Let’s note also at the outset that the issue here is not whether Catholics are ordinarily obligated to assent to papal teaching even when it is not put forward infallibly. The answer is that they are ordinarily obligated. More precisely, they owe even non-definitive papal teaching what is called “religious assent,” which is not the unqualified assent owed to teaching put forward infallibly, but is nevertheless firm. To be even more precise, there is a very strong presumption in favor of such assent, though the Church, in documents like Donum Veritatis, has acknowledged that there can be rare cases in which this presumption is overridden and a faithful Catholic at liberty respectfully to raise questions about some magisterial statement. The clearest sort of case would be one where a magisterial statement appears to conflict with past definitive teaching. I’ve discussed this issue in detail .
Now, one point that some readers have made is that the word “heresy” was used in a more expansive way earlier in Church history than it is today. That is correct and important, and it is something . In modern canon law, heresy is “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” Pope Honorius was definitely not a heretic in that sense, both because there is no evidence of obstinacy on his part, and because a charitable reading of his problematic statements supports the judgment that he did not intend to undermine traditional teaching (even if his words inadvertently had that effect). There are also the related points that one could be a heretic in the material sense of affirming something doctrinally erroneous, while not being a formal heretic in the sense of persisting in the error even after being warned by ecclesiastical authority; and that whether some doctrine has actually been defined by the Church is relevant to whether it is “to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.”
For these reasons, I prefer to use the more general and less potentially misleading term “error” when discussing the case of Honorius, as I did in the title of my previous post. All the same, the Sixth Ecumenical Council does apply the term “heretic” to Honorius, and “heresy” in those days implied at the very least positive doctrinal error (as opposed, say, to mere negligence or a failure to counter doctrinal error). In other words, by labeling Honorius a heretic, the council was accusing him of teaching false doctrine. The question on the table is whether he can be defended against this charge.
The conciliar condemnations
Needless to say, what Honorius actually said in his letters to Sergius is relevant to this question. But it is not the only thing that is relevant. The chief obstacle to acquitting Honorius of the charge of positively teaching doctrinal error (however inadvertently) is that, as I showed in my previous article, two papally-approved councils of the Church explicitly said that he did. In particular, the Sixth Ecumenical Council explicitly labeled him a “heretic.” And the Seventh Ecumenical Council explicitly condemns “the doctrine of one will held by Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, and Pyrrhus.”
Defenders of Honorius often argue that Pope St. Leo II, in his statements confirming the council, merely accuses Honorius of negligence in failing to uphold orthodoxy, and of thereby polluting the purity of the Roman See. They think this shows that the council’s own description of Honorius as a heretic has no force. But there are three problems with this argument.
First, what matters is that Leo confirmed the council, thereby making its decrees authoritative. He didn’t say “I confirm it, except for this part.” It’s true that in his own accompanying condemnation, he limits his accusation against Honorius to negligence in suppressing heresy and thereby polluting the purity of the Roman See, and does not apply the label “heretic” to him. But Leo doesn’t deny the truth of the council’s statement that Honorius was a heretic. He just doesn’t mention it (just as he doesn’t mention other things the council said).
Second, as noted by John Chapman (whose book on Honorius I discussed in my previous post), the Church has long held that “an error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed” (in the words of Honorius’s predecessor Pope Felix III). It is possible to be guilty of teaching doctrinal error by implication, when the context demands that a certain truth needs to be explicitly affirmed and instead one not only fails to do so but speaks in an ambiguous way that gives the appearance of approving the error. And that is exactly what Honorius did. The Monothelite error was being put forward, and he not only did not clearly condemn it but seemed to be saying that it could be accepted. The suggestion that his words can be given a more charitable reading (as I agree they can) is relevant to his personal culpability, but it is not relevant to the question of the doctrinal soundness of the words themselves, and as Chapman emphasizes, in a context like this it is the words that matter.
Third, whatever one says about Leo and the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the papally-approved Seventh Ecumenical Council, which occurred a century later (and thus long after Leo was gone), explicitly characterized Honorius as having taught doctrinal error. Hence even if it were conceded that Leo rejected the Sixth Council’s description of Honorius as a heretic, the point would be moot. The Seventh Council would remain as an obstacle to the defense of Honorius.
At this point, defenders of Honorius might argue (as they sometimes do) that while papally-approved councils cannot err on matters of doctrine, they can err on matters of history. And whether Honorius really was guilty of heresy is, the argument continues, a historical question rather than a doctrinal one. But there are two problems with this argument.
First, the reason a council condemns someone as a heretic is because of his teaching. Hence it is, first and foremost, Honorius’s teaching that was condemned. That means that the teaching was judged heretical. But whether a teaching is heretical is a doctrinal matter, and not a mere historical matter. Now, given that a papally-approved council cannot err on doctrinal matters, it follows that the councils in question infallibly judged that Honorius’s teaching was heretical (whatever his intentions). But since anyone who teaches heresy is a heretic, it follows (at least given that Honorius really did write the letters that got him into trouble, as most of his defenders concede) that these councils did after all infallibly judge that Honorius was a heretic.
Second, the reason most of Honorius’s defenders try to defend him is to avoid having to acknowledge that a pope can teach heresy when not speaking ex cathedra. Now, suppose that the councils did indeed get it wrong when judging that Honorius, specifically, was a heretic. Since that is a historical rather than doctrinal matter, such an error is possible. Still, by making this judgment, the councils also taught by implication that it is possible for a pope to teach heresy (when not speaking ex cathedra). And that is a doctrinal matter. That is enough to refute the larger claim that Honorius’s defenders are trying to uphold by defending him.
This is why Chapman drew the bold conclusion that “unquestionably no Catholic has the right to deny that Honorius was a heretic… a heretic in words if not in intention” (p. 116). Quibbles over how to interpret his letters are largely a red herring. What matters more is the authority of papally-approved councils of the Church.
The opinions of the theologians
In response to my previous article, S. D. Wright calls attention to an article of his own from last year at the website The WM Review, defending Pope Honorius. Wright makes much of what various theological authorities have said about the controversy, and suggests that if we are just going by the numbers, those who would defend Honorius outnumber those who would not.
Even if this is true, it is hardly a decisive argument, given that (as Aquinas famously pointed out) the argument from authority, while not without value, is still the weakest of arguments when the authorities in question are merely human rather than divine. And they are merely human, given that this is at best a matter about which the Church has not decided, and leaves open to the free debate of theologians. Indeed, as I have argued, it is actually worse than that for Honorius’s defenders, given that two papally-approved councils (which teach infallibly and thus do have divine authority behind them) taught that Honorius was guilty of teaching error.
Wright is also selective in the way he cites the relevant authorities. For example, while he acknowledges that Chapman is on the side of those who judge Honorius to be guilty of teaching error, he makes Chapman’s position sound more tentative than it really is. Wright claims, for example: “Chapman is the most hostile critic, and yet all that he can bring himself to say is that certain passages are ‘difficult to account for.’” As we’ve just seen, though, that is far from the truth. Again, in his book Chapman goes so far as to say that “unquestionably no Catholic has the right to deny that Honorius was a heretic”; and in his Catholic Encyclopedia article on Honorius, he says that “it is clear that no Catholic has the right to defend Pope Honorius. He was a heretic, not in intention, but in fact.” Oddly, Wright does not quote these (rather important) remarks when reporting on Chapman’s views.
Wright also gives the impression that the Doctors of the Church who have addressed the matter all line up on the side of defending Honorius from the charge of heresy. That is not the case. Wright neglects to mention the opinion of St. Francis de Sales, who, when addressing papal authority in The Catholic Controversy, says that “we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII, or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was” (p. 225).
Wright appeals to the opinion of St. Alphonsus Liguori, who addressed the case of Honorius in The History of Heresies, and Their Refutation. That is not unreasonable, given St. Alphonsus’s stature, just as it is not unreasonable to consider the similar opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine (which I discussed in my previous article). But it is important to note that St. Alphonsus and St. Robert do not entirely agree on this matter. Bellarmine takes seriously the theory that the documents of the Sixth Ecumenical Council have been corrupted, whereas St. Alphonsus rejects this idea, noting that “this conjecture is not borne out by the learned men of our age… [who] clearly prove the authenticity of the Acts” (p. 186). St. Alphonsus also rejects Bellarmine’s suggestion that the Fathers of the council were mistaken in their judgment about Honorius, and endorses the view of another author that:
[I]t is very hard to believe that all the Fathers, not alone of this Council, but also of the Seventh and Eighth General Councils, who also condemned Honorius, were in error, in condemning his doctrine. (p. 186)
St. Alphonsus is harder on Honorius than Bellarmine is, writing:
We do not, by any means, deny that Honorius was in error, when he imposed silence on those who discussed the question of one or two wills in Christ, because when the matter in dispute is erroneous, it is only favoring error to impose silence…
[H]e was very properly condemned, for the favourers of heresy and the authors of it are both equally culpable. (pp. 181 and 182)
St. Alphonsus concludes that the only plausible defense of Honorius is to argue that he was not himself a Monothelite heretic, while nevertheless conceding that he was justly condemned “as a favourer of heretics, and for his negligence in repressing error” and for “using ambiguous words to please and keep on terms with heretics” (p. 187). That is very close to Chapman’s view that Honorius can justly be accused of heresy given Felix III’s dictum that “an error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed” – even if St. Alphonsus himself stops short of that conclusion.
(As a side note, and while we’re on the subject of arguments from authority, let me cite one further authority mentioned by Chapman, St. Maximus the Confessor. Now, Maximus, to be sure, defended Honorius. However, as Chapman reports, when Monothelite heretics asked Maximus what he would do if Rome were to affirm their position, his answer was: “The Holy Ghost anathematizes even angels, should they command aught beside the faith” (pp. 62-63). Maximus does not answer that Rome could not possibly do that, or that if Rome did so, then Monothelitism would have to be accepted. That implies that St. Maximus allowed that it is possible for the pope to err, at least when not speaking in a definitive way.)
Now, the opinion of the Doctors of the Church is indeed very weighty when they are all in agreement. But here, as we have seen, they are not in agreement. Hence Wright’s argument is not strong. Meanwhile, the argument from the authority of papally-approved councils is very strong. I conclude that a case in defense of Honorius remains, at best, difficult to make.