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Dr. Edward Feser

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Papal errors of the past show the ridiculousness of ‘spin-doctoring’ the pope

Dr. Edward Feser

Editor’s Note: The following is part of an in-depth essay on “papal fallibility” which LifeSiteNews will be running in three parts. We here present our first part. Find the second part, "Can the Pope change doctrine? It’s time for some clarity on papal infallibility," here. Find the third part, "When popes can be wrong: breaking down the degrees of papal authority," here.

December 3, 2015 (EdwardFeser) -- Short of binding the Church to heresy, it is possible for a pope to do grave harm to the Church.  As Cardinal Ratzinger once said when asked whether the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of popes:

I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.  I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. (Quoted in John Allen, Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election)

Here are some examples of popes who have erred, in some cases in an extremely serious way:

St. Peter (d. c. 64): As if to warn the Church in advance that popes are infallible only within limits, the first pope was allowed to fall into serious error.  Before the crucifixion, he denied Christ.  On another occasion he avoided eating with Gentile converts lest he offend the more hardline Jewish Christians, leading St. Paul famously to rebuke him.  Says the Catholic Encyclopedia:

As this action was entirely opposed to the principles and practice of Paul, and might lead to confusion among the converted pagans, this Apostle addressed a public reproach to St. Peter, because his conduct seemed to indicate a wish to compel the pagan converts to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law… Paul, who rightly saw the inconsistency in the conduct of Peter and the Jewish Christians, did not hesitate to defend the immunity of converted pagans from the Jewish Law.

Pope St. Victor I (189-98): Western and Eastern Christians had long disagreed over the date on which Easter should be celebrated.  Though earlier popes had tolerated this difference, St. Victor tried to force the issue and excommunicated several Eastern bishops over the matter.  For this excessive severity and departure from previous papal policy, he was criticized by St. Irenaeus. 

Pope St. Marcellinus (296-304): During a persecution of Christians, Emperor Diocletian ordered the surrender of sacred books and the offering of sacrifice to the gods.  It is said that a fearful St. Marcellinus complied, and later repented of having done so.  Historians disagree about whether this actually occurred.  However, as the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

On the other hand it is remarkable, that in the Roman “Chronograph” whose first edition was in 336, the name of this pope alone is missing, while all other popes from Lucius I onwards are forthcoming…

It must indeed be admitted that in certain circles at Rome the conduct of the pope during the Diocletian persecution was not approved… It is possible that Pope Marcellinus was able to hide himself in a safe place of concealment in due time, as many other bishops did.  But it is also possible that at the publication of the edict he secured his own immunity; in Roman circles this would have been imputed to him as weakness, so that his memory suffered thereunder, and he was on that account omitted… from the “Chronograph”…

Pope Liberius (352-366): With the Arian heresy having been endorsed by many bishops, and under pressure from the emperor, Pope Liberius acquiesced in the excommunication of the staunchly orthodox St. Athanasius and agreed to an ambiguous theological formula.  He later repented of his weakness, but he would be the first pope not to be venerated as a saint.

Pope Honorius I (625-638): Pope Honorius at least implicitly accepted the Monothelite heresy, was condemned for this by his successor Pope St. Agatho, and criticized by Pope St. Leo for being at least negligent.  Though his actions are in no way incompatible with papal infallibility -- Honorius was not putting forward a would-be ex cathedra definition -- they caused grave damage by providing fodder for critics of the papacy.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia says: “It is clear that no Catholic has the right to defend Pope Honorius.  He was a heretic, not in intention, but in fact…”

Pope Stephen VI (896-897): In the notorious “cadaver synod” -- an event which some historians consider the low point of the papacy -- Pope Stephen exhumed the corpse of his predecessor Pope Formosus, dressed it in papal vestments and placed it on a throne, put it on trial for alleged violations of church law (see the illustration above), found it guilty and declared all of Formosus’s acts while pope null and void, then had the corpse flung into the Tiber.  Formosus’s supporters later deposed Stephen and put him in jail, where he was strangled.

Pope John XII (955-964): E. R. Chamberlin, in his book The Bad Popes, describes the character of Pope John XII as follows:

In his relationship with the Church, John seems to have been urged toward a course of deliberate sacrilege that went far beyond the casual enjoyment of sensual pleasures.  It was as though the dark element in his nature goaded him on to test the utmost extents of his power, a Christian Caligula whose crimes were rendered particularly horrific by the office he held.  Later, the charge was specifically made against him that he turned the Lateran into a brothel; that he and his gang violated female pilgrims in the very basilica of St. Peter; that the offerings of the humble laid upon the altar were snatched up as casual booty.

He was inordinately fond of gambling, at which he invoked the names of those discredited gods now universally regarded as demons.  His sexual hunger was insatiable -- -- a minor crime in Roman eyes.  What was far worse was that the casual occupants of his bed were rewarded not with casual gifts of gold but of land. (pp. 43-44).

Of his demise, J. N. D. Kelly writes in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes: “[H]e suffered a stroke, allegedly while in bed with a married woman, and a week later he died.”

Pope Benedict IX (1032-44; 1045; 1047-8): Benedict IX was elected through bribes paid by his father.  Kelly tells us that “his personal life, even allowing for exaggerated reports, was scandalously violent and dissolute.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia judges: “He was a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.”

Pope John XXII (1316-34): Pope John XXII taught the heterodox view that the souls of the blessed do not see God immediately after death, but only at the resurrection -- a version of what is called the “soul sleep” theory.  For this he was severely criticized by the theologians of his day, and later recanted this view.  As with Honorius, John’s actions were not incompatible with papal infallibility -- he expressed the view in a sermon rather than by way of issuing a formal doctrinal statement.  But as James Hitchcock judges in his History of the Catholic Church, “this remains the clearest case in the history of the Church of a possibly heretical pope” (p. 215).

Pope Urban VI (1378-89): Urban is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as an “inconstant and quarrelsome” man whose “whole reign was a series of misadventures.”  The cardinals attempted to replace him with another pope, Clement VII -- beginning the infamous forty-year-long Great Western Schism, in which at first these two men, and later a third man, all claimed the papal throne.  Theologians, and even saints, were divided on the controversy.  St. Catherine of Siena was among the saints who supported Urban, while St. Vincent Ferrer is among the saints who supported Clement.

Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503): This Borgia pope, who had many children by his mistresses, notoriously used the papal office to advance the interests of his family.

Pope Leo X (1513-21): Leo X is the pope who is famously said to have remarked: “Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us.”  Says the Catholic Encyclopedia:

[T]he phrase illustrates fairly the pope's pleasure-loving nature and the lack of seriousness that characterized him.  He paid no attention to the dangers threatening the papacy, and gave himself up unrestrainedly to amusements, that were provided in lavish abundance.  He was possessed by an insatiable love of pleasure, that distinctive trait of his family. Music, the theatre, art, and poetry appealed to him as to any pampered worldling.

Leo was pope during the time of Luther’s revolt, with which he did not deal wisely.  The Catholic Encyclopedia continues:

[When we] turn to the political and religious events of Leo's pontificate… the bright splendour that diffuses itself over his literary and artistic patronage, is soon changed to deepest gloom. His well-known peaceable inclinations made the political situation a disagreeable heritage, and he tried to maintain tranquillity by exhortations, to which, however, no one listened

The only possible verdict on the pontificate of Leo X is that it was unfortunate for the Church… Von Reumont says pertinently -- “Leo X is in great measure to blame for the fact that faith in the integrity and merit of the papacy, in its moral and regenerating powers, and even in its good intentions, should have sunk so low that men could declare extinct the old true spirit of the Church.”

Further examples could be given, but these suffice to show how very gravely popes can err when they are not exercising their extraordinary Magisterium.  And if popes can err gravely even on matters touching on doctrine and the governance of the Church, it goes without saying that they can err gravely with respect to matters of politics, science, economics, and the like.  As Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val wrote in his 1902 book The Truth of Papal Claims:

Great as our filial duty of reverence is towards what ever [the pope] may say, great as our duty of obedience must be to the guidance of the Chief Shepherd, we do not hold that every word of his is infallible, or that he must always be right.  Much less do we dream of teaching that he is infallible, or in any degree superior to other men, when he speaks on matters that are scientific, or historical, or political, or that he may not make mistakes of judgment in dealing with contemporary events, with men and things. (p. 19)

[E]ven to-day a Bishop might… expostulate with a Pope, who, in his judgment, might be acting in a way which was liable to mislead those under his own charge… The hypothesis is quite conceivable, and in no way destroys or diminishes the supremacy of the Pope. (p. 74)

And as theologian Karl Adam wrote in his 1935 book The Spirit of Catholicism:

[T]he men through whom God's revelation is mediated on earth are by the law of their being conditioned by the limitations of their age.  And they are conditioned also by the limitations of their individuality. Their particular temperament, mentality, and character are bound to color, and do color, the manner in which they dispense the truth and grace of Christ… So it may happen, and it must happen, that pastor and flock, bishop, priest, and layman are not always worthy mediators and recipients of God's grace, and that the infinitely holy is sometimes warped and distorted in passing through them. Wherever you have men, you are bound to have a restricted outlook and narrowness of judgment.  For talent is rare, and genius comes only when God calls it.  Eminent popes, bishops of great spiritual force, theologians of genius, priests of extraordinary graces and devout layfolk: these must be, not the rule, but the exception…  The Church has from God the guarantee that she will not fall into error regarding faith or morals; but she has no guarantee whatever that every act and decision of ecclesiastical authority will be excellent and perfect.  Mediocrity and even defects are possible.  (pp. 248-9)

That popes are fallible in the ways that they are is as important for Catholics to keep in mind as the fact that popes are infallible when speaking ex cathedra.  Many well-meaning Catholics have forgotten this truth, or appear to want to suppress it.  When recent popes have said or done strange or even manifestly unwise things, these apologists have refused to admit it.  They have tied themselves in logical knots trying to show that the questionable statement or action is perfectly innocent, or even conveys some deep insight, if only we would be willing to see it.  Had Catholic bloggers and pop apologists been around in previous ages, some of them would no doubt have been assuring their readers that the Eastern bishops excommunicated by Pope Victor must have had it coming and that St. Irenaeus should have kept silent; or that Pope Stephen was trying to teach us some profound spiritual truth with the cadaver synod if only we would listen; or that Liberius, Honorius, and John XXII were really deepeningour understanding of doctrine rather than confusing the faithful. 

This kind of “spin doctoring” only makes those engaging in it look ridiculous.  Worse, it does grave harm to the Church and to souls.  It makes Catholicism appear Orwellian, as if a pope can by fiat make even sheer novelties and reversals of past teaching somehow a disguised passing on of the deposit of faith.  Catholics who cannot bear such cognitive dissonance may have their faith shaken.  Non-Catholics repulsed by such intellectual dishonesty will wrongly judge that to be a Catholic one must become a shill.

The sober truth is that Christ sometimes lets his Vicar err, only within definite limits but sometimes gravely.  Why?  In part because popes, like all of us, have free will.  But in part, precisely to show that (as Cardinal Ratzinger put it) “the thing cannot be totally ruined” -- not even by a pope.  Once more to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia, in its judgment about the outcome of the Great Western Schism:

Gregorovius, whom no one will suspect of exaggerated respect for the papacy… writes: “A temporal kingdom would have succumbed thereto; but the organization of the spiritual kingdom was so wonderful, the ideal of the papacy so indestructible, that this, the most serious of schisms, served only to demonstrate its indivisibility”… From a widely different standpoint de Maistre holds the same view: “This scourge of contemporaries is for us an historical treasure.  It serves to prove how immovable is the throne of St. Peter.  What human organization would have withstood this trial?”

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Edward Feser’s blog.

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