The Papacy

The Unbreakable Pinata: Honorius and the Protestant Polemic

by John Pacheco

As part of my daughter's birthday party this past year, my wife and I decided to organize, among other fun games, an occasion where all the little boys and girls got a crack at a candy-stuffed pinata. Since we expected this particular game to last only 10 minutes or so, we were rather surprised to discover that this pinata, despite some serious blows, would simply not break. After 20 minutes of sustained beating, I finally had to "help the process along" by discreetly inserting an incision in a place which would cause the poor pinata's final demise.

As I started to reflect recently on the issue of papal infallibility, it was not long until my mind settled on poor Pope Honorius, the most celebrated case of alleged papal error. As I reflected on the merits of the charge against this Pope, I could not help but crack a smile and compare these charges to the blows that my daughter's poor pinata received that birthday last. But more importantly, it was the ability of the Pope (papal infallibility in particular) and the Pinata to withstand the blows inflicted upon them without conceding the prize. So, in memory of that valiant and resilient pinata, I have endeavored to present a concise defense of papal infallibility and how Pope Honorius did not breach it.

The events leading up to the Monothelite heresy were typical of those which were encountered in the early Church. Being challenged with a number of Christological controversies during that time, the Church had to safeguard Herself from being pulled or pushed in divergent directions that either denied Her Lord's divinity or His humanity. As soon as one heresy was put down, another heresy would soon rear its ugly head, sometimes as an accommodation to those who were earlier defeated. This, then, is the context surrounding the alleged fall of Honorius and the Church's teaching on papal infallibility.

In 431 A.D., the Council of Ephesus had, in condemning Nestorius' heresy, defined that Our Lord subsisted in one person and not two, as Nestorius had proposed. Later at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., in opposition to Eutyches and the Monophysites, the Council declared that Christ had two natures (divine and human) and not one divine nature, as Eutyches had advocated. From these two heresies sprung a third heresy: Monothelitism, the heresy which maintained that there was only one will in Christ, the divine one so much so that his human will had been absorbed totally into the divine will.

The main participants surrounding the heresy of Monothelitism and Pope Honorius' alleged capitulation and breach of infallibility include

Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople Honorius, Bishop of Rome

The formulation of the error was first proposed by the Patriarch of Alexandria who proposed the formula this way:

"That this same Christ one and the Son, performs both the actions which belong to him as God, and those which are human, by one, sole, and theandric operation."

In opposition to Cyrus' formulation, Sophonorius sought the assistance and support of Sergius in order to help squash the hertical formula. Unbeknownst to Sophonorius (who only later ascended to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem), Sergius was a closet Monothelite who supported Cyrus' formulation. In order to suppress mounting dissent to the Monothelite view, Sergius wrote to Honorius but withheld part of the formulation which Cyrus had proposed. Sergius did indeed defend the Cyrus' formula, but only did so in regards to the word 'one' and conveniently left out and suppressed the most vital expression in Cyrus' formula which was the word "theandric". (1)

After couching his position in veiled language, Sergius sought not a dogmatic ruling on the issue, but only asked for a rule of silence to be imposed for the "good of the Church" in order to end the bothersome wrangling over the contested expressions. This fact is confirmed by Honorius' response to Sergius:

"...on account of the simplicity of man and to avoid controversies, we must, as I have already said, define neither one nor two operations in the mediator between God and man." (2) ["Non nos oportet unam aut duas op operationes predicare"]

There are a few things noteworthy in Sergius' action. First, he knew well that if had communicated his heretical views plainly and without deception, there was a good chance that he would have been contradicted by the Pope. Secondly, the Pope sought to define nothing on this question and on that basis alone, the breach of papal infallibility that is often raised is a baseless contention. Thirdly, the fact that he sought the intervention of the Bishop of Rome to silence the whole church on the question only further supports the Catholic contention that the Roman See had primacy over all the other Sees.

The claim that Honorius was a Monothelite came from this text written to Sergius:

"Wherefore we acknowledge one will of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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 sin, not the nature which was vitiated by sin." (15)

Another source translates it: "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." (16)

Now stop and reflect carefully on these texts. Honorius clearly does not say Christ possesses merely one will, which happens to be divine. Rather, Honorius states that Christ has only one human will as opposed to two human wills. Furthermore, notice how Honorius agrees with Sergius and "acknowledges one will of our Lord..." yet he goes on to discuss this one will in terms of Jesus' humanity only. Now why would Honorius speak against the existence of two human wills? The answer lies with Sergius' inquiry. He had deceptively suggested the orthodox view (i.e. one human will) in order to establish a false context where Honorius would confirm the heretical position of "one will" in total. He could then use the Pope's concurrence to further the Monothelite heresy.

If there were two human wills in Christ there would be a conflict within Him, but we know that not to be the case since Trinitarian Christology demands that the Son assumed a human nature which was pure and undefiled by sin, as it was, for instance, before the Fall. Furthermore, we know that the will is a function of the nature of the person. Hence, as we have only one human nature, we only have one human will. Our Lord, on the other hand, having a divine nature and a human nature has two wills corresponding to each.

His second successor, Pope John IV (642), confirmed Honorius' intention, stating that Honorius' purpose was to simply "deny contrary [human] wills of mind and flesh." (5) This was later confirmed by the Abbot John, who was a scribe and the secretary to Honorius: "We said that there is one will in the Lord, not of his divinity or humanity, but of his humanity solely." (6) St. Maximus "the Hammer", Doctor of the Church and Martyr also insisted that Honorius maintained only one human will in Christ not one will in toto. He wrote that heretics "lie against the Apostolic See itself in claiming that Honorius to be one with their cause." (7)

Besides, therefore, eventually granting Sergius his request for silence in the Church, Honorius remarks are very interesting indeed since they are, in point of fact, entirely opposed to the Monothelite heresy. Honorius wrote:

"You must confess, with us, one Christ our Lord, operating in either nature, divine OR human actions [in uirisque naturis divina vel humana operantem]

Honorius' formula is "directly opposed to that of Cyrus, who had not said, 'operating divine OR human actions', distinctively and separately but 'operating divine AND human actions', conjuctively and in a mixed manner, by one, sole operation, which was neither simply human nor simply divine, but always theandric - that is, compounded of divine and human." But Sergius had defended the article of Cyrus' agreement in regard to the use of the word 'one' (as for the word 'theandric', Sergius had prudently SUPPRESSED IT IN HIS APPEAL to Honorius!)" (1)

Morover, all of the subsequent Pontiffs (Pope Servinus (640), Pope John IV (640-642), Theodore (642-649), Martin (649-653)) up to and including Pope Agattho tacitly defended Honorius' orthodox doctrinal position and condemned Monothelitism. In fact, "in his letter to the Emperor that was read to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Pope Agattho (678-681) asserted the infallibility of the apostolic see and stated that he and ALL of his predecessors, thus inclusive of Honorius, 'have never ceased to exhort and warn them (i.e. the Monothelites) with many prayers, that they should, at least by silence, desist from the heretical error of the depraved dogma.'"(8)

One will notice immediately Agattho's careful selection of language above by remarking that, at the very least, no Pontiff pronounced a doctrinal error. He says that all Popes were doctrinally orthodox even if some did not exert the influence that they should have and "kept silent" instead.

"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 are 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." (9)

Again, if one carefully reads this text a number of things come to light. First and foremost, Honorius is not mentioned among those who are "minded contrary to our orthodox faith"; that is, "Sergius, Cyrus, Pyrrhus, Paul, Peter and Theodore". He may share their punishment but not the reason for it. If he were a heretic and positively taught the doctrine of Monothelitism, our opponents must provide some plausible explanation why deference was shown to Honorius by not including him in the list of being "contrary to the orthodox faith". Unless our opponents wishe to appeal to the Bishop of Rome's primacy and the supreme office that he held in the Church as a reason for Honorius' omission, the alternatives are few and far between.

Secondly, what precisely did Honorius write to Sergius? As already cited above, Honorius defended the orthodox position of Christ's one human will and that he agreed that silence should be imposed on the Church. It was these writings (and not some concocted heretical pronouncement) which the Council is referring to when it says "because of what we found written by him to Sergius" that it condemned Honorius' actions in foro externo. In effect, the Council is rightly condemning Honorius for giving practical but not theological confirmation to the heresy.

Thirdly, there are two other issues in the text, both contained in the phrase "[Honorius] followed [Sergius'] view and confirmed his impious doctrines." The latter phrase "confirmed his impious doctrines" does not, by itself, convict Honorius of heresy since one may confirm something either by silence (and, in this case, neglect) or by a pronounced teaching. Therefore, the key part of the phrase hinges on "followed his view". If this phrase means that Honorius believed the heresy, then our position would be certainly wounded. However, if the phrase in question refers rather to Sergius' disciplinary request to impose silence on the Church, then it is our opponents whose position is called into question. In point of fact, while it is true that the Latin has "sequi mentem ejus", which is ambiguous, and may mean either view (i.e. either following Sergius's heretical doctrine or following Sergius' request for silence), the original Greek text, of which the Latin is a translation has, without any ambiguity, "followed the counsel." (4)

Fourthly, the Acts of the Lateran Council of 649 were dispersed widely throughout the East and West, and followed the same basic protocol as the Sixth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople and anathematized Sergius, Pyrrhus, and Paul, but, as my thesis has maintained, Pope Honorius' name is curiously missing from the anathemas. The council even went on to assert that from the very beginnings of Monothelitism, no Roman Pontiff had departed from keeping the Catholic Faith.

Pope Leo II (682-683) confirmed the Council's condemnation and stated:

"[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." (10)

"[Honorius did not] as became the apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence." (11)

"...he permitted the immaculate faith to be subverted." (17)

Again, we see our thesis maintained. The first citation indicates that the Pope "permitted" the pollution of profane teaching, but did not teach it himself, while the second selection indicts Honorius for fostering the heresy by "negligence" - again, hardly a challenge to the definition of papal infallibility or even Honorius' personal orthodoxy.

As already intimated above, while there is really little support for a refutation of papal infallibility here, we must be careful to appreciate that Honorius was not a saint. In fact, he was a negligent Pope who caused much damage to the Church, and the Council was right in condemning his actions.

"It is expressly said, in the Acts, that God cannot endure that rule of silence, "Et quomodo non indigneretur Deus qui blasphemebatur et non defendbatur." "And how could God but be indignant, who was blasphemed and NOT defended?" (13)

Because of his negligence, the Sixth Ecumenical Council (and the third) at Constantinople (680-681) burned the letters of Honorius, called him a "heretic", and anathematized him. Their actions were approved by Pope Leo II and their decisions confirmed again at the next two Ecumenical Councils.

The Council called Honorius a heretic, but it must be remembered that in the early Church the term "heretic" could have two meanings: to those who maintained and pronounced the error formally and/or materially and to those "who neither taught nor maintained error themselves, but were accessory to the pertinacity of heretics, whether by protecting them, by favoring them, or by not repressing." (14) This latter sense of permitting heresy has been understood and "confirmed by several examples in antiquity." (12)

This secondary "soft" sense of heresy is possible for any Pope just as it was for Honorius. A Pope can indeed be negligent in his office, but in and of itself, this does not necessarily mean that he is guilty of impugning an article of faith.

As far as the definition of papal infallibility, invoked at the First Vatican Council in 1870, is concerned, it permits a Pope being negligent while on the Papal throne but not, quite obviously, actually pronouncing error from it.

The First Vatican Council taught:

...we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that:

when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when,

i) in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,
ii) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,
iii) he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church,

he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.

(Vatican I, On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman pontiff, 4:9)

When we compare the above definition of papal infallibility to Honorius' statement which we cited earlier, we can see quite clearly that the breach of papal infallibility that Honorius has been alleged to cause is quite ridiculous:

"...on account of the simplicity of man and to avoid controversies, we must, as I have already said, define neither one nor two operations in the mediator between God and man." (2) ["Non nos oportet unam aut duas op operationes predicare"]

In sum, not only has papal infallibility not been breached, but there is no concrete proof that Honorius was, himself, even a formal or material heretic. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion, even if it must be conceded that Honorius was a negligent Pope. In the end, what this means is that our Protestant critics must look elsewhere for that elusive Pinata that will forever elude them.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
November 1, 2002