The Case of Pope Honorius

from Chapter X of The Church and Infallibility

Right Rev. B. C. Butler

Abbot of Downside

In 1888, George Salmon (Anglican clergyman, mathematician, and Provost of Trinity College, Dublin) published The Infallibility of the Church, a work purportedly examining the Catholic claims of papal infallibility. An abridgement of the work was published in 1952, whereupon Abbot B. C. Butler wrote a rebuttal, The Church and Infallibility: a Reply to the Abridged “Salmon”. Most of Chapter X (“The Sixth Century and Beyond”) is given over to analysis of the vaunted case of the heresy of Pope Honorius.
Here follows the bulk of Chapter X of The Church and Infallibility. All words and phrases enclosed here in square brackets [ ] or in parenthesis ( ) are so enclosed in the original; text italicized here is italicized in the original. All ellipses here are in the original. Page breaks in the original are indicated here by the page number enclosed in angle brackets < >. Butler’s footnotes are numbered continuously here, though they are numbered beginning with 1 on each page of the book. My own remarks are enclosed in braces { }; I have added several alphabetical footnotes.

The Sixth Century and Beyond

{A Synopsis of the Events}

<197> .... So we pass on to the celebrated affair of Pope Honorius {I} and his condemnation in the seventh century.1 The bare and essential facts of this affair may be briefly stated, once the theological issue has been made clear. The Council of Chalcedon had defined that Jesus Christ was one person (hypostasis) in two perfect natures, one divine (by which he was the Son of God) and one human (whereby he was the Son of Mary). The Monophysites, and among them almost the whole of Egyptian Christianity, had rejected this definition and affirmed that there was “one nature” of the incarnate Word of God; in consequence they were excommunicate. About A.D. 630 a “considerable section”2 of the Egyptian Monophysites were reconciled to the Church on acceptance of the proposition that Christ’s works, alike the human and divine, are wrought by “one theandric [i.e. divino-human] operation” — the main thesis of the Monothelite heresy. The Catholic truth is that Christ has a divine will but also a human will (two wills, then), and that each will has its own “operation” or working.

The Emperor and Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, welcomed the reconciliation of the Monophysites; but on <198> receiving a protest against the teaching of “one operation” from a Palestinian monk named Sophronius, Sergius “took the obvious course of laying the whole matter before the Pope”, Honorius by name. Honorius replied to the effect that the expression “one operation” was objectionable. “But he goes on to admit one will, because our Lord took to himself a human nature free from original sin. The reason given implies that our Lord has a human will, only not also a corrupt lower human will... The Pope declares that to teach one operation will seem Eutychian”, i.e. Monophysite, “while to teach two will seem Nestorian. Both expressions are consequently to be avoided.” He also told Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, that the expressions “one” or “two” operations are to be dropped, as it is “very silly” to use such expressions.

The result was that the Emperor Heraclius decreed (in the so-called Ecthesis) that all his subjects “are to confess one will of our Lord, but to avoid the expressions ‘one or two operations’” — precisely agreeing with Honorius’s letter to Sergius. But, Honorius being dead, Pope John IV condemned the Emperor’s Ecthesis and in about A.D. 648 Pope Theodore {I} pronounced the deposition of the Monothelite Paul of Constantinople (Sergius being by now also dead), and in 649 Pope Martin I at a Lateran Council condemned Cyrus, Sergius, Paul, the ecthesis and the Typus (an imperial decree replacing the ecthesis and forbidding the expressions “one” and “two” operations). We are back at the situation under the Henotikon, the Emperor and the Bishop of Constantinople ranged against the Bishop of Rome. And it was not till 680 that, under a new Emperor {Constantine IV called Pogonatus}, the Sixth Ecumencial Council met at Constantinople and Pope Agatho’s ruling on the disputed points, which of course agrees with that of the Lateran Council of 649, was accepted by all save the Monothelite Macarius, Patriarch of Antioch, who was in consequence deposed. But Macarius had sent the Emperor a packet of documents, of which the seal was broken in the Council, and amongst these documents, read out before the Council, was the letter of Honorius to Sergius, which <199> thus for the first time came under conciliar cognizance (it had not been read at the Lateran Council). It would seem that neither Emperor nor papal legates, nor even the Eastern episcopate as a whole, but only Macarius was responsible for this thunderbolt. There was nothing for it. If Cyrus, Sergius and Paul were to be condemned, it was impossible to spare the name of Honorius; and after anathematizing the other leading Monothelites the Council judged: “And in addition to these we decide that Honorius also, who was Pope of elder Rome, be with them cast out of the holy Church of God, and be anathematized with them, because we have found by his letter to Sergius that he followed his opinion in all things and confirmed his wicked dogmas.”3 The Acts of the Council were approved by Pope Leo II, and among those whom he anathematizes is “also Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted”. Honorius is included by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in its list of heretics; “the oath taken by every new Pope from the eighth century till the eleventh adds these words to the list of Monothelites condemned: ‘Together with Honorius, who added fuel to their wicked assertions’”; and Honorius was mentioned as a heretic in the Roman Breviary till the eighteenth century. <200>

{Analysis of the Events with Respect to the Definition of Papal Infallibility}

The first and most important observation that must be made on this episode is that the doctrine of papal infallibility, as defined by the {First} Vatican Council, is not contradicted by Honorius’s lapse or by his post-mortema condemnation. As Chapman writes:

“It is, of course, absurd to regard the letter of Honorius as a definition ex cathedrab.... It was natural to exaggerate at the time of the {First} Vatican Council, but today the decree [of 1870] is better understood. If the letter of Honorius to Sergius is to be ex cathedra, a fortioric all papal encyclicals addressed to the whole Church at the present day must be ex cathedra, quod est absurdum.d4

And again, after reminding the reader that the {First} Vatican Council explains that the Pope speaks ex cathedra when, in the exercise of his function as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine on faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, Chapman proceeds, with reference to Honorius’s letter:

“In this case not even the first condition is certainly fulfilled, for Honorius addresses Sergius alone, and it is by no means evident that he intended his letter to be published as a decree. Further, he does not appeal, as Popes habitually appealed on solemn occasions, to his apostolic authority, to the promise to Peter, to the tradition of his Church. Lastly, he neither defines nor condemns, utters no anathema or warning, but merely approves a policy of silence.”5

To these important paragraphs it may be appropriate to add the following from the same author: <201>

Infallibility is, as it were, the apex of a pyramid. The more solemn the utterances of the Apostolic See, the more we can be certain6 of their truth. When they reach the maximum of solemnity, that is, when they are strictly ex cathedra, the possibility of error is wholly eliminated. The authority of a Pope, even on those occasions when he is not actually infallible,7 is to be implicitly followed and reverenced. That it should be on the wrong side is a contingency shown by faith and history to be possible, but by history as well as by faith to be so remote that it is not usually to be taken into consideration. There are three or four examples in history.”8

And again:

“The infallibility of the Pope is for the sake of the Church. Wherever his fall would necessarily involve the Church in the same error, he is infallible. Therefore he is infallible whenever he binds the Church by his [supreme and definitive] authority to accept his ruling, and only then. It is a matter of history that no Pope has ever involved the whole Church in error. It is a matter of history that Pope after Pope has solemnly defined the truth and bound the Church to accept it. It is a matter of history that Pope after Pope has confirmed the Councils which decided rightly and has annulled those which decided wrongly. It is a matter of history that Rome has always retained the true faith. If this was wonderful in the 7th century, it is more wonderful after thirteen more centuries have passed.”9

The affairs of Liberius, Honorius and Galileo may be taken as “limiting cases” in the question of papal infallibility. They are therefore invaluable as illustrations to explain to <202> non-Catholics what the Vatican definition {of papal infallibility, in 1870} does not imply. They are also invaluable as warnings to Catholics to be sober and moderate and therefore truly loyal in their application of the dogma.

I hope that it is not now necessary to spend long on Salmon’s treatment of the affair of Honorius. The fact is that Salmon actually first tells us what would be his own (Salmon’s) doctrine of papal infallibility, if he believed in it at all (p. 215), adding that he would take it as involving papal inspiration (p. 217), which has never been officially claimed by the Popes themselves; he then leaves us to infer that, since the affair of Honorius contradicts Salmon’s own doctrine of infallibility, therefore the Catholic doctrine of infallibility is disproved. We can imagine a man visiting some country which enjoys a constitutional monarchy like our own.e He is told that the whole political structure is built upon the principle that “the king can do no wrong”. Thereupon he publishes a number of authentic records, how one king was a drunkard, another a liar, a third the father of illegitimate children and a fourth almost brought the State toppling to disaster by his imprudent use of the royal prerogative: and, strong in the knowledge that his facts are correct, he pours ridicule on the constitution — unaware of the fact that he has made himself a little laughable.f The “rules” (Salmon, p. 215) “invented for distinguishing when the pope speaks ex cathedra” are not arbitrary; and they are embodied (most of them) in the Vatican definition itself. Can it be that Salmon had already worked the Honorius affair into his brief before the definition was promulgated, and was a little taken aback to find that he had been tilting at a windmill?

But perhaps the main value of Honorius’s condemnation, in Salmon’s eyes, is that it proves that “as late as the seventh century no suspicion had entered the mind of the Church” that it was impossible for a Pope to be a heretic (Salmon, p. 221). The short answer to this inference is that the Church’s mind is still quite free of that suspicion. It is not taught that his <203> office makes a Pope immune from personal error, but that God will not allow him to commit the Church definitively to public error.

{Actual Attitude Towards the Papacy Revealed by Events of the Seventh Century}

It may not, however, be amiss to point out how clearly the seventh-century conviction, that the Pope is the de jureg teacher and guardian of the universal Church, emerges from the whole affair of Honorius. The following is a selection from the evidence:10

(1) Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was not prepared to give more than a provisional decision on the lawfulness of the expression “one operation” till he had put the question to the Pope, whom in fact he asks “if there has been anything wanting in what has been said, to fill this up... and with your holy syllables... to signify your opinion on the matter.”

(2) The reply of Honorius was apparently in fact what gave the Emperor, with the patriarch of Constantinople behind him, the courage to publish his Ecthesis.

(3) Stephen of Dora (in Palestine) told Martin I at the Lateran Council of a conversation he had had with Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had raised the alarm against Monothelitism, but died forty years before the {Third} Council of Constantinople. Stephen says that in the patriarchate they had asked for “the wings of a dove... that we might fly away and announce these things [their troubles consequent upon the heresy] to the Chair which rules and presides over all, I mean to yours, the head and highest, for the healing of the whole wound. For this it has been accustomed to do from of old... with power by its canonical or apostolical authority, because... Peter, head of the Apostles, was clearly thought worthy not only to be entrusted with the keys of heaven, alone, apart from the rest... but because he was also first commissioned to feed the sheep of the whole Catholic Church... and again because he had... a faith in the Lord stronger than all and unchangeable, to be converted and to confirm his... spiritual brethren... as having been adorned by God himself, incarnate for us, with power and <204> sacerdotal authority.” Thus Stephen bases the universal rule of the Papacy upon the three chief Petrine texts.h The fact that he is addressing a Pope in a Roman Council does not evacuate the significance of this papalism on the lips of an orthodox bishop from Palestine.

(4) He states that Sophronius had adjured him to go to the Apostolic See, where are the foundations of the holy doctrine.

(5) Maximus, once a secretary of the Emperor Heraclius and later a monk at Chrysopolis, who took refuge from Monothelitism at Rome, speaks of “the most great and Apostolic Church at Rome” as the “truly firm and immovable rock”.

(6) A council held in Cyprus, A.D. 643, wrote to the Pope {Theodore I} to persuade him to “destroy the insolence of the new heretics”: “Thou... art Peter, and upon thy foundations the pillars of the Church have been fixed.... Thou art set as the destroyer of profane heresies, as... leader of the orthodox and unsullied faith....”

(7) Maximus again, writing to an official in the East, says: “If the Roman See recognises Pyrrhus [formerly Patriarch of Constantinople] to be not only a reprobate but a heretic, it is certainly plain that every one who anathematizes those who have rejected Pyrrhus, anathematizes the See of Rome, that is, he anathematizes the Catholic Church. I need hardly add that he excommunicates himself also, if indeed he is in communion with the Roman See and the Catholic Church of God.” In the same letter he speaks of “the Apostolic See, which from the incarnate Son of God himself, and also by all holy synods, according to the holy canons and definitions, has 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”.

(8) Martin I appointed the Bishop of Philadelphia in Palestine as his vicar in the East in all ecclesiastical functions and offices, to appoint bishops, priests and deacons in all the <205> cities subject to the patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch, the appointments of Macarius as Patriarch of Antioch and Peter as Patriarch of Alexandria being null.

(9) Pope Agatho, in a letter read at the {Third} Council of Constantinople (the Sixth Ecumenical Council), after instancing various unsatisfactory doctrinal statements of Eastern prelates, wrote: “The holy Church of God... must be freed from errors like these, and the whole number of prelates and priests, and clergy and people... must confess with us the formula of truth and apostolic tradition, the evangelical and apostolic rule of faith, which is founded upon the firm Rock of blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, which by his favour remains free from all error.”

(10) The Emperor {Constantine IV} asked the assembled bishops whether they agreed with Agatho’s letter. George of Constantinople replied that he had found the testimonies from the Fathers, adduced by Agatho, to be accurate, “and so I profess and believe”. Fifteen individual assents followed, and then others in a body assented. Thus, while the evidence adduced by the Pope is verified, his dogma is accepted as it stands. As the bishops said in acclamation: “It is Peter who speaks through Agatho.”

(11) The Council, in its final decree, speaks of itself as “faithfully and with uplifted hands greeting the letter of the most holy and blessed Pope of elder Rome, Agatho, to our most faithful Emperor Constantine {IV}”.

(12) In its address to the Emperor the Council includes this remarkable11 piece of historical writing: “Constantine {I}... and the famous Silvester {I} [bishop of Rome]... assembled the great and illustrious {First} Council of Nicaea....” Similarly against Macedonius (i.e. at the {First} Council of Constantinople, the Second Ecumenical) “Theodosius {I} and Damasus {I} the adamant of the faith, immediately resisted him”. So “Celestine {I} and Cyril” resisted Nestorius (at Ephesus, 431); Leo {I} roared like a <206> lion against Eutyches (sc. at the Council of Chalcedon); and “Vigilius agreed with the all-pious Justinian {I}” at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. We note that the Emperor {Theodosius II} had been supporting Nestorius at Ephesus, so that in that case a Bishop of Alexandria {Cyril} is mentioned beside the Pope {Damasus I}. But each of the other four previous Ecumenical Councils is described, by implication, as the achievement of the Emperor as civil head and of the Pope — obviously as ecclesiastical head. This is impressive as coming from an Ecumenical Council, and one which had had the Emperor {Constantine IV} as president and had accepted the dogmatic letter of the Pope {Agatho}, a letter which, after expounding the true faith on the point at issue, had proceeded to state that, if the Patriarch of Constantinople refused “this irreprehensible rule... let him know that of such contempt he will have to make satisfaction... before the Judge of all, who is in heaven”. This was the letter “greeted with uplifted hands” by the Council, the same Council that denounced Pope Honorius as a heretic.

(13) In a letter to the Pope, the Council asked him to confirm its decision “by an honoured rescript”. This confirmation was granted by Pope Leo II, in A.D. 682.

Is it too much to say that, in this body of evidence, including actions and statements of an Ecumenical Council, we have as much proof as could be expected, from a period nearly twelve hundred years before the {First} Vatican Council, that the juridical and doctrinal primacy of the See of Peter is a genuine element in the faith of the Church? In particular I would urge our Eastern Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic friends to ask themselves, what was the united Catholic episcopate doing in A.D. 451 and again in A.D. 680, if it failed to protest against Papal claims which were already unequivocal, which were brought into play precisely in doctrinal issues which had set the whole East agog, and which nevertheless were (on modern Eastern and Anglican premisses) a monstrous distortion of the Christian faith and a malignant cancer within the body of the Church? Yet on any principles purporting to be Catholic, surely the <207> episcopate has a responsibility before God for preserving doctrinal purity and fidelity to “the tradition”....

Author’s Footnotes

1 Salmon, pp. 213-15, 220-2. See Chapman’s The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, which I follow closely.

2 Chapman, from whom the following unassigned quotations are taken.

3 To some it may seem that it was all a storm in a teacup. Provided the definition of Chalcedon was accepted on all hands, why worry about such “foolish” novelties as “one” or “two” operations in Christ? And it is true that though Monothelitism is contrary to the implications of the Chalcedonian definition, the doctrine of two wills and two operations in Christ had not been explicitly defined in Honorius’s time — not indeed till the Lateran Council of 649. But the Church has felt instinctively that the fullness of the Incarnation is to be insisted upon and must not in any way be watered down. From primitive Docetism (the heresy which affirmed that Christ had only a phantom body) through Apollinarianism and Eutychianism down to Monothelitism the human reason has sought to detract from the fullness of Christ’s manhood. And this is to detract, more or less, from the full sweep of that love which moved God to “identify” himself with man in the Incarnation — as love ever identifies the lover with the object of his love. It also detracts from the redeemed sacredness of creatures, if God has not fully entered into the conditions of the creature. Monothelitism is a slighter error than Monophysitism, but as Thomas of Aquinas says on another subject, a small error in the beginning leads to great error in the end. Hence the Church has always been acutely sensitive to doctrinal inaccuracies which may have baneful effects far outside the purview of the theologians who originate them, effects in the spiritual life and moral effort of the faithful.

4 The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, p. 16. But not all encyclicals are in answer to a specific doctrinal question previously addressed to the Holy See. (B.C.B.)

5 The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, p. 16 n. The most important of these points is that Honorius does not “define” the “one will” in Christ. As for the “one operation”, he even disapproves of the expression. (B.C.B.)

6 I should say “sure”, since there can hardly be degrees of strictly intellectual “certainty”. (B.C.B.)

7 Say rather, when his infallibility is not actually in full operation. (B.C.B.)

8 Chapman, The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, p. 111 n.

9 ibid. p. 112.

10 For which, see Chapman, The Condemnation of Pope Honorius.

11 Remarkable, because we do not know that Pope Silvester {I} had a hand in convening the {First} Council of Nicaea, nor Damasus {I} in that of Constantinople in 381.

Editor’s Footnotes

a post-mortem: Latin, “after death”

b ex cathedra: Latin, “from the chair, authoritatively”

c a fortiori: Latin, “with stronger reason, more conclusively”

d quod est absurdum: Latin, “which thing is absurd”

e constitutional monarchy “like our own”: that of Great Britain

f Using the very phrase referenced by Butler — “the king can do no wrong” — John Henry Newman concluded his First Lecture in the series Present Position of Catholics in England (1851) with an extended analogy in this vein, called “Caricature — Russian View of British Constitution” by Bob Elder at his Newman Reader website.

g de jure: Latin, “according to law, by right”

h Petrine texts: Matthew 16:18-19, Luke 22:31-32, and John 21:15-17.

The copy text is that of The Church and Infallibility published by the Catholic Book Club, London, without date or copyright notice.

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