Ron Conte’s Errors on Vatican I and the Unfailing Faith of Peter

Ron Conte’s Errors on Vatican I and the Unfailing Faith of Peter

Robert J. Siscoe

(September 16, 2020)


Ron Conte posted an article on his website accusing us of misrepresenting the teaching of Vatican I, specifically Chapter VI of Paster Aeternus (in which the dogma of papal infallibility is defined), because we asserted that the Council does not rule out the possibility of a Pope falling into personal heresy, or even teaching heresy, when he is not defining a doctrine ex cathera.

Mr. Conte contends that such an interpretation is incompatible with the plain meaning of Pastor Aeternus, since, in the paragraph that precedes the definition of Papal Infallibility, it states that Christ’s promise to Peter that his faith will not fail extends to his successors.  According to Mr. Conte, this promise not only prevents a Pope from erring when he teaches “ex cathedra” (according to the conditions contained in the dogma), but it also ensures that every teaching of the Roman Pontiff will be unblemished by any error, and furthermore, will prevent a Pope from falling into personal heresy. 

He further accuses us of misrepresenting Bellarmine’s teaching on the unfailing faith of Peter by equating Bellarmine's use of the phrase "teaching 'as Pope'” with "teaching 'ex cathedra'.”

Background - Two Privileges

In the article Mr. Conte was responding to (see here), we quoted Bellarmine and numerous other authorities who taught that Christ’s promise of unfailing faith conferred two distinct privileges on St. Peter: 1) that he would never fall into personal heresy and lose the faith; 2) that he would never err, even materially, when defining a doctrine ex cathedra.

The first privilege was a gratia gratum faciens, which is a habitually operating grace that is given for the benefit and perfection of the person who receives it.[1]  The second privilege is a gratia gratis data, which is a gift that is given for the benefit of others[2] (e.g., such as the gift of healing, prophecy, etc.).

We quoted numerous authorities stating that only the second privilege (infallibility in teaching) was passed on to St. Peter’s Successors, and not the first.[3]  The reason the second privilege was passed on is because it remained a permanent part of the Petrine office – specifically, the teaching office.  Just as it prevented St. Peter from erring, even materially, when he taught the Church definitively, so too does it prevent his successors from erring when they exercise the Petrine office by defining a doctrine ex cathedra.

When Vatican I defined Papal Infallibility, it defined is the second privilege.  That is, it defined the precise conditions that must be met for Christ’s promise of unfailing faith to prevent a Pope from erring, even materially, when he exercises the Petrine office by teaching the universal Church. 

Mr. Conte disagrees.  He believes the second privilege guarantees that “every teaching of a Roman Pontiff” is necessarily “unblemished by any error” - not only the ex cathedra pronouncements - but every teaching of a Pope.  He maintains that this is what Bellarmine taught as well, and accuses us of misrepresenting Bellarmine’s teaching on the second privilege by limiting it to the Pope's ex-cathedra teachings.

Before answering Mr. Conte’s objections, we will begin by reading the applicable paragraphs of Pastor Aeternus, so the particular teachings that we will be discussing can be seen in context.

“6. Pastor Aeternus, Chapter IV: “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, 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."

“7. 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. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.

“8.But since in this very age when the salutary effectiveness of the apostolic office is most especially needed, not a few are to be found who disparage its authority, we judge it absolutely necessary to affirm solemnly the prerogative which the only-begotten Son of God was pleased to attach to the supreme pastoral office.

“9.Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, 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. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.”

If the “gift of truth and never-failing faith” which was “divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See,” guarantees that every teaching of a Pope is necessarily “unblemished by any error,” as Mr. Conte claims, why would the precisely worded definition of Papal Infallibility contain conditions?  Why would it say the Pope possesses “the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter” when he is "defining doctrine" ex cathedra, if the Pope enjoyed the same divine assistance when he is not teach definitively?  The fact is that Vatican I only defined that a Pope is prevented from erring when he defines a doctrine, ex-cathedra.  It said nothing about a Pope's inability to err, even seriously, when he teaches in a non-definitive manner.  

Let us now address Mr. Conte’s objections.  

In the first objection, Mr. Conte accuses me of misinterpreting Bellarmine’s teaching on the second privilege by equating Bellarmine’s use of the phrase teaching “as Pope,” with teaching "ex cathedra”.  He writes:

Objection 1: “Siscoe claims that Peter was given two gifts, and only one was handed down to his successors. That is what Saint Robert Bellarmine taught, but the gifts as Siscoe claims are not what Bellarmine actually says. … Siscoe claims that the second privilege, the one handed down to every Pope, is this: ‘the second prevented him from erring (even materially) when he defined a doctrine, ex cathedra.’… To justify this misinterpretation, here is what Siscoe does to a quote from Bellarmine: 

‘The second privilege is that he, ‘as Pope’ [i.e., teaching ex cathedra], could never teach something against the faith, or that there would never be found one in his See who would teach against the true faith.’

“Siscoe has to add a phrase to the quote which contains Siscoe’s conclusion, in order to justify his position. What a stunning example of intellectual dishonesty! To insert your own words into a quote, to force it to prove your conclusion is a type of theological argument that is absurd.”

What Mr. Conte is evidently not aware of is that when theologians use the phrase teaching “as Pope,” in the context of infallibility, they mean “teaching ex cathedra”.  Before proving this is what Bellarmine meant in the quotation that Mr. Conte was commenting on, I will provide quotations from two other theologians who explicitly equate the two phrases (i.e, teaching 'as Pope' and 'teaching ex cathedra').  

The first is from St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church.  After discussing the possibility of a Pope falling into heresy ‘as a private person,’ he says this: 

“We said: ‘if the Pope falls into heresy as a private person,’ because the Pope, as Pope, that is to say, teaching the whole Church ex-cathedra, cannot teach an error against Faith because Christ’s promise cannot fail.” (Vindiciae Pro Suprema Pontificis Potestate Adversus Justinum Febronium, 1768, Chapter VIII, response to the 6th objection. 

Notice, not only does he equate the phrase teaching “as Pope,” with “teaching the whole Church ex cathedra,” but he says that this is when the promise of Christ prevents a Pope from erring against the faith – even if the Pope in question is personally a heretic!  That is how he second privilege operates.

The next quote is from Dominic de Soto (1561): 

“…though some masters of our time sustain that the Pope cannot be a heretic in any way, the common opinion is however the opposite one. For though he might not be able to err as Pope - that is, he could not define an error as an article of faith, because the Holy Spirit will not permit it - nevertheless as a private person he can err in faith, in the same way that he can commit other sins, because he is not impeccable.” (Soto,  Commentarium Fratris Dominici Soto Segobiensis, IV Sent., dist. 22, q. 2, a. 2, 1561, p. 1021).

Once again, we see that the phrase teaching “as Pope” is explicitly equated with defining an article of faith, which is the same as saying "teaching ex cathedra".

Now, to prove that this is what Bellarmine meant when he used the phrase teaching  "as Pope" in his commentary on the second privilege, all we have to do is read what he wrote about the second privilege in other places.

In the quotation that Mr. Conte cited, after Bellarmine said the second privilege will prevent a Pope from erring when he teaches “as Pope,” he quoted the authority of seven Popes to prove that this privilege was indeed passed on to Peter’s Successors - “Concerning the second privilege, we have the testimonies of seven of the ancient and holy Pontiffs,” wrote Bellarmine  

The reason this is important, is because in his book "On the Word of God," Bellarmine again appeals to the authority of these same seven Popes to prove that the second privilege was passed on to Peter's Successors.  This time, however, instead of using the phrase “as Pope,” he used a different phrase.  Let’s see what equivalent phrase Bellarmine used: 

“‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have been converted, strengthen your brethren’ (Luke 22:31).  From this text St. Bernard in letter 90 to Pope Innocent deduced that the Roman Pontiff, teaching ex cathedra, cannot err; and before him the same was said by Pope Lucius I in letter 1 to the Bishops of Spain and France, by Pope Felix I in a letter to Benignus, Pope Mark in a letter to Athanasius, Leo I in sermon 3 … Leo IX in a letter to Peter, Patriarch of Antioch, Agatho in a letter to the Emperor Constantine IV which was read at the sixth council (act. 4 and again act 8) and approved by the whole Council, Pope Paschal II at the Roman Council … Innocent III in the chapter, Majores on Baptism and its effect.  Therefore, if the Roman Pontiff cannot err when he is teaching ex cathedra, certainly his judgment must be followed (…).  For we read Acts ch.15 that the Council said, ‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us;’ such also now is the Pontiff teaching ex cathedra, whom we showed is always directed by the Holy Spirit so that he cannot err.” (Bellarmine, On the Word of God, lib. 3, cap 5.)

Like St. Alphonsus, when Bellarmine said a Pope cannot err when he teaches "as Pope," he meant when he teaches "ex cathedra."  

In chapter ten of the same book (On the Word of God), Bellarmine again says the Pope cannot err in faith, “when he teaches ex cathedra” (ibid. cap 10).  

In his book, On Christ, Bellarmine once again clarifies when a pope cannot err in faith: 

“The Roman Pope is the Pastor and Teacher of the who Church, as the Greeks admitted at the Council of Florence, and is clear from the words in John 21:17, ‘Feed my sheep’. Therefore, he can, even without a Council, define matters of Faith.  For, since he is the pastor and universal teacher, he cannot err when he teaches ex cathedra; otherwise the whole Church would err, since it is held to follow him” (Bellarmine, On Christ the Head of the Whole Church, cap. xxviii) 

In his book, On the Word of God (quoted above), Bellarmine again interprets the Christ's promise of unfailing faith, as recorded in Luke 22, as applying to a successor of St. Peter when he teaches ex-cathedra.  In the following quote, Bellarmine is responding the Protestant's who argued that Catholics who base their faith on the teaching of the Church, are basing it on the fallible word of man, rather than the inerrant Word of God.  Bellarmine responds as follows: 

“I reply that the word of the Church, that is, of a Council or the Pope teaching ex cathedra, is not altogether the word of man, that is, a word subject to error, but in some way the word of God, that is, pronounced with the assistance and governance of the Holy Spirit; nay I say that it is the heretics who truly rest on a reed stalk. For one must know that a proposition of faith can be proved by the following syllogism. Whatever God has revealed in the Scriptures is true; God has revealed this in the Scriptures; therefore this is true. Of the propositions of this syllogism the first is certain for all, and the second is also very firm for Catholics, for it rests on the testimony of the Church, of a Council or of the Pontiff, about which we have in the Scriptures open promises that they cannot err. Acts ch.15, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Luke ch.22, “I have asked for you, that your faith fail not.” (Bellarmine, On the Word of God, lib. 3, cap 10.) 

Notice that he quotes Acts 15 to prove that a Council cannot err (when it defines a matter of faith[4]), and he quotes Luke 22 to prove that a Pope cannot err when “teaching ex cathedra.” 

So, it was not “a stunning example of intellectual dishonesty,” as Conte claimed, for me to equate Bellarmine's use of the phrase "teaching as Pope" with "teaching ex cathedra” since that is precisely what Bellarmine meant.    

Bellarmine on Popes Who Erred In the Exercise of Their Office 

To prove that Bellarmine did not believe “every teaching of a Roman Pontiff” is necessarily unblemished by any error, all we have to do is read what he wrote in his defense of Popes who did err.  

One example is found in Bellarmine's commentary on the case of Pope Celestine, who erred gravely by (1) misinterpreting the Pauline Privilege, (1 Cor 7) and (2) concluded that a sacramental marriage could be dissolved by heresy.  As a result of this speculative error, Celestine replied to a dubia that had been submitted by Bishop Theobald of Acre, by stating that a certain woman should remain in a second (adulterous) marriage, rather than return to her first husband, who, after having abandoned her and defecting from the Faith, returned to the Church and wanted to be reconciled with his wife. Fifty years later, in Quanto te Magis, Pope Innocent publicly expressed his disagreement with Celestine and taught the contrary. 

While no one denies that Celestine erred in response to the dubia, notice what Bellarmine says when defending Celestine against the accusation of heresy:

“The thirty-third is Celestine III, whom Alphonsus de Castro asserts could not be excused from heresy in any way, because he taught Matrimony could be so dissolved by heresy and that it would be lawful for one to enter into another marriage when his prior spouse had fallen into heresy.  Even if this decree of Celestine were not extant, still it was formerly in ancient decretals, the chapter, Laudabilem, on the conversion of infidels, which is the decree Alphonsus says that he saw. Moreover, that this teaching of Celestine is heretical is clear, because Innocent III (Cap. “Quanto,” c. 3) taught the contrary on divorce, and the Council of Trent also defined the same thing.

“I respond: Neither Celestine nor Innocent stated anything certain on the matter; but each responded with what seemed more probable to them. That is manifestly gathered from the words of Innocent who, when he says his predecessor thought otherwise, shows in his opinion that the whole matter was still being thought out. On the other hand, Alphonsus says the epistle of Celestine was at one time among the epistles in the decretals. While certainly that is true, it cannot thence be gathered that a plainly apostolic decree was made by Celestine, or even one ex cathedra; since it is certain that there are many epistles in the decretals which do not make any matter de fide, but only declare to us the opinions of the Pontiff on some affair.” (De Romano Pontifice, lib. iv, cap xiv)


The reason Pope Celestine was able to err in his official response to the dubia is because, although Laudabilem pontificalis officii is an official papal document, the Pope was not giving a definitive ex cathedra judgment.  It was a personal judgment (opinion) of the Pope given in the exercise of his office, but it was not the judgment the Pope truly teaching “as Pope,” by defining ex cathedra. (for more on the error of Celestine, see here)

Bellarmine’s comment about “many epistles” that “only declare to us the opinion of the Pontiff,” further proves that he did not believe everything a Pope teaches in the exercise of his office is to be received as the teaching of the Pope, truly teaching "as Pope.”   That is why non-infallible papal teachings are only owed a “religious submission of intellect and will,” whereas ex cathedra pronouncements demand the unqualified assent of faith.  I would further posit that most statements (as opposed to teachings) found in a magisterial documents, do not even require an interior submission of intellect and will. 

In numerous places, Bellarmine refers non-definitive papal teachings as being the opinion of the Pope "as a private teacher" – even when the teaching in question is contained in an official document issued by the Pope in the exercise of his office.

For example, while defending Pope Nicholas I against the accusation of heresy for teaching that baptism administered “in the name of Christ” is valid, Bellarmine writes this:

“Nicholas was not defining a question on faith when he spoke; rather, he only expressed his opinion in passing as a private teacher. (De Romano Pontifice, lib iv, cap xii)

Now, not only is the error of Nicholas found in an official papal document (Denzingers 335), there is no indication in the text itself that he was merely giving an opinion.  The Pope states it as a fact, and even quotes St. Ambrose who taught that baptism in the name of Christ or in the name of the three Persons of the Trinity, "is one and the same".  

But the point is, Bellarmine referred to the teaching of a Roman Pontiff, which is contained in an official papal document, as the "opinion" of the Pontiff teaching "as a private teacher".  This again proves that Bellarmine did not believe that every teaching of the Roman Pontiff is to be considered the teaching of the Pope “as Pope.”

In the next objection, Mr. Conte, unfortunately, displays a level of immaturity that is unbecoming of someone who publicly claims to be a Roman Catholic Theologian (even though he only has a BA in theology). 

Objection 2: “Siscoe and Salza. Sounds like the name of a buddy-cops TV show. Salza is a by-the-book detective, and Siscoe is his jaded break-any-rule partner. They’re thrown together to solve a crime with ridiculously high stakes, and they shoot up the city… They assert an interpretation of Vatican I which is easily refuted. First, they say: ‘The Church has never taught that Christ’s promise to St. Peter that his ‘faith will fail not,’ means a successor of St. Peter is unable to fall into personal heresy and lose the faith.’ And then later they assert: ‘Nowhere does it teach that a Pope is unable to fall into personal heresy, nor does state that he is unable to publicly teach heresy when he is not defining a doctrine’.  So their position is that a Pope is able to commit formal heresy; so a Pope can be a heretic.”

Let’s see what the theological manuals published after Vatican I have to say about the possibility of a Pope falling into heresy. 

The following is taken from The Church of Christ (1927), by Fr. E. Sylvester Berry, former Professor of apologetics at Mt. St. Mary Seminary: 

Fr. E. Sylvester Berry (1955): “The Council declared the Roman Pontiff personally infallible when speaking officially as head of the universal Church, but left untouched the question whether the Pope in his private capacity, or in his official capacity as bishop, primate or patriarch, can fall into heresy or teach heresy.  Some theologians maintain that he can. Straub cites Hadrian II and Innocent III as favoring this opinion.”  (The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise, p. 273)

Vatican I “left untouched” the question of whether a Pope “can fall into heresy or teach heresy”.  Is Mr. Conte going to accuse Fr. Berry of misinterpreting Vatican I?  If so, here are six more real Roman Catholic Theologians that he will have to accuse of the same: 

Horatius Mazzella, S.J. (1915) “By virtue of the gift of infallibility, the Pontiff cannot fall into heresy when he speaks ‘ex cathedra’: this was defined in the Vatican Council. But the theologians dispute whether he can, as a private person, become a true heretic, adhering publicly and pertinaciously to an error against faith.” (Praelectiones Scholastico-Dogmaticae, Vol I, Torino, 1915, p. 545.)

Msgr. G. Van Noort (1957): “… with regard to the pope when he is not speaking ex cathedra. All theologians admit that the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith and morals when so speaking: either by proposing a false opinion in a matter not yet defined, or by innocently differing from some doctrine already defined. Theologians disagree, however, over the question of whether the pope can become a formal heretic by stubbornly clinging to an error in a matter already defined. The more probable and respectful opinion, followed by Suarez, Bellarmine and many others, holds that just as God has not till this day ever permitted such a thing to happen, so too he never will permit a pope to become a formal and public heretic. Still, some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy. (Monsignor G. Van Noort, Christ’s Church, Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1957, p. 294).


M. Coronata (1950):It cannot be proven however that the Roman Pontiff, as a private teacher, cannot become a heretic — if, for example, he would contumaciously deny a previously defined dogma. Such impeccability was never promised by God.  Indeed, Pope Innocent III expressly admits such a case is possible. (Coronata, Institutiones Iuris Canonici (Rome: Marietti, 1950), vol. 1, p. 3I6.)

Vermeersch, I. Creusen (1949): “At least according to the more common teaching, the Roman Pontiff as a private teacher can fall into manifest heresy.” (Epitome Iuris Canonici, Rome: Dessain, 1949, 340)

 In the next quote, the renowned Cardinal Camillo Mazzella, who served as prefect of the Congregation of the Index, and held chair of theology at the Gregorian in the decade following Vatican I, explains what the Council defined with respect to a Pope teaching heresy, and what it “said nothing” about:

Cardinal Camillo Mazzella (1905): “[I]t is one thing that the Roman Pontiff cannot teach a heresy when speaking ex cathedra (what the council of the Vatican defined); and it is another thing that he cannot fall into heresy, that is become a heretic as a private person. On this last question the Council said nothing (De hac questione nihil dixit Concilium); and the theologians and canonists are not in agreement among themselves concerning it.” (Card. C. Mazzella, De Religione et Ecclesia, Sixth Edition, Prati: Giachetti, filii et soc., 1905, p. 817, n. 1045.)

Every one of the above manuals possess the requisite imprimatur and nihil obstat, and they all confirm that Vatican I did not rule out the possibility of a Pope falling into personal heresy, or even teaching heresy when he is not defining a doctrine ex-cathedra. 

While many theologians since Vatican I have considered it “probable” that God would not allow a Pope to fall into personal formal heresy, none have ruled it out entirely, which they certainly would have done if that is what Vatican I had defined.  In fact, in an article published in 1974 - more than a century after the close of the Council – Cardinal Sticker said no theologian believes a Pope is unable to fall into personal heresy:    

Cardinal Stickler: “First of all it is necessary to say that the prerogative of infallibility of office does not prevent the pope as a person from sinning and therefore from becoming personally even a heretic. In fact, no theologian today, even if he accept unconditionally the infallibility of the Roman pontiff, asserts thereby that the pope, speaking in the abstract, cannot personally become a heretic [.]” (The Catholic Historical Review, 1974, Vol. 60, No. 3).

Now, dear reader, what seems more likely: that all the pre-Vatican II manuals quoted above (and dozens more that could be quoted) contradict what the First Vatican Council defined, and that no theologian alive in 1974 understood the teaching of Pastor Aeternis, or that Ron Conte has erred in his private interpretation of  the text?  The answer should be evident even to Mr. Conte.

His next objection concerns a teaching of Cardinal Manning, which he believes proves that Vatican I ruled out the possibility of a Pope falling into personal heresy. 

Objection 3: Cardinal Manning in “The Vatican Council and Its Definitions” [ref. no. are PDF page number followed by printed page number, e.g. [100-79].


The words, ‘Ego rogavi pro te, ut non deficiat tides tua, et tu aliquando conversus confirma fratres tuos,’ [I have prayed for thee that they faith fail not; and being once converted, confirm the brethren] are interpreted, by both Fathers and Councils, of the perpetual stability of Peter’s faith in his see and his successors; and of this assertion I give the following proofs.’ [100-79]


“Thus, Cardinal Manning, one of the fathers of Vatican I, understood the teaching of the Council to refer to “the perpetual stability” of the faith of each successive Pope. That means the Pope cannot lose his faith.” 

"That means"?  Mr. Conte may think that’s what it means, but that’s not what Cardinal Manning thought it means, and it’s not what "the Fathers and Councils" thought it means.  "The perpetual stability of Peters’ faith in the see and his successors" means the faith of Peter will be preserved in the Church of Rome, because his successors will never define anything contrary to it.  That is how the Fathers and scholastics understood it.  For example, John of St. Thomas, who was known in his day as "the second Thomas," provides the following explanation:

“The authority of the papacy is not founded upon the personal faith of any individual (…) And the fact that the Pope cannot fail in this faith means that, even if he were personally a heretic, yet insofar as he teaches ex cathedra he cannot teach anything contrary to the faith.  It is in this faith, therefore — which is the faith of the papacy, and not of the person [of the Pope]; and which was the faith of Peter and his confession — in this alone the papacy is founded, and not in the personal faith even of the very person of the Pope.” (Cursus Theologici II-II De Auctoritate Summi Pontificis, Disp. II, Art. III, De Depositione Papae).

The fact that “the Fathers and councils” did not believe that the privilege of unfailing personal faith (first privilege) was passed on to St. Peter’s successors, is further confirmed by the renowned canonist, Fr. Paul Layman, SJ., in  his celebrated book, Theologia Moralis (1625): 

“It is more probable that the Supreme Pontiff, as concerns his own person, could fall into heresy, even a notorious one (…) The proof of the assertion is that neither Sacred Scripture nor the tradition of the Fathers indicates that such a privilege [i.e., immunity from falling into personal heresy] was granted by Christ to the Supreme Pontiffs; therefore the privilege is not to be asserted.  The first part of the proof is shown from the fact that the promises made by Christ to St. Peter cannot be transferred to the other Supreme Pontiffs insofar as they are private persons, but only as the successors of Peter in the pastoral office of teaching, etc.  .” (Theologia Moralis, bk. 2, tract 1, ch. 7

The first theologian to defend the opinion that a Pope cannot fall into personal heresy was the 16th century Dutch Theologian and Astronomer, Albert Pighius (Hierarchiæ ecclesiasticæ assertion I, IV, c. 7, Cologne, 1538).  Mechior Cano, the famous theologian from the Council of Trent, responded at once with a lengthy refutation of Pighius' “new teaching,” as Cano called it.  Soon thereafter, Dominic Banes followed up with his own refutation of Pighius' novel theory.

The fact that Cardinal Manning didn’t believe the charism of unfailing faith preserves the Pope’s personal faith, is confirmed by what he wrote his book, The True Story of the Vatican Council (1877).  In chapter Seven ("On infallibility), Manning explains that the charism of truth and unfailing faith is not a charism that perfects or sanctifies the person who receives (a gratia gratum faciens); rather, it is a gratia gratis data, which is a charism that is given for the good of others.  This charism, he explains, is attached to the Petrine office; it does not dwell habitually within the person who occupies the office.  In fact, to clarify this point, the title of the chapter IV of Pastor Aeternus was changed from “The Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff,” to “On the Infallible Teaching Office of the Roman Pontiff”.  Cardinal Manning explains: 

“We have seen that its title [Chapter IV of Pastor Aeterns] was changed from De Romani Pontificis Infallibilitate (On the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff) to De Romani Pontificis Infallibili Magisterio (On the Infallible Teaching Office of the Roman Pontiff). The reason of this change was not only for greater accuracy, but because even the title of the decree excludes at once the figment of a personal infallibility. …


“The assistance of infallible guidance is attached to the magisterium or teaching office, and the magisterium is contained in the primacy. The infallibility is therefore attached to the primacy. It is not a quality inherent in the person, but an assistance inseparable from the office. It is therefore not personal, but official. It is personal only so far as the primacy is borne by a person. …


“The Introduction [i.e., the paragraphs before the definition of Papal Infallibility] proceeds to describe infallibility to be ‘a charisma of indefectible faith and truth.’ By this again the notion of a ‘personal’ infallibility is excluded. The word charisma is used to express not a gratia gratum faciens, as theologians say—that is, a grace which makes the person acceptable in God's sight—but a gratia gratis data, or a grace the benefit of which is for others, such as prophecy or healing, and the like. Now these gifts, as may be seen in Balaam, Caiaphas, and Judas, were not graces of sanctification, nor gifts that sanctified the possessor. They were exercised by men whose sin is recorded for our warning. (…) To be illuminated or guarded from error may co-exist with the sin of Caiaphas [i.e., unbelief], who was a prophet, and crucified the Redeemer of the world. The decree says that this charisma was given by God to Peter and his successors that in the discharge of their office they might not err. It does not even say that it is an abiding assistance present always, but only never absent in the discharge of their supreme office. (…) It seems hardly credible that men with these words before their eyes should impute to the Vatican Council the doctrine of personal infallibility, that is, of infallibility inhering in the person.” (The True Story of the Vatican Council) 

If the charism of unfailing faith prevented a Pope from falling into personal heresy, as Mr. Conte claims, it would be a gratia gratum faciens – i.e., a charism that perfects the person to whom it is given and in whom it habitually adheres... but it’s not. As Cardinal Manning explained, infallibility is a gratia gratis data, which is a charism that is attached to the Petrine office and is given for the good of others.  Infallibility is a charism that can coexist with the same degree of infidelity that was found in Caiaphas -  the High Priest (Pope) of the Old Testament, who not only publicly denied Christ, but had him put to death.   

Next objection:

Objection 4: “How could a Pope teach heresy one moment, and the next, speaking infallibly, teach without any error?” (Conte)

 Answer: The same way that Caiaphas could prophecy one day (John 11:51) and deny Christ the next (Mt. 26:65). 

 The “charism of truth and unfailing faith” is only "in actu" when the Pope exercises the office of Peter by teaching ex cathedra. At other times, a Pope will certainly enjoy an ordinary divine assistance in the exercise of his office, as do other bishops, but he will not enjoy the extraordinary divine assistance of infallibility. 

In the The True Story of the Vatican Council, Cardinal Manning tells us when the Pope enjoys the gift of infallibility: 

“It is to be now further observed that the Council of the Vatican expressly quotes the decree of the Council of Florence, and as we have seen that the early Councils unfolded in succession that which was in germ before, making implicit truth explicit, so does this definition. It explains and defines what the Council of Florence meant by saying that the Roman Pontiff is “the pastor and teacher of all Christians.’ The definition says that he is so when he speaks ex cathedra, and he speaks ex cathedra when he defines anything of faith and morals to be held by the Universal Church. The phrase ex cathedra, though long used in theological schools, was for the first. time here inserted in a decree of an Oecumenical Council. …  All other acts of the head of the Church outside of his office are personal, and to them the promise is not attached. All acts, therefore, of the Pontiff as a private person, or as a private theologian, or as a local bishop, or as sovereign of a State, and the like, are excluded. They are not acts of the primacy. The primacy is in exercise when the teaching of the Universal Church is the motive and the end, and then only when the matter of the teaching is of faith and morals. In such acts the promise made to Peter is fulfilled, and a divine assistance guides and guards the head of the Church from error. The definition declares. that he then is possessed of the infallibility with which our Saviour willed to endow his Church.


So, in reply to Mr. Conte's rhetorical question: The reason it is possible for a Pope to err one day, and teach infallibly the next, is because the Pope only enjoys the divine assistance of infallibility in actu when he teaches ex cathedra. At all other times, the charism remains in a state of potency. This explains why a Pope cannot error when defines a doctrine, but can err when he does not.  

Notice also in the quotation from Cardinal Manning, that it’s not enough for a Pope to direct a teaching to the universal Church, which is one of the common errors of Sedevacantists (due to their misunderstanding of the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium). The Pope only enjoys the gift of infallibility when he acts as “pastor and teacher of all Christians” by defining a doctrine ex-cathedra.  Only then is he truly considered to be teaching "as Pope." 

Objection 5: Chapter IV of Pastor Aeternus teaches that the “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]. .,. Can a Pope teach heresy? No. Such a claim is contrary to the teaching that the Apostolic See remains unblemished by any error. All teachings of the Roman Pontiff are of his See, that is, of the Chair of Saint Peter.” 

Answer: All the teachings of the Roman Pontiff are not of the Chair of Peter (ex cathedra). As Cardinal Manning explained above, the Roman Pontiff can teach as “a private person,  as a private theologian, as a local ordinary of Rome, or even as sovereign of a State.”  Such teachings are not from the Chair of Peter (ex cathedra).  It is the ex-cathedra definitions of the Roman Pontiffs alone that always have, and always will, “remain unblemished by any error.” 

In fact, during Vatican I, Cardinal Bellomang listed no less than forty popes who taught error,[5] and expounded at length on the nature of their erroneous teachings.  And as in the case of Pope Celestine and Pope Nicholas mentioned above, these errors are found in official papal documents.  

Ron Conte, the Sedevacantists, and the Old Catholic Heretics 

Mr. Conte has fallen into the error of the Old Catholic heretics, and their post Vatican II counterparts, the Sedevacantists, who extend infallibility beyond what the Church teaches.  Whereas Vatican I infallibly declared that the divine Redeemer willed that his Church would enjoy infallibility “in defining doctrines concerning faith or morals,” the Old Catholics and Sedevacantist heretics extend infallibility to non-definitive teachings of a Pope (or council).  They then point to errors (or what they think are errors) in papal or conciliar documents to “prove” their contention that the indefectible Church - the Roman Catholic Church - has defected. 

In his celebrated book, On Divine Tradition, Cardinal Franzelin, who served as a peritus at the First Vatican Council, describes the tactic used by the Old Catholics to "prove" that the Church defected, which is the exact same tactic that their Sedevacantist counterparts use today in an attempt to prove the same.  Franzelin explains that the Old Catholic apologists employed sophisms and specious arguments in an effort to blur the distinction between infallible and non-infallible papal teaching, in an effort to convince Catholics that everything a pope promulgates by the force of his pastoral office must be considered infallible.  Here is how Cardinal Franzelin explains their tactic: 

“… no Catholic has ever denied, or can deny the necessity of distinguishing between ex cathedra definitions and other declarations, even doctrinal ones, whether of the Popes themselves or of Pontifical Congregations.  Enemies of the Holy See and those impugning infallibility alone attempt to eliminate this necessary distinction, which itself is contained in the decree of the Vatican definition; today especially the Neo-Protestants [i.e., Old Catholics] do the same. (…) the teacher of Neo-Protestantism, Freidrich Schulte, in order to defend heresy and attack the dogma of papal infallibility, chiefly exerts all his strength in constructing sophisms, in an effort to make it appear that the distinction between a definition ex cathedra, and other public documents and declarations of the Popes, is hollow, even to the point that all the declarations which the Pope promulgated or promulgates by the force of his pastoral office, in whatever way he does so, must be held as infallible definitions by Catholics after the Vatican Council.” (Franzeline, On Divine Tradition)

The Old Catholics knew that if they could convince Catholics that every teaching a Pope issued from his pastoral office was necessarily infallible, they could easily convince them that the dogma of Papal Infallibility was false, since such an extreme and absurd understanding of infallibility will never hold up to historical scrutiny.  

The Sedevacantists of our day, such as Mario Derksen of Novus Ordo Watch – who left the Catholic Church years ago and joined a non-Catholic sect that was founded by one of the first Sedevacantist antipope, Francis Schuckardt (aka Pope Hadrian VI) - use the exact same tactic; not in an effort to prove that the dogma of Papal Infallibility is false, like their pre-Vatican II counterparts, but to prove that the one to whom the privilege of infallibility applies – the Pope – is false.

Cardinal Franzelin goes on to explain that perverting the meaning of dogmas, by presenting it in an extreme sense, is the tactic heretics have always used to deceive unsuspecting Catholics:

“As the Fathers often explain, whenever Catholic truth stands midway between two opposite errors, heretics always preserve the Catholic dogma, but only by distorting and presenting it in an extreme sense, in one direction or the other.  Then, what the Catholic Church does not in the least teach, is placed in this way before the inexperienced, as though it were Catholic dogma, which can then be easily attacked.”

This is exactly what the Old Catholic of the 19th century and the Sedevacantists of our day have done with infallibility.  The former use this strawman tactic to prove that the Church defected at Vatican I by defining infallibility, and the latter use it to prove the Church defected at Vatican II by allegedly violating infallibility. 

Considering the similarities between these two groups, it should come as no surprise that "the first Sedevacantist," Francis Schuckardt (aka Antipope Hadrian VII), was ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop the very next day by a bishop of the Old Catholic church,  Daniel Q. Brown (another fallen-away Catholic who left the Church after Vatican II, in circa 1966). 

Unfortunately, by relying on his private judgment to interpret Pastor Aetenus, Mr. Conte is defending the same error that the Old Catholics and the Sedevacantist heretics use to lead inexperienced Catholics out of the Church and into heresy.

 But Mr. Conte’s error is actually worse than that of the Old Catholics, since he, like the Sedevacantists, applies the same erroneous understanding of infallibility to the teachings of councils as well, by maintaining that “every teaching of a council is infallible.”  That is the error that led "the first Sedevacantist (Francis Schuckardt) out of the Catholic Church in the 1960’s.   Worse still, Mr. Conte appeals to Bellarmine to support the error. This is the subject of the next objection we will address.  

Objection: “Saint Robert Bellarmine has taught that when the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops gather in an Ecumenical Council to teach on faith and morals, their teaching is infallible, that is to say, not only their dogmatic canons, but every teaching of every Ecumenical Council is infallible. … In De conciliis, Liber II, chapter II, Bellarmine makes this point: ‘A general Council represents the universal Church, and hence has the consensus of the universal Church; wherefore if the Church cannot err, neither can a legitimate and approved ecumenical Council err’.”

If Mr. Conte had continued reading the chapter, he would have seen that when Bellarmine said a council cannot err, he meant it cannot error when “defining matters of faith…   In De Romano Pontifice (lib. iv, cap xii), Bellarmine again clarifies that “a legitimate general Council cannot err in defining dogmas of faith…”   In his book, On Councils, he says “a council can err in particular judgments” (De conciliis, Lib II Cap. XII), and it can err “in questions of fact” (De conciliis, Liber II, chapter VIII).   

When a council cannot err is when it defines a doctrine as de fide; but, as Bellarmine explains in chapter twelve of the aforementioned book, most conciliar acts are not de fide pronouncements: 

“The great majority of the acts of [ecumenical] councils do not pertain to the faith.  For neither the disputations that precede the decrees, nor the reasons that are adduced, nor the things that are introduced to explain and illustrate them, but only the bare decrees themselves are de fide—and not all decrees, but only those that are proposed as de fide. Sometimes Councils define something not as certain, but as probable, such as when the Council of Vienne decreed that it must be held as more probable that grace and the virtues are infused into infants at Baptism, as is contained in Clem, uni. De Summa Trinitate et fide Catholica. It is easy to tell from the words of the Council when a decree is proposed as de fide; for they are always accustomed to say that they are explaining the Catholic faith, or that those who think the contrary are to be considered heretics, or—what is most common—they pronounce an anathema against those who think the contrary, and exclude them from the Church.  But when they say none of these things it is not certain that the matter is de fide.” (De concilii, Liv II, Cap. XII). 

Commenting on the above, Christian Washburn, Ph.D., Professor of Dogmatic Theology, elaborates on Bellarmine’s teaching concerning conciliar infallibility: 

“In what can a council teach infallibly? And what parts of a council acts are to be considered infallible? For Bellarmine infallibility is restricted to the decrees of the councils that are proposed as such: ‘The greater part of the acta of councils does not belong to the faith. For the discussions which precede a decree are not of the faith, nor are the reasons adduced for them, nor are those things brought forward to illustrate or explain them, but only those actual decrees, which are proposed as of the faith’.  Bellarmine wishes to exclude every activity or document of a council except those which are formally proposed as binding on the faithful. 

Fr. E. Sylvester Berry explains what is required for a council to teach infallibly: 

“Certain conditions are necessary for the exercise of infallible teaching authority by the bishops assembled in council, namely: a) the council must be summoned by the Roman Pontiff, or at least with his consent and approval… b) The council must be truly ecumenical by celebration, i.e., the whole body of bishops must be represented. … c) Bishops assembled in a council are infallible only when exercising supreme authority as teachers of faith or morals by a definite and irrevocable decree that a doctrine is revealed, and, therefore, to be accepted by every member of the Church. But since the bishops need not intend such an irrevocable decision at all times [during the Council], it is necessary that an infallible definition be so worded as to indicate clearly its definitive character.”      

What Ron Conte and the Sedevacantists don’t understand, is that the Church is only infallible when she defines a doctrine, or teaches definitively.  Van Noort explains this in his book on Dogmatic Theology, Vol II, The Church of Christ: 

“The teaching office of the Church or, as they say, ‘the teaching Church,’ is made up of those to whom God entrusted the right and the duty to teach the Christian religion authoritatively. The words ‘in matters of faith and morals in such a way as to require of everyone full and absolute assent’ are included in the proposition because, according to Catholic teaching, the Church's rulers are infallible not in any and every exercise of their teaching power; but only when, using all the fulness of their authority, they clearly intend to bind everyone to absolute assent or, as common parlance puts it, when they “define” something in matters pertaining to the Christian religion. That is why all theologians distinguish in the dogmatic decrees of the councils or of the popes between those things set forth therein by way of definition and those used simply by way of illustration or argumentation. For the intention of binding all affects only the definition, and not the historical observations, reasons for the definition, and so forth. And if in some particular instances the intention of giving a definitive decision were not made sufficiently clear, then no one would be held by virtue of such definitions, to give the assent of faith: a doubtful law is no law at all.” (Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D., Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, Translated and Revised by John J. Castelot, S.S., S.T.D., S.S.L. & William R. Murphy, S.S., S.T.D., The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1957. pp 104.) 

Even the Baltimore Catechism teaches this basic point of Catholic doctrine that Mr. Conte and the Sedevacantist heretics refuse to accept:  

Baltimore Catechism:


Question: 163: What is meant by the infallibility of the Catholic Church?


Answer: By the infallibility of the Catholic Church is meant that the Church, by the special assistance of the Holy Ghost, cannot err when it teaches or believes a doctrine of faith or morals.


Question 164: When does the Church teach infallibly?


Answer: The Church teaches infallibly when it defines, through the Pope alone, as the teacher of all Christians, or through the Pope and bishops, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by all the faithful.


(a) The Holy Father must intend to use his supreme, apostolic authority when he teaches infallibly.


(b) The Pope can teach without speaking infallibly; for example, he does this in his encyclical letters.  Catholics must accept such teachings, not on faith, but in obedience to the authority of the Pope and in respect for his wisdom. (Baltimore Catechism #3, Benzinger Brothers, 1949, p. 92.)



Ron Conte’s errors are not only the worst I have seen from someone claiming to be a Roman Catholic Theologian, they are dangerous.  In the present crisis in the Church, extending infallibility beyond what the Church teaches is a recipe for disaster, and the surest way to lose the faith in the Church.  

[1] “Gratia gratum faciens includes habitual grace and actual grace, each of which can be thought of as either operating grace or cooperating grace, according to whether we are thinking just of God's action (operating grace) or of our action as well (cooperating grace): (i) habitual operating grace is gratia gratum faciens insofar as it is a habit by which God alone heals or justifies the soul and makes it gratum; (ii) habitual cooperating grace is gratia gratum faciens insofar as it is a habit serving as a principle of the meritorious works that proceed from creaturely free choice as well as from God; (iii) actual operating grace is gratia gratum faciens insofar as it involves our will being moved interiorly by God to the good; (iv) actual cooperating grace is gratia gratum faciens insofar as it involves our will freely commanding the appropriate exterior act as aided by God.” (Treatise on Grace, Question 111: On the divisions of grace).

[2] 111,1-5: Gratia gratum faciens heals and sanctifies the person who receives it, whereas gratia gratis data is given to one person not for his own sanctification but for the sake of the community.”

[3] Some theologians during the past four centuries have speculated that the first privilege may have also been passed on, but no theologian – not even the most ardent defender of this opinion (Cardinal Billot) has qualified it as more than merely “probable,” which is amongst the lowest grade of certainty.  

[4] Bellarmine: “a legitimate general Council could not err in defining dogmas of faith.” (De Romano Pontifice, lib. iv, cap 11)


[5] Rev. J. McGovern, The Life and Life Work of Leo XIII, 1903, p. 239.