Did Pope Honorius Teach or Commit Heresy?

A Defense of Honorius (in a series of articles)

The most common argument of the papal accusers is that Pope Honorius I was certainly guilty of heresy, having been condemned for heresy by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III), and therefore it is possible that Pope Francis is guilty of heresy.

My reply, in summary, is that the First Vatican Council infallibly exonerated Pope Honorius I by teaching that each Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith. Therefore, Honorius could not be guilty of heresy. Vatican I determined that he is innocent, and they did so, not by a prudential judgment which could err, but by a definition of infallible doctrine, which cannot err. No Pope can teach or commit heresy; therefore, it is now a dogmatic fact that Pope Honorius I was innocent, just as it is a dogmatic fact that he was a valid Pope. The full explanation follows.

1. First, the argument of the papal accusers depends upon the assumption that Ecumenical Councils cannot err in decisions of the prudential order. So they assume the Council could not have erred in the decision to condemn Honorius for heresy. But if Councils cannot err in prudential matters, then Councils certainly would not be able to err in more important matters of faith and morals — in which case, all the teachings of every Ecumenical Council would be free from every error (which is true). But the papal accusers also accuse Vatican II and other Councils of errors of doctrine. So their argument against Honorius is dishonest, and contradicts their accusations against the Councils.

My argument is that Ecumenical Councils cannot err in any teaching on faith and morals, and that decisions on discipline and matters of prudence cannot err gravely, that is, in any way that would harm the indefectibility of the Church or the path of salvation. But errors in prudential matters are possible. So it is possible for an Ecumenical Council to judge a situation and incorrectly find someone either guilty or innocent, as such decisions do not pertain to the path of salvation, nor do they lead any of the faithful astray.

Saint Robert Bellarmine has taught that Ecumenical Councils cannot err because the Council represents the universal Church and speaks for the whole Church [Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff De Controversiis Book 1]. However, this only concerns faith and morals, or matters of discipline that pertain to the whole body of the faithful and their lives of faith, prayer, and worship (such that a Council cannot lead the faithful astray by grave errors on discipline). So Ecumenical Councils, like Roman Pontiffs, are not infallible in every decision on every topic.

Thus, the first reply to the argument of the papal accusers on Pope Honorius is that Ecumenical Councils can err in decisions of prudential judgment, when these decisions do not concern the whole Church, the life of faith, prayer, and worship of the faithful, or any grave matters concerning the path of salvation of the whole flock. Individual judgments of temporal matters can err, as proven above, and therefore, simply, the Sixth Ecumenical Council could have erred in convicting Honorius of heresy, if in fact the Council did convict him of heresy.

As will discussed below in detail, nothing is of a Council unless approved by the Roman Pontiff. Pope-Saint Agatho, during the Council, exonerated Honorius for heresy by his teaching on the never-failing faith of the Popes. And Pope-Saint Leo II, at the end of the Council, changed the charge against Honorius from heresy to negligence. So in fact the Council did not convict Honorius of heresy, but only of negligence. (That point will be proven in posts later in this series.)

2. Since it is not certain that Pope Honorius is guilty, despite the apparent condemnation by an Ecumenical Council, the next point is that the dogmatic answer to the question as to whether or not God permits Roman Pontiffs to teach or commit heresy can never be established, definitively, by reference to past cases. For such cases are always a matter of prudential judgment, while the question itself is a matter of faith, which must be answered with a dogma, not a prudential judgment.

And what do we find in the case of Pope Honorius? We find that Saint Robert Bellarmine defends him as innocent, and so did St. Maximus, who lived during the time of Pope Honorius. And then, in every generation, there have been theologians and clerics who defend Honorius. Then, in the time of the First Vatican Council, one of the Council fathers, Cardinal Manning, has stated that “they who have cleared Honorius of personal heresy, are an overwhelming majority compared with their opponents….” [“The Vatican Council and its Definitions: A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy”] With sufficient support on the side of the innocence of Honorius, the question cannot be decided against him with certitude.

Thus, a dogmatic answer to an important question on the reliability of the teachings and faith of the Roman Pontiff cannot be established by such an uncertain process as the evaluation of a prudential matter, especially when some Saints find him innocent and so do faithful priests and theologians in every generation. The claim, then, that Roman Pontiffs can teach heresy is not established by reference to the case of Honorius, nor to the case of any other accused Popes, since each case is only a matter of prudential judgment, and in every case there is ample support for the innocence of the Pope in question, as Saint Robert Bellarmine proves.

Therefore, the claim that Popes may possibly teach or commit heresy is not proven by reference to any historical examples, nor to a prudential judgment of any current or recent Pope. And this point by itself should put an end to the argument advanced by the papal accusers, that Pope Francis can possibly be guilty of heresy because Honorius was guilty. For the guilt of Honorius has not been able to be established with certitude after many centuries, and so that is not a sufficient basis for any grave accusation against the current Roman Pontiff.

And just so that the gravity of this matter is not underestimated, I must point out that if the papal accusers are wrong, then they are bearing false witness against the Vicar of Christ, causing grave harm to the universal Church on earth, scandalizing the faithful, and are themselves guilty of schism for rejecting the authority of a faithful Roman Pontiff. In such a very serious matter, one cannot stand on uncertain ground. So their argument already fails. It is like a prosecutor who admits to the jury that they should have reasonable doubt about the guilt of the defendant. The judge in such a case would dismiss the charges, summarily and promptly.

Even so, several more posts on this topic are planned. To be continued….

Ronald L Conte Jr

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