Pope Honorius I
July 31, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) – I recently came across an article by Scott Eric Alt on the subject of Pope Honorius dating back to March 2017. This will be my second response to one of his blogs, the first being on the topic of St. Paul’s correction of St. Peter and its relation to a potential “correction” of Pope Francis.
The notoriety of Pope Honorius stems from the fact the bishops of the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemned him as a “heretic” and that Pope Leo II wrote of him: “[Pope 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” (see here). I will not provide all the background on the case here to save on space, but the reader should read Mr. Alt’s article, and Mr. Spencer’s article (cited in Mr. Alt’s). While there are some particulars I would disagree with in regard to Mr. Alt’s treatment of the case of Pope Honorius, I essentially agree with Mr. Alt. My own position and treatment of the case of Pope Honorius can be read in my articles on the topic which include (1) a rebuttal to Mr. William Webster’s treatment of Pope Honorius from his book The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (my rebuttal originally found in This Rock/Catholic Answer may be foundhere: Guilty Only of a Failure to Teach) and (2) my direct rebuttal to Dr. James White’s attempt to come to Mr. Webster’s defense and reply to my article (see my rebuttal of Dr. White entitled White is Wrong also originally found in This Rock/Catholic Answers). (NB: As an aside, separately, I rebutted Mr. Webster’s attempt in his book to use the False Decretals against the doctrine of papal infallibility. This rebuttal may be found here).
While I might on any other occasion recommend Mr. Alt’s fine article in so far as it specifically and only addresses the case of Pope Honorius, I do disagree with the first paragraph of his article where he attempts to deflect even the possibility of potential similarities between the cases of Pope Honorius and of Pope Francis. Mr. Alt writes (emphasis added):
“Pope Honorius I (625-638) is a favorite example among anti-Catholic Protestants who wish to dispute the doctrine of papal infallibility. (See here for an example, from our old friend Dr.* James White.) Of late, some Catholics have picked up on this, seemingly in an effort to lay groundwork for the claim that Pope Francis teaches heresy. “Why, popes have taught heresy before!” they will say. “The Third Council of Constantinople condemned Pope Honorius I. Don’t you know that? He accepted the Monothelite error.” Thus do Catholics, in a zeal of Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome, begin to sound like Protestants who reject the papacy, and the Church, altogether.”
Mr. Alt does not say above who the “some Catholics” are he has in mind, i.e., those who he believes use the case of Honorius “seemingly in an effort to lay ground for the claims that Pope Francis teaches heresy.” His article is dated March 30 of this year, and I did happen to write a couple articles in February 2017 that do mention Pope Honorius (here and here and here) – so I do not know if I am one of these “some” he had in mind. But, then again, this wee blog (www.RomaLocutaEst.com) could have easily and understandably escaped his notice – as it has the world’s. But, my view for the record has been and remains: (1) Francis is Pope; (2) Honorius was not a monothelite and (3) a pope cannot be a formal heretic.
Yet, the problem with the first paragraph of Mr. Alt’s article – quoted above – is that it is something of an unintentional red herring, if there can be such a thing. Mr.Alt’s argument fails because it is incomplete, as it reduces the question of the potential relevance of Pope Honorius to Pope Francis to whether or not Honorius taught heresy. Mr. Alt’s error is that this single focus – exculpating Honorius from the charge of heresy (i.e., monothelitism) – neglects Honorius was nonetheless guilty of something which other popes, current or future, might also fall into. Therefore, Mr. Alt’s implicit argument is a non sequitur: Pope Honorius was not a heretic and did not teach heresy, therefore there is no possible relevance, even hypothetically, to Pope Francis.
Now, while I agree with Mr. Alt that Pope Honorius was not a monothelite; it must be remembered what Pope Honorius did do something he should not have done and did not do something he should have. Pope Honorius did put orthodox and heretical expressions under the same rule of silence and thus on equal footing, and he did not teach the apostolic faith with the voice of Peter when he should have. Both this policy and failure contributed to the spread of confusion and heresy and it was in this sense, as a favorer of heresy, Honorius was condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council and by Pope Leo II who said of him: “[Pope 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” (see here). Pope Agatho (678-681) obliquely refers to Honorius and his silence (and its gravity) in his letter to the Emperor and the Sixth Ecumenical Council:
“For woe is me, if I neglect to preach the truth of my Lord, which they (i.e., the Roman pontiffs) have sincerely preached. Woe is me, if I cover over with silence the truth which I am bidden to give to the exchangers, i.e., to teach to the Christian people and imbue it therewith. What shall I say in the future examination by Christ himself, if I blush (which God forbid!) to preach here the truth of his words? What satisfaction shall I be able to give for myself, what for the souls committed to me, when he demands a strict account of the office I have received?”[Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 333]
In the current crisis in the wake of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia 305 (n. 351), there are two interpretations:
(1) Communion for manifest adulterers living in a marital way, in at least certain cases, is permissible
(2) Communion for manifest adulterers living in a marital way in no circumstance is permissible
The two positions above are mutually exclusive and contradictory. Both cannot be true. The principle of non-contradiction excludes the possibility. Yet, as time marches on, Catholics are being inexorably led to affirm one or the other. If the second position is correct and if it is based on received teaching, the first position is heretical. Anyone who allows the existence of the first practice would in fact be favoring heresy. Some might counter by arguing that the practice of either allowing or forbidding communion for manifest adulterers is simply a discipline that is changeable. I don’t know if Mr. Alt believes communion for adulterers is a changeable discipline. In an article from last November, Mr. Alt to his credit admits some honest struggles with Amoris Laetitia (see here). Folks should read Mr. Alt for his opinion.
For me at least, my respect for the teaching authority of the See of St. Peter, past and present, leads me to conclude that the prohibition against communion for adulterers is not a changeable practice and that this has been the constant teaching of the popes. In my humble and fallible opinion, the strength of the argument against communion for manifest adulterers far surpasses the novel argument which would allow it. While some disciplines and practices are changeable, not all are. In some cases an infallible teaching is also expressed by a “doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church:”
“It should be noted that the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church’s faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition: such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense. (Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, June 29 1998. (n. 17). Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [emphasis added])
With the above in mind – that infallible teaching can be expressed by “doctrines implicitly contained in a practice of the Church, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition” – let us consider the words of Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortia (FC) (emphasis added):
“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (Familiaris Consortio, 84)
We see in Pope John Paul II’s teaching a clear statement that the practice of withholding communion in such cases is based on Revelation (Sacred Scripture) and is implicitly connected to the doctrines of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. This same teaching was re-affirmed by John Paul II in 1984 in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (34), and through that pope’s approval of the Catholic Catechism (1650) in 1992, and again through his approval of guidance issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1994, and in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (34). This was also taught by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 in Sacramentum Caritatis (29). With regard to the aforementioned CDF guidance, responding to queries whether there could be additional exceptions to allow communion for the divorced and remarried, the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger, with the approval of the Pope John Paul II, issued a response (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful. September 14, 1994). In it, the Cardinal Prefect says in part (emphasis added):
“At the same time it (i.e., Familiaris Consortio 84) confirms and indicates the reasons for the constant and universal practice, “founded on Sacred Scripture, of not admitting the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion”. The structure of the Exhortation and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations.”[ Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful. September 14, 1994.]
The CDF’s letter above, confirmed by the pope, clearly says the teaching of FC 84 confirms a constant and universal practice founded on scripture. And note the CDF’s comment about the tenor of the words, which “give clearly to understand that this practice, which as presented cannot be modified because of different situations” (emphasis added). Certainly, a common sense reading of John Paul II’s words, along with the papal-approved guidance from the CDF, and all the other teachings referenced above, gives a Catholic reasonable grounds to conclude, believe and hold that this practice cannot be modifiedfor whatever situation. It should not be surprising then that “dubia” were submitted to Pope Francis on this and other questions once thought settled, and that many of the faithful want the Pope to clear up the confusion – entirely of his own making.
Yet, it is surprising Pope Francis has refused to answer the “dubia” and speak with the voice of St. Peter on the question. I am fallible and so are the dubia cardinals. The one individual who can settle the question is Pope Francis, yet he is the only one who is keeping his mouth shut. Even Mr. Alt recognizes this problem in his November article. Pope Francis has not spoken clearly to the Church on the question. Indeed, in Amoris Laetitia (2, 3 and 4) Pope Francis disclaims the need for an “intervention of the magisterium.” Curiously, Honorius had said something similar in a letter to Sergius. Amoris Laetitia 305 (n.351) is also ambiguous as to which “cases” can receive communion and which cannot. A dubia on this specific question has been posed to Pope Francis. He refuses to answer. Different bishops and bishops’ conferences have opposing positions on the contradictory interpretations – each citing Amoris Laetitia.
Given the similarities to the case of Honorius are so striking, it is surprising Mr. Alt has not yet connected the dots between his own concerns voiced in his November 2016 article on Amoris Laetitia and his research for his March 2017 article on Honorius. Unfortunately, he dismisses the potential relevance of Honorius with a facile argument and a smug, derisive label (“Pope Francis derangement syndrome“) which get him no closer to presenting an effective rebuttal than when he first started. Consider that Mr. Alt in his own Honorius article is somewhat forced to grudgingly admit in passing the truth of the following accusations against Pope Honorius:
“As for Leo II, he condemned Honorius, instead, because he “permitted the immaculate faith to be subverted.” That is to say (as the New Catholic Encyclopedia says), Honorius was negligent in combatting the heresy.”
“Some also point to the condemnation of Honorius was included in an oath that every new pope had to swear until the eleventh century. (The oath is in the Liber diurnus.) However, the oath scorns Honorius only in that he “added fuel” to the “wicked assertions” of the Monothelites.”
Mr. Alt – by quoting Leo II and Liber Diurnus – concedes Honorius “permitted the immaculate faith to be subverted” and that Honorius by negligence “added fuel” to the “wicked assertions” of the monothelites! Surely, these charges are something – even if Mr. Alt cannot see it! Yet, the frustrating thing is that Mr. Alt seem to get so close to connecting the dots in his November article when he says of the dubia (emphasis added):
“These strike me as fair questions. The cardinals are seeking a definitive,Magisterial answer to some people’s doubts—not answers in interviews, not private lectures, not “go listen to so-and-so.” The reason the Church needs a definitive answer is to prevent bishops in some places from running wild and doing whatever they want to the potential harm of souls. If someone in a state of mortal sin, not disposed to receive the Eucharist, receives the Eucharist anyway, that compounds the problem. It is a harm to both the individual who receives and the priest who knowingly distributes. A definitive clarification would, potentially, forestall this.”
Since we know from above that Mr. Alt had the silence of Pope Francis on his mind, it is surprising his research for the Honorius article did not lead him to a true eureka moment, i.e., recognizing the potential similarities between Honorius and Francis. The old Catholic Encyclopedia on New Adventprovides additional quotes that might have helped him. This excellent article states:
“The new pope, Leo II, had naturally no difficulty in giving to the decrees of the council the formal confirmation which the council asked from him, according to custom. The words about Honorius in his letter of confirmation, by which the council gets its ecumenical rank, are necessarily more important than the decree of the council itself: “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.” This appears to express exactly the mind of the council, only that the council avoided suggesting that Honoriusdisgraced the Roman Church. The last words of the quotation are given above as in the Greek of the letter, because great importance has been attached to them by a large number of Catholic apologists. Pennacchi, followed by Grisar, taught that by these words Leo II explicitly abrogated the condemnation for heresy by thecouncil, and substituted a condemnation for negligence. Nothing, however, could be less explicit. Hefele, with many others before and after him, held that Leo II by the same words explained the sense in which the sentence of Honorius was to be understood. Such a distinction between the pope’s view and the council’s view is not justified by close examination of the facts. At best such a system of defence was exceedingly precarious, for the milder reading of the Latin is just as likely to be original: “but by profane treachery attempted to pollute its purity“. In this form Honorius is certainly not exculpated, yet the pope declares that he did not actually succeed in polluting the immaculate Roman Church. However, in his letter to the Spanish King Erwig, he has: “And with them Honorius, who allowed the unspotted rule of Apostolic tradition, which he received from his predecessors, to be tarnished.” To the Spanish bishops he explains his meaning: “With Honorius, who did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence.” That is, he did not insist on the “two operations”, but agreed with Sergius that the whole matter should be hushed up.” (Catholic Encyclopedia on New Advent)
The question Mr. Alt needs ask himself: given the case of Pope Honorius, and what Pope Leo II said of him, what is so impossible to imagine, if only as a hypothetical, for a future pope (or a current one) to be guilty of the following?
(1) a Pope did not attempt to sanctify the Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.
(2) a Pope allowed the unspotted rule of Apostolic tradition, which the Pope received from his predecessors, to be tarnished.
(3) a Pope who did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence
(4) a Pope ‘added wicked fuel to the wick assertions’ of others who are heretics
The charges above are based on the words of Pope Leo II and/or the papal oath in the Liber Diurnus about Honorius. Therefore, it is clear no living or future pope is absolutely immune from the possibility of being guilty of them. Mr. Alt is an honest gentleman. He must admit it is possible for a pope to be guilty of these things because we already have had one (i.e., Honorius). Thus, having had one such pope, perhaps Mr. Alt will understand (in light of his own Amoris Laetitia article) that the potential relevance of Honorius to the current crisis is not whether Honorius was a monothelite heretic, but whether it is possible – and just as damaging – for a pope to favor heresy through negligence and silence – and to even “add fuel” to the “wicked assertions” of heretics.
The current crisis as seen by “some Catholics” – i.e., the ones Mr. Alt smugly derides (but who I think he is closer to than even he might realize) – is that we have a pope whose seeming policy and silence (e.g., on the dubia) are allowing two incompatible interpretations to coexist on the question of communion for manifest adulterers. This current crisis bears striking similarities to the case of Honorius, the pope condemned for being silent. A pope need not be a heretic to foster heresy through “negligence,” “silence” and “profane treachery.” If Mr. Alt can understand that demonstrated principle from Church history, he might – just might – quit the facile arguments against “some Catholics” and begin to understand (1) why the silence of Pope Francis on the dubia is potentially similar to the silence of Pope Honorius and (2) why this should be of grave concern to all Catholics.
Let us pray for Pope Francis that he is predecessor Honorius – speak with the voice of Peter, answer the dubia and bring an end to the mounting confusion in the Church.
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. Book one of the trilogy will be completed in 2017. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com.