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I had a question that I hoped the Catholics on the board could help me out with. My understanding of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility is that speaking in his official capacity as the "Vicar of Christ" and the Spiritual leader of the Christian Church, the Pope is considered infallible by the Catholic Church.

This is a purely hypothetical example, because in the real world, I imagine a cardinal or bishop would be anathemized (sp) before he could ascend to the level of Pope, but what would happen if the Pope taught a heresy such as Modalism or Docetism, speaking in his capacity as the church, from the chair of Peter? Would Catholics be compelled to agree with the same heresies former councils had violently condemned in the past? If the heresy was damnable enough, would it be possible to revoke the doctrine or reformulate it, just as it was initially put in place and formulated by the Church? Or would the tradition of the Church, which it has maintained since Apostolic times, overrule the Pope's proclamation?

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4 Answers 4

This is not completely hypothetical.

In the mid-300s, Pope Liberius may have signed a statement supporting what later became known as Arian heresy. That he did so in exile and possibly under torture is mitigation, and the story is complex, but it is a more concrete version of this question. In any event, there was clear pressure from the Emperor that came into play.

A similar situation occurred in the 600s with the anathemazation of Pope Honorious I in regards to Christ's nature and monothelitism. There were questions about whether or not the letter was spoken ex cathedra, and ultimately, this became a big discussion point when the dogma of papal infallability was promulgated.

The answer in both cases is basically that the church, having later repudiated his position, went to great lengths to say that the statement was not made under a condition in which papal infallibility is present. This article by Carroll explains the exact nuances of Liberius. Vatcan I in the 1870's, formulating the doctrine of papal infallability said that Honorious never spoke ex cathedra.

This basically would suggest that a mitigated sedevacantism is a logical possibility, but that it is ultimately a “nuclear weapon” option that must be avoided at all costs.

Most likely, any other such heresy later pronounced by the Magisterium would need to prove a similar circumstance.

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Im shocked that Carroll doesnt address Pope Honorius' anathematization in the 6th Ecumenical council?! –  Charles Alsobrook Jul 10 at 18:23
Thank you for bringing that to my attention! –  Affable Geek Jul 10 at 18:28
Good answer by the way :-) –  Charles Alsobrook Jul 10 at 18:35
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Like Affable Geek states...this is more historically concrete than one might think.

I think the basic 2 questions you are getting at (someone correct me if I'm wrong) are:

Question 1 - What would (should) happen if a Roman Pope promulgates, decrees, or endorses a heretical doctrine?

Answer - He would be anathametized as an heretic in an Ecumenical Council:

Pope Honorius I of Rome was the Pope of the Church of Rome from 625 to 638. While successful in missionary and administrative activities he is remembered for his condemnation as a heretic at the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680/681, after his death.

It was in his support of Patriarch Sergius I during the Monothelite controversy that Pope Honorius gained his notoriety in history. About the year 634, Patr. Sergius I raised, in a letter to Honorius, the use of the expression "one operation/one will" in an attempt to reconcile the differences between the Orthodox and the Monophysites following the condemnation of Monophysitism at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon. The term was raised when emperor Heraclius made use of the expression in refuting the Monophysites during a visit to Armenia. Its use was questioned and then referred to Patr. Sergius who, not ready to make a decision, referred the question to Pope Honorius. Honorius, in his reply to Sergius, while concurring on the questionability of the expression, and also of "two operations" as being Nestorian, left his explanation concerning Monothelitism unclear and sounding as if he endorsed Monophysitism while giving support to Sergius...

...[T]o settle the issue, in 680, the Sixth Ecumenical Council met in Constantinople under the auspices of Eastern Roman emperor Constantine IV. The council condemned Monothelitism and, after deliberating over the doctrinal letters of Sergius and Honorius that were found quite foreign to the apostolic doctrines, anathematized as heretics Honorius and Sergius as well as Cyrus of Alexandria, Paul II, Peter of Constantinople, and Theodore of Pharan. (Orthodoxwiki)

Question 2: Are Catholics required to accept whatever the Pope promulgates, decrees, or endorses as a divinely revealed dogma of Truth no matter what?

Answer - Yes...according to Vatican I at least:

Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world...

...[T]his is the teaching of the Catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation...

...[S]ince the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff...

...[T]herefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the christian people, with the approval of the Sacred 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. (Pastor Aeternus)

This question brings attention to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church perches upon this very doctrine, namely, Papal Infallibility. In other words, it is this doctrine that separates the Church from all other Churches - especially the Eastern Churches.

Rome claims that whenever former Popes made heretical statements or accepted heretical doctrines...they were not using all of the required ingredients for being infallible.

How would a situation similar to that of Pope Honorius' be explained or justified by Rome in the future?

Not sure...

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That's the "secret back door". If a pope were to make such a statement, he would be condemned by a council, but there would be as much backfilling as necessary to state that the statement wasn't in fact ex cathedra and therefore not infallible. –  Matt Gutting Jul 10 at 18:43
+1 Excellent doctrinal answer! –  Affable Geek Jul 10 at 19:10
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Being a hypothetical question, you're bound to get a lot of personal opinion. I'll give it my best shot though.

In a nutshell, Catholics (as far as personal experience and research) are told they must obey the Pope because of his responsibility to serve and protect the Church and it's people. So if a Pope were to snap and go full-on heretic, some would say they are obligated to follow what the Heretic Pope was teaching.

Luckily, Pope or not, we are given information on what should be done (and what will be done) with people who teach heresy and warp God's Word.

Gal 1:8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.

Titus 3:10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

As well as

Proverb 30:6 Add thou not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.

We see from the very very few examples provided above the ultimate price for heresy. Revelation gives us an excellent warning on adding or taking from the Word, and many dispute whether it targets Revelation itself or the entire Bible. Personally, I believe the latter, as God would have knowledge (being All-Knowing) that His Word would have been formed into one book.

Either you are removed from the Church as a whole, and/or you are rebuked by the Lord Himself. I know this question is hypothetical, so I answered it best I could within the question itself.

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The Pope would never teach heresy as an official teaching of catholic church. You can see the proof in history when popes were forced or some of them tried to demolish the teaching, it actually never happened. Reason why?

Matthew 16:18, Jesus fulfills his promise...

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How does Matthew 16:18 even relate to this question? Apart from people considering Peter the first Pope, it's pretty much irrelevant. They weren't called Catholics in Jesus' time, nor was there a Pope. Depending on ones definition of heresy, the answer is both yes and no. Some go to traditions rather than God's Word, and going against God's Word (tradition or not) can be seen by some as heresy. –  Jesse Jul 10 at 13:56
Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. This answer needs more support. It needs sources, and citations, if necessary, to support what you are saying. Otherwise, it just looks like your opinion. Please add more to it to make a truly academic answer. Thank you. Resources: Guidelines for writing effective answers and What is a well-sourced, dispassionate answer? –  fredsbend Jul 10 at 14:17
Or at least, Catholics would never admit that he had. They always have recourse to the "but he didn't say Simon says" excuse. –  david brainerd Jul 11 at 4:00
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