Dear Brother and Sister in Christ, my Friends
Many times, in the last few weeks I have been asked what I think about particular words, opinions of Pope Francis, and about Pope Francis generally. Who am I to give my opinion about our pope, or to judge some of his decisions or words? But, because I love the history, and I have studied by myself the History of The Church, especially during a time of my life, which could be described as very anti-clerical, I would like to share with You something – I hope interesting – that happened many centuries ago, which hopefully will answer some of your worries and concerns.
On 18 July 1870, a storm raged over Rome. On this day the bishops meeting at the First Vatican Council proclaimed the dogma of the Pope’s infallibility. The text of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church titled: ‘Pastor aeternus’ (‘Eternal Priest’) was adopted almost unanimously – 535 of them were in favour of the dogma, and only two were against it. But before it came to pass, the dignitaries gathered in the Eternal City (Rome) had heated debates about the scope of papal infallibility. One of the main topics that the hierarchies had to deal with was the so-called Honorius problem. The German bishop Karl Joseph von Hefel from Rottenburg, educated in the fathers of the Church and the history of the Church, commented on it. The dilemma was indeed serious, because the figure referred to by him was a pope who was officially condemned for heresy.
Pope Honorius I sat on the throne of Peter on October 27, 625. He was a descendant of the aristocratic Roman family. His father Petronius was a consul in Campania, and he considered himself a disciple of one of the most eminent popes in history – Saint Gregory the Great. During his pontificate, Honorius became known as a good administrator, reformer of church studies, monastery builder and initiator of the Anglo-Saxon mission. However, it was not for this reason that he became subject to numerous discussions and controversies over the next centuries. It was decided by a theological dispute that erupted in the seventh century, especially in the Byzantine Empire. These were times when religious differences sparked social passions and threatened the peace which was maintained within the Empire. The rivalry between the Christological parties was revealed even during chariot races on the Hippodrome in Constantinople.
To understand the essence of the dispute that surrounding Honorius, one must go back to the fifth century. From the time of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Eastern Church was divided between the orthodox Christians and the monophysites. The former believed that in Christ there are two kinds of nature – divine and human – in one person; and the others rejected the dogma, saying that Jesus had only one nature in one person. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius, fearing unrest and feud in his state, decided to bring agreement between the two parties. He persuaded his patriarch Sergius of Constantinople, to propose a compromise solution. He proclaimed that Christ has two natures, but only one will: divine-human. This claim turned out to be another heresy, and it went into history as monotheletism.
This was an unacceptable view for most Christians, and yet the doctrine of one will of Christ was recognized by some influential hierarchs in the East, Patriarch of Alexandria – Cyrus. The main opponents of the new heresy were the patriarch of Jerusalem, the late Saint Sofronius and the monk Max Believer. In 634, Sergius wrote a letter to Pope Honorius, asking him to forbid Saint Sofronius speak to of the two wills of Jesus (that is, the teaching of the true teaching of the Church), because it stands in the way of reconciliation with monophysites. The Pope, who did not attach much importance to the theological intricacies of Eastern Christianity, agreed to this request, recommending that there be avoided any discussion of one or two wills in Christ. His letter was received in Byzantium as acceptance by Rome for monotheletism.
Encouraged by such support, Emperor Heraclius issued an edict called ‘Ekthesis‘ in 638, which obliged all subjects to accept monothelitism and forbade further discussion. Then the persecution of the opponents of this new heresy began, for example, their hands were cut off and the tongue as well of Saint Maximus and he was torn away, because he did not want to acknowledge this new teaching. This new teaching was condemned definitively by all the successors of the deceased Honorius I (638), the next Popes: Severin, John IV, Theodore I, Martin I, Eugene I, Vitalian, Adeodate II, Donus and Agathon.
During the pontificate of Agathon, in 680 the Third Council of Constantinople was called and the condemnation of monothelitism was published. This was the end of this heresy in Byzantium. In the course of this Council, however, there was an unprecedented event in the Church: Pope Honorius I, was officially condemned as the only pope in history for preaching the heresy.
March 28, 681, the Council Fathers passed a decree in which they wrote:
“After we had reconsidered, according to our 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 Phasis 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. (…) 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.”
The provisions of the Third Council of Constantinople were approved by Pope Leo II in 683. He maintained the condemnation of his predecessor, however, changing the classification of his deed. He stated that Pope Honorius I deserves an anathema because he did not attempt to sanctify the Apostolic Church’s teaching and Apostolic Tradition, but through blasphemy he allowed his purity to be tarnished. Thus, according to Pope Leo II , it was not enough just to proclaim or confirm the heresy, but to allow it to be taught instead of being resolutely opposed to it. Pope Leo II wanted to emphasize how great a responsibility for the salvation of souls rests on the visible Head of the Church. Six years later, during the Synod in Rome, Pope Hadrian II admitted that the condemnation of Honorius was correct, and that heresy is the only reason that justifies subordinate obedience to his superiors.
A similar story took place in the first half of the 14th century and was addressed to Cardinal Jacques Duese, who in 1316 was elected Pope and took the name John XXII. During his three sermons delivered in Avignon at the turn of 1331 and 1332, he delivered the theses contrary to the teaching of the Holy Church. He maintained that after the death of the souls of the righteous, who await the resurrection of the bodies and the Last Judgment, they do not have a happy vision in Heaven. Catholic teaching says that those who have died in sanctifying grace can see God in heaven as He is, face to face, and enjoy His love.
The views of this pope met with great indignation and opposition from many theologians, among whom was Bishop Guillaume Durand, who accused John XXII of proclaiming the Cathars heresy explicitly. The Holy Father tried to impose his theory on the Sorbonne University in Paris, but it was also met with strong opposition. His adversaries were even sent to prison, for example Fr. Thomas Waleys, a Dominican preacher from Oxford. In the end, however, just before his death, Pope John XXII cancelled his erroneous thesis. He stated that he preached it as a theologian and not as the visible Head of the Church.
Pope John XXII was succeeded in 1334 by one of his main opponents, Cardinal Jacques Fournier, who adopted the name of Benedict XII. Shortly after his election, he issued the constitution of ‘Benedictus Deus’ (“Blessed God”), in which he officially stated that since the Ascension of Christ, the souls of the righteous, even before the resurrection of the flesh and the Last Judgment, were and will experience vision of happiness in Heaven.
A few centuries later, blessed Cardinal Alfredo Schuster wrote about the serious responsibility of Pope John XXII before the court of history, because he led the whole Church to a humiliating spectacle during which princes, clergy and scholars had to guide the pope into the simple path of the Catholic theological tradition, a difficult situation in which he would deny his own assertions.
The cases of Honorius I and John XXII did not bring peace at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Robert Bellarmine, saint, Doctor of the Church has proclaimed the treatise ‘De Romano Pontifice‘, in which he described the possibility of the head of the Catholic Church falling into heresy. In his work he stated: ‘A Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction’.
Bishops gathered in 1870 at the Vatican Council I and knew both the history of pope Honorius I and pope John XXII, and they knew the treatise of Saint Robert Bellarmine. Most of them were convinced that the doctrine of the pope’s infallibility should be proclaimed. This was one of the reasons which led to the notorious conversion to Catholicism of the famous English philosopher and theologian John Henry Newman in Europe. Now, he began to study the history of the Church to prove that over the centuries the papacy has departed from the teachings of the apostles and the first Church. After years of work, however, he came to completely different conclusions. He found out that the bishops of Rome in matters of faith and morals were the only ones who never taught false teachings. As a result, he not only wrote a fundamental work: ‘The Development of the Christian Doctrine’, but also he converted to Catholicism.
The majority of the Council Fathers, by sharing Newman’s words, decided to define precisely what is meant by: “the infallibility of the Pope.” Confronting this issue with teaching, doctrine, tradition and Church history, they came to the conclusion that this infallibility must be conditioned by concrete conditions. The Bishop of Rome, like every human being, may be wrong in many matters. The infallibility of the pope can only be when he speaks on matters of faith, morals and direction of the Church. However, he must make it an ‘ex cathedra‘, in a clear and unequivocal way, clearly emphasizing that the teaching defined by him should be binding on all Catholics.
The Fathers of the Council have stated that the infallibility of the pope does not have the acts of the doctrine of ordinary papal teaching, such as letters, interviews, and sermons. In this sense both the correspondence of Honorius I with the patriarch Sergius and the speech of pope John XXII in the cathedral of Avignon did not meet the conditions of infallibility. Popes can therefore proclaim heresies both at public meetings and private conversations, but never ‘ex cathedra‘. But when they proclaim their doubtful reviews, they have to expect the objections of the faithful.
With love, friendship and prayers – Fr Marcin