Action Alert!

Theories that Francis is not the Pope destroy the credibility of the Church’s Divine Constitution.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 07, 2017

I am sorry to have to return to this topic (see On the lunatic fringe, Francis is not the Pope), but it is clear that some Catholics are missing a piece of the confusing puzzle that is the contemporary Church. There is a critical Catholic piece missing in current claims that, owing to heresy, Francis is not really the Pope. Such claims effectively deny the Divine Constitution of the Church.

The latest argument which reached my desk is that Pope Francis (i.e., Jorge Bergoglio) is not the pope because he became a heretic—hence not a member of the Church—not after but before he was elected. Quite apart from the absurdity of attempting to prove such a charge, this approach to the problem utterly shatters the basis for Catholic confidence in the Church as a Divine institution.

It is true that some theologians in the past, even some notable ones, have argued that if a pope were a heretic he would lose his authority as Vicar of Christ. These theorists were attempting to solve the problem of how the Church’s Divine Constitution could remain intact if a pope should fail in faith. As we will see in a moment, such theological arguments were rendered irrelevant for their purpose by the First Vatican Council. The efforts of these theologians were perfectly understandable, but they chose the wrong theological solution

The correct answer (as had been argued off and on by many other theologians throughout the Church’s history) was that the Church’s Divine Constitution required, to remain intact, only that Christ’s prayer for Peter be understood to mean that Christ would not permit any pope to confirm his brethren incorrectly in matters of faith or morals. You will remember the Scripture passage in question: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 32:21-22).

In other words, by the promise of Christ to be with the Church until the end, and by the special protection of the Holy Spirit, it is sufficient that the pope be infallible when he teaches on a matter of faith or morals to the whole Church by virtue of his supreme Petrine authority. Again, this was commonly believed, and many theologians argued for it, throughout the Church’s history. But it was not formally and definitively articulated until Vatican I defined papal infallibility in 1870. Since then, nobody has felt the need to float the “heretic” thesis, allowing it to die a merciful death.

Problem 1: No judgment possible

The inability to authoritatively judge a pope to be a heretic is not the worst problem with the heresy theory, but it does lead directly to the worst problem, so we do need to take careful note of this preliminary issue: There is no way that anyone in the Church can know authoritatively that a pope has fallen into heresy (or, absent the judgment of another pope, had fallen into heresy before he was elected).

Let us stop and consider how frequent are theological errors, or errors in our grasp of the truths of the faith. Nearly all of us fall into some error at some point, either adhering to faulty ideas under the influence of some desire or sin, or at least making occasional mistakes in our grasp of Catholic doctrine as we gradually grow toward more perfect understanding. Insofar as we adhere to some incorrect notion through sinful attachments, of course, such errors will in some sense impair our communion with the Church, making it less full than it should be. Insofar as we are simply mistaken, contrary to our own intentions, such errors may retard our spiritual progress a bit, but only in the sense that the better we understand the faith, the faster our spiritual progress will be—all other things being equal.

But for anyone’s errors in faith actually to end one’s formal membership in the Church (even if it is a seriously troubled membership), the heresy in question must be judged by the competent ecclesiastical authority, that judgment must be rejected by the person in question, and excommunication must be the result (whether latae sententiae or pronounced). We do not cease to be members of the Church by adhering to mistaken ideas. We cease to be members of the Church by formally refusing, when push comes to shove, to accept her Divine authority.

Manifestly, this judgment cannot be rendered against a pope, for there is no one to judge him. It is noteworthy that the Dominican theologians who defended papal authority against the conciliarists and the Protestants in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries used first Corinthians, chapter 2, verse 15 to make this point: “The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.” We are free to think this a bad use of Scripture (it deliberately changes the context), but it made a valid point against all those at the time who found excuses to reject papal authority: The Pope simply cannot be judged.

This is true even if “we” (whoever “we” think we are) are certain that a sitting pope has denied some truth of the faith that “we” are certain the Magisterium has previously defined. “We”, along with everyone else but the pope himself, are totally incapable of settling the case.

Problem 2: Church’s Constitution destroyed

This impossibility of rendering a judgment which plagues the “heresy thesis” leads straight to a theological dead end. As I mentioned, we know now from Vatican I that this thesis is unnecessary. But the reason it is a theological dead end is that it destroys what it sets out to preserve. This is the very worst theological problem possible.

Here we have a theological effort to preserve the Divine constitution of the Catholic Church by arguing that a heretical pope (or a heretic who is elected as pope) is no pope at all. That is very neat in one sense, for it means that any errors such a “pope” might teach would not really have been authoritatively taught. Thus Christ’s promise to be with the Church will not have failed and (whew!) we will have had a narrow theological escape.

Unfortunately, the argument really does destroy what it attempts to preserve because it throws the Church back on what Protestants call “private judgment”. This is devastating. Of all the Church’s unique features, it is surely the most important that she alone, among all rival institutional religions throughout history, has an “authority principle”. In the Catholic Church alone we see fulfilled that vital claim of God, in His own Revelation, that “I will not leave you orphans” or “I will not leave you desolate”.

The relevant Scripture passage, though hardly definitive by itself, makes the issue very clear:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. [Jn 14:15-18]

We may reflect on how this Spirit of Truth enriches our own spiritual life. But we must also reflect on how this same Spirit operates in a preeminently institutional way in protecting the Magisterium of Christ’s Church. Remember that definition at Vatican I.

Now, why is the Catholic “authority principle” so important? One way to answer is to cite the conclusion of a great convert, Blessed John Henry Newman. The strongest argument that led Newman into the Church was his recognition of the absolute necessity of an authority principle, as evidenced in the Church by the Petrine authority. Newman said he simply could not imagine that there was so great a difference in dispensation between the first Christians and ourselves, as that they should have had a living infallible guide to the truth, and we should not. Newman saw the difference for what it was: A monstrous proof that we would be talking about two entirely different religions.

It is her unique solution to this critical problem that the Catholic Church calls “the authority principle”, and it led Newman inexorably to become a Catholic. The Church—and only the Church—is an institution which, by the very terms of Divine Revelation, authoritatively safeguards and clarifies that Revelation through time. No other religion which claims to be revealed, including no other version of Christianity, insists on preserving a real and living principle of authority against all comers. In fact, no other religion or version of Christianity claims a revealed authority principle at all.


This, I assure you, is remarkable, even astonishing. The Catholic authority principle is not only unique but so special that its absence is a deal breaker. The absence of an authority principle so vitiates any and all religious claims over time as to make them, in the true sense of the word, incredible.

Yet this is exactly what the “heresy thesis” does to the Church. It inescapably stipulates that, in the last analysis, the Catholic Church must be preserved—and can only be preserved—through private judgment. Can this pope teach authoritatively or can he not? Apparently, we must decide for ourselves, and surely we will decide only in accordance with our own preferences for one sort of teaching or another. I grant that this has never been the intention of those who unwittingly accept the “heresy thesis”. But the intention does not change the result: All who advance this argument destroy the credibility of the very Church they seek to save.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 09, 2017 12:07 PM ET USA

    Howser: I have never heard the idea that special charisms go along with being elected pope. Moreover, it is not true, at least in any discernible sense (as even a cursory glance at history will demonstrate). There will be graces of office on offer, certainly, but these always manifest themselves only insofar as the office-holder seeks and cultivates them. In any case, the absence of such "signs" cannot create legal (canonical) problems. If the argument for special charisms were valid, we would be right back in the private judgment quagmire again, which again is what the authority principle prevents in the first place.

  • Posted by: Howser - Nov. 08, 2017 6:34 PM ET USA

    There are some canonical problems surrounding the election of Bishop Bergoglio. When a Pope is properly selected special charisms also go with it. Confusion is not normally one of them. Putting this all aside only the Cardinals can deal with this problem and it may take the death of Bishop Bergoglio for them to get another bite of the apple. This action would preclude the Cardinals that knowingly participated in the possibly illicit election of a Pope. Pray to Christ that His will be done.

  • Posted by: Biscjim - Nov. 08, 2017 12:28 PM ET USA

    Very well written piece. We all need to keep the "authority principle" constantly in mind when pondering the difficulties we are facing in the contemporary Church. I think what is leading some Catholics to question this, or more correctly, their incorrect understanding of it, is their frustration over their understanding of obedience, and to what extent it is due. I think this would be helpful area for discussion.

  • Posted by: cchapman3385 - Nov. 07, 2017 3:53 PM ET USA

    Outstanding. Whatever issues Pope Francis has and has caused he is the Pope. That is the drama of the situation. We need to pray for him to teach clearly and to strengthen the brethren. We need to be as patient as God is, since He is so patient with us.