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The Truth about Pope Honorius

For the serious anti-Catholic, Pope Honorius I (625-638) occupies a small but pivotal role in the drama of Rome’s errors and abuses. This obscure pontiff lacks the lurid luster of the Crusades and the Inquisition in the anti-papist’s arsenal; nevertheless Loraine Boettner and other Protestant polemicists have used Honorius in attempting to deflate papal claims. Eastern Orthodox apologists such as John Meyendorff and Kallistos Ware and even Catholic anti-Catholics such as Hans Küng and Richard McBrien have pitched in to make Honorius the favorite pope of everyone who disparages the papacy.

While Alexander VI Borgia and other notorious Renaissance popes rate high among pope-haters, Honorius trumps his colleagues in that his problem was dogmatic, not merely behavioral. By all contemporary accounts Honorius’s personal conduct was beyond reproach, but his sincere attempts to resolve a controversy resulted in one brief sentence that many see as the destruction of the idea of papal infallibility and even of papal supremacy.

As a young Episcopalian, I first encountered Pope Honorius during my undergraduate years. I had joined the Episcopal Church just a year or so earlier, leaving behind a campus Evangelical movement bitterly divided over the charismatic gifts. My friends on both sides of that chasm started all their arguments with “The Bible says . . .” I was led by a kind Episcopal priest to seek a resolution to this confusion in the Church’s great tradition. That tradition took me places I never expected to go.

After a year with the unblinking theological leftism of the Episcopal Church as a full-time “social ministries intern” with the campus parish, I was reading John Henry Newman and Karl Adam, all Brown equal time to answer the Catholic claims. I also picked up Meyendorff and Ware on the Orthodox Church, and books like Hans Kng’s Infallible? An Inquiry, thinking it would be an explanation and defense of the doctrine.

My primary question in all this was: What is Christianity? Or more precisely: How can one determine precisely what Christianity is? I had bitter first-hand experience with the contradiction of the Protestants’ sola scriptura doctrine: What was plain and simple in Scripture, what was obligatory for every Christian, depended on who was reading the book.

The Episcopal Church gave me an appreciation of tradition, but its own discarding of that tradition posed the same problem as with Scripture: tradition according to whom? So I began to study the papacy. Cardinal Newman explained masterfully, in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, that an ongoing, infallible authority in the Church was necessary to preserve the integrity of revealed truth. Whatever the confusion in the Church, a Christian always had recourse to this sure repository of the actual content of revealed truth. Without such a repository, the content of revelation would be subject to mere human conjecture and opinion, thus essentially ceasing to be revelation at all.

The truth, of course, is one. If the papal office really were its repository, then the popes never had contradicted themselves on matters of faith and morals. As I studied Church history, I saw that this seemed to be so. When compared with the other great ancient see of the Church, the patriarchate of Constantinople, the papacy possessed monumental purity. Among the patriarchs of Constantinople were the arch-heretic Nestorius, a collection of grubby Iconoclasts and fellow travelers, and even a Calvinist, Cyril Loukaris! In Rome, on the contrary, was the saint Newman called “the majestic Leo,” who stood virtually alone against the Monophysite heresy; Julius I, who faced down the Arian bullies chasing after Athanasius; Gregory VII Hildebrand, whose last words were “I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile” and others who, without compromising one iota of the faith, outlasted Diocletian and Julian the Apostate, Henry V and Philip the Fair, Napoleon and Bismarck, Hitler and Stalin.

Yet the comparison of Constantinople with Rome would be unfair without looking at the papal black sheep or, perhaps, the papal wolves. Most of these were dissolute scoundrels who were too busy drinking and whoring to occupy themselves with doctrine; thus for a consideration of papal infallibility they were irrelevant. Three names, though, kept popping up in all the sources, whether Protestant, Orthodox, or liberal Catholic: Liberius (352-366), Vigilius (537-555), and Honorius. I disposed of the first two quickly. They had been made to sign questionable statements of faith while under duress. That doesn’t count: Papal infallibility applies only to free acts of the pope, not to acts under torture. No contract signed under duress is binding; thus Liberius and Vigilius, whatever their failings, were excused.

That left Honorius. Opponents of infallibility said that his case demolished any pretension of papal infallibility, for he was not only a heretic but was condemned as such by an ecumenical council, Constantinople III, in 680, which declared, 42 years after the Pope’s death, that Honorius be “expelled from the Church and anathematized . . . because we find in his letter to Sergius that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines.” [Quoted in Warren H. Carroll, The Building of Christendom: A History of Christendom, vol. 2 (Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom College Press, 1987), 253].

Sergius was another one of those stalwart patriarchs of Constantinople, anathematized in the same conciliar declaration for originating the Monothelite heresy. Monothelitism was one of a series of attempts to reconcile the Monophysites, who at that time were a huge portion of the Christian world, with the Catholic Church they had torn by schism more than two hundred years previously.

The Monophysites maintained that our Lord’s human nature had been absorbed into his divine nature. They could not accept the decree of the Council of Chalcedon (451) that “the only-begotten Son of God must be confessed in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably united . . . without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union.” [“The Definition of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon, 451,” in Colman J. Batty, O.S.B., Readings in Church History (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, Inc., 1985), 104].

Sergius, the first Monothelite, tried to affect a compromise by teaching that our Lord had only one will, a divine will. Like many compromises, this one ultimately pleased no one. To the orthodox it was anathema, for it denied the fullness of Christ’s human nature. To Monophysites it was no more welcome, for this will-less but otherwise intact human nature which Monothelitism attached to Christ seemed to them to deny his unity.

None of this was clear in the palmy days of 634. Monothelitism had encountered some criticism from the prescient Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, but elsewhere it was more politely received. The Pope had not yet heard of it. With evident high hopes in his own inventiveness and craftiness, Sergius wrote to Honorius about his thoughts.

In his two letters Sergius warned that teaching two wills in Christ would lead to the idea that the human will of the Son of God was opposed to that of his Father. He advised the Pope that it was better to speak of only one will in our Lord. Sergius was trying a little sleight of hand: He was attempting to deny the existence of Christ’s human will by pointing out that our Lord never opposed the Father. Yet if two persons agree, they may be spoken of as being of “one will”; this doesn’t mean, of course, that one of them has no will at all.

The Pope, with no idea of Sergius’s between-the-lines message, answered the Patriarch on the unthinkable subject of Christ’s “opposition” to the Father. “We confess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ, since our (human) nature was plainly assumed by the Godhead, and this being faultless, as it was before the Fall.” [Quoted in Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1896; AMS Reprint, 1972), 29]. Since Christ’s human will is “faultless,” there can be no talk of opposing wills. (Christ hardly would have been faultless if he opposed his Father’s will.)

Monothelites, as they grew in numbers and influence over the ensuing years, seized upon Honorius’s confession of “one will of our Lord Jesus Christ” as confirmation that the Pope believed with them that Christ had no human will. Newman and other commentators have noted that Honorius’s letters to Sergius are not doctrinal definitions ex cathedra; thus they are outside the scope of infallibility defined by the First Vatican Council.

That is true, but, even more to the point, a look at Honorius’s exact words shows that while he did use a formula–“one will”–that was later declared heretical, he used it in a sense that implied the orthodox belief.

This was picked up as early as 640 by Pope John IV, Honorius’s successor, who pointed out that Sergius had asked only about the presence of two opposing wills. Honorius had answered accordingly, speaking, says Pope John, “only of the human and not also of the divine nature.” Pope John was right. Honorius assumed the existence of a human will in Christ by saying that his nature is like humanity’s before the Fall. No one would claim that before the Fall Adam had no will. Thus Honorius’s speaking of Christ’s assumption of a “faultless” human nature shows that he really did believe in the orthodox formula of two wills in Christ: one divine, one human, in perfect agreement.

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.” [Carroll, 254]

This is a crucial distinction. Honorius probably should have known the implications of using the “one will” formula; he could have found out by writing a letter to Sophronius of Jerusalem. But he was no heretic.

The anti-papists got the wrong guy. It seems incredible that so many readers of Honorius’s letters, from Patriarch Sergius to Hans Kng, see only what they want to see in Honorius’s “one will” formula. We should thank God that this poor old pope saw fit to explain himself. Rarely outside of the homoousios/homoiousios controversy at the First Council of Nicaea has so much hinged on so few words.

Since this case seemed to be the best one the anti-infallibilists could turn to, I became an infallibilist, a Catholic with faith in the pope as the Vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter. The Church will live beyond the trials of these days as it did those of Honorius’s day. That bare fact may seem abstract and impenetrable in the convulsions of our age, yet it is our unshakable guarantee.

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