Student I wonder how they presume to teach as doctrine that one mortal man, endowed with whatever dignity, ought to cling to his own fantasy rather than to all the holy and learned men called together for a general council.
Master You do not understand that opinion, it seems to me. For they do not say that a pope ought to cling to his own fantasy, but they say that because of the words of men he should not condemn any assertion against or beyond his own conscience.
Student It seems that in this case a pope is bound to fashion his own conscience according to the conscience of so many great men.
Master They say that in those matters that concern the faith the pope should not rely on the consciences of men but only on divine authority.
Student I am beginning to give more attention to that opinion. Would you therefore try to support it with authorities or arguments?
Master Many arguments fortified by authorities can be brought forward in support of that opinion. The first of them is this. All the people except the pope who are gathered together in a general council are not of greater authority than Christ nor should all of them be believed more than Christ; but if Christ had come and preached an unheard of catholic truth and had not performed any miracle to confirm his teaching, the Jews would not have had sin even if they had not believed his preaching; much more is it the case, therefore, that without sin the pope is able not to adhere to an opinion of everyone else in a general council if no miracle is done by them to confirm their opinion and if they do not make him understand how their opinion is based on catholic truth; and consequently he is not bound to follow them in that opinion. The major [premise] of this argument is obvious to any catholic. The minor [premise] is proved by the authority of Christ himself, who, speaking of the Jews, says, as we read in John 15[:24], "If I had not done among them works that no other man hath done, they would not have sin," in not believing me, that is; "But now they have both seen" the obvious miracles that I performed, "and hated both me and my father." We gather from these words that if Christ had not performed miracles, the Jews would not have had sin in not believing.
Student If that argument were conclusive it would follow that faith would not have to be put in the whole universal church. Indeed anyone could without sin deny an assertion which the universal church has hitherto preached if he did not see how it was in harmony with divine scripture, since the whole gathering of any mortals at all is not of such great authority as is Christ alone. And so if Christ did not have to be believed without a miracle nor should the whole church be believed unless the opinion of the church is confirmed by an obvious miracle.
Master Those who hold the above opinion would say to that objection of yours that to adhere to an opinion of the universal church with which no one disagreed, when that opinion is not confirmed by some miracle, is to place one's chief faith in Christ whose teaching has been confirmed by innumerable miracles. For we find expressly that Christ promised that his faith would last till the end of the age. It follows from this that the universal church will never err against catholic truth. Therefore if the universal church, with no one disagreeing, teaches that something should be held as catholic, it should be held firmly because of Christ's authority and not chiefly because of the church's authority, although it should in some way also be held because of the church's authority, in so far as it is held with firm faith that Christ taught that the church would never fall away from the catholic faith.
Student I could ask many things here about the church that can not err and about a general council, but I have considered that all those things should be postponed to another time. Would you return to the main plan, therefore, and complete the arguments on which the above opinion can base itself?
Master A second argument for that opinion is this. He who solemnly condemns some assertion not because of some miracle or the authority of divine scripture or some other authority that he sees but at the insistence of men seems to base that condemnation on the wisdom, will or insistence of men. The condemnation of heretical wickedness, however, and the approval of catholic truth, ought to rest on the same foundation. Therefore it is licit for the pope in approving some catholic truth to base himself on the wisdom, will or insistence of men; and this is clearly opposed to apostolic teaching. For in 1 Cor. 2[:4-5] the apostle says, "My preaching was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in showing of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God." We clearly find from these words that the faith of the pope should not take its stand on the wisdom of men and, consequently, even more not on the will or insistence of men. Nor should the approval of catholic truth, therefore, be based on the wisdom of men, nor on their will or insistence; and by the same argument the condemnation of heretical wickedness ought not be based on any of those things. For the pope to condemn heretical falsity in a proper way, therefore, either he should be led to this by an obvious miracle or he must know clearly how such a falsity is opposed to catholic truth, so that he does not establish his faith on the wisdom or will of men.
A third argument is this. No assertion should be approved as catholic or condemned as heretical on account of people who can err against the faith. But all masters in theology and even all others gathered together by the pope in a general council can err against the faith, because neither masters in theology nor all the others gathered together by the pope in a general council make up that whole church for which Christ prayed that its faith would not fail, although if they are catholics they are part of that church just as any christian is part of that church. The pope should not, therefore, because of all these approve any assertion as catholic or condemn it as heretical unless it is clearly shown to him by the working of a miracle or by the testimony of catholic truth that they are not deviating from the truth.
A fourth argument is this. A pope should not solemnly condemn any assertion as heretical unless he knows demonstratively or believes most firmly that it is heretical. He who knows demonstratively that some assertion is heretical, however, relies on reason, but he who believes relies on authority. In condemning some assertion as heretical, therefore, the pope relies either on reason or on authority. But a pope who does not see how an assertion to be condemned is opposed to orthodox faith can not rely on reason, as is clear to anyone with understanding. Therefore it is necessary for him to rely on authority. He relies, therefore, either on divine or on human authority; not on divine authority because he does not see how such an assertion is opposed to divine authority. Therefore if the pope were to condemn some assertion as heretical in the aforesaid way he would be relying on human authority. But human authority should not be relied on in matters of faith because our faith is above human understanding. Therefore in matters of this kind we should not adhere to human understanding.
A fifth argument is this. All the others gathered together by the pope in a general council are not of greater authority than were the apostles and, under the old law, Moses; but, so that their teaching would be rendered credible, the apostles and Moses confirmed it with miracles or authentic testimonies already accepted by their hearers, and the people would not have believed them otherwise. Therefore the pope is not bound to show faith in those who do not make him sure about their opinion with a miracle or with the testimony of a catholic truth known to him. If all the others in a general council, therefore, were not to show to the pope either with a miracle or with catholic authority that an assertion should be condemned as heretical, the pope ought not to condemn it as heretical. The major [premise] of this argument seems obvious. The minor [premise] is shown clearly by the example of blessed Paul who confirmed his teaching with both miracles and testimonies from the scriptures. Whence he says in Romans 15[:18-9], "For I dare not speak of any of those things which Christ worketh not by me, for the obedience of the gentiles, by word and deed, by the virtue of signs and wonders." We gather from these words that blessed Paul confirmed his teaching with signs and wonders. That he also brought forward testimonies from the scriptures is clear from Romans 9, 10 and 11, 1 Corinthians 2 and 3, Hebrews 1, 2 and 3 and many other places in his letters. That all the apostles also confirmed their preaching with miracles Mark attests in the last chapter of his gospel [16:20] saying, "But they going forth preached everywhere, the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed." As is clear from Acts 1, blessed Peter also confirmed his teaching before the Jews through texts of the scriptures that they accepted. The Lord also said to Moses, as we read in Exod. 4[:9], "But if they will not even believe these two signs nor hear thy voice, take of the river water and pour it out upon the dry land, and whatsoever thou drawest out of the river shall be turned into blood." It is quite clear from these and very many others that those through whom God taught people catholic truth either brought forward testimonies from the scriptures to confirm their teaching or demonstrated its truth by the working of a miracle, and the people were not constrained to believe them in any other way.
Student That reply seems to prove only that the pope is not bound to follow others in condemning a heresy when they do not perform a miracle or bring forward scripture in their support, but if they prove that the assertion they are seeking to have condemned is heretical it seems that the pope ought to condemn it, and he can not be excused in any way by the fact that he does not understand it. For in this way many heretics could be excused who can not see how their heresies are opposed to orthodox faith.
Master Others reply to this that if the pope were to refuse with pertinacious ill will to agree with the instruction of catholics who clearly prove through scripture that some assertion is opposed to catholic truth, because, that is, he was clinging irrevocably to some error, he should be judged a heretic or a supporter of heretical wickedness; but if he were not to agree out of simplicity alone, because he was not capable of [understanding] the instruction by which it is shown that the assertion is heretical, he should not be judged reprehensible unless he were to refuse to be instructed about the truth.
Student I will investigate later who should be considered a heretic. Would you therefore bring forward other arguments for the main proposition if you have thought of any?
Master A sixth argument for the above opinion is this. A highest pontiff should not understand any less the sentence or definition by which he condemns heretical wickedness than a judge should understand the sentence by which he condemns someone for any kind of crime; but it is not enough for a judge condemning anyone of a crime to believe his counsellors; rather he should see and contemplate for himself how his opinion preserves justice and equity. Similarly therefore, in condemning heretical wickedness a pope should not only believe others, but it is also necessary for him to understand how the assertion to be condemned is opposed to catholic truth. The major [premise] is obvious because greater caution should be employed in greater causes. The minor [premise] is proved, because if a judge were not obliged to understand the sentence which he pronounces, wisdom would not be required in one judging, but it would be enough that he was of good faith and agreed with the advice of those who are wise. But this is against what the apostle says in 1 Cor. 6[:5], "Is it so that there is not among you any one wise man, that is able to judge between his brethren?" We are given to understand by these words that only he who is wise should judge between one brother and another. And so he who judges should have at least the skill in judging such that he understands the sentence which he pronounces. For otherwise any simple and stupid person could be a judge.
A seventh argument is this. He who can contradict those gathered together at a general council is not bound to agree with their opinion; but one man, even someone inferior to the pope, can contradict everyone else gathered in a general council; therefore he is not bound to agree with their opinion. Much more is it the case, therefore, that if a pope were to see that an opinion of everyone else in a general council was wrong or were not to understand that it is catholic and sound he should not follow them. The major premise is obvious. The minor [premise] is shown by the example of Pannutius who contradicted the others at the synod of Nicea and led them to his side, as we find in dist. 31, c. Nicena synodus [col.114]. The gloss here on the word "sentence" says [col.153], "Therefore one man can contradict the whole collectivity if he has a reasonable cause.... For one person can lead others to his side." Therefore one man can contradict all the others in a general council and lead them to his side. A pope should not follow all the others, therefore, unless he knows that they have not strayed from justice and truth. They conclude from the above that if the pope should not follow all the others gathered in a general council in condemning some assertion as heretical unless he sees how the said assertion is opposed to catholic truth, much more is it the case that he should not, if he knows that some theologians regard some assertion as catholic, condemn such an assertion as heretical because of the instruction or insistence of all the others unless he knows clearly how it is opposed to orthodox faith.
Student The above arguments seem difficult to refute, but I do not want them to be investigated any further now because after you have completed the whole of this present work and I have pondered it with the greatest zeal I want to reconsider with you those arguments and everything else and to investigate your understanding of all those matters. But tell me whether they think that it is permissible for the pope to forbid some assertion about which it is not evident to him whether it should be considered catholic or heretical and to order that it not be publicly taught as doctrine. Master They say that in a particular case, if a great scandal had arisen from the teaching of some assertion as doctrine or if it were feared that a large number of people would cling to it pertinaciously, it would be permissible for the pope to order the cessation of such an assertion until such time as it were to become known whether it should be reckoned as among the truths or the heresies.
William of Ockham - Dialogus, part 1, book 2