“And when Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” –Galatians 2:11
The Letter to the Galatians is one of the more dramatic and entertaining letters in Paul’s oeuvre. He is writing to a community in what is now Turkey, somewhere between the years 48 and 55, frantic because other missionaries were pressing his Gentile converts to obey Jewish law, including circumcision. And the missionaries were making headway.
This just about makes Paul explode. “If anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed!” (1:9). Specifically concerning circumcision, he sputters: “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!” (5:12). And here, I must naughtily confess, is one of my favorite Bible verses: “O stupid Galatians!” (3:1).
If you attend daily Mass or at least follow the readings, then last Wednesday you might have noticed Paul do something especially striking in Galatians. He took on the pope. Peter, that is.
Peter (“Kephas” is the Aramaic) had previously met with Paul and other leaders in Jerusalem, agreeing that Gentile Christians need not observe Mosaic laws. But later, when Peter and Paul are in Antioch at the same time, Peter abruptly stops breaking bread with the Gentiles. He is placating traditionally observant Jewish Christians who have come in from Jerusalem, preaching circumcision.
Outraged by Peter’s hypocrisy, Paul storms up to him and demands to know: “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (2:14).
Popes can be wrong. And I don’t mean in the ways that even extreme papal defenders have to acknowledge, the ways that Renaissance popes like Alexander VI or Julius II or Leo X were wrong, keeping mistresses and riding off to war and auctioning off cardinals’ hats.
No, I mean more insidious wrongs. Popes can be heretics. Peter was the first, and by no means the last. I pull two examples, Liberius (r. 352-66) and Honorius I (r. 625-38), from one of my favorite books, Garry Wills’ Why I Am a Catholic.
Liberius was the pope who denied the most orthodox of doctrines. Namely, that Jesus was God, “one in being with the Father.”
In the middle of the fourth century, the bishops as a whole tilted toward Arianism, the belief that Jesus was kind of a superhuman creation of the Father. The Roman emperor, Constantius II, was an Arian, too, and he wanted the pope on board. Liberius initially said no. But Constantius exiled Liberius to Thrace, and he finally caved in.
After Constantius died, Liberius tried to redeem himself by undermining the Arians. But he had busted under pressure, when it mattered. And most of the laity never supported any of this. It was the mass of the people, together with a handful of bishops (preeminently Athanasius), who affirmed Jesus’ divinity. Not the bishops as a whole. Not the pope.
It happened again three centuries later. The Catholic teaching is that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, and one way of expressing this is to say that Jesus has two wills, one divine and one human. But Honorius I, under pressure from authorities in the East, declared that Christ had only one will—a position for which he was condemned by the Third Council of Constantinople in 681. Succeeding popes, starting with Leo II in 682, could not be seated unless they took an oath condemning Honorius.
Wills quotes ecclesiastical historian Klaus Schatz, S.J.: “It is an undisputed fact that must be maintained against all attempts to water it down that the council and the subsequent popes clearly condemned Honorius as a heretic. In other words, they were absolutely convinced that a pope could fall into heresy.”
And if a pope can fall into heresy, it is up to us, the laity, as it was in the days of the Arians, to act like adults and fearlessly speak truth: about sex, about women, about LGBT persons, about ordination, about absolute power.
Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903, was known to shut down internal Vatican dissent by snapping, “Ego sum Petrus” (I am Peter). Leo was actually right: he was Peter. Every pope is Peter. But a Peter selected by cardinals can never be superior to the Peter chosen by Jesus himself: that blustering, fallible fisherman who had to stand there and take it when the tentmaker from Tarsus opposed him to his face, for he clearly was wrong.