It seems as if the papacy is the most common topic I write about. I have a good reason for this. Authority is the primary issue separating us from all other Christians. The Orthodox Church recognizes the authority of the bishop of Rome, but only as a “first among equals”. The Protestants don’t recognize the authority of the bishop of Rome at all. Instead, they view Scripture alone as the authority. So, the papacy is the most important issue dividing Christians.
Perhaps the most attacked Teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the papacy is infallibility. I have already written a post explaining Church Teaching on infallibility and how it works. In this post I wish to address two instances often cited by Protestants as evidence against papal infallibility.
The first we shall examine is the case of Pope Vigilius (r. A.D. 538-55). During the papacy of Vigilius, the Monophysite heresy was causing problems for the Church. The Monophysite heresy arose in opposition to the Nestorian heresy. The Nestorians denied that Jesus had a divine nature. Often, when a heresy arises, another one comes along at the opposite extreme. (Just look at the various Protestant sects!) This is true of Monophysitism.
The Monophysites taught that Jesus was God, and He only had one nature…divine. During the height of this heresy Theodora, wife to Emperor Justinian ( A.D. 527-65), devised a plan to bring the Monophysites back into the Church. Theodora wasn’t trying to end the Monophysite heresy. She was trying to help the Monophysites. So Theodora suggested all Justinian had to was condemn three things (called the Three Chapters), and the Monophysites would be reunited with the Church.
Emperor Justinian loved to involve himself in theological debates, so he readily agreed to Theodora’s plan. He subsequently condemned the writings and persons of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and his writings against St. Cyril of Alexandria, and the Letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris, bishop of Hardashir in Persia.
I won’t go into detail about these individuals and their writings here. Suffice it to say that the Council of Chalcedon-which was meant to put an end to the Monophysite heresy-didn’t succeed in ending the heresy. The men listed above were all suspected of being, or had actually been, at least sympathetic with Nestorianism. All three men, however, died in communion with the Church.
Nevertheless, Theodora and others convinced Emperor Justinian that these men had remained Nestorians. So Justinian wrote an edict in A.D. 544 condemning the Three Chapters and their authors. The imperial anathemas were eventually signed by the majority of the Eastern bishops. The Western bishops, however, would not acquiesce.
Justinian was not pleased by the Western bishops’ resistance. As a result, he had Pope Vigilius summoned to Constantinople. Still, Pope Vigilius would not be convinced. Justinian then had Bigilius imprisoned while he tried to convince him to accept the anathemas.
After two years of imprisonment, ill treatment, and threats, Pope Vigilius signed the imperial anathemas. Upon his release and return to Rome, however, Vigilius regretted his actions, and retracted his decision. Thus, Protestants claim, papal infallibility is disproven. If the pope is truly infallible, then how could he anathematize something, and then retract it?
The case of Pope Vigilius and the Three Chapters, however, has no bearing on papal infallibility. Pope Vigilius signed the imperial anathemas under duress. For infallibility to apply, however, the decision must be made freely and willingly. The case of Pope Vigilius does not meet this criterion.
Another instance often referred to is the case of Pope Honorius I (r. A.D. 625-38). Pope Honorius was having to deal with another heresy known as Monothelitism. The Monothelites said there was only one will in Christ. This idea was developed in A.D. 610 by Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople. When his views were disputed by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sergius wrote to Pope Honorius.
In his letter Sergius depicted his opponents has holding that Christ had two conflicting wills. Instead of reading the writings of Sergius and his opponents, Pope Honorius assumed Sergius was telling the truth. So Pope Honorius wrote that Jesus had only one will.
Now, in context, Honorius simply meant that there could be no conflict between the two wills in Christ. He further stated that talk of one will or two wills should be avoided in the future. So Honorius never taught heresy, as Protestants claim.
In A.D. 680 the Fathers of the Council of Constantinople condemned Pope Honorius as a heretic. Protestants inevitably cite this as proof against papal infallibility, but a council’s decisions are not infallible until ratified by the pope. When Pope Leo II ratified the decrees of the Council, however, he wrote that Honorius was only guilty of heresy insofar as he had allowed himself to be duped by Sergius, and he inadvertently contributed to the spread of Monothelitism.
Pope Honorius’ case, like Pope Vigilius, has no bearing on papal infallibility. While Pope Honorius was not particularly careful in his language, he was clearly no heretic. Although he used Sergius’ terminology, Pope Honorius understood the terms in an orthodox sense. Further, when Honorius forbade the use of “one will” and “two wills”, he did not require acceptance of this by all the faithful under pain of excommunication. In other words, Pope Honorius I’s letters to Sergius do not meet the requirements of ex cathedra, and therefore, have nothing to do with the issue of papal infallibility.
Non-Catholics can not find one bit of evidence from history of any pope at any time officially teaching heresy. There is not one example that can legitimately be used to refute papal infallibility. Those who support it are on safe ground both historically and biblically.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity