In order to even talk about the elephant, we have to identify it. A “heretic” is someone guilty of a heresy. According to the Catechism, “heresy 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.” A heretic differs from an “apostate,” who is guilty of “apostasy” (the total repudiation of the Christian faith, not just some part of it), or a “schismatic,” who is guilty of “schism” (separation from the unity of the Church, without necessarily denying some or all of the Christian faith) (CCC 2089).
- A material heretic is someone who does notrealize that they believe something heretical. Provided that their ignorance is not their own fault, material heretics are neither culpable of the sin nor guilty of the crime.
- A formal hereticis someone who does realize that they believe something heretical and makes a conscious and free decision to believe it. Formal heretics are culpable for the sin, and can also be penalized of the crime provided that they meet the appropriate conditions (age, awareness, etc.).
Most theologians would agree that a pope could be a material heretic, just like any other well-meaning but misinformed Catholic. He wouldn’t be culpable for any sin or guilty of any crime. He could, in fact, remain in a state of grace, and, endowed with the virtue of faith, lead the Christian faithful in the faith delivered once for all to the apostles. His material heresy might even appear in his non-infallible teaching, although God gives him special help to avoid that (CCC 892). But Catholics firmly believe that it could never appear in his infallible teaching. (CCC 891)
- Does the grace promised by Christ to Peter preclude the possibility of a pope falling into formal heresy?
- If it doesn’t, would a heretical pope lose his office as a consequence of the sin of heresy, or as a penalty for the crime of heresy?