Among the most beautiful and mysterious truths of our faith is the dogma of the Beatific Vision of the souls in Heaven.The Beatific Vision consists in the immediate and intuitive contemplation of God reserved for souls who have passed to the after-life in a state of Grace and have been completely purified of every imperfection. This truth of faith, enunciated in Holy Scripture and confirmed over the centuries by Tradition, is an unreformable dogma of the Catholic Church. The new Catechism restates it in n.1023:”Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God forever for “they see Him as He is” (1 John 3,2), “face to face” (1Corinthians 13,12)
At the beginning of the XIV century, a Pope, John XXII, contested this thesis in his ordinary magisterium and fell into heterodoxy. The most fervent Catholics of that time corrected him publically. John XXII – Cardinal Schuster wrote –“has the gravest responsibilities before the tribunal of history (…) since “he offered the entire Church, the humiliating spectacle of the princes, clergy and universities steering the Pontiff onto the right path of Catholic theological tradition, and placing him in the very difficult situation of having to contradict himself.” (Alfredo Idelfonso Schuster o.s.b. Jesus Christ in Ecclesiastical History, Benedictine Publishing House, Rome 1996, pp. 116-117).
John XXII, whose real name was Jacques Duèze, was elected to the papal throne in Lyons on August 7th 1316, after a sede vacante of two years following the death of Clement XV. He found himself faced with a turbulent period in Church history, between the ‘rock” of the French King, Philip the Fair and the ‘hard place’ of the Emperor, Louis IV the Bavarian, both adversaries of the Primacy of Rome. So in order to reaffirm the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff against the audacious Gallicans and the tortuous secularists, the Augustinian, Augustine Trionfo (1243-1328) by order of the Pope, composed his Summa de ecclesiastica potestate between 1324 and 1328.
John XXII, though, entered into conflict with Church Tradition on a point of primary importance. In three sermons he gave in the Cathedral of Avignon between November 1st 1331 and January 5th 1332, he sustained the view that the souls of the just, even after their perfect purification in Purgatory, did not enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Only after the resurrection of the flesh and the general judgment would they be raised by God to the vision of the Divinity. Placed “under the altar” (Apoc. 6,9) the souls of the saints would be consoled and protected by the Humanity of Christ, but the Beatific Vision would be deferred until the resurrection of their bodies and the general judgment (Marc Dykmans in Les sermons de Jean XXII sur la vision beatifique, Gregorian University, Rome 1973, published the entire texts of the sermons pronounced by John XXII; cfr: also Christian Trottman, La vision béatifique. Des disputes scolastiques à sa définition par Benoit XII, Ecole Française de Rome, Rome 1995, pp. 417-739).
The error according to which the Beatific Vision of the Divinity would be conceded to souls not after the first judgment, but only after the resurrection of the flesh was an old one, but in the XIII century it had been rebutted by St. Thomas Aquinas, primarily in De veritate (q. 8, a. 1) and in the Summa Theologica ( I, q. 12, a. 1). When John XXII re-proposed this error, he was openly criticized by many theologians. Among those that intervened in the debate, were Guillaume Durand de Saint Pourcain, Bishop of Meaux (1270-1334), who accused the Pope of re-proposing the Catharist heresies, the English Dominican Thomas Waleys (1318-1349), who, as a result of his public resistance underwent trial and imprisonment, the Franciscan Nicola da Lira (1270 -1349) and Cardinal Jacques Fournier (1280-1342), pontifical theologian and author of the treatise De statu animarum ante generale iudicium.
When the Pope tried to impose this erroneous doctrine on the Faculty of Theology in Paris, the King of France, Philip VI of Valois, prohibited its teaching, and, according to accounts by the Sorbonne’s Chancellor, Jean Gerson [even] reached the point of threatening John XXII with the stake if he didn’t make a retraction. John XXII’s sermons totus mundum christianum turbaverunt, so said Thomas of Strasburg, Master of the Hermits of Saint Augustine (in Dykmans, op. cit., p. 10).
On the eve of John XXII’s death, he stated that he had expressed himself simply as a private theologian, without any binding to the magisterium he held. Giovanni Villani reports in his Chronicle, the retraction the Pope made on his thesis on December 3rd 1334, the day before his death, at the solicitation of Cardinal Dal Poggetto, his nephew, and some other relatives.
On December 20th 1334, Cardinal Fournier was elected Pope, taking the name of Benedict XII (1335-1342). The new Pontiff wanted to close the issue with a dogmatic definition, the constitution, Benedictus Deus of January 29th 1336, where he expresses thus: “We, with apostolic authority, define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints […] already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven […] and these souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature.” (Denz-H, n. 1000 ). It was an article of faith referred to again on July 6th 1439, by the Bull, Laetentur coeli at the Council of Florence (Denz-H, n. 1305).
Following these doctrinal decisions, the thesis sustained by John XXII must be considered formally heretical, even if at that time the Pope sustained that it was still not defined as dogma of faith. St. Robert Bellarmine who dealt amply with this issue in De Romano Pontifice (Opera omnia, Venetiis 1599, Book. IV, chap. 14, coll. 841-844) writes that John XXII supported a heretical thesis, with the intention of imposing it as the truth on the faithful, but died before he could have defined the dogma, without therefore, undermining the principle of pontifical infallibility by his behavior.
The heterodox teaching of John XXII was certainly an act of ordinary magisterium regarding the faith of the Church, but not infallible, as it was devoid of a defining nature. If we had to apply the Instruction, Donum Veritatis (May 24th 1990) to the letter, this authentic teaching, even if not infallible, would have had to be received as a teaching given by Pastors, who, through the Apostolic Succession, speak “with the gift of truth” (Dei Verbum n.8), “endowed by the authority of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, n.25), “by the light of the Holy Spirit” (ibidem). His thesis would have required, the degree of adhesion called “offering the full submission of the will and intellect, rooted in trusting Divine assistance to the magisterium” and thus “within the logic of faith under the impulse of obedience to the faith.” (Monsignor Ocariz “Osservatore Romano”, December 2nd 2011).
The defenders of Catholic orthodoxy instead of resisting the Pope’s heretical doctrines openly, would have had to bend to his “living magisterium” and Benedict XII would not have had to oppose his predecessor’s doctrine with the dogma of faith which declared that the souls of the just, after death, enjoy the Divine Essence with intuitive and direct vision. But thanks be to God, some good theologians and prelates of the time, moved by their sensus fidei, publically refused their assent to the supreme authority. An important truth of our faith was thus able to be conserved, transmitted and defined.
[A Rorate translation by Contributor Francesca Romana.]