditionalist subculture was deemed an error, blithely, without any theological argument. The Magisterium seemed to have no real authority, except to be invoked, sometimes correctly other times disingenuously, to support the decisions of the subcultures.

Now this is not true of all conservatives or all traditionalists. But it is a general trend that occurred over the decades, and it began to be the prevailing ideas and behaviors.

For many years now, I’ve been pointing out grave errors, including abject heresy, in the teachings of many different teachers within the conservative Catholic subculture. And my accusations are supported by theological arguments based on Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium. These accusations have fallen on deaf ears. The conservative Catholic subculture had decided that its leaders could not possibly teach heresy. As long as someone is accepted as a conservative Catholic teacher or leader, every accusation of heresy was deemed to be impossible. So-and-so is well-accepted as an orthodox teacher and a conservative Catholic, so he or she cannot be teaching heresy.

It is as if each leader of the conservative Catholic subculture, and especially the culture itself, has two gifts: immunity from grave error and a never-failing faith. Conservatives are considered to be the “most faithful” in the Church, to be above the possibility of grave error, and to be necessarily orthodox in their views.

It reached a point where conservative teachers could openly teach extreme heresies that patently reject clear and well-known dogmas, with absolute impunity. Examples:

Dr. Janet E. Smith is seen as the premier defender of Humanae Vitae, when in fact she teaches several heretical errors on the subject: that the Church has not condemned contraception outside marriage; that chemical contraceptives are just hormone regulating and not intrinsically evil; that sex outside marriage with a condom is less evil, morally and physically, than without a condom; and other errors discussed here.

Jimmy Akin teaches heresy on transubstantiation, on Confession in kind and number, on Baptism into adoption as children of God, on intrinsic evil, and he also teaches the errors of Smith on contraception. More on Akin’s errors.

Dr. Ed Peters also teaches a number of heretical or otherwise grave errors, including: the same error on contraception, which seems to have come from Smith; that the Pope cannot teach by himself under the non-infallible Magisterium; that unconsummated marriages cannot be dissolved by one spouse by solemn profession of religion; and other errors.

There are many other teachers of heresy in the conservative Catholic subculture, and they are uncorrectable. The culture defends them. Their readers and supporters DO NOT CARE if they teach heresy, as long as they hit all the conservative Catholic talking points. If they reject teachings of the Council of Trent, their readers explain it away. But if they were ever to take a position, let’s say hypothetically, that priests should be able to vary and change liturgical form at will, or that women should be ordained as deacons, or that salvation is available to atheists and persons unrepentant from objectively grave sins, the culture would spit them out.

So the conservative Catholic subculture developed its own dogmas, and in the process, true dogma fell away. And their leaders reached a status where they were above correction, as long as they remained conservative.

Then Pope Francis was elected. He was clearly a liberal Catholic, which was very confusing to those conservative Catholic who held certain assumptions: that all liberals are heterodox, that the correct answer to every theological question is the conservative answer, that the conservative Catholic subculture is above reproach and above correction, that anything contrary to the majority view of the culture must be a grave error. How could a Pope be faithful and liberal?

Pope Francis corrected conservatives repeatedly. The response was “Why are you correcting the most faithful?” The Roman Pontiff did not believe that conservatism equals orthodoxy, or that conservatives are above correction. Pope Francis taught from the point of view of liberal Catholic theology. This does not imply error, but some conservatives assume it must. He also began to contradict assumptions held by the conservative culture.

Gradually, the conservative Catholic subculture decided to oppose him. They began to look for errors in everything he said and did. And if any Cardinal or Bishop associated with him erred or sinned, these were attributed to the Pope (in a patently unjust example of guilty by association).

The conservative subculture attempted to assert itself above the Roman Pontiff. For many decades the leaders of the culture had been positioning themselves above the Magisterium. Now they attempted to correct even the Pope. The dubia, the Filial Correction, and some other petitions and open letters were all attempts along these lines, to correct the Roman Pontiff on the assumption that the conservative Catholic subculture is necessarily right, and the Pope should be teaching from the majority view of that culture, rather than from his own authority as successor of Peter.

These attempts all failed. Pope Francis wisely refused to reply. If he had replied, no matter what he said — other than submitting himself as slave to the subculture — the conservatives would have rejected. And any reply to an attempted “correction” would only encourage more groups and individuals to offer similar letters and petitions. These corrections were in no way humble or filial. They were arrogant attempts to cause the Vicar of Christ to submit himself to the presumed authority of a subculture.

So, finally, just as I have been predicting for many years, conservatives have accused Pope Francis of formal heresy in an Open Letter. The Petition in support of the Open Letter, a petition started by one of the signatories to the OL, has thousands of additional signatures. These are Roman Catholics accusing the Roman Pontiff of formal heresy. It is an act of extreme arrogance and ignorance. It is arrogance in that they would presume to judge and condemn the Pope himself or his teachings. It is ignorance in that the Magisterium teaches that every Pope has immunity from (grave) error and a never-failing faith. If you think that the Pope has taught or committed heresy, it is an article of faith that you are wrong.

Many conservative Catholic leaders are now in a state of public formal schism. And the situation is so absurd that the vast majority of conservative Catholic media outlets have sided with the accusers of Pope Francis. They give print space to heretic and schismatics. (They have been doing so for many years, which is part of the problem.) They see no problem with accusing the Pope of heresy, even though the accusation itself is inherently heretical and schismatic.

Here again is the teaching of the Magisterium on whether a Pope can teach or commit heresy.

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, 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.”

Pope Saint Leo IX: “By the See of the Chief of the Apostles, namely by the Roman Church, through the same Peter, as well as through his successors, have not the comments of all the heretics been disapproved, rejected, and overcome, and the hearts of the brethren in the faith of Peter — which so far neither has failed, nor up to the end will fail — been strengthened?” [In Terra Pax Hominibus, September 2, 1053; Denz. 351.]

Pope Pius XI: “Upon this Magisterium, Christ the Lord conferred immunity from error, together with the command to teach His doctrine to all….” [Divini illius magistri, December 31, 1929; Denz. 2204.]

Pope Saint Agatho: “For Peter himself received from the Redeemer of all, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church. Under his protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.”

“And his authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things.”

“but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end….”

“…the evangelical and apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith, which has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error….” [Letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council]

Pope St. Nicholas I: “If anyone condemns dogmas, mandates, interdicts, sanctions, or decrees, promulgated by the one presiding in the Apostolic See, for the Catholic faith, for the correction of the faithful, for the emendation of criminals, either by an interdict of threatening or of future ills, let him be anathema.” [Roman Council 860 and 863; Denzinger 326]

First Vatican Council: “Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an Ecumenical Council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.”

Canon Law 1404: “The First See is judged by no one”

Pope St. Leo IX: “By passing a preceding judgment on the great See, concerning which it is not permitted any man to pass judgment, you have received anathema from all the Fathers of all the venerable Councils….”

“As the hinge while remaining immovable opens and closes the door, so Peter and his successors have free judgment over all the Church, since no one should remove their status because ‘the highest See is judged by no one.’ ” [In Terra Pax Hominibus; Denzinger 351-353.]

Unam Sanctam, the Papal Bull of Pope Boniface VIII, confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council:

“7. Therefore, if the earthly power goes astray, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a lesser spiritual power goes astray, [it will be judged] by its superior; and truly, if the highest [power] goes astray, it will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone. And so the Apostle testifies, ‘The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.’ [1 Corinthians 2:15]”

“8. But this authority, even though it may be given to a man, and may be exercised by a man, is not human, but rather divine [power], having been given by the divine mouth [of Christ] to Peter, and to him as well as to his successors, by [Christ] Himself, [that is, to him] whom He had disclosed to be the firm rock, just as the Lord said to Peter himself: ‘Whatever you shall bind,’ [Matthew 16:19] etc. Therefore, whoever resists this authority, such as it has been ordain by God, resists the ordination of God. [Romans 13:2]”

“9. Moreover, that every human creature is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, we declare, we state, we define, and we pronounce to be entirely from the necessity of salvation.”

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

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