The Pope

In Defense of Pope Honorius

The Sixth Ecumenical Council (the third at Constantinople) was preparing to accuse him of heresy, many decades after his death. The Pope who reigned over the Council was Pope Saint Agatho. He wrote a letter to the Council trying to dissuade them:

Pope Saint Agatho: “For Peter himself received from the Redeemer of all, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church. Under his protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.”

“And his authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things.”

“but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end….”

“…the evangelical and apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith, which has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error….” [Letter To The Sixth Ecumenical Council]

They were not convinced. Pope Agatho died. The Council wrote up the accusation against Pope Honorius. But an Ecumenical Council has no authority apart from the Pope. For a Council is the body of Bishops gathered with the Pope as their head. No teaching is a teaching of an Ecumenical Council unless the Pope approves it. No decision is a decision of an Ecumenical Council unless the Pope approve it. Pope Agatho never gave his approval to the Council. The next Pope, Saint Leo II, within the very letter that approved of the Council’s teachings and decisions made one change to their decisions. He changed the judgment against Honorius from heresy to negligence in defending the Faith.

There’s a good article on this topic at Catholic.com: The Truth about Pope Honorius by Robert Spencer (9/1/1994). Spencer also writes in defense of Honorius. He quotes Warren Carroll on the conflict between the Sixth Ecumenical Council (which was the Third at Constantinople) and Pope Leo II:

“The Third Council of Constantinople was thus in error when it condemned Honorius for heresy. But a Council, of course, has no authority except insofar as its decrees are confirmed by the pope. The reigning Pontiff, Leo II, did not agree to the condemnation of his predecessor for heresy; he said Honorius should be condemned because ‘he permitted the immaculate faith to be subverted.’ [Warren H. Carroll, The Building of Christendom: A History of Christendom, vol. 2 (Christendom College Press, 1987), p. 254]”

Since the Pope changed the charge against Honorius from heresy to negligence, it cannot be said that Honorius was condemned by the Council. For an Ecumenical Council is nothing apart from its head, the Pope.

Each Pope has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith, divinely conferred by God. See the list of teachings on this point here. But this protection does not extend to negligence, to what the Pope fails to do. And failing to do enough to oppose a grave error (on the wills of Christ) is not a type of heresy.

So it is FALSE to say that the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemned Pope Honorius for heresy. You can still find copies of the documents that they wrote and sent to Pope Leo II. But he never approved of that condemnation, so it is not, in truth, a condemnation of Honorius by an Ecumenical Council. Without the formal agreement and approval of the Pope, nothing an Ecumenical Council says or does is of that Council.

In addition, Pope Honorius NEVER taught the error which claims that Christ has only one will.

Fr. Begin: “John, secretary to Honorius, who wrote the letter to Sergius and who must have known better than any other the thoughts of the Pontiff, said on this matter: ‘When we spoke of a single will in the Lord, we did not have in view His double nature, divine and human, but His humanity only…. We meant that Jesus Christ did not have two contrary wills, that is to say one of the flesh and one of the spirit, as we ourselves have on account of sin, but that, with regard to His humanity, He had but one natural will.’ ” [The Primacy and Infallibility of the Sovereign Pontiffs: The Case of Pope Honorius I, Fr. Louis-Nazaire Bégin]

Bellarmine confirms what Fr. Begin states about the secretary of Honorius:

“Moreover the Secretary witnesses the mind of Honorius was never to deny two wills in Christ, and whenever it seems to deny two wills, it must be understood on two contrary and opposed wills in the same human nature, which is discovered in us from sin, but was not in Christ.” [Bellarmine, Robert. Papal Error?: A Defense of Popes said to have Erred in Faith (p. 47-48). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

Catholics today misunderstand the controversy of that time period. Everyone agreed that God has a will, and that Christ was Divine. So there was no doubt that Christ had a divine will. The discussion centered on the human nature of Christ. One proposal was that the human nature lacked a human will, and had only the Divine will (heretical). Another proposal was that there were two wills, one divine and one human, but the human will could at times be contrary to the divine will. (Sounds like something some persons would assert today, persons who present Christ as if He were more human than divine.) Honorius rejected two contrary wills, which is also a grave error.

But his error was in remaining silent, as the popular heresy of that day spread. He was negligent in opposing the error. And that is the charge laid against him by Pope Saint Leo II, in place of the charge attempted by the Council. So with the change made by Leo II, the Council cannot be said to have condemned Honorius for heresy.

Doctor of the Church, Saint Robert Bellarmine states that Honorius was not a heretic:

Bellarmine: “For Honorius confesses in these epistles, what pertains to the matter of two wills and operations in Christ, and he only forbids the name of one or two wills, which then were unheard of, and he did it with prudent counsel. That he confessed the matter itself is clear from the words of the second epistle: ‘We ought to confess both natures in the one Christ, joined in a natural unity, working in harmony with the other, and also confess operations. And certainly the divine operation, which is of God, and the human operation, which is of God, carrying it out not in division, nor confusion, informing the other but not changing the nature of God into man, nor the human into God, but confessing the different natures whole, etc.’ This confession is very Catholic, and altogether destroys the Monothelite heresy.” [Bellarmine, Robert. Papal Error?: A Defense of Popes said to have Erred in Faith (p. 47-48). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

Honorius forbid the use of certain new terminology, which had developed in the course of this controversy. That is not a doctrinal error. Honorius’ real error was in not opposing the error of one will or operation, but instead proposing silence. Perhaps he feared a schism. Perhaps his understanding of the theology on these points was lacking, so that he was not prepared to issue a magisterial decision. In any case, the error was not heresy, but negligence.

Fr. Begin: “Thus, amid all the accusations brought against Honorius by the Fathers of the Sixth Council, none of them amounted to formal heresy; all of them were limited to incriminating this pope for having followed the advice of Sergius, who prescribed silence on the doctrine of the two operations in Jesus Christ, by which the error was propagated due to the audacious activity of the Monothelites and the blind obedience of Catholics, by which the heresy was not rejected and condemned in principle with the courage and energy which ought to be found in the supreme pastor; but in none of this do you see the council accuse Honorius of having professed a doctrine contrary to that of the Church. His negligence–this was his entire crime, this is why he was reproached, and this is what brought him condemnation.” [Fr. Louis-Nazaire Bégin]

And Saint Bellarmine does state that Honorius feared a schism. He also was concerned, as he wrote in his first epistle on this topic, that either one or two “operations” might be misunderstood as asserting one or another heresy:

Bellarmine: “Therefore, he wrote in the first epistle, that they ought to abstain from the term ‘one operation’, lest we would seem to place one nature in Christ with the followers of Eutychus, and again from the term of two operations, lest we seem to place two persons in Christ with Nestorius. ‘Let no one, being offended by the term “of two operations” think by some madness that we agree with the Nestorian sects, or certainly if again we sensed that one operation must be affirmed, that we would be reckoned by itching ears to confess the foolish madness of the Monophysites.’ ” [Bellarmine, Papal Error?]

Now about the much quoted line by Honorius, seeming to confess one will, Bellarmine explains:

“Then they say, however, that a little below he clearly preaches only one will in these words: ‘Wherefore, we profess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ I respond: In that place, Honorius spoke only on the human nature, and wished to say that in the man, Christ, there were not two wills opposing each other, one of the flesh and the other of the spirit; but only one, namely the spirit. For the flesh in Christ desired absolutely nothing against reason.” [Bellarmine, Papal Error?]

Bellarmine also quotes from the letter of Pope Saint Agatho to the Sixth Council on the never-failing faith of each and every Roman Pontiff:

Pope Agatho: “according to the divine promise of our Lord and Savior himself, which was confessed by the Prince of the disciples in the holy Gospels, Peter, saying ‘Peter, behold, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail, and thou, when thou has been converted, strengthen thy brethren.’ Let your tranquil mercy consider that the Lord and Savior of all, whose faith it is, who promised the faith of Peter was not going to fail, admonished him to strengthen his brethren which the Apostolic Pontiffs, the predecessors of my scanty [Pontificate] have always done, and has been acknowledged by all.” [Bellarmine, Robert. Papal Error?: A Defense of Popes said to have Erred in Faith (p. 56). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

So it should be abundantly clear, so anyone who is fair-minded and who considers the evidence, that Honorius was not condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council for heresy, nor was he in fact guilty of heresy.

In addition, it is a dogma of the Catholic Faith, taught infallibly by the First Vatican Council, but also taught previously by the Magisterium many times, that Popes are prevented by the grace of God from ever teaching or committing heresy:

Now, as Pope Saint Leo II writes, the Letter of Pope Saint Agatho, defending the immunity from error and the never-failing faith of every Roman Pontiff, was accepted by the Sixth Ecumenical Council and by Leo II himself, making that Letter a part of the Council’s teachings.

“My predecessor, Pope Agatho of Apostolic memory, together with his honorable Synod, preached this norm of the right apostolic tradition. This he sent by letter to your piety by his own legates, demonstrating it and confirming it by the usage of the holy and approved teachers of the Church. And now the holy and great Synod, celebrated by the favor of God and your own has accepted it and embraced it in all things with us, as recognizing in it the pure teaching of the blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, and discovering in it the marks of sound piety.” [Letter of Pope Leo II, confirming the acts of the Sixth Ecumenical Council]

Pope Leo first reminds the Council that they accepted the letter and teaching of Pope Agatho. In this way, Leo asserts that Popes cannot err to the extent of heresy. Then, at the end of his own letter, Pope Leo changes the charge against Honorius from heresy to negligence. That this change was deliberate and authoritative is proven by the earlier part of the letter, quoted above, noting that Agatho’s letter was accepted and embraced by the Council. Such acceptance makes the letter the definitive teaching of the Church. And accusing Honorius of heresy would contradict that teaching, which is why Leo changed the charge from heresy to negligence.

Thus, the teaching of Pope Agatho on the Roman Pontiff is dogma, confirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. In addition, it is a dogma taught infallibly by the First Vatican Council. And it was taught previously by the Magisterium repeatedly. So we faithful today can be absolutely certain that the Popes are prevented by the grace of God from ever teaching or committing heresy:

Magisterial Teaching on the Roman Pontiff

Vatican I: “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.”

Pope Saint Leo IX: “By the See of the Chief of the Apostles, namely by the Roman Church, through the same Peter, as well as through his successors, have not the comments of all the heretics been disapproved, rejected, and overcome, and the hearts of the brethren in the faith of Peter — which so far neither has failed, nor up to the end will fail — been strengthened?” [In Terra Pax Hominibus, September 2, 1053; Denz. 351.]

Pope Pius XI: “Upon this Magisterium, Christ the Lord conferred immunity from error, together with the command to teach His doctrine to all….” [Divini illius magistri, December 31, 1929; Denz. 2204.]

Pope Saint Agatho: “For Peter himself received from the Redeemer of all, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church. Under his protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.”

“And his authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things.”

“but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end….”

“…the evangelical and apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith, which has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error….” [Letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council]

Pope St. Nicholas I: “If anyone condemns dogmas, mandates, interdicts, sanctions, or decrees, promulgated by the one presiding in the Apostolic See, for the Catholic faith, for the correction of the faithful, for the emendation of criminals, either by an interdict of threatening or of future ills, let him be anathema.” [Roman Council 860 and 863; Denzinger 326]

First Vatican Council: “Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an Ecumenical Council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.”

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by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

Categories: The Pope

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