Friends Don’t Let Friends Accidentally Dogmatize the Extreme Opinion of Albert Pighius

Over recent years, the extent of the protection against error afforded the Pope by the Holy Spirit in his non-infallible ordinary magisterium has been a matter of controversy, with contributions made from a number of perspectives.

In this debate I have numbered myself amongst those arguing for a more rather than less expansive understanding of this protection. However, as with most doctrinal questions there is a via media in which orthodoxy lies, and thus the possibility of making overly extreme claims on behalf of the papacy that it has for good reason declined to make for itself.

An example of such an erroneous claim that has unfortunately been repeatedly made now for some time, is that a key text associated with the First Vatican Council didn’t merely proclaim that the Pope was immune from error when exercising his extraordinary infallible magisterium (i.e. when definitively defining doctrines ex cathedra for the whole Church on faith and/or morals), but also that a Pope is unable to teach heresy (except from ignorance) even as a private person (a view commonly attributed to a 16th century Dutch theologian known as Albert Pighius).

This grave error, which has been proposed by notable individuals including Dr. Robert L. Fastiggi, Emmett O’Regan and Ronald L. Conte Jr., is particularly egregious since it has been advanced on the basis of crude misreadings of the very magisterial teaching which expressly rejects that this extreme view was adopted by Vatican I.

I have to date hesitated to provide a refutation of this error, as its proponents include Catholic theologians whom I otherwise greatly respect and admire, and their arguments are without question made in good faith. I have no doubt they are only motivated by a desire to defend the papacy against those who would wrongly denigrate it, often to the extent to making errors of the opposite extreme, including denying any divine assistance for the non-infallible ordinary papal magisterium[1].

However, ultimately it can only be counter-productive to allow what is at best pious opinion to be presented as dogmatic truth, and to permit false claims to have free rein.

Accordingly, I have decided to set out how here why friends don’t let friends accidentally try to dogmatize “the extreme opinion of Albert Pighius“, since Vatican I explicitly didn’t.

1.0 Pastor Aeternus, the Gasser Relatio and Albert Pighius

The background to this issue is Pastor Aeternus itself, particularly the 4th Chapter on papal infallibility, in which Vatican I defined as a dogma that:  

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

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.” [Emphasis added]

In understanding this dogmatic definition, the key magisterial document is the official relatio presented by Bishop Vincent Gasser to the Council Fathers of Vatican I on 11 July 1870, shortly before their final adoption of Pastor Aeternus.

In delivering this relatio to the Council Fathers, Bishop Gasser was acting as the representative of the Deputation de Fide which drafted Pastor Aeternus, and his relatio was subsequently accepted as authoritative by the Second Vatican Council (i.e. such that it was cited a number of times in Lumen Gentium’s Chapter on the magisterium). 

In this text Gasser explicitly addresses the view attributed to Albert Pighius at issue in this article, and its relationship to the dogma defined by Pastor Aeternus, and thus a proper understanding of the relatio’s teaching will determine if we can say Pighius’ opinion was adopted or rejected by Vatican I.

In the relevant passage of the relatio Gasser is defending Pastor Aeternus against claims it seeks to define as a dogma the extreme opinion of Pighius, that a Pope is completely unable (except from ignorance) to teach heresy even as a private person, on the basis the dogma in fact embodies the common and certain view preferred by St. Robert Bellarmine: 

As far as the doctrine set forth in the Draft goes, the Deputation is unjustly accused of wanting to raise an extreme opinion, viz., that of Albert Pighius, to the dignity of a dogma.  For the opinion of Albert Pighius, which Bellarmine indeed calls pious and probable, was that the Pope, as an individual person or a private teacher, was able to err from a type of ignorance but was never able to fall into heresy or teach heresy. To say nothing of the other points, let me say that this is clear from the very words of Bellarmine, both in the citation made by the reverend speaker and also from Bellarmine himself who, in book 4, chapter VI, pronounces on the opinion of Pighius in the following words: “It can be believed probably and piously that the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith.”  From this, it appears that the doctrine in the proposed chapter is not that of Albert Pighius or the extreme opinion of any school, but rather that it is one and the same which Bellarmine teaches in the place cited by the reverend speaker and which Bellarmine adduces in the fourth place and calls most certain and assured, or rather, correcting himself, the most common and certain opinion.” [Emphasis added]

Before we can confidently opine on the meaning of this passage however, it is necessary to have recourse to the work by Bellarmine to which Gasser repeatedly refers, to determine what in fact is the unstated opinion “Bellarmine adduces in the fourth place”.

And therefore it is to this work, which all agree is Book 4 of Bellarmine’s De Romano Pontifice, to which we must now turn.

2.0 Bellarmine and De Romano Pontifice

Bellarmine’s De Romano Pontifice, On the Roman Pontiff, was the counter-reformation saint’s theological treatise aimed at defending the papacy and its claims against Protestant and Eastern Orthodox objections. In Book 4 in particular, he dealt specifically with papal infallibility, and his treatment was influential prior to and at Vatican I.

In this work, Bellarmine deals with the views of Pighius on more than one occasion, across multiple chapters. Therefore in order to see which passages are intended by Gasser, it is first necessary to review Gasser’s references to determine the identifying features which need to be looked for, so that they can be recognised in De Romano Pontifice.

In this regard, it can be seen from Gasser’s own words where he makes reference to both “the citation made by the reverend speaker and also from Bellarmine himself … in book 4, chapter VI”, that there are two citations to Bellarmine in play. These are:

  • Firstly, the citation made by the Council Father to whom Gasser is responding (being the Irish Bishop David Moriarty of Kerry), as part of that Council Father’s charge that Pastor Aeternus was seeking to dogmatize “the extreme opinion of Albert Pighius” (“the First Citation”); and
  • Secondly, the citation made by Gasser himself, to Chapter VI of Book 4 (“the Second Citation”).

Further from the Latin text of the intervention of Moriarty himself, we find his citation was simply the charge that if the Pope is infallible, then it must follow that the opinion of Pighius which is called extreme (i.e. by Bellarmine) is being adopted[2]:

“Si ideo infallibilis pontifex, quia in nullo esse licet se separare a fundamento sentio amplectendam esse sententiam, quae vocatur extrema Albert Pighii. [Emphasis added]

2.1 The First Citation

In relation to the First Citation, we can further see from the relatio, that it certainly has the following identifying features at least:

a) It includes an opinion, adduced by Bellarmine in the “fourth place”, which is consistent with the dogmatic definition proposed by Pastor Aeternus.

b) This opinion is called by Bellarmine the “most certain and assured, or rather, correcting himself, the most common and certain opinion“.

We may also, moving slightly beyond the absolutely certain, infer from the relatio that the First Citation may:

c) Contrast this fourth opinion, as Gasser does, as a more moderate path compared to the view of Pighius.

d) Refer, as did the Council Father Moriarty who cited it, to the view of Pighius as “extreme”.

e) Be separate from the citation made by Gasser to Chapter VI of Book 4, as suggested by Gasser’s statement regarding “the citation made by the reverend speaker and also from Bellarmine himself … in book 4, chapter VI”.

Guided by these identifying features, we may then ask the question if all of them are to be found in a single passage from Book 4 of De Romano Pontifice, which we can then rightly recognise as the First Citation.

Fortuitously, as it turns out we can quite easily do so in Chapter II of De Romano Pontifice’s Book 4, in which Bellarmine lists four different available opinions on the extent of papal infallibility as follows[3]:

With such things being laid out, only four different opinions remain.

1) Should the Pope define something, even as Pope, and even with a general Council, it can be heretical in itself, and he can teach others heresy and that this in fact has happened thus. This is the opinion of all the heretics of this time, and especially of Luther, who in his book on councils recorded the errors even of general councils that the Pope approved. It is also the opinion of Calvin, who asserted that at some time the Pope with the whole college of Cardinals manifestly taught heresy on that question of whether the soul of man is extinguished with the body, which is a manifest lie, as we will show a little later. Next, he teaches in the same book that the Pope can err even with a general council.

2) The second opinion is that the Pope even as Pope can be a heretic and teach heresy, if he defines something without a general Council, something that this opinion holds did in fact happen. Nilos Cabásilas has followed this opinion in his book against the primacy of the Pope; a few others follow the same opinion, especially amongst the Parisian theologians such as John Gerson, Almain and still, Alonso de Castro as well as Pope Adrian VI in his question on Confirmation; all of these constitute infallibility of judgment on matters of faith not with the Pope, but with the Church or a General Council.

3) The Third opinion is on another extreme, that the Pope cannot in any way be a heretic nor publicly teach heresy, even if he alone should define some matter, as Albert Pighius says.

4) The fourth opinion is that in a certain measure, whether the Pope can be a heretic or not, he cannot define a heretical proposition that must be believed by the whole Church in any way. This is a very common opinion of nearly all Catholics

From these four opinions, the first is heretical; the second is not properly heretical, for we see that some who follow this opinion are tolerated by the Church, even though it seems altogether erroneous and proximate to heresy. The third is probable, though it is still not certain. The fourth is very certain and must be asserted, and we will state a few propositions so that it can be understood and confirmed more easily.[Emphasis added]

In particular, checking off our identifying features, we find that Chapter II does include:

a) An opinion adduced by Bellarmine in fourth place, which is indeed consistent with Vatican I’s proposed dogma, being the “fourth opinion is that in a certain measure, whether the Pope can be a heretic or not, he cannot define a heretical proposition that must be believed by the whole Church in any way”[4].

b) Bellarmine affirming this fourth opinion is “very certain and must be asserted”.

c) Bellarmine contrasting this fourth opinion, with that of Pighius, which is enumerated as the third opinion.

d) Bellarmine calling this third opinion, being that attributed to Pighius, as extreme[5].

e) A separation from the citation made by Gasser to Chapter VI of Book 4.

Further, it is worth noting this identification is even clearer when considered in the underlying Latin of both Gasser and Bellarmine, especially in relation to fourth opinion being called the “most certain and assured“. For example in the Latin of Gasser, this is rendered as:

[E]t quam vocat certissimam et asserendam, vel potius semetipsum retractando, sententiam communissimam et certam”. [Emphasis added]

And in the Latin of Bellarmine, the fourth opinion in Chapter II is called:

[H]aec est comunissima opinion fere omnium Catholicorum … quarta certissima est et asserenda”. [Emphasis added]

Finally if we turn to another Council Father at Vatican I, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, we can also see where Bellarmine as noted by Gasser “corrected himself” to refer to this fourth opinion in Chapter II of Book 4 as “the most common and certain opinion“. Cardinal Manning, in his work The Oecumenical Council and the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff[6], explains that:

“‘The fourth opinion is the most certain, and to be asserted [Bellarm. Controv. de Summo Pontif. lib. iv. cap. 2.].

Bellarmine in later years reviewed his ‘Controversies,’ and wrote of this point as follows:-

‘This opinion is more rightly the common judgement of Catholics; for opinion implies uncertainty, and we hold this judgement to be certain.'” [Emphasis added]

2.2 The Second Citation

In relation to the Second Citation, the identification is somewhat more straight forward, being that it is clearly a reference to a passage:

a) In Chapter VI of Book 4.

b) Referring to the view of Pighius.

c) Which includes the quote “It can be believed probably and piously that the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith“. 

This passage can indeed be found in Chapter VI of Book 4 of De Romano Pontifice, which comprises the last of four propositions offered by Bellarmine, to support why the “fourth opinion” he adduces in Chapter II (as discussed above) is in fact the most common and certain. Chapter VI states, in full, that[7]:

“The fourth proposition. It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith. It is proved:

1) because it seems to require the sweet disposition of the providence of God.

For the Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,” that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne. How, I ask, will a heretical Pope confirm the brethren in faith and always preach the true faith? Certainly God can wrench the confession of the true faith out of the heart of a heretic just as he placed the words in the mouth of Balaam’s ass. Still, this will be a great violence, and not in keeping with the providence of God that sweetly disposes all things.

2) It is proved ab eventu. For to this point no [Pontiff] 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.” [Emphasis added]

3.0 The Teaching of Vatican I

With the benefit of the full passages from Bellarmine cited by the relatio, the substance of Gasser’s response to the unjust accusation that Pastor Aeternus would raise the extreme opinion of Pighius to a dogma, becomes very clear.

In short Gasser was explicitly teaching that the dogma of Pastor Aeternus is:

  • *Not* the extreme view of Pighius listed by Bellarmine in third place in Chapter II of Book 4 of De Romano Pontifice, and judged by Bellarmine to merely be a pious opinion, which is probable but not certain.
  • Instead the “very common” and “very certain” view preferred by Bellarmine, and adduced as his fourth opinion in Chapter II of Book 4, that “whether the Pope can be a heretic or not, he cannot define a heretical proposition that must be believed by the whole Church in any way”.

That the dogma represents this more limited view, rather than the more extreme one represented by Pighius, is also confirmed in more detail by Gasser later in his relatio. In this passage, Gasser makes clear why infallibility cannot be absolute, but instead must be limited by the conditions for infallibility provided by Pastor Aeternus and Bellarmine’s fourth opinion:

Note well.  It is asked in what sense the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is “absolute.”  I reply and openly admit:  In no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, who is the first and essential truth and who is never able to deceive or be deceived.  All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff.  For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions.  What those conditions may be should be deduced not “a priori” but from the very promise or manifestation of the will of Christ. 

Now what follows from the promise of Christ, made to Peter and his successors, as far as these conditions are concerned?  He promised Peter the gift of inerrancy in Peter’s relation to the Universal Church: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it …” (Mt. 16:18).  “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:13-17).  Peter, placed outside this relation to the universal Church, does not enjoy in his successors this charism of truth which comes from that certain promise of Christ. 

Therefore, in reality, the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is restricted by reason “of the subject,” that is when the Pope, constituted in the chair of Peter, the center of the Church, speaks as universal teacher and supreme judge: it is restricted by reason of the “object,” i.e., when treating of matters of faith and morals; and by reason of the “act” itself, i.e., when the Pope defines what must be believed or rejected by all the faithful

There is contained in the definition the act, or the quality and condition of the act of an infallible pontifical definition, i.e., the Pontiff is said to be infallible when he speaks “ex cathedra.”  This formula is received in the schools, and the meaning of this formula as it is found in the very body of the definition is as follows: when the supreme Pontiff speaks “ex cathedra,” not, first of all, when he decrees something as a private teacher, nor only as the bishop and ordinary of a particular See and province, but when he teaches as exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians.

Secondly, not just any manner of proposing the doctrine is sufficient even when he is exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher.  Rather, there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine or of defining a thing, giving a definitive judgment and proposing that doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church. 

This last point is indeed something intrinsic to every dogmatic definition of faith or morals which is taught by the supreme pastor and teacher of the Universal Church and which is to be held by the Universal Church. Indeed this very property and note of a definition, properly so-called, should be expressed, at least in some way, since he is defining doctrine to be held by the Universal Church.[Emphasis added]

This conclusion is also shared and confirmed by scholars of the relatio, including the translator of the standard English edition Rev. James T. O’Connor, who states in note 29 to his rendering of the relatio entitled The Gift of Infallibility that[8]:

Before completing his general relatio and turning to the suggested correction to the Draft, Gasser considers one last charge of those opposed to the Draft, viz., that is it simply “canonizing” the most extreme pro-papal opinion of one school of theology, that of Albert Pighius.

Albert Pighius (Pigge) was a Dutch theologian (c. 1490-1542) and a strong defender of a papal infallibility in a sometimes exaggerated form. He is generally understood to have defended the thesis that the Pope, even as a private person, was incapable of falling in heresy. Using Robert Bellarmine as a source, Gasser maintains this is a probable and pious opinion, but, it is not this opinion that the Draft proposes to define since Gasser has been at pains to stress that the Draft is treating the Pope in his role as a public person, supreme teacher of the Church, when he defines doctrine of faith or morals for the entire Church, a position Bellarmine held as “common and certain.”” [Emphasis added]

Similarly Dr. Christian D. Washburn, a professor of dogmatic theology, has more recently explained[9]:

“In a speech on June 28, 1870, Bishop David Moriarty objected that the deputation responsible for drafting the schema was attempting to promote the extreme opinion of the sixteenth-century Dutch theologian Albert Pighius (c.1490–1542), who held that the pope could never fall into formal heresy in any capacity as pope

On July 11, 1870, Bishop Vinzenz Gasser (1809–79) took more than three hours to read a relatio explaining the second schema of Pastor Aeternus. At the end of his relatio, Gasser expressed his disbelief that some of the council fathers had charged the drafters with attempting to promote an “extreme” view of papal infallibility. Gasser explained that the council’s doctrine is neither Pighius’ opinion nor an extreme form of infallibility. Rather, he asserted that what was being defined by the council is the “fourth opinion” contained in St. Robert Bellarmine’s (1542–1621) famous De Controversiis, which states “in a certain measure, whether the pope can be a heretic or not, he cannot in any way define a heretical proposition that must be believed by the whole Church.” Bellarmine thought that this view was “the most common and certain opinion” because it was held by almost all schools of theology. Ultimately, it was this opinion that the council defined.” [Emphasis added]

4.0 The Error

The issue which must now be addressed is, after it has so clearly been demonstrated that the official relatio of Vatican I expressly rejects the contention Pastor Aeternus raises to a dogma the view of Pighius, how then are certain Catholic theologians arguing it did the precise opposite?

How could they so twist and distort the relatio, that they would attempt to use it to dogmatize “the extreme opinion of Albert Pighius“, despite Vatican I explicitly rejecting that error?

As it turns out, there are in fact two separate versions of this error, which are inconsistent between each other and therefore need to be addressed separately. The first is advanced by Ronald L. Conte Jr. and supported by Dr. Robert L. Fastiggi (“the Conte Argument”)[10], and the second is advanced by Emmett O’Regan (“the O’Regan Argument”).

4.1 The Conte Argument

The basis of the Conte Argument is that the unstated opinion “Bellarmine adduces in the fourth place” referred to in Gasser’s relatio, is not in fact the fourth opinion listed by Bellarmine in Chapter II of Book 4, but is rather the view of Pighius himself offered by Bellarmine as his fourth proposition in Chapter VI.

In support of this identification of Chapter VI as what I have called in this article the First Citation, Conte notes Chapter VI:

  • Is explicitly cited by Gasser in the relatio in respect of the view of Pighius; and
  • Comprises an opinion adduced by Bellarmine in “fourth place”.

Conte further asserts Gasser was in fact rejecting the contention Pighius’ view was extreme, as Bellarmine instead referred to it as “pious and probable”, and thus Gasser was defending the suitability of Pighius’ opinion to form the basis for the dogma of Pastor Aeternus.

However, as already shown above, it is clear this argument is based on a crude and untenable misreading of the relatio.

In particular, the identification of Chapter VI as the First Citation cannot be supported, as:

  • While Chapter VI does indeed relate to an opinion adduced by Bellarmine in “fourth place”, it is never called by Bellarmine the “most certain and assured, or rather, correcting himself, the most common and certain opinion“.
  • Bellarmine instead only allows that Pighius’ view, which he does indeed call “extreme”, to be “probable and pious” (in Chapter VI) and “probable, though … still not certain” (in Chapter II)[11].

Accordingly as the fourth proposition in Chapter VI does not answer to Gasser’s explicit description of the First Citation, let alone the further identifying features of it I have proposed in 2.1 above, the Conte Argument is clearly in error and must be rejected.

4.2 The O’Regan Argument

The O’Regan Argument differs from the Conte Argument, in that it does not wrongly identify the First Citation with Bellarmine’s Chapter VI, but rather correctly recognises that it is the fourth opinion given by Bellarmine in Chapter II.

However, O’Regan further notes that:

  • Bellarmine “goes on to list a total of four propositions outlining why the fourth opinion [from Chapter II] outlined above should be considered certain and positively asserted”; and
  • That these include in fourth place Pighius’ view in Chapter VI that it “is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith”.

O’Regan then argues that, because Bellarmine’s fourth opinion in Chapter II has been raised to a dogma, so equally must have been made into dogma all the reasons given by Bellarmine in support of it.

However the absurdity of this argument can be shown by reference to a response by Dr. John P. Joy, in a paper which he has made available online, and which was later published in a somewhat modified form in the journal Nova et Vetera[12]:

[I]t must be said that this argument assumes that the First Vatican Council, by raising a conclusion of St. Robert Bellarmine to the status of a dogma, must also have made into dogmas all the reasons adduced by Bellarmine in support of his conclusion. But this does not follow. The official relatio explicitly states that it was not the intention of the council to dogmatize the extreme opinion of Albert Pighius, which Bellarmine describes as pious and probable (Msi 52: 1218 C). Rather, the doctrine contained in the council’s teaching is the ‘fourth opinion’ adduced by Bellarmine (Ibid.), which is that “in a certain measure, whether the pope can be a heretic or not, he cannot in any way define a heretical proposition that must be believed by the whole Church” (de Romano pontifice, IV, 2). This rules out the possibility of error when the pope defines a doctrine to be believed by the whole Church; but it does not rule out the possibility of error when the pope proposes a doctrine of faith or morals in his authentic magisterium without defining it as to be believed by the whole Church.

Now Bellarmine proceeds to offer four further propositions in support of this ‘fourth opinion’, one of which is indeed the position of Pighius. But it does not follow that the council’s endorsement of Bellarmine’s ‘fourth opinion’ entails an endorsement of all the further reasons adduced by him in support of that opinion, and it is especially absurd to argue that it entails an endorsement of that further proposition which the official relatio explicitly rejects as being contained in the meaning of its definition, according to the words of Bishop Gasser: “From this it appears that the doctrine contained in the schema is not that of Albert Pighius, nor of any extreme school…”” [Emphasis added]

O’Regan has, subsequent to the publication of Dr. Joy’s response, offered a defense against his refutation. This is that since Bellarmine’s fourth proposition in Chapter VI only denies a Pope can be a formal heretic (i.e. by “pertinaciously believing something false against the faith“), it differs from and can not be identified with Pighius’ (alleged) denial a Pope can be a material heretic, and thus its adoption by Pastor Aeternus is not ruled out by Gasser’s rejection of Pighius’ extreme opinion. However this defense can not be accepted, since Gasser in the relatio explicitly identifies:

  • Chapter VI as expounding the opinion of Pighius (i.e. “Bellarmine himself who, in book 4, chapter VI, pronounces on the opinion of Pighius“); and
  • Pighius’ opinion as also relating to protection from formal rather than material heresy, that is heresy apart from “a type of ignorance“, since formal heresy requires clinging to grave error knowingly, willingly, and obstinately.

Accordingly, similar to the Conte Argument, the O’Regan Argument must also be rejected as clearly in error.

5.0 A Prayer

In light of the above it is, I hope, now more than evident that the claim Vatican I dogmatized the extreme opinion of Pighius is in fact an unsupportable error which should be withdrawn by all who have made it forthwith.

I would however like to caveat that by acknowledging, while this opinion of Pighius is not in fact a declared dogma of the Church, it does remain a pious opinion which to date has neither been imposed nor condemned by the magisterium.

Therefore we should all, regardless of if we personally hold this view of Pighius or reject it, pray for the Grace to say “in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas”. Amen.

6.0 Footnotes

[1] The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1990 Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian entitled Donum Veritatis, provides at paragraph 17 that:

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a “definitive” pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching.

One must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged. It is also to be borne in mind that all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that His People walk in the entire truth. For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.” [Emphasis added]

Accordingly even while accepting the exceedingly rare possibility of error in non-infallible papal doctrine, it does not follow it can be maintained that even these teachings can habitually err or be rejected by the faithful, as is maintained in practice by both progressive and traditionalist critics of recent pontificates.

[2] Joannes Dominicus Mansi, Collectio conciliorum recentiorum ecclesiae universae, Volume 52, Arnhem Holland, 1927, col. 926.

[3] St. Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2 (De Controversiis), Mediatrix Press, 2016, Page 511.

[4] In the Latin, Bellarmine renders his fourth opinion, as “Quarta sententia est quodammodo in medio. Pontificem, sive haereticus esse possit, sive non, non posse ullo modo definire aliquid haereticum a tota Ecclesia credendum: haec est comunissima opinion fere omnium Catholicorum”. [Emphasis added]

[5] In the Latin, Bellarmine renders his third opinion, as “Tertia sententia est in alio extremo, Pontificem non posse ullo modo esse haereticum, nec docere publice haeresim, etiamsi solus rem aliquam definiat”. [Emphasis added]

[6] Henry Edward Manning, The Oecumenical Council and the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff: A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy, London, Longmans, Green and Co, 1869, Page 60.

[7] St. Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2 (De Controversiis), Mediatrix Press, 2016, Page 532.

[8] Vincent Gasser, The Gift of Infallibility, trans. James T. O’Connor, Boston, Ignatius Press, 2008, Note 29 (initially published 1986).

[9] Christian D. Washburn, ‘Pastor Aeternus, Liberalism, and the Limits of Papal Authority’, Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society, vol. 47, no. 1, June 2020, Page 124-125.

[10] Ronald L. Conte Jr. has advanced this argument a number of times, including here and here. A explanation of the full position of Ronald L. Conte Jr regarding non-infallible papal teachings, which differs somewhat from that of Pighius on various points but which the Conte Argument is made in aid of, can be found here.

[11] In Bellarmine’s Latin, this can be seen equally clearly, as for example in his judgment of the four opinions in Chapter II – “Ex his quatour opinionibus prima est haeretica; secunda non est proprie haeretica: nam adhuc videmus ab Ecclesia tolerari, qui illam sententiam sequuntur; tamen videtur omnino erronea & haeresi proxima; tertia probabilis est, non tamen certa; quarta certissima est et asserenda, ac ut ea facilius intelligi & confirmari possit, statuemus aliquot propositiones”. [Emphasis added]

[12] John P. Joy, ‘Disputed Questions on Papal Infallibility’, Nova et Vetera, vol. 19, no. 1, Winter 2021, Page 33-61.

5 thoughts on “Friends Don’t Let Friends Accidentally Dogmatize the Extreme Opinion of Albert Pighius

  1. Dear Scott,

    Thank you for taking notice of my comments in Catholic World Report in response to the article by John Monaco. I was reacting to Monaco’s claim that both Vatican I and Vatican II allow for papal heresy. That was my main concern. I quoted St. Robert Bellarmine’s comments on Divine Providence’s protection of popes from teaching heresy, and I briefly mentioned that what Bellarmine teaches in Book IV, chapter 6 of De Romano Pontifice (also called De Summo Pontifice) is affirmed by Bishop Gasser in his Relatio on Vatican I. I think we need to be more concerned with what Vatican I teaches than debating how to understand Bishop Gasser’s Relatio.

    What Bellarmine teaches in Book IV, chapter 6 of De Summo Pontifice seems clearly affirmed by Vatican I in Pastor Aeternus when it teaches that “in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved immaculate and sacred doctrine honored” (Denz.-H, 3066). In the same chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus, it is likewise stated that “this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error, according to the divine promise of our Lord and Savior made to the prince of the disciples: ‘But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ (Lk 22:32)” [Denz.-H. 3070]. The possibility of a heretical pope is likewise rejected by Vatican I, when it affirms that the “charism of truth and never-failing faith was conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair in order that they may perform their supreme office for the salvation of all” [Denz.-H, 3071]. (emphasis added). These passages from Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I argue against the possibility of a pope teaching heresy. That is my reading of Pastor Aeternus, and I hardly think it’s “an egregious error.” I am taking the words of Vatican I at face value in their most obvious sense.

    In your posting you seem to conflate infallibility with protection from heresy. Not all teachings of the pope are infallibile in the strict sense of being definitive and irreformable. Papal interventions in the prudential order might not be free from all deficiencies as the CDF in Donum Veritatis admits. There might be deficiencies in teachings of the ordinary papal Magisterium, but these deficiencies are not the same as heresies. Heresy, as you know, is “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same” (CCC, 2089, CIC, can. 751). Vatican I teaches that the successors of St. Peter have “the charism of truth and never-failing faith.” Either what Vatican I teaches about this charism is true or it is false. I believe it is true; and because I believe it is true I read Bishop Gasser’s Relatio in light of this truth,

    Both of us are trying to be faithful Catholics by following the teaching of Vatican I. I believe my reading of Vatican I and Bishop Gasser’s Relatio is reasonable and accurate. Please don’t accuse me of an ‘egregious error.” I am not trying to dogmatize an extreme position. I am following the teaching of Vatican I, which resonates with the teaching of St. Robert Bellarmine articulated in De Summo Pontifice Book IV, chapter 6.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr. Fastiggi,

      Thank you for graciously taking the time to consider and respond to my contribution.

      In relation to your comments, the first thing I should clarify is that my sole concern in this post was to demonstrate a relatively narrow proof, that Pighius’ view can’t be Bellarmine’s “most certain and assured” opinion as referred to by Gasser.

      It was not my intent to make a broader or more exhaustive argument, that based on the correct understanding of Gasser’s relatio on this point, it would be impossible to support on other grounds your more extensive understanding of the divine protection granted the papacy in non-infallible teachings.

      In this regard, from your generous comments it seems to me you are not disputing my *narrow* argument in respect of the relatio, but are rather concerned I am incorrectly making a broader claim beyond which a correct reading of the relatio itself can support.

      Accordingly, *if we can agree on my narrow point regarding the relatio’s treatment of Pighius*, I would be happy to revise my post to clarify it doesn’t follow from that your broader claims are necessarily in error (either egregiously or otherwise). I would for example grant it may conceivably be argued that the relatio can’t displace the text of Pastor Aeternus itself, that since the Pighius comments in the relatio are in respect of the dogmatic definition of infallibility they don’t apply to the further teaching you identify for non-infallible teachings in Pastor Aeternus, or some other argument which may be adduced to that end.

      Indeed if we are agreed to this extent I would also happily revise my rhetoric in the post. While I do maintain the misidentification of Gasser’s reference to Bellarmine is entirely untenable and in urgent need of correction, if it was merely a mistake made “obiter dictum” in aid of a position better supported on other grounds, I would gladly clarify your overall view may be piously held by faithful Catholics.

      Yours in Communion and Peace,
      Scott Smith


  2. Magisterium exists outside of any person, and is the combined knowledge of all things.

    A Pope is Infallible from speaking from it, as is any other umpire. But if a Pope speaks heresy or error they are Excommunicated Automatically same as anyone else.


  3. Scott, this is, as usual, a brilliant essay, and (I think) a definitive exposition of the narrow point you were at pains to push home. Thank you for this.

    Regarding Dr. Fastiggi’s further point, I would ask him this: in addition to protection offered to Peter, Scripture also identifies that the Apostles are entrusted with authority to speak in Christ’s name, and given guidance to do so. (E.G. “He who hears you hears me.”) And since Christ cannot speak in error, (so the argument would go), neither can the bishops. Yet it is clear that the bishops can err, both individually and when gathered in some groups. The resulting conclusion, then, is that some sorts of bishops speaking error (on faith and morals) does not dispose of or disprove the protections laid on them by Christ to speak His truth: some qualifications, limitations, or reservations apply in understanding that trust and protection he laid on them to teach: not that Christ isn’t protecting them from error, but that such protection isn’t absolute.

    Can Dr. Fastiggi then prove, beyond doubt, that the SENSE of the phrasing in the “never-failing faith” given to Peter and his successors is, instead, an absolute protection that prevents them from ALL error in matters of faith and morals? That is, that there is no possibility that the phrase is meant to allow for some similar sort of qualification, limitation, or reservation comparable to how Christ’s protection of the Apostles still allows their successors to err?

    And to make that question more pointed: one of the commonly proposed qualifiers to the protection offered to the popes is that they will never fall into the formal sin of heresy, i.e. of obstinate denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, and that this is meant to leave room for the pope to err in two ways: (1) holding (and teaching) an error about a matter that is either (a) not yet defined, or (possibly) (b) is defined but only as a truth that is “to be held” and not is not “to be believed with divine and Catholic faith”, or (2) by holding (and teaching) an error that is the matter of formal heresy, but not holding it obstinately, and when the error is pointed out, he reverses course and holds the truth. Arguably, (under this view), a pope’s “never failing faith” is that he never suffers in his soul the sin of heresy by which his faith fails and he departs from union with the Church. A person can be in the state of grace (and have living faith) but be in error on a matter of faith, through mere ignorance of Church teaching – and this both Bellarmine and the Gasser expressly left room for in the pope’s case.

    It is rather widely agreed that Pope John XXII fell into the category of (1)(a) by teaching erroneously that when saints die, they must wait until the Final Judgment to enjoy the Beatific Vision, but that teaching had not yet been defined AND he did not hold it obstinately, eventually repudiating it before death. (Some “protect” the papal chair by claiming that he “only” taught it in sermons, and never issued it as a teaching “to the whole Church”, but this, I think, would sit ill with Dr. Fastiggi’s own sense of the matter of papal protection from error.)

    My own estimation of the passage in the relatio that refers to the 4th point of Bellarmine’s in Ch. VI, is that Bellarmine’s own phrasing explicitly permits considering the possibility of papal error outside of defining moments (“whether the pope can be a heretic or not”) and nothing in the relatio indicates in the least that Pastor Aeternus was meant to settle the much more nuanced issue of the pope falling into error on non-defining teachings. If PA had meant to address it, it would have had to take up the issue more closely, and would have had to create phrasing that could not be taken as compatible with “but outside of ex cathedra defining declarations, the pope could err.” (It was a big enough matter to get explicit agreement on the much more limited protection for ex cathedra declarations. The notion that they also meant to agree on a more universal and comprehensive protection from error, in a backdoor reference, is improbable – especially when the relator expressed clearly that they were NOT dealing with that larger version of inerrancy.)

    I wonder whether Dr. Fastiggi is also willing to follow Bellarmine’s suggestion that the Chair of Peter would never fall into heresy by reason that if the person who was pope were to try to utter heresy, he would by that fact cease to be pope? That view, I think, represents a pyrric victory for the “unfailing faith” of Peter, a victory that eviscerates the notion of “protection” by protecting not the person but the Chair, by (invisibly) evicting his tenancy in the Chair.

    Liked by 1 person

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