Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church39-min read (inc. footnotes)

“Have they forgotten who these Romans are, whose faith was praised by the Apostle himself, and in whom ‘error cannot find access’?”

St Cyprian [1]

This essay continues my response to Professor Roberto de Mattei’s call for the Catholic world to “unite […] on the basis of the Tradition of the Church.”[2]

Throughout this series I have argued that this must include not only the Church’s traditional liturgy, but also her traditional theology. But our response to this crisis, our adherence to tradition, and our rejection of errors at and since Vatican II must all flow from this traditional theology, and not cause us to reject or redefine it.

To this end I have been analysing how “historical theology” elevates dubious narratives of history at the expense of traditional theology. Given that de Mattei’s call for this “new more compact front for orthodoxy” has been the spur for these reflections, I have been taking his treatment of Pope Honorius as my focus.[3]

Theology and History

Introduction considers general principles and the problems of “historical theology.”
Theology and History I – How do we understand the relationship between the liturgy and theology?
Theology and History II – Why is it crucial to understand this relationship?

Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei is an in-depth analysis of an example of “historical theology” in practice.
Part I: The History addresses the historical narrative in de Mattei’s Love for the Papacy.
Part II: Undoubtedly Magisterial Acts? considers the nature and status of Honorius’s letters.
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church
Interlude: The human mind’s ability to apprehend reality without the intervention of authority
Part IVa and IVb will consider the implications of a so-called “heretical pope.”
Part V will assess this “historical theology” in light of Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Image: Jules Eugene Lenepveu The Martyrs in the Catacombs (1855) – Source

In this part we will discuss:

  • The Catholic Rule of Faith
  • The nature and malice of heresy
  • Solutions to the idea of a non-infallible magisterium
  • Doctrinal providence and trust in the Church
  • Descriptions of false sects, and how they are adopted by crisis commentators
  • The true nature of non-infallible statements
  • Teaching as a process
  • The consequences of a dangerously erroneous magisterium
  • Application to Honorius
  • Concluding thoughts

Having defined our terms and drawn our distinctions in the previous article, let us read again de Mattei’s claim:

[Honorius’s letters] are undoubtedly magisterial acts, but in the non-infallible ordinary Magisterium there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations.[4] [All emphases here and throughout are my own unless specified.]

This claim – that the Church can teach dangerous error and heresy in her ordinary magisterium – is incompatible with her being “the pillar and ground of the truth,”[5] and the trustworthy teacher and guide of the Christian religion.

What are our objections to this quote? We must have a sound theological and rational basis for our traditionalist response to this crisis, and this provides neither. It does not even accurately describe this response. De Mattei infers that “non-infallible” means “able to teach dangerous errors and heresy.” But this inference is unjustified, false, and unsupported by authorities. It is the subject of this and the previous essay.

Further, implicit in this text but explicit elsewhere, de Mattei believes that “the gates of hell would prevail” only if the popes and the Church were “deceived in a long and uninterrupted series of ordinary documents concerning the same point,” for then “[s]he would be transformed into a teacher of errors, whose dangerous influence the faithful would be unable to escape.”[6]

On the contrary, and aside from repetition in documents, even isolated exercises of papal authority can determine the belief of the Church:[7] and therefore we cannot affirm that the papal magisterium can propose dangerous errors to the faithful in such acts.

Recapitulation on the Rule of Faith

In previous parts we saw that we cannot say that Honorius’s private letters contained errors, nor that they were “undoubtedly magisterial.” In the last part, we saw that the daily preaching of the Church’s magisterium is the proximate rule of faith by which we know what to believe.

This is clear from the teaching of the pre-conciliar popes, both in their doctrine and in how they exercised their magisterium. It is clear from the words of St Augustine:

I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.[8]

It is clear from St Thomas’s appeals to the contemporary custom of the Roman Church.[9] It is contained in the third of Melchior Cano’s “sources of theology,” namely the “the authority of the Church.”[10]

The Church and Catholic theologians teach that this rule is safe, easy, permanent, and authoritative: and that due to the Pope’s status as the universal teacher of all Christians, it is reducible to his authoritative teaching. These and the following points are established with authorities in the previous part.

As we also saw there, teachings which are taught throughout the Church (such as those found in encyclicals) are denoted as “Catholic doctrine,” and that even what is taught by the so-called “non-infallible ordinary Magisterium” demands our assent. Regardless of infallibility, this magisterium cannot and will not lead us to spiritual ruin.

As explained, de Mattei’s claim entails the rejection of this rule of faith and the creation of a new one with a new understanding of infallibility, expressed something like this: the Church may always teach the true and integral faith, but this will be alongside extra elements which may contradict it: and it is incumbent on the individual to be educated and alert enough to identify which is which, and virtuous enough to want to do so.

We saw that this is an inaccurate description of how most traditionalists actually behave, at least until they come to really embrace the theory behind this description. However, it is notorious that some crisis commentators do believe that the truth is to be found in the Church, alongside dangerous error, and that the faithful must work out which is which. This view is expressed by de Mattei elsewhere in Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope, although where he does so, the citation provided points us not to a Catholic authority, but rather to another book by de Mattei himself.[11]

In response to this doctrine, de Mattei claims that tradition is a proximate rule of faith.[12] He concedes that the Magisterium is “ordinarily” the proximate rule “inasmuch as it transmits and applies infallible truths contained in the deposit of Revelation”: but he qualifies this as such:

In the case of a contrast between the novelties proposed by the subjective or ‘living’ Magisterium and Tradition, the primacy can only be given to Tradition.[13]

What should we make of this?

“Angel of Light”

It is true that in the face of such a contradiction, our first response must be, as St Paul commands, to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned.”[14] St Paul also writes, in a similar vein: “[If] an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema.”[15]

But no-one would admit that “an angel from heaven” could do such a thing. This statement is hypothetical, and if an angel did attempt to do such a thing, it would be a sure sign that he was not an angel from heaven. Further, St Paul did not command the Galatians to search through this angel’s preaching, accepting what aligns with tradition, resisting what is new, and otherwise honouring him as an angel of heaven: he said “Let him be anathema.”

Angels from heaven do not and cannot preach new gospels: just so, the Church’s magisterium does not and cannot depart from tradition. An angel preaching a new Gospel would reveal himself as a devil, and we cannot help recalling that when St Paul warns that Satan transforms himself into “an angel of light,” he specifically links this to false apostles posing as ministers of Christ (2 Cor 11.4-15).

Where are the Catholic authorities that clearly admit that the ordinary magisterium exercised over the whole Church, whether by the whole episcopate or by the Pope, can propose dangerous errors or heresies? Individual bishops teaching individual dioceses may fall away, and teach novelties and heresies: but this cannot be for what is imposed on the whole Church, including the exercise of the papal magisterium. The fact that this appears to be what is happening is the cause of a unique and unprecedented crisis, calling for serious study and thought. De Mattei’s response, on the other hand, entails that our current crisis is a feature latent in the constitution of the Church – unusual but not unexpected, as supposedly shown by cases such as Honorius.

We will examine this further, but in the meantime I will be clear: this idea is untenable, and makes it impossible to trust the Church – and this is what requires de Mattei to create this new rule of faith.

To illustrate why this is so, let us consider what heresy really is – and rather than looking at canonical definitions, let us consider its nature and malice, and whether we really are prepared to say that the Church can propose such a thing in her magisterium.

The nature and malice of heresy

St Thomas Aquinas calls heresy “a species of unbelief, belonging to those who profess the Christian faith, but corrupt its dogmas.”[16]

Deliberate assent to a heretical proposition (as opposed to mistaken assent) causes a man to lose the virtue of supernatural faith: St Thomas teaches, “a heretic who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith, is not prepared to follow the Church in all things” – and that as such, “a heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.”[17]

Cardinal Louis Billot teaches that, “the constant sense of all tradition,” holds a heretic to be a baptised person who “does not accept the rule of what must be believed from the magisterium of the Church, but chooses from somewhere else a rule of belief about matters of faith and the doctrine of Christ.[18]

St Thomas writes that “the sin of unbelief is greater than any sin that occurs in the perversion of morals.”[19] It is more grievous than schism:

[Heresy is] committed against God Himself, according as He is Himself the First Truth, on which faith is founded; whereas schism is opposed to ecclesiastical unity, which is a participated good, and a lesser good than God himself.[20]

Although in itself hatred of God is the greatest of all sins,[21] the Church teaches that heresy, schism, and apostasy are special sins, in that when they are manifest, their nature – and not their gravity – is such as to deprive a man of his membership in the Catholic Church:

For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.[22]

This is because manifest heresy and schism are essentially opposed to the Church’s two visible bonds of unity, namely faith and charity (or communion).[23] They are contrary to the external profession of faith on the one hand, and the visible sharing of the sacraments and ecclesiastical unity on the other, which are the Church’s three requirements for membership and are crucial for what makes her a visible society. This is why Pius XII writes:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. […] As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. Therefore if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit.[24]

All in all, heresy is a truly grave sin, with truly grave consequences for life in this world and in the next. Fr Faber summarised the issue in the following words:

The crowning disloyalty to God is heresy. It is the sin of sins. […] Where there is no hatred of heresy, there is no holiness.[25]

As we are discussing generalities, we do not need to consider the situation of an individual erring in good faith. However, one who adheres to heresy in good faith is not protected from all the grave consequences of this adherence – not least because errors lead to more errors. Neither is anyone’s good faith infallibly protected – if someone comes to see that his ideas contradict the teaching of the Church, can he be sure that pride or sentiment might not cause him to prefer his own ideas? For these reasons, such persons are in permanent and proximate danger of falling into formal heresy.

De Mattei’s claim entails that the Catholic Church is able to teach heresy and to demand her children assent to it.[26] It entails her teaching things opposed to her profession of faith and to God as the First Truth; teaching things which pervert the understanding of revelation; which puts us in danger of truly falling into heresy; and which are at least liable to deprive us of membership in the Church herself. It also entails the Church teaching her children to accept other dangerous errors, sins, and sacrileges.

In short, de Mattei’s theory entails the Church putting her children in proximate danger of damnation. He appears to believe that he can justify all this by saying that the Church is not infallible when she does so.

Possible Solutions

This idea is unacceptable, unsupported by authorties, based on false inferences and disrespectful towards the Church. Whatever it means for certain magisterial acts to be non-infallible, it cannot mean that the Church can lead or direct her children to damnation by her magisterial acts.

But what might it mean for acts of the ordinary magisterium to be “non-infallible”?

As I am critiquing of de Mattei’s article, I do not claim to answer all possible questions. While de Mattei’s claim entails inadmissible consequences, we cannot resolve all of the questions left unresolved by pre-conciliar theologians. However, while I will propose a possible solution, the burden of proving the claim under question remains on de Mattei – and his case is not vindicated by default if mine is found wanting.

Doctrinal Providence

Not all errors are equally dangerous. Some errors – such as those of facts, dates, and other things – do not necessarily pose any danger to souls. There are varying levels of danger between these errors, and those that will lead souls to Hell. It does not follow that, just because something is not taught as infallibly true, it can be dangerously wrong or heretical.

For an alternative view, let us turn to Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, writing about the Roman Pontiff: [27]

God has given the Holy Father a kind of infallibility distinct from the charism of doctrinal infallibility in the strict sense. He has so constructed and ordered the Church that those who follow the directives given to the entire kingdom of God on earth will never be brought into the position of ruining themselves spiritually through this obedience.[28]

But before accusing Fenton of “papolatry,” let us hear this respected theologian’s explanation, written elsewhere:

The member of the Catholic Church is a part of the society within which the message Our Lord taught and preached as supernatural divine revelation is guarded and proposed infallibly. This message is the body of truth which men are meant to accept with the assent of divine faith. It is the body of divine public revelation. It is the teaching which God has given to man to guide and direct him toward the eternal possession of the Beatific Vision.

The member of the Catholic Church is in a position to receive this divine teaching in an adequate and accurate manner. The Church of which he is a member always has preached this message infallibly and will continue to preach and expound it infallibly until the end of time. As a matter of fact, the Church is the instrument of Christ the Teacher, who lives and instructs in the Church, which is His Mystical Body.[29]

Fenton then takes up the objection, that not everything the Church teaches is infallible.

Catholic theology takes cognizance of the fact that some of the doctrinal statements of the Church’s ordinary teaching activity are not designated as infallible, although they certainly demand acceptance by the faithful with a true and inward act of assent.  Does this fact, the existence within the body of the doctrinal acts of the Catholic Church, of statements which, while fully authoritative, are not covered by a guarantee of doctrinal infallibility, detract in any way from the advantage that accrues to the member of the Church from the point of view of the accuracy of the presentation of divinely revealed doctrine? [30]

Fenton’s question – whether the existence of non-infallible statements detract from the accuracy of the Church’s teaching – must be answered in the affirmative if these statements can be dangerously erroneous or heretical. But what does Fenton say?

The answer is that it does not. The entire teaching activity of the universal Church of God on earth is covered by what the theologians, after Cardinal Franzelin, call the guarantee of “infallible security” as distinct from that of “infallible truth.” The primary objective of the Church’s responsibility and authority in the doctrinal field is the accurate presentation and effective defence of the teaching which the Apostles handed over to the Church as divinely revealed. Such is the meaning conveyed in the Vatican Council’s declaration of the Church’s function with regard to divine faith.[31] […]

The government of the universal Church by the Holy Father has a kind of practical infallibility attached to it, in the sense that it would be quite impossible for a man to lose his soul through obedience to the legislation of the universal Church.[32]

How similar is the Church to false sects?

While the Church is the true teacher and guardian of the faith, other religions which contain true doctrine to a greater or lesser degree are not. Fenton describes this situation of those outside of the Church:

[The member of a false religion] is actually placed at a tremendous disadvantage along this line. […] It is of course true that the doctrinal message of the individual non-Catholic religious organization contains some statements which actually form a part of God’s revealed teaching. It is possible for a man to make an act of divine faith by the acceptance of such teachings as certain on the authority of God who has revealed them. But the purity and the integrity of his belief is always threatened by the presence [of things contradicting the faith]. And, given the fundamental necessity of the faith for the living of the supernatural life and for the attainment of eternal salvation, it is easy to see that the man who is not a member of the Catholic Church is at a tremendous disadvantage.[33]

This is a perfect description of de Mattei’s portrayal of the Church, affirmed elsewhere in the same book.[34] This description, the claim which we have been discussing, and the new rule of faith – all of these things apply Fenton’s description of a heretical sect to the Catholic Church, and undermine the very reason for her existence.

Is the Church really the same sort of thing as every other sect, except that she will always contain the whole truth alongside so much dangerous error? As we have emphasised throughout, it would be impossible to trust the Church or treat her magisterium as the proximate rule of faith if such theories were true.

But what can we assert of these “non-infallible” teachings?

Essay continues below.


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Help the WM Review by donating today – all donations go directly towards helping us produce real Catholic research and studies.

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

DonateDonate monthly
The nature of “non-infallible” parts

Fenton writes elsewhere:

The commission given to and the responsibility incumbent upon the successor of St Peter must not be considered as limited to the bare presentation of the truths revealed by God and entrusted to His kingdom on earth. The Prince of the Apostles was empowered and commanded to act as a shepherd to Christ’s sheep, and to feed His lambs and His sheep. He and his successors are thus obligated to nourish and to protect the faith of their brethren within the Church. The task which God has entrusted to them makes it imperative that they authoritatively discountenance tenets or propositions injurious to faith or morals even on points upon which they have not as yet issued definitive and absolutely irrevocable decisions. […]

[T]he teaching of the Church must be taken as a unit. While it remains perfectly true that not every individual authoritative statement issued by the ecclesia docens is to be accepted with the assent of divine faith, we must remember that all of the doctrinal activity of the Catholic Church is essentially nothing more or less than the highly complex process of teaching the content of divine public revelation. All of the subsidiary or preparatory authoritative pronouncements of the Holy Father or of the entire ecclesia docens; all of the decisions given by the Church’s magisterium on matters connected with the deposit of revelation rather than with the formal content of that revealed message, must be considered as a contribution to and as a part of the process of teaching and guarding the divine teaching delivered to the Church by the apostles.[35]

In other words, the infallibility of the Church does not pertain to a limited set of teaching acts, but also to the fact that she will never depart from the full teaching of the true faith. Any extra “non-infallible” elements may not require the assent of divine faith, but there is no sense in which they can, in themselves, dangerously undermine the overall rule of faith.

Teaching as a process

We see from Fenton that “non-infallible” statements in the ordinary magisterium are nonetheless parts of the process of teaching, by which the teacher prepares his students’ minds and leads them to assent to the truth to be taught.

The process of teaching does not consist in a series of crystalline definitions about a topic, but also includes explanations, illustrations, analogies, and observations. These “partial statements” fall short of definitions and often take their meaning from their context. As the manualist Hunter notes regarding St Augustine, it is possible that such partial statements may be “phrases which were perfectly correct, if understood as bearing on the matter then in hand, but which might be liable to mislead, if taken in connection with a different subject.”[36] Cartechini says the same (also referring to St Augustine),[37] and Nau also applies this idea to such statements in encyclicals.[38]

A statement may not be misleading or erroneous as such, but may be insufficient to exclude such readings when taken out of the context from which it derives its meaning. Similar partial expressions in the ordinary magisterium are not intended to stand alone, and are not intended as definitive statements. They form a part of the whole – of which Nau writes the following:

Outside the case of a solemn judgment, a single statement is not necessarily, in itself, representative of a doctrine; nor is the entirety of pontifical teaching involved. But if it is a question of the subject directly referred to in an Encyclical Letter, if it is part of a whole and a continuity, if it is the object of a reminder and an insistence, as so often happens with the great doctrinal Letters, no doubt is possible any more about the authentic content of pontifical teaching.[39]

The distinction between truth and safety is important. We could concede that the ordinary magisterium may contain statements that are misleading out of context, or errors which are nonetheless not opposed to the rule of faith. But the question now is this: can we reasonably say that a partial statement as defined, whose meaning is determined by its context, can be dangerous in itself, as opposed to being dangerous when twisted by someone of bad will?[40] Is it possible that such statements in documents of the ordinary magisterium can be dangerous errors against faith and morals, let alone heresy? What would this mean for the Church?

The consequences of a dangerously erroneous magisterium

Nau asks a similar question, albeit about direct statements:

How then can this teaching, at least in the sense that we have just defined it[41] be said to deviate from the truth and to err with respect to the rule of faith?[42]

He answers that only two things could result if this ever occurred:

Either the error would not be noticed, the bishops would at least neglect to point it out, and the whole Church would soon be led astray by the Centre of Unity itself; or in order to remain faithful to the truth, to maintain their flocks in the truth, these pastors would have to break this unity to depart in their teaching from that of Rome. We would be at the “antipodes” of the tradition which irrevocably links the security of doctrine with the communion achieved around the Roman Pontiff.

In either case, the divine promises would be denied: Peter would no longer be the rock from which the Church holds its unity, or he would have ceased to be the sure foundation of its faith.[43]

For this reason, and still speaking of these statements in “mere encyclicals,” he calls this an “impossible hypothesis” and says that we must therefore “recognise the privilege of inerrancy in a teaching on which the universal faith depends so closely and on which God himself, the first Truth, has vouched.”[44] Does this apply to what we have called “partial statements”? The consequences Nau describes would not be evaded if even such statements could be positively dangerous in themselves.

Application to Honorius

De Mattei’s assertion that the ordinary magisterium may contain dangerous errors or even “heretical formulations” is an unjustified inference from the existence of “non-infallible” teachings. It teaches his readers to distrust the Church, and it portrays her as one untrustworthy sect among others, albeit with the “fulness of truth” alongside so much dross. It allows history and current events to judge the received theology of the Church.

It is also irrelevant to Honorius.

De Mattei’s task is to present Honorius as a problematic case relevant to our current crisis, and to resolve the problems in such a way as to relativise our own.[45] But de Mattei’s false problems and unnecessary solutions rule out the magisterium as our proximate rule of faith, as discussed in the previous part.

Further, let us recall what Honorius’s private letters actually said. They forbade the use of new expressions with controverted meanings, and St Robert Bellarmine even praises him for his “great prudence” in this matter.[46] It subsequently became clear that he had forbidden orthodox and heretical expressions together, but the controversy over the meanings of terms made it unclear which was which at the time. Such decisions may or may not be errors of judgment, but they are hardly dangerous doctrinal errors.

In any case, Honorius’s private letters set out the orthodox doctrine, albeit using a phrase that later became controversial due to its adoption by the heretics. The phrase was this: “We profess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[47] It is easy to see why such a statement looks like a profession of heresy now. But let us consider what Fr Hartmann Grisar, for example – whom de Mattei himself quotes as an “eminent Jesuit historian” – says about this phrase:

In both letters of Honorius there are no dogmatic errors at all. As for the expression: “We confess a will,” etc., the context clearly shows that it has no heretical meaning: in that passage the pope wishes to exclude from Christ the duality of good and evil will, as found in fallen man. Nor is there [even] any foundation for saying that Honorius “thought rightly, but expressed himself heretically.”[48]

Evidently Grisar sees this phrase as a “partial statement,” in the sense described above. Further, Ward points out that the controversy was not over the term “one will,” but rather “one energy”:

The phrase ‘one will’ had been in use for centuries among the orthodox, in that very sense in which we maintain Honorius to have used it; viz, as expressing the absolute harmony between Christ’s divine and human wills. That Honorius therefore should have so used the phrase, is just what might have been expected.[49]

Ward and Grisar both refer to Schneemann, who shows the patristic roots of this orthodox sense of the phrase.[50] Even Bishop Hefele, whom de Mattei quotes, writes the same.[51] Ward cites Schneemann’s text from St John Chrysostom, in which this Doctor of the Church says that there was “manifestly one will” shared by the Father and the Son; and Ward relates another from St Athanasius, which “in its particular mode of expressing a denial that in Christ there was any carnal will, would really appear on the surface to admit a Monothelistic interpretation.”[52] Schneeman also refers to St Augustine in this context, and Cardinal Hergenröther (in his refutation of Döllinger) writes:

The arguments of Schneeman, who compares the expressions of the Pope [Honorius] with passages of St Augustine, which he had before his eyes, have nowhere been refuted. 1

St John Chrysostom, St Athanasius, St Augustine: how absurd it would be to accuse these three doctors of teaching heresy.

The expression “one will” has come to be seen as synonymous with the heretical proposition of “one energy,” such that no-one now uses it, even metaphorically – but in Honorius’s context, it can hardly be said to be erroneous, let alone dangerous in itself, let alone heretical. This is manifestly different to containing or teaching dangerous error or heresy. The “danger” cannot be said to have been in these private letters themselves, but rather in the bad will of those who used this phrase and the letters for their own ends.

Various other authorities teach that these letters contained no doctrinal errors, and Grisar even claims that they contained “all the elements to refute monothelitism.”[53] St Robert Bellarmine says that Honorius’s “confession is very Catholic, and altogether destroys the Monothelite heresy.”[54]

Honorius’s contemporaries and successors held his doctrine to be orthodox, and it appears most likely that he was condemned not for being a heretic (at least as we now understand the term – which we shall discuss in Part IVa), but for failing to recognise the danger and to “extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but [rather] fostered it by his negligence.”[55]

In any case, these private letters were kept hidden by the heretics for several years, and most authorities consider them to be private.[56] As such, they are far from “undoubtedly magisterial,” and provide no evidence that the ordinary magisterium can teach dangerous error or heresy.

Honorius can only be made into a precedent for our crisis at the cost of both theology and history.


In his beautiful work, The Mystery of the Church, Fr Clérissac states:

The certain sign that we are preserving the fullness of the spirit is never to admit that we can suffer by the Church in any other way than we can suffer by God.[57]

God has tolerated the spread of errors and heresies throughout the world’s history: but the idea that either Almighty God or his Church could positively impose error upon us and require us to believe things that contradict his own revelation and teaching – as the Conciliar Church has done – is unacceptable. We cannot evade this by saying that they have not been taught infallibly, because they have still been taught authoritatively. We cannot, therefore, accept de Mattei’s claim about the “non-infallible ordinary magisterium” containing such things. The solution to the theological problems of the crisis must lie elsewhere.

In this essay, I have focused on theologians writing between Vatican I and Vatican II. Their work represents the state of the question immediately before the crisis, and they present the received and correct understanding of the Church’s magisterium. The Church approved and adopted these texts in training her priests, as they represent what Pius XII called:

The age-old work of men endowed with no common talent and holiness, working under the vigilant supervision of the holy magisterium and with the light and leadership of the Holy Ghost.[58]

Rather than turning to these approved theologians for light on the crisis, de Mattei appears to approach these questions with pre-conceived ideas. One by one, theses of ecclesiology which cannot be reconciled with these ideas are abandoned or ignored, and those who disagree are peremptorily dismissed. It is not possible to form a “new more compact front for orthodoxy” when tradition and orthodoxy are treated in this way.

De Mattei is not alone in this conduct, nor is he the only one trying to reinterpret traditional theology in the darkness of our time. But Pius XII warns of those who dismiss the teaching of the theologians:

These advocates of novelty easily pass from despising scholastic theology to the neglect of and even contempt for the Teaching Authority of the Church itself, which gives such authoritative approval to scholastic theology.[59]

Does this not describe the process of historical theology, which begins with neglecting traditional theology, and which passes to dismissive use of scare quotes around the “living magisterium,”[60] (as if this standard Catholic expression was somehow suspect), and to the imputation of heresy to the magisterium?

Let us rather embrace the sentiments of the great Dom Prosper Guéranger:

Could we, without incurring the greatest of dangers, put limits to the docility wherewith we receive teachings which come to us simultaneously from the Spirit and the Bride, who are so indissolubly united? Whether the Church intimates what we are to believe by showing us her own practice, or simply expressing her sentiments, or solemnly pronouncing a definition on the subject, — we must receive her word with submission of heart.[61]

We cannot unite around the tradition of the Church until we know her as she is, until we trust her as she requires, and until we have the conviction to say: our Mother cannot give us any dangerous error or heresy. If an organisation is giving us such errors, and if it cannot be trusted to teach us and guide us to heaven, then it is not the Church but rather something else eclipsing her. Let us indeed unite around tradition, but without the errors of historical theology and its false precedents. Let us adhere to the whole tradition of the Church and her approved theologians, and let the chips fall where they may.

Epilogue to Part III

When Moses received the Law on the mountain and tarried speaking with God, the people below grew anxious at his delay. In their despair at his apparent absence, they made a molten calf for themselves out of their gold, to worship as God.[62] Is it not ironic that in the apparent absence of the teaching authority, so many are tempted like Aaron and the Israelites to use their gold – their own resources and intelligence – to fashion this new rule of faith for themselves, “made with human hands”? [63]

When we realise how hard it is to find the preaching of the true magisterium in this extended period, we too may grow anxious – for like English recusants, perhaps we have no access to a national hierarchy. But we cannot take things that clearly lack the necessary properties of the Church or her magisterium and say of them, like Aaron: “These are thy authorities, O Israel,” or “This is thy rule of faith, O Israel.”

We must, instead, be patient in this period. Yes, we must hold fast to the tradition which we have received: but we must stand ready and waiting to submit to the magisterium when we finally hear it exercised by legitimate ministers; we must not desperately insist that an imposter magisterium is that of the Church, simply because it seems to be all we can have; nor can we create a new, false rule of faith to account for its errors. Most of all, we cannot reject traditional theology about the Church in order to make these claims. We must wait, full of confidence, knowing that despite subjectively being deprived of this preaching, the magisterium of the visible Church continues in existence and exercise in the world.

We will not lose hope that we will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd once more, teaching us through his Church’s magisterium. One blessed day, we will hear words like those of Moses: “If any man be on the Lord’s side, let him join with me.”[64] Until that day, let us rest in the words of the Good Shepherd before his Passion: “You now indeed have sorrow: but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice. And your joy no man shall take from you.”[65]

Theology and History

Introduction considers general principles and the problems of “historical theology.”
Theology and History I – How do we understand the relationship between the liturgy and theology?
Theology and History II – Why is it crucial to understand this relationship?

Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei is an in-depth analysis of an example of “historical theology” in practice.
Part I: The History addresses the historical narrative in de Mattei’s Love for the Papacy.
Part II: Undoubtedly Magisterial Acts? considers the nature and status of Honorius’s letters.
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church
Interlude: The human mind’s ability to apprehend reality without the intervention of authority
Part IVa and IVb will consider the implications of a so-called “heretical pope.”
Part V will assess this “historical theology” in light of Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow us on Twitter, Telegram, Facebook and Gab.

Don’t forget!

Always read the footnotes – sometimes containing hidden gems. See here for the full WM Review Reading List.


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Help the WM Review by donating today – all donations go directly towards helping us produce real Catholic research and studies.

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

DonateDonate monthly

[1] Epis. 59 ad Cornelium, n* 14 P. L. III, col. 818. Quoted in Nau, Encyclicals.

[2] Roberto de Mattei, ‘What do the unanswered criticisms of Amoris Laetitia teach us today?’ Voice of the Family Digest, 28 April 2021. Available at: https://voiceofthefamily.com/what-do-the-unanswered-criticisms-of-amoris-laetitia-teach-us-today/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Roberto de Mattei, Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church (henceforth LPFR), Angelico Press, Brooklyn NY, 2019. 23-29. 28.

[5] 1 Tim 3.15

[6] Roberto de Mattei, Apologia for Tradition, Angelus Press, Kansas City MO, 2019 p 103.

[7] The rule of faith and the Pope: “The Catholic Rule of Faith may be ultimately reduced to the sovereign teaching authority of the Holy See. This was asserted long ago in the Creed drawn up by Pope Hormisdas: ‘Wherefore following in all things the Apostolic See and upholding all its decrees, I hope that it may be mine to be with you in the one communion taught by the Apostolic See, in which is the true and complete solidity of the Christian Religion ; and I promise also not to mention in the Holy Mysteries the names of those who have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church — that is, those who agree not with the Apostolic See.’” Wilhelm and Scannell, A Manual of Catholic Theology, based on Scheeben’s “Dogmatik”, Benziger Brothers, New York 1899. 85-6

[8] St Augustine, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus Translated by Richard Stothert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 4., Chapter 5. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1405.htm&gt;.

[9] Examples of St Thomas citing the authority of contemporary Church practice: Cf. STIII Q66. A4: “The Church is ruled by the Holy Ghost, Who does nothing inordinate.” And also ST III.Q83. A5: “The custom of the Church stands for these things: and the Church cannot err, since she is taught by the Holy Ghost.”

[10] Joseph Clifford Fenton, What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. Originally published as the Concept of Sacred Theology, 1941, p 92. Is “magisterium” a new term, and does it matter? Claiming, as de Mattei does elsewhere, that “magisterium” as a term “started to become widespread in theological language only in the 19th century,” and that it does not appear in Cano’s list of theological sources is irrelevant. The Church’s magisterium is her teaching authority, and things taught with this authority are evidently included in this third source. As such, the concept stands. De Mattei, Apologia 69.

[11] De Mattei appears to deny the constant divine assistance of the Church’s teaching authority: “Tradition in fact is always divinely assisted; the Magisterium is so only when it is expressed in an extraordinary way, or when, in its ordinary form, it teaches with continuity over time a truth of faith and morals. The fact that the ordinary Magisterium cannot constantly teach a truth contrary to the faith does not exclude that this same Magisterium may fall per accidens into error, when the teaching is circumscribed in space and time and is not expressed in an extraordinary manner.” LFPR 125.

[12] The Catholic Rule and the Protestant Rule: In the previous part, I showed that de Mattei’s expression seriously misrepresents what Cardinal Billot means when he calls tradition “a rule of faith anterior to all others,” and – in de Mattei’s words – “not only remote but also close and immediate.” (LFPR 121) This portrays the Catholic rule of faith as a sort of sola scriptura with “tradition” added on. Scripture and Tradition are indeed the two sources of divine revelation (Cf. Vatican I, Dei Filius Ch 2.5) and they are our remote rule of faith (Cf. Wilhelm and Scannell 85-6). But the distinctive Catholic doctrine, emphasised in every work of apologetics, is that the preaching of the living magisterium – a phrase which de Mattei often places in scare marks, as if it were an unsound concept – is our proximate rule of faith (Ibid., and throughout these two essays). The exercise of this living magisterium is not only our proximate rule of faith: it always proposes what we are to believe in its integrity without an admixture of error and heresy – which is the topic under discussion in this piece.

[13] LFPR 125.

[14] 2 Thess 2.14

[15] Gal 1.8

[16] ST II. ii. q11. A1.

[17] Ibid. Q5. A3.

[18] On Choosing another Rule of Faith: Cardinal Louis Billot, de Ecclesia Christi, Thesis XI, first point. Translated by Fr Julian Larrabee. To my mind, this is crucial for understanding our current situation. We must be extremely careful in how we theorise about the crisis. The exercise of the Church’s magisterium is our rule of faith, and we must be submissive to it. At present, to us and where we are living in the West, it appears to be unavailable. We cannot concede, however, that it has disappeared from the earth; nor can we concede that it is being used to teach dangerous error and heresy. We also cannot concede that the validity of the exercise of this power depends solely on its content, or how often it has repeated itself. Cardinal Burke is right to say that a document cannot be magisterial if “it contains serious ambiguities that confuse people and can lead them into error and grave sin” (https://www.catholicaction.org/interview_with_cardinal_burke_about_the_dubia) – but applying this to documents like Amoris Laetitia, or anything else promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, simply avoids the very serious elephant in the room. We must by modest and minimalist in our claims, merely observing that even in the globalised world of the internet, it is difficult to see exactly where it is being exercised, or where its proper subjects are today. We must all stand ready to submit to the magisterium when and where we hear it exercised: but we must also acknowledge that we are not presently hearing it. If this is scandalous, I believe that it is less scandalous than saying that the papal magisterium should be resisted because it can teach heresy.

[19] Ibid, Q10 A3. In the same article, St Thomas notes that there are sins which are opposed to the theological virtues which are even graver.

[20] Ibid, Q39 A2.

[21] Ibid. Q34 A2.

[22] Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (MCC) 1943, no. 23. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_29061943_mystici-corporis-christi.html

[23] The Church has two bonds of unity: “The eternal shepherd and guardian of our souls , in order to render permanent the saving work of redemption, determined to build a church in which, as in the house of the living God, all the faithful should be linked by the bond of one faith and charity. […] In order, then, that the episcopal office should be one and undivided and that, by the union of the clergy, the whole multitude of believers should be held together in the unity of faith and communion, he set blessed Peter over the rest of the apostles and instituted in him the permanent principle of both unities and their visible foundation.” Vatican I Pastor Aeternus 4.4.7 Available at: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm

[24] Pius XII MCC 22.

[25] F.W. Faber, The Precious Blood, Thomas Richardson and Son, London, 1860, pp 314-6. Available at: https://archive.org/details/ThePreciousBlood

[26] Cf. the previous part.

[27] Who is Mgr Fenton, whom we so often quote? In 1931 he attained his doctorate, supervised by Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, from the Angelicum in Rome. He was himself a professor of Dogmatic Theology, the editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review, an early officer of the Catholic Theological Society of America, amember of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy, and a counselor of the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities. He received several Roman honours and was Cardinal Ottaviani’s peritus at Vatican II. He died in 1969.

[28] ‘The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals Part I,’ American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. CXXI, August 1949, pp. 136-150. Available at: http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=779&start=0 Elsewhere,Fenton writes that this “kind of practical infallibility” makes it “quite impossible for a man to lose his soul through obedience to the legislation of the universal Church militant of the New Testament.” Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Catholic Church and Salvation, The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1958. 95.

[29] Fenton, 1958. 90.

[30] Ibid 90-1

[31] Ibid 90-1

[32] Ibid 93-4

[33] Ibid. 95

[34] De Mattei’s description of the Church matching Fenton’s description of a heretical sect: “There is only one Catholic Church, in which today cohabitate in a confused and fragmentary way different and counterpoised theologies and philosophies. It is more correct to speak of a Bergoglian theology, of a Bergoglian philosophy, of Bergoglian morality, and, if one wishes, of a Bergoglian religion, without coming to the point of defining […] a “Bergoglian church.” This explanation of the crisis does not do the work that de Mattei intends, and raises graver problems that in it presumes to solve. LPFR 138

[35] ‘The Religious Assent due to Teachings of the Papal Encyclicals’, American Ecclesiastical Review, July 1050 pp 59-67, pp 65-7. Available here: http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/fenton/The%20Religious%20Assent%20Due%20to%20the%20Teachings%20of%20Papal%20Encyclicals.pdf

[36] Sylvester Hunter SJ, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Vol II, Benziger Brothers, New York, 1896, p 390.

[37] Cartechini on St Augustine, and statements which may be misleading out of context: “If a proposition, which the Church forbids to be taught, is considerably changed and a certain straightforward exposition is made, it can be supported and defended. Let us take, for example, the proposition “Christ is a creature”. Said in this form, such an assertion cannot be sustained; but if I say that Christ is a creature as regards human nature, which is truly created, it can be defended. By this criterion many expressions of the holy fathers, such as those of Saint Augustine, which seem to have something paradoxical about them, such as, for example, that all the virtues of the pagans are vices, or that it is not possible to resist the grace of God, can be explained in the right sense.” Cartechini 75.

[38] Dom Paul Nau OSB, Une Source Doctrinale: Les encycliques – Essai sur l’autorité de leur enseignement, Les Editions du Cèdre, Paris, 1952, p 73. Our translation. Available at: http://liberius.net/livre.php?id_livre=587

[39] Nau Encyclicals 73.

[40] Partial statements which must be read in context for their meaning: How this applies to various key statements in Vatican II and post-conciliar documents is beyond the scope of this study, but Archbishop Lefebvvre’s dubia on Religious Liberty (Religious Liberty Questioned) is a good place to start.

[41] Nau’s definition of teaching which cannot be said to deviate from the truth or contradict the rule of faith: Nau is referring to direct statement, and whether “it is the subject directly referred to in an Encyclical Letter, if it is part of a whole and a continuity, if it is the object of a reminder and an insistence” then “no doubt is possible any more about the authentic content of pontifical teaching.” See also above. Nau Encyclicals 73.

[42] Nau Encyclicals 73.

[43] Nau Encyclicals 73-4.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Whether “ex cathedra” judgments are the key part of the question: De Mattei presents Honorius as a problem for infallibility, and claims that “the principle of infallibility is saved” because Honorius’s supposed heresy was not pronounced ex cathedra. (LFPR 28). It should be clear from what we have already seen that this does not resolve the idea of heresy in the ordinary magisterium. It is true that pre-conciliar accounts of Honorius refer to the fact that these private letters were not ex cathedra acts. However, we must understand the context of these accounts, and avoid reading a priori theories into them. Honorius’s case was frequently produced as a means of attacking the Vatican I definition, which taught that the pope was infallible when “speaks ex cathedra.” Given this context, it is to be expected that the defenders of the Catholic faith would emphasise that Honorius’s private letters did not constitute ex cathedra definitions. Those writing more compressed accounts may even limit their discussion to this point alone. But it would be quite mistaken to infer from this that this the only issue to be resolved with anti-Honorius accounts; or that private letters can be called magisterial, or that the ordinary magisterium can teach heresy or dangerous error. This is even clearer when we realise that the term ex cathedra is often used to refer simply to the pope’s actions as pope, and is not always interchangeable with “solemn judgments” or the “extraordinary magisterium.” Those writers denying that Honorius was speaking ex cathedra may be saying more than de Mattei thinks they are. In any case, all of these inferences misunderstand the purpose of the texts in question.

[46] St Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, trans. Ryan Grant 2nd Edition, Mediatrix Press, 2017, p 565.

[47] W.G. Ward, The Condemnation of Pope Honorius, Burns and Oates, London 1879, 42. https://archive.org/details/TheCondemnationOfPopeHonorius/page/n47/mode/2up?q=fathers

[48] Hartmann Grisar SJ, Analecta Romana, Vol I, Desclée Lefebvre e C. Editori, 1899, 396. Available at https://archive.org/details/analectaromanadi00gris/page/396/mode/2up

[49] Ward, Honorius, 46.

[50] Ward Honorius 46, Grisar 396, Gerhard Schneemann, Studien über die Honorius-Frage, Freiburg 1864, p 48 and surrounding. Available at: https://archive.org/details/studienberdieho00honogoog/page/n60/mode/2up

[51] Hefele denying that Honorius’s words were heretical: “Thus we have again the result: Honorius denied only a will in Christ which opposed the divine, and was constrained by His own promises to recognise, along with the divine, the will of the uncorrupted human nature in Christ, which was ever in conformity with the divine. He did not, however, say this plainly, but instead, put forth the unhappy phrase with the Monothelitic sound, unam voluntatem fatemur in Domino.” Karl Josef von Hefele, A history of the councils of the church Vol V. Trans. Clarke. T&T Clark, Edinburgh 1896. 40. Available at https://archive.org/details/historyofcouncil05hefeuoft/page/n5/mode/2up

[52] Ward Honorius 46.

[53] Grisar 396.

[54] Bellarmine 564.

[55] Pope St Leo II writing to the Spanish Bishops, quoted in Dom John Chapman, “Pope Honorius I” The Catholic Encyclopaedia. 1913.

[56] Cf. Part II of this study for both points.

[57] Fr Humbert Clérissac OP, The Mystery of the Church, Sheed and Ward, London 1937, p 110.

[58] Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis 1950, 19. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html17

[59] Ibid. 18

[60] “Contempt for the Teaching Authority of the Church“: Cf. LFPR 125, in which de Mattei puts “living” in scare-quotes four times and even refers to it as the “so-called ‘living’ magisterium,” as if this idea was somehow suspect. As mentioned, this is a very standard term used in Catholic theology.

[61] Dom Prosper Guéranger, the Liturgical Year Vol IX, ‘Paschal Time Book III’, Thursday in Whitsun Week.

[62] Exodus 32

[63] Exodus 32.4, Ps 134.15 and the Offertory of the Novus Ordo.

[64] Exodus 32.26

[65] John 16.22

  1. Cardinal Josef Hergenröther, Anti-Janus, Burns, Oates & Company, London, 1870, page 80.

One thought on “Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church39-min read (inc. footnotes)

  1. This is not the first time Roberto de Mattei blunders badly on theological matters.
    Already about the questionable change concerning death penalty introduced by Francis on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he misquoted Denzinger #795, which had nothing to do with the subject.
    From at least four passages of his letters to Sergius, it is abundantly clear that Honorius didn’t define any doctrine.
    Had he read, for instance, Monsabré’s 56th Conference, di Mattei would have spared himself this other embarassement…

Leave a Reply