Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Has a Pope ever taught heresy?

"But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."  Luke 22:32

Jesus Christ founded one church with one head, one shepherd whose voice the sheep can always trust and follow.  Social media has introduced a cacophony of other voices who want their own voice to be heard over and against the voice of the shepherd.  As proof that their voices should be heard, and not the voice of the shepherd, they claim that the shepherd can only be trusted when he invokes his own infallibility.  Contrary to the First Vatican Council, which declared, “This See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error,” these voices insist that the shepherd not only can err but in fact has erred perhaps as many as three times over the past 2000 years.

Let’s consider the cases in which a Pope is alleged to have erred.

Pope Liberius

It is alleged that Pope Liberius (1) excommunicated Saint Athanasius and (2) subscribed to the heretical creed of the Third Council of Sirmium.  Pope Liberius is alleged to have committed these errors while imprisoned by the heretical Arian Roman Emperor Constantius.  In all his years before and after his imprisonment, it is acknowledged by all that Pope Liberius was devoutly orthodox and faithful to the Nicene Creed.  While he was imprisoned, his jailers boasted to the world that Pope Liberius had committed the foregoing errors.  Naturally, historians have been pretty skeptical about his jailers’ claims.

Prior to his imprisonment, Pope Liberius was brought before Emperor Constantius, who asked the Pope of Rome why he supported Saint Athanasius, when nearly all the other bishops in the church had condemned him:

EMPEROR CONSTANTIUS:  "What portion do you constitute of the universe, that you alone by yourself take part with an impious man, and are destroying the peace of the empire and of the whole world?"

POPE LIBERIUS:  "My standing alone does not make the truth a whit the weaker."

Emperor Constantius then banished Pope Liberius from Rome and imprisoned him for two years.  During this imprisonment, Pope Liberius was threatened with death if he did not sign documents that excommunicated Saint Athanasius and endorsed the heretical Arian creed of the Third Council of Sirmium. 

When rumors reached Saint Athanasius that Pope Liberius had excommunicated him, he gave the following take on the situation

“But Liberius after he had been in banishment two years gave way, and from fear of threatened death subscribed. Yet even this only shows their violent conduct, and the hatred of Liberius against the heresy, and his support of Athanasius, so long as he was suffered to exercise a free choice. For that which men are forced by torture to do contrary to their first judgment, ought not to be considered the willing deed of those who are in fear, but rather of their tormentors.”

Upon his release from prison, Pope Liberius continued to champion Nicene orthodoxy until his death.

Scholars have debated endlessly what documents, if any, Pope Liberius signed while in prison.  Bishop Hefele and John Chapmann give convincing arguments that the controversial documents attributed to Pope Liberius are forgeries (here and here).  More recent scholars have suggested that Pope Liberius may have excommunicated Saint Athanasius under threat of death but did not sign any heretical creed.  This position is argued persuasively by Warren Carroll in his recent book, The Building of Christendom, pp. 30-33.

With scholarship in such an uncertain state over what, if anything, Pope Liberius signed while in prison, what lesson can we take away from his papacy?  Plainly this:  If the Pope is imprisoned for defending a doctrine, and his jailers subsequently claim he has changed his mind, don’t believe them.

Pope Honorius I

Unlike Pope Liberius, the evidence for Pope Honorius I is completely clear.  His original letters have been preserved, as have all the surrounding documents.  We know exactly what Pope Honorius I said, and what was said about him.  These documents are available in Bishop Hefele’s account on Google Books here:  

The concise version of what transpired is as follows:

BISHOP SERGIUS OF CONSTANTINOPLE:  Let’s stop discussing whether Jesus has one or two energies.  People might get confused and think that Jesus has two contrary wills.
 POPE HONORIUS I:  Agreed.  Let’s stop the discussion about one or two energies.  And Jesus has one will, because he did not receive our vitiated nature tainted by Adam’s fall, but the human nature that Adam had prior to the fall. 
 (After Honorius dies) MONOTHELITES:  Jesus only has one will, just like Pope Honorius said. 
 ALL SUBSEQUENT POPES:  No, actually, Honorius simply meant that Jesus does not have a sinful will, and that his human will is always in complete harmony with the divine will.

Honorius’ personal secretary, Pope John IV, and Saint Maximus the Confessor all attested to the orthodoxy of Pope Honorius.  The Sixth Ecumenical Council affirmed the letter of Pope Saint Agatho I stating that no Pope had erred on this or any other doctrine

Nevertheless, the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemned Pope Honorius as a heretic because "in all respects he followed his [Sergius'] view and confirmed his doctrines."  The problem with this is that Sergius did not say anything about how many wills Jesus has, but simply that the Church should stop discussing how many “energies” exist in Jesus.  Pope Honorius agreed and ordered the Church to stop discussing the issue.  This isn’t a doctrinal error, but a pastoral decision.  Pope Saint Agatho I defended the pastoral decision in his letter that was approved by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, stating that Pope Honorius had ordered the Church “at least by silence” to stop spreading the heresy of mono-energism. 

Pope Leo II upheld the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s condemnation of Honorius, but explained that it was for negligence (i.e., avoiding rather than confronting the mono-energist heresy in its initial stage).  The Latin translation of Pope Leo II’s letter is particularly harsh, stating that Honorius had committed “profane treachery”, but Warren Carroll has shown that the much milder Greek letter (stating that Pope Honorius was simply negligent) is the original because Pope Leo II was a native of Greek speaking Sicily, and wrote the letter to the Greek speaking Byzantine Emperor. See The Building of Christendom pp. 253-254.

Thus, no one in the 7th century, not even the Sixth Ecumenical Council, claimed that Pope Honorius taught the mono-energist, monothelite or any other heresies. The monothelites at the Sixth Ecumenical Council argued that he did, but after examining his letters, the council concluded that Honorius simply meant that Jesus has a moral unity of will:  the human will and divine will of Jesus are always in perfect agreement.

It is strange that Honorius is so frequently cited by those who claim that a Pope has taught heresy, when the evidence is so abundantly clear that all his doctrinal statements were completely orthodox.

Pope John XXII

As is the case for Pope Honorius I, all of Pope John XXII's controversial statements have been well preserved.  A good English summary of his sermons is available on the USCCB website.  

It is essential to the background of Pope John XXII’s sermons to note that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had taught that, following death but prior to the Final Judgment, the souls of the blessed are in an intermediate state because they still await reunion with their bodies.  Throughout his long pontificate, Pope John XXII’s letters on the souls of the just stated the correct orthodox teaching that they enjoy the Beatific Vision immediately following their death and before the Final Judgment.  In the final years of his pontificate (starting when he was 85 years old), Pope John XXII called attention to the issue raised by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in several oral sermons, presenting arguments that the departed souls of the blessed do not enjoy a full vision of Jesus Christ’s divinity, but that this will come only at the Final Judgment. 

There are several important points to keep in mind:

1.  Pope John XXII wrote three letters as Pope stating unambiguously that the souls of the blessed enjoy the Beatific Vision immediately following their death.

2.  In his sermons, Pope John XXII stated that he was seeking feedback on the matter and that he was not definitively teaching any doctrine.

3.  Pope John XXII wrote to the King of France that he had formed a commission to study the question.

4.  Prior to his death, Pope John XXII stated unambiguously that he believed in the orthodox doctrine of the Beatific Vision.

The enemies of the Pope have claimed that Pope John XXII is proof that a Pope has erred, as William of Ockham claimed during and after John XXII's pontificate and as John Calvin claimed 200 years later as proof that the papacy had fallen.  But the facts simply show that (1) Pope John XXII taught the orthodox doctrine of the Beatific Vision in all his writings and (2) asked for discussion about the issue in his later sermons.  If this is the best that the enemies of the Pope can come up with, then the opening statements of the Formula of Hormisdas remain just as true today as they were in 519 AD:

The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers.  For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied.


  1. Why and when did the Roman Catholic church start teaching that Mary was sinless and worthy of our worship, that Christ isn't enough as our sole Mediator, that the Pope is without error - even more than Peter (Petros) who did err and was called out by Paul in Galatians 2? Wasn't Jesus referring to Himself as the Rock (Petra not Petros) which is the foundation of the Church, and also Peter (1 Peter 2) and Paul (Ephesians 2) both attest to Him as the Cornerstone?