When a Pope Taught Heresy
It becomes daily more pertinent to ask whether a reigning Pope can teach heresy. I understand that the consensus among theologians of repute is that it is indeed possible, and has in fact happened. The names of Popes Honorius and Liberius come to mind, and then there is the case of Pope John XXII in the 14th century.
Pope John had some very dodgy ideas about the Beatific Vision, and insisted on airing them repeatedly. He argued that only Our Lord and Our Lady, whose souls are already united with their bodies, can truly see God, and that everyone else has to await the general resurrection.
This novel idea caused quite a furore. An English (or possibly Welsh) Dominican from Oxford University, Thomas Waleys, denounced the Pope’s teaching from the pulpit of the Dominican church in Avignon, where the Popes were residing at that time. He was imprisoned by the Inquisition at Pope John’s request.
While the Franciscans gave qualified support to Pope John’s proposition, the Dominican theologians of the university of Paris, heirs of St Thomas Aquinas, strongly protested against it, and before his death a year later John XXII retracted his error and stated the following:
We confess and believe that souls separated from their bodies and fully purged from guilt are above, in the kingdom of heaven, in paradise and with Jesus Christ, in the company of the angels, and that according to the universal law, they see God and the divine essence face to face and clearly, so far as the state and condition of a separated soul permits.
His successor Pope Benedict XII, in the doctrinal constitution Benedictus Deus settled the matter for good: the souls of the blessed dead do indeed “see the divine essence by intuitive vision and even face to face”.
Most of the above I gleaned from Warren Carroll’s The Glory of Christendom, the third volume of his history of Christendom. But Dr Carroll doesn’t say what happened to Fr Waleys, so I had to do some digging to find out.
It’s not an edifying tale. Even though Pope John XXII had withdrawn his own thesis, Fr Thomas was held prisoner for over a year without trial, and was then under a sort of house arrest for 10 more years. On his release, he returned to England where in 1349 he described himself as “broken down by old age”. I hope this brave and unfairly-treated Dominican is now enjoying the divine essence “face to face and clearly”.