Questions about Pope Honorius – a reply to Prof. Edward Feser, Part I of II

“An error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed.”

Image: The Sixth Ecumenical Council, Wiki Commons CC

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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. (Down for editing)
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith (Down for editing)
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church (Down for editing)

Interlude: The human mind’s ability to apprehend reality without the intervention of authority
Interlude: Response to Prof. Edward Feser I
Interlude: Response to Prof. Edward Feser II
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.

Professor Edward Feser recently responded to my article Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei – Part I: The History.

To begin, I must recall that my essay was a critique of Professor Roberto de Mattei’s treatment of the topic – not an attempt to exonerate Honorius outright. In particular, I challenged the way in which de Mattei presents the case of Honorius as analogous to that of Francis by showing some of the implications of his methodology.[1]

In this piece, I shall respond to some of the key points made by Prof. Feser, whilst keeping this qualification in mind.

“Defending” Honorius

Prof. Feser acknowledges that theologians and saints, while accepting the condemnation of Honorius as a “heretic,” have nonetheless interpreted the events and the conciliar decrees in a variety of ways.

This raises a significant problem for anyone trying to use Honorius as the basis of an analogy with our current crisis. The historical data, the interpretation of such data, and the theological implications of the data, are all disputed. Any conclusions drawn from such disputed data – and any application to our current crisis – will be, at best, uncertain.

In his piece, Feser gives us these two claims from Dom Chapman.

“[U]nquestionably no Catholic has the right to deny that Honorius was a heretic.”

“[I]t is clear that no Catholic has the right to defend Pope Honorius.  He was a heretic, not in intention, but in fact.”[2]

My original essay showed that many theologians, saints and at least two Doctors of the Church appear to have done just that.[3]

However, few defend Honorius in the sense of “exonerating” him.

Few deny that he was a heretic in the broad, loose sense that the word used to have.

Few deny that he was condemned by the bishops of the sixth ecumenical council, and that these condemnations – including that of Honorius as a heretic – were approved in some way by the Roman Pontiff, St Leo II.

Finally, few deny the justice of such a condemnation.

I also do not deny these points.

But these points show some of the problems for those who wish to make political use of these events in our current crisis. The meaning of the condemnations has been disputed for centuries.

As an example, let’s turn to Ludwig Ott’s extremely compressed account. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, he expresses the ideas shared by many theologians and historians prior to the council:

“There is no doubt but that Pope Honorius I (625-638) was personally orthodox. However, through his prohibition against speaking of two modes of operation [“two wills” in Christ] he unwittingly favoured the Monothelite error [“one will in Christ”]. The Sixth General Council wrongly condemned him as a heretic.[4] Pope Leo II (682-683) confirmed his anathematisation but not for the reason given by the Council. He did not reproach him with heresy, but with negligence in the suppression of the error.”[5]

Prior to Vatican I, the story of Honorius was often advanced as a means of undermining the dogma of papal infallibility. A common way of response was that Honorius did not teach any error “ex cathedra.

But even these debates can be misunderstood.

Pre-Vatican I debates

The facts of the case are matters of history. History is an independent science and its conclusions should be reached through the use of the historical method, and not methods proper to theology.  

Further, theologians do not write or analyse history as such, nor do they take the “data” of history in an unqualified, uncritical sense. Rather, they take this data and use it in ways appropriate for their own science – viz. the explanation or defence of Christian doctrine and the resolution of objections. Given this purpose, they have no need to decide which historical facts are truly certain, beyond those which are (a) revealed, or (b) those known as “dogmatic facts.”

For example: when they discuss and explain “hard cases” of history posed as objections to their theses, they are not primarily trying to say “what really happened,” or to separate fact from fiction. In fact, in modern parlance, we would say that they are “steelmanning” their opponents’ objections. They would concede as much as possible on a hypothetical basis, for the sake of argument – in order to establish their theses against the most formidable objections possible.

This is why, for example, theologians at the time of Vatican I had no need to decide whether Honorius wrote official or magisterial advice to Sergius; nor whether he did so precisely as pope, or in some other capacity; nor the nature of any errors these letters contained; and so on. For theologians defending the Vatican I definition, it sufficed to point out that whatever it was that Honorius had done, he had not made an ex cathedra definition.

But the theologians who stopped there and moved on were not granting any historical claims, except for some very basic agreed facts: Honorius wrote to Sergius, and his letters concerned doctrinal questions.

And in fact, many theologians did not stop here. Let’s see why their question and conclusions on this issue are so important.

Theologians and history

Interpretations of history can have theological implications – and this is very much the case with Honorius.

Theology is the scientific exposition of revealed truth and the reasoning out of certain conclusions – and the conclusions of historians do not form a proper source of this science.

But interpretations of history can have theological implications – and when historical data relates to revealed truths, it is proper for theologians to provide theological commentary.

As such, when theologians do comment on historical narratives, they are not overreaching themselves into a separate discipline. Rather, they are (for example) providing clarity on the meaning of theological texts, or disputing implications related to faulty theological ideas.

The debates surrounding Honorius are indeed theological, and do indeed touch on the data of divine revelation. Some of the more simplistic interpretations go against theses and doctrines to which the Church and her theologians are committed – and such theses enjoy a higher degree of certainty than the contested interpretations of this historical event. As such, theologians have every right to raise questions, and to explain the theological data and the meaning of the Church’s acts.

This is because magisterial texts – such as the acts of the ecumenical councils – are not promulgated in a vacuum, to be understood according to one’s own private interpretations or the premises of other sciences. These texts form part of a body of teaching and thought, which is to be interpreted according to the norms of the science of theology.

Consider the distinction drawn by Newman between the true and the false approaches:

“[T]he definitions etc. of Popes and Councils are a matter of theology. Who could ever guess what is condemned, what not, in a Thesis Damnata, without such a work as Viva? [Ed: a text of a similar genre to Denzinger]

“… then, if we remonstrate, we are answered, ‘O the words are too plain for interpretation!’ On the same principle we might say when St. Paul says that concupiscence is sin, that the words need no interpretation from theologians. Look through the propositions condemned in the Bull Unigenitus, and say, if a common man can understand their point better than many in St. Paul.”[6]

Our knowledge of the Faith should not be based just on private interpretations of English translations of Denzinger or other “primary documents”, each received in a vacuum. Nor should it be based on the accounts of historians – interesting and useful though these may be. Rather, to study sacred theology safely, we should consult those writers whom the Church has approved and celebrated.

Theologians who have been appointed to positions or offices, written works used in the training of priests, been canonised or even declared Doctors of the Church do not become infallible by these facts. But such facts entitle us to treat them, on the face of it, as trustworthy witnesses of the Church’s teaching.

More than this: under certain conditions, the Church could be said to teach us through them in an implicit and tacit way.

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An implicit and tacit magisterium

The theologian Vacant explains further:

“The care these venerable writers [‘our great theologians’] took in expounding the faith of the Church, and the approval which they have received from her, means that their writings must be regarded as expressing the teachings of her ordinary magisterium.”[7]

Vacant notes that this does not apply “to each of their statements taken in isolation, but rather to their teaching as a whole.” He concludes that, that while isolated propositions from here or there cannot be considered as witnessing to the magisterium:

“[W]hen a point of doctrine is admitted unanimously, or by more or less all of the Fathers or authorised theologians, it is an unmistakable sign that it forms part of the revealed truth, taught by the ordinary magisterium. Indeed, if it were otherwise, how could it have obtained the assent of all these authorised witnesses of the magisterium for so many centuries – and in preference to so many opinions which have disappeared, or which have only obtained the adhesion of a few authors?”[8]

Mgr Joseph C. Fenton makes a similar point to Vacant, stating that the body of texts adopted and used by diocesan bishops, particularly for seminary education, “may be said to express the teaching of the bishops about the matters they teach.”[9] Fenton says, “[these books] may be said to express in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Church” – or, in more modern terminology, the merely authentic magisterium of the bishops who so utilised them. [10]

To the extent that such utilised books universally teach theses as dogma, they can be said to witness to the Church’s universal and ordinary magisterium. The peremptory rejection of such points in their common fund of teaching is unacceptable, Fenton says, and implies that “the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church has been very much at fault.”[11]

However, some of these ideas may not be expressed with sufficient clarity or precision, or may be extended beyond what is warranted by the texts themselves. There is a tendency amongst some to treat the consensus of theologians on a thesis as if it is represents evidence that the thesis is an infallible dogma – citing Tuas Libenter and Vatican I as evidence. However, both these texts state that a consensus provides such evidence in relation to truths presented as being of divine faith specifically, and they do not comment on whether this applies to truths presented with a lower theological note. For example, in Tuas Libenter, Pius IX states:

“For even if it were a question of that obedience which is concretely due to divine faith, this obedience should not be limited to truths expressly defined by decrees of ecumenical Councils or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this Apostolic See, but must extend also to truths which by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, spread throughout the world, are transmitted as divinely revealed, and therefore by the common and universal consent of Catholic theologians are held to be matters of faith.” (emphases added).[12]

In turn, Vatican I makes the same point in the same way:

“All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and are proposed by the Church either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal magisterium to be believed as divinely revealed.” (emphasis added)[13]

The above passages do not, of themselves, suggest that a hypothetical consensus of theologians on just any point of Catholic doctrine (still less matters outside of faith and morals) is to be believed with divine faith. They refer specifically to those points presented as dogmas of divine faith, or taught as being divinely revealed.[14]

However, other points related to faith and morals which are taught unanimously by Catholic theologians, although not as being divinely revealed, still at least have a strong prima facie probability of truth – if not more.

Now, it would be difficult to argue that the magisterium has taught, even tacitly, one particular theological interpretation of Honorius’s actions – still less that such an interpretation has been taught as divinely revealed. But the Church has certainly tolerated these debates, celebrated some of those who engaged in them – to such an extent that there appears to be a moral consensus around a lack of consensus on the Honorius case. Again, the important point here is not that this is infallible – but that it is unwarranted to draw certainty against Honorius from the facts that we have available.

The Church’s treatment (or non-intervention) with this debate is significant because the magisterium is not only responsible for teaching the faith directly – rather, it is also responsible for guarding, explaining and defending the faith, both in its dogmas and in those things which are necessarily connected with dogma. Salaverri writes:

“[A] traditional magisterium is that which objectively must only guard, declare, explain and defend a closed deposit of truths.”[15] (Emphasis added)

In Humani Generis, Pius XII teaches that the Church has been given the deposit of faith “to be preserved, guarded and interpreted.”[16] This reality is clear in the practice of the Church over the centuries.

Vacant explains all this in reference what he calls the “tacit magisterium.” The Church’s magisterium, he says, continually offers us what is “expressed in our holy books and in the definitions of popes or councils,” not only by explicitly repeating them to us, “but also when it is silent about them, and thus exercises itself in a tacit fashion.”[17]

If we were to accept some of the more simplistic explanations of Honorius’s case, we would be faced with a widespread and centuries-long toleration, approval and celebration by the Church of theologians undermining the deposit of faith, rejecting an ecumenical council and teaching errors about very fundamental things.

Such an idea is difficult to reconcile with the indefectibility and the holiness of the Church.

Honorius and the tacit magisterium

Prof. Feser seems to accept this idea of implicit and tacit teaching. He quotes and explains a similar principle from Pope Felix III:

“[T]he Church has long held that ‘an error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed’ (in the words of Honorius’s predecessor Pope Felix III). It is possible to be guilty of teaching doctrinal error by implication, when the context demands that a certain truth needs to be explicitly affirmed and instead one not only fails to do so but speaks in an ambiguous way that gives the appearance of approving the error.”[18]

This principle seems to be in Prof. Feser’s mind when he states that “the larger lesson of the case of Honorius” is “that popes can err when not teaching ex cathedra.”

But the question is, given all these details about the status of the letters and the meaning of the condemnations, does the Honorius case really point towards the “larger lesson” stated?

In the same place, Prof. Feser claims that the council actually teaches that the Roman Pontiff can be guilty of heresy:

“But even if the council had been mistaken about Honorius, in condemning him it was teaching that popes can (when not speaking ex cathedra) be guilty of heresy, and that is a doctrinal matter.”

In other words, Prof. Feser thinks that the idea (that popes can be heretics) has been implicitly or tacitly taught as a matter of doctrine by the condemnation of Honorius – and that this theological principle stands, even if someone can exonerate Honorius in the realm of fact.

But these terms and propositions are too vague to be useful. What does it mean to say “that popes can (when not speaking ex cathedra) be guilty of heresy”? Does it mean that that they can fall into heresy internally, externally, secretly, privately – or openly?

Or does it mean something more than that – is it claiming that this shows that the popes can even teach heresies when not acting ex cathedra?

For several reasons, it is difficult to accept this latter claim.

One reason is that the details upon which the conclusion is based – in this case, the Honorius case – are disputed and uncertain. Another is that Prof. Feser’s principle from Pope Felix III cuts both ways: if the Church’s actions in relation to the Honorius case constitute implicit or tacit teaching that popes can indeed teach heresy, then surely her actions, in relation to the theological treatment of this case, also constitute implicit or tacit recognition that the details and implications are open to debate.

This leaves us with an apparent contradiction or stale mate. How can we resolve it?

We need to compare and re-evaluate both counts of “tacit teaching.” I submit that Prof. Feser’s example of tacit teaching must give way to that which I have highlighted – namely that this whole matter remains at best unsettled. Almost every aspect of Honorius’s case is disputed – and there is no doubt whatsoever that the Church has tolerated and celebrated those questioning the Honorius narrative. This, along with many other points (such as the reception of Pope St Agatho’s letter at the council), significantly undermines Prof. Feser’s inference here.[19]

It is also far from clear that the condemnation itself can be seen as a teaching act on the part of the council, and whether this “larger lesson” has the implications which Prof. Feser claims.

Further, the Church has not resisted the “error” of these theologians in debating the Honorius case, nor has she defended the “truth” against them. The conclusion, on principles which we share with Prof. Feser, should be clear: this is an open question in which nearly all the facts are legitimately disputed, and it is therefore an unsound basis for further conclusions.

Preliminary conclusions

Prof. Feser points out that theologians do not all agree on the exact interpretation of “The Honorius Event.” But while they may disagree in what they affirm, there is a great agreement in what they reject – namely, the certainty of the harsher or more simplistic interpretations.

Indeed, the Church’s toleration of these doubts, over the centuries, and her celebration of such theologians, stand as two great “facts” – with their own theological implications – which must also be accounted for in any treatment of Honorius today.

My point is not to advance one position, nor to conflate history and theology. Rather, it is to illustrate the uncertainty among Catholic theologians regarding certain narratives about Honorius – and the consequent instability of any theories or “lessons” we might be tempted to draw from them.

These were the reason for my essay challenging the assertions of Robert de Mattei.

Having made these points, in the next part I will propose some theological problems raised by simplistic narratives about Honorius, and why we should be cautious in drawing analogies with our current situation.

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. (Down for editing)
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith (Down for editing)
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church (Down for editing)

Interlude: The human mind’s ability to apprehend reality without the intervention of authority
Interlude: Response to Prof. Edward Feser I
Interlude: Response to Prof. Edward Feser II
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.


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[1] “The Purpose of this book, which contains several of my articles and conference presentations from the last few years, is to contribute to an understanding of the grave crisis of the contemporary Church. In order to understand the nature and cause of this crisis, theology and philosophy are certainly necessary […] And yet without the assistance of history it is difficult to understand what the correct attitude of Catholics should be in the hour of trial. For this reason I often use historical examples, showing how they can help us to face situations that seem unprecedented and present no obvious way out.” (Emphases and line breaks added) 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, iii.

[2] Quoted in Feser, ‘Can Pope Honorius be defended?’ October 6 2022. Available at:

Prof. Feser’s other article ‘The error and condemnation of Pope Honorius’, 4 Oct 2022 is available here:

[3] Prof. Feser also mentions St Francis de Sales, but this Doctor seems uncertain as to what really happened with Honorius – so he can hardly be called as a witness for the illegitimacy of questioning what really happened with Honorius.

[4] It is possible for a “Council” to err, in the sense that the decrees passed by this gathering of bishops have no universal magisterial force until they are confirmed by the Roman Pontiff, who has the power to add, remove and clarify to the decrees as he sees fit. 

[5] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Roman Catholic Books, Fort Collins CO, 1854 edition. 160.

[6] Letter of Newman dated June 5 1867, in The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman based on his private journals and correspondence, Vol II (and for UK readers), by Wilfrid Ward, Longmans, Green and Co, London 1912, p 231.

[7] J.M.A. Vacant, The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs, Delhomme et Briguet, Booksellers-Publishers, Paris, 1887. This section taken from Chapter III, translated and published by The WM Review as ‘The implicit and tacit expressions of the ordinary magisterium,’ 2021, available here.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Joseph Clifford Fenton, ‘The Teaching of the Theological Manuals’, American Ecclesiastical Review, April 1963, pp. 254-270.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pius IX, Epistola Tuas Libenter, 1863. Available at: English Translation by Joseph K. Gibson, available here:

[13] Vatican I, Dei Filius, Ch. 3, “Concerning Faith”, Dz 1792.

[14] Cf. Salaverri 894-897, particularly the last paragraph of n. 897:

897. 9. Of divine and Catholic faith strictly is a formally revealed proposition which is proposed by the Church infallibly to be believed by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

For, from theses 13 and 16 we know that a doctrine formally revealed is proposed infallibly by the Church to be believed, not only by a solemn judgment, but also by the universal and ordinary Magisterium dispersed throughout the world. A doctrine of this kind proposed infallibly by the Church in this way is said to be of divine faith, because it is formally revealed (according to n.1), and it is said to be of Catholic faith, because the Church proposes it infallibly by the universal and ordinary Magisterium as something to be believed (according to n.4).

Rightly, therefore, a proposition which the universal and ordinary Magisterium proposes as something to be believed is called of divine and Catholic faith strictly, and it is a Dogma of divine and Catholic faith. The contrary doctrine deservedly can be said to be formally heretical.

On the intention of the Bishops of proposing a doctrine peremptorily as a doctrine to be believed, it is necessary to establish it from the way in which they impose it, that is, if “they use the formulas whereby it is evident that they want to obligate all to em­brace this doctrine with the assent of divine faith.” [Acta Vaticani: Msi 49, 670. See thesis 13, scholium 3, n.583.] Because the universal Magisterium imposes the doctrine with such an obligation to believe it, therefore it is said to be a Dogma of divine and Catholic faith: D 2879.

Joachim Salaverri, On the Church of Christ, in Sacrae Theologia Summa IB translated by Kenneth Baker SJ 2015.

[15] Salaverri n. 507-8

[16] Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis 1950, n. 18, available at Cf. also: “To neglect, or to reject, [things] which in many instances have been conceived, expressed, and perfected after long labour, by men of no ordinary genius and sanctity, under the watchful eye of the holy magisterium, and not without the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit for the expression of the truths of faith ever more accurately, so that in their place conjectural notions may be substituted, as well as certain unstable and vague expressions of a new philosophy, which like a flower of the field exists today and will die tomorrow: not only is the highest imprudence, but also makes dogma itself as a reed shaken by the wind.” N. 17

[17] Vacant, Ibid.

[18] Feser, Ibid.

[19] Bellarmine says that this letter “was approved by all”:

“This is the rule of the true faith, he said, which the apostolic Church of Christ maintained in good times and in bad, and which by the grace of God has never strayed from the apostolic way of tradition; it has never been corrupted or succumbed to heretical novelties, because it was said to Peter: Simon, Simon, behold, Satan, etc. But I have prayed for you, etc. Here the Lord promised that Peter’s faith would never fail, and he warned him to strengthen his brethren; it is well-known by all that my pontifical apostolic predecessors have always done this confidently.”

This letter affirms that neither the Church nor Pope St Agatho’s predecessors ever strayed from the faith in their teaching. The force of this cannot be escaped by claiming that it only refers to ex cathedra teaching – teaching, after all, is teaching. It would seem very strange for the assembled bishops to endorse such a letter if they believed that it contained a very dangerous error about the teaching of the Roman Pontiffs. Even if they did revise their views on the basis of Honorius’ letters, it is far from clear that Pope St Leo II endorsed their changed conception – indeed, this is the very question under dispute, so it won’t do to just assert such a claim.

St Robert Bellarmine, Controversies of the Christian Religion, trans. Fr Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith Press, USA, 2016, 491.

One thought on “Questions about Pope Honorius – a reply to Prof. Edward Feser, Part I of II

  1. Michael Wilson

    A very good explanation of the case of Pope Honorius and its relationship to the thesis that a Pope can fall into heresy acting as Pope i.e. In his official duties, as opposed to acting as a private theologian or even as one of the faithful. I especially appreciate the discussion on the “tacit magisterium”, and the value of the theologians.
    Keep up the good work.

    The WM Review:

    Many thanks for this and your encouragement and support!

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