Rorate Caeli

The heretic Pope

Honorius I: the controversial case of a heretic Pope

Roberto de Mattei
Corrispondenza Romana
December 30, 2015

The case of Pope Honorius is one of the most controversial in the history of the Church. As the Church historian, Emile Amann, rightly notes in the large entry he dedicates to the Question d’Onorius in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (vol. VII, coll. 96-132), the problem needs to be treated in an unbiased manner and with the serene impartiality which history owes to past events (col.96).

At the center of the pontificate of Pope Honorius who reigned from 625-638, was the question of Monothelitism, the last of the great Christological heresies.  In order to please the Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, desirous of guaranteeing religious peace inside his kingdom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, sought to find a compromise between Catholic orthodoxy, according to which in Jesus Christ there are two natures in one person, and the Monophysite heresy, which attributed to Christ one person only and one nature only. The result of the compromise was a new heresy, Monothelitism, according to which, the double nature of Christ was moved in His action of one operation only and one will only. This is semi-Monophysitism, but truth is integral or it is not, and a moderate heresy, is always heresy. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, was among those who intervened with the greatest vigor in denouncing the new doctrine which rendered the humanity of Christ futile and led to Monophysitism , condemned by the Council of Chalcedon (451).  

Sergius wrote to Pope Honorius to ask “in future that no-one be permitted to affirm the two operations in Christ Our God” and to receive his support against Sophronius.  Honorius unfortunately assented to the request. In a letter to Sergius he affirmed  that “the will of Our Lord Jesus Christ was one only (unam voluntatem fatemur), for “the fact that our human nature was assumed by the Divinity” and he invited Sophronius to be silent.  The correspondence between Sergius and Honorius is conserved in the acts of VI Ecumenical Council (Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima Collectio, vol. XI, cols. 529-554) and was republished in Latin, Greek and French by Arthur Loth   La cause d’Honorius. Documents originaux avec traduction, notes et conclusion, Victor Palmé, Paris 1870 and in Greek and German by Georg Kreuzer, Die Honoriusfrage im Mittelalter und in der Neuzeit, Anton Hiersemann, Stuttgart 1975). 

Strengthened by the support of the Pope, Heraclius published a doctrinal formulary in 638 called  Ecthesis (“Exposition”) wherein he imposed the new theory of the one Divine will as official religion.  Monothelitism, prevailed for over forty years in the Byzantine Empire.  At that time the most vigorous defender of the faith was the monk, Maximus, known as the Confessor, who took part in a Synod convoked at the Lateran (649) by Pope Martin (649-655), to condemn Monothelitism. Both the Pope and Maximus were forced into exile. Maximus’s tongue and right hand were cut off as he refused to subscribe to the Monothelite doctrines.  Sophronius, Maximus and Martin are today venerated by the Church as saints for their indomitable resistance to the Monothelite heresy. 

The Catholic Faith was finally restored by the III Council of Constantinople, VI Ecumenical Council of the Church, which  convened on November 7th 680 in the presence of the Emperor, Constantine IV and the representatives of the new Pope, Agatho, (678-681). The Council condemned Monothelitism and launched an anathema against all those who had promoted or favoured this heresy and included Pope Honorius in this condemnation.

In the XIII session, held on March 28th  681, the Council Fathers after having proclaimed the will to excommunicate Sergius, Cyrus of Alexandria, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter, all the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Bishop Theodore of Pharan, affirm: “And in addition to these, we decide that  Honorius also, who was Pope of elder Rome, be with them cast out of the Holy Church of God, and be anathematized with them, because we have found by his letter to Sergius that he followed his opinion in all things, and confirmed his wicked dogmas” (Mansi, XI, col. 556).

On August 9th 681, at the end of the XVI session, the anathema against all the heretics and supporters of the heresy, including Honorius were renewed: Sergio haeretico anathema, Cyro haeretico anathema, Honorio haeretico anathema, Pyrro, haeretico anathema» (Mansi, XI, col. 622).  In the dogmatic decree of the XVIII session, on September 16th, it is said that: “since he who never rests and who from the very beginning was the inventor of malice, that by making use of the serpent, introduced poisonous death to human nature, as then, even now, has found the instruments suited to his will: we allude to Theodore, who was Bishop of Pharan; Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter, who were prelates of this imperial city; and also to Honorius, who was Pope of elder Rome; […]; therefore the suited instruments being found, he did not cease, through these, to provoke scandals and errors in the Body of the Church; and with unheard of expressions disseminated amidst the faithful people the heresy of the one will and one operation in two natures of a (Person) of the Holy Trinity, of Christ, our true God, in agreement with the insane false doctrine of the impious Apollinaire, Severus and Themistius”  (Mansi, XI, coll. 636-637).

The authentic copies of the Council Acts, signed by 174 Fathers and the Emperor, were sent to the five Patriarchal Sees, with particular regard to the Roman See.  However, since St. Agatho died on January 10th 681, the Council Acts, after more than 19 months of a “sede vacante”, were ratified by his successor Leo II (682 -683). In the letter sent May 7th 683 to the Emperor Constantine IV, the Pope wrote: “We anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodore, Bishop of Pharan, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter, betrayers rather than leaders of the Church of Constantinople, and also Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted” (Mansi, XI, col. 733).

The same year Pope Leo ordered the Acts translated in Latin, to be signed by all the Bishops in the West and that the signatures be conserved at the tomb of St. Peter.  As the eminent Jesuit historian, Hartmann Grisar highlights:  “in this way the universal acceptance of the Sixth Council in the West was desired, and this, as far as is known, took place without any difficulty” (Analecta romana, Desclée, Rome 1899, pp. 406-407). 

The condemnation of Honorius was confirmed by Leo II’s successors, as attests the Liber diurnus romanorum pontificum and from the seventh (789) and eighth (867 -870) Ecumenical Councils of the Church (C. J. Hefele, Histoire des Conciles, Letouzey et Ané, Paris 1909, vol. III, pp. 520-521).

Abbé Amann judges historically untenable the position of those, like Cardinal Baronius,  who retained that the IV Council Acts had been altered. The Roman legates, were present at the Council; it would be difficult to imagine that they could have been tricked or had misreported on such an important and delicate point as the condemnation of heresy of a Roman Pontiff.  Referring then to those theologians like St. Robert Bellarmine, who, in order to save the memory of Honorius, denied the presence of explicit errors in his letters, Amann underlines that they raised a greater problem than the one they claimed to resolve, i.e. the infallibility of the Acts of a Council presided over by a Pope.  If, in fact, Honorius did not fall into error, the Popes and the Council that condemned him were wrong.

The VI Ecumenical Council Acts, approved by the Pope and received by the universal Church have a much stronger defining significance than Honorius’ letters to Sergius. In order to save infallibility it is better to admit the historical possibility of a heretic Pope, rather than shatter the dogmatic definitions and the anathemas of a Council ratified by a Roman Pontiff. It is common doctrine that the condemnation of the writings of an author is infallible, when the error is anathematized with the note of heresy, whereas, the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not always necessarily infallible. 

During the First Vatican Council, the Deputation of the Faith confronted the problem by setting out a series of rules of a general character, which are applied not only in the case of Honorius, but in all problems, past or future that may be presented. It is not enough for the Pope to pronounce on a question of faith or customs regarding the universal Church, it is necessary that the decree by the Roman Pontiff is conceived in such a manner as to appear as a solemn and definitive judgment, with the intention of obliging all the faithful to believe (Mansi, LII, coll. 1204-1232).  There are, therefore, non-infallible acts of the Ordinary Papal  Magisterium, since they are devoid of the necessary defining character: quod ad formam seu modum attinet. 

Pope Honorius’ letters are devoid of these characteristics. They are undoubtedly Magisterial acts, but in the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations. The Pope can fall into heresy, but cannot ever pronounce a heresy ex- cathedra. In Honorius’ case, as the Benedictine patrologist, Dom John Chapman OSB, observes, it cannot be affirmed that he intended to formulate a sentence ex cathedra, defining and binding: «Honorius was fallible, was wrong, was a heretic, precisely because he did not, as he should have done, declare authoritatively the Petrine tradition of the Roman Church» (The Condemnation of Pope Honorius (1907), Reprint Forgotten Books, London 2013, p. 110).  His letters to Sergius, even if they were about the faith, did not promulgate any anathema and do not correspond to the conditions required by the dogma of infallibility.  Promulgated by the First Vatican Council, the principle of infallibility is saved, contrary to what the Protestants and the Gallicans thought.  Further, if Honorius was anathematized, explained Pope Hadrian II, in the Roman Synod of 869, “the reason is that Honorius was accused of heresy, the only cause for which it is licit to inferiors to resist their superiors and to repel their perverse sentiments” (Mansi, XVI, col. 126). 

Specifically based on these words, after having examined the case of Pope Honorius, the great Dominican theologian, Melchior Cano, sums up the safest doctrine in these terms: “It must not be denied that the Supreme Pontiff can be a heretic, of which one or two examples may be offered.  However, that (a Pope) in judgments on the faith has defined something against the faith, not even one can be demonstrated” De Locis Theologicis, l. VI, tr. spagnola, BAC, Madrid 2006, p. 409).

Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana