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    There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day....
    Luke 16:19


    Successive popes have informed the world that they are set above the rest of mankind, and enjoy direct communications with the deity. The Holy Spirit guides their election, and their power extends not merely to God's eternal Church, but beyond this world to the next. When speaking ex cathedra on faith or morals they are literally infallible, just like the Byzantine Emperors used to be before them.

    Despite the theory, it is fair to say that popes have proved their fallibility in all manner of circumstances*. Some have contradicted others. Some have contradicted themselves. Some have been guilty of heresy, by departing from what their predecessors and their successors regarded as orthodoxy. The Eastern Churches have condemned Roman popes for a number of heresies — tampering with the creeds, Sabellianism (see page 123), enforcing clerical celibacy, and so on. The first two popes in the third century, Zephyrinus and Callistus, were both accused of heresy* by Tertullian and also by St Hippolytus. Marcellinus, who was Bishop of Rome from 296 to 304, offered incense to the pagan gods. For this his name was afterwards omitted from official lists of popes. Three of the next four popes seem to have assisted him, despite being already in Holy Orders, but all of them, including Marcellinus, are now revered as saints. In the middle of the fourth century Pope Liberius condemned Athanasius, the champion of orthodoxy against Arian heretics. This act provided absolute proof that a pope could fall into error. Early in the fifth century Pope Zosimus accepted the Pelagian heresy (see page 127) and changed his mind only when obliged to do so by the Emperor. He then issued a document known as his Tractoria, which reversed his earlier position. The fifth century popes Innocent I and Gelasius I both claimed that babies who died after baptism but before receiving Communion would go straight to Hell. This view was later contradicted and condemned by the Council of Trent , but is now open again since Pope Benedict XVI teaches Original Sin but denies the existence of Purgatory.

    Pope Vigilius, in 548, formally condemned the Three Chapters already mentioned, which had been formally approved by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. He subsequently wavered, trying to appease both supporters and opponents, withdrawing his condemnation in 551. He was himself declared a heretic and excommunicated by the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, which he refused to attend. In exile, but under no duress, except the knowledge that a new pope was to be elected, he wrote a letter admitting that he had been deluded by the wiles of the Devil. He confirmed his error and accepted the decrees of Constantinople. This incident provided proof that a council was superior to a pope.

    In the seventh century Pope Honorius I was condemned for a heresy called Monothelitism, the view that Christ had only one will (rather than two — one human and one divine). In 649 Pope Martin I condemned the Monothelete doctrine accepted by Honorius. Subsequently, Honorius was condemned not only by the Sixth General Council, but also by Pope Leo II, who stated that he had tried with profane treachery to subvert the immaculate faith. Subsequent popes were required at their consecration to take an oath condemning Honorius's heresy. In 1046 the Emperor Henry III presided over a synod at Sutri that deposed two popes, secured the abdication of a third, and appointed a fourth (Clement II). The most significant acts of Pope Celestine II in the twelfth century were reversals of decisions made by his predecessor Innocent II. Also in the twelfth century Pope Adrian VI declared Pope Celestine III a heretic for extending the conditions under which marriages could be dissolved. Again, the timeless validity of the bull Super cathedram, issued by Pope Boniface VIII in 1301, was somewhat compromised by his blessed successor, Pope Benedict XI, who annulled it because of its unpopularity.

    One way out of the problem of fallible popes up to this date is to say that popes were infallible only when addressing the whole Church. The first bull explicitly to do so was Boniface VIII's Unam sanctam in 1302. But this opens up the question of why no pope made an infallible statement for over 1250 years, and admits that until that time only councils expressed the mind of the Church — a most uncomfortable admission for the Vatican.

    Later, in the fourteenth century, Pope John XXII preached that saints in Heaven are not yet permitted to see God. The Church hierarchy felt this matter to be of the greatest importance. The established teaching was that the saints did see God. John was obliged to reconsider under threat of deposition, and with a gentle reminder that heretics get burned. His reconsideration led him to change his mind. In 1523 Pope Adrian VI summed up the official line on papal infallibility with specific reference to John's heresy:

    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 judgement or decretal. In truth, many Roman Pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was John XXII*.

    The traditional teaching of the Church has been that embryos do not acquire a soul until 40 days (if they are male) or 80 days (if they are female) after conception. One consequence of this was that abortion could not possibly be homicide if carried out up to 40 days after conception. This view was confirmed on a number of occasions, notably by Gregory XIII in the sixteenth century. However, his successor Sixtus V, in his bull Effraenatum of 1588, stated that all abortion amounted to homicide and was punishable by excommunication. His successor Gregory XIV had different ideas and decided that Sixtus's censures were to be disregarded. Modern Popes, starting with Pius IX in 1869, have made a third U-turn.

    Even the greatest of popes seem to have been surprisingly fallible. Pope Gregory I (St Gregory the Great), for example, taught emphatically that Christ alone was conceived without Original Sin. This indeed was the official line for 1,000 years. Then, after centuries of lobbying on behalf of the Virgin Mary, it was decided that she too had been born without Original Sin (this is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception). In 1854 Pope Pius IX announced in his bull Ineffabilis Deus that "the doctrine was revealed by God and therefore is to be firmly and steadfastly believed by all the faithful". Now it was heretical to deny the Immaculate Conception, so the world discovered that Gregory I had been a heretic all along.

    In 1963 Pope John XXIII accepted total liberty of conscience, a concept that earlier popes had considered heretical. Gregory XVI had considered it monstrous and absurd, and Pius IX described it as a cardinal error. Popes had made other massive mistakes over many centuries. One after another they affirmed that documents fabricated in the papal chancery were genuine. Whether they knew it or not they were in error. Even with the benefit of direct communication with God, they were consistently, repeatedly, and unquestionably wrong. They spoke with supreme authority on matters that were pivotal to the faith yet were wrong time and time again. They held that the Bible was the literal word of God, and thus espoused an erroneous cosmology — stating as a fact that Galileo was in error, when they themselves were in error. In an unbroken line from the thirteenth century, more than eighty popes failed to identify any moral difficulties with the operations of the Inquisition. Many rose to power through it, thoroughly approved of it, and extended its power. Many popes, on numerous occasions, confirmed the existence of witches, and the fact that they possessed supernatural powers. After Innocent VIII, it was heretical to deny it.

    A knight (Jesus Christ?) feeds the pope into the mouth of hell - suggesting that popes are not infallible.
    Antithesis Christi et Antichristi, Jenský kodex (Jena Codex), Bohemia ca. 1490-1510.
    Prague, National Museum Library IV.B.24, fol. 80r

    More than 1,800 years after the time of St Peter it took weeks of debate to decide by a majority vote, and in the face of numerous counter-proofs, that the Pope was infallible. This claim was denied by three of the four ancient patriarchies, by all Protestants, and by many Roman Catholic scholars. Numerous Roman Catholics were unable to accept it and so went into schism. Suddenly, after being a matter of contention, in 1870, acceptance of the principle became necessary for salvation.

    For most mainstream Christian sects there is no doubt that an ecumenical council is supreme. But for the Roman Church there is a question as to whether a council is superior to a pope, or a pope to a council. The claim that a pope is superior to a council is badly undermined by the fact that in the past councils have condemned popes and the popes have accepted their condemnation and felt obliged to admit their error (as in the case of Vigilius mentioned above). More embarrassing still is the fact that even in Western Europe councils could be convened validly without the consent of a pope — a spectacular example being the Council of Constance of 1414-1418. Convened on an emperor's authority, as the First Ecumenical Council had been, the council deposed a number of rival popes and elected its own pope (Martin V, who is still recognised by the Roman Church as a valid successor to Peter).



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    §. Most of these examples of papal fallibility (and many other examples) may be found in Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes.

    §. Callistus (like other bishops of Rome) was accused of regarding the Father and Son as different manifestations of the same being, a heresy variously known as Sabellianism, Patripassionism, Modalism or Modal Monarchianism.

    §. Cited by St Thomas Aquinas in IV, Scriptum super libros Sententiarum, (On the Sentences of Peter Lombard); quoted in Viollet, Papal Infallibility and the Syllabus, 1908). } For a discussion of the possibility of heretical popes, see http://www.romancatholicism.org/duty-resist.htm.


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