Popes Can Err - So Can Conclaves

It seems to me that this current pontificate has managed to polarise certain extreme views in the Church concerning the papacy itself. While these polarisations have been present for some time, only recently have they become mainstream.

On the one hand, we have the Neo-ultramontanists who assert that the Pope is chosen by God in the papal conclave. He cannot err on anything of importance and therefore any criticism of him is an attack on the papacy itself and the Catholic faith in general. On the other hand, we have the Sedevacantists who hold to the position that the Pope has erred and therefore he cannot be the Pope anymore. Thus they assert that the Chair of St. Peter (the papacy) is vacant.

May I submit to you that both of these groups are nothing more than two manifestations of the exact same error. That error being "Hyper-Papalism" (my own description).

What is Hyper-Papalism?

Hyper-Papalism is the notion that begins with the idea that the Holy Spirit Himself chooses the Pope at the papal conclave. This reduces the free will of the College of Cardinals to nill. When considering this notion I am reminded of the words of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who voted in the 2013 papal conclave. He reported that he could feel his hand being guided by an invisible force to write the name on the ballot "Jorge Bergoglio" (the man who would become Pope Francis). To which a priestly friend of mine mockingly responded in his Facebook feed: "Oh Mahoney... thy name is Vassula."

The problem with this notion is that it eliminates the free will of the Cardinals involved in the papal conclave. I think this is the primary error afflicting both the Neo-ultramontanists and the Sedevacantists. The only difference is, the Neo-Ultramontanists refuse to admit that the Pope has erred, while the Sedevacantists have acknowledged it freely and taken it to its logical conclusion. Both are operating on the assumption that the Holy Spirit himself chooses the Pope, and that He leaves no latitude for the free will of the Cardinals. The Neo-ultramontanists then hunker down, refusing to admit that the Pope could be wrong about anything of importance. To do so would challenge their very Catholic faith and give ground to the Sedevacantists. Meanwhile, the Sedevacantists occasionally make a correct diagnosis that the Pope has erred on this matter or that, but because they assume that the Holy Spirit controls the conclave, they make it a zero-sum game. If the Cardinals choose poorly, they assume the Holy Spirit was not present and Cardinals chose an antipope.

This leads to the second part of Hyper-Papalism. It's the idea that the Pope simply cannot err at all when it comes to anything concerning faith and morals. Again, both the Neo-ultramontanists and the Sedevacantists make the papacy a zero-sum game. It's all or nothing. Either the Pope is right all the time, on matters related to faith and morals, or else he is not the Pope at all. Neo-ultramontanists insist he hasn't erred and will go to great lengths to prove he hasn't, even to the point of mental gymnastics. Sedevacantists insist he has erred and have taken that to their logical conclusion that if he has, he must not be the Pope. He is, therefore, an antipope. It seems that this papacy, the papacy of Pope Francis, has locked the Neo-ultramontanists and the Sedevacantists in a death match, with no holds barred, in a fight to the finish, winner take all.

May I suggest that perhaps they're both wrong. Perhaps they will both lose because you see, both Neo-ultramontanism and Sedevacantism are based on the same false presupposition. That false presupposition being Hyper-Papalism, meaning that (1) the Holy Spirit elects the Pope Himself, overriding the free will of the Cardinals and that (2) a true Pope can never err on matters of faith and morals.

I'll address the first part of this presuppositional error here. The Holy Spirit does not elect the Pope Himself. Sorry, He just doesn't. But that's not my opinion. That's the opinion of a former Pope. I'm just agreeing with him. On a 1997 German television interview, when asked whether the Holy Spirit is responsible for the election of a pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) said...
“I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined... There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!” 
When we look at the panorama of Church history, we can see that the Chair of St. Peter has clearly been occupied by men whom the Holy Spirit did not choose, and it would be blasphemy to say He did. I'm thinking in particular of pontiffs like Pope Stephen VI (896–897), Pope John XII (955–964), Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048), Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303), Pope Urban VI (1378–1389), Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503), Pope Leo X (1513–1521) and Pope Clement VII (1523–1534). Church history records all of these men as validly elected Popes, and some of them were outright scoundrels. Yet, none of them are recorded as antipopes. So it is possible for the Cardinals to elect a sub-optimal man to the Chair of St. Peter. It's happened before. It can happen again. It's up to the Cardinals to listen to the Holy Spirit of God, to try to discern who He would prefer they elect, meaning who is the most optimal man among them. But if they come into the conclave with their own agendas and prejudices, whoever ends up on the Chair of St. Peter may not be who the Holy Spirit intended as optimal. Nevertheless, God promises that in spite of this, He will preserve his Church and the papacy.

The second part of this presuppositional error is whether or not a Pope can err on matters of faith and morals while in office. To answer this question we must turn to the infallible decree of the Church in the First Vatican Council...
"We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable." 
Vatican I, Session 4, Chapter 4, Paragraph 9  
As you can see here, the role of papal infallibility is actually limited by this decree. On the one hand, he does speak infallibly when he proclaims matters ex-cathedra. On the other hand, if it's not ex-cathedra, it does not enjoy infallibility. In other words, if the Pope doesn't declare something ex-cathedra, it could possibly, potentially, even remotely, be in error. That's not to say the Pope errs all the time. Popes, as you know, have a tremendous amount of theological resources at their disposal. They can summon an entire legion of doctors and theologians to debate a matter before they ever speak on it. Presumably, anything that comes off the Pope's pen has undergone a tremendous amount of vetting before it's ever made public. Nevertheless, if he hasn't declared it ex-cathedra, it is possible for an error to exist, whether intentional or unintentional.

I think it's time to put an end to Hyper-Papalism, and her two children Neo-ultramontanism and Sedevacantism. We do so by admitting what the First Vatican Council allows, and what Pope Benedict XVI affirmed before he himself became Pope. The first thing we must admit is that the College of Cardinals can indeed elect a sub-optimal man to the papacy. It's been done before, and it can happen again. The second thing we must admit is that it's possible for a Pope to err, even on matters of faith and morals, while he occupies the Chair of St. Peter, so long as what he proclaims is not ex-cathedra. Granted, this is a pretty rare event, considering the vast resources at the Pope's disposal, but it can happen, and indeed many bishops and cardinals are now starting to say it has happened with Pope Francis (their accusation, not mine) over his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

So now the Neo-ultramontanists are having a meltdown, circling the wagons around this Pope, declaring anyone who disagrees with his teaching a "schismatic" and a "hater." Meanwhile, the Sedevacantists are having a party, declaring themselves vindicated. I assert here that both are wrong. Both the panic and the party are premature.

It is possible for a Pope to err, even on matters of faith and morals. While it is rare, it is possible, and if you doubt me on this, I must point you back to Vatican I. There would be no need to expressly point out that the Pope must speak ex-cathedra for his teaching to be infallible if the Pope were infallible all the time. Yes, Popes can err, even on matters of faith and morals.

Yes, even sub-optimal men are occasionaly elected as Pope. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out while he was Cardinal Ratzinger, God does not override the free will of the Cardinals. In the end, they can put anyone they want on the Chair of St. Peter. God only promises that he will preserve his Church and the papacy regardless. It's up to the Cardinals to surrender to God in prayer and discernment, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to them so they can make the most optimal choice.

So in this time when we find so much controversy surrounding this particular Pope, we should remind ourselves first that he is the Pope. The Sedevacantists are wrong. An error doesn't negate the papacy of a particular Pope. It only demonstrates (at most) that he was the sub-optimal choice for the papacy. We should also remind ourselves that if a papal teaching is not made ex-cathedra, indeed it can contain errors. While this is extremely rare and highly unlikely in most cases, it is still nevertheless possible. That, of course, doesn't mean that we should just dismiss all papal teaching if it doesn't bear the note of ex-cathedra. On the contrary, we should submit ourselves to all papal teaching with docility, understanding that if there is a significant problem, our bishops will raise their voices in warning and concern. Likewise, we should listen to them as well. In time, the matter will resolve itself. Our job is to focus on being good Catholics, not following the cult of papal personality (Neo-ultramontanism), or abandoning the faith entirely by declaring the Pope to be an antipope when he is not (Sedevacantism). Both of these errors come from the same source -- Hyper-Papalism -- and that's not Catholic.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Ramil said…
Excellent! Thank you
Michael E. said…
When I returned to the Catholic faith and took Confirmation classes, the closest that I ever came to a crisis of faith (a failure to trust to Catholicism being the true Church) came simply because I didn't understand how a man becomes the pope.

Indeed, before that, the only case where process of elimination didn't work for me (and that only because I didn't know enough to distinguish) was between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Even when I became convinced of Catholicism, I still had some difficulty in being certain of how to dismiss sedevacantism, even though I felt in my heart that sedevacantism was wrong. It was especially difficult once I learned that Vatican II is not doctrinal and therefore not infallible and not binding upon all faithful, and so I thought I had to be a "Traditionalist Catholic", at least in order to be certain that I wasn't doing wrong.

It's really only thanks to what I've learned in late 2017 and early 2018 that I've finally felt more confident than ever of what you're saying here, and what you have said on your blog in the past (at least where you haven't been making predictions about the future). Thank you for your part in that, Shane, and God bless you and your family.