Following the Council of Constantinople III (A.D. 681), Pope St. Leo II confirmed the decrees of the Council in his letter to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV. Dated May 7, 682, the central paragraph includes the following pertinent information:
“And then tearing to pieces the foundations of their execrable heresy, and attacking them with spiritual and paternal arms, and confounding their tongues that they might not speak consistently with each other, we overturned the tower built up by these followers of this most impious heresy; and we slew them with anathema, as lapsed concerning the faith and as sinners, in the morning outside the camp of the tabernacle of God, that we may express ourselves after the manner of David, in accordance with the sentence already given concerning them in your letter, and their names are these: Theodore, bishop of Pharan, Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, Paul, Pyrrhus and Peter.”
It is clear, therefore, that the successor of St. Agatho did not attempt to overturn the findings of the Council, but confirmed them. Some have thought that the language of Leo’s condemnation of Honorius, being visible in the one letter written to the Emperor quoted above, and four to Spain, shows he did not think the Pope was even in theological error, much less heresy. Church historian William H. Carroll, in the 2nd volume of his Christendom series, writes the following:
“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 (taking his material from Hefele). By these careful redefinitions, Pope St. Leo II substantially modified the sense of the Council’s decrees on Honorius…Pope Honorius, therefore, was never condemned for heresy by the supreme Church authority, but only for negligence allowing a heresy to spread and grow, when he should have denounced it..” (p. 254)
And still, other historians have either sought to defend the orthodoxy of Honorius’s letters, or to try and doubt their authenticity. But another Patristic historian, the Benedictine Abbot, John Chapman, thinks that both Carroll’s take in trying to interpret Pope St. Leo II as failing to condemn Honorius for heresy and those who either question the veracity of Honorius’s letters or prove their orthodoxy are flat out wrong. Chapman says that we should abandon all three of these routes. He writes:
“Therefore just as today we judge the letters of Pope Honorius by the Vatican definition [on Papal infallibility], and deny them to be ex cathedra, because they do not define any doctrine and impose it upon the whole church, so the Christians of the 7th century judged the same letters by the custom of their own day, and saw that they did not claim what papal letters were wont to claim, viz., to speak with the mouth of Peter, int he same of Roman tradition. The grounds of both judgments are in reality the same, viz., that the Pope was not defining with authority and binding the [whole] church.” (The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, ch. 23)
It is also interesting to note that in the next two Ecumenical Councils, that of Nicaea II (787) and Constantinople IV (869), where both Popes Hadrian I and Hadrian II confirming, the anathema of Honorius was confirmed twice more. Moreover, from the 8th to 11th centuries, the oath for entering Papal office included the following words: “Together with Honorius, who added fuel to their wicked assertions”. And lastly, Honorius was anathematized as a heretic in the lessons of the Roman Breviary (not all versions) for June 28th, the feast of Pope St. Leo II, until the 18th century. What right thinking and rationally minded Catholic could ignore all of this? Sure, according to today’s standards, the Pope would have been considered just as much a heretic as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Origen of Alexandria, in other words, post-humously (after death). One could even say that St. Thomas Aquinas, alongside many others, by their rejection of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady, were “heretics” in the same manner as Honorius. But it is still theological and doctrinal error, nonetheless. And the persistence of thought from the 7th to 18th centuries which believed a Pope could in fact teach error, and even be condemned as a heretic (says the Council confirmed by the Pope) makes it clear that this was not found scandalous by our forefathers in the Catholic Church. Although, it does merit the moment of reflection that Honorius, thus condemned, did not have the chance of recanting, nor having a trial to confirm his heresy, which means that he probably was not a formal heretic, neither having had the definition on two-wills formally given just yet nor the element of obstinate refusal to believe what the Church teaches. One, therefore, even considering the material situation of Honorius, could try to argue that a Pope cannot become a formal heretic. However, this does not seem to be the consensus of belief throughout history.
Why then does the mention of Pope Honorius by our Protestant and Eastern Orthodox interlocutors make for such a problem for Catholics, if it was not a problem for Catholics for nearly over 1,000 years! Was it that the decrees of Vatican I seem to smack hard against this historical data? Well, I can’t see how. The decree on Papal infallibility was not to encourage the idea that the Pope is generally, perpetually, and continuously infallible in his teaching acts. Rather, the charism of infallibility, as is widely known, applies when the Pope, with free deliberation, teaches on a matter of faith and morals by using his authority as supreme pastor and teacher of souls, with the intention of binding all Christians in the world to it. Honorius’s letters were to Constantinople at best were erroneous answers to questions which had come from Constantinople, and one may further dispute the intention to produce dogma by his words.
But still, what good is a Pope to bring security and support to the universal Catholic religion if there is the potential of theological error or heresy? This is what we are asked, and we Catholics should give a fair answer. There are many ways to answer, and many besides myself are more qualified to do so. But here I try. I will begin with some indirect statements, followed by direct.
The same question could be asked to the Eastern Orthodox on what good a Bishop is to the local church if he can be in error or heresy. To this he may say that recourse to security is had in an Ecumenical Council. Well, to this I say that it has not been generally admitted by all Orthodox Christians on just what that would look like in a post-Roman Empire contemporary context. Some would say that elder Rome would need to confirm its decrees, in light of the Petrine authority divinely invested in the Roman bishopric. In this case, one would ask just why such “Petrine” authority is needed if there was not something uniquely attributed to it in the vein of authoritative teaching. And if so, what is that attribute? The answers to this from the East are not clear. But how few in the Orthodox world take this sort of high Petrine perspective? There are even those who would say that what is needed is the participation of the historic Pentarchy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) as well as the bishops representing the consensus of the episcopate. Well, how possible is this given the current state of Orthodox affairs? And seeing as how the prospect of achieving this is so far off, even observably impossible, the Orthodox who comes with this question of what worth the Papacy has in light of the potential of Papal error, we can turn and ask what good is the Eastern Orthodox recipe for infallible Councils? Most, I dare to say, would abandon all of this talk of divine Primates and prefer to say that all bishops, whether Pope or the Patriarch of Constantinople, all have the authority and charism of Peter when they are orthodox and confess the right faith, and that an Ecumenical Council need not the Pope, but merely the consensus of bishops which represent the Orthodox churches globally. Still the question of when and how lurks especially since the convening of the recent Synod of Crete 2016, which seems to be piling up dissent and repudiation, as well as hopeful acceptance to one day be universally recognized. The truth is, this question of what worth does the Papal office have if it is not guaranteed perfect and perpetual infallibility would be answered in a way similar to the way the Orthodox who vest worthiness in the office of Bishop. On certain conditions, the Bishops can gather into Council and speak and deliberate with supreme and infallible authority. In the same way, the infallible charism of Peter and his authority to confirm Councils is also potential, and thus help to the Church from the Papacy is not altogether falsified. The office of Bishop, in the Orthodox model, does not render the person holding office invincible from heresy, and yet they still believe the office to be of divine origin. In the same way, then, the Papal office does not render the person holding office invincible from heresy, but yet, this does not mean the Church has a right to dispense with it.
To the Protestants, I am not sure how helpful their objection is to their side seeing that all of their teachers are admitted to be potentially erroneous. But still, it is not as if the Pope can’t ever teach infallibly. It is just that he does not enjoy a native and continuous gift which forbids him from ever teaching error. That is all. So there is still the security offered by the fact that, while error is potential, there is also the potential to speak with an Apostolic voice the infallible teaching of Peter, which is meant to establish and strengthen the brethren. I understand this begs many questions, but it is my reply for the moment.
Now, the rebuttals above still beg questions. I will address one of them. Is it actually true that the Pope can speak infallibly? It is only if we answer in the affirmative that there is a function to the Papal magisterium which can potentially help the Church by securing doctrine in a way which establishes certainty versus human opinion. What I find most interesting is that even in the letter of Pope St. Leo II which confirms the condemnation of Honorius , there is still this unrelenting referencing to the “authority of the See of Peter”. For some, an admission of a Papal failure entails doing away altogether with any notion of an authoritative Petrine Papacy. But as noted above, there is no sign of this in the 18 centuries of Christianity prior to the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox polemics against the Papal definition given in 1870. So how could it be that the Papacy survives even in light of these historical situations such as Honorius, and the corresponding fact that even in the future, a Pope has the potential to be in error. The key to the answer is determining whether it was the will of Christ for the Papacy to exist. If the Scripture and the Fathers all testify to this doctrine, then we must work it in despite the historical challenges. And, it also means that whichever Christian body exists today in the world, only that body which retains this Papal-element is truly in continuity with our ancestors in the Christian faith.
In the first place, we must ask whether there is Scriptural support for the doctrine of Papal infallibility. This is no space for a thorough treatment of this, but I do have some points to offer. The first is that Christ established St. Peter as the head of the Apostles and the rock of the universal Church by entrusting to him the very Keys of the kingdom of heaven. Now, whatever we say about these Keys, we should first observe that in the Apocolypse, St. John records our Lord saying : “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Rev 1:18). In another place, he records our Lord saying similarly: “He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this:” (Rev 3:7). In the context, to have the Key of Hell is be the doorkeeper which can open to usher in and close to keep locked away. He has the power over who goes to hell and who does not, and is thus delivered from eternal death. In giving the Keys to St. Peter, then, just after saying he would be the foundation rock upon which the Church would be built, Christ is making Peter a doorkeeper with the authority to open and shut, include and exclude, i.e. to determine the conditions of communion and non-communion, to remit or retain sins, to teach and to discipline, etc,etc. Peter is therefore given a prominent role in the Apostolic college. Because of a lack of space, I want to provide only some citations from the writings of the holy fathers, particularly those where the East engaged with the West, which confirm this prerogative uniquely given to Peter over the rest of the Apostles, and that said prerogative continues on after the life of Peter is taken up from his dead body, and lives on in the Papal succession of bishops in the Roman see; and that said prerogative is divinely ordained to perpetually assist and support the Church in her mission to sustain and protect the holy deposit of faith given by Christ to the Apostles. More importantly, I will demonstrate how the Eastern bishops of the Council which condemned Honorius maintained their belief in the Papal office despite the goings on with Honorius in the Council, as opposed to the reaction today which is often just a total dismissal of Papal claims.
In a sermon preached by Pope St. Leo I (450), to whom the contemporary Eastern Orthodox chant as a “..champion of orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness..” (Troparian – 8th Tone) , he says the following:
“There is further reason for our celebration: not only the Apostolic but also the episcopal dignity of the most blessed Peter, who does not cease to preside over his see and obtains an abiding partnership with the eternal Priest. For the stability which the rock himself was given by that Rock, Christ, he conveyed also to his successors.…” (Sermon 5)
Leo comments to this in his 51st sermon on the Holy Transfiguration:
” To strengthen, therefore, their most wholesome knowledge of this belief, the Lord had asked His disciples, among the various opinions of others, what they themselves believed, or thought about Him: whereat the Apostle Peter, by the revelation of the most High Father passing beyond things corporeal and surmounting things human by the eyes of his mind, saw Him to be Son of the living God, and acknowledged the glory of the Godhead, because he looked not at the substance of His flesh and blood alone; and with this lofty faith Christ was so well pleased that he received the fullness of blessing, and was endued with the holy firmness of the inviolable Rock on which the Church should be built and conquer the gates of hell and the laws of death, so that, in loosing or binding the petitions of any whatsoever, only that should be ratified in heaven which had been settled by the judgment of Peter.”
“though He has delegated the care of His sheep to many shepherds, yet He has not Himself abandoned the guardianship of His beloved flock. And from His overruling and eternal protection we have received the support of the Apostles’ aid also, which assuredly does not cease from its operation: and the strength of the foundation, on which the whole superstructure of the Church is reared, is not weakened by the weight of the temple that rests upon it. For the solidity of that faith which was praised in the chief of the Apostles is perpetual: and as that remains which Peter believed in Christ, so that remains which Christ instituted in Peter. For when, as has been read in the Gospel lesson , the Lord had asked the disciples whom they believed Him to be amid the various opinions that were held, and the blessed Peter had replied, saying,
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Lord says,
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, because flesh and flood has not revealed it to you, but My Father, which is in heaven. And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. The dispensation of Truth therefore abides, and the blessed Peter persevering in the strength of the Rock, which he has received, has not abandoned the helm of the Church, which he undertook. For he was ordained before the rest in such a way that from his being called the Rock, from his being pronounced the Foundation, from his being constituted the Doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven, from his being set as the Umpire to bind and to loose, whose judgments shall retain their validity in heaven, from all these mystical titles we might know the nature of his association with Christ. And still today he more fully and effectually performs what is entrusted to him, and carries out every part of his duty and charge in Him and with Him, through Whom he has been glorified. And so if anything is rightly done and rightly decreed by us, if anything is won from the mercy of God by our daily supplications, it is of his work and merits whose power lives and whose authority prevails in his See. For this, dearly-beloved, was gained by that confession, which, inspired in the Apostle’s heart by God the Father, transcended all the uncertainty of human opinions, and was endued with the firmness of a rock, which no assaults could shake. For throughout the Church Peter daily says, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’, and every tongue which confesses the Lord, accepts the instruction his voice conveys. This Faith conquers the devil, and breaks the bonds of his prisoners. It uproots us from this earth and plants us in heaven, and the gates of Hades cannot prevail against it. For with such solidity is it endued by God that the depravity of heretics cannot mar it nor the unbelief of the heathen overcome it.”
“Already and from the beginning, in the synods which have been held, we have received such freedom of speech from the most holy Peter, chief of the Apostles, as to have the power both maintain the truth in the cause of peace, and to allow no one to disturb it from its firm position, but at once to repel the mischief” (Letter XLIII)
Writing to Emperor Theodosius II, just prior to the Council of Ephesus 449, Leo writes:
“The devout faith of our most clement prince, knowing that it especially concerns his glory to prevent any seed of error from springing up within the Catholic Church, has paid such deference to the Divine institutions as to apply to the authority of the Apostolic See for a proper settlement: as if he wished it to be declared by the most blessed Peter himself what was praised in his confession, when the Lord said,
whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am ? and the disciples mentioned various people’s opinion: but, when He asked what they themselves believed, the chief of the apostles, embracing the fullness of the Faith in one short sentence, said,
You are the Christ, the son of the living God : that is, You who truly is Son of man is also truly Son of the living God: You, I say, true in Godhead, true in flesh and one altogether , the properties of the two natures being kept intact. And if Eutyches had believed this intelligently and thoroughly, he would never have retreated from the path of this Faith. For Peter received this answer from the Lord for his confession.
Blessed are you, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto you, but My Father which is in heaven. And I say unto you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church: and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it . But he who both rejects the blessed Peter’s confession, and gainsays Christ’s Gospel, is far removed from union with this building; for he shows himself never to have had any zeal for understanding the Truth…” (Letter 33)
In writing to Bishops in Sicily, Leo writes:
“By God’s precepts and the Apostle’s admonitions we are incited to keep a careful watch over the state of all the churches: and, if anywhere ought is found that needs rebuke, to recall men with speedy care either from the stupidity of ignorance or from forwardness and presumption. For inasmuch as we are warned by the Lord’s own command whereby the blessed Apostle Peter had the thrice repeated mystical injunction pressed upon him, that he who loves Christ should feed Christ’s sheep, we are compelled by reverence for that see which, by the abundance of the Divine Grace, we hold, to shun the danger of sloth as much as possible: lest the confession of the chief Apostle whereby he testified that he loved God be not found in us: because if he (through us) carelessly feed the flock so often commended to him he is proved not to love the chief Shepherd.”
The Eastern fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, in their letter to Leo, describe the effect of his holy Tome which was set as the standard of orthodox christology contra Eutyches:
Our mouth was filled with joy and our tongue with exultation. This prophecy grace has fitly appropriated to us for whom the security of religion is ensured. For what is a greater incentive to cheerfulness than the Faith? What better inducement to exultation than the Divine knowledge which the Saviour Himself gave us from above for salvation, saying,
go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things that I have enjoined you . And this golden chain leading down from the Author of the command to us, you yourself have steadfastly preserved, being set as the mouthpiece unto all of the blessed Peter, and imparting the blessedness of his Faith unto all. Whence we too, wisely taking you as our guide in all that is good, have shown to the sons of the Church their inheritance of Truth, not giving our instruction each singly and in secret, but making known our confession of the Faith in conceit, with one consent and agreement.” (Letter 98)
After the Eastern fathers had read the letter of Pope St. Agatho at the Council of Constantinople III, where Honorius was indeed condemned, these Eastern fathers wrote the following to the Byzantine Emperor, as was their custom to do at the wrapping up of Synods:
“…Therefore, in accordance with the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and in agreement with one another, and assenting to the letter of our most blessed Father and most high Pope Agatho, addressed to your Majesty, and also to that of his holy Synod of 125 bishops, we glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. ….with us fought the Prince of the Apostles, for to assist us we had his imitator and successor to his chair, who exhibited to us the mystery of theology in his letter. The ancient city of Rome proffered to you a divinely written confession and caused the daylight of dogmas to rise by the Western parchment. And the ink shone, and by Agatho Peter spoke” (Mansi 11.658)
Another letter of the same Eastern bishops to the Pope himself writes:
“The greatest diseases require the greatest remedies, as you know, most blessed one. Wherefore, Christ, our true God, has revealed your holiness as a wise physician, mightily driving away the disease of heresy by the medicine of orthodoxy, and bestowing health on the members of the Church. We therefore leave to you what is to be done, since you occupy the first See of the universal Church, and stand upon the firm rock of the faith, after we have dwelt with pleasure upon the writings of the true confession from your paternal blessedness to the most pious king, which also we recognize as pronounced by the chiefest Head of the Apostles, and by which we have put to flight the dangerous opinions of the heresy which lately rose….Those who erred concerning the faith we have slain by our anathemas in the morning without the precincts of the courts of the Lord (to speak like David), according to the previous condemnation pronounced on them in your holy letters — we mean Theodore of Pharan, Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus….etc, etc” (Mansi 11.683)
A brief note on this here – the Bishops of this Ecumenical Council refer to the Pope as the “greatest remedy”. That should entail something of what they believed about who was held supreme authority in the matter of doctrine.
The Emperor himself wrote in return [to the Council] giving his own consent to the decrees of the Council:
“These are the teachings of the voices of the Gospels and Apostles, these the doctrines of the holy Synods, and of the elect and Patristic tongues; these have been preserved untainted by Peter, the rock of the faith, the head of the Apostles; in this faith we live and reign… (Mansi 11.698)
In a letter of Emperor Constantine IV to Pope St. Leo II (who by this time just succeeded the demising Agatho of blessed memory), his Majesty writes:
“The letter of Pope Agatho, who is with the Saints, to our Majesty having been presented by his envoys…we ordered it to be read in the hearing of all, and we beheld in it as a mirror the image of sound and unsullied faith. We compared with the voice of the Gospels and Apostles , and set beside it the decisions of the holy ecumenical Synods, and compared the quotations it contained with the precepts of the Fathers, and finding nothing out of harmony, we perceived in it all the words of the true confession unaltered. And with the eyes of our understanding we saw it as it were the very ruler of the Apostolic choir, the chief Peter himself, declaring the mystery of the whole dispensation, and addressing Christ by this letter: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God…. We received it willingly and sincerely, and embraced it, as though it were Peter himself, with the arms of our soul. Macarius alone, who was prelate of Antioch, with those whom he dragged after him, divided from us, and drew back from the yoke of Christ, and leapt out of the sacerdotal circle [i.e. unity]; for he refused altogether to agree to the all -holy writings of Agatho, as though he were even raging against the Head Peter himself…And since he so hardened his heart and made his neck a cord of iron, and his forehead of brass, and his ears heavy that they should not hear, and set his heart unfaithful that is should not obey the law, for the law goeth forth from Zion , the teaching of the Apostolic height, for this cause the holy ecumenical Synod stripped him, Macarius, and his fellow heretics, of the sacerdotal office. In a written petition all of one accord begged our serenity to send them [i.e. the heretics] to your blessedness [for judgement]. This we have done…committing to your fatherly judgment all that concerns them….Glory be to God, who does wondrous things, who has kept safe the faith among you unharmed. For how should He not do so in that rock on which He founded His church, and prophesied that the gates of hell , all the ambushes of heretics, should not prevail against it? From it, as from the vault of heaven, the word of the true confession flashed forth, and enlightened the souls of the lovers of Christ, and brought warmth to frozen orthodoxy. This we have completed happily by God’s help, and have brought all the sheep of Christ into one fold, no longer deceived by false shepherds and the prey of wolves, but pastured by One good Shepherd, with whom you have been appointed to join in pasturing them, and to lay your life down for the sheep…” (Mansi 11.713)
In a letter to the Roman synod, the Emperor writes:
“You yourself were present with your ecumenical chief Pastor [Agatho], speaking with him in spirit and in writing. For we received, besides the letter from his blessedness [Agatho], also one from your sanctity. It was produced, it was read, and it detailed for us the word of truth and painted the likeness of orthodoxy…..We did not neglect to compare them with care. And therefore, in harmony of mind and tongue we believed with the one and confessed with the other, and we admired the writing of Agatho as the voice of divine Peter, for nobody disagreed, save one [Macarius]” (Mansi 11.721)
Therefore, just as Pope St. Leo II, in his letter of address to the Emperor Constantine IV first quoted at the beginning of this article, the erroneous teaching of Pope Honorius in no way abrogated the divinely fixed primacy of the Roman see as the See of Peter, the head of the Apostles. Indeed, Leo II assumed the right of the Apostolic See to confirm the Council on the basis of Peter’s authority, which somehow is maintained by his office as Bishop of the Apostolic See. Nor did it strip or nullify the authoritative capacity of Rome to teach and discipline with supreme authority even in Eastern eyes, since the letters of the Council and the Emperor show that not only did they submit the decrees to the ratifying authority of the Pope, they also moved to condemn the heretics based on the writings of the Pope, and to which they all attributed the ground as Petrine authority. Thus, far from flushing out the doctrine of the Papacy, the situation of Honorius only proves that an erring Pope does not obliterate this institution, since it is founded upon divine origin. Indeed, the Eastern lights of St. Theodore of Studium and St. Maximos the Confessor both attributed the charim of infallible teaching to the Popes, and, in the case of the former, he had lived 100+ years after the condemnation of Pope Honorius.
In conclusion, it would seem as though the historical record presents evidence, from both Eastern and Western fathers, for the idea that when the Pope speaks as the head of the whole universal church to confirm the brethren, i.e. when Peter speaks through the Pope, it is then when he is infallible and is the highest authority on the matter of doctrine. However, that does not mean there are not times when the Pope is not speaking as this head and rather speaks from something less, in which case we’d have an explanation of Pope Honorius. What we do know is that despite the situation of Honorius, neither the East nor the West gave up on the Papal doctrines, as is clear by the Eastern bishops and their reference and dependence on the Pope for the ecumenical condemnation of monotheletism, and the letter of Pope St. Leo II confirming the Council which appealed to the supreme authority of Peter even in condemning one of his Papal predecessors.