Imagine If This Applied to Church Members

Jacob Wood continues the discussion that haunts conservative Roman Catholics about whether a pope can be a heretic. He draws on the works of Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine:

Bellarmine was more hesitant about the whole question. Unlike Suarez, he did not take it as a given that the pope could be a formal heretic. Actually, Bellarmine considered it “probable” that God would prevent the pope from ever being a formal heretic (he says it twice: De Romano Pontifice 2.30 and 4.2). Nevertheless, Bellarmine was willing to consider what would be the case if the pope could fall into formal heresy.

If we assume that the pope could be a formal heretic, Bellarmine thinks Suarez’s opinion is wrong. Suarez allows the bishops to judge the pope. But one of Gratian’s basic rules is that no one can judge the pope. Sure, Suarez has Christ carrying out the judgment, but it is only because the other bishops of the Church have pronounced the judgment first.

Instead, Bellarmine adopts the position that Suarez rejected: the pope loses his office immediately by committing the sin of formal heresy, because people who commit that sin cease to be members of the Church, and God deposes a pope who is no longer a member of the Church. It’s true that the bishops could still get together and make a declaration that God had deposed the pope, but their declaration would not be a judgment in any real sense, only an acknowledgement of what God had already done. (De Romano Pontifice 2.30)

What is curious about this argument is that imagine how many Roman Catholics just lost their salvation (as in no salvation outside the church) by virtue of holding heretical views. Wood may take encouragement from the notion of papal audacity. But by so raising the stakes, Wood just made the work of the church a whole lot more onerous, first for the bishops and priests who need to police the sheep and second, for the sheep who may be guilty of mortal sin.

(BTW, with this kind of immunity for popes, you understand that the chances for substantial reformation are fat.)


Notice how Woods estimates papal reliability in terms that Protestants reserve for Scripture. First he quotes Gratian:

. . .no person can presume to convict him of any transgressions in this matter, because, although the Pope can judge everyone else, no one may judge him, unless he, for whose perpetual stability all the faithful pray as earnestly as they call to mind the fact that, after God, their own salvation depends on his soundness, is found to have strayed from the faith. (Decretum, Part 1, Distinction 40, Chapter 6)

Wood interprets: “So, no one can convict a pope of being remiss in his duties, because no one stands above the pope in judgment—unless the pope is a heretic, and then… Then what?”

This is the dilemma that Protestants face when they consider errors or discrepancies in Scripture.

But also notice how the Roman Catholic objection to Protestant diversity in interpreting the Bible becomes the diversity of Roman Catholics interpreting infallible popes. Here’s just the latest example of people without charism interpreting the fellow who is way above their spiritual pay grade:

It’s a misreading to see Pope Francis as seeking to impose a concrete solution to anything. He sees himself as initiating and overseeing a process, which is basically of the Holy Spirit. His own criteria for discernment are: If you get people together who are faithful to the magisterium, who speak boldly from their own experience and listen humbly to each other, and you give the process sufficient time for a proper discernment, then, if there is a convergence at the end of it, you can be confident that is of the Holy Spirit.

From my own research into his life, it became very clear to me that this actually is a subject that has occupied him since his 30s [and derives from] his deep reading of theologians, but also his understanding of how Church councils worked and his own experience of Church governance, first with the Jesuits and then the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and with the presidency of the bishops’ conference. [These have] taught him a lot of lessons about how the Church develops, as it were, under the Holy Spirit and how it can avoid the temptations that can beset any exercise of Church reform, which is splitting into parties. So that’s how I see the process. I see him enacting the process that is, in fact, very, very deeply thought through.

So how different (read superior) is the Roman Catholic paradigm from the Protestant one if both result in the same number of opinions about each’s infallible source of truth?


11 thoughts on “Imagine If This Applied to Church Members

  1. The strange fascination phase I’ve had with JATC is over. Reddit is far and away more healthy for the online prot v. Catholic debate, as is Oldlife. Despite what Tom Van Dyke says about OLTS. It’s a fascinating topic, but I feel JATC really aren’t the guys to tackle the divide in Western Xianfom, try as they may. The link I posted above is worth z look at how prots treat a catholic on reddit.

    Peace out.


  2. Darryl, thanks. I will read.

    You really have helped me understand RCism. I’m in your debt.

    May your Phillies make the playoffs and beyond. Take a tip or two from my SF Giants (wink).

    I’m out.


  3. No Pope is about to do anything drastic. He can’t. He’s bound by the paths of his predecessors, more or less.

    But a comment about not reproducing like rabbits is serious. That he offers up an apology for the comment later means little. He may be right but how does he fill out that observation in terms of instruction for those he’s charged to care for and feed?

    To pretend that the practice of the faith in the pews is irrelevant to the deposit of the faith harms both.

    If all that the faith amounts to is administrative in structure and social gospel in building material, Jesus, like the old soldier, will fade away. And our old faith, our old life, DGH, is no more.

    I wasn’t surprised to find the poll numbers on the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist what they were:

    It is theoretically impermissible to submit a ritual mystery, like the conversion, to an “interpretation” in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics, as was done in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Once this fallacious path is taken, it is only a question of time and circumstance before indignant metaphysicians will rebel against a substance without accidents and accidents without substance…. [The] ancestry [of this path] goes back beyond the Reformation into the metaphysical trespassing of the scholastic period. The enlightened misunderstanding of symbols, the Gnostic inclination to extend the operation of the intellect into the realm of faith and myth, begins for special problems as early as the twelfth century; and among the sinners we find, perhaps unexpectedly, even Saint Thomas.

    Here’s link for quote:

    Machen is right about the faith needing intellectual content and defense but in C&L his description of the Person of Jesus is brimming with feeling.

    Christianity and Liberalism has been good to read.


  4. Christian religion flourishes not in the darkness but in the light. Intellectual slothfulness is but a quack remedy for unbelief; the true remedy is consecration of intellectual powers to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    -J. Gresham Machen



  5. The Church is where a believer should be able to find help. She should recognize the constraints of pastor or priest but she should be able to find help. In essence, it’s her emergency room.

    P.S. When I wrote “our faith, our life” I didn’t mean to rope anyone here in that circle. I meant my old faith, my old life.


  6. MLD,

    To pretend that the practice of the faith in the pews is irrelevant to the deposit of the faith harms both.

    Ding, ding, ding. If only the RCs who come around here would admit it.


  7. D.G. Hart: “This is the dilemma that Protestants face when they consider errors or discrepancies in Scripture.”

    GW: I noticed in the above comment you used the terms “errors” and “discrepancies” without qualification. (For example, inerrantists like myself usually prefer to qualify those words with a term like “alleged” — as in “alleged errors and discrepancies”.) Are you just speaking hypothetically, or do you not hold to biblical inerrancy? Please clarify.


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