“Steeped in Romanity” — Fr. Victor-Alain Berto

Articles written, translated or selected by John S. Daly

The guiding star of this site is fidelity to Rome.

From torrid south to frozen north,
The wave harmonious stretches forth,
Yet strikes no chord more true to Rome’s,
Than rings within our hearts and homes.
Cardinal Wiseman

Hylomorphism and Heresy



Aristotle’s theory of ontology holds that corporeal things are comprised of matter and form. The matter is the stuff the thing is made of, while the form is the shape the stuff is made into. Matter must always be disposed in some shape or other, but it is the shape that makes the thing what it is. Willow wood is the matter of a cricket bat, but it isn’t a cricket bat — not until it is carved to have the shape of a bat. On the other hand if some other matter (such as glass or chocolate) were fashioned to the form of a cricket bat, it would not be a real cricket bat either, any more than a chunk of uncarved willow-wood is.


This theory is applied by analogy to many other things which are incorporeal. For instance, most Catholics know that theologians use the term “material sin” to refer to an act which of its nature is sinful, when the agent is invincibly ignorant of the sinfulness of what he does and therefore does not incur guilt before God by doing it. Here the term matter is used for the immoral act, while form is used for the evil will. But it should be noted that “material sin” is not sin — it is the matter which would become sin if the will were evil, but the matter alone can never make the thing. A material sin is no nearer to being a sin than a willow-tree is to being a cricket bat.


Common parlance readily assumes that if a man who commits sins is called a sinner, a man who commits material sins can be called a material sinner. But this expression is perilously ambiguous. A man who smokes cigars is called a cigar-smoker, but if we refer to a Cuban cigar-smoker the listener will not know whether it is the cigars that come from Cuba or the smoker himself. The term material sinner might denote a perpetrator of material sins, but it could just as well denote a saint, for the saints alone are made of the matter of which we sinners are made (human nature in the wayfaring state), but without the formal element (vice) that would make them really sinners.


When the vocabulary of matter and form is applied to heresy, the potential for ambiguity and consequently for calamitous confusion is greatly increased. The word heresy is sometimes used to mean a heretical doctrine, but in its primary sense heresy is an act: the act of rejecting God’s revelation, sufficiently proposed — i.e. it is the enormous sin of preferring one’s own opinion to divine truth. Now the formal element of heresy must therefore be the evil will involved in such a choice, without which it would not be truly an act of heresy or truly a sin. But what is the material element? If you define it as believing a doctrine contrary to divine revelation, you attribute material heresy to two distinct groups: (i) those who want to believe all that the Catholic Church teaches as divinely revealed, but err as to whether in fact the Church teaches this or that point, and (ii) those who reject the entire deposit of faith, because they are invincibly ignorant of the divine mandate of the Catholic Church to transmit God’s revelation to men. Since the resemblance between these two groups is entirely fortuitous, it seems safer, as well as more logical, to define material heresy as the act of rejecting the Catholic Faith on the part of one who is invincibly ignorant of the duty to accept it. In the same way we should not call a mistaken statement about a question of fact a “material lie”, or the act of accidentally falling to one’s death from a cliff top “material suicide”, or a miscarriage a “material abortion”.

Unfortunately, this usage has not been universally respected, because the matter-form analogy does not always apply neatly to incorporeal things. Heresy comprises not two but three distinct elements: (i) the belief contrary to Catholic teaching, (ii) the realisation that one’s belief is contrary to Catholic teaching, and (iii) the realisation that Catholic teaching is divinely guaranteed and must therefore be believed by all. When one tries to cut a tri-partite entity cleanly into two complementary elements, it is anyone’s guess to which end the middle will stick: that is the dilemma on which the Christmas-cracker is based.


And the problem is only aggravated when we call the person who holds a material heresy a material heretic. For the most orthodox of Catholics is the material of which a heretic can be made as long as he has the capacity to fall into heresy, and that remains with us all until death. But even if we hazard the guess (usually correct) that the Cuban cigar-smoker is not himself Cuban, and that it is the heresy that is material, not the heretic, we are still left with the dilemma of whether a material heretic means a Catholic who wants to believe all the Church teaches but mistakes what that teaching is on some point, or one who is not a Catholic at all and has no intention of believing the teachings of a Church whose divine authority has not been sufficiently proposed to him. Cardinal Billot pleads that logic and theology require the term to be limited to the latter. St Louis de Montfort and many others, however, follow the former usage. What is certain is that the term “material heretic” is quite useless unless we know which of the two senses it is used in. And it is positively pernicious if its latent ambiguity is used (however unwittingly) to confuse these two widely differing groups, making statements which are true of only one sort of material heretic, and applying them to the other.


It is noteworthy that the 1917 Code of Canon Law eschews this ambiguous vocabulary altogether when referring to heresy and heretics. If we follow its example we can surely explain what is meant by the words heresy and heretics without any danger of confusion. Our conclusions will be as follows: heresy is the sin of culpably rejecting divinely revealed truth sufficiently proposed by the Catholic Church, and only those who commit heresy in the fullness of this definition are truly heretics. Those baptised persons who do not accept the Church’s teaching authority are presumed to be heretics and treated as such for all practical purposes. They may, exceptionally, possess divine faith, sufficient for salvation, but they do not possess divine and Catholic faith, which is necessary to belong to the Church juridically. They are not Catholics. Quite different is the case of the baptised person who does accept the Catholic Church’s teaching authority, but inadvertently holds some belief incompatible with its teaching: he is not a heretic and is not legally presumed to be such. In fact, all who fall into this category are our brother-Catholics, however misguided.


It is certain that the Vatican II “popes” have erred in ways and degrees which a true pope is protected by the Holy Ghost from erring in. They are therefore not popes.

If we enquire why this should be so, the most obvious, and surely correct, answer is that they are public heretics, and as such have automatically (“ipso facto”) forfeited any office in the Church.

Some Catholics have been loath to reach this conclusion, however, since they mistakenly suppose that the private individual is unable to identify public heresy and the consequent loss of ecclesiastical office. Instead, they offer an alternative explanation of the manifest non-papal status of recent inhabitants of the Vatican.

They hold that these claimants to the papacy were per se validly elected, but failed validly to accept the election, owing to some improper disposition on their part – an improper disposition which the adherents of this view carefully distinguish from heresy. Hence they claim that the Church is today frozen in the same state she is in for a split second during every papal election — between the moment when the elected cardinal is invited to accept the papacy and the moment when he in fact accepts it. At this moment it is claimed, correctly, following St Robert Bellarmine, that the Church has a “material pope”, but not a “formal pope”. And of course a “material pope” is not a pope, for the same reason that a virgin is a “material mother”, but not a mother.

However, those who hold this thesis (known as the Cassiciacum thesis), do not merely mean that Karol Wojtyła is material that could be made into a pope, as any man1 may be. They mean that he is proximately disposed to become pope. His relation to the papacy is not that of any virgin to motherhood; it is that of the bride.

Thus far the thesis errs negatively by refusing to face the evident fact that Wojtyła is a heretic, not a Catholic, and that this alone suffices to explain why he is not pope and to place him much further from the papacy than any male Catholic. But there is no definite, positive error against the faith in the notion that the interval between election and valid acceptance might be extremely prolonged. The idea is novel and shocking in the extreme and could be accepted only as a last resort (which is not our case), particularly the notion that this state of affairs might go unnoticed by all the electors, but at a pinch we may refrain from bluntly calling it unorthodox.

However, Cassiciacum adherents do not stop there. While refusing communion with their “material popes”, refusing to name them in the canon of the Mass, refusing to obey them, and denying them ordinary authority to teach or govern, they nevertheless commonly concede to them the power of validly naming new bishops and cardinals – who, however, by virtue of the same defective dispositions, will become only material bishops or cardinals.

Here we must call a complete halt. A window-pane is a “material wine-glass”, but in the absence of due form it cannot be used for drinking wine. By what stretch of absurdity could it be claimed, however, that a window-pane, being a “material wine-glass”, could be used exclusively for drinking “material wine” – i.e. grape-juice? Only a thoroughly dishonest vintner would dare label a carton of unfermented grape-juice for sale as “material wine” (Châteauneuf du Pape Matériel?)

No reality exists without its form.2 A “material pope” is therefore not the Vicar of Christ and is utterly incapable of exercising the powers Christ conferred upon His vicars except perhaps in accordance with the standard principles of supplied jurisdiction which, if they apply at all to cases such as the Vatican II claimants, apply because these men are widely (though mistakenly) thought by Catholics to be popes, not because they are material popes. Wojtyła’s appointees are no more bishops or cardinals of the Catholic Church than his doctrines are doctrines of the Catholic Church — unless (a) the recognized conditions for supplied jurisdiction apply, and (b) the nominees themselves truly profess the Catholic faith which the Roncallis, Montinis, and Wojtyłas have been relentlessly steamrollering since 1958. It is time for adherents of the Cassiciacum thesis to accept that in the absence of efficacious acceptance of office by an eligible and validly elected individual, the see remains transparently vacant and the papal powers in 100% abeyance.

© John S. Daly 2001 A.D.


1 Even a non-Catholic male is a material pope in the sense that he could become a Catholic before being elected.

2 “Forma dat esse rei.”