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The Authority of the Pope by Saint Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church: "Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII; or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was (*). Now when he is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See"

The Authority of the Pope

by Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop and Doctor of the Church

From the "Catholic Controversy" (originally published by Burns and Oates, London 1886)

Translated by Rev. Henry Benedict Mackey, O.S.B. [



The ministers have violated the authority of the Church.

UNDER the ancient law the High Priest did not wear the Rational except when he was vested in the pontifical robes and was entering before the Lord. Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII; or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was (*). Now when he is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See, and must say as S. Peter did: Let another take his bishopric. (Acts i.) When he errs in his private opinion he must be instructed, advised, convinced; as happened with John XXII, who was so far from dying obstinate or from determining anything during his life concerning his opinion, that he died whilst he was making the examination which is necessary for determining in a matter of faith, as his successor declared in the Extrazagantes which begins Benedictus Deus. But when he is clothed with the pontifical garments, I mean when he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form. Thus we say that we must appeal to him not as to a learned man, for in this he is ordinarily surpassed by some others, but as to the general head and pastor of the Church and as such we must honour, follow, and firmly embrace his doctrine, for then he carries on his breast the Urim and Thummim, doctrine and truth. And again we must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.

But he cannot err when he is in cathedra , that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which Spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church, and, as the Greek says and the Church seems to understand in a collect of Pentecost, conducts and directs his Church into all truth: But when that Spirit of truth shall come, he will teach you all truth or, will lead you into all truth (John xvi. 13). And how does the Holy Spirit lead the Church except by the ministry and office of preachers and pastors? But if the pastors have pastors they must also follow them, as all must follow him who is the supreme pastor, by whose ministry Our God wills to lead not only the lambs and little sheep, but the sheep and mothers of lambs; that is, not the people only but also the other pastors: he succeeds S. Peter, who received this charge: Feed my sheep. Thus it is that God leads his Church into the pastures of his Holy Word, and in the exposition of this he who seeks the truth under other leading loses it. The Holy Spirit is the leader of the Church, he leads it by its pastor, he therefore who follows not the pastor follows not the Holy Spirit.

But the great Cardinal of Toledo remarks most appositely on this place that it is not said he shall carry the Church into all truth, but he shall lead; to show that though the Holy Spirit enlightens the Church, he wills at the same that she should use the diligence which is required for keeping the true way, as the Apostles did, who, having to give an answer to an important question, debated, comparing the Holy Scriptures together; and when they had diligently done this they concluded by the: It hath seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us; that is, the Holy Spirit has enlightened us and we have walked, he has guided us and we have followed him, up to this truth. The ordinary means must be employed to discover the truth, and yet in this must be acknowledged the drawing and presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus is the Christian flock led,-by the Holy Spirit but under the charge and guidance of its Pastor, who however does not walk at hazard, but according to necessity convokes the other pastors, either partially or universally, carefully regards the track of his predecessors, considers the Urim and Thummim of the Word of God, enters before his God by his prayers and invocations, and, having thus diligently sought out the true way, boldly puts himself on his voyage and courageously sets sail. Happy the man who follows him and puts himself under the discipline of his crook! Happy the man who embarks in his boat, for he shall feed on truth, and shall arrive at the port of holy doctrine !

Thus he never gives a general command to the whole Church in necessary things except with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, who, as he is not wanting in necessary things even to second causes, because he has established them, will not be more wanting to Christianity in what is necessary for its life and perfection. And how would the Church be one and holy, as the Scriptures and .Creeds describe her? -for if she followed a pastor, and the pastor erred, how would she be holy; if she followed him not, how would she be one? And what confusion would be seen in Christendom, while the one party should consider a law good the others bad, and while the sheep, instead of feeding and fattening in the pasture of Scripture and the Holy Word, should occupy themselves in controlling the decision of their superior?

It remains therefore that according to Divine Providence we consider as closed that which S. Peter shall close with his keys, and as open that which he shall open, when seated in his chair of doctrine teaching the whole Church.

If indeed the ministers had censured vices, proved the inutility of certain decrees and censures, borrowed some holy counsels from the ethical books of S. Gregory, and from S. Bernard's De Consideratione, brought forward some good plan for removing the abuses which have crept into the administration of benefices through the malice of the age and of men, and had addressed themselves to His Holiness with humility and gratitude, all good men would have honoured them and favoured their designs. The good Cardinals Contarini the Theatine, Sadolet, and Pole, with those other great men who counselled the reformation of abuses in this way, have thereby deserved immortal commendation from posterity. But to fill heaven and earth with invectives, railings, outrages,to calumniate the Pope, and not only in his person, which is bad enough, but in his office, to attack the See which all antiquity has honoured, to wish to go so far as to sit in judgment upon him, contrary to the sense of the whole Church, to style his position itself anti-Christianism- who shall call this right? If the great Council of Chalcedon was so indignant when the Patriarch Dioscorus excommunicated Pope Leo, who can endure the insolence of Luther, who issued a Bull in which he excommunicates the Pope and the bishops and the whole Church? All the Church gives him (the Pope) patents of honour, speaks to him with reverence. What shall we say of that fine preface in which Luther addressed the Holy See: "Martin Luther to the most Holy Apostolic See and its whole Parliament, grace and health. In the first place, most holy see, crack but burst not on account of this new salutation in which I place my name first and in the principal place." And after having quoted the Bull against which he was writing, he begins with these wicked and vile words: "Ego autem dico ad papam et bullce hujus minas, istud : qui prce minis moritur ad ejus sepulturam compulsari debet crepitibus ventris." And when writing against the King of England,- “Living," said he, "I will be the enemy of the papacy, burnt I will be thy enemy." What say you of this great Father of the Church? Are not these words worthy of such a reformer? I am ashamed to read them, and my hand is vexed when it lays out such shameful things, but if they are hidden from you, you will never believe that he is such as he is,- and when he says: "It is ours not to be judged by him but to judge him."

But I detain you too long on a subject which does not require great examination. You read the writings of Calvin, of Zwingle, of Luther: take out of these, I beg you, the railings, calumnies, insults, detraction, ridicule, and buffoonery which they contain against the Pope and the Holy See of Rome, and you will find that nothing will remain. You listen to your ministers; impose silence upon them as regards railings, detraction, calumnies against the Holy See, and you will have your sermons half their length. They utter a thousand calumnies on this point: this is the general rendezvous of all your ministers. On whatever subjects they may be composing their books, as if they were tired and spent with their labour they stay to dwell on. the vices of the Popes, very often saying what they know well not to be the fact. Beza says that for a long time there has been no Pope who has cared about religion or who has been a theologian. Is be not seeking to deceive somebody?-for he knows well that Adrian, Marcellus, and these five last have been very great theologians. What does he mean by these lies? But let us say that there may be vice and ignorance: "What has the Roman Chair done to thee," says S. Augustine, (Contra lit. Petil. ii. 51 )" in which Peter sat and in which now Anastasius sits? . . . Why do you call the Apostlic Chair the chair of pestilence? If it is on account of men whom you consider to be declaring and not keeping the law- did Our Lord, on account of the Pharisees, of whom He said: they say and do not do any injury to the chair in which they sat? Did He not commend that chair of Moses, and reprove them, saving the honour of their chair? For He says: Super cathedram , &c., (Matt. xxiii. 2). If you considered these things you would not, on account of the men you speak against, blaspheme the Apostolic chair, with which you do not communicate. But what does it all mean save that they have nothing to say, and yet are unable to keep from ill-saying.” []


Anonymous said…
Thank you for posing this.

He seems to be saying that the pope can be an occult heretic but when he is a manifest heretic he falls out of the Church ipso fact and [for the good of the Church] someone must declare his loss of office or [because others might not be aware he is a heretic and no longer the pope] deprive him odd his office.

Is my reading wrong?
Fred Martinez said…
You're welcome.

Here's Cardinal Raymond Burke reading in an 2016 interview with the Catholic World Report:

"CWR: Can the pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?"

"Cardinal Burke: 'If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It's automatic. And so, that could happen... '"

"... CWR: Who is competent to declare him to be in heresy?"

"Cardinal Burke: 'It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.'"
(Catholic World Report, "No, I am not saying that Pope Francis is in heresy," December 19, 2016)

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