So far, no one has written a comprehensive theological argument proving that Pope Francis has taught or committed heresy. Here is what would be needed to be proven by a theological argument:
1. Prove, in contradiction to many magisterial teachings, that Popes may possibly teach or commit heresy.
Here are the magisterial teachings which would need to be overcome. Pope-Saint after Pope-Saint has taught that each Pope has the gift of immunity from (grave) error and the gift of a never-failing faith. In addition, the First Vatican Council infallibly taught that each Pope has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith. These teachings imply necessarily that no Pope can teach heresy, as that would be contrary to the gift of truth, i.e. the gift of immunity from grave error, and that no Pope can commit heresy, as then his faith would have failed.
2. Prove, in contradiction to Sacred Scripture, that Popes may possibly teach or commit heresy.
The teaching of Jesus that the Church is founded on Peter and his successors, and that the Church can never be overcome by evil (Mt 16:18), and the promise of Jesus that the faith of Peter will never fail (Lk 22:32), would need to be overcome. How should we understand these teachings and promises, if Popes can teach or commit heresy? And why should we reject the interpretation of these passages by the First Vatican Council, such that Popes cannot teach grave error or fail in their faith?
3. Prove that one or more past Popes have taught or committed heresy.
If it were even theoretically possible for a Pope to teach or commit heresy, perhaps God simply does not permit that possibility, just as Saint Robert Bellarmine opined. Every single papal accuser ASSUMES that Pope Honorius and Pope John XXII taught or committed heresy. But there are good arguments to the contrary. Bellarmine defends both those Popes and many others, to the conclusion that no Pope has taught or committed heresy.
No one has done any of the above three steps. No one!
4. Explain who would be competent to make or issue a judgment of heresy against a Pope, given the teaching and law: the First See is judged by no one.
5. Explain how the teaching of the First Vatican Council that no one may have recourse against a teaching or decision of the Roman Pontiff, even to an Ecumenical Council, nevertheless would allow some person or group to judge or declare the Pope to be guilty of heresy.
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.”
6. Explain how such an accusation against the Roman Pontiff is compatible with the infallible teaching of Unam Sanctam, the papal bull of Pope Boniface VIII, approved by the Fifth Lateran Council.
Unam Sanctam. See especially n. 8-9.
7. Prove that a particular idea, which the Pope is accused of denying or contradicting, is a formal dogma.
Jimmy Akin is absolutely right in saying that, to accuse someone of heresy, you must prove that he has obstinately denied or obstinately doubted a teaching which has the full status of a formal dogma. You can’t merely point to Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, material dogma, and assume that your understanding of those sources is infallible. The Magisterium must have taught that same idea at the level of an infallible required belief.
For example, the controversy about whether God positively or permissively wills the plurality of religions has no basis in any formal dogma. The Magisterium has never decided the question.
In addition, there is a strong theological argument to be made that, after the fact of our sinfulness, God does positively will a plurality of religions, limited to those which teach the love of God and neighbor. We can easily see the work of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Churches and in the Protestant denominations. It is common for Catholic theologians to use the work of Protestant theologians in their theology. So we must admit that God’s grace is with them, despite their failing to convert to Catholicism. So the assumption that God positively wills only the Catholic faith is the weaker opinion, and is only opinion.
The same must be done for each idea which is the basis for an accusation of heresy. Prove that it is not merely the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture, but a formal dogma. Prove that the dogma is correctly understood and interpreted, as it is being applied to the Roman Pontiff’s words.
8. Prove that the Roman Pontiff taught or committed heresy, by contradicting formal dogma.
A passing remark to the press cannot possibly be heresy, as such a comment cannot be obstinate and cannot be a formal magisterial teaching, not even a non-infallible one.
A dishonest or malicious interpretation is not acceptable as a theological argument, and is itself a grave sin against God. In many cases, the claim that Pope Francis taught or committed heresy is based on such an invalid interpretation of his words. For example, the Roman Pontiff repeatedly, both privately and publicly, asserted that the diversity of religions falls under the permissive will of God. Yet the Open Letter and many other papal accusers still claim that the Pope taught it falls under the positive will of God.
“I believe in God”
“What?! You don’t believe in God! Apostate!”
“No, I said I believe in God.”
“There! He said it again! He is denying God!”
That is what some of the accusations against Pope Francis are like. And yet these accusations are accepted and treated like fact by many who call themselves Catholic.
If there is an interpretation of the Pope’s words which is entirely orthodox and another which is heretical, the principle of charity and the teaching of the Magisterium that each Pope has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith, and the teaching and promise of Jesus concerning the Roman Pontiff, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Magisterium all require us to give the Pope’s words the orthodox interpretation.
Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia: “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart… For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.” [n. 296]
The Church is solicitous for the salvation of souls. She works with fallen sinners in this life, to bring them to eternal life. The Church does not condemn anyone forever because She is working in this life, and repentance unto salvation is always available, until death and judgment intervene. The above quote in no way denies the existence of eternal punishment in Hell, as it is speaking about the Church’s work in this life. There is no eternal condemnation in this life, but only possibly in the next.
It is malicious and intellectually dishonest to interpret the above quote as denying eternal punishment in Hell. Punishment and Hell are not even mentioned. And as many persons have pointed out, subsequent to the publication of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has many times explicitly stated his belief that Hell exists and that some human souls go there. Here are some examples.
How dare you accuse the Vicar of Christ of heresy, when there is a simple reasonable orthodox interpretation of his words, and ample proof to the contrary! So that brings me to the next point:
9. In accusing the Roman Pontiff of heresy, you must not gravely violate the moral law.
If an accuser acts with malice, hatred, derision, dishonesty, making false accusations, misrepresenting facts, violating the teachings or laws of the Church, then his accusations against the Roman Pontiff are null and void.
In secular courts, which very often express true rights and morals, any accuser must be evaluated as to whether he is believable. If he has a strong hatred and open malice toward the defendant, the jury should look with doubt upon his testimony. In addition, if there is reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a grave crime, he should be found not guilty.
To the contrary, most papal accusers show a strong bias against Pope Francis. They ridicule him and anyone who defends him. They show a strong bias against him. They ignore the teachings of the Magisterium which clearly state that no Pope can teach or commit heresy. They ignore the teachings of Saint Robert Bellarmine. They assume that past Popes were guilty of heresy, without offering proof and without replying to arguments to the contrary. Such a bias weight heavily against the accusers and their claims.
The charity which Christ taught us to have for all our neighbors, even our enemies, is lacking in the way that the papal accusers treat the Vicar of Christ. And that casts grave doubt on their assertions.
10. Prove that the body of Bishops may teach or commit heresy, or may fail gravely in its supposed duty to oppose an heretical Pope and his heretical teachings.
Few Cardinals and few Bishops have accused Pope Francis of anything. Those few who have spoken against Pope Francis refuse to accuse him of heresy. And the body of Bishops, as the successors to the other Apostles, have not opposed Pope Francis or his teachings. To the contrary, they have accepted Pope Francis as the true Vicar of Christ, and they have submitted their minds and heart to his teachings.
To prove that Pope Francis is guilty of heresy, one would also have to prove that the body of Bishops is even capable of such a grave failing as to fail to recognize heresy and as to accept, rather than reject it. The papal accusers speak of appealing to the Bishops or to an Ecumenical Council for the final condemnation of the Pope. But they have no substantial support for such an action. It is a malicious fantasy.
Jesus promised not only that he would pray for Peter and his successors, so that their faith would never fail (just as the First Vatican Council authoritatively interpreted His words), but also that each Pope would then be able, by the grace of God, to confirm his brethren. This implies that the body of Bishops, as a body not individually, also has the gift of immunity from grave error and a never-failing faith. Neither the Pope nor the body of Bishops can teach or commit heresy.
Prove the contrary, or what will happen to your claim that the Pope is a heretic? If the body of Bishops is confirmed by him and follows him, papal accusers must be schismatics. For the Pope is the successor of Peter and the body of Bishops is the successor to the other Apostles. There is no other person or group on earth to whom you may appeal.
11. Reply to the arguments of those who defend the Pope
In a secular court, justice rightly requires that both sides of the case be heard. The jury does not decide based solely on the accusations, but also on what the defense says. None of the papal accusers have given due consideration to the papal defenders, nor to the teachings of the Church which contradict their claims.
No person or group making an accusation of heresy against Pope Francis has even done a fraction of the above work that would be needed to make a substantial believable accusation of heresy against the Roman Pontiff. They assume Popes can commit heresy. They assume that past Popes did commit heresy. They assume that their understanding of Tradition and Scripture is dogma. They assume the worst possible interpretation of the Pope’s words.
The Open Letter is a theological joke. The contents are not sufficient to convict even an actual heretic of heresy. They did not do the work needed to support their claim.
In addition, I must point out that meeting all of the above 10 conditions is impossible, as the Magisterium infallibly teaches that each Pope has the gift of truth (immunity from grave error) and the gift of a never-failing faith. So any claim to the contrary is itself material heresy. The claim that Pope Honorius committed heresy is, since the dogma issued by the First Vatican Council, itself an heretical claim. And anyone who accuses Pope Francis of heresy is therefore not only guilty of asserting material heresy, but of committing public formal schism.
Ironically, they complain that Pope Francis permits persons guilty of the objective mortal sin of adultery (by divorce and remarriage) to receive Communion, while they themselves are not worthy to receive Communion due to their sins of heresy, schism, and grave scandal.
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