Below you will find a selection from St. Francis de Sales’ great work The Catholic Controversy.  St. Francis is a Doctor of the Church and was a very successful missionary to the Calvinists of his day (he lived from 1567 to 1622), in addition to being a very well-loved and respected devotional writer.  In this section of the book, addressing Protestants and encouraging them to abandon their Protestant ministers who have led them away from the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church, he is explaining the Catholic view of the papacy.  In particular, he is discussing the central importance of papal authority to the Catholic Church.  Christ appointed St. Peter and his successors to be the guarantor of the unity and orthodoxy of the Catholic Church.  The Pope has been given authority as supreme judge in matters of the faith, and to be in communion with the Catholic Church and in agreement with the faith is to follow and abide by the Pope’s judgments.  One cannot dissent from the Pope’s official teachings without violating the requirements of the Catholic faith.

My text is taken from the full and plain text version of The Catholic Controversy as found here on the Internet Archive website.  This version was published originally in 1909 (Third Edition, Revised and Augmented) in London by Burns and Oates, translated by Rev. H. B. Mackey, under the direction of Rev. John Cuthbert Hedley, Bishop of Newport.

Below the selection, I provide some further commentary on some of the nuances St. Francis discusses in the course of his teaching.


In how great esteem the authority of the pope ought to be held

It is certainly not without mystery that often in the Gospel where there is occasion for the Apostles in general to speak, St. Peter alone speaks for all. In St. John (vi.) it was he who said for all: Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have known that thou art the Christ the Son of God. It was he, in St. Matthew (xvi.), who in the name of all made that noble confession: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. He asked for all: Behold we have left all things, &c. (Matt, xxvii.) In St. Luke (xii.): Lord, dost thou speak this parable to us, or likewise to all? 

It is usual that the head should speak for the whole body; and what the head says is considered to be said by all the rest. Do you not see that in the election of St. Matthias it is he alone who speaks and determines?

The Jews asked all the Apostles: What shall we do, men and brethren(Acts, ii.)? St. Peter alone answers for all: Do penance, &c. And it is for this reason that St. Chrysostom and Origen have called him “the mouth and the crown of the Apostles,” as we saw above, because he was accustomed to speak for all the Apostles; and the same St. Chrysostom calls him “the mouth of Christ,” because what he says for the whole Church and to the whole Church as head and pastor, is not so much a word of man as of Our Lord: Amen, I say to you he that receiveth whomsoever 1 send receiveth me (John xiii.). Therefore what he said and determined could not be false. And truly if the confirmer be fallen, have not all the rest fallen? — if the confirmer fall or totter, who shall confirm him? — if the confirmer be not firm and steady, when the others grow weak who shall strengthen them? For it is written that if the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch, and if the unsteady and the feeble would hold up and support the feeble, they shall both come to ground. So that Our Lord, giving authority and command to Peter to confirm the others, has in like proportion given him the power and the means to do this; otherwise vainly would he have commanded things that were impossible. Now in order to confirm the others and to strengthen the weak, one must not be subject to weakness oneself, but be solid and fixed as a true stone and a rock. Such was St. Peter, in so far as he was Pastor-general and governor of the Church.

So when St. Peter was placed as foundation of the Church, and the Church was certified that the gates of hell should not prevail against it, — was it not enough to say that St. Peter, as foundation-stone of the ecclesiastical government and administration, could not be crushed and broken by infidelity or error, which is the principal gate of hell? For who knows not that if the foundation be overthrown, if that can be sapped, the whole building falls. In the same way, if the supreme acting shepherd can conduct his sheep into venomous pastures, it is clearly visible that the flock is soon to be lost. For if the supreme acting shepherd leads out of the path, who will put him right? If he stray, who will bring him back?

In truth, it is necessary that we should follow him simply, not guide him; otherwise the sheep would be shepherds. And indeed the Church cannot always be united in General Council, and during the first three centuries none were held. In the difficulties then which daily arise, to whom could one better address oneself, from whom could one take a safer law, a surer rule, than from the general head, and from the vicar of Our Lord? Now all this has not only been true of St. Peter, but also of his successors; for the cause remaining the effect remains likewise. The Church has always need of an infallible confirmer, to whom she can appeal; of a foundation which the gates of hell, and principally error, cannot overthrow; and has always need that her pastor should be unable to lead her children into error. The successors, then, of St. Peter all have these same privileges, which do not follow the person but the dignity and public charge.

St. Bernard calls the Pope another “Moses in authority.”Now how great the authority of Moses was everyone knows. For he sat and judged concerning all the differences amongst the people, and all difficulties which occurred in the service of God: he appointed judges for affairs of slight importance, but the great doubts were reserved for his cognizance: if God would speak to the people, it is by his mouth and using him as a medium. So then the supreme pastor of the Church is competent and sufficient judge for us in all our greatest difficulties; otherwise we should be in worse condition than that ancient people who had a tribunal to which they might appeal for the resolution of their doubts, particularly in religious matters. And if anyone would reply that Moses was not a priest, nor an ecclesiastical pastor, I would send him back to what I have said above on this point. For it would be tedious to make these repetitions.

In Deuteronomy (xvii.): Thou shalt do whatsoever they shall say that preside in the place which the Lord shall choose, and what they shall teach thee according to his law: neither shalt thou decline to the right hand nor to the left hand. But he that shall he proud, and refuse to ohey the commandment of the priest . . . that man shall die. What will you say to this necessity of accepting the judgment of the sovereign pontiff? — that one was obliged to accept that judgment which was according to the law, not any other? Yes, but in this it was needful to follow the sentence of the priest; otherwise, if one had not followed it but had examined into it, it would have been vain to have gone to him, and the difficulty and doubt would never have been settled. Therefore it is said simply: He that shall he proud, and refuse to obey the commandment of the priest and the decree of the judge shall die. And in Malachi (ii. ): The lips of the priest shall keep knowledge; and they shall seek the law at his mouth. Whence it follows that not everybody could answer himself in religious matters, nor bring forward the law after his own fancy, but must do so according as the pontiff laid it down. Now if God had such great providence over the religion and peace of conscience of the Jews as to establish for them a supreme judge in whose sentence they were bound to acquiesce, there can be no doubt he has provided Christianity with a pastor, who has this same authority, to remove the doubts and scruples which might arise concerning the declarations of the Scriptures.

And if the High Priest wore on his breast the Rational of judgment (Ex. xxviii.), in which were the Urim and the Thummim, doctrine and truth, as some interpret them, or illuminations and perfections, as others say (which is almost the same thing, since perfection consists in truth and doctrine is only illumination) — shall we suppose that the High Priest of the New Law has not also the efficacy of them? In truth, all that was given out and out to the ancient Church, and to the servant Agar, has been given in much better form to Sara and to the Spouse. Our High Priest then still has the Urim and the Thummim on his breast.

Now whether this doctrine and truth were nothing but these two words inscribed on the Rational, as St. Augustine seems to think and Hugh of St. Victor maintains, or whether they were the name of God, as Rabbi Solomon asserts according to Vatablus and Augustine bishop of Eugubium, or whether it was simply the stones of the Rational, by which Almighty God revealed his will to the priest, as that learned man Francis Ribera holds; — the reasons why the High Priest had doctrine and truth in the Rational on his breast was without doubt because he declared the truth of judgment, as by the Urim and Thummim the priests were instructed as to the good pleasure of God, and their understandings enlightened and perfected by the Divine revelation: thus the good Lyra understood it, and Ribera has in my opinion sufficiently proved. Hence when David wished to know whether he should pursue the Amalecites he said to the priest Abiathar: Bring me hither the ephod ( i Kings XXX. 7), or vestment for the shoulders, which was without doubt to discover the will of God by means of the Rational which was joined to it, as this Doctor Ribera continues learnedly to prove. I ask you, — if in the shadow there were illuminations of doctrine and perfections of truth on the breast of the priest to feed and confirm the people therewith, what is there that our High Priest shall not have, the priest of us, I say, who are in the day and under the risen sun?

The High Priest of old was but the vicar and lieutenant of Our Lord, as ours is, but he would seem to have presided over the night by his illuminations, and ours presides over the day by his instructions; both of them as ministering for another and by the light of the Sun of Justice, who though he is risen is still veiled from our eyes by our own mortality; — for to see him face to face belongs ordinarily to those alone who are delivered from the body which goes to corruption. This has been the faith of the whole ancient Church, which in its difficulties has always had recourse to the Rational of the See of Rome to see therein doctrine and truth. It is for this reason that St. Bernard has called the Pope “Aaron in dignity,” and St. Jerome the Holy See “the most safe harbour of Catholic communion,” and “heir of the Apostles,” for he bears the Rational to enlighten with it the whole of Christendom, like the Apostles and Aaron, in doctrine and truth. It is in this sense that St. Jerome says to St. Damasus: “He who gathereth not with thee scattereth, that is, he who is not of Christ is of Antichrist ;”and St. Bernard says that the scandals which occur, particularly in the faith, must be brought before the Roman See: — “for I think it proper that there chiefly should the damage of faith be repaired where faith cannot fail; for to what other see was it ever said:I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not?” And St. Cyprian: “They dare to sail off to the Apostolic See and to the chief (principalem) Church, forgetting tliat those are Romans, to whom wrong faith cannot have access.” Do you not see that he speaks of the Romans because of the Chair of St. Peter, and says that error cannot prevail there.

The Fathers of the Council of Milevis with the Blessed St. Augustine demand help and invoke the authority of the Roman See against the Pelagian heresy, writing to Pope Innocent in these terms: “We beseech you to deign to apply the pastoral solicitude to the great dangers of the infirm members of Christ; since a new heresy and most destructive tempest has begun to arise amongst the enemies of the grace of Christ.” And if you would know why they appeal to him, what do they say? “The Lord has by his highest favour placed thee in the Apostolic See.” This is what this holy Council with its great S. Augustine believed, to whom S. Innocent replying in a Letter which follows the one just quoted amongst those of St. Augustine: “Carefully and rightfully,” he says, “have you consulted the secret oracles of the Apostolic honour: his, I say, with whom, besides those things which are outside, remains the solicitude of all the churches as to what doctrine is to be held in doubtful things. For you have followed the fashion of the ancient rule, which you and I know to have been always held by the whole world. But this I pass over, for I do not believe that it is unknown to your wisdom; how indeed have you confirmed it by your actions, save knowing that throughout all the provinces answers to petitioners ever emanate from the Apostolic See? Especially when questions of faith are discussed, I consider that all our brethren and co-bishops must refer to Peter only, that is, to the author of their name and honour; even as your charity has now referred that which may advantage all churches in general throughout the whole world.” Behold the honour and credit in which was the Apostolic See with the most learned and most holy of the Ancients, yea with entire Councils. They went to it as to the true Ephod and Rational of the new law. Thus did St. Jerome go to it in the time of Damasus, to whom, after having said that the East was cutting and tearing to pieces the robe of Our Lord, seamless and woven from the top throughout, and that the little foxes were spoiling the vineyard of the Master, he says: “As it is difficult, amongst broken cisterns that can hold no water, to discern where is that fountain sealed up, and garden enclosed, therefore I considered that I must consult the Chair of Peter and the faith praised by Apostolic mouth.”

I shall never end if I try to bring forward the grand words which the Ancients have uttered on this point: he who wishes can read them quoted in the great Catechism of Peter Canisius, in which they have been given in full by Busembaum. Cyprian refers all heresies and schisms to the contempt of this chief minister; so does St. Jerome; St. Ambrose holds for one same thing “to communicate and agree with the Catholic bishops and to agree with the Roman Church” He protests that he follows in all things and everywhere the form of the Roman Church. St. Irenaeus will have every one be united to this Holy See, “on account of its principal power.” The Eusebians bring before it the accusations against St. Athanasius; St. Athanasius, who was at Alexandria, a principal and patriarchal see, went to answer at Rome, being called and cited to appear there: his adversaries would not appear, “knowing,” says Theodoret, “that their lies were manifested in open court.” The Eusebians acknowledge the authority of the see of Rome when they call St. Athanasius thither, and St. Athanasius when he presents himself. But particularly do those Arian heretics the Eusebians confess the authority of the see of Rome when they dare not appear there for fear of being condemned.

But who does not know that all the ancient heretics tried to get themselves acknowledged by the Pope? Witness the Montanists or Cataphrygians, who so deceived Pope Zephyrinus, if we may believe Tertullian (not now the man he had been but become a heretic himself), that he issued letters of reunion in their favour, which, however, he promptly revoked by the advice of Praxeas. In fine, he who despises the authority of the Pope will restore the Pelagians, Priscillians and others, who were only condemned by provincial councils with the authority of the Holy See of Rome. If I wished to occupy myself in showing you how much Luther made of it in the beginning of his heresy I should astonish you with the great alteration in this your father. Look at him in Cochlseus: “Prostrate at the feet of Your Beatitude, I offer myself with all I am and have; give me life, slay me, call, recall, approve, reject; I shall acknowledge the voice of Christ presiding and speaking.” These are his words in the dedicatory letter which he wrote to Pope Leo X on certain conclusions of his, in the year 1518. But I cannot omit what this great arch-minister wrote in 1519, in certain other resolutions of other propositions; for in the thirteenth he not only acknowledges the authority of the Holy Roman See, but proves it by six reasons which he holds to be demonstrations. I will summarise them:

1st reason — the Pope could not have reached this height and this monarchy except by the will of God; but the will of God is always to be venerated, therefore the primacy of the Pope is not to be called in question.

2d. We must give in to an adversary rather than break the union of charity; therefore it is better to obey the Pope than to separate from the Church.

3d. We must not resist God who wills to lay on us the burden of obeying many rulers, according to the word of Solomon in his Proverbs (xxviii. 2).

4th. There is no power which is not from God, therefore that of the Pope which is so fully established is from God.

5th. Practically the same.

6th. All the faithful so believe, and it is impossible that Our Lord should not be with them; now we must stay with Our Lord and Christians in all things and everywhere: He says afterwards that these reasons were unanswerable, and that all the Scripture comes to support them. What do you think of Luther, — is he not a Catholic? And yet this was at the beginning of his reformation.

Calvin gives the same testimony, though he goes on to embroil the question as much as he can; for speaking of the See of Rome he confesses that the Ancients have honoured and revered it, that it has been the refuge of bishops, and more firm in the faith than the other sees, which last fact he attributes to a want of quickness of understanding.


How the ministers have violated this authority

Under the ancient law the High Priest did not wear the Rational except when he was vested in the pontifical robes and was entering before the Lord. Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII; or be altogether a heretic as perhaps Honorius was. Now when he is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso factofrom his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See, and must say as St. Peter did: Let another take his bishopric. When he errs in his private opinion he must be instructed, advised, convinced; as happened with John XXII, who was so far from dying obstinate or from determining anything during his life concerning his opinion, that he died whilst he was making the examination which is necessary for determining in a matter of faith, as his successor declared in the Extrazagantes which begins Benedictus Deus. But when he is clothed with the pontifical garments, I mean when he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator.

So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form. Thus we say that we must appeal to him not as to a learned man, for in this he is ordinarily surpassed by some others, but as to the general head and pastor of the Church: and as such we must honour, follow, and firmly embrace his doctrine, for then he carries on his breast the Urim and Thummim, doctrine and truth. And again we must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.

But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which Spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church, and, as the Greek says and the Church seems to understand in a collect of Pentecost, conducts and directs his Church into all truth: But when that Spirit of truth shall come, he will teach you all truth or, will lead you into all truth. And how does the Holy Spirit lead the Church except by the ministry and office of preachers and pastors? But if the pastors have pastors they must also follow them, as all must follow him who is the supreme pastor, by whose ministry Our God wills to lead not only the lambs and little sheep, but the sheep and mothers of lambs; that is, not the people only but also the other pastors: he succeeds St. Peter, who received this charge: Feed my sheep. Thus it is that God leads his Church into the pastures of his Holy Word, and in the exposition of this he who seeks the truth under other leading loses it. The Holy Spirit is the leader of the Church, he leads it by its pastor; he therefore who follows not the pastor follows not the Holy Spirit.

But the great Cardinal of Toledo remarks most appositely on this place that it is not said he shall carry the Church into all truth, but he shall lead; to show that though the Holy Spirit enlightens the Church, he wills at the same time that she should use the diligence which is required for keeping the true way, as the Apostles did, who, having to give an answer to an important question, debated, comparing the Holy Scriptures together; and when they had diligently done this they concluded by this — It hath seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us; that is, the Holy Spirit has enlightened us and we have walked, he has guided us and we have followed him, up to this truth.

The ordinary means must be employed to discover the truth, and yet in this must be acknowledged the drawing and presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus is the Christian flock led — by the Holy Spirit but under the charge and guidance of its Pastor, who however does not walk at hazard, but according to necessity convokes the other pastors, either partially or universally, carefully regards the track of his predecessors, considers the Urim and Thummim of the Word of God, enters before his God by his prayers and invocations, and, having thus diligently sought out the true way, boldly puts himself on his voyage and courageously sets sail. Happy the man who follows him and puts himself under the discipline of his crook! Happy the man who embarks in his boat, for he shall feed on truth, and shall arrive at the port of holy doctrine!

Thus he never gives a general command to the whole Church in necessary things except with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, who, as he is not wanting in necessary things even to the animals, because he has established them, will not be more wanting to Christianity in what is necessary for its life and perfection. And how would the Church be one and holy, as the Scriptures and Creeds describe her? — for if she followed a pastor, and the pastor erred, how would she be holy; if she followed him not, how would she be one? And what confusion would be seen in Christendom, while the one party should consider a law good the others bad, and while the sheep, instead of feeding and fattening in the pasture of Scripture and the Holy Word, should occupy themselves in controlling the decision of their superior?

It remains therefore that according to Divine Providence we consider as closed that which St. Peter shall close with his keys, and as open that which he shall open, when seated in his chair of doctrine teaching the whole Church.

If indeed the ministers had censured vices, proved the inutility of certain decrees and censures, borrowed some holy counsels from the ethical books of St. Gregory, and from St. Bernard’s De Consideratione, brought forward some good plan for removing the abuses which have crept into the administration of benefices through the malice of the age and of men, and had addressed themselves to His Holiness with humility and gratitude, all good men would have honoured them and favoured their designs. The good Cardinals Contarini the Theatine, Sadolet, and Pole, with those other great men who counselled the reformation of abuses in this way, have thereby deserved immortal commendation from posterity. But to fill heaven and earth with invectives, railings, outrages, — to calumniate the Pope, and not only in his person, which is bad enough, but in his office, to attack the See which all antiquity has honoured, to wish to go so far as to sit in judgment upon him, contrary to the sense of the whole Church, to style his position itself anti-Christianism — who shall call this right?

If the great Council of Chalcedon was so indignant when the Patriarch Dioscorus excommunicated Pope Leo, who can endure the insolence of Luther, who issued a Bull in which he excommunicates the Pope and the bishops and the whole Church? All the Church gives him (the Pope) patents of honour, speaks to him with reverence. What shall we say of that fine preface in which Luther addressed the Holy See: “Martin Luther to the most Holy Apostolic See and its whole Parliament, grace and health. In the first place, most holy see, crack but burst not on account of this new salutation in which I place my name first and in the principal place.” And after having quoted the Bull against which he was writing, he begins with these wicked and vile words: “Ego autem dico ad papam et hullce hujus minas, istud: qui prce minis moritur ad ejus sepulturam compulsari debet crepitihus ventris.” And when writing against the King of England, — “Living,” said he, “I will be the enemy of the papacy, burnt I will be thy enemy.” What say you of this great Father of the Church? Are not these words worthy of such a reformer? I am ashamed to read them, and my hand is vexed when it lays out such shameful things, but if they are hidden from you, you will never believe that he is such as he is, — and when he says: “It is ours not to be judged by him but to judge him.”

But I detain you too long on a subject which does not require great examination. You read the writings of Calvin, of Zwingli, ofLuther:: take out of these, I beg you, the railings, calumnies, insults, detraction, ridicule, and buffoonery which they contain against the Pope and the Holy See of Rome, and you will find that nothing will remain. You listen to your ministers; impose silence upon them as regards railings, detraction, calumnies against the Holy See, and you will have your sermons half their length. They utter a thousand calumnies on this point: this is the general rendezvous of all your ministers. On whatever subjects they may be composing their books, as if they were tired and spent with their labour they stay to dwell on the vices of the Popes, very often saying what they know well not to be the fact.

Beza says that for a long time there has been no Pope who has cared about religion or who has been a theologian. Is he not seeking to deceive somebody? — for he knows well that Adrian, Marcellus, and these five last have been very great theologians. What does he mean by these lies? But let us say that there may be vice and ignorance: “What has the Roman Chair done to thee,” says St. Augustine, “in which Peter sat and in which now Anastasius sits? . . . Why do you call the Apostolic Chair the chair of pestilence? If it is on account of men whom you consider to be declaring and not keeping the law — did Our Lord, on account of the Pharisees, of whom he said they say and do not do any injury to the chair in which they sat? Did he not commend that chair of Moses, and reprove them, saving the honour of their chair? For he says: Super cathedram, &c, (Matt, xxiii. 2). If you considered these things you would not, on account of the men you speak  against, blaspheme the Apostolic Chair, with which you do not communicate. But what does it all mean save that they have nothing to say, and yet are unable to keep from ill-saying.”

Commentary on Some of St. Francis’s Nuances

As I mentioned in my introduction, St. Francis de Sales provides here a powerful statement of the central importance of the authority of the papacy.  St. Francis is a very careful writer, and in the course of his discussion he introduces some nuances in his view of papal authority that would be worth briefly addressing.

First, St. Francis points out that the infallibility, or unfailing reliability, of the Pope only applies when he is acting, as St. Francis puts it, in cathedra, and not when he is acting extra cathedram.  St. Francis writes before Vatican I, so we must be careful not to read his words as if he is referring to the Vatican definitions.  From context, it is clear that what St. Francis is saying is that when the Pope is acting in his official capacity as the Pastor of the universal Church, intending to guide and shepherd the Church in matters of the faith (this is what he means by in cathedra), he cannot err.  He is unfailingly reliable.  St. Francis poignantly points out how unstable the condition of the Church would be if the Supreme Pastor could lead the Church astray.  However, when the Pope speaks as a private person, or a private theologian–or, in general, in any case when he is not acting in his official capacity as Pastor of the universal Church (that is, when he is acting extra cathedram, to use St. Francis’s language)–he can err.  He may even be able to err so much as to be a heretic.

Vatican I and Vatican II, and other Magisterial teachings since those two councils, have further clarified the authority and infallibility of the Pope.  A very important clarification is the distinction between the definitive teachings of the Pope and the non-definitive teachings of the Pope.  When the Pope is teaching in his official capacity as Pope, he sometimes intends to teach definitively–that is, he intends to teach in such a way as to provide the final word on some subject–but sometimes he intends to teach non-definitively–that is, he intends to teach something true and important but it is not necessarily intended to be the final word on the subject.  In the latter case, his teaching may have some provisionality about it and may be reformed (with papal approval) in the future.  However, it is still to be accepted and adhered to as reliable and authoritative.  All papal teaching is to be received and adhered to according to the intentions of the Pope in teaching it, definitive teaching as definitive and non-definitive teaching as non-definitive (to varying degrees and in varying ways).  (See this document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which helpfully spells out the various ways in which Popes and other bishops teach and the various forms of submission required of those teachings.  There are three different documents in this link–the one I am referring to is the last one.)  St. Francis does not bring out this distinction between definitive and non-definitive teaching, but he makes clear that all official papal teaching is reliable and authoritative and cannot lead into error.  This claim regarding the utter reliability of official papal teaching is of the essence of the Catholic doctrine of the papacy.  As St. Francis makes clear, this utter reliability is essential to the ability of the papacy to preserve the orthodoxy and unity of the Church.

The later Magisterial clarifications I mentioned above regarding definitive vs. non-definitive teaching do not contradict or annul this essential teaching, though they do add nuances and clarification.  They develop the previous teaching, but they do not reverse or contradict it.  It is important to emphasize this, as some dissident theologians have taken occasion from the later clarifications to argue that one need not assent to papal teaching when it is non-definitive, even sometimes asserting that non-definitive papal teaching can lead into error or even be heretical.  St. Francis is an important witness to the universal Tradition of the Catholic Church, a Tradition just as applicable today as it ever has been, that official papal teaching in general, per se, is unfailingly reliable and authoritative, that the Popes as guarantors of orthodoxy and unity cannot, by their teaching, lead the Church into error or schism.

(For more on this subject, see here.)

Secondly, St. Francis tells us that Popes can err in matters of fact but not in matters of the faith.  It is clear from context that he means that Popes are not infallible in anything they may say, even in factual matters which aren’t themselves involved in matters of faith, but only in matters of faith–that is, only when they are intending to teach the Church as Supreme Pastor, for, in such a case, they will of necessity be dealing with matters of faith.  It is clearly not the role of the Popes to give authoritative discourses on mathematics, or science, or engineering, etc., but to teach truth regarding the faith to the people of God.  But, in saying this, we want to avoid another error sometimes made by dissenting theologians, which is to deny that Popes are guaranteed to be reliable on matters of fact even when a matter of fact impacts the teaching of the faith.  One of the most memorable examples of this error in Church history came from the Jansenists.  You can read their whole story here, but, in short, what happened was that the Pope condemned five propositions out of a book by Cornelius Jansen.

Those who wished to defend this book (the Jansenists) argued that Popes were infallible in matters of faith but not in matters of fact, and on that ground they declared that they agreed with the papal condemnation of the five propositions but not with the claim that those propositions occurred in Jansen’s book.  In this way, they attempted to agree with papal doctrine while remaining Jansenists, despite the Pope’s clear intention to condemn Jansenism.  Pope Alexander VII responded by condemning this evasion in a papal bull (“Ad sanctam Beati Petri sedem”):

(6) We declare and define that these five propositions have been taken from the book of the aforementioned Cornelius Jansen, Bishop of Ypres, entitled AUGUSTINUS, and in the sense understood by that same Cornelius condemned. (Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, tr. Roy J. Deferrari [Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2001], a translation of “the thirtieth edition of Enchiridion Symbolorum by Henry Denzinger, revised by Karl Rahner, S.J., published in 1954, by Herder & Co., Freiburg”, p. 318)

The Church has made it clear that papal reliability extends to all matters that are essential to safeguarding the faith, even if those matters are not expressly revealed in Scripture, have to do with morality, or are in themselves matters of non-doctrinal fact (historical, etc.).  St. Francis is not attempting to contradict this, but is simply making a distinction between things that have to do with the faith and things that do not.  The former fall under the cognizance of official papal authority (and therefore papal reliability) while the latter do not.  (And note that if a Pope declares that a certain matter falls under his cognizance, that in itself is a statement about the doctrine of papal authority, which is a matter of the faith.)  So St. Francis here is really saying nothing different from what he said before–that papal reliability only comes into play when Popes are speaking in their official capacity, not while they are speaking as private persons or private theologians.

Thirdly, St. Francis expresses his opinion that if a Pope should become a heretic (in his private person–he cannot do so in his official capacity, as St. Francis makes clear), he could be deposed–or declared ipso facto already deposed–by the Church.  This is a matter that has been debated throughout Church history.  There has been at least one time when a Pope has been declared a heretic by a later council (with papal approval)–the case of Pope Honorius (although, it should be noted, the term “heretic” as applied to Honorius may be used in a broader sense than we usually think of it, since there seems to be no good reason to conclude that Honorius actually held any view that was contrary to the faith of the Church, his error lying more in his failure to clarify and defend truth in a time of need).  But there has never been a time, recognized by the Catholic world, where a currently-reigning Pope has been declared a heretic by the Church and declared deposed from his office.  Could this ever happen?  This is an interesting question, but one I don’t intend to discuss at this time.  It is a question that is not relevant to the central point St. Francis is making and that I wish to highlight–that Popes are protected by God from leading the Church into error and that official papal teaching is, per se, authoritative and unfailingly reliable.

The only thing we need to note for now on the question of heretical popes is that if such a situation were to arise, the case would need to be decided by the Magisterium of the Church (which, by definition, means the bishops of the Church in proper communion with the Chair of St. Peter) in a clear way and not by the private judgment of theologians.  The latter method, rather than resolving the issue, would simply and inevitably lead to schism.


(Editor’s note: The excerpt from the book has been reproduced without any changes to the content with the following two exceptions: (1) The abbreviation for “Saint” has been changed from “S.” to “St.” in line with modern conventions; (2) additional paragraph breaks were added to the text to improve readability. –ML)

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Mark Hausam lives in Columbia, MO, with his wife Desiree and his nine children, where they are members at Our Lady of Lourdes parish. Mark teaches Theology at Fr. Tolton Catholic High School as well as Philosophy at State Fair Community College in Boonville, MO. He runs a blog at https://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/ and is the author of Why Christianity is True and No Grounds for Divorce: Why Protestants (and Everyone Else) Should Return to the Unity of the Catholic Church.

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