Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

White Is Wrong

In October 2000, I wrote an article in This Rock on the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s (Constantinople III’s) condemnation of Pope Honorius (625-638) in A.D. 681. This article, “Guilty Only of Failure to Teach,” rebutted the claim of anti-Catholic William Webster that this condemnation disproved the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility.

My piece elicited a rebuttal from another anti-Catholic apologist, James White. Mr. White’s article, “Failure to Document: Catholic Answers Glosses Over History,” was posted on his web site at (from which all White quotes herein are taken).

In Mr. Webster’s article “An Ecumenical Council Officially Condemns a Pope for Heresy,” posted online at (from which all Webster quotations herein are taken), he argues that Pope Honorius was anathematized because he adhered to the monothelite heresy and taught it ex cathedra. Monothelitism held that there was one will and operation-a divine one-in Christ, while Catholic teaching is that there were two wills and operations-divine and human-in Christ. My article made the following three points: Honorius was not a monothelite, he did not teach monothelitism, and he was condemned because he had-through negligence-aided the spread of heresy.

Honorius’s Letters: Neither Monothelite nor Ex Cathedra in Nature

In order to sweep away the arguments that Honorius was orthodox and did not teach monothelitism ex cathedra, Mr. White counters that Honorius used the expression we confess in relation to the monothelite term one will: “Make sure you note the use of the plural ‘we confess.’ Honorius did not say, ‘Oh, I think maybe it’s like this.’ He employed the very same plural that Roman bishops use today to refer to their representation of the church as a whole.”

Leaving aside the fact the papal “we” is not in itself an indicator of an infallible definition, Mr. White simply ignores the evidence that Honorius’s use of “one will” is to be understood as orthodox. Honorius says, “We confess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ.” However, he immediately explains his meaning: “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).

Honorius merely denies that conflicting wills of spirit and flesh as found in fallen man-spoken of in Romans 7:21-23, to which the pope alludes-were present in Christ. In other words, Christ assumed not our fallen human nature but that human nature created before sin. Such a view presumes a human will in Christ as well as a separate divine will with which it is in moral unity.

What is undeniable is that the pope’s use of the phrase “one will,” though orthodox, manifests a lack of understanding and diligence in regard to the nascent controversy. The mere expression “one will” was consonant with the heresy’s view, which denied any human will in Christ. Mr. White appears to admit as much when he says that Honorius “made an error based upon ignorance of the issues involved.”

Regardless, it would be surprising if Mr. White were to deny the orthodoxy of Honorius’s statement, since doing so would leave Mr. Mr. White with the dubious options of either admitting contrary wills in Christ or falling into monothelitism. Nor is the preceding a modern interpretation made to save the pope’s words; soon after his death he was defended in a similar fashion by Maximus the Confessor and Pope John IV against monothelites who cited him as carelessly as does Mr. White.

“Just the Facts, Ma’am”

The essence of Mr. White’s attempt to defend Mr. Webster is to accuse this writer of “deceptive behavior,” willfully withholding and ignoring unpalatable historical facts in order to rehabilitate the memory of Honorius. Mr. White claims that the “major problem” with “O’Reilly’s attempts to save Honorius” is that a “majority of the facts . . . never appear” in my article. The “facts” Mr. White refers to are fourteen numbered items appearing in his rebuttal, nearly all of which are taken verbatim-and without attribution-from Philip Schaff’s work (compare Mr. White to Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 14, 351).

If Mr. White had read his original source attentively, he would have noted the list was offered expressly to prove ” Honorius was as a matter of fact condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council“( Nicene and Post Nice Fathers, vol. 14, 351; emphasis added). Not only did my article not deny this fact, it expressly stipulated it. It was the nature of this condemnation, not the fact of it, that I contested. This consideration renders a number of Mr. White’s fourteen points non-pertinent, while others are merely repetitious of charges that were addressed.

My article stated that Honorius was anathematized because he had “fostered” heresy through negligence. Yet Mr. White wonders how my defense of Honorius can be squared with the following three facts. (1) Honorius’s letters were burned by the council as “hurtful to the soul” (Session XIII, NPNF, vol. 14, 343). (2) Honorius was considered, along with the others condemned, a “tool of Satan” used by the evil one in the “dissemination” of the heresy (Session XVIII, NPNF, vol. 14, 344). (3) Acclamations were shouted against the condemned, including “Honorius the heretic” (Session XVI, NPNF, vol. 14, 343).

In response to Mr. White, it would do well first to recall the words of the council’s official condemnation: “The names of those men whose doctrines we execrate [are] . . . Sergius . . . Cyrus . . . Pyrrhus . . . Paul and Peter . . . and . . . Theodore . . . all of whom the most holy and thrice blessed Agatho, Pope of Old Rome . . . rejected, because they were minded contrary to our orthodox faith, all of whom we define are to be subjected to anathema. And with these we define that there shall be expelled from the Holy Church of God and anathematized Honorius . . . because of what we found written by him to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines” (Session XIII, NPNF, vol. 14, 343).

Clearly, the council specifies two different categories of offenders that merit the same punishment. To the first group belonged those who the council judged to be ” minded contrary to our orthodox faith“-Sergius, Cyrus, Pyrrhus, Paul, Peter, and Theodore. Whatever his fault, Honorius was not judged by the council to be “minded contrary” to the “orthodox faith” and thus cannot be considered a heretic in either the material or formal sense. Instead Honorius was faulted for having “followed [i.e., lent support to] the view of Sergius . . . and confirmed his impious doctrines.” That is, by agreeing with Sergius that a rule of silence be imposed, Honorius left Cyrus’s false reconciliation of the monophysites in place, and thereby gave practical-not theological-confirmation to the heresy.

Honorius, out of ignorance of the issues central to the controversy, had too quickly accepted Sergius’s view regarding the necessity for a rule of silence. This ignorance can only be due to a grave failure on the part of Honorius to inquire into the underlying nature of the dispute over a new expression and the reconciliation of the monophysites that was too easily accomplished by the employment of it. By agreeing to a rule of silence instead of issuing a rule or definition of faith, Honorius left the monothelite patriarchs of the East an opening to further insinuate the heresy among the faithful. Honorius’s culpable neglect of his duties gave the heresy space to grow and spread. He thereby shared blame for the spread of the heresy, albeit in a different manner from those “minded contrary” to the faith.

Pope Leo II (682-683), who confirmed the council, was in agreement with the condemnation of Honorius on the grounds of “neglect” and therefore did not count his predecessor among the “inventors” of the heresy. He wrote that Honorius “did not illuminate this apostolic see with the doctrine of apostolic tradition, but permitted her who was undefiled to be polluted by profane teaching” (Leonis II ad. Constantinum. Imp. as quoted in NPNF, vol. 14, 352). That is, Honorius had failed to teach and had thereby “permitted”-not caused, not joined in causing-the profane teaching of Sergius, et al, to spread. Clearly, Leo II viewed Honorius’s fault as one of neglect and inaction that was not befitting his apostolic office.

The same is outlined in another of Leo II’s letters, wherein he writes that Honorius 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). Such wording is inexplicable if Leo II had believed Honorius to be a monothelite. Instead, Honorius’s fault is not that he taught heresy, but rather that he “fostered” and “permitted” its spread through “negligence.” In sum, Honorius had failed to teach.

Given the above as background, the harsh actions and expressions cited by Mr. White are more easily understood. With regard to any reference to “Honorius, the heretic”: It should be noted that the term heretic, in an earlier and looser sense, also included those who “favored” heresy-those who, even though not adhering to a heresy, aid its spread through some action or omission (see The Catholic Encyclopedia, 8:260-261). Owing to the fact Honorius had aided in the spread of heresy, he could be considered a “heretic” in this secondary sense of the word “confirmed by several examples in antiquity” (Paul Bottala, S.J., Pope Honorius Before the Tribunal of Reason and History, 107). One such example is the Type of Constans, a document condemned as heretical during the monothelite controversy since it favored heresy as opposed to positively teaching it.

Similarly, given Honorius’s culpable neglect, it is not surprising that he, or anyone who so permits the Lord’s flock to be exposed to ravenous wolves, should be spoken of as being a “tool of Satan” and used by him in “disseminating” the heresy. Such images are consistent with the biblical treatment of the neglectful pastor. Nor is it surprising that the council would deem Honorius’s letters in which he exhibited such neglect “hurtful to the soul” and order them to be burned.

Mr. White notes approvingly that the papal legates-Pope Agatho’s representatives at the Council-remained silent throughout these words and actions directed against Honorius, which he claims indicated that they subscribed to them. But their silence redounds to the defense of Honorius’s orthodoxy. These papal legates carried Agatho’s letters, fully accepted by the Council. These letters asserted the inerrant magisterium of the apostolic see of Rome. They asserted that all of Agatho’s predecessors-a group that includes Honorius-had been orthodox, and that Agatho (and thus any pope) is liable to judgment for negligence in his office as teacher. The legates’ silence indicates that they considered the council’s decrees fully consistent with these three points.

Had they not considered them so, they would have objected, as previous legates had done unabashedly when councils acted contrary to papal policy. Instead, the record indicates the legates remained silent, since the council-as it said itself-made its decisions in accordance with Agatho’s letter. Therefore, those who argue like Mr. White have the more difficult task in explaining why silence, rather than vociferous objections, should indicate the council was at odds with Pope Agatho over Honorius.

The “Serious Investigator”?

Mr. White writes that the “serious investigator” of history will not find evidence of the Roman claims. In his role as “serious investigator,” Mr. White makes the following statement:

“And finally, I remind us all: Honorius died forty years prior to the Council of Constantinople. For four decades his letters existed, teaching what would later be identified as a heresy by an ecumenical Council. No Pope of Rome uttered a word in condemnation during those four decades. It would be like having a Pope teach heresy in 1960, and having to wait till this very year for there to be a ‘correction,’ and then only from a gathered council, not from the Pope himself. For forty years those letters existed, and if you had looked to the bishop of Rome’s teachings during those years, you would have been led into formal heresy thereby.”

This is nonsense. Aside from the fact Mr. White has offered no evidence based on the substance of Honorius’ letters that this pope taught heresy, the pope’s letters were known to a select few Eastern bishops, not to the faithful at large, and thus were hardly the instrument to convey a dogmatic definition. Far from being the case that no pope “uttered a word” regarding Honorius’ letters, the John IV (640-642) defended the orthodoxy of Honorius when Pyrrhus, patriarch of Constantinople, appealed to these letters in defense of his monothelite position.

Regardless, the faithful would not have to wait forty years for a council to either “correct” letters unknown to them or make clear the bishop of Rome’s stand on monothelitism. Even a brief survey of Rome’s stand against the monothelites during the forty years between Honorius (d. 638) and Constantinople III (680-681) makes it clear that there can be no doubt where Rome stood during the controversy. Popes Severinus (640), John IV (640-642), Theodore (642-649), Martin (649-653), and others declared numerous condemnations and anathemas against monothelitism and various monothelites. Synods were also held by popes during this forty-year period, such as the Lateran Council of 649 whose acts, sent throughout the East and West, anathematized the works Ecthesis and the Type, as well as the individuals Cyrus, Sergius, Pyrrhus, and Paul.

The active and preeminent role of Rome in the battle against monothelitism is apparent and is as much admitted in the documents of Constantinople III in a number of places. Pope Agatho is said to have been the “wise physician,” given by Christ to drive away the “heretical pestilence” and to “give strength to the members of the Church.” The council says it has been “instructed” by Agatho’s doctrine, and it is “through” this Roman doctrine the council bases its actions (The Letter of the Council to St. Agatho, NPNF, 349-50). Consequently, it defies credulity to insinuate that the faithful could have any doubt about the position of the apostolic see towards monothelitism. 

The Serious Investigator, Infallibility, and the False Decretals

It is impressive, with such an economy of words, that Mr. White has managed to commit so many errors. The target of this effort is, of course, the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, which Mr. White says “surely no one in that day [i.e., the seventh century] believed.” Instead, Mr. White says such papal claims were “first introduced by fraudulent means in the middle of the ninth century.” Mr. White is referring to the False Decretals, ostensibly an ancient collection of papal correspondence that are in fact ninth-century forgeries.

However, even the harshest scholarly critics of papal infallibility-e.g., Dollinger-admit that the False Decretals were not written at Rome’s behest and that their purpose was not the introduction or advancement of the papal claims. Rather, the immediate purpose of the forger was to protect local bishops from the influence of the secular power (Dollinger, The Pope and the Council, 95), not to introduce papal claims. While everyone, including popes, accepted these decretals at face value until advancements in historical analysis, there is nothing about the Roman primacy contained in them that is not contained in other, earlier Church documents recognized as bona fide (see “The False Decretals,” This Rock, October 1998).

Mr. White asserts the Vatican I conditions for ex cathedra statements are anachronistically projected back into history and contain any number of trapdoors that render “every single papal statement of the past ‘safe’ from the allegation of error.” However, the reasonable man can see, whether he agrees with the dogma or not, that there is no changing or mysterious formula. Simply put, Vatican I defined that for an ex cathedra teaching the pope must (1) exercise his office as “teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,” and he must (2) define a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be (3) “held by the whole Church.”

There is nothing inscrutable here. Analogous conditions apply to secular figures in whose acts we may discern the difference between the use of ordinary from extraordinary authority, the binding from non-binding, a resolution from a legal mandate, and the limited from the universal in scope. Whether formalized in a dogmatic definition or not, common sense-not rocket science or trickery-suggests such conditions. With a minimum of diligence, one may employ them to determine whether or not a dogmatic definition is present in a given circumstance.

However, opponents of papal infallibility in the case of Honorius are wanting for such diligence. Honorius explicitly said “we must not define” the disputed expressions; yet Mr. White and Mr. Webster conclude he did so. Honorius expressly agreed to a rule of silence to quiet both sides in a dispute over “idle questions”; yet Mr. White and Mr. Webster conclude he issued a rule of faith that all should profess. Honorius clearly spoke of a human will in Christ; yet Mr. White and Mr. Webster conclude that Honorius, like the monothelites, denied any human will in Christ. Constantinople III excluded Honorius from the category of those considered “minded contrary” to the orthodox faith; yet Mr. White and Mr. Webster conclude the council included him in this category. Pope John IV defended the orthodoxy of Honorius when a monothelite patriarch appealed to Honorius’s letters; yet Mr. White concludes no pope “uttered a word.”

These conclusions reached by this “serious investigator” contravene the facts. Therefore, I repeat my earlier conclusion: 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.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!