“In the moral order, the species of an act is not constituted by that which is accidental.”
Having established an understanding of how Louis Cardinal Billot explains heresy and membership in an earlier part, I am continuing to address some objections that frequently arise.
It’s fair to note that the title of this piece somewhat begs the question – it assumes that it is possible for a Catholic to submit to a false magisterium whilst remaining Catholic. However, it is a difficult question to phrase correctly, and we can see the point with greater clarity in the objection below:
Obj. 3: You say that a lack of submission to the magisterium is an integral feature of heresy, distinguishing it from mere error. But if this was so, then those who recognise or are submissive to the exercise of a false magisterium – even in good faith – must therefore be heretics, schismatics, or both.
Image: The presentation of Pliny’s Letters to Benedict XIII, the anti-pope claimant who “reigned” from 1394 to 1423. Public Domain
This objection is expressed in earnest by some who reject Francis and his recent predecessors as true popes. It is also expressed, as a source of confusion, by those who have not yet gone so far as to reject the claims of these men, but still recognise that there is some distinction between the Roman Catholic Church and the so-called “Conciliar Church.”
The objection goes beyond the question of a Catholic adhering to isolated errors in good faith. It poses a different sort of problem.
For the sake of argument, we will assume the implicit premise – namely, that Francis and many others apparently exercising the power of magisterium today lack legitimacy (viz., do not hold their apparent offices). In this light, let’s consider the example of someone who, in good faith, submits to a false teacher and thus accepts false doctrine from him, but solely and specifically because he believes this teacher to be a representative of the Roman Catholic Church.
How should we understand the status of such a person?
The object of an act
As previously stated, St Thomas says:
“[I]n the moral, as in the physical order, the species [of an act; what makes the act what it is] is not constituted by that which is accidental. Now, in the moral order, the essential is that which is intended, and that which results beside the intention, is, as it were, accidental.”
As stated previously, the object of heresy is not just the choosing of dogma, but also the rejection or non-acceptance of the Church’s magisterium as one’s rule of faith. This is so significant that Billot calls the rejection or non-acceptance of the magisterium “the notion of heresy.”
In the example under discussion, the essential point that “specifies” our mistaken person’s act is precisely the opposite of rejection or non-acceptance of the magisterium. His intention – that which specifies the object of his act – is to submit to the Roman Catholic magisterium as his rule of faith. Such a person is in a very different position to one who follows the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, or the principle of Sola Scriptura, or no external rule at all – whether in good faith or not.
Nor can this be refuted by saying, “Everyone believes their Church to be the true Church of Christ.” The mistaken man in the example does not have the vague idea of submitting to “Christ’s Church,” believing a false sect to be this Church, or even just a part or branch of it. In these latter cases, a man in good faith might be a material heretic, as previously discussed. But in the example which we have taken, the object and intention of our mistaken Catholic’s act is submission to the specifically Roman Catholic magisterium. Again, this is the very essence of his position.
The only conclusion is that this is what his act is – an act (or state) of submission to the Roman Catholic magisterium, the true rule of faith. As such, it is proper to say to him – at least for some purposes – that he is indeed submissive to the magisterium of the Church.
How he came to be mistaken or confused is not relevant here. Being deceived about the current state of affairs, and thus being submissive to a false magisterium, is merely an error of fact. It is “that which results beside the intention,” as St Thomas puts it; and thus “[it] is, as it were, accidental.”
False popes and abjurations
Let’s consider specifically someone’s recognition or submission (in good faith) to a false pope – even if his understanding of what submission entails is somewhat awry (i.e., he is mistaken about how far his duty of submission extends).
Here, things become somewhat more complicated due to certain similarities with schism. However, the object of our mistaken man’s act remains recognition and submission to the Roman Pontiff, and the error, again, relates to a question of fact. So again, all other things being equal, this is what is act is. He is submissive to the Roman Pontiff.
Disagreements over this question of fact need not give rise to mutual recriminations or accusations of heresy (or schism) between those who disagree on the answer. This situation is also similar to that of a man who does not submit to a true pope because of sincere doubts about his claim.
These points may go some way to explaining why the traditional clergy have generally not required abjurations of heresy (or schism) from those who begin frequenting their chapels. Without some positive reason to suppose that a specific individual was previously an actual non-Catholic – through his visible departure from the Church’s unity of faith or charity – there is no reason to impose an abjuration.
Without a condemnation by authority that the “New Church” is a sect, which would establish a universal presumption against its adherents in law, each case must be judged on its merits by the priest on the ground. This is indeed the practice that has generally been followed since Vatican II by traditional priests with those who begin attending their chapels. The minor variations in how to deal with such “converts” (e.g. requirements for conditional baptism or general confession) do not undermine this point.
While a man may remain a Catholic and member of the Church in spite of his apparent recognition of a false hierarchy and magisterium as that of the Roman Catholic Church, his mistakes may pose a real danger to himself and to others, and may bring serious consequences in spite of his good faith.
Like all those associated with “the Conciliar Church“, the men involved at least verbally submit themselves to the teaching authority of the conciliar popes. This verbal submission is generally unreal, with little effect on their actual profession of faith, and does not meet the standards of typical definitions of submission to the pope as found in Catholic theology.
However, being in error is a real evil for a man, and it brings with it certain dangers. For example, there is a constant danger that the merely verbal “recognition” of a false pope may turn into a real submission to pernicious teaching and laws. To the extent that this occurs, it results in a corresponding change of religion.
Further, he who habitually “sifts” the teaching of these men may find that he himself errs – and who is to correct him then?
It can also easily happen that he becomes attached to, or insistent on, the claims of a false pope, even in the face of evidence or arguments which give moral certainty to the contrary.
He may realise that his duties of submission are more extensive than previously thought. On the one hand, this may lead him into the abominable folly of declaring that we need to “rethink the papacy” – which is nothing less than rethinking Catholic theology. Aside from being very proximate to the definition of heresy already given, where will this “rethinking” leave him when everything is restored? What sort of authority would the Roman Pontificate have for him then, after their “rethinking”?
On the other hand, he may be confronted with the realisation that it is impossible (or at least highly doubtful) that these men be true popes. This may force him into a difficult choice, as this conclusion appears to be a bitter pill to swallow. A tapestry of factors – fear, human respect, excessive desire for certitude, or avarice – may ultimately lead him to choose to persevere in his error.
In this latter case, it is difficult to say exactly what someone’s state would be, if he insists on recognising and submitting to a known false claimant as pope.
“Who amongst us is free from all error? Who can be confident that he will make the right choice, if at some point he is revealed to be in error? Who can be confident that he will have the grace, or even the natural strength, to choose the truth and the Church over his favoured ideas?
“We do not know until we are tested. This, perhaps, is why we pray in the Psalm:
“’Who can understand sins? From my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord.’”
Tradivox Catechism Review
Part I: How can we find the teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium?
Part II: What do the catechisms tell us about heretics and the Church?
Part III: How is the Church “visibly united in faith,” according to Cardinal Billot?
Part IV: Why is it essential that the Church is visibly united in faith?
Part V: What sort of heresy results in being outside the Church?
Part VI: What is the difference between an excommunicate and an open heretic?
Obj. I: Are we obliged to believe every person who calls himself a Catholic?
Obj. II: Should mistaken Catholics be called “material heretics”?
Obj. III: What is the state of a Catholic who submits to a false magisterium?
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 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q39 A1
 Louis Cardinal Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, Tomus Prior, Prati ex Officina Libraria Giachetti, Filii et soc, 1909, p 293. Trans. Fr Julian Larrabee.
 It is not necessary to join a false sect, per se. Billot defines a heretic as “[a baptised man who] does not accept the rule of what must be believed from the magisterium of the Church, but chooses from somewhere else a rule of belief about matters of faith and the doctrine of Christ; whether he follows other doctors and teachers of religion, or adheres to the principle of free examination and professes a complete independence of thought, or whether finally he disbelieves even one article out of those which are proposed by the Church as dogmas of Faith.” 291.
 “If someone, for reasonable motive, holds the person of the pope in suspicion and refuses his presence and even his jurisdiction, he does not commit the delict of schism, not any other whatsoever, provided that he be ready to accept the pope were he not held in suspicion.” Cajetan, Commentarium, 1540, II-II, 39, 1.