READ PART I: Can Popes Personally Err?
Pope St. Peter
The first instance of a Pope erring is seen in the life of the very first Pope and recorded in the Holy Scriptures themselves. As related in Galatians 2:11-21, St. Paul rebuked St. Peter because St. Peter was being hypocritical in his behavior towards Gentile Christians. Saint Peter had been eating with the Gentile Christians but when some Christians of Jewish origin arrived, he separated himself from the Gentiles and would only eat with the Christians who still kept the Jewish laws regarding unclean foods. Saint Paul saw this as a betrayal of the Gospel message that the ceremonial laws of the Jews were abolished by the death and resurrection of Christ.
St. Paul saw St. Peter’s behavior as sending a message to the Gentiles that they needed to observe Jewish laws and customs in order to be true Christians. In his rebuke of St. Peter, St. Paul never doubted the office of St. Peter but, nevertheless, reproached him for lack of judgment.
Pope Honorius I
Pope Honorius I was the head of the Church from 625 to 638. During his pontificate, he was known for his efforts to promote unity within the Church and to defend the orthodox teachings of the faith against various heresies. He worked to strengthen the authority of the papacy and was a strong supporter of the Council of Chalcedon, which affirmed the orthodox Christian belief in the two natures of Christ. Pope Honorius I also played a significant role in the missionary work of the Church, sending missionaries to England, France, and Spain to spread the Gospel message. He also encouraged the development of monasticism and supported the establishment of several new monasteries throughout Italy.
Despite his many accomplishments, Pope Honorius I was later criticized for his handling of the Monothelite controversy, which denied the existence of two wills in Christ. Some believed that he had not done enough to combat this heresy, and he was posthumously condemned as a heretic by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 680.
Father Gruner adds, “When the Holy Father, Pope Saint Leo II, confirmed the decrees of the Council, he added his own expression of condemnation of Pope Honorius for not having authoritatively taught the unchanging Faith of the Church when an ex-cathedra definition was so needed, and for instead approving a ban on both the true and heretical professions:
“We anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, [Sergius, etc.] and also Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by a sacrilegious treachery permitted its spotless faith to be sullied.”
This is an exceptionally interesting case, because Honorius did not actually teach heresy. Rather, he failed in his sacred and solemn duty – as Pope – of guarding the flock from heresy by condemning a pernicious error then deceiving many Christians. Such a grave dereliction of duty in the Vicar of Christ – who is given the grace by the Holy Ghost to teach, guard, and promote the purity of doctrine – was enough to have his successors judge him posthumously as heretical.
Pope Pascal II
Lay investiture was a crisis that affected the Church throughout the Middle Ages. Pope St. Gregory VII issued decrees in 1073 and in 1078 banning investiture from a layperson. The 1073 decree is lost but the 1078 decree reads as follows:
“Inasmuch as we have learned that, contrary to the establishments of the holy fathers, the investiture with churches is, in many places, performed by laypersons; and that from this case many disturbances arise in the church by which the Christian religion is trodden under foot: we decree that no one of the clergy shall receive the investiture with a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or of any layperson, male or female. But if he shall presume to do so he shall clearly know that such investiture is bereft of apostolic authority, and that he himself shall lie under excommunication until fitting satisfaction shall have been rendered.”
In 1111, Pope Pascal II found matters no better when he wrote to Emperor Henry V:
“…Moreover in portions of your kingdom bishops and abbots are so occupied by secular cares that they are compelled assiduously to frequent the court, and to perform military service, which things, indeed, are scarcely if at all carried on without plunder, sacrilege, arson. For ministers of the altar are made ministers of the king’s court; inasmuch as they receive cities, duchies, margravates, monies and other things which belong to the service of the king. Whence also the custom has grown up – intolerably for the Church – that elected bishops should by no means receive consecration unless they had first been invested through the hand of the king. From which cause both the wickedness of simoniacal heresy and, at times, so great an ambition has prevailed that the episcopal sees were invaded without any previous election. At times, even, they have been invested while the bishops were alive.”
Pascal II was a strong opponent of the practice of lay investiture, which was seen as a violation of the Church’s independence and authority. However, previously in 1107, Pope Pascal II had reached a compromise with Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor, that allowed secular rulers to invest bishops and other Church officials with the symbols of their office, but not with spiritual authority. This compromise, which provided the basis for the Concordat of Worms (1122), was seen by some as a betrayal of the Church’s principles and a capitulation to secular authority. He even admitted to this, as Father Gruner states:
“To his own credit, Paschal publicly acknowledged his mistake, and not just at the Lateran Synod of 1112. Four years later, he publicly cursed the day that he had given his disastrous order to the bishops, and he congratulated them for recognizing that their duty lay in resisting him: ‘I confess that I failed, and I ask you to pray God to pardon me. As for the cursed privilege, … I condemn it with an everlasting anathema, and I will that its memory be forever hateful.”
Pope John XXII
Pope John XXII was the head of the Catholic Church from 1316 to 1334. He was born Jacques Duèze in Cahors, France, in 1249 and was a prominent theologian and canon lawyer before he was elected as Pope. One of Pope John XXII’s most significant accomplishments was the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi.
During his pontificate, Pope John XXII was involved in several conflicts and controversies, including the Avignon Papacy, which saw the papacy move from Rome to Avignon, France. He was also criticized for his views on the Beatific Vision in which he espoused the heretical belief that the souls of the righteous did not enter into the Beatific Vision immediately after death, but instead waited in a state of anticipation until the Last Judgment. Pope John XXII initially defended his views, but later retracted them before his death in 1334. He declared that he had not intended to teach heresy and that he had always believed in the traditional Catholic teaching on the subject, even though his personal views on the matter were false.
Seeking to end a period of debate on whether the blessed will have the vision of God immediately after their sentence or if they must wait until the General Judgment at the end of time, his successor Pope Benedict XII issued Benedictus Deus (On the Beatific Vision of God) in 1336, thus ending the debate vis-à-vis a dogmatic definition:
“By this Constitution which is to remain in force forever, We, with apostolic authority, define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ – provided they were not in need of any purification when they died, or will not be in need of any when they die in the future, or else, if they then needed or will need some purification, after they have been purified after death – and again the souls of children who have been reborn by the same baptism of Christ or will be when baptism is conferred on them, if they die before attaining the use of free will: all these souls, immediately after death and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above, since the ascension of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into Heaven, already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in Heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels…”
Pope John XXII’s personal views were henceforth to be heretical.
Popes can and do err in personal matters, prudential decisions, and even in doctrinal matters. But despite this, a Pope can still be preserved from all error when using his ex cathedra power to define dogma. Addressing the limits of papal infallibility can greatly help us in our work to bring about unity with the Orthodox Church as well.
For more information on this and other items of truth to save your soul in this era of unprecedented doctrinal crisis, please obtain a copy of Father Gruner’s Crucial Truths to Save Your Soul, available either in PDF or as a paperback.
 Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, translated by Ernest F. Henderson, George Bell and Sons, London: 1910, p. 365.
 Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, edited by Ernest F. Henderson, George Bell and Sons, London: 1896, pp. 405-406.