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Failure to Document:

Catholic Answers Glosses Over History


James White

Perhaps this is why Catholic Answers, while claiming to be in the "forefront" of Catholic Apologetics, refuses to engage in public debate against those they know are prepared and ready.  Who knows?  But one thing is for sure: the new article by Steven O'Reilly in the October, 2000 This Rock magazine rivals the sad attempts of the Watchtower Society to completely and utterly misrepresent the facts of Church History.  Steven O'Reilly, who has recently been attempting to do what Catholic Answers won't do in public (respond to Protestant apologists, though, of course, as it is part of the editorial policy of CA, they refuse to refer to Protestant apologists, but instead choose the much more emotionally useful phrase "anti-Catholic"), again plies the trade of the defender of Rome's a-historical modern doctrines.  But this time he reaches new lows in misrepresenting history and truth.  The article is titled, "Guilty Only of Failure to Teach" and is subtitled "The Case of Pope Honorius Doesn't Disprove Papal Infallibility."  It begins on page 28 of the 10/2000 issue of This Rock magazine.

I have recently had the opportunity of twice debating leading Roman Catholic apologists on the subject of Papal Infallibility.  The first debate, with Timothy Staples, took place in Fullerton in July, and the second, with Robert Sungenis, took place in early October in Clearwater, Florida.  In both debates the issue of Honorius took center stage.  In fact, in the second debate with Mr. Sungenis, the second round of the debate was limited to the topic of Honorius' condemnation as a heretic by the 6th Ecumenical Council, and that by pre-arrangement.

Before looking at O'Reilly's attempt to save Honorius, a few background issues should be addressed.  First, I would like to present the basic facts of the issue as I presented them in my opening statement on Honorius in the debate with Robert Sungenis.  Then, I will comment on the fact that the defense used by Staples and O'Reilly is directly contradictory to that used by Sungenis: that is, if Staples and O'Reilly are correct, Sungenis is in error, and vice versa.  Finally, I will respond to the horrifically partial presentation made by O'Reilly as yet another documented instance of the kind of apologetic offered by Catholic Answers.

The Facts About Honorius

Honorius was the bishop of Rome from 625 to 638.  In 634 Sergius, the patriarch of Constantinople, wrote to Honorius concerning Sergius’ attempts to bring the monophysites, those who asserted that there was only one nature in Christ, into the catholic fold.  Sergius was a monothelite, one who believed that while Christ was indeed one person with two natures, He had but one will, since the will was a function of the one person, not a function of the two natures.  Honorius, in responding to Sergius, provides the single clearest example of Papal error that violates the definition of infallibility as given by Rome itself.  Honorius agreed with Sergius, clearly, in his first letter.  He wrote to Sergius as the bishop of Rome, not as a private theologian.  He responded as the bishop of Rome to an official inquiry to the See of Rome regarding a matter of faith and morals.  He wrote to a fellow bishop of the church, and in speaking of the very issue of whether Christ had one will or two, he wrote, e}n qevlhma oJmologou`men tou` Kurivou j Ihsou Cristou.  Make sure you note the use of the plural, “we confess.”  Honorius did not say, “Oh, I think maybe it’s like this.”  He employed the very same plural that Roman bishops use today to refer to their representation of the church as a whole. 

          Now we surely can safely admit that Honorius was not the leading theologian of his day.  He made an error based upon ignorance of the issues involved.  The biblical standard of the elder or bishop in the church is not, thankfully, infallibility.  And surely no one in that day believed in papal infallibility, so to judge Honorius on the basis of modern standards is without merit.  His case is famous for no other reason than the glaring and obvious anachronism of Rome’s modern teaching.  Rome proclaims her bishop infallible when teaching as the pastor of all Christians on matters of faith and morals.  Obviously, it was the intention of the Vatican decree to say that the bishops of Rome have always had this “charism of infallibility,” which would mean it is the Roman Catholic position that this teaching was valid in Honorius’ day just as much as it is today.  So it is Rome that has placed the spotlight upon all the Popes of history, not Protestants. 

Now, there is absolutely, positively no question that Honorius was, in fact, condemned as a heretic by the 6th Ecumenical Council which met in Constantinople in 680-681 for a teaching he promulgated in an official letter sent to Sergius as the bishop of Rome.

1. His condemnation is found in the Acts in the 13th Session, near the beginning.

2. His two letters were ordered to be burned at the same session as being “hurtful to the soul.”  This includes the letter that contains the phrase e}n qevlhma oJmologou`men (hen thelema homologoumen).

3. In the 16th Session the bishops exclaimed “Anathema to the heretic Sergius, to the heretic Cyrus, to the heretic Honorius, etc.”

4. In the decree of faith published at the 18th Session it is stated that “the originator of all evil... found a fit tool for his will in... Honorius, Pope of Old Rome, etc.”  Further, this Ecumenical Council said that Honorius taught the heretical doctrine.  They said that Satan had “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 ...”

5.  The Papal legates, representatives of Pope Agatho, made no attempt to stop the burning of the letters, and subscribed to every anathema placed upon Honorius, as well as to the statement that Satan himself had used the bishop of Rome as a “tool for his will.”

6. The report of the Council to the Emperor says that “Honorius, formerly bishop of Rome” they had “punished with exclusion and anathema” because he followed the monothelites.

7. In its letter to Pope Agatho the Council says “We have destroyed the fort of the heretics, and slain them with anathema, in accordance with the sentence spoken before in your holy letter, namely,  Theodore of Paran, Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, etc.”  Note that the Council believed its actions to be in full accord with Agatho’s wishes and Agatho’s letter!

8. The imperial decree speaks of the “unholy priests who infected the Church and falsely governed” and mentions among them “Honorius, the Pope of Old Rome, the confirmer of heresy who contradicted himself.” The Emperor goes on to anathematize “Honorius who was Pope of Old Rome, who in everything agreed with them, went with them, and strengthened the heresy.”

9. Pope Leo II confirmed the decrees of the Council and expressly says that he too anathematized Honorius.  So strong was Leo’s confirmation that Baronius rejected it, saying it had to have been spurious, and even Cardinal Bellarmine tried to say it had been corrupted.  Neither saw in Leo’s words any softening of the Council’s act, though some modern Catholic apologists have attempted to find in Leo’s sentence a ray of hope: Leo anathematizes Honorius “who did not illuminate this apostolic see with the doctrine of apostolic tradition, but permitted her who was undefiled to be polluted by profane teaching.” 

10. That Honorius was anathematized by the Sixth Council is mentioned in the canons of the Council of Trullo which met less than two decades after Constantinople (Trullan Canons No. 1). This shows that the condemnation of Honorius was accepted by the wider church immediately after the Council, and amongst those who were familiar with Leo’s letter.

11. So too the Seventh Council declares its adhesion to the anathema in its decree of faith, and in several places in the acts the same is said.

12. Honorius’s name was found in the Roman copy of the Acts. This is evident from Anastasius’s life of Leo II. (Vita Leonis II.)  This means that in Rome itself the condemnation with anathema as a heretic was embraced and accepted.

13. The Papal Oath as found in the Liber Diurnus taken by each new Pope up to the eleventh century, states in no uncertain terms, “smites with eternal anathema the originators of the new heresy, Sergius, etc., together with Honorius, because he assisted the base assertion of the heretics.”  Every single Pope who took to the chair of Peter for three hundred years did so by anathematizing his predecessor, Honorius.

14. In the lesson for the feast of St. Leo II in the Roman Breviary the name of Pope Honorius occurs among those excommunicated by the Sixth Synod, and the name remains there until the sixteenth century!  

Patrick Madrid, in his book Pope Fiction, erroneously asserts that Pope Leo “redefined” the language of the 6th Ecumenical Council.  He writes that Leo “confirmed the council’s decree but redefined its language regarding Pope Honorius, making it clear that Honorius had not endorsed the Monotheletism of Sergius, but had failed in his duty to condemn it.  Officially, therefore, Honorius was condemned for his negligence, but not for heresy” (p. 160).  This is truly imaginative, but it is also utterly untrue.  Leo did not alter any wording of the council.  He never said the Council had erred in its condemnation, nor did he dream he had the authority to over rule it even if it did!  Madrid is referring to the letter of Leo to the Emperor I cited above: he uses the anathema and says that Honorius “permitted her who was undefiled to be polluted by profane teaching.”  It is self-evident that Madrid’s forced reading is in error for two reasons: first, the 6th Ecumenical Council specifically said that Honorius and the others taught the heresy.  Was the Council wrong?  Did Leo say it was wrong?  No, he did not.  Secondly, it was not Leo’s alleged “correction” that appears in the 7th and 8th Ecumenical Councils, but the words of the 6th, where Honorius is condemned as a heretic.  Madrid follows this with a glorious example of anachronistic interpretation of ancient church history in the light of modern Roman beliefs when he quotes Warren Carroll’s statement,

The fact remains that no decree of a council has effect in the Catholic Church unless and until it is confirmed by the reigning Pope, and only in the form that he confirms it.  There is no “supreme law” prescribing how the Pope shall designate his confirmation.  Pope Honorius, therefore, was never condemned for heresy by the supreme Church authority, but only for negligence in allowing a heresy to spread and grow, when he should have denounced it.

Such is utterly without historical merit.  The universal church at that time did not believe in the idea that a council had to await the approval of the bishop of Rome.  That concept had to wait to find its universal expression in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals almost 200 years yet in the future from the time of the 6th Ecumenical Council and Pope Leo.  That a belief, first introduced by fraudulent means in the middle of the 9th century would have to be read back into the context of the clear and obvious condemnation of Honorius in the 7th century, in a vain attempt to save him as well as rescue a dogma defined in the 19th century,  is clear evidence of the impossible task facing the defender of papal infallibility. 

Further, the fact that every possible defense has been offered for Honorius’ condemnation proves one thing: none of those offered are compelling.  Thus we see why Newman feared the prospect of having to defend decisions which may  “ most difficult to maintain logically in the face of historical facts.”  Newman understood that the unbiased observer could not help but conclude that the definition of the Vatican Council was proclaimed without any concern for the truths of history itself.

We would be wise to consider as well that during the deliberations prior to the announcement of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council, the Pope, while excluding those who opposed the definition of infallibility from publishing in Rome, allowed those who supported the definition to print their books and have access to the newspapers in the city itself.  One of those works that the Pope allowed to be printed in Rome, and in fact had distributed amongst the members of the Council (while all replies were disallowed), was that of Professor Pennachi.  Pennachi firmly advanced the assertion that Honorius’ letters were ex cathedra, that they were orthodox, and that the Council erred, being made up primarily of Orientals, not Westerners.  Bishop Hefele, a member of the Vatican Council, a historian of whom Schaff said, “Hefele has forgotten more about the history of Councils than the infallible Pope ever knew,” an opponent of infallibility prior to the Council, but one who submitted thereafter, not only refuted Pennachi fully, but had to completely revise his own writings on Honorius after the decree came out, much like Newman.  I heartily recommend the narrative provided by Philip Schaff of how Pope Pius IX utilized everything short of the barrel of a gun to obtain the definition of his own infallibility, and how completely different was this allegedly ecumenical Council in comparison with that of Nicea.  There is nothing in the history of the First Vatican Council that will cause any person to be anything but distrustful of the allegedly infallible pronouncement that came therefrom.

We should also realize that to expect the men of the past, who manifestly did not believe the modern formulation of this doctrine, to conform to any kind of specific “formula” for a teaching to be infallible likewise, is to completely gut history of its meaning.  It is a common defense to say, “Look, Honorius did not teach this ex cathedra, so it does not violate the definition.”  The problem is, no one back then operated on such a modern platform, therefore, to act as if they did is to violate all logical standards of historical inquiry.  Further, it is likewise to render every single Papal statement of the past “safe” from the allegation of error.  That is, if you insist that a certain “formula” be used, you can simply dismiss all papal errors as not having been pronounced “ex cathedra,” and all is well.  The serious investigator, however, will look at the Vatican council’s declaration and ask, “Do the facts of history support this claim?” 

And finally, I remind us all: Honorius died forty years prior to the Council of Constantinople.  For four decades his letters existed, teaching what would later be identified as a heresy by an ecumenical Council.  No Pope of Rome uttered a word in condemnation during those four decades.  It would be like having a Pope teach heresy in 1960, and having to wait till this very year for there to be a “correction,” and then only from a gathered council, not from the Pope himself.  For forty years those letters existed, and if you had looked to the bishop of Rome’s teachings during those years, you would have been led into formal heresy thereby.  How, then, can we know that the recently promulgated Papal statement Dominus Iesus will not, twenty, forty, or a hundred years from now, likewise be burned as “hurtful to the soul” at some future council?  The fact is, we cannot, and hence the uselessness of the idea of Papal Infallibility.  What a contrast, then, between this, and the unchanging, and unchangeable, infallibility of God’s Word, the Bible.

The Thousand Excuses

As was noted above, every possible explanation has been offered by Roman Catholic controversialists regarding the issue of Honorius.  The fact that Rome has to multiply its excuses shows that none of them are compelling or historically consistent.  IF Honorius' letters were orthodox, then there is no reason to worry about whether they were ex cathedra or not; IF they were not ex cathedra, then it doesn't matter if they were orthodox.  IF Leo "changed" the decisions of the Council, then none of the other considerations are relevant.  The fact that Roman apologists are forced to pile excuse upon excuse upon excuse shows that they know that no single argument is compelling.  It seems that they are more concerned about keeping their constituency happy (i.e., providing excuses for those who want to believe) than providing meaningful defense of the modern dogma in a historical setting.

Another reason for the multiplicity of conflicting excuses is easily discerned in this quotation from John Meyendorff, found in the article O'Reilly is allegedly responding to (he ignores it in his reply), found at

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).

The simple fact of the matter is that no one in the days of Honorius believed in "Papal Infallibility" as it is defined today.  In reality, no papal statement of the past is liable to be proven in error since it can always be argued that they "did not intend it to be a binding statement upon the entire church."  So, through the wonderful use of hindsight, any errant Papal teaching can be considered non-binding, and any Papal teaching that is still in vogue can be said to be consistent with the "universal faith of the Church."  It's truly a wonderful system that actually means nothing at all, since you can never know if a current Pope's teaching will get the stamp of approval of future generations, or will end up on the scrap-heap of "he didn't mean that infallibly" pronouncements.  But this very anachronistic element of the belief results in all sorts of conflicting and self-contradictory explanations for past papal misstatements.  Since the modern construct has no connection to the ancient situation, Roman apologists are forced to pick and choose from among the ancient circumstances to come up with their defense.  As each may put more weight on this circumstance or that, they end up contradicting each other.  So while Staples and O'Reilly defend Honorius as orthodox, Sungenis can admit his error and his condemnation.  If the first position is right, the second is in error, and vice-versa.  Such is the quandary of the apologist who must defend an anachronism.

Guilty of Failure to Honestly Represent History

It was most interesting, then, to encounter the attempt on the part of Steven O'Reilly (who is authoring a book on the Papacy, according to the article) to do some "damage control" on the Honorius issue in the October edition of This Rock magazine.  Bill Webster had quite properly pointed out the particularly shallow attempt on the part of Karl Keating to address Honorius in his book, Catholicism and  Fundamentalism, in an article on his webpage (specifically,, but make sure to see as well).  O'Reilly, who seemingly has taken up the banner of Catholic Answers in attempting to respond to historical issues (see my two previous rebuttals of his attempts, Whitewashing Church History and Serving Up Circular Arguments), carefully crafts a presentation that would make Bill Clinton or Al Gore proud.  By carefully spinning a few facts, making grand conclusions before even admitting the most damaging evidence into the mix, and ignoring all sorts of other factual matters, O'Reilly presents a lopsided (to those who know the facts) defense that surely sounds good if there is no interaction or rebuttal from anyone who might be able to push down his house of cards (making the Catholic Answers unwillingness to enter the public arena against meaningful opposition all the more glaring).  

For example, long before O'Reilly admits that Honorius specifically said, "We confess one will in our Lord Jesus Christ" in his letters to Sergius (hence their being burned at the Council, a fact he conveniently forgets to mention), he instead weaves a very unfair (and pretty much undocumented) story of how Honorius was actually orthodox, how he merely failed to teach, etc., in words that make it sound like the facts of history are on his side, when they are not.  When he finally introduces the actual words of Honorius presenting monotheletism, he has already presented the "spin" he needs to get Honorius out of trouble.  But let's look at the major problem with O'Reilly's attempt to rescue Honorius from the facts of history.

The majority of the facts presented above never appear in O'Reilly's article.  He never relates the words of the Council.  Instead, we find the majority of space dedicated to Agatho's letter, Leo's letter after the Council, etc.  But not a whisper about the actual words and actions of the Council.  How in the world can one expect to honestly deal with the Council's actions when you utterly ignore what they said and did?  This is why I said above that this is very much like how the Watchtower has manhandled patristics in the past, especially their incredible attempt to deny Ignatius' testimony to the deity of Christ by conveniently forgetting to ever cite Ignatius himself, preferring to only site the pseudo-Ignatian epistles (2/1/92 Watchtower).  This comes to a grand climax when O'Reilly produces a paragraph that, if it represents the nature of the book he is intending to publish, will put it right up there with the "silence speaks volumes" arguments of Stephen Ray.  Here is the context: Agatho wrote a pompous, arrogant letter to the Council (something Roman pontiffs became adept at doing since the days of Stephen in the 3rd century).  In it he speaks glowingly of his apostolic authority, and, according to George Salmon, for the first time puts pen to paper in using Luke 22 in defense of papal primacy and authority.  In the process he speaks of the consistency of the Roman see in theological truth, etc.  O'Reilly writes that in his letter Agatho "asserted the infallibility of the apostolic see and stated that he and all of his predecessors, thus inclusive of Honorius, 'have never ceased to exhort and warn them (i.e. the monothelites) with many prayers, that they should, at least by silence, desist from the heretical error of the depraved dogma.' "  Ignoring the Council's reply to Agatho, which I noted above, O'Reilly then writes one of the most amazing paragraphs I've read in a while:

The council professed its agreement with Agatho's letter, anathematized any who rejected it, and said its condemnations were in accordance with it.  Therefore, any conciliar condemnation of Honorius must be understood in light of such agreement.  Consequently, since Agatho counted Honorius among his orthodox predecessors, so too did the council.

Writing like this truly amazes me.  I would enjoy getting to cross-examine Mr. O'Reilly in a moderated debate regarding such an assertion.  Here's how it might go:

W:  Mr. O'Reilly, did Pope Agatho mention Honorius by name in his letter to the Council?

O:  Well, not specifically, but he did mention his predecessors, which would include Honorius.

W:  But he never once says, "Honorius was orthodox" in his letter, correct?

O:  Not in those words.

W:  Agatho died before the Council's decisions arrived in Rome, correct?

O:  Yes.

W:  You said in your presentation that the Council counted Honorius as orthodox, correct?

O:  That is the logical conclusion of their acceptance of Agatho's letter, yes.

W:  Then could you explain why the Council had Honorius' letters burned as hurtful to the soul?

O:  Well, they were hurtful because they did not promote the full truth.  They failed to teach.

W:  Could you then explain these words of the Council, which you failed to note in your presentation: "Anathema to the heretic Sergius, to the heretic Cyrus, to the heretic Honorius, etc.”   And could you explain why in the 18th session they taught that Satan “the originator of all evil... found a fit tool for his will in... Honorius, Pope of Old Rome" and why they went on to say that Honorius and the others had taught this false doctrine?  Does that sound like the words of a Council that counted Honorius as orthodox?

[I have no idea how Mr. O'Reilly would respond, since he chose to ignore these facts in his presentation.]

W:  And is it not true, Mr. O'Reilly, that when the Council wrote to Agatho they said, "We have destroyed the fort of the heretics, and slain them with anathema, in accordance with the sentence spoken before in your holy letter, namely,  Theodore of Paran, Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, etc.”?  How can you tell us that the Council counted Honorius as orthodox when they said they slew him with the anathema as a heretic?  And finally, Mr. O'Reilly, how in the world can you make presentations like this, knowing full well the Council said these things, and yet utterly ignore these facts in your presentation?  

I have no idea how Mr. O'Reilly would respond.  I would love to find out, in person, in debate, if he'd be willing to do so.  

And so what do we learn from this kind of writing?  Aside from the normal truths that we must always check sources, etc., the main thing we learn is something about the mindset of the apologists for Catholic Answers.  Aside from the seemingly obligatory "anti-Catholic" rhetoric, Mr. O'Reilly is proving himself to be a faithful son of Rome: just as Rome did not hesitate to get full benefit of such things as the Donation of Constantine and the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, so too her modern defenders are not at all hesitant to use partial truths to promote their cause.  A full review of the facts shows that the defenses he offers are utterly untenable: yet, since these "apologetics" publications refuse to engage the other side in one-on-one debate, they seem to feel they can get away with this kind of activity.  By God's grace, we continue to point out this consistent deceptive behavior, and pray for the deliverance of those who have been entrapped by it.

James White

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