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

“The custom of the Church stands for these things: and the Church cannot err.”

Image: Pope St Leo II, Wiki Commons CC

Don’t worry! This article appears twice as long on a browser than it actually is, due to the footnotes.

This is the concluding part of my reply to Professor Edward Feser, who recently responded to my article critiquing Professor Roberto de Mattei’s treatment of Pope Honorius.

In the previous essay we considered:

  • The importance of distinguishing between the methods of theology and history
  • How the Church’s magisterium teaches in an implicit and even tacit way
  • The significance of the Church’s centuries-long toleration and celebration of theologians who, in their works, questioned the more simplistic accounts of the Honorius case – accounts which are once again being advanced, including by de Mattei.

History is its own science. Neither theologians, nor a consensus of authorities, can somehow determine or redefine historical facts, nor should we try to resolve historical questions through the indirect use of theology. Nonetheless, the toleration and celebration of such men points inexorably towards two conclusions. First, that there are many unresolved questions about “the Honorius event”; and second, that this event and these implications cannot provide any relevant parallel to our situation.

Neither Prof. Feser nor de Mattei draw explicit parallels between Honorius and Francis – the narratives and conclusions are left “hanging” there, and we are left to draw our own conclusions. This does make things difficult, as it is first necessary to draw out these implied conclusions before it is possible to reply.

In this piece, I shall illustrate the lack of relevance between Honorius and our current crisis in the Church by posing a number of questions.

As I have already laid out much of the reasoning in the previous part, some of these questions may seem terse in places.

On the magisterium

In his article on the topic, de Mattei claims that Honorius’ letters were “undoubtedly magisterial acts.”[1]

But why should we be obliged to accept such a claim, when so many theologians dispute or deny it – with several saying that they were merely private letters, which were not even made public until the Council?[2]

And why would we think that letters with such a contested status could help us form conclusions about our current crisis, or about the papacy in general?

Types of error

Prof. Feser, after recognising the degrees and distinctions of error, and problems with using the word “heresy,” states:

“I prefer to use the more general and less potentially misleading term ‘error’ when discussing the case of Honorius, as I did in the title of my previous post.”[3]

He also states:

“When a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, it is possible for him to fall into error.”

Far from being “less potentially misleading,” this way of talking conflates important distinctions and categories of error.

Here and elsewhere, Prof. Feser implies that the pope might teach heresy to the universal Church, so long as he does not do so by an ex cathedra act. His use of the more general word “error” does not mitigate this implication; it causes it.

De Mattei also claims that “in the non-infallible ordinary Magisterium [of the Roman Pontiff] there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations.”[4]

First, both Prof. Feser and de Mattei seem to conflate the idea of “falling into error” and “teaching error.” As well as conflating categories of error, this also conflates states of being (e.g., internal vs. secret vs. open heresy), and modes of teaching. But these conflations are controversial, and do not flow from the premises which are given, nor from sound theology or even simple logic.

For example, a man might fall into heresy without teaching it – indeed, without manifesting it publicly, or even without any kind of externalisation at all. Teaching heresy is quite different to falling into heresy as a private person – even if such a fall was known openly.

This is to say nothing of the different ways in which the word “heretic” has been used throughout history. I have addressed the sense relevant to membership of the Church elsewhere.

Second, even if a pope might teach some sort of error, this would not logically entail him being able to teach heresy, which is a specific sort of error. More proof is needed for this latter idea. But which pre-conciliar theologians ever explicitly taught that the Roman Pontiff might actually teach heresy – in the modern and relevant sense – to the universal Church, even in a merely authentic or non-definitive way?

And why should we accept a Döllingerite method of answering such a question, through the political use of historical theology?

To put it mildly, this is all very controversial.

Why, then, should we accept such uncertain ideas? Why should we accept such conflations of terms?

Why should we accept conclusions about the papal magisterium based on such uncertainties?

And why should we consider any of this to be useful for understanding our current situation?

Honorius’ Errors

Some theologians have doubted or flatly denied that Honorius’ letters contain any errors at all.[5]

Regarding the Monothelite question (are there one or two wills in Christ?), some theologians show that earlier Church Fathers used similar language to that found in Honorius’ letters,[6] and others show that the letters contained “all the elements [needed] to refute Monothelitism.”[7]

Very few deny that Honorius failed to do what he should have done. But in light of these debates, why should we be obliged to commit ourselves to one opinion on whether Honorius actually fell into error?

And why would we think that our chosen opinion on an open question could help us form conclusions about our current crisis?

Condemnations, teaching and more on heresy

Over the centuries, theologians have debated the nature of the condemnations of Honorius.[8]

Strictly speaking, there is no “Sixth Ecumenical Council” without Pope St Leo II’s approval – so it is not proper to say that he rejected or changed anything from “the Council.”[9] “The Sixth Ecumenical Council” is what the Roman Pontiff, St Leo II, confirmed, and in the sense that he confirmed it – not whatever the bishops said or intended in his absence.

We wouldn’t expect Eastern Orthodox persons to accept these points – but this is standard Catholic theology.

The proceedings of what became known as the Council, along with the conduct of the bishops involved, might be interesting pieces of data – but they, too, are not the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

If we are to talk of the Sixth Council being confirmed and reaffirmed at later dates, we must remember that this pertains to what St Leo II confirmed – and again, not the proceedings of the bishops in his absence.

Against this, Prof. Feser states:

Leo confirmed the council, thereby making its decrees authoritative. He didn’t say ‘I confirm it, except for this part.’ It’s true that in his own accompanying condemnation, he limits his accusation against Honorius to negligence in suppressing heresy and thereby polluting the purity of the Roman See, and does not apply the label ‘heretic’ to him. But Leo doesn’t deny the truth of the council’s statement that Honorius was a heretic. He just doesn’t mention it (just as he doesn’t mention other things the council said).”

In this text, Prof. Feser essentially concedes much of the argument, whilst doubling-down on his conclusions. In any case, the theologians and saints who engaged in this debate did not think that Leo’s failure to state explicitly “except for this part” settled the question – far from it. Are we obliged to think that Prof. Feser has discovered the solution to a problem which these men hadn’t noticed?

Similarly, it is not necessary to deny that Honorius was a heretic, if we understand what is meant by the word in the context (addressed below).

Prof. Feser states elsewhere that “in one respect Leo’s statement is harsher than the council’s, not less harsh.” Favouring heresy might be a lesser crime than holding heresy, but it is hardly surprising or contradictory for St Leo II to increase the harshness of the condemnation, even whilst clarifying the nature of Honorius’ crime. As stated, the purpose here is not to exonerate Honorius – we can agree with Prof. Feser’s observation, but it does not undermine the points.

Prof. Feser states that the Seventh Ecumenical Council “explicitly characterized Honorius as having taught doctrinal error.” In fact, the text which he produces to support this merely says that he “held” the error.[10] This is the same sort of conflation I have already addressed above. Far from being “explicit,” such a conclusion is barely even implicit – holding a view is conceptually distinct both from manifesting it publicly, and from teaching it to the universal Church, even in a non-definitive way.

Therefore, it is not at all clear that these condemnations constitute even an implicit or tacit act of teaching that a pope could be a heretic (in a strict sense), whether in private or in public, or that he could teach heresy to the universal church, or what would happen in such circumstances.

Why then should we consider any of this relevant to our current crisis?

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).

Honorius as a heretic

Everyone agrees that in earlier times, the word “heretic” meant something broader than it does today. Very many theologians say that Honorius can only be called a heretic in this looser sense.[11] Chapman himself states:

“He was a heretic, not in intention, but in fact; and he is to be considered to have been condemned in the sense in which Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia, who died in Catholic communion, never having resisted the Church, have been condemned.

“But he was not condemned as a Monothelite, nor was Sergius. And it would be harsh to regard him as a “private heretic”, for he admittedly had excellent intentions.”[12]

Fr Paul Bottalla SJ wrote in the nineteenth century:

“We may say, then, without fear of contradiction, that the view which represents Pope Honorius as having actually held Monothelite doctrine, has for nearly two centuries become almost exclusively the possession of Protestants and schismatics.”[13]

But if Honorius wasn’t a Monothelite, doubting or denying the two wills in Christ, then what sort of heretic was he? Which other dogma did he pertinaciously doubt or deny?

The answer, of course, is “none”: and this is why Prof. Feser,[14] Chapman and everyone else agrees that Honorius was only a “heretic” in a broad, loose sense of the word, which is hardly ever used today.

As such, is it right to use the word “heretic” in an equivocal, archaic sense for rhetorical effect, as de Mattei does in the title of his article?

And why would we consider any of this relevant to Francis, who is credibly accused of being a heretic in the modern, stricter sense – and even of teaching heresy in the same stricter sense?

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Ecclesiological implications

De Mattei would have us believe that doubting his interpretation of events – largely similar to Prof. Feser’s – would “shatter the dogmatic definitions and the anathemas of a council ratified by a Roman Pontiff.”[15]

Against this, we are doing nothing more than what the saints and theologians mentioned have done. If we are “shattering” anything or “rejecting a Council”, then so were they.

But this is not credible. As I have said repeatedly: over the centuries, the Church herself has appointed such theologians to their various positions, used their work in the seminaries, canonised several, and elevated some as doctors.

Are we really supposed to believe that for centuries, the Church has tolerated and celebrated men who were “rejecting” an ecumenical council and an “infallible condemnation” of Honorius?[16] Would not this be the real undoing of the Church’s ecclesiology?

As previously noted, Prof. Feser and Chapman both show that they accept the idea of a “tacit magisterium”. Prof. Feser writes:

“[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.”[17]

In tolerating this discussion for centuries by theologians whom she has approved and celebrated, in books which she has used for the education of the clergy, it would appear that the Church herself is implicated.

Whilst repeating that we are not trying to exonerate Honorius, and that we do accept his condemnations, it is not tenable to accuse the Church – to paraphrase Prof. Feser – of approving the teaching of supposedly obvious “errors” about him and the ecumenical councils, by not resisting them; of suppressing “the truth” by not defending it; of teaching doctrinal error about Honorius by implication, and of speaking “in an ambiguous way that gives the appearance of approving the error.”

This is what is entailed in ignoring how the Church has acted, and treating the question as de Mattei does.

But as St Thomas said on another matter:

“On the contrary: The custom of the Church stands for these things: and the Church cannot err, since she is taught by the Holy Ghost.”[18] 


We could summarise the above in these two questions:

Why should we accept a disputed interpretation of historical events, based on disputed data and very dubious theology?

Why should we think that anything based on such uncertain grounds could help us understand our current crisis?

While it is the arguments that count, the history of this debate and the calibre of men involved ought to give our interlocutors pause. It is contrary to piety to suggest that these theologians and saints were all obviously mistaken on such fundamental matters. We are obliged to treat their teaching with more care and respect; and such suggestions about these men are highly problematic for the Church’s own claims.

We should not consider matters closed which the Church has left open – and it is just not credible to suggest that all these men mistook a closed question for one that was open. In other words, whether or not Honorius can be successfully defended is beside the point. He has been legitimately defended and his case discussed – and in itself, this precludes the political use to which this narrative is being put in our current crisis. 

It not justifiable for anyone to build theories of explanation or resistance to Francis on such contested narratives. We all know from Aristotle that the aim of reasoning is to lead us from the better known to the less or unknown. This approach, however, seeks to arrive at certain conclusions through the use of uncertain premises. But uncertain and contested narratives of history are incapable of leading us to certain and sure theological conclusions.

All these uncertainties make it impossible to conclude that “the lessons of the case of Honorius are clear,” or that they provide some analogy for our current situation.

I submit that we must acknowledge the historical disputes, avoid peremptory assertions, jettison political writers such as Roberto de Mattei, and give up Honorius as an analogy for Francis. As Fr Jean-Michel Gleize has written, on a similarly political use of papal history and possibly also in response to de Mattei himself:

“‘The analogy of history’ is a perfectly legitimate way of proceeding. But still it is necessary to make sure that it rests on adequate foundations… a misunderstanding of history could prove fatal, or at least the source of imbalances. It has been and it can be again.[19] (Emphasis added)

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.


As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Monthly Gifts

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!

[1] 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, 28.

[2] In Petri Privilegium, Cardinal Manning, following another bishop, states that the letters “were not published, even in the East, until several years later,” and that Sergius had managed to keep his letter concealed for eight years, even from the Emperor. The bishop suggests that this was “probably because its contents, if published, would not have suited his wily purpose of secretly introducing, under another form, the Eutychian heresy.” Manning concludes that “his letters were not addressed to a general council of the whole Church and were rather private, than public and official.” But in what sense can unpublished letters be considered as “undoubtedly magisterial acts”? Fr (later Cardinal) Hergenröther – the great historian who refuted the historical theology of the excommunicate Döllinger in his work Anti-Janus – cites another writer (Habert) approvingly, saying that “the letters of Honorius were private letters.” Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Petri Privilegium: Three Pastoral Letters to the Clergy of the Diocese, Longmans, Green, and Co, London 1871. 224. Anti-Janus, trans. Robertson, Burns, Oates & Company, 1870. 82.

[3] 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:

[4] Ibid.

[5] As an example, Fr Emile Amann says that “[t]here was no doctrinal error on the part of the pope.” Amann was the author of the article ‘Honorius’ in the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, and de Mattei cites him several times in his essay. Emile Amann, “Honorius Ier”, Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique Vol VII, Libraire Letouzey et Ane, Paris, 1922, 110. Trans. by The WM Review.

[6] Ward and Grisar both refer to Gerhard Schneemann, who shows the patristic roots of this orthodox sense of the phrase. Even Bishop Hefele, whom de Mattei quotes, writes the same. 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.” Schneeman also refers to St Augustine in this context. 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.” St John Chrysostom, St Athanasius, St Augustine: how absurd it would be to accuse these three doctors of teaching heresy. This indeed is why nobody refers to Honorius as a Monothelite – they call him a heretic in the broader sense that he failed to act in the way that he should have done, when he should have done. But this is manifestly different from pertinaciously doubting or denying Catholic dogma – ergo. Ward Honorius 46, Grisar 396, Gerhard Schneemann, Studien über die Honorius-Frage, Freiburg 1864, p 48 and surrounding. Available at: Cardinal Josef Hergenröther, Anti-Janus, Burns, Oates & Company, London, 1870, page 80.

[7] Cf. also: “There are no dogmatic errors in either of Honorius’s letters. As for the expression: ‘We confess a will,’ etc. the context clearly shows that it has no heretical sense […] Nor is there any basis for saying that Honorius ‘thought rightly, but expressed himself heretically.’” Analecta Romana, Vol I, Desclée Lefebvre e C. Editori, 1899, 396. Available at

[8] This topic is dealt with at length in my original article. For example: Grisar – like many authorities – holds that St Leo II did not confirm the “council’s” condemnation of Honorius simply as he found it. The final, approved condemnation – the one that matters for theology – was harsher in some ways, but clarified it such that Honorius was condemned for negligence and favouring heresy, but not for affirming it as a heretic himself.

[9] “In order that an assembly may fulfil the requisites for an ecumenical council, it must be called by the Holy Father, presided over by him, either personally or through his delegates, and finally, most important of all, its proceedings must be approved and ratified by the Holy See. If this last condition is lacking the acts of the council cannot be accepted as the solemn teaching and judgment of the Catholic Church. […] Not all of the twenty councils recognized within the Catholic Church as ecumenical actually possessed all of the ecumenical attributes. The First and the Second Councils of Constantinople, for example, were ecumenical neither from the point of view of their convocation nor from that of their celebration. Bishops from the western church, that is from the Roman patriarchate were neither invited to nor present at their deliberations. They were recognized as ecumenical and given the status of general councils solely through the positive will of the Roman Pontiff. They were accepted by the Holy See as authentic judgments of the universal hierarchy in the infallible Church of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, even among the acts of the twenty councils, only those decisions are valid which have been approved and promulgated by the Holy See. In the case where this approval is withheld, as it was from the twenty- eighth canon of the council of Chalcedon, the rejected teaching has no doctrinal value.” Mgr Joseph C. Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, The Bruce Publishng Company, Milwaukee, 1941, 130-1.

[10] Feser quotes the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “We have also anathematized… the doctrine of one will held by Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, and Pyrrhus, or rather, we have anathematised their own evil will.” But “to hold” a proposition does not even imply the idea of teaching it.

[11] This is clear in the explanations given in the original article. It is also clearly the thought of those cited who say that Honorius acted negligently but without heretical intent and/or without expressing any actual errors.

[12] Chapman, John. “Pope Honorius I.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 2 Nov. 2022

[13] Fr Paul Bottalla, S.J. Pope Honorius Before the Tribunal of Reason and of History, Burns and Oates, 1868. 45. Available at

[14] “Now, one point that some readers have made is that the word “heresy” was used in a more expansive way earlier in Church history than it is today.  That is correct and important, and it is something I have elsewhere emphasized myself. […] For these reasons, I prefer to use the more general and less potentially misleading term “error” when discussing the case of Honorius, as I did in the title of my previous post.  All the same, the Sixth Ecumenical Council does apply the term “heretic” to Honorius, and “heresy” in those days implied at the very least positive doctrinal error (as opposed, say, to mere negligence or a failure to counter doctrinal error).  In other words, by labeling Honorius a heretic, the council was accusing him of teaching false doctrine.  The question on the table is whether he can be defended against this charge.” This is from the main article to which I am responding.

[15] De Mattei 28

[16] In passing, Prof. Feser seems to state that the condemnation of Honorius was an infallible judgment.a The presence of heresy in a text condemned as heretical is indeed a classic example of a dogmatic fact pertaining to the secondary object of the magisterium. But it is not clear that condemnations of persons – or at least, that of Honorius – could be considered as infallible in a sense that would help Prof. Feser. Certainly, the contrary idea would have surprised Bellarmine.b Naturally, this would not apply if Honorius’ letters had been condemned in a comparable way to Jansen’s Augustine – but they were not, and the cases are not very comparable, as is clear from the context of this debate.

a “Now, given that a papally-approved council cannot err on doctrinal matters, it follows that the councils in question infallibly judged that Honorius’s teaching was heretical (whatever his intentions).  But since anyone who teaches heresy is a heretic, it follows (at least given that Honorius really did write the letters that got him into trouble, as most of his defenders concede) that these councils did after all infallibly judge that Honorius was a heretic.”

b Bellarmine offers the following as a solution, whilst not committing himself to it: “But if someone still is not ready to believe that the Sixth Council was corrupted, he may accept another solution, which is that of John a Turrecremata in book 2, chapter 93 of his book on the Church. He teaches that the Fathers of the Sixth Council did indeed condemn Honorius, but based on false information, and therefore that they erred in that judgment. For although a legitimate general council cannot err, as the sixth did not err, in defining the dogmas of faith, still it can err in questions of fact. Therefore we can safely say that these Fathers were deceived by false rumors, and not understanding the letters of Honorius, they numbered Honorius undeservedly among the heretics.” St Robert Bellarmine, Controversies of the Christian Religion, trans. Fr Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith Press, USA, 2016, 996

[17] Feser, Ibid.

[18] St Thomas, Summa Theologica III Q83 A5.

[19] Fr Jean-Michel Gleize, The Question of Papal Heresy – Part 2, 2017. Available at

Subscribe to stay in touch:

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

  1. Michael Wilson

    A very good follow up to the first article and I believe that the main thrust of both, is that those who would use the Honorius case as a historical antecedent to the present situation with Pope Francis, are treating two very different and unrelated events: 1. Pope Francis has taught heresy and promulgated discipline which leads the faithful into sin, in his duties as Pope. 2. While the Honorius case is a question of a neglect in his duties of suppressing heresy; not of himself holding or even teaching heresy.

    The WM Review:

    Many thanks for this Michael!

Leave a Reply