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Setting the record straight…

The Case of Pope Honorius I

These days, recognize-and-resist adherents are in an extremely difficult spot: They can no longer deny the horrendous public apostasy perpetrated by Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”) on a near-daily basis, yet they absolutely refuse to consider even as a possibility the idea that the greatest apostate the world has ever known is not at the same time the Vicar of Christ and head of the infallible and indefectible Roman Catholic Church.

Time and again, therefore, they are eager to find historical precedent for their position, and few things seem to please them more than to find, ostensibly, a “heretical Pope” in Church history they can point to in support of their stance. Like the Gallicans of the 19th century, today’s recognize-and-resisters think they have found such a case in the seventh-century Pope Honorius I, whom several ecumenical councils (Constantinople III, Nicea II, and Constantinople IV) anathematized as a “heretic” for appearing to endorse the heresy of Monothelitism in a letter to Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople.

But what are the historical facts, and how can we be sure of them?

The issue of Pope Honorius was never more controversial than on the eve of and during the First Vatican Council, which was held from 1869-70 and defined as a dogma, among other things, the infallibility of the Pope when speaking ex cathedra. It was during this time that all the known facts on Pope Honorius were scrutinized and hotly debated. (Even the question of what would happen if a Pope became a public heretic was raised — and answered.) Arguments from all sides were exchanged by means of books, pamphlets, articles, and speeches. For example, in 1868 the Jesuit Fr. Paul Bottalla published the book Pope Honorius before the Tribunal of Reason and History (available for free electronically here), which he wrote in response to Peter Le Page Renouf’s pamphlet, The Condemnation of Pope Honorius.

Some maintained that Pope Honorius was indeed a Monothelite heretic, and that history proved it; others claimed that the historical documents on which this accusation rested had been interpolated or were outright forgeries. Others still argued that although the documents had to be admitted as authentic, they did not in fact prove Honorius to have been a heretic.

In order to bring this controversy, which has once again flared up in our day, to a decisive end, we have undertaken to translate from the original French the research presented on this issue by Fr. Louis-Nazaire Bégin (1840-1925) in his book La Primauté et l’Infaillibilité des Souverains Pontifes (“The Primacy and Infallibility of the Sovereign Pontiffs”), published in 1873. The Canadian Fr. Begin held a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and was later appointed Archbishop of Quebec by Pope Leo XIII (1898) and created cardinal by Pope St. Pius X (1914). At the time of the Vatican Council, Fr. Begin was teaching dogmatic theology and Church history at a seminary in Quebec.

Writing in 1873, Fr. Begin had the benefit of being able to draw from all the research done in preparation for the council, from the acts of the council, and from its teachings. His book, which is based on a series of university lessons he gave, bears the required imprimatur of Cardinal Taschereau, then the Archbishop of Quebec. It is clear, therefore, that it will be a most reliable source — both in terms of assessing the facts of history and of ensuring doctrinal orthodoxy — for unraveling the confusing case of Pope Honorius according to the mind of the Church.

Fr. Begin’s book does not solely deal with the Pope Honorius controversy. As the title indicates, it is a general vindication of papal primacy and infallibility throughout Church history. It has been published only in French and can be read online for free here and purchased in paperback here. An English translation of the entire book is not available; however, we have translated the lecture dealing with the Honorius question and are making it available for you in full at the following link:

In this text, Fr. Begin proposes to answer “all the objections levied against the orthodoxy of Pope Honorius”, and he does not fail to deliver. “It is good for all to be acquainted with this controversy”, the author instructs his readers, “which has upset souls so much and which the enemies of the Church have abused so often against the papacy and Catholicism in general.”

The Canadian priest outlines the task before him as follows:

I shall begin by showing that the documents in question, that is to say the letter of Sergius to Honorius, the two letters of Honorius to Sergius, and the acts of the Sixth Council, are authentic; then I shall show that Honorius, nevertheless, did not fall into heresy, and that the Sixth [Ecumenical] Council [i.e. the Third Council of Constantinople] did not condemn him as a formal heretic, but only as guilty of negligence.

All of this Fr. Begin accomplishes with the necessary seriousness, erudition, sensibility, love of truth, and dedication to Holy Mother Church such an important subject demands.

The following select quotes from Fr. Begin’s investigation of the Pope Honorius case touch upon some key points of the controversy and will serve as additional incentives to read the entire text:

We come now to a very serious question, one which touches the very heart of our subject. This is the question: Did Pope Honorius fall into the heresy of Monotheletism? I answer, “No!” Here I find myself to have for adversaries a throng of writers hostile to the Catholic Church. On the other hand, I am supported by men who are the most eminent for their knowledge and erudition.

In his first letter [to Sergius, Pope Honorius] repeats several times that “the Scriptures demonstrate clearly that Jesus Christ is the same Who operates in things divine and in things human;” that “Jesus Christ operates in the two natures, divinely and humanly.” Nothing could be clearer or more obvious! The heresy is right away knocked down. It is thus evident that Honorius confesses in Jesus Christ not only two natures, but also two wills and two operations. Thus, this Pontiff professes in his letters the Catholic truth; he rejects only the new words being used to express it, and this for reasons of prudence, in order not to appear to favor Nestorianism or Eutychianism, and also because Sergius astutely portrayed these new expressions as a cause of troubles in the Church and an obstacle to the return of Monosphysites to orthodoxy.

John, secretary to Honorius, who wrote the letter to Sergius and who must have known better than any other the thoughts of the Pontiff, said on this matter: “When we spoke of a single will in the Lord, we did not have in view His double nature, divine and human, but His humanity only…. We meant that Jesus Christ did not have two contrary wills, that is to say one of the flesh and one of the spirit, as we ourselves have on account of sin, but that, with regard to His humanity, He had but one natural will.”

Pope John IV gave to Honorius’s words absolutely the same sense. It is therefore quite evident that the doctrine of Honorius in his letters to Sergius is irreproachable from the point of view of sound theology, because in addition to the divine will, which no one has denied, he confesses the human will in all its perfection.

…[Honorius’] unique goal, and certainly a very praiseworthy one, was to maintain peace in the Church by preventing the introduction of new words and removing all obstacles to the return of heretics to the true doctrine.

Thus, amid all the accusations brought against Honorius by the Fathers of the Sixth Council, none of them amounted to formal heresy; all of them were limited to incriminating this pope for having followed the advice of Sergius, who prescribed silence on the doctrine of the two operations in Jesus Christ, by which the error was propagated due to the audacious activity of the Monothelites and the blind obedience of Catholics, by which the heresy was not rejected and condemned in principle with the courage and energy which ought to be found in the supreme pastor; but in none of this do you see the council accuse Honorius of having professed a doctrine contrary to that of the Church. His negligence–this was his entire crime, this is why he was reproached, and this is what brought him condemnation.

…I do not deny the condemnation; on the contrary, I admit it according to what I said moments ago; but I distinguish the word heretic, which is quite imprecise and was still more so at the time of the councils in question. It was designated not only to those who professed the heresy knowingly and obstinately, but also to those who benefited it in any manner whatsoever, be it by their silence and negligence when their responsibilities obliged them to take action, be it by defending persons or the writings of heretics, be it even due to their communication with these heretics, or that they involuntarily admitted their doctrines.

…From this, I conclude that Honorius could have been condemned as a heretic by these three councils, and that he in fact was, not for having taught error, but solely for not having exerted the necessary vigor in his duties as Head of the Church, for not having vigorously used his authority to repress heresy, for having prescribed silence about the manner of expressing a truth, and having thus contributed to the diffusion of error.

This is the same conclusion which was reached by almost everyone who dealt with this question during the Vatican Council. Dom Guéranger, Abbot of the Solesmes Benedictines, said on the matter, “The real Sixth Council, the one to which the Roman Pontiff gave the necessary and canonical form, the one which requires the respect of the faithful, condemned Honorius only as an unfaithful guardian of the deposit of the faith, but not as having himself been an adherent of heresy. Justice and truth forbid us from going beyond that.”

These select few quotes are by no means meant to replace an attentive and thorough reading of the entire text, which we have gone through the trouble of procuring for you in English translation. Here, again, is the link to the full chapter:

You will not regret spending some time reading the scholarly presentation by this eminent seminary professor and later cardinal-archbishop.

Understanding the Pope Honorius controversy correctly is extremely important in our day, not only for the sake of maintaining the purity of Catholic doctrine and clarifying the historical facts, but also and especially so that it cannot be misused by others to promote a public apostate as the Vicar of Christ and head of the Catholic Church. The next time someone tries to tell you that Pope Honorius was a heretic, or that several ecumenical councils have condemned Pope Honorius as one, you will now have the ammunition you need to set the historical record straight.

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons
Licenses: public domain

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