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Catholic Culture Dedication

Guilty Only of Failure To Teach

by Steven O'Reilly


An analysis of the case of Pope Honorius and its impact on the doctrine of papal infallibility.

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Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., October 2000

In the early seventh century, Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, with the consent of Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, attempted to reunite the monophysites to the Church through a heretical formulation that claimed in Christ there was "one operation." Controversy loomed when Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, raised objections regarding the orthodoxy of this new expression. The dispute centered over whether in Christ the human nature, like the divine nature, had its own will and operation.

The orthodox belief (dyothelitism) is that each nature has its own will and operation, hence the expressions "two wills" or "two operations" were adopted by the orthodox. The opposing view is that the divine will and operation essentially took the place of the human will and operation, hence the expressions "one will" or "one operation" from which the heresy of monothelitism takes its name.

Faced with controversy over an expression that he himself had approved and desirous to safeguard the false reconciliation of the monophysites, Sergius proposed that all parties refrain from using the new terms in order to maintain the peace of the Church. To this end, Sergius sought and received the approval for this rule of silence from Pope Honorius (625—638).

The Sixth Ecumenical Council (681) posthumously anathematized Pope Honorius for his responses to Sergius. Not surprisingly, this case has attracted considerable attention and is alleged by some to disprove the doctrine of papal infallibility. Anti-Catholic William Webster claims Honorius "officially embraced the heresy of monothelitism" and was condemned by the council as a heretic "in his official capacity as pope." (All Webster quotes are taken from his book The Church of Rome at the Bar of History and from his article "An Ecumenical Council Officially Condemns a Pope for Heresy" posted online at

Honorius's Letters—Ex Cathedra?

In order for the case of Honorius to disprove the doctrine of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council, it is not sufficient to claim the pope was a monothelite. It must be demonstrated the pope taught heresy as defined by Vatican I. Webster purports to do this in his online article. Instead, he opts for criteria of his own creation, such as claiming that Honorius acted in his "official capacity" or that his letters "affected the whole Church."

Despite Webster's obfuscation, the actual required conditions are twofold: The pope must exercise his office as "teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority," and he must define a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be "held by the whole Church" (Pastor aeternus 4, iv, quoted in The Church Teaches, John F. Clarkson, S.J. et. al, ed., 102).

Not every exercise of a pope's primacy—his "official capacity" per Webster—involves his office and authority as "teacher of all Christians." This primacy also includes—in addition to the power to teach—the power to rule and govern the whole Church. The truth is, a pope can exercise his supreme authority in any number of ways without involving the gift of infallibility—appointing and deposing bishops, suppressing religious orders, altering or imposing disciplines, etc.

Sergius wrote to Honorius to obtain not a dogmatic teaching but a rule of silence that Sergius misrepresented as necessary to end needless wrangling over disputed expressions. Honorius, without further investigation, accepted Sergius's presentation at face value, seeing the dispute as "an idle question" to be left to the "grammarians who sell formulae of their own invention" (Scripta fraternitatis vestrae, quoted by Fernand Hayward in A History of the Popes, 90). It is no surprise therefore, that Honorius wrote that, "on account of the simplicity of man and to avoid controversies, we must, as I have already said, define neither one nor two operations in the mediator between God and man" (Scripta dilectissimi filii quoted by William Shaw Kerr in A Handbook on the Papacy 196, emphasis added).

These words make it clear Honorius did not address the nascent heresy as the "teacher of all Christians" defining what ought to be believed. On the contrary, the pope declines to define anything and merely follows Sergius's suggestion in saying neither expression should be spoken of. Whether Honorius' letters later "affected the whole Church," as Webster claims, is immaterial to the question of infallibility.

The proper question is whether Honorius proclaimed a doctrine to be "held by the whole Church." The answer to this question is clearly "No." Honorius urged a rule of silence, not a rule of faith. His letters, which anathematized nothing, were intended for a few Eastern bishops and were unknown in the West until after his death. They were hardly the sort of documents with which a pope communicates his intent to bind the whole Church to a solemn dogmatic definition. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of Honoriuss policy was to leave the monothelite patriarchs in the East in place.

The Orthodoxy Of Honorius

Sufficient as the grounds above are to defend the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility, there is no reason to concede Honorius was a monothelite. The claim is based on his seemingly positive words to Sergius regarding the expression "one will": "Wherefore we acknowledge one will of our Lord Jesus Christ, for evidently it was our nature and not the sin in it which was assumed by the Godhead, that is to say, the nature which was created before sin, not the nature which was vitiated by sin" (Scripta fraternitatis vestrae quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 7:453).

Though used by the monothelites, the expression "one will" also admits of an orthodox interpretation. In Ins letter to the Romans, Paul writes of two wills at work within man—the "inner being" which delights in the law of God on the one hand, and the "different law" at work in the body which makes one a prisoner to the law of sin on the other (cf. Romans 6:21-23). Such a conflict of wills within Jesus Christ's human nature is impossible, as Honorius explains, since God assumed that human nature that existed before the fall—"the nature which was created before sin"—and not the human nature that was corrupted by sin. Honorius uses "one will" in relation to Christ's human nature and not, as did the monothelites, to his person. If Honorius had denied a human will in Christ, there would have been no need to make such a distinction between the wills of pre- and post-fallen human nature.

The seeming basis of Webster's certitude that Honorius was "no doubt" a monothelite is that the monothelites cited the deceased pope to support their doctrine. Webster's line of reasoning appears to proceed as follows: The monothelites cited Honorius therefore Honorius must be a monothelite. This is no proof at all. The monothelites cited not only Honorius, they—like heretics throughout the ages—cited various scriptures and Church fathers to support their position.

The truth is, although monothelites such as Pyrrhus, Patriarch of Constantinople, did cite Honorius after his death, the Pope had orthodox defenders who insisted upon his orthodoxy and rejected the attempts of heretics to misuse his words. Maximus the Confessor, who was martyred by the monothelites, wrote that heretics "lie against the Apostolic See itself in claiming Honorius to be one with their cause" (Ad Petrum illustrem, quoted in the online Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent). Pope John IV (640-642) defended Honorius, saying he meant only to deny, "contrary wills of mind and flesh" (Apologia pro Honorio Papa, quoted by Joseph Costanzo, S.J., in The Historical Credibility of Hans Kung, 105).

These defenders were virulent opponents of monothelitism who would not dare countenance an expression they condemned unless they were convinced Honorius had in fact used it in an orthodox sense. No one ever accused them of heresy for having defended Honorius's use of "one will."

True Cause And Nature Of Honorius's Condemnation

In his letter to the Emperor that was read to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Pope Agatho (678— 681), asserted the infallibility of the apostolic see and stated that he and all of his predecessors, thus inclusive of Honorius, "have never ceased to exhort and warn them (i.e. the monothelites) with many prayers, that they should, at least by silence, desist from the heretical error of the depraved dogma" (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 328—339). Honorius did indeed resist the heresy insofar as he urged "silence" with regard to the expression "one operation," which he rightly considered Eutychian.

The council professed its agreement with Agatho's letter anathematized any who rejected it, and said its condemnations were in accordance with it. Therefore, any conciliar condemnation of Honorius must be understood in light of such agreement. Consequently, since Agatho counted Honorius among his orthodox predecessors, so too did the council.

Though Agatho asserted the orthodoxy of all his predecessors and the infallibility of the apostolic see, he explicitly left open the possibility that a pope is nonetheless liable to judgment should he "neglect to preach the truth" to the faithful. Agatho thereby provided the tacit basis for the condemnation of Honorius on these grounds: that by neglecting to preach the truth, Honorius left the Lord's flock exposed to ravaging wolves, as indeed the monothelite Eastern Patriarchs were and under whom the faithful suffered for many years.

The council's judgment is consistent with Agatho's letter. It made a distinction between the fault of Sergius and Cyrus on the one hand and that of Honorius on the other. A reading of the condemnation reveals Honorius is neither grouped with nor shares the same fault of those "whose doctrines" were execrated—i.e., Sergius, Cyrus, etc. While Honorius is anathematized "with them"—that is, sharing a similar punishment—it is not because of any doctrine attributable to him. Honorius is condemned because of what the council "found written by him to Sergius;" in which letters Honorius "followed his [Sergius's] view" about keeping silent and thus "confirmed his [Sergius's] impious doctrines" (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 343).

Likewise, Pope Leo II (682-683) faulted Honorius because he "did not endeavor to preserve" the faith and for having "permitted" it to be assaulted, but not for having either invented, taught, or adhered to the heretical doctrine (Paul Bottalla, S.J., Pope Honorius Before the Tribunal of Reason and History, 111-112). Elsewhere, Leo blames "Honorius, who did not, as became the apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence" (Leonis II ad Episcopos Hispanie in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 7:455; emphasis added). In sum, Honorius failed to teach.

Webster adduces two final points against Honorius: that the condemnation of this pope "was ratified by two succeeding ecumenical councils" and that, Honorius was condemned "by every new pope up through the eleventh century who took the oath of papal office." In response to the former charge, as demonstrated above, Honorius was condemned for negligence. Whether two or two thousand subsequent councils ratify that sentence is immaterial, since such a sentence is not incompatible with the doctrine of papal infallibility. With regard to the papal oath, it stated only that Honorius was condemned because he had "added fuel to their [the monothelites'] wicked assertions" (Liber diurnus, ibid., 455)—a charge which does not substantially differ from earlier statements that Honorius had fostered heresy by his negligence.

East Opposed To Papal Infallibility?

The real target of Webster's attack is the letter of Pope Agatho that, claiming the inerrancy of the magisterium of the Roman see, defined the faith on the question of the two wills and two operations. Webster claims, "The Church for centuries did not interpret this statement … as meaning a personal infallibility in the bishop of Rome but that the Church of Rome as a whole had always maintained the true faith." Webster believes this former point is proved by the condemnation of Honorius.

Such rationalizations contradict the facts. Taking Webster's latter point first, the council wrote to Agatho that its condemnations were in complete accordance with his letter— which, as seen above, stated all Agatho's predecessors were orthodox, none excepted. Therefore, the council, following Agatho, counted Honorius among orthodox believers.

Regarding Webster's former point, there is no way to interpret Agatho's comments regarding the apostolic see as being anything other than an assertion of the inerrant magisterium of the bishop of Rome. No ambiguity in Agatho's letter can be found on this point, and it's difficult to imagine what other sense could reasonably be attached to his words.

Pope Agatho places the definitions of his predecessors on par with those of Ecumenical Councils (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 328). Citing Luke 22:30—32, where the Lord promises Peter's faith will not fail, Agatho says that the "ministry" he and his predecessors have received has been given by "divine designation." Through the divine act of the Lord founding the Church upon Peter, and the continuation of this ministry in Peter's successors, the bishops of Rome, the Roman Church "remains free from all error." Such references are to Peter and the bishops of Rome who succeed him in his office, and not to the whole Church—as if its magisterium could be considered apart from its bishop.

Nor may it fairly be represented that such sentiments were foreign to the Eastern Church, as Webster avers. The great Eastern anti-monothelite Maximus wrote that the apostolic see from Christ himself "received universal and supreme dominion, authority and power of binding and loosing over all the holy Churches of God which are in the whole world" (Ad Petrum illustrem, quoted in the online Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent; emphasis added). The Sixth Ecumenical Council, held in the East and comprised almost in its entirety of Eastern bishops, addressed Agatho as the "bishop of the first see of the Universal Church" and received his letter—and thus its claims—as "divinely written as by the chief of the apostles" (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 349-350).


Papal infallibility does not mean the bishops of Rome will be holy, wise, or as vigilant as they ought to be in the discharge of their office. While Honorius's foresight, as well as his vigilance to his pastoral responsibilities, might be faulted, these are not objects of papal infallibility. Neither is a failure to teach— the doctrine applies only to what is taught. Consequently, the case of Honorius provides no proof against this Catholic dogma. On the contrary, the history of monothelitism and the Sixth Ecumenical Council provides striking evidence of the early Church's acceptance of the primacy and infallible magisterium of the apostolic see.

Steven O’Reilly writes from Snellville, Georgia. He is working on a book on the papacy. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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