An Ecumenical Council Officially Condemns a Pope for Heresy

Historical Facts Proving That the Bishops of Rome Are not Infallible and Were Never Considered So by the Early Church

By William Webster

The Roman Catholic Council of Vatican I in 1870 is renowned for its dogmatic teaching that the Bishops of Rome, when teaching ex cathedra, are infallible. This teaching was stated to be consistent with the belief and practice the Church from its inception and throughout its long history. In other words it taught that this doctrine was not a doctrine that developed over time. The Council declared this teaching to be a dogma necessary to be believed for salvation and it anathematizes all who dare to disagree with or who oppose these assertions. The official teaching of Vatican I is as follows:

Therefore faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Saviour, the exaltation of the Christian religion, and the salvation of Christian people, the sacred Council approving, we teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith and morals to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if anyone—which may God avert—presume to contradict this our definition: let him be anathema...This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and salvation...The first condition of salvation is to keep the rule of the true faith (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper, 1877), Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, Chp. 4, pp. 266-71).

Though Vatican I appeals to history as a valdation for its claims, it is the very facts of history which prove them to be spurious. Historically, papal infallibility was never part of the teaching or practice of the early Church, nor was it ever part of the doctrinal content of saving faith as taught by it. This is well illustrated by the actions of the 6th Ecumenical Council (III Constantinople) held in 680-681 A.D. This Council is well known in Church history for its official condemnation of a number of leading Eastern Bishops as well as a Bishop of Rome for embracing and promoting heretical teachings. The particular Pope who was posthumously excommunicated from the Church and forever branded a heretic was Pope Honorius, who reigned as bishop of Rome from 625 to 638 A.D. In a number of letters written to Sergius I, patriarch of Constantinople, and several other individuals, Honorius officially embraced the heresy of montheletism, which teaches that Christ had only one will, the divine. The orthodox position is that Christ, though one person, possesses two wills because he is divine and human. There is absolutely no doubt that he held to the teaching of one will in Christ. Jaroslav Pelikan makes these comments:

In the controversy between East and West...the case of Honorius served as proof to Photius that the popes not only lacked authority over church councils, but were fallible in matters of dogma; for Honorius had embraced the heresy of the Monotheletes. The proponents of that heresy likewise cited the case of Honorius, not in opposition to the authority of the pope but in support of their own doctrine, urging that all teachers of the true faith had confessed it, including Sergius, the bishop of New Rome, and Honorius, the bishop of Old Rome (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), Volume Two, pp. 150-151).

There are many past and present Roman apologists who downplay the importance of Pope Honorius. It is typical in Roman Catholic writings to find the issue of Honorius dealt with in a very superficial way. For example the following comments by Karl Keating are representative:

Actually, Honorius elected to teach nothing at all. Ronald Knox, in a letter to Arnold Lunn reprinted in their book Difficulties, put the matter like this: And Honorius, so far from pronouncing an infallible opinion in the Monothelite controversy, was quite extraordinarily not (as Gore used to say) pronouncing a decision at all. To the best of his human wisdom, he thought the controversy ought to be left unsettled, for the greater peace of the Church. In fact, he was an opportunist. We, wise after the event, say that he was wrong. But nobody, I think, has ever claimed that the Pope is infallible in not defining a doctrine (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), p. 229).

In one paragraph Keating dismisses this whole issue as trivial and Protestant objections as nothing more than a misrepresentation of the true facts. But one thing Mr. Keating does not do is to give the judgment of the Council itself in its own words. He simply states that Honorius did not teach anything and is therefore not guilty of heresy. Is this how the Council understood the situation? Absolutely not! To allow the Council to speak for itself is enough to dispel Keating and Knox's assertions. The facts speak for themselves. Honorius was personally condemned as a heretic by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. This was ratified by two succeeding Ecumenical Councils. He was also condemned by name by Pope Leo II, and by every pope up through the eleventh century who took the oath of papal office. In his classic and authoritative series on the history of the Councils, Roman Catholic historian Charles Joseph Hefele affirms this verdict in relating the following irrefutable facts regarding Honorius and the Sixth Ecumenical Council:

It is in the highest degree startling, even scarcely credible, that an Ecumenical Council should punish with anathema a Pope as a heretic!...That, however, the sixth Ecumenical Synod actually condemned Honorius on account of heresy, is clear beyond all doubt, when we consider the following collection of the sentences of the Synod against him:
At the entrance of the thirteenth session, on March 28, 681, the Synod says: "After reading the doctrinal letter of Sergius of Constantinople to Cyrus of Phasis (afterwards of Alexandria) and to Pope Honorius, and also the letter of the latter to Sergius, we found that these documents were quite foreign...to the apostolic doctrines, and to the declarations of the holy Councils and all the Fathers of note, and follow the false doctrines of heretics. Therefore we reject them completely, and abhor...them as hurtful to the soul. But also the names of these men must be thrust out of the Church, namely, that of Sergius, the first who wrote on this impious doctrine. Further, that of Cyrus of Alexandria, of Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter of Constantinople, and of Theodore of Pharan, all of whom also Pope Agatho rejected in his letter to the Emperor. We punish them all with anathema. But along with them, it is our universal decision that there shall also be shut out from the Church and anathematized the former Pope Honorius of Old Rome, because we found in his letter to Sergius, that in everything he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrine."
Towards the end of the same session the second letter of Pope Honorius to Sergius was presented for examination, and it was ordered that all the documents brought by George, the keeper of the archives in Constantinople, and among them the two letters of Honorius, should immediately be burnt, as hurtful to the soul.
Again, the sixth Ecumenical Council referred to Honorius in the sixteenth session, on August 9, 681, at the acclamations and exclamations with which the transactions of this day were closed. The bishops exclaimed: "Anathema to the heretic Sergius, to the heretic Cyrus, to the heretic Honorius, to the heretic Pyrrhus"
Still more important is that which took place at the eighteenth and last session, on September 16, 681. In the decree of the faith which was now published, and forms the principal document of the Synod, we read: "The creeds (of the earlier Ecumenical Synods) would have sufficed for knowledge and confirmation of the orthodox faith. Because, however, the originator of all evil still always finds a helping serpent, by which he may diffuse his poison, and therewith finds fit tools for his will, we mean Theodore of Pharan, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, Peter, former bishops of Constantinople, also Honorius, Pope of Old Rome, Cyrus of Alexandria, etc., so he failed not, by them, to cause trouble in the Church by the scattering of the heretical doctrine of one will and one energy of the two natures of the one Christ.
After the papal legates, all the bishops, and the Emperor had received and subscribed this decree of the faith, the Synod published the usual (logos prosphoneticos), which, addressed to the Emperor, says, among other things: "Therefore we punish with exclusion and anathema, Theodore of Pharan, Sergius, Paul, Pyrrhus, and Peter; also Cyrus, and with them Honorius, formerly bishop of Rome, as he followed them."
In the same session the Synod also put forth a letter to Pope Agatho, and says therein: \'91We have destroyed the effort of the heretics, and slain them with anathema, in accordance with the sentence spoken before in your holy letter, namely, Theodore of Pharan, Sergius, Honorius.
In closest connection with the Acts of the sixth Ecumenical Council stands the imperial decree confirming their resolutions. The Emperor writes: "With this sickness (as it came out from Apollinaris, Eutyches, Themistius, etc.) did those unholy priests afterwards again infect the Church, who before our times falsely governed several churches. These are Theodore of Pharan, Sergius the former bishop of this chief city; also Honorius, the Pope of old Rome...the strengthener (confirmer) of the heresy who contradicted himself...We anathematise all heresy from Simon (Magus) to this present...besides, we anathematise and reject the originators and patrons of the false and new doctrines, namely, Theodore of Pharan, Sergius...also Honorius, who was Pope of Old Rome, who in everything agreed with them, went with them, and strengthened the heresy."
It is clear that Pope Leo II also anathematized Honorius...in a letter to the Emperor, confirming the decrees of the sixth Ecumenical Council...in his letter to the Spanish bishops...and in his letter to the Spanish King Ervig. Of the fact that Pope Honorius had been anathematized by the sixth Ecumenical Synod, mention is made by...the Trullan Synod, which was held only twelve years after...Like testimony is also given repeatedly by the seventh Ecumenical Synod; especially does it declare, in its principal document, the decree of the faith: "We declare at once two wills and energies according to the natures in Christ, just as the sixth Synod in Constantinople taught, condemning...Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, etc." The like is asserted by the Synod or its members in several other places...To the same effect the eighth Ecumenical Synod expresses itself. In the Liber Diurnus the Formulary of the Roman Chancery (from the fifth to the eleventh century), there is found the old formula for the papal oath...according to which every new Pope, on entering upon his office, had to swear that "he recognised the sixth Ecumenical Council, which smote with eternal anathema the originators of the heresy (Monotheletism), Sergius, Pyrrhus, etc., together with Honorius"
(Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: Clark, 1896), Volume V, pp. 181-187).

These facts are highly significant. Von Dollinger was the leading Roman Catholic historian of the last century who taught Church history for 47 years. He makes these comments:

This one fact, that a Great Council, universally received afterwards without hesitation throughout the Church, and presided over by Papal legates, pronounced the dogmatic decision of a Pope heretical, and anathematized him by name as a heretic is a proof, clear as the sun at noonday, that the notion of any peculiar enlightenment or in errancy of the Popes was then utterly unknown to the whole Church (Janus (Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger), The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1870), p. 61).

Roman Catholic apologists generally attempt to salvage the dogma of papal infallibility from the case with Honorius by saying that he was not giving an ex cathedra statement but merely his opinion as a private theologian. Therefore he was not condemned in his official capacity as the pope. According to the Roman Catholic Church there are certain conditions which must be met for the teaching of the pope to fall within the overall guidelines of that which is considered to be. He must be teaching in his official capacity as the pope and he must be defining doctrine for the entire Church. The claim is made that Honorius did not meet these conditions. However, a careful reading of the official acts of the Council prove that it thought otherwise. The reader can judge for himself from the Council's own statements how the situation with Honorius was viewed and whether it would have agreed with the assertions of Keating and Knox that Honorius did not actively teach anything. The Council makes the following statements:

Session XIII: The holy council said: After we had reconsidered, according to the promise which we had made to your highness, the doctrinal letters of Sergius, at one time patriarch of this royal God protected city to Cyrus, who was then bishop of Phasius and 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 the names of those men whose doctrines we execrate must also be thrust forth from the holy Church of God, namely, that of Sergius some time bishop of this God-preserved royal city who was the first to write on this impious doctrine; also that of Cyrus of Alexandria, of Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter, who died bishops of this God preserved city, and were like minded with them; and that of Theodore sometime bishop of Pharan, all of whom the most holy and thrice blessed Agatho, Pope of Old Rome, in his suggestion to our most pious and God preserved lord and mighty Emperor, rejected, because they were minded contrary to our orthodox faith, all of whom we define are to be subject to anathema. And with these 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.
Session XVI: 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! To Paul, the heretic, anathema!...
Session XVIII: But as the author of evil, who, in the beginning, availed himself of the aid of the serpent, and by it brought the poison of death upon the human race, has not desisted, but in like manner now, having found suitable instruments for working out his will we mean Theodorus, who was bishop of Pharan, Sergius, Pyrrhus...and moreover, Honorius, who was Pope of the elder Rome...), has actively employed them in raising up for the whole Church the stumbling blocks of one will and one operation in the two natures of Christ our true God, one of the Holy Trinity; thus disseminating, in novel terms, amongst the orthodox people, an heresy similar to the mad and wicked doctrine of the impious Apollinaris
(Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, pp. 342-344).

The above statements prove that the condemnation of Honorius meets the basic criteria for ex cathedra statements. The following points show this to be the case:

The Council condemns him specifically as a heretic and anathematized him in his official capacity as pope and not as a private theologian.
He is condemned for following after and confirming the heresy of montheletism.
He is condemned for actively disseminating and propagating heretical teachings in his official capacity as pope which affected the whole Church.

To suggest that the Sixth Ecumenical Council does not invalidate the teaching of papal infallibility because Honorius did not make an ex cathedra statement is historically absurd. This is to erect arbitrary conditions which were not existent at the time to save oneself the embarrassment of a historical fact which undermines one's position. The issue is not what do individual Roman Catholic apologists say, but what did the Sixth Ecumenical Council say. On what basis did it condemn Pope Honorius? By its own words it condemned him in his official capacity as the bishop of Rome, not as a private theologian, for advancing heretical teachings which it says were Satanically inspired and would affect the entire Church. It specifically states that Honorius advanced these teachings, approved of them, and in a positive sense was responsible for disseminating them. And it condemns him by name as a heretic, anathematizing him as such. According to both Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology an Ecumenical Council is infallible so all the arguments which attempt to dismiss the judgment of this Council saying that it was mistaken or that it rushed to judgment or whatever, are simply erroneous and empty, on the basis of their own theology. So an infallible Ecumenical Council (from a Roman Catholic perspective) has condemned as a heretic a bishop of Rome for teaching heresy. It is quite obvious that these Eastern fathers did not view the bishops of Rome as infallible.John Meyendorff states that, contrary to the assertions of many Roman Catholics that Honorius did in fact teach the doctrine of monotheletism in a positive sense and helped confirm Sergius in the heresy. Meyendorff gives this summary:

This step into Monotheletism, which he was first to make, is the famous fall of Honorius, for which the Sixth ecumenical council condemned him (681) a condemnation which, until the early Middle Ages, would be repeated by all popes at their installation, since on such occasions they had to confess the faith of the ecumenmical councils. It is understandable, therefore, that all the critics of the doctrine of papal infallibility in later centuries. Protestants, Orthodox and antiinfallibilists at Vatican I in 1870 would refer to this case. Some Roman Catholic apologists try to show that the expressions used by Honorius could be understood in an orthodox way, and that there is no evidence that he deliberately wished to proclaim anything else than the traditional faith of the Church. They also point out quite anachronistically that the letter to Sergius was not a formal statement, issued by the pope ex cathedra, using his charisma of infallibility, as if such a concept existed in the seventh century. Without denying the pope's good intentions which can be claimed in favor of any heresiarch of history, it is quite obvious that his confession of one will, at a crucial moment and as Sergius himself was somewhat backing out before the objections of Sophronius, not only condoned the mistakes of others, but actually coined a heretical formula, the beginning of a tragedy from which the Church (including the orthodox successors of Honorius on the papal throne) would suffer greatly (John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Division (Crestwood:St. Vladimir's, 1989), p. 353).

Jaroslav Pelikan affirms the same thing in these comments:

In the controversy between East and West...the case of Honorius served as proof to Photius that the popes not only lacked authority over church councils, but were fallible in matters of dogma; for Honorius had embraced the heresy of the Monotheletes. The proponents of that heresy likewise cited the case of Honorius, not in opposition to the authority of the pope but in support of their own doctrine, urging that all teachers of the true faith had confessed it, including Sergius, the bishop of New Rome, and Honorius, the bishop of Old Rome (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), Volume Two, pp. 150-151)

Charles Hefele affirms the fact that Leo II also condemned Honorius as a heretic and confirmed the decrees of the Council:

It is clear that Pope Leo II also anathematized Honorius...in a letter to the Emperor, confirming the decrees of the sixth Ecumenical Council...in his letter to the Spanish bishops...and in his letter to the Spanish King Ervig (Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: Clark, 1896), Volume V, pp. 181-187).

The condemnation by Pope Leo II is significant. He affirmed the condemnation of Honorius as a heretic, confirming by this that Honorius had actively undermined the orthodox faith. W.J. Sparrow Simpson summarizes Leo's viewpoint in these comments:

Leo accepted the decisions of Constantinople. He has carefully examined the Acts of the Council and found them in harmony with the declarations of faith of his predecessor, Agatho, and of the Synod of the Lateran. He anathematized all the heretics, including his predecessor, Honorius, who so far from aiding the Apostolic See with the doctrine of the Apostolic Tradition, attempted to subvert the faith by a profane betrayal (W.J. Sparrow Simpson, Roman Catholic Opposition to Papal Infallibility (London: John Murray, 1909), p. 35).

It is significant that the letter of Honorius to Sergius was used in the East by the proponents of the Monothelite heresy as justification for their position. As Sparrow Simpson observes: "This letter of Honorius was utilised in the East to justify the Monothelite heresy the existence of one will in Christ (W.J. Sparrow Simpson, Roman Catholic Opposition to Papal Infallibility (London: John Murray, 1909), p. 33). The definition of what the Roman Catholic Church refers to as ex cathedra teaching was not enunciated and defined until 1870. One needs to keep this in mind when applying this test to the case of Honorius and the judgment of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. In the mind of this "infallible" Council the pope was a heretic. In its official condemnation of him, he is judged on the basis of the criteria for ex cathedra statements which was defined some 1200 years later. One simply cannot avoid the historical facts. An "infallible" Ecumenical Council has condemned an "infallible" pope, in his official capacity, for heresy. No redefining of terms can erase the simple facts of history or the implications of those facts for the dogma of papal infallibility. This has direct bearing upon the issue of authority and jurisdiction. If an Ecumenical Council can excommunicate a bishop of Rome then the ultimate authority in the early Church was not the bishop of Rome but the Council. The fact of this condemnation clearly demonstrates that contrary to the claims of Vatican I, the early Church never viewed the bishops of Rome to be infallible. No Church father has ever taught such a doctrine and it is contradicted by the practice of the early Church fathers and Councils, III Constantinople being but one example.