Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Honor of Honorius

Last night I attended a dinner party for Christians who are interested in unity. The great part about it is that these meetings not based on talking about warm and fluffy things that we have in common. Instead, there is a relatively formal debate on issues that we do not have in common. Last month I attended a debate over whether some sins were mortal and others were venial, which made for some interesting discussion.

But this one had me far more excited at the outset, for it was about a far more central difference between Protestants and Catholics--the primacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome.

Biblical, historical, and logical arguments were presented and at some times it was in an unbiblical, ahistorical and illogical manner, but the point is that much controversy ensued. I could say quite a bit about the strengths and weaknesses of both sides throughout this debate, but I'll stick with one criticism from the opening statement of the Anglican minister. This will allow me to stay focused (always a problem for my flitting fancy) and more importantly this criticism of his is the most important way that one would be able to formulate a criticism of Rome's claims about the papacy, in my opinion.

Before I state what was stated, let me relate the actual official statement on infallibility as Roman Catholics understand it:

891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed,"419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith."420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent" which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

Point #891 states that when the Popes make definitive acts decreeing on matters of faith or morals that he will speak without error.

Point #892 of the catechism also goes on to note that all bishops, not just the Pope, have divine assistance assuring them of being in truth, when they teach in communion with the Pope.

Let's stop and note what it does not say:

It does not confuse the office of Pope with his personal life. That a very small minority of Popes had illegitimate children, were greedy, murderous, etc., says nothing about this matter. Nor does it mean that at no point in their life will they deny Christ, as Peter himself did while Christ was on trial.

It also is not confused into thinking that the Pope will always say the best thing. Their responses to all heresies will not be the most quick-witted or even clearest.

It also narrows the scope of interest to what interests us as Christians-matters of faith and morals.

Instead the guarantee is that the successors of Peter will not teach errors. They will not fail (hence the phrase infallibility) to teach things that should be believed by Christians. Could our understanding get better as time goes on? Yes, and we should growing in the depth and clarity of our love of Our Lord. More importantly, that is exactly what the development of the councils that have occurred in history indicate.

Now, all of this preface is to make sure we are on the same page, so as to not construct any straw men in our argumentation.

Let's now dive into the actual argumentation. As I said, the key way to convince me that these claims are falsified is through historical analysis. The debater last night did invoke such historical analysis in his opening points. What era of Church history was cited? The answer: the monothelitist controversy as it took place in the 600s.

Remember, at 451 the Coptic Church began, as the idea that Christ has two natures was decreed in opposition to them. The Copts decried that as heresy, and essentially the first Protestant Reformation occurred. Their view is that Christ's human nature was subsumed by his divine, thus they are called Monophysites, meaning one nature.

In the 600's, the separation was still on the minds of many Christians (as it should be on our minds today), and some new wording that stated that Christ had just one will was being advocated by some. He may have had two natures, but he had one will. This view is called the monothelite view, as thelos means will in Greek. It was hoped that this would win back the monophysites.

From 625-638, Honorius was the Pope, the bishop of Rome. As mentioned by my Protestant brother, the sixth ecumenical council in 680 condemned this Pope over his connection to the monothelite heresy.

Now, these are surely difficult matters to delve into, but that's where things are exciting and fun.

Why was Honorius condemned? The simple answer is that he was condemned because did not condemn his monothelite contemporaries. In fact, he seems to almost be sympathetic to them when he writes to them or about them in private letters. The debate rages to this day over whether Honorius was in agreement with the monothelites or not, but the important thing to grasp is this: the debate does not rage over whether Honorius made any public statements or convened over any councils that made the error of monothelitism a binding truth for believers.

His real failure was that he did not stop monothelitism when he could have. Now first, we should note that implicitly this gives Rome's claims historical backing, as his critics are asking him to stop other bishops, which would be beyond his power if Rome's claims were false. But more importantly, Honorius did not proclaim monothelitism or approve a council that was in favor of monothelitism.

Again, his failure was a failure to stop heresy.

And so I title this post The Honor of Honorius--he failed in many senses, but he's still honorable for not publicly proclaiming heresy. I cannot say the same for myself, if you count Christians on Campus at Chino High. But I digress.

More importantly, there is a great honor in the line of Popes that one can see if one is not afraid to search the pages of history.

For last night's debate reinforced what I feared as I first embarked on this journey.

There was only an 8 minute opening statement alloted to last night's debate, and this well-studied and eloquent minister had 2000 years of history to sift and to ponder on. When his attack hinged on history, he decided to choose Honorius. Why? I would argue that it's because that's the closest one even gets to resembling a disproof of infallibility. And it's not even close. Don't you think that if there were Popes denying things like Christ's divinity, etc., that that would have been used in this debate? Instead, we're left with Honorius, who is not so dishonorable after all.

You can read more from the Catholic perspective here.

Philip Schaff's church history presents the Protestant perspective here.

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