FishEaters Traditional Catholic Forums

Full Version: Getting Real about Catholic History: A Brief Review of Papal Lapses
You're currently viewing a stripped down version of our content. View the full version with proper formatting.
Getting Real about Catholic History: A Brief Review of Papal Lapses

CaptCrunch73 Wrote:With all the craziness going on at the synod this article, from One Peter Five, seems timely. The article describing how craziness like this has occurred in the past yet the Church endures. This brief review of history helps put things in perspective and, hopefully, will get a few of us off the ledge (so to speak).

The most interested thing for me was the quote by Melchior Cano about people that blindly defend the pope.

This essay is not for the weak in faith, who cannot bear to see any pope criticized for any reason—as if the whole Catholic Faith will come tumbling down when we can show that a particular Vicar of Christ was a scoundrel, cheat, murderer, fornicator, coward, compromiser, ambiguator, verger on heresy, promulgator of heresy, promoter of lax or faulty discipline, or what have you.

The Catholic Faith comes to us from God, from Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church, its immovable cornerstone, its permanent guarantee of truth and holiness. The content of that Faith is not determined by the Pope. It is determined by Christ, once for all, and handed down in Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium—with the Magisterium understood not as anything and everything that emanates from bishops or popes, but as the public, official, definitive, and universal teaching of the Church enshrined in dogmatic canons and decrees, anathemas, bulls, encyclicals, and other instruments of teaching, and precisely inasmuch as they announce their intention.

One serious problem that faces us is the rampant papolatry that blinds Catholics to the reality that Popes are peccable and fallible human beings like the rest of us, and that their pronouncements are guaranteed to be free from error only under strictly delimited conditions.[1] Apart from that, the realm of papal ignorance, error, sin, and disastrous prudential governance is broad and deep—although secular history affords no such catalog of greatness as the nearly 100 papal saints, and plenty of worse examples than the worst popes, which says a lot about man’s fallen condition.

At a time when so many Catholics seem to be confused about whether and how the Pope can go wrong, it seems useful to compile examples in three categories: (1) times when the popes were guilty of grave personal immorality; (2) times when popes connived at or with heresy, or were guilty of a harmful silence or ambiguity in regard to heresy; (3) times when popes promulgated something heretical or harmful to the faithful.

Of course, not everyone will agree that every item listed is, in fact, a full-blooded example of the category in question, but that is beside the point; the fact that there are a number of problematic instances is sufficient to show that the Pope is not an automatic oracle of God who hands down only what is good, right, holy, and laudable. (If that last statement seems like a caricature, one need only look at how conservative Catholics today are bending over backwards to try to get lemonade out of every lemon offered by Pope Francis, and denying with vehemence that Roman lemons could ever be rotten or poisonous.)

*          *          *
Times When the Popes were Guilty of Grave Personal Immorality

This, sadly, is an easy category to fill, and it need not detain us much. For simplicity’s sake, we will take as our examples the eight popes treated by E. R. Chamberlin in The Bad Popes: Stephen VI (896–897), who hated his predecessor Pope Formosus so much that he had him exhumed, tried, de-fingered, and thrown in the Tiber; John XII (955–964), who gave land to a mistress, murdered several people, and was killed by a man who caught him in bed with his wife; Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048), who managed to be pope three times, having sold it off; Boniface VIII (1294–1303), whom Dante lampoons in the Divine Comedy; Urban VI (1378–1389), who complained that he did not hear enough screaming when cardinals who had conspired against him were tortured; Alexander VI (1492–1503), guilty of nepotism and other forms of immorality; Leo X (1513–1521), a profligate Medici who once spent 1/7 of his predecessors’ reserves on a single ceremony; Clement VII (1523–1534), also a Medici, whose power-politicking with France, Spain, and Germany got Rome sacked.
Times When Popes Connived at or With Heresy, or were Guilty of a Harmful Silence or Ambiguity in Regard to Heresy

Pope St. Peter (d. ca. 64). It may seem daring to begin with St. Peter, but after all, he did shamefully compromise on the application of an article of faith, viz., the equality of Jewish and Gentile Christians and the abolition of the Jewish ceremonial law—a lapse for which he was rebuked to his face by St. Paul (cf. Galatians 2:11). This has been commented on so extensively by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and by more recent authors that it needs no special treatment here. It should be pointed out that Our Lord, in His Providence, allowed His first Vicar to fail more than once so that we would not be scandalized when it happened again with his successors. This, too, is why he chose Judas: so that the treason of bishops would not cause us to lose faith that He remains in command of the Church and of human history.

Pope Liberius (352–366). The story is complicated, but the essentials can be told simply enough. The Arian Emperor Constantius had, with typical Byzantine arrogance, “deposed” Liberius in 355 for not subscribing to Arianism. After two years of exile, however, Liberius came to some kind of accord with the still-Arian Emperor, who then permitted him to return to Rome. What doctrinal formula he signed is unknown, but his successor, Pope Damasus, called a synod in 367 that condemned Liberius for his submission to Constantius.

Pope Vigilius (537–555). The charges against Vigilius are four. First, he made an intrigue with the empress Theodora, who offered to have him installed as pope in return for his reinstating the deposed Anthimus in Constantinople.[2] Second, he usurped the papacy. Third, he changed his position in the affair of the Three Chapters, writings that were condemned by the Eastern bishops for going too far in an anti-Monophysite direction. Vigilius at first refused to agree to the condemnation, but when the Second Council of Constantinople confirmed it, Vigilius was prevailed on by imperial pressure to ratify the conciliar decree. It seems that Vigilius recognized the condemnation of the Three Chapters as problematic because it was perceived in the West as undermining the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon, but nevertheless allowed himself to be cajoled into doing so. Fourth, his wavering on this question and his final decision were responsible for a schism that ensued in the West, since some of the bishops of Italy refused to accept the decree of Constantinople. Their schism against both Rome and the East was to last for many years.[3]

Pope Honorius (625–638). In their efforts to reconcile the Monophysites of Egypt and Asia, the Eastern emperors took up the doctrine of Monothelitism, which proposed that, while Christ has two natures, He has only one will. When this was rejected by theologians as also heretical, the further compromise was advanced that, although Christ has two wills, they have nevertheless only one operation. This, too, was false, but the patriarch of Constantinople made efforts to promote reunion by stifling the debate and forbidding discussion of either one or two operations. In 634, he wrote to Pope Honorius seeking support for this policy, and the pope gave it, ordering that neither expression should be defended. In issuing this reply, Honorius disowned the orthodox writers who had used the term “two operations” in their writings. More seriously, he gave support to those who wished to fudge doctrinal clarity to conciliate a party in rebellion against the Church.

Fifteen years later, the Emperor Constans II published a document called the Typos in which he ordained precisely the same policy that Honorius had done, but the new pope, Martin I, summoned a synod that condemned the Typos and upheld the doctrine of two operations. An enraged Constans had Martin brought to Constantinople and, after a cruel imprisonment, exiled him to the Crimea, where he died. In 680–681, after the death of Constans, there was held the Third Council of Constantinople, which discarded the aim of harmony with the Monophysites in favor of that with Rome. Flaunting solidarity with the persecuted Martin, it explicitly disowned his predecessor: “We decide that Honorius be cast out of the holy Church of God.” The then-reigning pope, Leo II, in a letter accepting the decrees of this council, condemns Honorius with the same forthrightness: “We anathematize Honorius, who did not seek to purify this apostolic Church with the teaching of apostolic tradition, but by a profane betrayal permitted its stainless faith to be surrendered.” In a letter to the bishops of Spain, Pope Leo II again condemned Honorius as one “who did not, as became the apostolic authority, quench the flame of heretical doctrine as it sprang up, but quickened it by his negligence.”[4]

Pope St. John Paul II (1978–2005). John Paul II designed the gathering of world religions in Assisi in 1986 in such a way that the impression of indifferentism and the commission of sacrilegious and blasphemous acts were not accidental but in accord with the papally-approved program. He was thus guilty of grave dereliction of his duty to uphold and proclaim the one true Catholic Faith and gave considerable scandal to the faithful.[5]
Times When Popes Promulgated Something Heretical or Harmful to the Faithful

Here, we enter into more controversial territory, but there can be no doubt that the cases lists below are real problems for a papal positivist or ultramontanist, in the sense that the latter term has recently acquired: one who overstresses the authority of the words and actions of the reigning pontiff, as if they are the sole standard of what constitutes the Catholic Faith.

Pope Paschal II (1099–1118). In his desire to obtain cooperation from Emperor Henry V, Pope Paschal II reversed the policy of all his predecessors by conceding to the emperor the privilege of investiture of bishops with the ring and crosier which signified both temporal and spiritual power. This concession provoked a storm of protest throughout Christendom. In a letter, St. Bruno of Segni (c. 1047–1123) called Pope Paschal’s position “heresy” because it contradicted the decisions of many church councils and argued that whoever defended the pope’s position also became a heretic thereby. Although the pope retaliated by removing St. Bruno from his office as abbot of Monte Cassino, eventually Bruno’s argument prevailed and the pope renounced his earlier decision.[6]

Pope John XXII (1316–1334). In his public preaching from November 1, 1331 to January 5, 1332, Pope John XXII denied the doctrine that the just souls are admitted to the beatific vision, maintaining that this vision would be delayed until the general resurrection at the end of time. This error had already been refuted by St. Thomas Aquinas and many other theologians, but its revival on the very lips of the pope drew forth the impassioned opposition of a host of bishops and theologians, among them Guillaume Durand de Saint Pourçain, Bishop of Meaux; the English Dominican Thomas Waleys who, as a result of his public resistance underwent trial and imprisonment; the Franciscan Nicholas of Lyra; and Cardinal Jacques Fournier. When the Pope tried to impose this erroneous doctrine on the Faculty of Theology in Paris, the King of France, Philip VI of Valois, prohibited its teaching, and, according to accounts by the Sorbonne’s Chancellor, Jean Gerson, even reached the point of threatening John XXII with burning at the stake if he did not make a retraction. The day before his death, John XXII retracted his error. His successor, Cardinal Fournier, under the name Benedict XII, proceeded forthwith to define ex cathedra the Catholic truth in this matter. St. Robert Bellarmine admits that John XXII held an heretical opinion with the intention of imposing it on the faithful but was never permitted by God to do so.[7]

Pope Paul III (1534–1549). In 1535, Pope Paul III approved and promulgated the radically novel and simplified breviary of Cardinal Quignonez, which, although approved for the private recitation of the clergy, ended up in some cases being implemented publicly. Some Jesuits welcomed it but most of the clergy, religious, and laity viewed it with grave misgivings and opposed it, sometimes violently, because it was seen as an unwarrantable attack on the liturgical tradition of the Church.[8] Its very novelty constituted an abuse of the lex orandi and therefore of the lex credendi. It was harmful to those who took it up because it separated them from the Church’s organic tradition of worship; it was a private person’s fabrication, a rupture with the inheritance of the saints. In 1551, Spanish theologian John of Arze submitted a passionate protest against it to the Fathers of the Council of Trent. Fortunately, Pope Paul IV repudiated the breviary by rescript in 1558, and Pope St. Pius V prohibited it altogether in 1568. Thus, five popes and 32 years after its initial papal approval, this mangled “on the spot product” was buried.[9]

Pope Paul VI (1963–1978). There are several errors with which Paul VI is connected.

    Gaudium et Spes 24. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965, contains at least one heretical statement. Section 24 states that “love of God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment.” This contradicts Christ’s own words: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37–40). Are we required both to assent to Christ’s words that the first and greatest commandment is the love of God and the second, love of neighbor, and to assent to GS 24 that the first and greatest commandment is the love of God-and-neighbor? This error is repeated in Apostolicam Actuositatem 8: “The greatest commandment in the law is to love God with one’s whole heart and one’s neighbor as oneself.”[10] While the love of God and of neighbor are intimately conjoined, it has never been stated in the entire Christian tradition that love of neighbor stands on the same level as the love of God, as if they are the very same commandment with no differentiation. Yes, in loving our neighbor, we do love God, we love Christ; but God is the first, last, and proper object of charity, and we love our neighbor on account of God. We love our neighbor and even our enemies because we love God more and in a qualitatively different way.

    Gaudium et Spes 63. The Pastoral Constitution claims: “Man is the source, the center, and the purpose of all economic and social life.” This might have been true in a hypothetical universe where the Son of God did not become incarnate (although one might still have a doubt, inasmuch as the Word of God is the exemplar of all creation), but in the real universe of which the God-Man is the head, the source, and the center, the purpose of all economic and social life is and cannot be other than Christ the King and, consequently, the realization of His Kingdom. Anything other than that is a distortion and a deviation. The fact that the same document says that God is the ultimate end of man (e.g., GS 13) does not cancel out the bald untruth of this statement in section 63.

    Dignitatis Humanae. Like some kind of frenzied merry-go-round, the hermeneutical battles over this document (promulgated by Paul VI on December 7, 1965) will never stop until it is definitively set aside by a future pope or council. In spite of attempts at reconciling DH with the preceding magisterium, however, it is at least prima facie plausible that the document’s assertion of a natural right to hold and propagate error is contrary both to natural reason and to the Catholic faith.[11]

    The General Instruction on the Roman Missal of 1969. The first edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, promulgated with the signature of Paul VI on April 3, 1969, contained formally heretical statements on the nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci (et alia) pointed out the grave problems, the Pope ordered the text to be corrected, so that a second revised edition could be brought out. In spite of the fact that the differences in the text are astonishing, the first edition was never officially repudiated, nor was it ordered to be destroyed; it was merely replaced.[12] Moreover, although expounding the claim would exceed the scope of this article, the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae itself was unquestionably both a dereliction of the pope’s duty to protect and promote the organic tradition of the Latin Rite and, at very least, an occasion of immense harm to the faithful. This state of affairs has continued unabated since its introduction in Advent of 1969.

St. John Paul II asserted on multiple occasions a right to change one’s religion, regardless of what that religion may be. This, of course, is true only if you hold to a false religion, because no one is bound to what is false, whereas everyone is bound to seek and adhere to the one true religion. If you are a Catholic, however, you cannot possibly have a right, either from nature or from God, nature’s author, to abandon the faith. Hence a statement such as this: “Religious freedom constitutes the very heart of human rights. Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognized as having the right even to change their religion, if their conscience so demands”[13] is false taken at face value—and dangerously false, one might add, because of its liberal, naturalistic, indifferentist conceptual foundation.

Pope Francis. Numerous canonists and commentators believe that the recent annulment reforms will amount, in practice, to “Catholic divorce,” particularly because of the utterly novel concept of a “presumption of invalidity.” Such a presumption contradicts both the natural moral law and the divine law. Moreover, even if there were nothing doctrinally problematic in the content of the motu proprios, the result of a vast increase in easily-granted annulments on thin pretexts will certainly redound to the harm of the faithful in at least three ways: first, by weakening the already weak understanding of and commitment to the indissoluble bond of marriage among Catholics; second, by making it much more probable that some valid marriages will be declared null, thus rubber-stamping adultery and profaning the sacraments; third, by lowering the esteem with which all marriages are perceived.[14]

Other examples could be brought forward, but this review is enough to permit us to see one essential point: if heresy can be held and taught by a pope, even temporarily or to a certain group, it is a fortiori evident that disciplinary acts promulgated by the Pope could also be erroneous and harmful. After all, heresy in itself is worse than lax or contradictory discipline.

*          *          *

Melchior Cano, an eminent theologian at the Council of Trent, famously said:

    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.

Let us return to our point of departure. The Catholic faith is revealed by God, nor can it be modified by any human being: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb 13:8). The Pope and the bishops are honored servants of that revelation, which they are to hand down faithfully, without novelty and without change, from generation to generation. As St. Vincent of Lerins so beautifully explains, there can be growth in understanding and formulation, but absolutely no contradiction, no “evolution.” The truths of the Faith, contained in Scripture and Tradition, are authentically defined, interpreted, and defended in the narrowly-circumscribed acta of councils and popes over the centuries. In this sense, it is quite true and proper to say: “Look in Denzinger—that’s the doctrine of the Faith.”

Catholicism is, has always been, and will always be stable, perennial, objectively knowable, a rock of certitude in a sea of chaos—despite the efforts of Satan or any of his dupes to change it. The crisis we are passing through is largely a result of collective amnesia of who we are and what we believe (already authoritatively established long ago!), together with a nervous tendency towards hero worship, looking here and there for the Great Leader who will rescue us. But our Great Leader, our King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is Jesus Christ. We follow and obey the pope and the bishops inasmuch as they transmit to us the pure and salutary doctrine of our Lord and guide us in following His way of holiness, not when they offer us polluted water to drink or lead us to the muck. Just as our Lord was a man like us in all things except sin, so we follow them in all things except sin—whether their sin be one of heresy, schism, sexual immorality, or sacrilege. The faithful have a duty to form their minds and their consciences to know whom to follow and when; we are not mechanical puppets.

And neither are the popes: they are men of flesh and blood, with their own intellect and free will, memory and imagination, opinions, aspirations, ambitions. They can cooperate better or worse with the graces and responsibilities of their supreme office. The pope unquestionably has a singular and unique authority on earth as the Vicar of Christ. It follows that he has a moral obligation to use it virtuously, for the common good of the Church—and that he can sin by abusing his authority or by failing to use it when or in the manner in which he ought to do so. Infallibility, correctly understood, is the Holy Spirit’s gift to him; the right and responsible use of his office is not something guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. Here the pope must pray and work, work and pray like the rest of us. He can rise or fall like the rest of us. Popes can make themselves worthy of canonization or of execration. At the end of his mortal pilgrimage, each successor of St. Peter will either attain eternal salvation or suffer eternal damnation. Faithful Christians, in like manner, will become either saintly by following the authentic teaching of the Church and repudiating all error and vice, or damnable by following spurious teaching and embracing what is false and evil.

Our teacher, our model, our doctrine, our way of life, these are all given to us, etched in stone, gloriously manifested in the Incarnate Word, inscribed in the fleshy tablets of our hearts. We are not awaiting them from the Pope, as if they do not already exist in fully finished form. He is here to help us do what our Lord is calling us to do, what our Lord has called every man to do. If any human being on the face of the earth tries to stand in the way, be it even the Pope himself, we must resist him and do what we know is right.[15]

Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us!


[1] To understand this point better, I recommend reading the words of Fr. Adrian Fortescue,, and the excellent posts of Fr. Hunwicke, such as,, This explanation of infallibility is also worthy of consideration:

[2] Following (sometimes verbatim) H. J. A. Sire’s account in Phoenix from the Ashes (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 17–18.

[3] He did not carry through with this move—but only because the Emperor forbade it.

[4] Again following the account in Sire, Phoenix, 18–19.

[5] See Sire, Phoenix, 384–88.

[6] Following the detailed account of Roberto de Mattei,

[7] For full details, see

[8] See Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 37.

[9] We should not be surprised to find that, almost 400 years later, Archbishop Bugnini in 1963 expressed his unbounded admiration for the Quignonez Breviary, which in many ways served as the model for the new Liturgy of the Hours.

[10] It only gets worse in Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium n. 161, where we read the absurd statement: “Along with the virtues, this [observance of Christ’s teaching]means above all the new commandment, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12).” Never in the Christian tradition has John 15:12 been confused with the first and greatest commandment. Characteristic of the same confusion are the misleading applications of Romans 13:8,10 and James 2:8 that follow, which give the impression that “the law” being spoken of is comprehensive, when in fact it refers to the moral law. In other words, to say that love of neighbor “fulfills the whole law” means that it does all that the law requires in our dealings with one another. It is not speaking of our prior obligation to love God first and more than everyone else, including our very selves.

[11] See Sire, Phoenix, 331–358, for an excellent treatment of the problems.

[12] For details, see Michael Davies, Pope Paul’s New Mass (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2009), 299–328; Sire, Phoenix, 249, 277–82.

[13] Message for the World Day of Peace, 1999; compare the formula in a letter from 1980: “freedom to hold or not to hold a particular faith and to join the corresponding confessional community.”

[14] For good commentary, see Joseph Shaw:,,,

[15] St. Robert Bellarmine writes: “Just as it is licit to resist the Pontiff that aggresses the body, it is also licit to resist the one who aggresses souls or who disturbs civil order, or, above all, who attempts to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by preventing his will from being executed; it is not licit, however, to judge, punish, or depose him, since these acts are proper to a superior” (De Romano Pontifice, II.29, cited in Christopher Ferrara and Thomas Woods, The Great Façade, second ed. [Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015], 187).
Excellent article!!!