HAS ANY POPE BEEN GUILTY OF HERESY?
Warren H Carroll
It is true that St. Athanasius was condemned by Pope Liberius though he was the leader of the defenders of orthodoxy against Arianism at the time. Pope Liberius was a weak man (the first Pope after St. Peter never honored as a saint) and he was imprisoned and probably had been tortured to force him to support the Arian heresy, at the time he condemned St. Athansius. He was therefore obviously acting under duress, as St. Athanasius pointed out when he refused to accept the validity of the excommunication. Though Pope Liberius did condemn St. Athanasius under heavy pressure from his captors, he refused to sign a clearly Arian statement of faith, but did sign an equivocal statement which could be interpreted either in an orthodox or an Arian sense.
The infallibility of the papacy was therefore preserved even under Liberius' weak leadership. But Popes are not infallible when making excommunications, or any disciplinary judgment, for they are limited by the information they have on the individual or situation in question. They are only infallible in making doctrinal pronouncements ex cathedra. It is vitally important always to remember that the Pope has two kinds of authority, magisterial (when he is speaking ex cathedra, that is, in a way intended to be binding on the faithful), in which he is infallible; and administrative, as head of the Church appointed by Christ to govern it (which would include excommunications).
The Pope is not infallible when exercising his governing authority, but still must be obeyed when he does so, as long as his orders apply clearly to the Church rather than to temporal affairs (as obviously they do in the Lefebvre case), for the Pope's authority over the Church is God-given and there is no appeal from it on earth. The circumstances of the case of St. Athanasius are fully explained in the first chapter of the second volume of my history of Christendom, The Building Of Christendom, which may be obtained from Christendom Press, 134 Christendom Drive, Front Royal VA (tel. 1-800-877-5456).
I deny that any Pope was ever a heretic, have researched each case where that is claimed, and will be glad to answer and refute any claim that any Pope ever committed himself or called upon the faithful to hold any heretical belief.
The followers of Lefebve have no more right to appeal to their personal interpretation of "apostolic traditions" over and against the authority of the Pope than Martin Luther and his followers had the right to appeal to their personal interpretation of Scripture over and against the authority of the Pope. The state of the Church today is bad, but no worse (and in some ways not even as bad) as it was at the height of the Arian heresy in the fourth century, of the Monophysite heresy in the East in the fifth and sixth centuries, and of Protestantism in every European country but Spain, Portugal, and Italy in the sixteenth century.
No recent Pope has said anything in his doctrinal pronouncements to encourage the present evils. Many argue that he should have disciplined the dissidents and heretics more firmly and comprehensively, but that is a prudential judgment on which we are at least as likely to be wrong as the Pope.
In the sixteenth century, for example, the Popes did denounce and attempted to discipline Protestant and other dissidents and heretics in Germany and England, to little effect.
Pope St. Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and called on her people to rise against her, and it only seemed to strengthen her. I'm not saying they shouldn't have taken these actionsI think, in fact, they were worth tryingbut only pointing out that such condemnations and denunciations are no automatic cure for major challenges to truth and authority in the Church. We must cling to the Pope especially in all such crises, remembering that Christ Himself said that Peter was the Rock against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail.Dr. Carroll