03: Distinguishing True from False: Popes, Councils, Conclaves
An antipope can sin gravely, teach heresy, and can commit apostasy, heresy, and schism as well as idolatry, sacrilege, and blasphemy. On the other hand, it is possible for an antipope to be sincerely mistaken, perhaps be in a state of grace, even be relatively holy, and only teach error inadvertently. Recall that Saint Hippolytus of Rome was an antipope and schismatic, who later repented. By comparison, a true Pope can be a Saint, or a true Pope can be very sinful, like Pope Alexander VI. (Note that Alexander repented on his death bed, spent much time considering his sins and sorrowing over them, and he received Confession with the Last Rites before his death.) Consider also the great schism, which gave rise to the Eastern Orthodox Churches. There are many holy persons in those Churches, but they are in fact schismatics and heretics. They reject the dogmas on the Roman Pontiff. And they are not in communion with the See of Peter.
** We cannot distinguish between true and false Popes by their apparent holiness.
Always choose a sinful valid Pope over an apparently holy antipope. A holy person can be mistaken on an important matter of theology, as when Saint Thomas Aquinas was wrong on the Immaculate Conception, and Blessed John Duns Scotus was right (though he is still only a Blessed). And holy persons can fall into a heresy or schism with a sincere but mistaken conscience. Moreover, we poor fallen sinners can be mistaken about the alleged holiness of another person. Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas disagreed about whether or not they should continue to work with John Mark, the Gospel writer (Acts 15:37-40).
Do not let pride lead you astray. Many persons reply on their own judgment, above the dogmas of the faith, such that they will believe someone they consider to be holy, in contradiction to magisterial teaching. Do not be so certain as to who is holy and who is not. But if the Roman Pontiff canonizes someone, then they are a Saint. Do not put your own judgment above a canonization by the Vicar of Christ and the Holy See.
It is entirely possible, then, for an antipope to seem to be holy, and for the true Roman Pontiff to be or seem to be sinful. It is possible for the true Pope to be sinful, and for his opponents to be much holier (at least in appearance). So if you refuse submission to a Roman Pontiff because he is not holy in your eyes, you sin twice: once by schism, as the Pope has the authority of Christ, no matter how sinful he may be; again, by pride, in that you judge the holiness of the Vicar of Christ, who is judged by God alone. The saying is true: The First See is judged by no one (meaning, no one but God). And that is also a Canon in Canon Law, n. 1404.
The true Pope must be a validly ordained Bishop. Since a woman cannot be a valid Bishop, then a woman cannot be a valid Pope. The true Pope must freely accept his office. Therefore, he can also freely resign. Pope Benedict XVI freely resigned, so he is no longer the true and valid Pope. And the Pope must be validly elected.
Now it is very easy for those who are unhappy with any Pope to listen to rumors and stories that are told, the point of which is to invalidate the conclave that elected a Pope. But since the surety of the Faith depends upon the Rock on which the Church is founded, it cannot be so uncertain as to which conclaves are valid or invalid, that it would be left to the judgment of fallen sinners, and to the influence of rumor-mongers and Pope-haters.
They say: "Oh, no, but THIS story about the conclave is true! It's confirmed! Many people are saying it!"
My reply: There are many flies on the flypaper. It does not matter how many are saying something. In the last days, hundreds of years from now, the vast majority of persons in the world will follow the Antichrist. And as for stories about a conclave, which supposedly invalidate it, such stories are never infallible. So we cannot base the validity of a Pope, who can teach infallibly, on such an inform basis. The Rock on which the Church is founded is not itself founded on sand.
So how do we know which conclave is valid, and therefore which Popes are valid? The Pope accepted by the body of Bishops is the valid Pope, and so stories about his conclave are irrelevant.
Saint Robert Bellarmine taught that if an election of a Pope were invalid, but subsequently he were accepted by the body of Bishops, he becomes the true Pope. Thus, in any case, the Pope accepted by the body of Bishops is the true and valid Pope. This teaching of Bellarmine is absolutely certain because the Church is indefectible. And the dogma of indefectibility cannot be mistaken. Thus, the body of Bishops cannot go astray following a false Pope. For then the Church would have defected.
Jesus chose to give the Church a certain structure. He chose 12 Apostles, not only one. And He chose to have Peter be the head of the Apostles, whose successors are the Bishops. The authority of Christ over doctrine and discipline is entrusted to them, first and foremost to the successor of Peter, and then also to the body of Bishops, who assist him in teaching the whole world. They are the Apostles of today, chosen by Christ through the Holy Spirit.
They say: "But Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ!"
My reply: Yes, and a few bishops today betray the Vicar of Christ, and yet you papal accusers follow them! But Peter was given the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, just as Vatican I defined, in its infallible interpretation of the words of our Lord: "But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers." (Lk 22:32). So after Peter becomes Pope, at the Ascension of Christ, his faith is never-failing. Peter cannot become Judas Iscariot, as long as he is the valid Pope. And notice that, the Pope having been given the charism of never-failing faith by Christ, he then confirms his brother Bishops, as a body. Therefore, the body of Bishops also has a similar charism, that of truth and of never-failing faith, but only as a body, and only if they are willing to be confirmed (strengthened, led) by the Roman Pontiff.
** That Pope who is accepted by the body of Bishops as the successor of Peter is the true Pope.
The Church cannot go astray or lead astray, no matter how it might seem to fallen sinners. The Pope cannot go astray or lead astray. For the Church would not be indefectible, if Her head could defect. And the same is true for the body of Bishops, though only as a body. Neither the body of Bishops, nor the Roman Pontiff can ever teach grave error, not even non-infallibly, nor commit apostasy, heresy, schism, idolatry, sacrilege, or blasphemy. For the Church is indefectible. Always remember that the Church is no mere human institution, and the decisions on doctrine and discipline of the Pope and the body of Bishops are not the decisions merely of men.
Some say that Francis must be an antipope because he teaches heresy, or commits apostasy, heresy, or idolatry. But that is not how the distinction between true and false Pope works. Validity is not based on your evaluation of a Pope's teaching. That is backwards. How can you be taught by a Pope when you are constantly judging his teaching, and rejecting whatever contradicts your own understanding? How can you be taught by a Pope, if you accuse any Pope of heresy as soon as he says or does anything contrary to your own judgment? You should submit to the authority of Christ in the successors of Saint Peter. Judging any Pope and accusing him of apostasy, or heresy, or idolatry is heresy, as each valid Pope, accepted by the body of Bishops, has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, and it is schism, as you refuse submission to each Pope that you claim to have the role to judge and condemn.
No Pope can teach or commit heresy. All past valid Popes accused of these errors are falsely accused, according the teaching of Vatican I and the ordinary universal Magisterium, as I have explained previously.
** No valid Pope can lose his validity, as he has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith.
Therefore, a Pope accepted by the body of Bishops is the true and valid Pope. If he teaches something under either the infallible or non-infallible Magisterium, it can never be grave error, can never be heresy, can never lead the faithful away from the path of salvation, can never constitute apostasy, heresy, or schism, idolatry, sacrilege, or blasphemy. Grave errors cannot be taught by any Roman Pontiff under the Magisterium, for the following reasons. He has charism of truth and of never-failing faith. God is solicitous for our salvation. He is the head of the Church which can never go astray or lead astray (dogma of indefectibility). He teaches with the authority of Christ and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. That assistance guarantees that infallible teachings (of the Magisterium, on faith and morals) will have no error, and that non-infallible teachings will have no grave error. For the Apostolic See is without blemish -- not without all error, but without grave error.
Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4:
"the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter"
"their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren [Lk 22:32]."
"This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine."
It has never been known that any teaching on faith or morals of an Ecumenical Council was ever reformed by any other Council or by any Roman Pontiff. Those who reject the teachings of Ecumenical Councils in the history of the Church have always been none other than the heretics and schismatics.
Saint Robert Bellarmine: "It must be held with Catholic faith that general Councils confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff can neither err in faith nor morals." [De Controversiis, On the Church, Book II, trans. Ryan Grant, Mediatrix Press, 2017, chapter 2, p. 122.]
The same idea is expressed by Ludwig Ott, in his famous book The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma: "It has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church from the earliest times that the teachings of the General Councils are infallible." [Ott, The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma Revised and Updated Edition (London: Baronius Press, 2018), p. 321]
That which must be held with Catholic faith is dogma. That which has been the constant teaching of the Church from earliest times is dogma. Ecumenical Council do not teach error. Therefore, whoever accuses any Ecumenical Council, whether Vatican I or Vatican II or any other, of any error on faith or morals rejects the true teaching of the holy Catholic Faith.
Who is the true Pope? The Pope accepted by the body of Bishops is the true and valid Roman Pontiff, and he can never lose his validity, nor can he ever teach grave error, nor commit apostasy, heresy, or idolatry.
What if the conclave of a Pope is said to be invalid, or even is non-canonical? A conclave can be non-canonical and still valid. Pope Saint John Paul II ruled, in Universi Dominici Gregis, that if even, God forbid, simony were to be committed by a Cardinal-elector, the conclave is still valid, as is the elected Roman Pontiff. A non-canonical conclave, such as if the Cardinals were to decide, after the death of a Pope, to hold a conclave not according to the current rules, may or may not be illicit, but it would still be valid. The Church is not a delicate sculpture made of thin and fragile crystal, which is broken by the slightest misstep by Her leaders. She is the Ark of Salvation which can withstand the Great Flood.
Which Ecumenical Council is valid? The 21 General Councils accepted by the Roman Pontiffs and by the body of Bishops are each and all valid Councils. None of these Councils could have possibly erred on faith or morals at all. However, the teachings and decisions of those Councils are only true, valid, and formally "of the Council" if approved by the Roman Pontiff. Thus, the document Haec Sancta, which taught that Ecumenical Councils are above Popes, was never approved, but rather was rejected by the Roman Pontiffs and rejected by a subsequent Ecumenical Council. That document is not "of the Council", and so its teaching is not of the Church.
What if a future Council is held; how do we know if it is valid?
Some papal accusers have proposed the gathering of an "imperfect Council", which is an Ecumenical Council without a Pope and even in opposition to the Pope. They claim that this imperfect Council can judge the Roman Pontiff, determine that he is guilty of apostasy or heresy or idolatry, and even depose him. These claims are false. They are the claims of Haec Sancta, whose teachings are now heretical, as the Councils of Florence and Vatican I defined that the Pope is the head of the Church, and no body of Bishops or other persons is above his authority. The only authority above the Pope is God.
An "imperfect Council" is an Ecumenical Council without the Roman Pontiff as its Head. Therefore, it is a headless monster. And the idea of holding an imperfect Council to judge and condemn and depose Pope Francis is an heretical and schismatic proposal. Those who suggest this course of action are guilty, by that very fact, of heresy and schism. For they refuse submission to the Roman Pontiff who propose accuse him of apostasy, or heresy, or schism, and who seek to depose him.
Vatican I: "Since 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." [Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3, n. 8]
A true and valid Ecumenical Council is led by the Roman Pontiff, and approved by the Roman Pontiff. Nothing is of a Council, until and unless it is approved by the Roman Pontiff. Haec Sancta is one example of this role. Another is the failed attempt to condemn Pope Honorius for heresy.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council attempted to condemn Pope Honorius, who had died about 40 years earlier. Pope-Saint Agatho intervened with a letter to the Council, teaching them about the Roman Pontiff, that "Under his protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error" and that "his authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things" and that the Church receives Her faith from the Roman Pontiff and that is why Her faith remains undefiled.
But after Agatho died, again some Council fathers attempted to accuse Pope Honorius. There were many problems in the Church at that time, and the difficulties could be traced back to the heresy that arose during his time. By the end of the Council, the fathers were agreed that Honorius was guilty of heresy, and they were shouting "anathema" against him. That seems very certain and definitive. But recall the example of Haec Sancta. Nothing is of a Council unless approved by the Roman Pontiff. Pope-Saint Agatho's teaching rebuked the fathers for accusing Pope Honorius. And Pope-Saint Leo II, his successor, changed the accusation against Honorius from heresy to negligence, to not doing enough to oppose the heresy of his day. Since this change occurred in the very letters that approved of the Council's decisions, the condemnation of Honorius for heresy is not "of the Council". Rather, the Council's decision is that which Pope-Saint Leo II decided: Honorius was guilty of negligence only. The Pope wrote three letters in Latin, each of which gave this same decision of negligence only. But the Greek translation of one letter tried to change the accusation back to an active error, from a passive error (negligence; not doing enough). So the Latin texts are the original decision of the Pope, and the Greek translation is in error.
Therefore, in asking whether an Ecumenical Council is valid, we must also ask which decisions of the Council on doctrine and discipline are valid? Only those approved by the Roman Pontiff. Nothing is of a Council until and unless a Pope approves it and promulgates it. A law is not a law until it is promulgated. So if, during a future Council, there is a rumor of a new teaching or decision, do not believe it until the Pope approves it AND promulgates it.
How do we know which individual Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, theologians, and lay leaders to accept as persons who give us instruction in the faith?
Only a Bishop, who remains in communion with the Roman Pontiff, can exercise the Magisterium. Bishops Schneider, Vigano, and Burke have rejected the authority of Pope Francis, and have put themselves above him, to judge his every teaching and to reject whatever they judge to be in error. They also reject the dogma of Vatican I, infallibly interpreting the words of our Lord, that Peter and his successors have a never-failing faith. Therefore, they are heretics and schismatics. Do not accept anything they say. They are the successors to Judas Iscariot. Any other Bishops who behaves the same way, thereby breaking communion with the Pope, must be rejected by the faithful.
Any priest or theologian or other leader, speaker, or author who opposes Pope Francis, who accuses him of teaching grave error or of failing gravely in faith, is also guilty of heresy and of schism. The First See is judged by no one but God. They take the role of God who judge and condemn any Pope. Do not allow such persons to teach you the faith at all, on any subject within religion. The papal accusers are heretics and schismatics. The next conservative Pope will not praise them, will not take up their heresy, their schism, their condemnations of Francis. Instead, the next conservative Pope will reject them.
In addition, anyone who rejects the Second Vatican Council, or judges and condemns any of its teachings, is guilty of heresy, for rejecting the dogma (explained above by Bellarmine and Ott) and is guilty of schism for rejecting the authority of an Ecumenical Council approved by the Roman Pontiffs. Do not accept as your teacher on any subject within religion someone who rejects any Ecumenical Council, or any part of any Ecumenical Council, approved by the Roman Pontiff. Whoever rejects the Pope or the body of Bishops or their Ecumenical Council rejects Christ. Do not yoke yourselves to heretics and schismatics.
Do not accept as your teacher anyone who teaches distrust of the Popes or the body of Bishops or the Church. Utterly reject anyone who says that a future Pope or the Church Herself in the future will go astray and will lead others astray. Such a claim is a grave error, contrary to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ himself on the Church and on the Pope. Never at any time with the Antichrist or the false prophet become Pope, nor take control of the Church. The true Church, led by the successors of Peter who have never-failing faith, continues unblemished forever, even during the worst future times. The Antichrist will have his own false Church with his own false leader of that Church, and they will stand in opposition to the true Church and will attempt to destroy the true Church. But the true Church will continue, faithfully, until Christ Returns and beyond.
Note to my readers: In the near future, there will be a true Pope and a very popular false Pope, an antipope. There will seem to be two Churches, each led by a claimed Pope. You should be able to distinguish true from false from what the Church teaches explained above.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.