The Church does not hold, however, that popes always teach infallibly when not speaking ex cathedra. The First Vatican Council deliberately stopped short of making that claim. One reason for this is that there have been a few popes (though only a few) who erred when not exercising their extraordinary magisterium. The most spectacular case is that of Pope Honorius I (pope from 625-638 A.D.), who taught a Christological error that facilitated the spread of the Monothelite heresy, and was formally condemned for it by several Church councils and later popes.
The case is briefly discussed in many Church histories and reference works, but an especially detailed account is to be found in Fr. John Chapman’s short book The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, which was published in 1907 by the Catholic Truth Society. You can read it online . Chapman is also the author of in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia, which presents a shorter but still substantive account. His results are briefly but approvingly discussed by Fr. Cuthbert Butler in his 1930 book The Vatican Council 1869-1870, the main scholarly work in English about the council and the debate between the council Fathers over papal infallibility.
Many contemporary readers with only a superficial knowledge of the history and theology of the papacy are bound to find shocking the details of the case of Honorius as recounted by writers like Chapman and Butler. They might expect to hear such things only from either theological liberals keen to subvert the authority of the papacy, or radical traditionalists looking for precedents for accusing recent popes of heresy. But Chapman and Butler were perfectly mainstream orthodox Catholic academics of the day, whose work was in no way considered scandalous. They were writing long before the debates over liberalism and traditionalism that arose after Vatican II, so that they cannot be accused of having any ax to grind in those debates.
Indeed, Chapman was writing during the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X, the great foe of modernism and upholder of the authority of the papacy. In fact, part of the point of Chapman’s book itself was precisely to uphold that authority, and in particular to defend the Council’s teaching on papal infallibility. And yet for all that, Chapman does not shrink from the judgment that the historical facts show that “no Catholic has the right to deny that Honorius was a heretic” (p. 116). The reason he could say this is that the error Honorius was guilty of did not occur in the context of an ex cathedra definition. And thus Chapman’s judgement is perfectly within the bounds of what everyone acknowledged to be the orthodox understanding of the papacy even in Pius X’s day.
The Monothelite heresy arose as a sequel to the Monophysite heresy. Orthodox Christology holds that Christ is one Person with two natures, divine and human. Monophysitism holds that Christ has only one nature, the divine one. Monothelitism can be understood as an attempt to find a middle ground position between Monophysitism and orthodoxy. It holds that while there are two natures in Christ, there is only one will. From the point of view of orthodoxy, this is unacceptable, for one’s will is an integral part of one’s nature. Hence to deny the reality of two wills in Christ is implicitly to deny that he has two natures. (I’m aware that the dispute over these heresies is more complicated than this quick summary lets on. But the nuances are irrelevant to the particular purposes of this article.)
The trouble for Pope Honorius began when Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, wrote to him on the topic of Christ’s will and proposed a compromise that might appeal to disaffected Monophysites. In his reply, Honorius affirmed that it is better to avoid speaking of either “one or two operations” in Christ, and even affirmed a sense in which there is “one will” in Christ. The problem is that the first claim seems to leave wiggle room for Monothelitism, and the second seems positively to affirm it.
To be sure, as defenders of Honorius have argued and as Chapman allows, Honorius’s intent was not heretical. But Honorius’s statements gave ammunition to the Monothelites, who treated his words as a doctrinal definition and appealed to them in support of their position. And as Chapman notes, whatever Honorius’s intentions, “in a definition it is the words that matter” rather than the intention behind them, and considered as a definition Honorius’s words “are obviously and beyond doubt heretical” (p. 16).
Now, Honorius was not in fact proposing an ex cathedra definitive formulation, which is why his error is not incompatible with the teaching of Vatican I about the conditions on papal infallibility. But it is not true to say (as some have in Honorius’s defense) that he was merely speaking as a private theologian. He was doing no such thing. Sergius wrote to him seeking the authoritative advice of the bishop of Rome, and Honorius responded in that capacity. And the error was extremely grave, for as Chapman notes, the Monothelite heresy really only gained momentum after Honorius’s response to Sergius, and partly as a result of it.
The popes following Honorius began to correct the situation by affirming orthodox teaching, and initially tried either to give Honorius’s words an orthodox sense or simply to ignore them. But as the controversy grew (and involved a complex series of events and cast of characters including St. Sophronius, the Emperor Heraclius, Patriarch Pyrrhus of Constantinople, St. Maximus, and popes John IV, Theodore I, and St. Martin I, among others) it became harder to defend Honorius, whose words had done so much to instigate it. Pope St. Martin and St. Maximus were among those who suffered severe persecution from the Monothelites, underlining the gravity of the consequences of Honorius’s error.
The It condemned the exchange between Sergius and Honorius very harshly, stating: (680-681 A.D., also known as the Sixth Ecumenical Council recognized as authoritative by the Catholic Church) was called to deal with the crisis.
The holy council said: After we had reconsidered… the doctrinal letters of Sergius… to Honorius some time Pope of Old Rome, as well as the letter of the latter to the same Sergius, we find that these documents are quite foreign to the apostolic dogmas, to the declarations of the holy Councils, and to all the accepted Fathers, and that they follow the false teachings of the heretics; therefore we entirely reject them, and execrate them as hurtful to the soul.
But Honorius himself, and not merely his words, was also condemned, in terms no less harsh:
We define that there shall be expelled from the holy Church of God and anathematized Honorius who was some time Pope of Old Rome, because of what we found written by him to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines.
The late pope is included by the council in a long list of anathematized heretics:
To Theodore of Pharan, the heretic, anathema!
To Sergius, the heretic, anathema!
To Cyrus, the heretic, anathema!
To Honorius, the heretic, anathema!
To Pyrrhus, the heretic, anathema!
We cast out of the Church and rightly subject to anathema all superfluous novelties as well as their inventors: to wit, Theodore of Pharan, Sergius and Paul, Pyrrhus, and Peter (who were archbishops of Constantinople), moreover Cyrus, who bore the priesthood of Alexandria, and with them Honorius, who was the ruler of Rome, as he followed them in these things.
By no means did this reflect any animus against Rome, nor a rejection of papal authority. On the contrary, as Chapman emphasizes, the decrees of the council were signed by the representatives of the then current pope, Pope St. Agatho. The council also warmly praises “our most blessed and exalted pope, Agatho,” and affirms that St. Peter “spoke through” him. Agatho’s successor, Pope St. Leo II, confirmed the council, and added his own personal condemnation of his predecessor, :
We anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodore, Sergius… and 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.
Even that was not the end of it. The of 787 A.D. (also known as the Second Council of Nicaea) reiterated the previous council’s condemnation:
We affirm that in Christ there be two wills and two operations according to the reality of each nature, as also the Sixth Synod, held at Constantinople, taught, casting out Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, Pyrrhus, Macarius, and those who agree with them.
We have also anathematized… the doctrine of one will held by Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, and Pyrrhus, or rather, we have anathematised their own evil will.
The of 869-870 A.D. (also known as the Fourth Council of Constantinople) reiterated the condemnation yet again:
We anathematize Theodore who was bishop of Pharan, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter, the unholy prelates of the church of Constantinople, and with these, Honorius of Rome.
As Chapman notes, in addition to these repeated anathemas:
It is still more important that the formula for the oath taken by every new Pope from the 8th century till the 11th adds these words to the list of Monothelites condemned: “Together with Honorius, who added fuel to their wicked assertions.” (pp. 115-16)
On top of that, Chapman adds: “Honorius was mentioned as a heretic in the lessons of the Roman Breviary for June 28th, the feast of St. Leo II, until the 18th century” (p. 116).
Over forty years passed between Honorius’s death and his condemnation by the first of the councils referred to. But once he was condemned, the condemnation was repeatedly reaffirmed at the highest levels of the Church for centuries.
Can Honorius be defended?
This is why Chapman draws the conclusion: “Unquestionably no Catholic has the right to deny that Honorius was a heretic… a heretic in words if not in intention” (p. 116), and why Butler cites this conclusion sympathetically. Some have tried to show how Honorius’s words can be read in an orthodox way, but as Chapman and Butler emphasize, this misses the point that the question of whether Honorius was a heretic cannot be settled by reference to his letters alone. The fact that councils and later popes themselves have denounced him as a heretic is also crucial, for to deny that he was a heretic is thereby to challenge the judgment of these councils and popes. To show that Honorius did not err, but at the cost of showing that these later popes and (papally approved) councils did err, would be a Pyrrhic victory.
Some have emphasized that Pope St. Leo II, in his own statement, seems to accuse Honorius only of aiding and abetting heresy rather than condemning him for being a heretic himself, as the Third Council of Constantinople had. They seem to think this absolves Honorius of the charge of heresy. But there are several problems with this move. First, as Chapman notes, in one respect Leo’s statement is harsher than the council’s, not less harsh. For Leo goes so far as to accuse his predecessor of polluting the purity of the Roman See itself, which the council had not done. Second, Leo did confirm the council, and thereby lent authority to its decrees. And those decrees explicitly condemn Honorius as a heretic. Third, the later councils, as well as the later papal oath, reaffirmed Honorius’s anathematization.
To be sure, there have over the centuries nevertheless been those who have tried to defend Honorius, the most eminent being St. Robert Bellarmine (in Book 4, Chapter XI of On the Sovereign Pontiff). But his arguments are weak, and were rejected by later orthodox Catholic theologians. For example, Bellarmine proposes that “perhaps” Honorius’s letter to Sergius was faked by the heretics, though he also argues that if this theory is rejected, the letter can be given an orthodox reading. But these strategies obviously conflict with one another. If the problematic parts of the letter were faked by heretics precisely for the purpose of spreading their heresy, then how can they plausibly be given an orthodox reading? Or if these parts of the letter are in fact orthodox, how can it plausibly be maintained that they were faked? Wouldn’t heretics forging a letter have put into it statements that clearly supported their position?
Then there is the fact that the Third Council of Constantinople condemned Honorius. Here too Bellarmine suggests that one strategy to defend Honorius would be to propose that the relevant passages from the council proceedings were faked, and inserted by enemies of Rome. But the council proceedings elsewhere praise Rome and other popes, so what sense would this have made? Alternatively, Bellarmine suggests, perhaps the council really did condemn Honorius, but did so under the mistaken assumption that he was a heretic. This is not a problem, Bellarmine says, because a council can be mistaken about a historical (as opposed to doctrinal) matter. But even if the council had been mistaken about Honorius, in condemning him it was teaching that popes can (when not speaking ex cathedra) be guilty of heresy, and that is a doctrinal matter. The larger lesson of the case of Honorius (namely that popes can err when not teaching ex cathedra) would remain, whatever one thinks of Honorius himself.
Bellarmine even suggests that maybe Leo’s letter, too, was faked! The positing of so much fakery illustrates just how desperate the arguments of even as fine a mind as Bellarmine’s have to be in order to try to get Honorius off the hook. And that is why such arguments were largely abandoned. As another Catholic historian of the era of Chapman and Butler, Fr. H. K. Mann, stated in his book :
Contrary to the opinion of some Catholic writers, [Honorius’s] letters are here allowed to be genuine and incorrupt; as are also the Acts of the Sixth General Council. This is in accordance with nearly all the best Catholic modern authors. (p. 337)
To be sure, Mann defends the orthodoxy of the actual content of Honorius’s letter to Sergius. But he acknowledges that the council and later popes did indeed condemn Honorius. In response to the suggestion made by some that the council criticized Honorius only in some weaker manner than it did the Monothelite heretics, Mann says that “it seems, however, more likely that they did” condemn him in the same manner, and that “it cannot… be denied that it is more natural to assume that all those condemned by the council were all condemned in the same sense” (p. 343). Mann also notes, as Chapman does, that “after the sixth general council the Popes in their profession of faith were wont to condemn Sergius, etc., ‘and Honorius, who gave encouragement to their heresy’” (p. 344).
The lesson of Honorius
As Chapman emphasizes, the Third Council of Constantinople was operating with a very strong conception of papal authority, not a weak one. The council warmly accepted a letter from Pope St. Agatho defining the correct, orthodox teaching on the controversy. Moreover:
It deposes those who refused to accept [the letter]. It asks [the pope] to confirm its decisions. The Bishops and the Emperor declare that they have seen the letter to contain the doctrine of the Fathers; Agatho speaks with the voice of Peter himself; from Rome the law had gone forth as out of Sion; Peter had kept the faith unaltered. (pp. 108-9)
And yet the very same council anathematized Honorius. Chapman continues:
How was it possible to assert this, and yet in the same breath to condemn Pope Honorius as a heretic? The answer is surely plain enough. Honorius was fallible, was wrong, was a heretic, precisely because he did not, as he should have done, declare authoritatively the Petrine tradition of the Roman Church. To that tradition he made no appeal, but had merely approved and enlarged upon the half-hearted compromise of Sergius. (p. 109)
Honorius, unlike Agatho, was capable of erring in his own letter because he was not there speaking ex cathedra. And he actually did fall into error in this case because he was not teaching in continuity with tradition. After all, as the emphasized when proclaiming papal infallibility, the whole point of infallibility is not to license the pope to teach novelties, but on the contrary, to guarantee that he preserves traditional teaching:
For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.
The lessons of the case of Honorius are clear. When a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, it is possible for him to fall into error. And if, in that context, he teaches something contrary to the traditional teaching of the Church, he will fall into error – and may thereby lead others into error as well, with catastrophic consequences for the Church. But the Church will in such a situation nevertheless right herself before long, and will come to judge harshly any pope who fomented such a crisis.