Will the Hypothetical Errors of the Non-Infallible Papal Magisterium Always be “Safe” to Assent to? If Not, Can we Resist? And is Resistance a Protestant Reaction? – A First Millennium Perspective  

According to the famous Papal document entitled Satis Cognitum, the logical foundation (as opposed to the legal/ontological basis and origin) of the Papal office is to serve as God’s visible form of divine assistance that provides a visible principle of unity for all Christians such that they might be certain by uniting with said principle they are truly assembled and joined to the one and only Church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, this “papal principle” of unity must possess a binding and compelling influence that is conducive to one’s vital unity with Jesus Christ. It cannot be, therefore, that the person of the Pope can exercise his office to compel Christians to break their vital bond to Jesus Christ through whatever means, especially sin or heresy. The very definition of the Papacy is to be a constant help in the Church’s unity with Christ. The authority of the Pope, therefore, must be consistent with this.

It is, therefore, a true anomaly if we had a situation where the Pope were to utilize his authority in order to break the vital bond between Christians and their bond with their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What a clear contradiction and falsification of the whole foundation of the Papacy is realized if the person of the Pope were to exercise his office contrary to truth.

Now, lest I be misunderstood I do not mean here to say that all the Pope says and does must never be able to contradict what is consistent with the truth and communion of Christ. It is well-known and admitted by everyone that the private capacity of the Pope effect all kinds of evil, perhaps even formal and manifest heresy! The Apostle Peter was found to be a scandal at times, even. He was ordered to get behind Jesus because he was a temporary voice of Satan (Matthew 16:18-19, and following). He served as a scandal in the Church of Antioch when he hypocritically lived out the heretical implication that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic food restrictions in order to be “just” in the eyes of God (Ga. 2:16). Though he was acting in his private capacity, it shows God has allowed the potential for this kind of evil in both Apostle and especially Pope.

The question here is whether the Pope, in the use and exercise of his official authority, can forcefully advance errors that contradict the Gospel (Ga. 1:6-8) and therefore bring the Church down with the force of his magisterial authority. If so, it seems we would be witnesses the complete logical undoing of the foundations of the Papacy as intended by Jesus Christ. For if the sheep have to ever maintain their guard up before ever accepting what the Pope magisterially teaches, such that they guard themselves against error by first verifying if the Pope’s magisterial utterances are first in accord with their own understanding of the faith, then it is really their own guardianship of the faith that has primacy over the authority of the Pope’s magisterium, and which means the Pope is subordinate to their own reasoning. At that point, it matters not how emphatic the particular sheep who does this claims the Pope is his head and binding authority, he is effectively and practically denying it.

Before commenting further, we should take note that the Catholic Church makes distinctions even between levels of authority within the magisterial capacity of the Pope. But even before this, there are distinctions within the one office of the bishop of Rome. He is the Episcopal ordinary of the ecclesiae Romanae. He is the Metropolitan of Italy. He is the Patriarch of the West. He is the moderator of the Latin rite. There is also the act of Papal magisterium which is doctrinal towards the universal Church, such as in Encyclicals, Exhortations, Papal Bulls, or Moto Propria. In the exercise of these capacities, all of which are undoubtedly tied to his official capacity, he can be open to erring, since it comes short of what is understood to be the full stress of his official capacity, namely, the supreme power of teaching from the office of universal pastor and teacher of all Christians (ex cathedra).

The last few sentences there deserve another look. The Pope has a universal magisterium of doctrine on faith and morals that can be either fallible or infallible. That means that the distinction between private capacity versus official capacity isn’t the only kind of distinction to be made. Rather, even within “official capacity” there is a distinction even when the Pope teaches the whole Church. And this distinction is necessary because the 1st Vatican Council was very specific on when the Pope utters infallibly teaching, namely, when he exercises the full stress of his binding teaching power over all Christians on faith or morals. Rejection of these teachings is a one-way ticket to ex-communication and therefore renders one’s membership sensitive and conditional to whether one submits or dissent from ex-cathedra teaching.

The question that becomes all the more interesting at this point is what are we to make of the situation of a fallible magisterial activity of the Pope (not ex-cathedra, but nevertheless doctrinally magisterial) which might require Catholics to break their loyalty to Christ and His truth, and therefore condemn their souls? But first, we need to ask whether this is even possible or not.

I think this question can be answered in two ways. The first is historically and the second is theologically. One might balk at their being divided, since how is the “history” of Christ’s Church to be divided from her “theology”? We’ll return to that point after examining some noteworthy perspective from the Church Fathers in the Ecumenical Councils of the 1st millennium.

5th Ecumenical Council

When Pope Vigilius used his office in Constantinople to “defend” the “tenets of the followers of Theodore and Nestorius” (Price, C’ple 553, Vol. 2, 101), he was said to have “separated himself from the visible church by defending the impiety of the three-chapters.” The bishops at Constantinople 553 saw a maintenance of communion with Pope Vigilius, who they now understood as “alien to the catholic church”, as harmful. In this example, the Greek bishops accused Pope Vigilius of formal heresy and concluded he, for the act of “magisterially” defending Nestorianism in the Three Chapters, was self-evacuated from the Church and the primatial office of St. Peter in the Apostolic See. They made it clear that they retained unity with Peter’s throne nonetheless despite their so excommunicating Vigilius. But what is important here is that they accused Vigilius of heresy in the midst of his exercise of the Papal magisterium of teaching. Therefore, if the Episcopate at the Council of Constantinople 553 believed that Vigilius’s “erroneous” defense of the 3 Chapters was dangerous enough to effect his own self-alienation from the Church and Christ, it stands to reason they understood that the Pope’s magisterial efforts to have enforced a heresy which damns the soul, for how else could Vigilius be self-alienated from Christ by believing his error other than by said error being the cause of said evil consequence? And thus, they understood the Papal magisterium to be potentially fatal to the souls of the body of Christ.

6th Ecumenical Council

At the 6th Ecumenical Council, the episcopal fathers identify a dossier of letters that were interpreted in defense of Monotheletism. They describe them as “hurtful to the soul.” Those errors in such letters were execrated (to consider as an abomination or worthy to be damned) as “hurtful to the soul” (their words). Consequently, the bishops proceeded to strike with anathema and ex-communication all who authored said errors, even posthumously. One of the composers of these letters was Pope Honorius. Therefore, they understood the Pope to have exercised his magisterial office in the letters to Patriarch Sergius to have promoted errors that, if believed, were harmful to the soul.

8th Ecumenical Council

In the Acts of the Roman Synod (869), Pope Hadrian II made the following statement: “For even though Honorius was anathematized after his death by the Easterners, it should be known that he had been accused of heresy, which is the only offense where inferiors have the right to resist the initiatives of their superiors or are free to reject their false opinions…” (Price, The Acts of the Council of C’ple 869-70, 314). This was read aloud in the Acts of the Council of Constantinople 869-70, and so forms part of an Ecumenical Council. Thus, Hadrian considers Honorius’s letter as an “initiative” that was heretical. We cannot say that it was simply a “false opinion” since Honorius wrote the letters with some magisterial authority to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This “heresy” deserved to be “rejected” or “resisted.” Hadrian, like Leo II, admits that Honorius was an instance where the Papal magisterium of the Apostolic See was polluted with doctrinal heresy. This was understood by the Council, ratified by St. Leo II/Hadrian, as a heresy that hurts the soul. Therefore, Popes St. Leo II and Hadrian II held that the Papal magisterium can be exercised in a way that is hurtful to the Church.

It would seem, then, that the 1st millennium proves that if a Pope were to err in his non-infallible exercise of his magisterium it can potentially be harmful to souls, and therefore able to be rejected or resisted by the Pope’s inferiors (the baptized faithful). However, there is some more data to be considered in all of this. We spoke of Ecumenical Councils above. The 6th and 8th Ecumenical Councils teach what appears to be the general infallibility of the Apostolic See of Rome. I won’t fully cite the texts that show this (since I can link to these elsewhere), but the Tome of Pope St. Agatho read at the Council of Constantinople (681) and the Formula of Hormisdas (869) read at the Council of Constantinople (869) both claim general infallibility of the Roman See. Another interesting tidbit is that in both of these Councils, it was claimed that a particular occupant of the Apostolic See had erred in the faith and was even a heretic! We have what looks like a clear contradiction.

In the Formula of Hormisdas, it is stated that the promise of Jesus Christ to St. Peter about his being the foundation rock of the Messianic construction of the Church had been proven because “in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion had always been kept unsullied (without taint).” So here we have a promise of indefectibility. Rome stood out among the Churches as the only Church that had not turned away from the Apostolic truth. This is precisely what Pope St. Agatho said in his Tome, that not only had Rome never turned aside from the Church in her episcopal occupants but that the promise of Jesus guarantees such a thing won’t ever happen. Though these lofty claims to Papal infallibility are striking, we must be sober and critical about these claims in light of what actually came to be taught by the Catholic Church. At the 1st Vatican Council, a drastically different take is made. Rather than Rome being always and generally infallible in all of Papal teaching, the charism of infallible teaching is only applied when the Pope exercises a very narrow and precise form of his magisterium, the ex-cathedra mode of teaching. The Tome of Agatho and the Formula of Hormisdas claim a general and perpetual infallibility whereas Vatican I claim a very narrow and conditioned infallibility. The difference here is both stark and important. In the Tome of Agatho and the Formula of Hormisdas, the claim is that no occupant of the Apostolic See could be a teacher of error. This is what marked off Rome from all other churches. Because the 1st Vatican Council teaches a rather narrow set of conditions for Papal infallibility, it opens up the door that the successors of St. Peter can teach error in other conditions that are less authoritative than the ex-cathedra mode, which means that, unless further qualified, Rome could become equally erroneous on the Christian faith as any other Church so long her ordinary (the Pope) is not activating the ex-cathedra teaching mode, something that Agatho and Hormisdas were totally excluding. And so, the difference between the Tome and the Formula from Vatican I is noteworthy, however much one can try and conceive an organic continuity in the fashion of Newman.

What we have here, then, standing side-by-side, even within a single Council (Constantinople 869-70), are claims to an even more hyper-infallibility of Rome (Tome/Formula) than Vatican 1 and Conciliar claims that Popes can teach heresy in their official magisterium. I said that this appears to be a contradiction. Which side of the contradiction is right? It turns out that in the 1st millennium, there is a curiously annoying lack of awareness of this tension, and so it really depends on trying to balance the tension theologically. Vatican 1 chose the way of limiting infallibility to the full stress of authority that is inherent in the Pope’s office (ex-cathedra) which seems to allow for errors in the Pope’s magisterium that exerts less stress, all the way down to the Pope’s private capacity. This can be seen (must be seen by Catholics) as a way to reconcile the paradox of the 1st-millennium tension. The Eastern Orthodox have chosen different routes that seem to undermine the claims of the Councils altogether, i.e., they usually deny the sincerity or authenticity of the claims of papal infallibility and discriminately choose to prop up the condemnations of the heretical Popes as normative.

The problem with Vatican 1’s resolving of the 1st-millennium tension is that it opens the door to another debate that has yet to be resolved, namely, whether the faithful can, as Hadrian II said, resist or reject the Pope’s non-infallible magisterium despite the fact that they are inferiors. If we simply go with the Ecumenical Councils, especially Hadrian II, then the recognize-and-resist (R&R) paradigm is implicitly a licit route to embark upon in the case of a Pope who tries to initiate a heretical proposition. This is something that Donum Veritatis simply does not even give an inch of consideration (in fact, the Magisterium has never directly addressed this very specific possibility head on).

On the other hand, can there be a case for someone to disagree with the stance of the Ecumenical Councils, and Hadrian II, and posit that the hypothetical errors of a Pope’s magisterium can never be resisted (dissented from) but that such assent will always be safe, regardless of the assent being unto erroneous propositions? Before answering this, we need to realize that the kind of error that was claimed to have proceeded from Pope Vigilius and Honorius was of a Christological nature, and therefore one that cannot be relegated to spheres of meaning that are extrinsic to the doctrine of the Gospel of Christ. We can say, then, that there isn’t a great deal of weight lending to the view that the Pope’s magisterium will always be safe to assent to, at least from the evidence of the Councils rehearsed above. However, if there would be something of this worked out theologically, it would have to rest on other principles. One might appeal to the fact that if a Pope can exercise his office with harmful doctrines upon the whole Church, this violates the nature of the Papacy as described in the beginning of this article. In my estimation, that is certainly a worthy cause to develop some kind of theology that avoids this evil. On top of this, there is always the fact that the cases of Vigilius and Honorius are certainly open to being revisited with a more careful eye as to whether they actually posited anything heretical (I’ll leave this for another article). It is already quite apparent, given 2nd millennium developments on the nature of heresy, that neither Vigilius nor Honorius can be said to be “canonical” or “formal” heretics.

What might be said in defense of R&R ? Well, it is safe to say that the 1st millennium gives an emphatic defense of R&R, which greatly situates it in a more favorable position than the idea that the Pope’s magisterium can’t ever be resisted even when it is erroneous (safe as it might be purported to assent to). But what of the charge that R&R is, ipso facto, Protestant? The first thing that should be noticed is that Catholics who espouse the R&R position still recognize that the Pope’s magisterium could be potentially exercised in such a way that absolutely excludes the possibility of dissent, namely, in an ex-cathedra teaching. Therefore, R&R proponents still recognize the unquestionable absolutization of the Pope’s magisterium, and that is something that Protestants, in principle do not admit to. Now, some might object à Is not all this scrutiny, obscurity, and debate/confusion over what an ex-cathedra teaching is just another form of private judgment?

 However, Catholics have not been denied the use of one’s own private reasoning in the investigation and discovery of divine truth. The difference is hereinà is this investigation terminated in one’s own final judgment by a set of propositions or theories or is the investigation intended to find the living voice (viva voce), the vital subject who carries the God-ordained authority to confirm the faith in the here and now? Protestants, for example, do not think they are the final judge on faith and morals. They locate this “final judge” in Scripture, the written records of the Old and New Testament. However, the texts of the Bible are doors to meaning. On the other side of these doors, lie meanings that the Protestant comes in and determines for himself. Quite differently, a Catholic conducts his private reasoned investigation which also leads to doors, but on the other side of those doors is not the individual Catholic who is left alone to determine the meaning. Rather, on the other side of the door, there is the vital, living, consulting, and dialoguing voice that can engage in the process of communication with the goal of clarified judgments.

Now, within the dialogue with the magisterium, the mind can further make use of private reasoning to distinguish between things that the living voice itself distinguishes. If the living voice itself distinguishes between fallible versus infallible teaching conditions, then the Catholic who makes use of his own reasoning to identify those conditions is not exercising “private judgment” in the way Protestants exercise private judgment, because the Catholic is simply following the self-evident principles of logic that the living voice itself depends upon for its own coherence. And so if the magisterium issues a decree on faith and morals without the conditions of the ex-cathedra modality, it seems possible that the faithful Catholic can use his private reasoning to resist a manifest contradiction, particularly when it violates conscience.

Still, the anti-R&R Catholic might still object, “But this is a reversion to Protestantism! If we have to always have our guard up in the face of Papal magisterial teaching such that we only assent to said teaching when we ourselves, while keeping up our defense, determine whether what is being taught is in keeping with the Apostolic deposit first, and only when that is confirmed is the guard let down and assent given, then this is the essence of Protestantism.” But the R&R can appeal to the ability to distinguish between infallible and fallible magisterial teaching. This is an exercise of private reasoning, for sure, but one that subjects itself to the distinctions taught by the supreme authority itself. To those who say this is the reign of private judgment should be careful because the very ability to distinguish between private and official teaching is also an exercise of private judgment. Therefore, if distinguishing between fallible and infallible magisterial teaching is the “reign of private judgment”, then also distinguishing between private and official teaching is also the “reign of private judgment.” But that is absurd. The whole Catholic mechanism of magisterial teaching depends upon the use of the rational mind to distinguish between official versus magisterial teaching. Reason plays a role. The Pope himself is not above or unbounded by reason and the laws of logic. He could not, for example, make a real contradiction exist. He could not, for example, effectively teach that he is both the supreme teaching and not the supreme teacher, at the very same single time. He could not issue an authoritative command which says, “I command all the faithful never to obey my commands.” Such would cancel itself out because obeying that command would contradict the command, and thus it would a meaningless decree. The Pope, in other words, is himself bound by things that are self-evident. 

Garnering these distinctions, it seems as though the strict and narrow conditionality given by Vatican 1 on the infallible teaching of the Roman Pontiff, it left open a wide range of fallible teaching modes in Papal teaching. And since fallible teaching modes necessarily entails that the Pope could err in this mode, it stands to reason that some errors might deserve to be resisted, especially if the R&R proponent stacks in his defense the apparent admission of the 1st millennium that Vigilius and Honorius at least potentially disseminated harmful Christological heresies. Until this route of thinking is definitively excluded from being a viable option for Catholics, the R&R position seems to have been given a spot at the table of discussion on these matters. Nevertheless, the Achilles heal of the R&R position is the issue of time and duration. For how long and to what extent can there be given resistance to the Papacy? If it goes on as long as 50, 100, 150, 250, 300, and so on and so forth many years, then what we have there is an apparent malfunction of the Papacy, an essential organ created by Christ for the benefit of His Church, let alone rejecting an Ecumenical Council (as the SSPX do). That wouldn’t add up, now would it? The R&R proponent, for the time being, could always point to God’s providence eventually pulling through, but that certainly doesn’t avoid the arrow from Paris’s bow.

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4 thoughts on “Will the Hypothetical Errors of the Non-Infallible Papal Magisterium Always be “Safe” to Assent to? If Not, Can we Resist? And is Resistance a Protestant Reaction? – A First Millennium Perspective  

  1. The first two cases don’t strike me as examples of R&R in practice. Unless I’ve seriously misunderstood (which is a real possibility), the first two cases are heavy on “resist” and light on “recognise”. Vigilius is said to be an alien to the Church, and Honorious case seems to be similar. (Of course, it’s complicated by being post-mortem, but the language strikes me as being such that, were this to all happen while he was alive, he would be treated as Vigilius was treated).

    • (1) On Vigilius – The bishops processed the excommunication as “we retain unity with the Apostolic See”, and so, at the very least, there is the resistance aspect (as you said), and there is a recognize that the Papal chair is vacant (light).

      (2) On Honorius – I think Hadrian II supports the recognize and resist because when he wrote in the 9th century on Honorius (7th century), he speaks of the Greeks resisting but not being able to judge the Roman Pontiff. Hadrian II refuses to believe a Pope can be judged for heresy, even (a la Archbishop Athanasius Schneider)

  2. I appreciate your recognizing that the Bishop of Rome exercises different capacities of authority — bishop, patriarch, etc. I realized at one point that it is in the Roman Pontiff’s authority, as the head relates to the whole body, that he is infallible. Peter can lead astray a local church and a fellow apostle at Antioch, but not the whole ecumenical church from Jerusalem amidst all his fellow apostles.

    As for Vigilius, you gave a great answer to that on Matt Fradd’s show.

    I also think a valuable consideration is the intrinsic vs circumstantial rightness of a thing. Consider the Novus Ordo — it can’t be intrinsically bad, since it is a valid rite of the church and accomplished a valid consecration of the sacrament. Your average joe who goes to a well done NO does no harm to his soul. But consider when it was first introduced and scandalized many pious Catholics who were formed by the TLM. The new Mass wasn’t then somehow poisonous in its essence, but the lack of prudence in its implementation can be. I mention this only to demonstrate how exercise of papal power can be, from an objective analysis, “safe” and “free from error”, but can circumstantially be an injurious act. So Vigilius’ endorsements or condemnations of Nestorian figures, based not on Nestorian theology as such but in honor of established orthodoxy and good of the church, can still incite enough controversy and appear to be a rejection of core tenets. This is why it’s worth vouching for a pope’s orthodoxy while still maintaining that resisting him is a valid option.

  3. Erick, Have you ever come across this teaching by the late (great) Cardinal Alfons Stickler? I think it may apply in the two popes you raise:

    “The canonists reflect the Decretum, and the Decretum reflects the first millennium of the Church; and it is in the light of that tradition that it appears clearly that the pope stands for the Church which has never erred, which cannot err, in questions that involve eternal spiritual salvation. Therefore, he is the absolute (and, consequently, implicitly infallible) guarantor of the truth which one who wishes to be Catholic must profess. The fact that he can personally err is held by Dr. Tierney to be a clear refutation of that interpretation, while according to the documented argumentation of my review it is a quite positive proof: if the pope really errs in matters already defined (and this is something to be proved because it is often erroneously asserted), he is no longer pope and therefore does not compromise and cannot compromise papal infallibility….He and the Church of Rome can never be conceived of as two disjunct or (even less) opposed things: the Roman Pontiff is, in this context, the Church of Rome, and therefore the inerrancy of the Church of Rome is the inerrancy of the Roman Pontiff. If the person of the pope becomes a heretic, he no longer holds the office of pope, just as a judge who has become clinically insane, even though he remains the same person, can no longer be regarded as a judge as far as the effects of the office are concerned. Consequently, there is no difficulty in referring to the pope, in fact principally to the pope, the affirmation of the same canonists who exclude the possibility of error of the Church of Rome (“quia Deus non permitteret”). ”

    Cardinal Alfons M. Stickler, The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 60, no. 3 (October 1974), pp. 427-441; Cf. http://www.obeythepope.com/2017/12/the-indefectible-church-of-rome.html

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