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Theology 102: Theological Notes and Papal Heresy

Editor’s note: please see the essays “The Pre-Vatican II Decline of Theology” and “The post-Vatican II Collapse of Theology” for more introductory material on this subject. The topic of theological notes is essential since those who presume to dictate to Trads the meaning of Vatican II often do not have the most basic grasp of “Theology 102,” which Lumen Gentium says is the interpretative key to understand the authoritative weight of the Council (and all Councils). This will also be essential for our discussion on the First Vatican Council. The following is an attempt to grapple with Theology 102.

Because of the crisis of orthodoxy, Catholics, especially laymen and women, ought to familiarize themselves with the notion of theological propositions, also known as theological notes. After Latin, this is one of the most basic things about theology that modern theologians no longer understand. Those with Modernist tendencies believe that our faith is only in God and not in propositions of theology. However, this is a false dichotomy. As Catholics we have faith in God and the propositions, since the propositions come from God and reveal to us the very nature of God and His wonderful actions toward man. Faith in God cannot exist without propositions.

What are Propositions and Judgments?

In logic, propositions are verbal expressions of judgments. Because we are rational beings, we perform three acts of the mind that culminate into expressions: first, from immediate experience, we abstract essences from things and obtain the idea and then the word is born (this mental act represents Christ as the Word of God). For example, we observe an animal and call that animal a “cat.”

After this, we notice the relationship between two or more ideas, and these are called judgments (“the cat is black”). Their expression is called propositions. This means that it is a declaration of a truth about a thing, connecting two truths together. The cat has an essence and the color “black” has an essence. A proposition connects the two essences.

The last mental act that we do is reasoning which is expressed by the argument. From (judgments) the premises, we arrive at a conclusion. From what is known easily we can obtain to what is not known easily.

So, keeping our example, we can lay this out in what is called a “syllogism,” which might look familiar:

  1. This animal is a cat
  2. This cat is black
  3. Therefore, some cats are black

Only judgments and propositions have truth or error value. “Jesus Christ is Lord” is a proposition that has truth value. For that reason, all of Catholic doctrine is made up of judgments and hence propositions. This is due to our human nature. Since man is a composition (body and soul) so also is our knowledge, that is, we know through composing, analysis and synthesis. Our forefathers have been doing this for twenty centuries, and the result is a massive theological corpos of propositions and judgments.

You may have heard of Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences. This was the basic theological textbook that was studied by St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas (but not Martin Luther!). It refers to the Latin term sententia which means proposition. It was a compilation of all the propositions given by the Church Fathers in their meditations on Holy Scripture.

The “theologians” (a technical term here meaning the authoritative Scholastics from c. 1100-1700) meditated on these sententiae and helped the Church formulate doctrine not only in response to heresy, but in response to Truth Himself. But with so many different propositions, who is the Church to deal with differing ideas about Scripture and doctrine? The answer is the theological notes.

Distilling the Mind of the Fathers

The theological notes exist as a hierarchy of truths of Catholic doctrine, according to their importance for our salvation and according to their certainty. As a general rule, the more important a truth is for our salvation, the more certain it is. The Scholastic inherited the great wisdom of the Church fathers and organized them into this system of understanding the deposit of faith. Without the theological notes, the Church Fathers are simply thousands and thousands of pages of different Scriptural commentary and doctrinal and spiritual works. Our Eastern Orthodox separated brethren falsely think that you can merely take the Patristics and easily bring forth doctrine. But the problems is that on some questions of doctrine the Fathers disagree with each other. It is necessary to take all the Fathers together and note where they agree and disagree and provide the nuance between these points.

The theological notes therefore distill what is known as the phronema of the Fathers. It is what is meant by the terms sentire cum ecclesia and sensus fidelium. It places the various sententiae from the Fathers in a hierarchy of truths from most certain to least certain.

Binding Dogma vs. Tolerated Opinion

There is a vast degree of difference between a binding dogma and a merely “tolerated opinion” in Catholic doctrine. It is beyond the scope of this article to give this subject its necessary full treatment, but we will introduce the Notes further here and then apply them directly to the crisis regarding the Francis Pontificate.

The highest degree of certainty (and thus binding character) is of course dogma, but here there is a distinction. There are propositions according to Divine Faith (Fides Divina) and propositions according to Catholic Faith (Fides Catholica). A truth of Divine Faith is a proposition which is directly from the Sources of Divine Revelation. A truth of Catholic Faith is a proposition that is not contained directly in the Sources of Revelation but is deduced from the content of the Sources and defined by the Magisterium. The Church defines these truths infallibly and for that reason, some call this theological note de fide ecclesiastica or of the Faith of the Church.

Different Theological Schools use different terms but with the same underlying content.

One common breakdown on the Notes is contained in Ludwig Ott and looks like this:[1]

  1. De Fide Divina – Divine Faith – explicit in Scripture, Tradition, explicitly defined by highest Church authority
  2. De Fide Ecclesiastica – Ecclesiastical Faith – explicitly defined by Church authority, implicit in Scripture and Tradition.
  3. Fidei Proxima – Proximate to the Faith – teaching is generally understood by the Theologians as explicit in Scripture and Tradition but not explicitly defined by the Church.
  4. Sententia Certa– Theologically Certain – implicit in Scripture and Tradition, not explicitly defined by the Church.
  5. Sententia Communis – common teaching – this teaching is implicit in Tradition and is generally accepted by the Theologians
  6. Sententia Probabilis– probable teaching – a teaching that is well founded on good authority yet is open to question. Pious beliefs and tolerated opinions also fall under this note and have the lowest degree of certainty.

(For more on notes, see this post from the SSPX. The more recent professio fidei distills this further into only three Notes, as explained by the CDF and discussed recently by Dr. John Joy).


Now there are theological censures that correspond to each theological note or proposition. These censures identify contrary propositions to orthodox teaching. The censures are either pronounced by the Teaching Authority of the Church (censura authentica or iudicialis), or pronounced as private judgments from Catholic theologians. (We should emphasize here that most modern “theologians” are theologians in name only. They are not true theologians but merely academics because they 1.) have no official relationship with the Church authorities and 2.) are not men of prayer, which is the essence of theology.)

What many do not know is that a contrary proposition in Divine Faith or in Catholic Faith is not properly speaking a heresy. Here, the false proposition or theological censure would be either an error in the faith or an error in the Catholic Faith.

Heresy, strictly speaking, is an erroneous proposition or theological censure against a proposition or note of divine and Catholic Faith (key word “and”), which is a proposition contained formally in the Sources of revelation and proposed infallibly to be believed. This is precisely a Dogma, the highest expression and most firm truth of our Catholic Faith presented as propositions. However, some truths which are proposed are not yet defined, but are dogmatic by the universal and ordinary Magisterium, such as the fact that a female cannot receive Sacramental ordination.

Is Pope Francis a Heretic?

That said, there are people only that accuse Pope Francis of teaching heresy quite often. Speaking of heresy in the strict manner, this seems not to be the case regarding much of Francis’ Magisterium, at least for now. Pope Francis has said and written many problematic statements. Here is the infamous sentence from his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (§129) that produced much scandal in the faithful:

We should not think, however, that the Gospel message must always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content.

This seems to be the quintessential modernist heresy condemned by Saint Pius X. But we cannot pinpoint something that explicitly goes against a theological proposition Of divine and Catholic Faith.

Here is another citation, taken from Pope Francis’ interview with Father Antonio Spadaro:

Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good.

Now the theological virtue of faith demands certainty and the unwavering acquiescence to God’s revealed truth. No voluntary doubt can be entertained without grave sin. But again, nothing clearly against a theological proposition Of divine and Catholic Faith.

Here is a quite egregious quote from Pope Francis on “World Communications Day”:

To dialogue means to believe that the other has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.

Though bad as it sounds, some argue that these errors—and clear errors they are—do not directly negate Divine Revelation, though it is true they provide a philosophy that would ultimately close off the any theological knowledge. Since speculative truths pertain to secondary object of Infallibility Authority, their theological censures would not be heresy strictly speaking.

I am not defending Pope Francis’ words; they are indefensible. His doctrine is definitely problematic, to say the least, even though it may not be heretical strictly speaking. I think we need to be careful throwing around the word heresy, since it refers to quite specific content and conditions. Because of the loss of Theology 102 even among “official” theologians, the faithful are left with this type of imprecision, which can be ambiguous at best, and sinful at worst.

However, when one reviews that formal accusation of heresy by such renowned (and mainstream) theologians as Aidan Nichols (“Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church”), we have a much more robust case for the theological crime of heresy, technically understood. In my view, I don’t think it quite convinces, but that is for official theologians to debate and the ecclesiastical authority to adjudicate.

Nevertheless, there are various censures that proximate heresy (propositio haeresi proxima) or are suspect of heresy (de haeresi suspecta). The truth is that heresy is not always easy to ascertain (many times it is). The Theological Schools of the Church, as I said, do not even agree on the application of certain theological notes.

In the end, we can say that Pope Francis is at least suspect of heresy, which is a real theological censure. The truth is only time will tell, with God’s guidance and much prayer and penance on our part.


[1] Ludwig Ott, The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Baronius Press, 2018), 9-10.

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