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?