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William of Ockham: Defending the Church, Condemning the Pope

Ian Smith on why Ockham thought the Pope wasn’t a Catholic.

William of Ockham is readily acknowledged as one of the most preeminent philosophers of the medieval period, and is known primarily for his work in metaphysics and logic. But in 1328 it was controversy over his political writings that forced him to flee Avignon, France, to escape the reach of Pope John XXII. He fled to Munich with Michael de Cesena, and was protected there by Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria. In response to his departure, John XXII excommunicated Ockham. Ockham would spend the remainder of his life defending his own views by writing political and religious treatises which called for the removal of Pope John XXII, and later his successor Benedict XII, on the grounds that they were heretics. I will examine Ockham’s standards for considering whether someone is a heretic, and then evaluate Pope John XXII according to those standards. I will also examine how Ockham’s position on heresy rules out the possibility of papal infallibility.

‘Catholic truth’ is the set of ideas it is necessary to believe to be a Catholic. William of Ockham considers any view inconsistent with Catholic truth to be heresy. Ockham defines Catholic truth as; anything that has been specifically taught in the Bible; anything that is universally accepted as Catholic truth by all Catholics at any given time; or anything revealed through divine revelation. This is known as Ockham’s three-source theory of truth, and all three sources ultimately trace back to God. The first and last sources, the Bible and divine revelation, are relatively straightforward in how they provide truth. But the second source of Catholic truth, universal Catholic acceptance, is crucial to Ockham’s condemnation of Pope John XXII as a heretic, and requires further explanation.

Once a Catholic becomes a heretic, according to Ockham, the individual is no longer a genuine Catholic, because he doesn’t believe the Catholic truths. Thus Ockham believes that it is impossible for all Catholics to be mistaken about the same aspect of their faith at the same time, because this would result in there being a moment where all Catholics simultaneously fall into heresy, and so are not actually Catholics at all. Ockham considers this to be impossible, because in the gospel of Matthew, Christ promised, “I will be with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). If a time existed after Christ when because of universal heresy there were no genuine Catholics, then Christ’s promise would be broken, and Ockham does not see that as possible. The faith could feasibly dwindle down to a single true individual, whilst everyone else is preaching heresy. But as long as one individual maintains the truth faith, Christ’s promise will not be broken. It follows from this that if all Catholics believe a certain proposition and there is absolutely no dissent, then it must be true. For all Catholics cannot be wrong at the same time, or they would all be heretics.

Therefore if all Catholics have at some point agreed with a particular view, but some later dissent from that view, then the dissenters must be believing a heresy.

But Ockham’s view is more complicated, in that simply believing or espousing a heresy is not sufficient to make one a heretic. Ockham argues that one may defend a heresy, and even: “if she were to defend heresy a thousand times unknowingly with the express or implicit protestation that she is prepared to be corrected as soon as she recognizes her opinions to contradict the Catholic faith, then she should not be judged a heretic, even in front of the Pope.” (William of Ockham, Dialogus I.iv.20). To become a heretic, according to Ockham, one must not simply believe or espouse a heresy, but rather must believe it, in Ockham’s term, ‘pertinaciously’ (Dialogus I.ii.13). To believe something pertinaciously is to continue believing it even after a clear demonstration of it being false.

There are multiple indicators that a heresy is being believed pertinaciously, such as when someone “shows by deed or by word that he does not firmly believe that the Christian faith is true and sound,” or if he “says that some part of the New or Old Testament asserts something false or should not be accepted” (Dialogus I.iv.5-6). Other indicators of pertinacity include attempting to force others to believe a heresy through violence, threats or decree rather than argument. Furthermore, if one is not willing to allow his view to be subject to the scrutiny of others, or is otherwise not open to “legitimate correction”, then he may also be considered a heretic. A person is allowed to argue in favour of a heresy without punishment, if he honestly believes it is a correct interpretation of the Catholic faith, but he also must be open to opposing arguments that would serve to correct him. Furthermore, not only is this individual not to be punished, but other Catholics have a duty to protect him, at least until he has had the opportunity to present his case and potentially be corrected. This limited right to dissent is only granted to Catholics: anyone who explicitly rejects Catholicism need not be given such a benefit. What is important here is that one argues over how to interpret or practice Catholicism, and not over whether Catholicism per se is right or wrong.

Recalling the promise of Christ as relayed in Matthew 28:20, Ockham concludes that while the Church cannot err, any member of the Church is capable of erring, even to the point of becoming a heretic. The Pope, the bishops, clergy, or lay people all can become heretics. In this sense, the Pope is not in a position any different from anyone else in the Church. When something is Catholic truth, the Pope is under just as much an obligation to believe it.

By the time Ockham fled to Munich, he had examined three constitutions by Pope John XXII, and came to the conclusion that the Pope had fallen into heresy and was therefore no longer the legitimate Pope. Ockham said he found in these constitutions “a great many things that were heretical, erroneous, silly, ridiculous, fantastic, insane, and defamatory, contrary and likewise plainly adverse to orthodox faith, good morals, natural reason, certain experience, and fraternal charity.” (‘A Letter to the Friars Minor’ and Other Writings 4-5)

All three of the constitutions issued by John XXII and examined by Ockham were directed against the Franciscan doctrine of apostolic poverty that had been previously affirmed by Pope Nicholas III. As a Franciscan, William of Ockham defended this doctrine of apostolic poverty as a genuine interpretation of Catholicism. Apostolic poverty was practiced by followers of St. Francis, who took a vow of poverty in an attempt to emulate the lifestyle of Christ and forego earthly possessions in favour of spiritual rewards. Franciscans, like Ockham, argued that Scripture justified apostolic poverty as seen in passages such as: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven” (Matthew 19:21) or “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The Franciscans survived, despite their vows of poverty, by begging for food and the barest necessities of life. They did not own anything, individually or collectively, as other religious orders that took vows of poverty often did.

John XXII’s constitutions attacked many of the Fransciscan arguments in support of their vows. Ockham considers this heretical. First, John XXII was espousing a heresy by repeatedly condemning the doctrine of apostolic poverty that had been established and agreed upon prior to John XXII being Pope. The Franciscans considered apostolic poverty a Catholic truth because they thought they could show that the Bible supported it. Second, the Pope held this heresy pertinaciously, as evidenced by his attempt to impose it on all his subjects, particularly the Franciscans. He issued his anti-poverty views as decrees, not as opinions to be considered or discussed. But once a heretic, John XXII forfeited any claim to be the genuine Pope and so needed to be removed.

Remember, a heretical Catholic is not really a Catholic at all. Consequently, when a Pope becomes a heretic, he is no longer the genuine Pope. The term “heretical Pope,” is strictly speaking a contradiction to Ockham. Thus John XXII was to be considered only a pseudo-Pope, and the dignity of the Church required that he be removed.

Ockham acknowledges his perspective is not shared by everyone, saying that “there are some people who say that the Pope is of such great authority that as it pleases him he can condemn any assertion as heretical,” and that the Pope “cannot be damned but would be saved whatever he did”. (Dialogus I.ii.26) But to invest this much power in the Pope is to make slaves out of all Catholics, and Ockham is convinced that this is in conflict with Scripture.

In conclusion, according to Ockham’s work on heresy, the Pope is not infallible and can fall into heresy as easily as any other member of the Church. Catholic truth is best established when dissent is allowed amongst the faithful, but requires that the faithful be open to changing their views when confronted with evidence that refutes it. Although he only extended such rights to the Catholic community, this still made William of Ockham one of the most progressive Catholic theologians of his time.

© Ian Smith 2006

Ian Smith is a Philosophy major at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Further Reading
• August Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible. Doubleday, 1981.
• John Kilcullen, ‘The Political Writings’ and Peter King, ‘Ockham’s Ethical Theory’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ockham. Ed. Paul Vincent Spade. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
• Arthur Stephen McGrade, The Political Thought of William of Ockham. Cambridge University Press, 1974.
• William of Ockham, Dialogus. Forthcoming. John Kilcullen and John Scott, ed. and trans. This is a work in progress published at http://www.britac.ac.uk/pubS/dialogus/ockdial.html.
• William of Ockham, ‘A Letter to the Friars Minor’ and Other Writings. Eds. John Kilcullen & Arthur Stephen McGrade. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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