On This [Heretical] Rock, I Will Build My Church?

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“Denial of Peter” – by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Without a doubt, the current state of affairs in Catholicism, and the Papacy in particular, has struck one of the greatest challenges for her apologists. Many people are driven to  think there is a massive problem with the coherence of Catholic ecclesiology with regard to the Papacy. The problem can be illustrated by citing one of the Catholic Church’s most astute contemporary theologians today. When he was head of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzginer said the following: in a document entitled The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church:

Thus, in the early Christian communities, as later throughout the Church, the image of Peter remained fixed as that of the Apostle who, despite his human weakness, was expressly assigned by Christ to the first place among the Twelve and was called to exercise a distinctive, specific task in the Church. He is the rock on which Christ will build his Church; he is the one, after he has been converted, whose faith will not fail and who will strengthen his brethren; lastly, he is the Shepherd who will lead the whole community of the Lord’s disciples” (3)

and

The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence the martyrological nature of his primacy”. (7)

However, if Peter and his successors are the rock upon which guarantees a “rigorous fidelity” to the Word of God, then what about the heresy of Popes Liberius, Vigilius, Honorius, Nicholas Paschal II, John XXII, and quite possibly the current Francis ?  If the Catholic Church is going to insist on the Pope as the rock upon which the Church atop is held firm and immovable, then what happens to the Church when the rock of the Pope cracks into fragile pieces by the commission of theological errors contrary to the Gospel of the Lord? It seems to many, understandably so, that by attributing so much dependency on the Pope for the strength of the universal Church, while providing a nifty epistemological safeguard, completely turns on its head because of the possibility of the Pope becoming a heretic. A sort of implosive fatality is therein manifest, akin to the reactor core of the Death Star which Luke Skywalker destroyed with X-wing torpedoes. 

Well, here is something to think about. When the Latin West had already far been entrenched in the belief of the infallibility of the Pope,  his juridical supremacy over the whole Church, and his immunity from any earthly judgment, there was still the common opinion that God could allow the Pope to commit heresy in the mystery of providence. Thus, the possibility of heresy in a Pope was already absorbed by papal supremacists and infallibists. In other words, it was not as if a heretical Pope somehow informed every Latin papal supremacist/infallibist that his belief in the latter is incoherent.

Here below is a florilegium of Papal defenders which will doubtlessly demonstrate the above.


 

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Pope Adrian II, while presiding at the Roman Synod (869), and which was recited in the Acts of the 4th Council of Constantinople, said the following:

Although we have read of the Roman pontiff having passed judgement on the bishops of all the churches, we have not read of anyone having passed judgement on him. For even though Honorius was anathematized after this death by the easterners, it should be known that he had been accused of heresy, which is the only offence where inferiors have the right to resist the initiatives of their superiors or are free to reject their false opinions” (from the Acts of Constantinople IV, ed. Leonardi, 238)


 

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Pope Innocent III

In the consecration sermon of Pope Innocent III (1198 AD), we read the following:

Truly, he [the Pope] should not flatter himself about his power, nor should he rashly glory in his honor and high estate, because the less he is judged by man, the more he is judged by God. Still the less can the Roman Pontiff glory because he can be judged by men or rather, can be shown to be already judged, if, for example, he should wither away into heresy; because he who does not believe is already judged. In such a case it should be said of him: ‘if salt should lose its savor, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled underfoot by men” (Sermon IV, Between God and Man: Sermons of Pope Innocent III, pp. 48-49 taken from True or False Pope: Refuting the Errors of Sedevacantism and other Modern Errors by John Salza & Robert Siscoe, pg. 191)


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It is well known that Pope St. Gregory VII condemned the lay investiture and excommunicated Henry IV over this dispute. However, when both of these passed, Gregory’s successor Pope Paschal II (1055-1118), while under duress, decided to reverse the decree of his predecessor and came in favor of lay investiture. In response to this, Godfrey of Verdome (1065-1132) responded by resisting the decree of Pascal. Anglican historian Karl Morrison describes it as follows:

Finally, [Abbot] Godfrey of Vendome, a member of the Sacred College, condemned on grounds of tradition Paschal II’s decree approving lay investiture. Some men claim, he wrote (ca. 1116), that the Roman Church can do whatever it pleases, and that by some dispensation it can even do other than the Scriptures command. But the Roman church could surely not do what Peter could not do, and , as Paul showed by resisting Peter to his face, Peter could not dissolve the law of the divine Scriptures. Rome, therefore, must use the power to bind and loose not according to its own will, but ‘according to the tradition of Christ’

(Ep. ad Bernarium, MGH Ldl. 2, 688; taken from “Tradition and Authority in the Western Church: 300-1140”, Karl Morrison, pg. 310)


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Juan Cardinal de Torquemada, O.P. (1388-1468) who was a renowned Dominican theologian at the Council of Florence wrote the following:

Although it clearly follows from the circumstances that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and what not, it is said in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘One ought to obey God rather than man’, therefore , were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands, to be passed over” (Summa De Ecclesia., pp. 163-164, translation taken from ibid, pp. 626-627; also cited by John Henry Newman in A Letter addressed to His Grace, the Duke of Norfolk)


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In his Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio, Pope Paul IV (1476-1559) wrote the following:

In assessing Our duty and the situation now prevailing. We have been weighed upon by the thought that a matter of this kind is so grace and so dangerous that the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God and our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the faith” (True or False Pope, p. 646)


 

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Pope Adrian VI

While a professor of theology in Louvain, Adriaan Florensz Boeyens, stated the following before his entering into Papal office in as Pope Adrian VI  (1522):

I say: if by the Roman Church you mean its head or pontiff, it is beyond question that he can err even in matters touching the faith. He does this when he teaches heresy by his own judgment or decretal. In truth, many Roman pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was Pope John XXII (+1334)” (IV Sentent, Quastio de confirm, taken from ibid , pg. 192)


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A 16th century Dominican theology, Domingo de Soto (1494-1560), said the following:

“..though some masters of our time sustain that the Pope cannot be a heretic in any way, the common opinion is however the opposite one. For though he might not be able to err as Pope – that is, he could not define an error as an article of faith, because the Holy Spirit will not permit it – nevertheless as a private person he can err in faith in the same way that he can commit other sins, because he is not impeccable” (Comm. In IV Sent., dist. 22, q.2,a.2,p. 1021 taken from ibid pg. 192)


 

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St. Francis de Sales

The great doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales (d. 1622) said the following:

Under the ancient law, the High Priest did not wear the ‘Rational’ except when he was vested with the pontifical robe 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” (The Catholic Controversy, pp. 305-306)


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One of the prominent Jesuit theologians, Fr. Paul Laymann (1574-1635), who was referenced by Catholic Encyclopedia as one of the greatest canonists and moralists of his time, wrote the following:

It is more probable that the supreme pontiff, as concerns his own persons, could fall into heresy, even a notorious one, by reason of which he would deserve to be deposed by the Church, or rather declared to be separated from her…The proof of this assertion is that neither Sacred Scripture nor the tradition of the Fathers indicates that such a privilege [i.e. being preserved from heresy when no defining a doctrine] was granted by Christ to the Supreme Pontiff: therefore the privilege is not to be asserted. The first part of the proof is shown from the fact that the promises made by Christ to St. Peter cannot be transferred to the other Supreme Pontiffs insofar as they are private persons, but only as the successor of Peter in the pastoral power of teaching, etc. The latter part is proven from the fact that it is rather the contrary that one finds in the writings of the Fathers and in the decrees: not indeed as if the Roman Pontiffs were at any time heretics de facto (for one could hardly show that); but it was the persuasion that it could happen that they fall into heresy and that, therefore, if such at hing should seem to have happened, it would pertain to the other bishops to examine and give a judgment on the matter…” (Theol. Mor., bk 2, tract 1, ch. 7, p. 153 taken from True or False Pope, pp. 193-194)


 

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Council of Trent

The great Dominican bishop and theologian who participated in the Council of Trent, Melchior Cano (1509-1560), made the following famous words:

Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the Supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See – they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations” (Weigel, George, Witness to Hope, p. 15, taken from ibid p. 651)


 

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Vatican I

Even as late as the 1st Vatican Council (1870), Bishop Gasser’s famous relatio, which dictated the basic decree on Papal Infallibility, said the following :

In on sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, who is the first and essential truth, and who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. For the infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions” (The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser at Vatican Council I, Fr James T O’Connor  p. 49)


Council-Florence

So we can see that down from at least the 7th century (where Pope St. Leo II confirmed the anathema of Pope Honorius “the heretic”) onward to the very present day, Catholic Popes, clergy, and theologians have been able to hold in coherence the idea of Papal supremacy and/or infallibility together with the possibility of an erring or heretical Pope. Point made, and should be taken. However, how conducive is this to the overall end of the Church? If it is possible that the Pope, who is the rock of the Church, can break into pieces (i.e. error/heresy), then how well is this foundation for the Church? It would almost seem as though this would imply the certain destruction of the Church. The key here is to distinguish between the Pope as exercising his supreme power of teaching versus the Pope as acting outside of that condition. The Pope *as rock* would only apply in those circumstances where he decides, by his own volition, to exercise the ministry given to him by the Lord wherewith he teaches on faith and morals in a universally definitive manner. One might be able to say that if you look at a real building which rests atop a foundation, the foundation relates to every bit of that building. Every piece of the building is somehow physically dependent upon the resilient support of the foundation underneath. But he Pope doesn’t act with this interrelation with the universal Church just as a mere man, nor as the mere Bishop of Rome, nor the Patriarch of the West, nor in his day to day administration of the Church at large. The Pope assumes this all embracing dependency when he takes on the task of addressing the whole Church and confirming “the brethren” on a universal level. Then, and only then, does the Pope actually act as a rock to which the whole universal church depends upon for its maintenance. So where a physical rock-foundation is literally perpetually always supporting the building atop, the Pope only has this analogously when he acts in a way to which the whole Church is affected and dependent for its survival.

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Now, this might all sound like cheap mental gymnastics in order to draw up our own play book to force coherence. I understand it might sound that way. However, one should also realize that this sort of thing exists in Eastern Orthodox and Protestantism, and yet it is from these two that Catholics often see the objections. For example, the Eastern Orthodox believe that the Church can speak infallibly *when* she is gathered together into an Ecumenical Council. Bishops, priests, deacons, under clergy, theologians, monks, and all other lay persons can operate within the Church while being in error or heresy, but when a true and authentic Ecumenical Council is accomplished, this latter phenomena is protected against any serious theological mistakes that would render the teaching ministry of the Church formally heretical. They might say that the Apostolic faith itself is the “rock” upon which the Church is built (which Catholics would never disagree with), but they also believe that, upon certain conditions, the Church can utilize the keys of the kingdom to pronounce the faith in a way that is protected from heresy or apostasy. Outside the realm of an Ecumenical Councils, the members of the Episcopal college can err, commit heresy, be deposed, and even apostatize from the Christian faith altogether. In fact,  in Orthodox perspectives, great portions of the Episcopate can commit heresy and schism, such as, in their perspective, the Roman Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, and Armenian-Nestorian Episcopate has done. Of course, these are cut off from the Church’s unity upon schism or apostasy, but the cause begins from within, and only latter is effected with an external disposition. Therefore, even the Eastern Orthodox must absorb the conception of having the bedrock foundation of the Church, which is the holy faith in the one Church, only manifested in a conditional way, and not in a static general way.  How ironic is it, therefore, that the Orthodox would object to the doctrine of Papal infallibility in light of Papal errors or heresies in the past? It would be equivalent of the Catholic saying that the Orthodox cannot believe in Ecclesial or Conciliar Infallibility because bishops have committed errors in the past. The nuance of the conditions are completely left ignored, and a straw man is the consequence.

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Martin Luther

Even Protestants believe that persons whom God has designated as a “rock-foundation” of the Church can make serious mistakes contrary to divine revelation. For example, there isn’t a Protestant in the world who disagrees with St. Paul that the holy Apostles and Prophets of God were the foundation of the Church. We read, “….Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,  in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Eph 2:19-22). And yet, what did Martin Luther say about the absolute infallibility of the Apostles?

It does them [Papists] no good to cry, ‘Church’! and ‘Fathers’! For, as said in such important matters the doing and speaking of men, even of an angel from heaven, aside from and without God’s Word, does not disturb us. For we know that not only the prophets, such as David and Nathan, having sinned and failed, but even the Apostles often did so, as also St. Peter sinned and failed (Gal 2:11 ff.); and the holy Church itself must daily pray : ‘Forgive us our sin’. We must have the Man [Christ] of whom alone it is written: ‘He has never sinned or spoken anything wrong’. What this Man does and says we heed, according to His Fathers’s command. By so doing we pass judgment on both the Apostles and the Church, yes, and on the Angels also. To be sure, we also obey the Apostles and the Church insofar as they bring the certification of this Man [Christ] with them…If they do not bring this sign, we heed them no farther than St. Paul heeded Peter. No outcry will do any good in this matter. We shall act in no other way” (What Luther Says, compiled by Ewald M. Plass, Concordia Published House, St. Louis, Pg. 266)

So here, even Luther admitted that the Apostles were not absolutely infallible, but were only conditionally infallible. That is good so far as it goes, and Catholics would not disagree. But the only point I wish to highlight here is that Luther no doubt would have loved to have said, per St. Paul, that the holy Prophets and Apostles were the rock of the whole Church which is being built up into a holy dwelling in the Spirit, and yet still position the Prophets and Apostles with a conditional, albeit trustworthy, infallibility. There were, in other words, conditions, per Luther, for Prophets and Apostles to fail, in which case resistance would be justified. Luther also never doubted that the authoritative decrees of the Apostles were divinely infallible, and therefore to be accepted unconditionally as inherently reliable. How different, therefore, is the Catholic who espouses a conditional infallibility in the Pope, admits he can error, but then also espouses that, with the right conditions, his decrees are to be accepted unconditionally as inherently reliable?

 

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Denial of Peter

The simple fact of the matter is this: scripture itself testifies to this. The famous text which the Church Fathers would consult to speak about the infallibility of the Pope is in Luke 23:31-32, “And the Lord said, ‘Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren'”. Right here, in the Gospel according to St. Luke, we see the very heart of what I’m describing. The very fact that Satan wishes to sift Peter like wheat is evidenced by Peter’s fall into denying the Lord three times. Here Peter shows his fallibility, or the possibility to err. And yet, Christ providentially intervenes to reverse that course *for the sake of the brethren*, i.e. he prays for Peter to return to the rock-solid faith and to strengthen the weak. Many prominent Fathers of the Church saw in this a typological prophecy of the Papacy, in that Christ sovereignty protects the Church from being sifted like wheat through an intervention into the life faith-life of Peter (i.e. his successor), in order to establish a rock-solid strengthening of the universal Church. This occurs, of course, when the Pope enacts to defend the faith, root out heresy, and confirm the Apostolic tradition against the mouths of heretics. But, this may follow an erring Peter, or an erring successor of his, which proves the thesis of this article. However, how often are the opponents of the Catholic doctrine of the Papal Primacy so quick to object , “If the Papacy is true, then Christ would always keep it perfect!”, when the same objectors are happy to admit both the fallibility and subsequent infallibility of the chief Apostle? No doubt, Protestants and Orthodox admit that Peter wrote taught infallibly in, at least, his two epistles, if not in his oral preaching. Some might further object that the interpretation, even the typological one, of Luke 22 is far from the field of Luke’s intent, and that it had more to do with the moral perseverance of the disciples than some esoteric ideology of Vatican dogma. But is it so violently irrelevant? After all, what does a Pastor of a local Church do when he stands up for the correct faith against the lies of the enemy made manifest in heresies? Is he not strengthening the brethren and providing ammunition to pick ourselves up in the race and continue onward in the saving confession of our Lord? I certainly would think so. Our Lord said that the New Covenant would be characterized by a worship which is in “Spirit and Truth” (John 4:23). The very worship of the Church depends on Truth. Therefore, quite opposite to the objector, the Lukan account of Christ’s intervention in Peter for the sake of the Apostolic brethren is quite applicable to the post de facto ministry of the Pope of Rome in his enactments to confirm the truth for the universal Church. In fact, it is the very faith of Peter which is the rock of the Church, rather than any individual Pope, and when the former works through the latter, you have the Church proclaim “Peter has spoken!”.

In conclusion, the Catholic Church has a long history of great theological minds which have coherently held to (1) Papal infallibility, (2) Papal Supremacy, (3) the Pope as Rock of the Church, (4) the fallibility of the Pope, and yet (4) does not invalidate nor falsify (3). If it were the case that it does, then also the fallibility of the Bishops, Prophets, and Apostles (admitted by Luther) would falsify Conciliar and Scriptural Infallibility. When the conditions are properly nuanced, it proves coherent.


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