Can 7th c. Pope Honorius I teach us about “Amoris laetitia” controversy?

7th c. mosaic of Pope Honorius I (625-638), in Basilica Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, Rome

7th c. mosaic of Pope Honorius I (625-638), in Basilica Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, Rome

These days it seems like we are “all Amoris laetitia all the time”. That’s because the document has stirred great confusion. The confusion has resulted even in contrary interpretation on the part of conferences of bishops, no less, about whether people who are committing objectively grave mortal sins can, without firm purposes of amendment, be admitted to Holy Communion. It is no wonder that confusion rises, since it concerns something taught by Our Lord Himself and which is confirmed in the Deposit of Faith through the centuries to our own day.

As controversy grows, so do pleas for clear explanations.

We have a long history in this our Church. We have been around the block. The experiences of our forebears ought to instruct us, who are coping with confusing circumstances.

Was it Edmund Burke who said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it? It might have been George Satayana. Could be that we are repeating now, something that we have been through before?

Look at the increasingly valuable Crisis, where Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFM Cap, has a useful study of a time of confusion resulting both from a Pope’s teaching and – this is key – that same Pope’s refusal to clarify what he meant when he was urgently asked to do so.

Here are some samples so you can get the drift of it.  My emphases and comments:

What History May Tell Us About Amoris Laetitia


[A] similar situation of great confusion happened 1,500 years ago during the papal reign of Honorius I (625-638).


Honorius was pressured to react to a popular heresy Monothelitism, which held that Jesus Christ possessed only one will naturally. But the Church teaches that Jesus Christ has two inseparable but distinct wills or two distinct operations naturally. However, the Church also teaches there is only one will and one operation in Christ morally. In other words, there is no opposition between the two wills and two operations in Christ.

Although Honorius believed the Church’s true teaching, he wanted to avoid trouble in the Church and offending the Monothelitites, one of whom was the Emperor Heraclius. Similar to today, bishops wanted clarification, but Honorius counseled silence. He advised bishop Sergius saying:

That our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God, by whom all things were made, is Himself one, operating divine and human things, the sacred writings plainly show. Whether, however, on account of the works of the Humanity and Divinity, one or two operations ought to be proclaimed and understood, these things do not belong to us; let us leave them to the grammarians, who are accustomed to display to the young their choice derivations of words…. [Sounds rather familiar in style, no?] We exhort your Fraternity to preach with us, as we do with one mind with you, in orthodox faith and Catholic unity,—avoiding the use of the introduced terms, one or two operations—that there is one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, most true God in two Natures, operating divinely and humanly.

Note that the Pope said, “…these things do not belong to us; let us leave them to the grammarians…” The Pope thought that the truth was plain enough and the Church didn’t need to clarify it further with terms, like two operations and two wills.

About 40 years after Honorius died, however, the Sixth General Church Council condemned the fact that Honorius had remained silent. Pope Leo II, [St. Leo II] the successor to Pope Agatho, accepted this condemnation with some qualification. In his confirmatory epistle sent to Constantine Pogonatus, Leo II stated:

We also anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodore, bishop of Pharan, Cyrus of Alexandria, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter, ensnarers, rather than guides, of the church of Constantinople; and also Honorius, who did not illumine this Apostolic Church with the doctrine of the Apostolic tradition, but allowed it, while immaculate, to be stained by profane betrayal.

And, in his epistle to the bishops of Spain, Pope Leo II also stated:

Those, however, who contended against the purity of Apostolic doctrine, departing, have indeed been visited with eternal condemnation; that is, Theodore of Pharan, Cyrus of Alexandria, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter, Constantinopolitans; with Honorius who did not extinguish the incipient flame of heretical dogma, as befitted Apostolic authority, but, by neglect, nourished it.

Therefore, Honorius’s decision was condemned—not because he actively preached falsehood or heresy—but because he “neglected” teaching the truth. As Pope Leo II pointed out, even during the silence of Honorius, the apostolic tradition and teaching remained untouched and “immaculate.”

This ancient case helps us to relate to Amoris Laetitia. After all, Pope Francis has remained silent, apparently allowing his bishops to judge the meaning of the document for themselves without his help in the face of calls for clarity amidst confusion and anguish. Actually, while Honorius’s silence affected the doctrine of the faith (theory), Pope Francis’ actions are even more serious since his silence pertains to moral acts (practice) which more directly and rapidly affect the people.


So, why does Pope Francis remain silent?

As of today, we do not know, and this is why we must be careful. While we can advise, plead, and complain to the pope (like St. Catherine Siena) about his actions and lack of action, we cannot officially judge him. Only a pope can judge a pope, which is not the same thing as fellow archbishops and cardinals exercising their authority to correct false statements. Pope Francis and his Amoris Laetitia will certainly be judged by a later pope. Will he receive a better judgment than Honorius? Only God knows. But we do not know everything. There may be reasons unknown to us why Pope Francis is refusing to settle the dispute. And, when all is said and done, he may receive a better and more favorable judgment from future popes than Honorius received.


Scanlon also gives a good explanation of how seriously wrong the Bishops of Malta are in their document about how to implement Amoris laetitia Chapter 8.

We all suffer from the effects of Original Sin.  Our intellects and wills are weakened.  However, we have the help of both authority (the teaching of the Church, the lessons of the past, etc) and of grace, procured through humble prayers.

Pray.  Study and pray.

Comment moderation is ON.

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  1. jschicago says:

    There’s a difference: Pope Honorius I remained silent on a controversy that started without him, but His Holiness, Pope Francis, remains silent on the controversy He initiated with Amoris laetitia.

  2. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Various recent statements – responses to the Dubia, and Bishop Grech’s ‘defense’ published in translation by Edward Pentin, for example – remind me of a stage of the Monothelite controversy between the pontificate of Honorius and the Sixth Ecumenical Council: the Typos of Emperor Constans II which tried to shut down all discussion, and those who suffered from its enforcement – including Pope St. Martin I and St. Maximus the Confessor (whose Feast was just celebrated on 21 January in the East).

  3. donato2 says:

    I don’t think the crises triggered by past heresies like John XXII’s (no immediate beatific vision for the saints) or monothelitism are all that analogous to the current crisis. Unlike the present crisis, those crises were not driven social forces as broad, longstanding and deeply rooted as the modernism that is at the root of the present crisis. What the current crisis is most akin to, and is in fact related to, is the crisis triggered by Martin Luther in 1517. That crisis, which in important ways marks the beginning of modernism as a social force, shattered the Church in northern Europe. The present crisis is poised to shatter the Church further. The tidal wave of modernism has been gathering force for over 200 years (and longer if you date it back to Martin Luther). But for Christ’s promise I would be convinced that it is about to drown the Church.

  4. Mario Bird says:

    Hey! I just re-read this in Warren Carroll’s Building of Christendom. Carroll distilled the same principle as Fr. Scanlon (paraphrasing): Honorius had a duty to teach, and he did not.

    Carroll’s discussion also describes the temporal forces at work: the Eastern Church’s interest in unifying Christians in the face of Heraclius’ ongoing battle for survival with the Persians . . . and, of course, the incipient “Red Whirlwind” of Islam which erupted immediately thereafter. Such are the pragmatic reasons for sweeping fine theological points under the rug. O tempora! O mores!

  5. ChesterFrank says:

    My uneducated guess to the question “So, why does Pope Francis remain silent?” is because the pope wants to listen to people before speaking and see how people interpret Amoris laetitia ?

  6. stephen c says:

    For the record, Amoris Laetitia has not confused me at all. Where it is right, it is right; where it might be wrong, it is poorly worded, that is all. We have had Popes of great bravery in my lifetime (Saint John Paul), Popes who obviously are capable of great love for everyone they pray for (Benedict), and Popes who, despite their difficulties in times of mediocre but intense controversy, did not defect from the wonderful Militant Church they sacrificed so much for (the Blessed Paul VI). Now we have a Pope who likes to say poetic things: and God bless him for his brave support of the Armenian victims; for his repeated, albeit often sadly interrupted or forgotten, reminders to abortionists that their work is evil; for his uncontested love for the sort of people who he understands, even if in his regrettably time-serving Peronist way, to be losers in life; and for his personal kindness to so many; and for his efforts, as a prayerful person, to say interesting things that remind us how much Jesus loves us. He has never said Jesus does not love us, and God bless him for that. I think he is afraid to defend his potentially wrong footnotes from the charge of unloving heresy because he is an honest man who is not sure whether he has done the wrong thing. It is sad to see a fearful old person! God will forgive me my failures too, I hope. Anyway, it is not a small thing to be a Pope who says wonderful and poetic things every once in a while, as Bergoglio does, and if the price we pay to have such a Pope is an unwanted lesson in learning tolerance for the sort of person who, in spite of his general bravery and his general love for his fellow Christians, testily criticizes too much those who want him to be more Christian, well, while tolerance in itself is not a good thing, compassion for angry old people who are unkind to us is a good thing.

  7. Lucas Whittaker says:

    The immediate question seems to be one involving participating “together with others”. I turn to St. John Paul II’s philosophical book, Person and Act, for the guiding principles surrounding the subject of healthy community life. We fulfill ourselves through participating with our neighbor (loosely: cooperating for the sake of the common good). Through our participation we bring about the good of the community and, by extension, the good of society. “A deficiency of participation fixes an unbridgeable gulf between the person and the community . . . Noninvolvement [i.e.: silence, the silent treatment] is nothing but a withdrawal. It may sometimes manifest a protest, but even then it still lacks the active concern of participation; moreover, it characterizes man’s absence from his community. The absent, as the saying goes, are always in the wrong.”

    “The common good must liberate and support the attitude of solidarity but never to a degree such as to stifle opposition . . . [T]he principle of dialogue is very aptly suited to that structure of human communities and participation which satisfies these needs . . . The principle of dialogue allows us to select and bring to light what in controversial situations is right and true, and helps to eliminate any partial, preconceived or subjective views and trends . . . Undoubtedly opposition may make the cooperation of men less smooth and more difficult, but it should never damage or prevent it . . . [Various] views and inclinations may become the seed of strife and conflict between men, while what is right and true always favors the development of the person and enriches the community . . . ”

    “Dialogue, in fact, without evading the strains, the conflicts, or the strife manifest in the life of various human communities takes up what is right and true in these differences, what may become a source of good for men. Consequently, it seems that in a constructive communal life the principle of dialogue must be adopted regardless of the obstacles and difficulties that it may bring with it along the way . . . [T]he commandment of love is the measure of the tasks and demands that have to be faced by all men–all persons and all communities–if the whole good contained in the acting and being ‘together with others’ is to become a reality.”

    My understanding of this material within the context of the current tensions within the Church is that we must stop pretending that those who are–for whatever reason–outside of the community of the Church (ecclesia) are actually somehow a living part of our community. A strong “ad intra” concern must be fostered so that we begin to cooperate together in a way that is healthy, and also appropriate to the mysteries of our faith. Only then will our “ad extra”–or missionary–efforts be fruitful as we remain “faithful to the teaching of the apostles,” to a united purpose, to the liturgy, and to prayer (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Jn 1:3,6,7; 1 Cor 10:16, 11:23-29; Mk 1:35).

  8. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I’ve been thinking about the Francis I / Honors I similarities for quite some time now and have come to similar conclusions about how the Church will look back up this Pontificate.

  9. RichardT says:

    This current crisis seems even worse than the Monothelitism problem.

    Monothelitism was (if I’ve understood it properly) about defining a previously undefined aspect of the precise nature of Christ. Yes, it was eventually decided that Monothelitism was incompatible with our understanding of Christ’s divinity, but when Monothelitism was first put forward it was a technically complex and new question which – on that precise point, with that formulation – hadn’t been answered before. It is therefore reasonable that the Church took time to come to a decision, and that in the meantime people will disagree.

    But communion for divorced and (in civil law) “remarried” people is a question that has been answered. Every detail that is being raised now has already been considered by the Church, answered and become settled practice for centuries. This is challenging Church teaching in a much more direct way than Monothelitism did.

  10. Phil_NL says:

    Another crucial difference is that, in the present day, it’s quite clear what traditional, correct teaching is. The question is whether one should allow (more) wiggle room.

    Regarding the mediaval conflicts regarding the nature of Christ, it could sometimes be extremely hard to figure out what the truth was, as it involves an issue that by its very nature is impossible to grasp completely for us humans, combined with sometimes very obscure reasoning, also involving the intricacies of the Greek language, and a very unhealthy penchant for theological theorizing in the Greek-speaking world.
    [St Gregory of Nyssa, some centuries earlier, wrote a passage about that tendency which is delightful and horrifying at the same time: “Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing.”]

    Conclusion: Honorius had a far harder job at teaching than Francis.

  11. Cornelius says:

    “So, why does Pope Francis remain silent? As of today, we do not know, . . . ”

    PF has made it clear in numerous ways and venues that he wants this change. He’s implementing by stealth because there would be a poop-storm (a coprophiliac’s dream) if he did it openly and explicitly.

    Or maybe the Holy Spirit is restraining him. He thinks he’s being very clever in deconstructing the Church’s teaching but he actually is playing right into the HS’s hand.

  12. Nicolas Bellord says:

    Why does Pope Francis remain silent? It is easily explained by paragraph 3 of Amoris Laetitia. Doctrine is to be decided at local level; even at the level of the individual’s conscience with no help from the Magisterium:

    3. Since “time is greater than space”, I would
    make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal,
    moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by
    interventions of the magisterium. Unity of
    teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the
    Church, but this does not preclude various ways
    of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or
    drawing certain consequences from it. This will
    always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards
    the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us
    fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to
    see all things as he does. Each country or region,
    moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its
    culture and sensitive to its traditions and local
    needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and
    every general principle… needs to be inculturated,
    if it is to be respected and applied”.3

  13. chirho3 says:

    Silence can also further serve the purpose of desired ambiguity. The longer confusion is permitted (or encouraged) the more fragmented any organized body will become, the Church is no different.

    Having Cardinal Daneels and friends in the background as dethroning and enthroning mafia (see links below) it might serve well to ponder their admitted conspiracies and what follows in the wake – ambiguity.

    In my opinion its all about ambiguity, the longer it is permitted the more the bishops and cardinals are going to bite each other to the point of two camps emerging. Does anyone else hear Our Lady of Akita’s prediction resounding the present?

    Please consider these stories:

  14. LarryW2LJ says:

    I’m just a common, everyday person. I’m not theologically trained and am really not fit to discuss any of this. But there is one thing that I do know and it can be best summed up with that old gem, “Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile.” You would think all these classically educated folks would keep that in mind, especially in matters of salvation. Especially in matters of salvation – that bears repeating. Humans, due to our fallen nature – when we see an opening, many are inclined to take it and exploit it in all kinds of ways – many of which were not originally intended.

    So for me, it would seem that on such an important matter as this, which pertains to the core beliefs of our faith, one would want to be as crystal clear as possible.

    Personally, if I were given the responsibility of being the Shepherd, I’d always want to err on the side of caution, so as not to lead any souls astray. Because I know that some day, I’m going to have to answer for that.

  15. robtbrown says:

    Some good stuff from Fr Scanlon, but I want to take issue with one of his comments.

    Actually, while Honorius’s silence affected the doctrine of the faith (theory), Pope Francis’ actions are even more serious since his silence pertains to moral acts (practice) which more directly and rapidly affect the people.

    Denying the two wills of Christ is not merely failing to check a box. The Incarnation includes both the Nature of God and the Nature of Man. Nothing is omitted from either.

    Diminishing Christ’s Human Nature, as in Monothelitism, diminshes Human Nature itself. And morality is based on what is appropriate, or not, to human nature.

    One final note: Karl Rahner, usually considered the father of the confusion in moral theology, was often accused of Monophysitism.

    [Scanlon is right, you know. The theological distinction, while important, is heady. The practical impact, on the other hand, is a more immediate problem.]

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  17. JohnRoss says:

    The Acts of the Sixth Ecumenical Council and the Eighth Ecumenical Council leave little wiggle room for the fact Pope Honorius I was condemned as a heretic.

    Constantinople III:
    This pious and orthodox creed of the divine favour was enough for a complete knowledge of the orthodox faith and a complete assurance therein. But since from the first, the contriver of evil did not rest, finding an accomplice in the serpent and through him bringing upon human nature the poisoned dart of death, so too now he has found instruments suited to his own purpose–namely Theodore, who was bishop of Pharan, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter, who were bishops of this imperial city, and further Honorius, who was pope of elder Rome, Cyrus, who held the see of Alexandria, and Macarius, who was recently bishop of Antioch, and his disciple Stephen — and has not been idle in raising through them obstacles of error against the full body of the church sowing with novel speech among the orthodox people the heresy of a single will and a single principle of action in the two natures of the one member of the holy Trinity Christ our true God, a heresy in harmony with the evil belief, ruinous to the mind, of the impious Apollinarius, Severus and Themistius, and one intent on removing the perfection of the becoming man of the same one lord Jesus Christ our God, through a certain guileful device, leading from there to the blasphemous conclusion that his rationally animate flesh is without a will and a principle of action.

    Constantinople IV:
    Further, we accept the sixth, holy and universal synod {6 Constantinople III}, which shares the same beliefs and is in harmony with the previously mentioned synods in that it wisely laid down that in the two natures of the one Christ there are, as a consequence, two principles of action and the same number of wills. So, we anathematize Theodore who was bishop of Pharan, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter, the unholy prelates of the church of Constantinople, and with these, Honorius of Rome, Cyrus of Alexandria as well as Macarius of Antioch and his disciple Stephen, who followed the false teachings of the unholy heresiarchs Apollinarius, Eutyches and Severus and proclaimed that the flesh of God, while being animated by a rational and intellectual soul, was without a principle of action and without a will, they themselves being impaired in their senses and truly without reason.

    Plus, Pope Honorius I was condemned liturgically in the Roman Breviary and in those of other variants of the Roman rite until Pope Clement VIII in the 16th century.

    He also is condemned in the propers for vespers of Sunday of the Six First Ecumenical Councils in the Byzantine rite:

    Verse 5. Because of Thy Name have I waited for Thee, O Lord; my soul hath waited upon Thy
    word, my soul hath hoped in the Lord.

    O glorified ones, verily ye did refute Pyrrhus, Sergius, Honorius, Eutyches, Dioscorus, with Nestorius the ugly, saving the flock of Christ from the fall of either side, proclaiming Christ aloud as dual in Nature and one in Person, manifest in acts alone. Him, therefore, we worship with the Father and the Spirit, perfect God and perfect Man, and honor you with glory.

  18. JamesM says:

    Why exactly should we be careful? Surely only “doctors of the law” need be careful?


  19. Tom A. says:

    I would say there are many modern Popes who could be condemned in the future for not defending the faith from the heresy of modernism.

  20. Aquinas Gal says:

    when I first read Amoris, I thought that a future pope would need to clarify its ambiguity. I think that even more now.

  21. Benedict Joseph says:

    Father Scanlon always has much of value to impart and his perspective is valuable. Regretfully it need be acknowledged that at this critical juncture in Church history, the route just traversed and the vista ahead gives ample testimony that this mode of analysis is no longer sufficient. It is indeed a quintessential example of all that has been wrong
    with “discerning the signs of the times” so encouraged by the spirit of Vatican II.
    Equating the philosophical/theological disputes around Christology in antiquity with the rationalizations supporting a spectrum of immorality in the age of instant communication does not wash – no matter how much we wish it did. It is a false comfort. [He didn’t equate them.]
    We can no longer lend the benefit of the doubt to a program termed “pastoral” which is grievously at odds with the perennial Magisterium of the Church. It is as if we are giving license to a group of pyromaniacs with a box of matches next to a gas can in a barn full of hay.
    It is delusional
    It is criminally irresponsible.
    It is entirely unacceptable.
    It is yet another example of pastoral malpractice.
    Placebos are not adequate to the catastrophe we are enduring at the hands of priests who have for all practical purposes abandoned Roman Catholicism for the embrace of deism, if not atheism under the guise of ecumenical outreach and a merciful hand to sinners.
    Indulgence of fraudulence serves only to foster and encourage its promotion.
    Adults can not only endure accountability, but profit and grow shouldering it – laity and priests.
    Even the pope.
    Forty-six months into this charade it is well past time for accountability.
    Yesterday a commenter sited this quote from Dom Prosper Guéranger:
    “When the shepherd becomes a wolf, the first duty of the flock is to defend itself. The true children of Holy Church, at such times, are those who walk by the light of their Baptism, not the cowardly souls who, under the specious pretext of submission to the powers that be, delay their opposition to the enemy in the hope of receiving instructions which are neither necessary nor desirable.”

  22. iprimap says:

    Good lesson from history. Thanks!

  23. Benedict Joseph says:

    I did a review reading and you are certainly right Father. Thanks for the correction.

  24. MWindsor says:

    “Was it Edmund Burke who said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it? It might have been George Satayana. ”

    It was Santayana. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  25. robtbrown says:

    Fr Z says,

    Scanlon is right, you know. The theological distinction, while important, is heady. The practical impact, on the other hand, is a more immediate problem.

    The point is that the two go together. You’d be surprised how many priests who hedge on morals also hedge on the Incarnation.

    And whatever the deficiences of Amoris Laetitia, it didn’t originiate the problems. In fact, I know a woman married to one of my best friends. Both Catholics, his second marriage, her first (civil), A priest well known as a conservative told her to go to Communion.

  26. dallenl says:

    In this instance, I agree. Saying nothing beats saying the wrong thing, something many of our clerics, including a few Popes, might should have done regarding some questions in the past.

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