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With respect, Cardinal Müller, it's not "impossible"

by Christopher A. Ferrara
June 1, 2017

In my column of May 30, I discussed the important EWTN interview of Cardinal Gerhard Müller concerning Amoris Laetitia (AL) and the prospect of women “deacons in the Church.” The interview continued Müller’s line of simply denying that Pope Bergoglio intends to do what he is obviously doing in authorizing the intrinsically impossible reception of Holy Communion by people living in adulterous “second marriages.”

One remark in the interview warrants a column on its own. Respecting AL, Müller declared to Arroyo that “It is absolutely impossible that the pope, as the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Jesus Christ for the Universal Church, [would] present a doctrine which is plainly against the words of Jesus Christ.”

With all due respect to the Cardinal, to whom I cannot hold a candle respecting theological credentials, on this point he is mistaken. It is not at all impossible for a Pope to teach error, for that would mean the Pope is absolutely inerrant in all that he says in his capacity as Pope, which is certainly not the teaching of the Church. The obvious historical example is that of Pope John XXII, who insisted in a series of sermons, and even wrote a treatise contending, that the blessed departed do not see God until the end of time, thus evoking furious opposition leading to his retraction of that false teaching on his deathbed.

What is impossible, as the renowned canonist Ed Peters observes, is that “a pope commits the Church to a heresy. However grave might be the consequences for a pope falling into heresy, the Church herself cannot fall into heresy at his hands or anyone else’s. Deo gratias.”

But, as Peters further observes, while the Holy Ghost would never permit a Pope to impose heresy upon the Church Universal, “the canonical tradition yet recognizes (and history suggests) that a given pope could fall into personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly, which brings us to some thoughts on those possibilities.” Hence, for example, Pope Honorius I was posthumously condemned for his promotion of the monothelite heresy (only one will, the divine will, in Christ) by an ecumenical council, whose decree was affirmed by Honorius’ successor.

I do not here contend, although others may, that Francis has publicly promoted heresy in the strict sense, which (as Peters notes) is defined by canon law as “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be believed by divine and catholic faith. 1983 CIC 751.” Rather, I simply note, contra Cardinal Müller, what Peters notes, quoting Wrenn’s canonical commentary:

“‘Should, indeed, the pope fall into heresy, it is understood that he would lose his office. To fall from Peter’s faith is to fall from his chair.’ ….

“To be sure, all admit that in talking about popes falling into heresy we are talking [about] a very remote scenario…. And the great Felix Cappello, Summa Iuris I (1949) n. 309, thought that the possibility of a pope falling into public heresy should be ‘entirely dismissed given the special love of God for the Church of Christ [lest] the Church fall into the greatest danger.’ But Cappello’s confidence (at least in the scope of divine protection against heretical popes) was not shared by his co-religionist, the incomparable Franz Wernz, whose summary of the various canonical schools of thought about the possibility of a papal fall from office due to heresy is instructive.

“After reviewing canonical norms on loss of papal office due to resignation or insanity, Wernz-Vidal, IUS CANONICUM II (1928), n. 453, considers the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope (emphasis and citations omitted):

“‘Through heresy notoriously and openly expressed, the Roman Pontiff, should he fall into such, is, by that very fact, and before any declaratory sentence of the Church, deprived of his power of jurisdiction…. I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this analysis.’” [paragraph breaks added]

I do not touch here upon the question of how such self-deposition of a Pope on account of personal heresy would be declared by the Church. That is another discussion entirely. But if the canonists agree that it is possible for a Pope to fall into personal heresy, it is certainly not impossible, as the Cardinal opines, that a wayward Pope would “present a doctrine which is plainly against the words of Jesus Christ,” even if he dares not impose his error upon the Church. Such is the case with AL, which imposes nothing upon the Church, but does open the door to the overthrow of the Church’s bimillenial Eucharistic discipline by any bishop so inclined, while others hold the line.

Suffice it to say that the Bergoglian pontificate is a dramatic and historically unique demonstration of the strict limits of papal infallibility, here almost daily exceeded. And this indeed must be part of the unparalleled ecclesial crisis the Third Secret foretells.