It will help us to understand the case of Pope Honorius if we first understand some history concerning the specific heresy of which he is accused.
The fourth through the seventh centuries constitute the period of the great Christological heresies. It was during this period that the Church, through great controversies and battles, defined both the relationship of Christ to the Father (through the crisis of the Arian Heresy), and also the relations between the human and divine natures within Christ Himself (through the condemnation of the Apollonarian, Nestorian, Monophysite, and Monothelite Heresies). As the reader can see, there was really only one dominant heresy in the struggle to define the relationship of Christ to the Father. There certainly was some variations in regard to this heresy (the semi-Arians for instance), but basically the heresy was one. Either Jesus was truly One with the Father, or He was not.
When we come to the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ things get much more complicated. The orthodox Catholic doctrine is, of course, that there are two natures (the Divine and the human) in one Divine Person. This is easy to say, and possibly to memorize, but can be very difficult to conceptualize and apply. It is, in fact, impossible for the human mind to wrap itself around the idea that the Infinite and the finite can be fully and truly united in One Person, yet each nature retaining its own faculties and operations. The Nestorians could not understand it, and so they postulated two Persons in Christ, and claimed that Mary could only be the Mother of the human, and not the Divine. The Monophysites, in their vehemence to defend the Unity of the One Divine Person against the heresy of Nestorius, went so far as to deny the fully human nature of Christ. Thus we have their name: “Monophysites”, which simply means “one nature.” In other words, the Monophysites , in order to defend a good thing ( the Unity of the One Divine Personhood of Christ), did a bad thing (denied the two natures in Christ).
Now we come to the particular circumstances which formed the basis for the rise of the Monothelite (literally “One Will”) Heresy. Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, very much wanted to bring the Monophysite heretics of Egypt back into the Church. We may well imagine that he began this project with good intentions. He certainly was sympathetic towards their defense of the Unity of the Divine Personhood against the Nestorian heretics. Cyrus proposed a formula for the reunion of the Monophysites which read, “That this same Christ, one and the Son, performs both the actions which belong to him as God, and those which are human, by one, sole, theandric operation. There is no problem of course with the notion that “the same Christ” (the One Divine Person) performs the actions which belong to both God and man. The denial of this truth would amount to Nestorianism. The problem is with the phrase “one, sole, theandric operation.” The word “theandric” literally means “God human.” This phrase, in other words, denies the two distinct natures in Christ and the two distinct operations of these natures. In other words, it asserts that there is only one real will in Christ, and that being the Divine Will.
Cyrus was challenged by the monk Sophronius ( a canonized saint), who shortly thereafter became Patriarch of Jerusalem. Cyrus, in turn, appealed to his friend Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople – the second most powerful See in Christendom. St. Sophronius pursued the subject with Sergius. Sergius tried to pacify Sophronius with the argument that neither the words one wil or two wills, or one operation or two operations should be used, because this whole issue was new, and the use of any of these phrases would scandalize the faithful into the embrace of either the Nestorian or the Monophysite heresies and schisms. Sergius, in turn wrote to Pope Honorius, explaining these matters, and asking for a decision. It should be noted at this point that historians are divided as to the sincerity of Sergius in this matter. Some believe that he was sincerely confused, and honestly seeking clarification from the Pope. Others believe that he was a full-fledged Monothelite heretic, and that the letter he wrote to Honorius is only an artfully contrived piece of subterfuge. The Third Council of Constantinople condemned him as one of the heretics. There is, of course, nothing infallible about such a condemnation. The Church never claims infallibility in judging a man in the internal forum (internal culpability and guilt). Nevertheless, there does seem a good case for Sergius being a Monothelite.
The pertinent section of Pope Honorius’ answer to Sergius is printed below:
“Confessing that the Lord Jesus Christ, the mediator of God and of men [1Tim 2:5] has performed divine (works) through the medium of the humanity naturally [gr. hypostatically] united to the Word of God, and that the same one performed human works, because flesh had been assumed ineffably and particularly by the full divinity [gr. in –] distinctly, unconfusedly, and unchangeably…so that truly it may be recognized that by a wonderful design [passible flesh] is united [to the Godhead] while the differences of both natures marvelously remain….Hence, we confess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ also, because surely our nature, not our guilt was assumed by the Godhead, that certainly, which was created before sin, not that which was vitiated after the transgression. For Christ…was conceived of the Holy Spirit without sin, and was also born of the holy and immaculate Virgin Mother of God without sin, experiencing no contagion of our vitiated nature….For there was no other law in His members, or a will different from or contrary to the Savior….(from Denzinger 251).”
The translation from Denzinger is slightly confusing in its use of bracketed words, so I also offer a translation of that part of the above passage taken from Bishop Hefele’s work on the Church Councils:
“And the flesh was not from heaven, but was taken from the holy God-bearer [the Blessed Virgin], for the Truth says in the Gospel of Himself: ’No man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven’ (John 3:13), teaching us clearly that the flesh which was susceptible of suffering was united with the Godhead in an unspeakable and unique manner; on the one hand distinct and unmingled, on the other unseparated; so that the union must be wonderfully thought of under the continuance of both natures.”
Pope Honorius also wrote a second letter to Sergius in which he said:
“…So far as pertains to ecclesiastical doctrine, what we ought to hold or to preach on account of the simplicity of men and the inextricable ambiguities of questions (which) must be removed…, is to define not one or two operations in the mediator of God and of men, but both natures united in one Christ by a natural union, when we should confess those operating with the participation of the other and the operators, both the divine, indeed, performing what is of God, and the human performing what is of the flesh; teaching [that they operate] neither separately, nor confusedly, nor interchangeably, the nature of God changing into man, and the human changed into God; but confessing the complete differences of the natures….Therefore, doing away with…the scandal of the new invention, we, when we are explaining, should not preach one or two operations; but instead of one operation, which some affirm, we should confess one operator, Christ the Lord, in both natures; and instead of two operations – when the expression of two operations has been done away with – rather of the two natures themselves, that is of divinity and of the flesh assumed, in one person, the Only-begotten of God the Father unconfusedly, inseparably, and unchangeably performing their proper (works) with us (Denzinger, 252).”
Even a cursory reading of these two letters reveals the orthodoxy of Pope Honorius. He confesses the One Divine Personhood. He also fully confesses the union of both the divine and human natures – each performing their respective works “distinctly”, “unconfusedly”, and yet “inseparably” in the One Divine Person of Christ. Further, in making the confession of “one will of Our Lord Jesus Christ”, Pope Honorius immediately gives the reason and meaning: “because surely our nature, not our guilt was assumed by the Godhead, that certainly, which was created before sin, not that which was vitiated after the transgression….For there was no other Law in His members, or a will different from or contrary to the Savior….”
Pope Honorius therefore clearly employed the phrase “one will” only in the moral sense: namely that there was not in Christ a human will, vitiated by the effects of Original Sin, and at variance with or opposition to the Divine Will. We, of course, often speak of such a moral union when we use such phrases as “they are of one will concerning this matter.” It is absolutely certain in the context of the letter that this is precisely the meaning which must be attributed to the use which Honorius made of the phrase “one will.” In no way does his use of this phrase constitute a denial of a truly untainted human will in Christ.
Pope Honorius therefore ordered silence in regards to the questions of one will or two wills, one operation or two operations. The reason which he gives is stated in his first letter:
“We, however, wish to think and to breathe according to the utterances of Holy Scripture, rejecting everything which, as a novelty in words, might cause uneasiness in the Church of God, so that those who are under age may not, taking offence at the expression two energies [wills and operations], hold us for Nestorians, and that (on the other side) we may not seem to simple ears to teach Eutychianism (Monophysistism), when we clearly confess only one energy.”
After analyzing these letters, therefore, several things may be said in regard to Pope Honorius. First, he was orthodox. He was not a heretic. Second, in ordering silence in regard to these terms, his primary motive was to cause further scandal through an occasion leading to further growth of either Nestorianism or Monophysitism. The worst that can be said is that he was somewhat confused and did not see the importance of the terms involved in this dispute, and that he was also deceived by the alleged artifice of Sergius into ordering silence in this matter. None of this, of course, offers the slightest evidence of heresy on his part.
The heretics, of course, did not keep silent. They continued to propagate the Monothelite heresy, and took Pope Honorius’s statement concerning the “one will” out of its proper context, and claimed the Pope himself as a Monothelite.
Pope John IV
Two years after the death of Pope Honorius (638), Pope John IV ascended the throne of Peter. In 641 he wrote an epistle titled Dominus qui dixit to the Emperor Constantius concerning “The Meaning of the Words of Honorius about the Two Wills” (Denzinger 253). He writes:
“Thus in the dispensation of His sacred flesh, He (Christ) never had two contrary wills, nor did the will of His flesh resist the will of His mind….Therefore, knowing that there was no sin at all in Him when He was born and lived, we fittingly say and truthfully confess one will in the humanity of His sacred dispensation; and we do not preach two contrary wills, of mind and of flesh, as in a pure man, in the manner certain heretics are known to rave. In accord with this method, then, our predecessor (already mentioned) [Honorius] is known to have written to the (aforementioned) Sergius the Patriarch who was asking questions, that in our Savior two contrary wills did not exist internally, that is, in His members, since He derived no blemish from the transgression of the first man….This usually happens, that, naturally where there is a wound, there medicinal aid offers itself. For the blessed Apostle is known to have done this often, preparing himself according to the custom of his hearers; and sometimes indeed when teaching about the supreme nature, he is completely silent about the human nature, but sometimes when treating of the human dispensation, he does not touch on the mystery of His divinity…So, my aforementioned predecessor said concerning the mystery of the incarnation of Christ, that there were not in Him, as in us sinners, contrary wills of mind and flesh; and certain ones converting this to their own meaning, suspected that He taught one will of His divinity and humanity which is altogether contrary to the truth.”
Pope John IV, in other words, totally exonerated Pope Honorius of heresy.
Pope St. Martin
In the year 649, Pope St. Martin called together the Lateran Council in order to define the true doctrine and to condemn Monothelitism. All the major figures in this heresy are anathematized by name by the Council. Their writings are examined and thoroughly discussed. Pope Honorius is never mentioned. On the contrary, the Council states that since the rise of this heresy all the Roman Pontiffs had been solicitous in defending the faith against this heresy. Pope St. Martin was martyred by the Monothelites in 653.
St. Maximus the Confessor
Possibly the most powerful and astonishing evidence as to the orthodoxy of Pope Honorius comes to us from the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor. I shall let Bishop Hefele relate it from Volume 5 of his monumental work on The History of the Councils of the Church:
<What should really be final, as to whether Honorius was really a Monothelite or not, should be the declaration of the man who wrote the letter for Pope Honorius. Such a statement is fortunately extant. The great champion of orthodoxy, the abbot Maximus, in a famous disputation which he had with Pyrrhus, the successor of Sergius, in the year 645, triumphantly asked his opponent, who had brought forward Honorius as teaching one will in our Lord, “Who is the more worthy interpreter of the Pope’s letter, the one who wrote it in the Pope’s name, and who is still alive, and has illuminated the whole West with his learning, or those at Constantinople who say what they wish?” Pyrrhus replied, “Certainly the one who composed the letter.” “Then”, retorted Maximus, “the same man [Abbot John Symponus], again writing in the name of a Pope (John IV), and to the Emperor Constantine, says, speaking of this same letter, ‘When we spoke of one will in Our Lord, we were speaking of His human will only, as is plain from our arguing that there could not be contrary wills in Our Lord – viz., of the flesh and of the spirit.’”
<This answer silenced Pyrrhus, the successor of Sergius, in daring to cite the great, the divine Honorius, the apostolic See itself as a partisan of his heresy. In a letter to the priest Marinus, he declares definitely that Honorius, when he spoke of one will, did not deny the duality of wills in the two natures of Our Lord. He proceeds to show from the Pope’s words that he was only arguing against the idea that there could be two opposing will in the person of Christ. Towards the close of this letter, St. Maximus says that he is sure he has taken the right view of the letter of Honorius from what he has been told by the abbot Anastasius, who has just returned from Rome. Anastasius told him, avers the saint, that when in Rome he asked the chief ecclesiastics of that great church, and the abbot John [Symponus], who had drawn up the letter, why the phrase "one will" had been inserted. The Romans, continued the Greek abbot to St. Maximus, were very much put out at the meaning which had been given to the phrase, and declared that numerical unity of will in Our Lord had never been intended to be expressed, nor had there been any intention of conveying the idea that the human will of Our Saviour had been annihilated. There had only been a wish to show that there was no depraved will in Our Lord, as there is in us.>
What is most fascinating about this excerpt from St. Maximus’ debate with Pyrrhus is the revelation that the person (John Symponus, who St. Maximus says “has illuminated the whole West with his learning’) who wrote Pope Honorius’ letter to Sergius is the same person who wrote the Letter of Pope John IV, which later would exonerate Pope Honorius. The Letter of Pope John IV contains the following sentence concerning Pope Honorius:
“So, my aforementioned predecessor said concerning the mystery of the incarnation of Christ, that there were not in Him, as in us sinners, contrary wills of mind and flesh; and certain ones converting this their own meaning, suspected that He taught one will of His divinity and humanity which is altogether contrary to the truth….”
In other words, the same man who wrote the letter of Pope Honorius specifically declares that it is “altogether contrary to the truth” that this letter, or Pope Honorius (and thus also the Abbot John himself) ever taught “one will of His divinity and humanity.” And further, this same author of the Pope’s letter, says, “Therefore, knowing that there was no sin at all in Him when He was born and lived, we fittingly say and truthfully confess one will in the humanity of His sacred dispensation; and we do not preach two contrary wills, of mind and of flesh….” In other words, he specifically says that the clause in the Honorius letter which proclaims “one will” in Christ refers only to the moral union of will in the untainted and unfallen nature of Christ’s humanity.
This interpretation of the meaning of the words of Pope Honorius is therefore confirmed by the very person who wrote Honorius’ letter. It is also confirmed, obviously, by Pope Honorius and Pope John IV. It should also be noted that Pope John IV held a synod in which he condemned Monothelitism, and that St. Maximus died as a martyr at the hands of the Monothelites.
Pope St. Agatho
Pope Agatho (678-681) convoked the Third Council of Constantinople (the Sixth Ecumenical Council), and reigned during the period that the Council was in session. He did not attend personally, but sent legates. By the time the Acts of the Council reached Rome for the Pope’s confirmation, Pope Agatho was dead. This task therefore fell upon his successor, Pope Leo II. We will, of course, speak of Pope Leo and his actions in regards to the Council further on in our discussion.
Pope Agatho wrote a letter to Emperor Constantine IV, and this letter was read and embraced at the Council. The Pope condemned all the major promoters of the Monothelite heresy by name. But if one is looking for the name of Honorius, it is conspicuous by its absence. Pope Agatho also wrote the following
“Let your tranquil Clemency [the Emperor] therefore consider, since it is the Lord and Saviour of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, how it is known to all that the Apostolic pontiffs, the predecessors of my littleness, have always confidently done this very thing….
Pope Honorius was a predecessor of Pope Agatho. It is obvious, therefore, that Pope Agatho’s statement concerning the never-failing faith of his predecessors refers also to Pope Honorius. This reference becomes even more specific in a subsequent passage:
“Wherefore the predecessors of Apostolic memory of my littleness, learned in the doctrine of the Lord, ever since the prelates of the Church of Constantinople have been trying to introduce into the immaculate Church of Christ an heretical innovation, have never ceased to exhort and warn them with many prayers, that they should, at least by silence, desist from the heretical error of the depraved dogma, lest they make the beginning of a split in the unity of the Church, by asserting one will, and one operation of the two natures in the one Jesus Christ our Lord….”
Anyone with knowledge of these events immediately recognizes that the phrase “at least by silence” refers to only one man: Pope Honorius, who ordered silence upon the contesting parties in Constantinople and elsewhere. Therefore, even though he does not mention him by name, the famous letter of Pope Agatho gives clear testimony of the never-failing faith of all his predecessors, and contains a specific reference to the orthodoxy of Honorius.
After carefully examining the letter of Pope Agatho, Bishop Hefele, in his History of the Councils of the Church, concludes the following:
“In this letter there are three points quite specially worthy of consideration: 1) The certainty and clearness with which Agatho sets forth the orthodox Dyothelitic (Two Wills) doctrine; 2) the zeal with which he repeatedly declares the infallibility of the Roman Church; and 3) the strong assurance, many times repeated, that all his predecessors had stood fast in the right doctrine, and had given exhortation to the patriarchs of Constantinople in the correct sense. Agatho was then far removed from accusing his predecessor Honorius of heresy, and the supposition that he had beforehand consented to his condemnation entirely contradicts this letter." (Vol. 5, p. 145-46). – [emphasis is again mine].
The interesting thing about this statement is that Bishop Hefele was among the “minority” bishops at Vatican Council I who were against the Definition of Papal Infallibility. During the Council he actually wrote a pamphlet on Pope Honorius, using this case as an argument against the Definition. According to Dom Cuthbert Butler in his two volume work The Vatican Council, Bishop Hefele “seems to have been the bishop who found the greatest difficulty in accepting the definition of the infallibility (he finally published the Definition in his own diocese in 1871, and wrote to the Papal Nuncio to inform the Pope of his own acceptance). His testimony as to the belief of Pope Agatho in the orthodoxy of Pope Honorius is therefore of inestimable value, coming as it does from one whose original orientation during the Vatican Council was to establish the contrary.
The extraordinary thing is that after all this testimony (which, as we have seen includes Pope John IV, St. Maximus the Confessor, Pope Agatho, - and possibly most important – the Abbot John Symponus, who was author of both the letter of Pope Honorius and the letter of Pope John IV), the Fathers of the Third Council of Constantinople still condemned Pope Honorius. The fact that they did indeed condemn Honorius cannot be denied. They did so in the following words:
“After we read the doctrinal letters of Sergius of Constantinople to Cyrus of Phasis and to Pope Honorius, as well as the letter of the latter to Sergius, we found that these documents are quite foreign to the apostolic dogma, also to the declarations of the holy Councils, and all the Fathers of repute, and follow the false teachings of the heretics; therefore we entirely reject them, and execrate them as hurtful to the soul. But the names of these men must also be thrust forth from the Church, namely, that of Sergius, who first wrote on this impious doctrine; further, that of Cyrus of Alexandria, of Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter of Constantinople, and of Theodore of Pharan, all of whom Pope Agatho rejected in his letter to the Emperor. We anathematize them all. And along with them, it is our unanimous decree that there shall be expelled from the Church and anathematized Honorius, formerly Pope of Old Rome, because we find in his letter to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines.”
We must make four points concerning this declaration. First, the declarations of a Council do not take effect unless they are ratified by the reigning Pope. We shall address this point in a moment. Second, the Council chose to ignore the clear statements of two preceding Popes (John IV and Agatho) who had exonerated Honorious of any charge of doctrinal error, and instead declared just the opposite.
Third, the statement of the Council that, “we find in his [Honorius’] letter to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines” is absolutely contrary to the truth. Any honest reading of Pope Honorius’ letter itself proves such a claim to be false. In addition, as I have already documented, Abbot John Symponus who wrote both the letter of Honorius and also the letter of Pope John IV confirms the orthodox intentions of Pope Honorius. We also have the clear absolution from the charges of heresy made by Pope John IV, St. Martin, St. Maximus the Confessor, and Pope Agatho. We also have the judgments of clear exoneration of Pope Honorius from the charges of personal heresy by the most eminent historians in this matter: scholars such as Bishop Hefele (History of the Councils of the Church), Horace Mann (The Lives of the Popes in the Middle Ages), the contemporary historian Warren Carroll (The Building of Christendom), and many others. Interestingly enough, Dom Chapman, author of the article on Honorius in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia also concludes that Pope Honorius had excellent intentions and cannot be judged as a private heretic. But he also concludes that “he was a heretic, not in intention, but in fact” because of his apparently confused use of the words “one will.” Dom Chapman also concludes that no one has the right to defend Honorius. Obviously, all of the other sources I have listed do not agree. The point is, however, that Dom Chapman fully agrees that Pope Honorius cannot be considered a “heretic in intention”, and cannot, therefore, be considered a Pope who “lost the faith.”
It is therefore clear from all this testimony (and there is more) that Pope Honorius was not a heretic in any sense of “having denied or lost the faith”. Mann, in an attempt to understand the appellation “heretic” as applied to Pope Honorius, also has the following to say:
“It has indeed been contended that the Council may not have anathematized Honorius in the same sense as it did Pyrrhus and Sergius. For it must be observed that the word "heretic" did not always denote one who ‘knowingly and willingly’ taught error. It sometimes, as Bolgeni has conclusively shown, was applied to such as favoured error in any way. And it would certainly seem, from the edict which Constantine issued at the close of the council, regarding the observance of its decrees, that when the council included Honorius in its anathemas, it only did so in the sense of his having favoured the spread of Monothelitism by his letters to Sergius. The edict speaks of Honorius as “a confirmer of the heresy and as one who was not consistent with himself.’”
We know that in order for a person to be truly called a heretic he must hold onto an error of faith pertinaciously and contumaciously. Most of us can make mistakes in our understandings or communications of the faith, but this does not mean that we are heretics. In order to be justly labeled as such we must persevere in our error in the face of being shown the contrary. Loosely speaking we might call our errors or mistakes objective “heresies”, but this does not at all mean that we may justly be called “heretics.”
With Pope Honorius, however, we know that even his belief was orthodox. If we may accuse him of anything, it is a certain ignorance of the terminology that was needed in order to counter this new heresy, and a confusion of terminology. It may be said, therefore, that Pope Honorius inadvertently furthered the cause of the heretics through his own ignorance and confusing use of terms. But no matter how we look at the situation, it is clear that in no way could it be justly said that he followed Sergius or the other heretics “in all respects,” or “confirmed their impious doctrines.” The condemnation of the Council is therefore clearly a case of excess.
The fourth point which needs to be made is that no Council has any power or right to judge a Pope. Vatican Council I teaches:
“And since, by the divine right of Apostolic primacy, one Roman pontiff is placed over the universal Church, We further teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all causes the decision of which belongs to the Church recourse may be had to his tribunal, but that none may reopen the judgment of the Apostolic See, that whose authority there is no greater, nor can any lawfully review its judgment. Wherefore they error from the right path of truth who assert that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council, as to an authority higher than that of the Roman pontiff.”
It is truly “illicit”, therefore, for a Council to attempt to judge a Pope. The Fathers of the Council of Constantinople might be excused for this mistake because this “point of doctrine” had not been fully taught, but certainly we should have the Catholicity not to follow their error, or to use this error as a justification for modern errors concerning the nature of the Papacy. In other words, we should not use the “illicit” condemnation of Pope Honorius by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in order to deny the never-failing faith of Peter and his successors.
In considering the reasons as to why the Council of Constantinople may have rushed to such a judgment we might also consider the following. In reading the Acts of the Council one is struck by the fact that the Fathers always refer to Honorius as “the Pope of Old Rome.” The Council was dominated by bishops from the East (and to a very forceful degree by the Emperor), and therefore strongly under the influence of the Church at Constantinople. Constantinople had replaced Rome as the seat of the Emperor, and thus of secular power. There was also, therefore, a strong tendency to conceive of Constantinople as the “New Rome”, and to also conceive the Patriarch of the See of Constantinople as somehow equal in prestige and power to the Pope of Old Rome. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (the famous Council which condemned Monophysitism and at which the Tome of Leo was read and accepted), the Church Fathers passed the following Canon #28:
“Following in every way the decrees of the holy fathers and recognizing the canon which has recently been read out – the canon of the 150 most devout bishops who assembled in the time of the great Thedosius of pious memory, then emperor, in imperial Constantinople, new Rom – we issue the same decree and resolution concerning the prenew Rome. The fathers rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of new Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honoured by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equaling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her…[emphasis mine].”
This Canon was rejected outright by Pope Leo the Great (Pope Leo I – not to be confused with Pope Leo II) . However, this Canon, approved by the Council Fathers, shows us clearly that as early as the year 451, despite the fact that the Eastern Churches were still submitting to the ultimate decisions of the “Pope of Old Rome”, the foundations were already laid for a confusion about the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff, a situation which would ultimately burst forth in the Eastern Orthodox schism of the Eleventh Century. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that such an attitude could also find fruition in the illicit hubris of a formal condemnation of Pope Honorius at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.
Finally, we must consider the actions of Pope Leo II in confirming the actions of the Council of Constantinople. For this purpose I quote the words of historian Warren Carroll:
“Everything we know and can conclude about the thought and actions of Pope St. Leo II regarding the decrees of the Sixth Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 680 and 681 must be drawn from his five extant letters, all relating to this subject: one to Emperor Constantine IV and four to Spain – to its King Erwig, to its bishops collectively, to the Spanish bishop Quiricus, and to the Spanish Count Simplicius. The letters to the Emperor, to the king, and to all the Spanish bishops contain clear statements that Pope Leo has confirmed the final decree of the Council, while at the same time redefining its language on Pope Honorius to make it conform to the fact, evident from a careful reading of Honorius’ letter to Sergius, that he had not endorsed Sergius’ Monothelite ideas, but only refrained from condemning them. Writing to the Emperor, almost certainly composing the letter himself in the Emperor’s language, Greek, Pope Leo II wrote that Pope Honorius was condemned because ‘he permitted the immaculate faith to be subverted.” Writing in Latin to the Spanish bishops, he declared that Honorius was condemned for not at once extinguishing the flames of heresy, but rather fanning them by his negligence. To King Erwig he wrote that Honorius was condemned for negligence in not denouncing the heresy, and for using an expression which the heretics were able to employ to advance their cause, thereby allowing the faith to be stained (p. 254).”
We thus have five letters from Pope Leo II which deal with the subject of the condemnation of Pope Honorius. The words are strong in their criticism in regard to Pope Honorius’ negligence. All five letters, however, studiously avoid designating him as a heretic. These letters therefore constitute an obvious refusal on the part of Pope Leo II to subject Pope Honorius to a condemnation for heresy.
It is clear, therefore, that in no way can we assume that Pope Leo II confirmed the Council’s condemnation of Pope Honorius in the sense that “he followed the view and confirmed the doctrines” of the Monothelite heretics. In other words, the only way that the word “heretic” could be applied to Honorius at all is in a meaning and fashion that is antiquated: namely that through his failure to condemn the heresy outright, and through his use of a term which the heretics could then distort to their own advantage, he unwittingly fostered the spread of this heresy.
It is also true that there is no basis in the divine constitution of the Church for one Pope having the power or right to judge another. Popes have certainly tried to do so at least a couple of times in the history of the Church. The results that I know of have been disastrous. It might do us good to consider one example. Pope Stephen VI (896-97) held a synod at which he had the body of Pope Formosus (891-896) dug up, clad in papal vestments, and seated on a throne. The decision of Pope Stephen and the synod, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1909), was that Formosus had been unworthy of the pontificate, that he had never been Pope, that all his measure and acts were annulled, and that all the orders conferred by him were invalid, including his consecrations of bishops, which, of course, also invalidated (if such a thing were possible) the orders of the priests ordained by these bishops. After having had the three fingers used in consecrations severed from his hand, and the papal vestments torn from his body, Formosus’ body was thrown into the Tiber.
In 897, Pope John IX had Pope Formosus’ body taken from the river and restored to a place of honor. He annulled all the decisions of Stephen VI, and declared all the orders conferred by Formosus to be valid.
The story does not end here, however. Pope Sergius III (904-911) reaffirmed all the decisions of Stephen VI (which nullified those of John IX).We can well imagine how many bishops and priests were now involved in the declaration of their orders being invalid. Finally, it should be mentioned that the Church’s final decision on the matter is that Formosus was indeed a valid Pope.
I think that these events should be sufficient to show the possibility of error involved in Popes judging Popes. These Papal judgments do not, of course, compromise the faith of the Popes who committed these dastardly deeds. But they certainly do serve to put attractive icing on Protestant invectives against the Papacy.
I suspect that Pope Leo II, being a saint, instinctively drew back from the fulsome condemnation of Pope Honorius pronounced by the Third Council of Constantinople. Further, if he had understood the future consequences of such an act of “Concilliarism” (the doctrinal error that views an Ecumenical Council to be superior in power to the Pope, and to have to power to judge him), and the fact that its presumptuous and false condemnation of Pope Honorius would fuel the future aspirations of millions of heretics and schismatics, especially at the time of the Protestant Revolt, he most surely would have rejected it in toto.
The fact is, however, that the Council’s condemnation of Pope Honorius was reiterated by the routine condemnation of past heretics found in several future Councils. It became part of the Papal Oath taken by Popes in the 8th - 11th Centuries, and it was part of the Roman Breviary readings for the Feast of Pope Leo II until the 18th Century. It is therefore incalculable the degree to which these errors concerning Pope Honorius’ orthodoxy have contributed to a justification of the Protestant position. Popes, even saintly Popes, make mistakes. And it certainly is worth speculation as to whether a clear and outright rejection by Pope Leo II of the condemnation of Pope Honorius as a heretic would have saved many far more souls from the mortal sins of schism and heresy, than have been lost through Pope Honorius’ failure to immediately condemn the Monothelite heresy.
The Church is full of men who make mistakes, including Popes. When, however, any Catholic take these mistakes and exalts them to a position which enables him to falsely deny one of the divine prerogatives which Christ established upon Peter and his successors, then such a person becomes an enemy of Christ, and at war against the divinely established institution of the Papacy. Today, the numbers of such people are legion. The Modernist camp is, of course, almost universally among these numbers. What is most tragic is that very many of those who would call themselves Catholic traditionalists are now their fellow-travelers in this regard. The fact is that many of us who love the Traditional Mass sit side-by-side with those who are involved in this war against the Papacy. If we wish to be blessed by God in our efforts towards the restoration of traditional Catholicism, we must also wage war against these errors present within our own family. Foremost among these errors is the belief that the faith of Peter can fail.
The Lefebvrites have used a number of arguments attempting to justify the actions of Archbishop Lefebvre which have exerted tremendous moral pressure and persuasion on his followers. None have been more effective than that which attempts to identify the moral and theological position of Archbishop Lefebvre with that of St. Athanasius. Their argument essentially runs as follows: Pope Liberius signed a formula of doubtful orthodoxy (regarding the Arian heresy) and excommunicated Athanasius for refusing to capitulate to the Arians. St. Athanasius was eventually victorious and was canonized as the great defender of orthodoxy. Therefore his alleged excommunication was invalid. Since Archbishop Lefebvre is also a great defender of orthodoxy against the errors of a reigning pope, therefore his excommunication is also invalid.
I would invite anyone interested in this argument to read the articles on “Liberius” (especially the section titled “Forged Letters”) and “Infallibility” in the 1910, 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia. I will only summarize its basic arguments:
1) The “letters” of Pope Liberius mentioning a condemnation of St. Athanasius are almost certainly forgeries.
2) Before he was sent into exile (for refusing to capitulate to the Arians) by the Emperor Constantius, Pope Liberius was, along with Bishop Hosius, one of the two greatest defenders of St. Athanasius; after his exile he was again a great fighter against this heresy. After his exile, the Catholics of Rome revolted against the Arian anti-pope Felix and received Liberius back in triumph. There is absolutely no evidence of any confession of having fallen, no recantation, no atonement on the part of Pope Liberius. Pope St. Anastasius I (401) mentions him with Dionysius, Hilary, and Eusebius as one of those who would have died rather than blaspheme Christ with the Arians.
3) Considering his actions both before and after his exile and alleged “fall,” any actions taken against the Faith or against St. Athanasius during his exile could have only been occasioned by excessive coercion and fear. This would have deprived any such actions of the moral freedom necessary for truly human acts (an elementary principle of moral theology), and thus certainly the necessary qualifications for a true papal “declaration of excommunication.” Interestingly enough this point of moral theology is made in Vatican II’s treatment of the Papal Primacy: that decisions of the Pope, in order to be binding on the minds and wills of the faithful, must be to his “manifest mind and intention, which is made known either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated (Lumen Gentium, 24).” Even though St. Athanasius believed that Liberius had fallen (the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that he received his information from St. Jerome who, according to the same article, is noted for historical inaccuracies), it was this great Saint (Athanasius) himself who absolved Pope Liberius of any moral responsibility by saying that Liberius gave way “for fear of threatened death” and “for what men are forced to do contrary to their first judgment, ought not to be considered the willing deed of those in fear, but rather of their tormentors.” St. Athanasius knew the clear history of Pope Liberius’ valiant defense of the faith against Arianism before he was arrested, taken into exile, and possibly tortured. He therefore knew that the “manifest mind and will” of the Pope was against Arianism and in support of his own bishopric.
I do not believe that anyone has claimed that Pope John Paul II was tortured into excommunicating Archbishop Lefebvre, nor that his declaration of excommunication and schism were not “conformable to his manifest mind and intention.” Therefore, the attempt to use St. Athanasius as a justification for Archbishop Lefebvre’s direct rebellion against the orders of a Pope in full use of his faculties is simply one more case of distorting history in order to further their own non-Catholic agenda.
I would forcefully challenge anyone who wishes to continue to use St. Athanasius as a justification of the SSPX schism to read carefully the 1910-13 Catholic Encyclopedia article on Pope Liberius. Anyone who can read this article and still come away with any surety regarding the claims concerning Liberius’ alleged heresy or the alleged excommunication of St. Athanasius is simply living in a fantasy-land.
There may indeed be much confusion and debate regarding the case of Pope Liberius. Much of the reason for this confusion, or lack of surety concerning the actual historical facts, simply lies in the fact that there is such a paucity in good historical information regarding these events. The very fact, however, that many traditionalists, relying on such slim and unsubstantiated evidence, should continue to parrot the notion that Liberius was a matter-of-fact heretic, is a strong testimony to the presence of a very unnatural hunger on their part, and certainly confirms that there is something profoundly wrong in their own Catholic makeup.
Pope John XXII
The case of Pope John XXII is very helpful in any attempt to understand the prerogative of non-failing faith which Christ has promised to Peter and his successors. This is especially true because it clearly reveals the very necessary distinction we must draw between objective error, on the one hand, and full-fledged heresy or loss of faith on the other. We know, for instance, that most of us at one time or another have certainly been mistaken in our understanding, or even our defense, of certain points of the Catholic faith. We also know, however, that in most cases this did not make us into heretics. When the truth was finally shown to us, we may have struggled with it somewhat at first, but eventually, through God’s grace and very likely the help of some member of the hierarchy, we were able to see the nature of our error, and we submitted to the truth. At no time in this process were we necessarily heretics. We were in error, we were confused, but we had not “lost the faith".
“Loss of faith” or formal heresy involves something much more serious. It requires that we be pertinacious and contumacious in clinging to error, especially in the face of attempts by the hierarchy to show us the nature of our error. In other words, we must rebelliously persist in our error in the face of the truth being clearly and repeatedly manifested to us.
The same distinction must be drawn in regard to the Papacy. We know, of course, that in his infallible teaching office the doctrinal teachings of the Pope are guaranteed to be free from any error whatsoever. However, in his personal or private writings and teachings, and also in his teachings which are not covered by the charism of infallibility, the Pope can error. The most famous incident involving such an error occurred in the first half of the 14th century during the Papacy of Pope John XXII.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has the following to say about the famous case of John XXII’s supposed “heresy”:
“Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question [the Beatific Vision], in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on this matter (November, 1933) and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1933, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question, but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death, he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision.”
There obviously existed in Pope John the “good faith” which was proved to be quite docile and humble in the face of revealed truth. There was, on his part, no evidence of perverse obstinacy or persistence in error. This is a clear case of a Pope having made a mistake” in his personal opinion and in sermons which were not preached to the Universal Church, and certainly not binding on the faithful. We might call it an objective “heresy” if we wish (but this is certainly a very strong word in the face of such docility on the part of the Pope). But this certainly does not constitute any justification for calling Pope John XXII a “heretic”, or of considering him to have lost his faith.
Two Hundred and Sixty-six men have sat in the Chair of St. Peter. All have been unworthy of the honor. Many have been Saints. Some have been scoundrels. Some have had mistresses. Some are almost surely in Hell. None of them ever lost the faith. Of this we can be sure. To believe otherwise is to embrace objective heresy.
- James Larson