Dialogue on (Supposedly Fallible) Pope Honorius

Dialogue on (Supposedly Fallible) Pope Honorius January 7, 2018


Pope Honorius possibly was personally a heretic, but infallibility isn’t involved.

My evangelical Protestant friend’s words are in blue.

Consider the following excerpt from [Pope] Leo II’s public confirmation of III Constantinople:

…also Honorius, who did not illuminate the Apostolic See with the doctrines of the Apostolic tradition, but by profane prodition attempted to subvert the immaculate faith; and all, who died in his error…

“Attempting” is not active? How can “prodition” not involve a public matter? Leo also sent private letters to the Emperor, the King of Spain and bishops of Spain condemning Honorius (“…fostered [the heresy] by his negligence…”).

I suspect that here we have questions of translation, too, as in so many controversial biblical and historical matters (a citation would thus be helpful). I don’t know Latin, nor do I know the particulars of the reference you are making, so I can hardly comment on that. My understanding is that Honorius (r. 625-638) was rebuked by subsequent popes for negligence only, not active promulgation of heresy, and certainly not ex cathedra. This doesn’t rest on me, but on the scholarship of those historians and theologians who are familiar with both the text, and the original language. In any event, papal infallibility as defined by the Catholic Church is not involved in this dispute. Bertrand Conway writes:

But even if we grant that Pope Leo II and the Council condemned Honorius in his own person as a heretic (Chapman, Amann), this, as Cardinal Newman pointed out, is ‘inconsistent with no Catholic doctrine’ [Difficulties of Anglicans, II, 317]. (The Question Box, New York: Paulist Press, 1929 edition, 173)

Catholics differ as to whether or not Pope Honorius was personally a heretic, but in either case the matter of infallibility isn’t involved, as he didn’t publicly proclaim the heresy ex cathedra.

Now, Dave, you don’t need to know Latin; just look up the words, profana proditione in any Latin dictionary (I’ll even let you use a Catholic one =) ). You’ve never shied away from looking up Greek words before, so why are you balking at Latin now? (Also notice how POPE Leo lumps Honorius in with the INVENTORS of the heresy.) 

Because it is irrelevant to papal infallibility, that’s why. If you prove this point, I “win.” If you don’t, I “win.”

How nice that you get to define both the event and the interpretation of the event. 

I didn’t define anything. Papal infallibility was dogmatically defined by an ecumenical council in 1870 (and by the way I have a very similar citation from St. Francis de Sales in 1596). This is the Catholic view, which indeed developed, and was not always understood in the depth it now is, but Roman primacy, papal supremacy and implicit infallibility was understood in its essence from the beginning. And I believe that can be historically substantiated — it most emphatically is not a matter of blind dogmatic faith, as you may perhaps think, and as I used to believe myself.

No one has yet shown that what Honorius did is contrary to our own belief about papal infallibility. There is no need for interpretation at all with regard to Honorius. Detractors must either produce a public document where he speaks ex cathedra or the anti-Honorius polemic fails, pure and simple. There’s nothing complicated at all about this. The real “interpretation” comes where non-Catholics think they can foolishly redefine our doctrines at will according to their own agendas, then turn around and accuse us of circular reasoning! It does get a bit humorous. Come to think of it, maybe you are being solely humorous in all this . . . :-)

I’m not interested in talk about Honorius, except with regard to areas where it directly pertains to papal infallibility as defined by the Catholic Church (not some anti-Catholic with an ax to grind, or you, or the Orthodox, etc.). Others are free to discuss whatever they want, but I’m not interested in this subject, insofar as it has no bearing on the truth or falsity of papal infallibility, or by extension Catholicism itself, as we know and love it.

If you’re trying to cast doubt on our beliefs (as I myself vigorously attempted to do in 1990, with a remarkably similar approach, as witnessed by you), then you have to deal with our beliefs, right? Is that not self-evident? I couldn’t care less (really!) if you or others (even Catholics) regard Honorius as personally heretical. It makes no difference. He can be a heretic in orthodox Catholic thought. He just can’t authoritatively proclaim heresy and bind all Catholics to it. Now, what constitutes such an infallible proclamation? In case you haven’t read it, here is the statement from Vatican I:

We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.

This being the case (in our doctrine, which you are trying to refute, remember), what you need to do is produce an infallible statement where Honorius bound the Church to Monothelitism. And this is precisely what you and all the one-note tune “Honorius hounds” have always failed to do. So why would you expect me to go round and round with your repeated assertions, when you refuse to deal with our answers, and merely re-state your objections as if they are still relevant? In honest, good-natured dialogical discussion, each side must deal with the others’ arguments.

In this instance, what is implicitly required for me to participate in your discussion is to admit up front (your prior assumption) that papal infallibility as defined at Vatican I is a crock and a lie. But obviously us orthodox Catholics cannot do that, for that is what we believe, and we have produced more than sufficient historical and biblical evidences in support of the belief. And yes, it requires faith, like all Christian beliefs (which, in turn, requires enabling grace). No one denies that.

“Our President has committed no crime in the Paula Jones case, and even if she was up there with him in that hotel room, what’s the crime? No one forced her to be there. Chief Justice Reno has already ruled that no crime was committed. And even if there was, he could pardon himself. Ex Post Facto.” 

C’mon, can’t you do any better than this ill-advised, so-called “analogy?” We don’t have to revise any history whatsoever, or pretend that it were otherwise than it was. The case against Honorius (with regard to infallibility) fails, pure and simple. If that is disagreed with, then produce the public, ex cathedra statement requiring Monothelitism to be universally believed by Catholics. Failing that, papal infallibility is not impacted in the least. If you grant this, then why talk about Honorius at all?

Don’t you understand that it is possible — even in Catholic ecclesiology — for a pope to personally be a heretic (as Newman pointed out), as long as he doesn’t promulgate the heresy ex cathedra? So even if Honorius was indeed a heretic, it proves absolutely nothing in his case vis-a-vis papal infallibility. Non-Catholics can moan and groan about the falsely-alleged “circularity” and “wishful thinking” over this on our parts, but that is nothing but desperate and quixotic flailing away, in my opinion. Special pleading, too . . .

He was also condemned publicly by other subsequent popes. 

In what sense? Citations?

Are you still not sure if he was a heretic? (I know it’s side issue, but at least grant me that much.)

From what I’ve seen (and the opinions of such as St. Maximus, posted on this list) I personally don’t believe he was. But I’ve also stated that there are good Catholics who believe otherwise (maybe some here), and that is a perfectly possible scenario in our ecclesiology. There were whoring popes, too, as everyone knows. But none of them proclaimed a dogma that fornication and adultery was apostolic doctrine, did they? :-) The point you are trying to make fails either way, so it is a non sequitur. The Roman See never officially promulgated heresy, whereas in the East it was rampant and institutionalized on many many occasions, and for long periods.

And don’t say you can’t make that judgment; those popes weren’t afraid to. 

I certainly can, and would, if I felt it was warranted. E.g., Pope John XXII (r. 1316-1334) denied that souls enjoyed the Beatific Vision prior to the Last Judgment, which was contrary to the received opinion up to that time. He was widely opposed by theologians and the masses of laymen, and the doctrine was defined against his view by his successor, Benedict XII, in 1336. So Pope John XXII was a heretic in that regard, but he didn’t define the doctrine; therefore papal infallibility was again not relevant, as with Honorius. This is the whole point, one which you either don’t yet grasp, or else are unwilling to grant, since with that admission, your case collapses in a heap.

The point goes beyond the doctrine of infallibility. There is not the least indication that anyone of the time (public, bishops, councils, popes) were concerned that the doctrine of infallibility was endangered by this. If it causes controversy today, why not back then? 

Well, because back then the universal Church acknowledged the supremacy of the pope, especially over Ecumenical Councils. The historical evidence for this is overwhelming. There was no concern over papal infallibility being endangered because 1) rightly understood, it in fact wasn’t in the case of Honorius, and 2) The same Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (680-681) itself, and the emperor, assumed the supremacy of Pope Agatho and his successor, Pope Leo II (or something closely approximating it, at the very least), as evidenced by the following excerpts concerning the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) from Church historian Philip Hughes:

It was the [papal] legates who opened the proceedings. Beginning with a reference to the dissensions of the last forty-six years [the Monothelite heresy] . . ., all these, they said, had been due to the acts of various patriarchs of Constantinople [Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter; also Cyrus of Alexandria] . . . At . . . the fourth session [November 15, 680] the patriarch of Constantinople asked that the letter of Pope Agatho to the emperor be read, and the profession of faith which the 125 bishops had signed. This was assented to, these bulky treatises were read out, and Agatho’s authoritative statement of the traditional faith, modelled on the Tome of St. Leo, was greeted with shouts that recall the triumphs of 451: It is Peter who is speaking through Agatho . . . [In the] eighth session, March 7 [681], The emperor put the question point-blank to the patriarch of Constantinople, whether the doctrine of the passages, as actually found in the Fathers and in the General Councils [concerning the wills of Christ], tallied with the letter of Agatho and the profession of faith of the western bishops. The patriarch answered that all this mass of testimony did indeed bear out that what Agatho taught was the truth of the matter, and so I profess and believe, he said. And all the bishops present, save a handful, assented likewise . . . The schism of recent years . . . was ended. In a letter to Emperor Constantine IV afterwards, the bishops described Pope Agatho in many ways which suggest that they believed in his supremacy, using terms like “our most blessed father, and most high pope, the Prince of the Apostles . . . his imitator and the successor to his chair.” They concluded that “through Agatho it was Peter who was speaking.” They also wrote to the pope himself, addressing him as occupying “the first see of the universal Church,” and “the chiefest head of the Apostles.” The emperor, in his edict to the people, declared that the true faith had “been preserved untainted by Peter, the rock of the faith, the head of the Apostles; in this faith we live and reign.” Lastly, the emperor wrote to Pope Leo II, Agatho’s successor:

With the eyes of our understanding we saw it as if it were the very ruler of the Apostolic choir, the first chair, Peter himself, declaring the mystery of the whole dispensation, and addressing Christ by this letter . . . for his holy letter described in word for us the whole Christ. We all received it willingly and sincerely, and embraced it, as though the letter were Peter himself . . . Glory be to God, who does wondrous things, Who has kept safe the faith among you unharmed. For how should He not do so [with regard to] 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 . . . brought warmth to frozen orthodoxy . . . (From Philip Hughes, The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils: 325-1870, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1961, pp. 148-50, 154-56)

Why wasn’t the 5th Council more careful in the wording of its condemnation? 

Because they were human beings. They were probably so paranoid over the persistent and rampant heresy among the patriarchs of the East (see beginning of Hughes quote above) that they momentarily forgot the spotless record of orthodoxy of the Roman See and its bishops, the popes. The ratification of the pope is a safeguard for this very reason. There has to be a final word.

It has been suggested here that the Council and Leo were too far removed from the events to make an informed decision, so what good are later historians? 

Councils can err insofar as they are not ratified by the sitting pope. E.g., the 28th canon about Constantinople, which Pope St. Leo nullified.

So why was he condemned and excommunicated? 

Because obviously, they thought he was either (depending on interpretation, both of the Council, and Leo’s rejoinder): 1) an actual heretic, or 2) lax in his duty to oppose heresy. But what’s it gotta do with infallibility?

(Oh, yeah. Overenthusiastic bishops.) 

We need not prove that bishops can get carried away, now do we? :-)

So, in general, what is the purpose of excommunication? 

Disciplinary, protection of the innocent, and hopefully, the salvation of the offending party.

Who is it supposed to benefit? Surely Honorius was not excommunicated for his own benefit (he was already dead), so wasn’t it for the benefit of those who might have been (or were) swayed by the heresy? 


And if so, then that audience must have identified Honorius with the heresy, thus implicating him with the error. 

Whatsitgottadowith papal infallibility?

The very fact that he was excommunicated is historical proof of his involvement in the matter. 

We believe (with Leo) that he was negligent. So what? Whatsitgottadowith papal infallibility?

If the pope can be wrong about condemning another pope (as some have suggested here), then why should I trust my soul to him? 

Better him than yourself as Super-Pope, or Luther et al, I would say. Whatsitgottadowith papal infallibility? But you “trust your soul” to God, in any event. Our faith that the pope will not err ex cathedra is based on the promises of Christ and the protection of the Holy Spirit, so it is still wholly God-centered, not man-centered. This is crucial to understand. Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more so “man-centered.” You are each your own pope. If you deny that, then tell me who your human authority is? I’d much rather go with Pope John Paul II or Leo I than with you or Dave Armstrong, if a choice must be made.

And if he wasn’t wrong, then he implicates the leader of his Church in leading the faithful astray. 

Whatsitgottadowith papal infallibility? It’s curious to me that you’re worried about Honorius and relative minutiae so much when you have massive errors and shaky foundations of Protestantism, in my humble opinion. You think our system is so deficient. Have you put as much energy into analyzing your own? You better, since it rests on yourself! To me, that is the most terrifying thing of all in Protestantism. Who would want to base their eternal life on the basis of themselves and their own “private judgment?” Protestants are like the proverbial Jews: get ten in a room and you will have eleven opinions. This is a foundation of sand if there ever was one. The truths you do possess (and even the Bible itself) were simply inherited wholesale from us.

Where’s the defense of the doctrine that would have to be made? There is none. 

That’s right! When something is accepted, there is no need for a defense. No one argued against the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin until Helvidius tangled with Jerome. So that’s when the defenses began. Same thing with the Real Presence, which was first denied in the 9th century (Ratramnus), and infused justification (in the 16th century). This is altogether to be expected! Thanks for pointing it out!! :-)

The silence on the topic indicates that the doctrine did not exist at the time, 

Au contraire!, as just explained.

and was a later invention which had to work around this embarrassing case.

This is silly. If it was “invented” later, then when? 1870? We Catholics catch misery no matter what we do. First it is claimed that we utterly ignore the facts of history and Scripture and “invent” doctrines out of whole cloth. On the other hand, it is charged that we go back in history and “work around” embarrassments (often both by the same detractor). Which will it be? Do you want it both ways, for polemical purposes? But that is the whole point about development and dogmatic pronouncements. Not unlike the canonization process, all the facts of the matter are worked through and pondered, and then the decision is made. Why this would be deemed an objection to the pronouncement of 1870 I have not the slightest clue. Perhaps you can explain this to me?

Catholics, for our part, have mountains of patristic and biblical data supporting our view. The view is explicitly grounded in Scripture itself, before we even get to Church history. Did it develop? Of course, but so what! The Trinity developed, too, etc. I want to observe someone for a change go beyond the cheap shots at Honorius, and actually engage the compelling biblical material as well as historical.

And if that doctrine is new, then… 

If you wanna talk about “new” doctrines, there are a host of them which were entirely novel when the Protestants introduced them almost 1500 years after Christ (e.g., sola fide and sola Scriptura and the invisible church). Papal infallibility, like transubstantiation and the Marian doctrines, was there from the beginning in essence, but underwent developmentSola Scriptura and sola fide aren’t found in Scripture or history at all, for all practical purposes. I find it highly amusing and ironic for any Protestant to accuse us of inventing “new” doctrines, or developing them late!

Supremacy is not the same as infallibility. 

It is by straightforward logical deduction, and made clearer with an understanding of development. Actually, it works the same – for all intents and purposes – in Protestantism. Luther and Calvin tacitly (even explicitly at times) implied their own infallibility, and it was infinitely more sweeping in scope than our papal infallibility ever has been. Example:

Inasmuch as I know for certain that I am right, I will be judge above you and above all the angels, as St. Paul says, that whoever does not accept my doctrine cannot be saved. For it is the doctrine of God, and not my doctrine; therefore my judgment also is God’s and not mine . . . It would be better that all bishops were murdered, and all abbeys and cloisters razed to the ground, than that one soul should perish . . . If they will not listen to God’s Word . . . what can more justly befall them than a violent upheaval which shall root them out of the earth? And we would smile did it happen. All who contribute body, goods . . . that the rule of the bishops may be destroyed are God’s dear children and true Christians. (Against the Falsely So-Called Spiritual Estate of the Pope and Bishops, Super-Pope Martin I, July 1522)

That’s a wee bit more ex cathedra than, say, a private letter of Pope Honorius, wouldn’tcha say, my friend? :-)

In the final analysis, it comes down to an epistemological discussion about certainty: how it is attained, how it works in Christianity, how it applies to ecclesiology and Revelation and Church discipline, excommunication, what about eternal security and election?, etc. I would dearly love to get into that topic with any Protestant. Some will simply honestly admit that such certainty is unattainable in Christianity (i.e., Protestantism), but I think that is a counsel of despair and lack of faith, and has radical biblical problems.

So Popes have explicitly affirmed every council? 

Good! Yes (perhaps not always at the time, but certainly eventually).

And why would I want to tackle mountains of data when I can burst the dam by pulling out a single rock? 

So you think, but I have shown again above that you did no such thing. What more must we do to prove this to you? If you insist on fighting straw men, all you will demonstrate is the desperate and extremely weak nature of your “anti-infallibility” argument. Honorius as the “Achilles’ Heel” of infallibility? The “worst case” isn’t even relevant — doesn’t even apply — to the question at hand? How truly pitiful if that is so!!! This is one of the things which made me a Catholic. Will you ever reform your quixotically flawed methodology of flailing away at what you think are the “Achilles’ Heels” of Catholicism? :-)

Ah, yes, but we don’t have to maintain and support doctrines like Papal Succession and Infallibility. We’re not bothered if you tell us that something is new. In fact, I think I’ll invent a new doctrine today. 

What’s that: your novel version of our doctrine of papal infallibility?


(originally from 1997)

Photo credit: Mural of Pope Honorius I:  Sant’Agnese fuori le mura: Rome. Photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro (9-23-16) [Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0 license]


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