One thing to always keep in mind is the extent of Papal authority. By this I mean we neither downplay an actual authoritative statement of the Pope or elevate something which is merely a private opinion of the Pope. Popes can speak about the issues of the world where they are not theologically binding and were never intended to be seen as a teaching in the first place. There are many examples of this in recent times. For example, St. John Paul II and his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, or the unfortunate kissing of the Qur’an. Or Benedict XVI and his Jesus of Nazareth, the (unfortunate) comment about the “male Prostitute with AIDS” in Light of the World and his misunderstood Regensburg Lecture. And yes, Pope Francis and his brilliant The Name of God is Mercy, and his controversial news conferences and interviews. I could go back further and discuss the laws of the old Papal States or the Vatican policies with different nations through history. Some of those laws and policies are embarrassing when viewed today. But they weren’t magisterial teaching and an error there does not make the Pope a fraud or heretic.
I say again, whether these things are properly understood or misunderstood, they are not any part of the teaching authority of the Church, and must not be used to judge a Pope's fidelity to the Catholic faith, even if a he should commit a gaffe or carry out an unwise policy.
This isn’t a modern occurrence. We had a controversy back in the Middle Ages where the Pope of the time—John XXII [*] (reigned 1316 to 1334)—spoke in sermons on a theme he had written on prior to his election concerning the beatific vision.
(Pope John XXII)
In these sermons (and pre-Papal writings), John XXII described the beatific vision (seeing God) as something which would not happen until the final judgment. Until that time, people’s souls slept. This issue had not been formally defined as of this time, but a majority of theologians at the time held that the souls of the departed did see God after death. So this was a concern. Was the Pope teaching that that what was commonly held by Catholics was actually false?
The answer was, no. John XXII said he had not had any intention to formally teach on the subject and actually called on theologians to study the issue. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its entry on John XXII, describes the affair this way:
In the last years of John’s pontificate there arose a dogmatic conflict about the Beatific Vision, which was brought on by himself, and which his enemies made use of to discredit him. Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision
So, the Pope was offering his private opinion and, when given good reason to abandon his opinion as not being true, rejected his former view in favor of one which fit better with Scripture and Tradition. The only people who tried to tar him as being heretical were those groups who were rebuked [†] (such as the “Spiritual Franciscans” or Fraticelli who held to a rigorous interpretation of the Rule of St. Francis) and wanted to discredit him. He was not a heretic, but some who want to discredit modern Popes cite him as an example of a “heretical Pope."
I think there is a lesson there to be learned. The Pope can make a gaffe just like any other Catholic. He can even say something in a non-teaching which is theologically dubious. But that’s not heresy. Canon Law gives us a good definition here:
can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.
The key words are obstinate and divine and Catholic faith. If the Pope commits a gaffe which might be interpreted by some as supporting error, the question is, does he obstinately hold to it? Or is he just being unclear and not intending what the people claim he means? It’s only when someone digs in their heels and refuses correction from the magisterium that he or she becomes a heretic.
So, why do I bring this up? Because some people are concerned about the current Pope and the fact that some of the things he says in his press conferences seem unclear without deeper study [§]. Some would actually accuse the Pope of being a heretic on account of that confusion (on the part of some) as to what he means. Other Catholics who want to be faithful feel unsure when presented with forceful arguments and begin to doubt.
That’s nothing new. The case of John XXII shows that gaffes do exist throughout history but those gaffes do not prove the existence of heretic popes. That’s not because every Pope was perfect or geniuses (they weren’t). It’s because we trust God to protect the Pope from teaching error in a matter involving our salvation. The Pope isn’t teaching in a binding manner in a press conference or a private book or the like and we should stop thinking that he is and stop accusing him of error.
[*] Not to be confused with St. John XXIII. The two popes lived reigned over 600 years apart.
[†] Does this sound familiar compared to today?
[§] Which few ever attempt. Most of his critics insist on what they call the “plain sense” of his words and label any deeper study as “attempting to explain away.” But keep in mind St. Peter warned the Church that St. Paul wrote on things not easy to understand which “the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16). So the “plain sense” is not always the true sense.