Papal Error? A Defense of Popes said to have Erred in Faith
by St. Robert Bellarmine
St. Robert Bellarmine again takes up his pen to defend Popes who historically were said to have erred in Faith.
This little work is an excerpt from Bellarmine’s larger treatise On the Roman Pontiff, book 4, which follows after the assertion of what was already universally taught at that time, but not completely understood nor decreed by the Church’s Solemn Magisterium: that the Pope is infallible in his teaching on Faith and Morals when teaching to the whole Church. These chapters then, being 8-14 of that work, follow to test and prove this claim historically, wherein he posits exculpatory evidence against claims that 40 Popes had grievously erred in matters of Faith.
Much as with the doctrine of Papal infallibility itself, St. Robert Bellarmine does not endeavor to show the impeccability of Popes, rather that in matters of Faith, where the Popes are actually authoritative, they did not err. Some matters treated here are the objection of certain Protestants, while others are even of confused Catholics.
These chapters were used as a blueprint by the fathers at the Vatican Council, in the 1800s, to further scrutinize these cases and be sure of the limits and nature of papal authority.
St. Robert Bellarmine thus lays out four basic propositions; two of these Catholics must believe per the subsequent decree of the Vatican Council (which was no less incumbent upon the believer in St. Robert’s time, though then it was the universal teaching of all theologians), namely that the Pope is infallible when judging matters of Faith and Morals and defining these as matters that must be believed by all the faithful. This particular distinction is important, for the Pope, outside of this broad category, does not enjoy infallibility, thus in private letters, private teaching and their personal behavior, Popes can give scandal, they can give private opinions that are false, but they cannot teach the whole Church, and bind it to believe, error.
To quote St. Bellarmine himself: “For to this point no Pope has been a heretic, or certainly it cannot be proven that any of them were heretics; therefore it is a sign that such a thing cannot be.” (On the Roman Pontiff, book 4, ch. 6.)