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Limits on Papal Authority: I do not wish to argue that anything about the limits of papal authority has been positively defined. My only business is to document the fact that the Tradition speaks clearly that papal authority is limited


Pharsea : When is the Pope not the Pope? - OoCities

This document does not try to demonstrate that the Extraordinary Magisterium has ever erred, I believe that it cannot. Moreover, I do not wish to argue that anything about the limits of papal authority has been positively defined. My only business is to document the fact that the Tradition speaks clearly that papal authority is limited and makes pretty clear what these limits are. Papal authority is limited as regards to:

  1. the ends it should be used to attain;
  2. its credibility when the charism of infallibility is not explicitly invoked;
  3. how the result of any particular exercise of infallible authority is to be understood and
  4. how it can be known that it has in fact been exercised.
Conservative Catholics who wish to make of the pope some sort of everyday inspired mouthpiece of God would be well advised to read and learn well the facts of history which make it quite clear that he is no such thing.


"What then should a Catholic do if some part of the Church were to separate itself from communion with the universal Faith?  What other choice can he make but to prefer to the gangrenous and corrupted member the whole of the body that is sound.  And if some new contagion were to try to poison no longer a small part of the Church, but all of  the Church at the same time, then he will take the greatest care to attach himself to antiquity which, obviously, can no longer be seduced by any lying novelty."  (Commonitorium)


The Eucharistic Canon remained unchanged from Apostolic times to the present day, with the exception of one short clause inserted by St. Gregory the Great. The phrase Pope Gregory added was "diesque nostros in tua pace disponas" [may you order our days in Thy peace] to the Hanc Igitur of  the Canon. The Romans were outraged at this act and threatened to kill the pope because he had dared to touch the Sacred Liturgy. The Mass was affirmed to be complete and unchangeable. Since that time no pope has dared to change the Ordo of the Traditional Latin Mass, until in 1962 Pope John XXIII added "beati Ioseph, eiusdem Virginis Sponsi" [of blessed Joseph, Spouse of the same Virgin] to the Communicantes of the Canon.

POPE ST. AGATHO (678-681)

The Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, one of the oldest collections of papal texts, privileges, and decrees, written down by Pope St. Agatho with texts that contain centuries of tradition, includes the following Papal Coronation Oath, probably already a couple of centuries old, by which every pope since then has sworn as a requirement of acceding to the papal office until John Paul II failed to do so.
"I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein;
To the contrary:  with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort;
To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order, should such appear;
To guard the Holy Canons and Decrees of our Popes as if they were the Divine ordinances of Heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, whose place I take through the Grace of God, whose Vicarship I possess with Thy support, being subject to the severest accounting before Thy Divine Tribunal over all that I shall confess;
I swear to God Almighty and the Saviour Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared.
I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church.  I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I.
If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou willst not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice.
Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone - be it ourselves or be it another - who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction to this constituted evangelic Tradition and the purity of the Orthodox Faith and the Christian Religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture."


"The pope should not flatter himself about his power, nor should he rashly glory in his honour and high estate, because the less he is judged by man, the more he is judged by God. Still the less can the Roman Pontiff glory, because he can be judged by men, or rather, can be shown to be already judged, if for example he should wither away into heresy, because he who does not believe is already judged.  In such a case it should be said of him:  'If salt should lose its savour, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled under foot by men.'"  (Sermo 4)

ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, O.P. (1225-1274)

"Hold firmly that your faith is identical with that of the ancients. Deny this, and you dissolve the unity of the Church."

"There being an imminent danger for the Faith, prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects. Thus, St. Paul, who was a  subject of St. Peter, questioned him publicly on account of an imminent danger of scandal in a matter of Faith. And, as the Glossa of St. Augustine puts it (Ad Galatas 2.14), 'St. Peter himself gave the example to those who govern so that if sometime they stray from the right way, they will not reject a correction as unworthy even if it comes from their subjects....'

"Some say that fraternal correction does not extend to the prelates either because man should not raise his voice against heaven, or because the prelates are easily scandalized if corrected by their subjects. However, this does not happen, since when they sin, the prelates do not represent heaven, and, therefore, must be corrected. And those who correct them charitably do not raise their voices against them, but in their favour, since the admonishment is for their own sake ....  For this reason, according to other [authors], the precept of fraternal correction extends also to the prelates, so that they may be corrected by their subjects."  (IV Sententiarum, D. 19, Q. 2, A. 2)


Alas, Most Holy Father! At times, obedience to you leads to eternal damnation. (To Pope Gregory IX, 1376.)


"Although it clearly follows from the circumstances that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that  he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not .... it is said in the Acts of the Apostles: 'One ought to obey God rather than man'; therefore, were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of  the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands, to be passed over despiciendus)...."  (Summa de Ecclesia [1489], founded upon the doctrine formulated by the Council of Florence and later re-asserted by Pope Eugenius IV and Pope Pius IV)

ST. ANTONINUS, O.P. (1389-1459)

"In the case in which the pope would become a heretic, he would find himself, by that fact alone and without any other sentence, separated from the Church. A head separated from a body cannot, as long as it remains separated, be head of the same body from which it was cut off.

"A pope who would be separated from the Church by heresy, therefore, would by that very fact itself cease to be head of the Church.  He could not be a heretic and remain pope, because, since he is outside of the Church, he cannot possess the keys of the Church."  (Summa Theologica)


"Where the Pope is, there is also the Church" holds true only when the pope acts and behaves as the pope, because Peter "is subject to the duties of the Office"; otherwise, "neither is the Church in him, nor is he in the Church." (Apud St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, Q. 39, Art. 1, ad 6)

POPE ADRIAN VI (1522-1523)

"If by the Roman Church you mean its head or pontiff, it is beyond question that he can err even in matters touching the faith. He does this when he teaches heresy by his own judgement or decretal. In truth, many Roman pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was Pope John XXII (1316-1334)."


"Just as it is lawful to resist the pope that attacks the body, it is also lawful to resist the one who attacks the souls or who disturbs civil order, or, above all, who attempts to destroy the Church. I say that it is lawful to resist him by not doing what he orders and preventing his will from being executed."  (De Romano Pontifice, Lib. II, Ch. 29)

"A pope who is a manifest heretic automatically (per se) ceases to be pope and head of the Church, just as he ceases automatically to be a Christian and a member of the Church. Wherefore, he can be judged and punished by the Church.  All the early Fathers are unanimous in teaching that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction. St. Cyprian, in particular, laid great stress on this point."  (De Romano Pontifice, II. 30)

FRANCISCO SUAREZ, S.J. (1548-1617)

"And in this second way the Pope could be schismatic, if he were unwilling to be in normal union with the whole body of the Church, as would occur if he attempted to excommunicate the whole Church, or, as both Cajetan and Torquemada observe, if he wished to overturn the rites of the Church based on Apostolic Tradition."

"If [the pope] gives an order contrary to right customs, he should not be obeyed; if he attempts to do something manifestly opposed to justice and the common good, it will be lawful to resist him; if he attacks by force, by force he can be repelled, with a moderation appropriate to a just defence."  (De Fide, Disp. X, Sec. VI, N. 16)

ST. FRANCIS DE SALES (1567-1622)

"Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII; or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was. Now when he (the Pope) is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the
Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See."
[The Catholic Controversy, Tan Books, pp. 305-306]


"If ever a pope, as a private person, should fall into heresy, he would at once fall from the pontificate. If, however, God were to permit a pope to become a notoriously and contumacious heretic, he would by such fact cease to be pope, and the apostolic chair would be vacant."  (Verita della Fede, Pt. III, Ch. VIII. 9-10)


"It has always been maintained by Catholic theologians that for heresy the Church may judge the Pope, because, as most maintain, by  heresy he ceases to be Pope. There is no variance on this head amongst  theologians that I know of, except that some, with Turrecremata and Bellarmine, hold that by heresy he ipso facto ceases to be Pope: whilst others, with Cajetan and John of St. Thomas, maintain that he would not  formally [as opposed to materially] cease to be Pope until he was  formally deposed.

"The privilege of infallible teaching belongs only to an undoubted Pope; and on the claims of a doubtful, disputed Pope the Church has the right of judging. No single example can be produced of a Pope whose orthodoxy and succession was undoubted upon whom the Church pretended to sit in judgement ....  During a contested Papacy the state of things approximates to that of an interregnum. The exercise of active infallibility is suspended." (Catholic Controversy, 6th ed., Burns & Oates, pp. 30-31)


"I am only the pope. What power have I to touch the Canon?"

"If a future pope teaches anything contrary to the Catholic Faith, do not follow him."


"For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or Deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles."

The question was also raised by a Cardinal, 'What is to be done with the Pope if he becomes a heretic?' It was answered that there has never been such a case; the Council of Bishops could depose him for heresy, for from the moment he becomes a heretic he is not the head or even a member of the Church. The Church would not be, for a moment, obliged to listen to him when he begins to teach a doctrine the Church knows to be a false doctrine, and he would cease to be Pope, being deposed by God Himself.

"If the Pope, for instance, were to say that the belief in God is false, you would not be obliged to believe him, or if he were to deny the rest of the creed, 'I believe in Christ,' etc. The supposition is injurious to the Holy Father in the very idea, but serves to show you the fullness with which the subject has been considered and the ample thought given to every possibility. If he denies any dogma of the Church held by every true believer, he is no more Pope than either you or I; and so in this respect the dogma of infallibility amounts to nothing as an article of temporal government or cover for heresy."

Address at the First Vatican Council by Archbishop Purcell, of Cincinnati, Ohio, on the infallibility of the Pope as defined at the Council.


"The Pope has no authority from Christ in temporal matters, in questions of politics....  His authority is ecclesiastical authority; it goes no further than that of the Church herself. But even in religious matters, the Pope is bound, very considerably, by the divine constitution of the Church. There are any number of things that the pope cannot do in religion. He cannot modify, nor touch in any way, one single point of the revelation Christ gave to the Church; his business is only to guard this against attack and false interpretation. We believe that God will guide him that his decisions of this nature will be nothing more than a defence or unfolding of what Christ revealed."
"The pope can neither make nor unmake a sacrament; he cannot affect the essence of any sacrament in any way. He cannot touch the Bible; he can neither take away a text from the inspired Scriptures nor add one to them. He has no fresh inspiration nor revelation."
"His business is to believe the revelation of Christ, as all Catholics believe it, and to defend it against heresy....  The Pope is not, in the absolute sense, head of the Church; the head of the Church is Jesus Christ our Lord....  The Pope is the vicar of that head, and therefore visible head of the Church on earth, having authority delegate from Christ over the Church on Earth only....  If the Pope is a monarch, he is a very constitutional monarch indeed, bound on all sides by the constitution of the Church, as this has been given to her by Christ."  (The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451, pp. 27-28)


A pope who, while not being guilty of formal heresy in the strict sense, has allowed heresy to undermine the Church through compromise, weakness, ambiguous or even gravely imprudent teaching remains Pope, but can be judged by his successors,
and condemned as was the case with Honorius I.

Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI)

"Patriarch Athenagoras spoke even more strongly when he greeted the Pope in Phanar: 'Against all expectation, the bishop of Rome is among us, the first among us in honor, 'he who presides in love'. It is clear that, in saying this, the Patriarch did not abandon the claims of the Eastern Churches or acknowledge the primacy of the west. Rather, he stated plainly what the East understood as the order, the rank and title, of the equal bishops in the Church - and it would be worth our while to consider whether this archaic confession, which has nothing to do with the 'primacy of jurisdiction' but confesses a primacy of 'honor' and agape, might not be recognized as a formula that adequately reflects the position that Rome occupies in the Church - 'holy courage' requires that prudence be combined with 'audacity': 'The kingdom of God suffers violence.'"
[Cardinal Ratzinger, "Principles of Catholic Theology" (1982) pp. 216-217]

The Liturgy cannot be compared to a piece of equipment, something made, but rather to a plant, something organic that grows and whose laws of growth determine the possibilities of further development. In the West there has been, of course, another factor involved. This was the Papal authority, the Pope took ever more clearly the responsibility upon himself for the liturgical legislation, and so doing foresaw in a juridical authority for the forth setting of the liturgical development. The stronger the papal primacy was exercised, the more the question arose, just what the limits of this authority were, which of course, no-one had ever before thought about. After the Second Vatican Council, the impression has been made that the Pope, as far as the Liturgy goes, can actually do everything he wishes to do, certainly when he was acting with the mandate of an Oecumenical Council. Finally, the idea that the Liturgy is a predetermined ''given'', the fact that nobody can simply do what he wishes with her, disappeared out of the public conscience of the Western [Church]. In fact, the First Vatican Council did not in any way define that the Pope was an absolute monarch! Au contraire, the first Vatican Council sketched his role as that of a guarantee for the obedience to the Revealed Word. The papal authority is limited by the Holy Tradition of the Faith, and that regards also the Liturgy. The Liturgy is no ''creation'' of the authorities. Even the Pope can be nothing other than a humble servant of the Liturgy's legitimate development and of her everlasting integrity and identity. (Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000 AD)


What follows is largely - but not exclusively - inspired by earlier studies by Paul Halsall to be found in his "Compedium of Errors" on the Gay Catholic Handbook website.

LIBERIUS (352-355)

Liberius was exiled from Rome by act of the Arian Emperor Constantius. However he returned before the end of 357 AD, and it was noised abroad that he had signed the condemnation of Athanasius and perhaps some Arian Creed.
  1. The Arian Philostorgius says that Liberius was restored only when he had consented to sign the Semi-Arian second formula of Sirmium.
  2. The same story of the Pope's fall is supported by three letters attributed to him in the disputed so-called "Historical Fragments" ["Fragmenta ex Opere Historico" in P.L., X, 678 sqq.] of St. Hilary.
  3. Sozomen tells us it was a lie, propagated by the Arian Eudoxius, who had just invaded the See of Antioch.
  4. Nevertheless, St. Jerome believed it, as in his "Chronicle" he says that Liberius "conquered by the tedium of exile and subscribing to heretical wickedness entered Rome in triumph". The preface to the "Liber Precum" also speaks of his yielding to heresy.
  5. St. Athanasius, writing apparently at the end of 357 AD, says: "Liberius, having been exiled, gave in after two years, and, in fear of the death with which he was threatened, signed", i.e. the condemnation of Athanasius himself [Hist. Ar., xli]; and again: "If he did not endure the tribulation to the end yet he remained in his exile for two years knowing the conspiracy against me."
  6. St. Hilary, writing at Constantinople in 360 AD, addresses Constantius thus: "I know not whether it was with greater impiety that you exiled him than that you restored him" [Contra Const., II].
  7. St. Robert Bellarmine writes:  "In addition, unless we are to admit that Liberius defected for a time from constancy in defending the Faith, we are compelled to exclude Felix II, who held the pontificate while Liberius was alive, from the

  8. number of Popes: but the Catholic Church venerates this very Felix as Pope and martyr .... Then two years later came the lapse of Liberius, of which we have spoken above. Then indeed the Roman clergy, stripping Liberius of his pontifical dignity, went over to Felix, whom they knew to be a Catholic. From that time, Felix began to be the true Pontiff. For although Liberius was not a heretic, nevertheless he was considered one, on account of the peace he made with the Arians, and by that presumption the pontificate could rightly be taken from him: for men are not bound or able to read hearts; but when they see that someone is a heretic by his external works, they judge him to be a heretic pure and simple, and condemn him as a heretic."[On the Roman Pontiff]
If Liberius signed the heretical formulæ in exile, he not do it freely. If he really consorted with heretics and condemned Athanasius, it was from human weakness. Nevertheless, this story shows that a Pope may err in his doctrinal teaching out of human weakness. In this case it was from fear, in other cases it might be from conceit, rashness, intemperance or some other vice.

ZOSIMUS (417-418)

One of the most famous phrases ascribed to St Augustine of Hippo is "Rome has spoken, the case is ended". The events around the utterance of this phrase demonstrate rather a lot of papal fallibility!

First, Augustine never made the remark as it is usually stated. The phrase comes from a sermon concerning part of Augustine's struggle with Pelagius and Caelestius over the issue of free will. It was given in Carthage in September 417 AD, after the receipt of a letter from Pope Innocent I. The crucial phrase is "Two synods having written to the Apostolic See about this matter; the replies have come back; the question is settled." This can be read as if Augustine was placing papal authority above that of councils: as if it were the last word. However, in this instance, the case was most certainly not settled.

Pope Innocent died in March 417 AD and the new Pope, Zosimus proceeded to reopen the case. Moreover, he did so with the intention of  favouring heresy. In the presence of the Roman clergy, he allowed as orthodox the heretical statements of Pelagius, which had been condemned by his predecessor and the two Councils of Carthage. He also condemned those who held the orthodox Catholic faith as calumniators [Letter "Postquam nobis," November 21, 417; Letter "Magnum pondus"] and demanded a formal retraction from St. Augustine of Hippo and his ally St. Aurelian of Carthage.

In response, St. Augustine and St. Aurelian took a solemn oath with God as witness (obtestatio), affirming that the traditional  Catholic doctrine prevailed over the judgement of the Pope. This conclusion was upheld by a plenary council of all Africa.  Eventually the Emperor Honorius condemned Pelagius and Caelestius. Confronted with resistance to his part in perpetuating heresy, Pope Zosimus finally followed the Emperor's example by renewing the excommunication of Pelagius.

Then Zosimus died, and Pelagius tried to reopen the case yet again. This time Augustine used lay contacts at the imperial court to prevent italian bishops from supporting Pelagius. Augustine was prepared to appeal to anyone to get his point accepted.

For a full discussion see Peter Brown, "Augustine of Hippo", (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 356-63.

VIGILIUS (537-555)

In the year 540 AD, Pope Vigilius took a stand against monophysitism in two letters sent to Constantinople, one addressed to the Emperor Justinian, the other to the Patriarch Menas. In both letters the pope supports the Synods of Ephesus and Chalcedon, also the decisions of his predecessor Leo I, and throughout approves of the deposition of the Patriarch Anthimus.

In 543 AD Emperor Justinian issued a decree which condemned the various (supposed) material heresies of the prominent egyptian theologian Origen; this decree was sent for signature to all the Patriarchs. In order to draw the Emperor's thoughts from Origenism, the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, suggested that condemnation of various representatives of the Antiochene school, including his namesake Theodore of Mopsueta, who were reputed to have championed Nestorianism, would make union with the Egyptians easier. The emperor, who was keen to win them over, agreed to this, and he issued a new edict condemning "The Three Chapters", a summary of their theology.

The Eastern Bishops signed this, however the Western Episcopate considered that this procedure risked detracting from the Oecumenical Council of Chalcedon. Pope Vigilius refused to acknowledge the imperial edict and was kidnapped to Constantinople by the Emperor, in order to settle the matter there with a synod. Justinian proceeded to convene a Council (Constantinople II) intending it both to condemn Origenism and to rescind the condemnation of "Monophysitism": the heresy that there is only one compound nature in Christ.

The Council condemned Origenism, but only by including Origen's name in a list of heretics. It also condemned a whole series of teachings that it attributed to Theodore of Mopsueta himself, and described him - in passing - aas a heretic even though he had been dead over a century and had died in communion with the Church. Justinian was disappointed, because the Council did nothing positive to aid reconciliation with the Egyptian Church.

This wasn't an outcome to Pope Vigilius' quasi Nestorian taste. At first he refused to go along with it. He issued his own Constitutum which condemned certain propositions from Theodore's writing, but not his writings as a whole nor the person himself. The Constitutum also anathematized those who condemned Theodore's "Three Chapters" by name. Although the Constitutum could be understood as fairer to Theodore than was the Council, it was in direct conflict with promises made by Pope Vigilius to condemn Theodore and the "Three Chapters".

As a result of this action, the Pope was excommunicated for heresy, first by an African Council and then also by the Council of Eastern bishops still meeting in Constantinople. He was forced to publicly annul the Constitutum, although he continued to support it privately in correspondence with the Emperor. In December 553 AD, he wrote a letter to Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople, repenting his own writing, ratifying the decisions of the Second Synod of Constantinople (hence making it Oecumenical) and saying that he had been deceived by the devil. Finally, the Pope declared his judgement in detail in a Constitution of 26 February, 554 AD. At the end of a sorrowful residence of eight years at Constantinople, Pope Vigilius was allowed to set off home to Rome in the spring of 555 AD.

HONORIUS I (625-638)

Monothelatism was a "heresy" that attempted to resolve the  long-standing dispute about the relation of human and divine in the person of Christ. The Monothelite question was raised about 634 AD in a letter to Pope Honorius from Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He related that Emperor Heraclius, in refuting a Monophysite, had made use of the expression "one operation" of the Incarnate Word. Cyrus, Bishop of the Lazi, had considered this doubtfully orthodox, and had asked advice of Patriarch Sergius, which he was reticent to give. In 630 AD Cyrus had been made orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt. He had managed to formulate a series of propositions, which most of the "monophysite" Copts were willing to accept, and they were by this joyfully means reunited in large numbers to the Catholic Church. From a modern perspective, it is far from clear that the Copts were ever heterodox. At this juncture the monk Sophronius (later Patriarch of Jerusalem) spoke up against Cyrus' settlement. In the end a compromise was agreed pending the decision of the Pope of Rome.

The exact character and status of the official reply of one Patriarch to the formal consultation of another that resulted is a matter of heated dispute. However, it is agreed that Pope Honorius wrote:

     Wherefore we acknowledge One Will of our Lord Jesus Christ, for evidently it was our nature and not the sin in it
     which was assumed by the Godhead, that is to say, the nature which was created before sin, not the nature which
     was vitiated by sin.

Clearly, this is not a definition of doctrine.  Just as clearly, it is an act of the Ordinary Papal Magisterium

In response to the Pope's letter, the Patriarch Sergius composed an "Ecthesis", or exposition, which was issued by the emperor towards the end of 638 AD. It orders all to confess one Will in our Lord. Before Sergius died, in December, he assembled a synod at Constantinople, which accepted the Ecthesis as "truly agreeing with the Apostolic preaching"; the letter from the Apostolic See was evidently the surety for this. Honorius was dead by this point and had had no opportunity of approving or disapproving the imperial document which had been based upon his letter.

Pope John IV subsequently wrote a letter known as the "Apology for Pope Honorius". In it he argues cogently that both Sergius and Honorius asserted One Will only because they would not admit two contrary wills; yet he shows by his argument that they were wrong in using so misleading an expression. The words of Pope Honorius were thereby shown to be heretical.

Pope St. Agatho sent legates to preside at the Sixth general council which  met at Constantinople in 680. They brought with them a long dogmatic letter in which the Pope set out the Traditional faith. He emphatically declares that the Apostolic Church of St. Peter has never fallen into error. He condemns the Ecthesis, and Bishops Cyrus and Sergius together with others. The new Patriarch of Constantinople, George, and all the council accepted the papal letter. In its thirteenth session, two letters of Sergius were condemned, and the council added:

     Those whose impious dogmas we execrate, we judge that their names also shall be cast out of the holy Church of
     God ..... these we define to be subject to anathema. And in addition to these we decide that Honorius also, who
     was Pope of elder Rome, be with them cast out of the holy Church of God, and be anathematized with
     them, because we have found by his letter to Sergius that he followed his opinion in all things, and confirmed his
     wicked dogmas.

Setting aside the word "wicked", these last words are true. If Sergius was to be condemned Honorius could not be rescued. It can be argued that that Honorius was not condemned by the council as a Monothelatite, but rather for approving Sergius' policy, which at one time had amounted to placing both orthodox and heretical expressions under the same ban. On the other hand, it could be argued from a modern perspective, that the Council erred for renewing the condemnation of "monophysitism" and Sergius and Cyrus for their success in reconciling the Copts!

Here are some more details:

  1. The Papal legates to the Oecumenical Synod made no objection to the condemnation of Pope Honorius.
  2. In the closing session of the Council, the Patriarch of Constantinople petitioned "that the persons be not anathematized by name". He only mentions his own predecessors; but Honorius would also have been spared, had the legates supported the suggestion. But there was no attempt to save the reputation of Honorius, and this petition was rejected.
  3. In the final acclamations, "anathema to Honorius", among the other heretics, was shouted.
  4. The solemn dogmatic decree, signed by the legates, all the bishops, and the emperor, condemns a number of heretics mentioned by St. Agatho "and also Honorius who was Pope of elder Rome".
  5. The emperor's letter to the pope refers to Honorius as "the confirmer of the heresy and contradictor of himself".
  6. Pope Leo II confirmed the decree of the Council and explicitly anathematized Honorius, with these  words "Also Honorius, who was shown to be incapable of enlightening this Apostolic Church by the doctrine of Apostolic Tradition, in that he allowed its immaculate faith to be blemished by a sacrilegious betrayal."
  7. Pope Honorius was subsequently included in the lists of heretics anathematized by the Trullan Synod.
  8. The Seventh Oecumenical Council (Nicea II) decreed "We affirm that in Christ there be two wills and two operations according to the reality of each nature, as also taught by the Sixth Synod held at Constantinople, casting out Sergius,  Honorius, Cyrus, Pyrrhus, Macarius, and all those who agree with them".
  9. Popes from the 5th to the 11th Century took an oath in a form prescribed by Gregory II. This Oath included the phrase "smites with eternal anathema the originators of  the new heresy, Sergius, etc., together with Honorius, because he assisted in the base assertion of heresies". [Liber diurnus, ii, 9].
  10. It is clear that Pope Honorius was a heretic in fact (materially), while perhaps not in intention (formally).
  11. He may not have been condemned as a Monothelite, though he did specifically propose this "heresy".
  12. It would be harsh to regard him as a "private heretic", for it would appear that he acted throughout with piety.
[See Percival, Ed, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, p. 351-352]


The Bull "Unam Sanctam", in which Pope Boniface VIII asserted his rights against King Philip the Fair of  France, is a landmark in the history of the doctrine of Papal Primacy. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia says:
"The Bull lays down dogmatic propositions on the unity of the Church, the necessity of belonging to it for the attainment of eternal salvation, the position of the Pope as supreme head of the Church, and the duty thence arising of submission to the Pope in order to belong to the Church and thus to attain salvation. In the writings of non-Catholic authors against the definition of Papal Infallibility, the Bull .... was used against Boniface VIII as well as against the papal primacy in a manner not justified by its content.  The statements concerning the relations between the spiritual and the secular power are of a purely historical character, so far as they do not refer to the nature of the spiritual power, and are based on the actual conditions of medieval Europe."
The Bull seems to fulfil all the requirements of an infallible papal statement as laid down in 1871 AD at the First Vatican Council. The final line ".... we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff" is in the form used for the declarations on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.

As it stands, this doctrine was later repudiated by the Church. In the 19th century, Pius IX was clear that innocent people of goodwill could be saved! The Second Vatican Council specifically asserts that people in (but not by) all religions can be saved. Although some later commentators have tried to salvage the position, usually by asserting that only the Church has the right to interpret its own documents, there is little doubt that there has been a de facto reversal in the intended teaching.

My detailed analysis of this problem will be found elsewhere.

UNAM SANCTAM (Promulgated November 18, 1302)

Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic.  We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins, as the Spouse in the Canticles [Sgs 6:8] proclaims: 'One is my dove, my perfect one.  She is the only one, the chosen of her who bore her,' and she represents one sole mystical body whose Head is Christ and the head of Christ is God [1 Cor 11:3]. In her then is one Lord, one faith, one baptism [Eph 4:5]. There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, i.e., Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed.

We venerate this Church as one, the Lord having said by the mouth of the prophet: 'Deliver, O God, my soul from the sword and my only one from the hand of the dog.' [Ps 21:20] He has prayed for his soul, that is for himself, heart and body; and this body, that is to say, the Church, He has called one because of the unity of the Spouse, of the faith, of the sacraments, and of the charity of the Church. This is the tunic of the Lord, the seamless tunic, which was not rent but which was cast by lot [Jn 19:23-24]. Therefore, of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter, since the Lord speaking to Peter Himself said: 'Feed my sheep' [Jn 21:17], meaning, my sheep in general, not these, nor those in particular, whence we understand that He entrusted all to him [Peter].  Therefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John 'there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.' We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal.  For when the Apostles say: 'Behold, here are two swords' [Lk 22:38] that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient. Certainly the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: 'Put up thy sword into thy scabbard' [Mt 26:52]. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former (sic) is to be administered for the Church but the latter (sic) by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.

However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power.  For since the Apostle said: 'There is no power except from God and the things that are, are ordained of God' [Rom 13:1-2], but they would not be ordained if one sword were not subordinated to the other and if the inferior one, as it were, were not led upwards by the other.

For, according to the Blessed Dionysius, it is a law of  the divinity that the lowest things reach the highest place by
intermediaries. Then, according to the order of the universe, all things are not led back to order equally and immediately, but the lowest by the intermediary, and the inferior by the superior. Hence we must recognize the more clearly that spiritual power surpasses in dignity and in nobility any temporal power whatever, as spiritual things surpass the temporal. This we see very clearly also by the payment, benediction, and consecration of the tithes, but the acceptance of power itself and by the government even of things. For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgement if it has not been good. Thus is accomplished the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the Church and the ecclesiastical power: 'Behold to-day I have placed you over nations, and over kingdoms' and the rest. Therefore, if the terrestrial power err, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a minor spiritual power err, it will be judged by a superior spiritual power; but if the highest power of all err, it can be judged only by God, and not by man, according to the testimony of the Apostle: 'The spiritual man judgeth of all things and he himself is judged by no man' [1 Cor 2:15]. This authority, however, (though it has been given to man and is exercised by man), is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him (Peter) and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, 'Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven' etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [Rom 13:2], unless he invent like Manicheus two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical, since according to the testimony of Moses, it is not in the beginnings but in the beginning that God created heaven and earth [Gen 1:1]. Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Boniface VIII's teaching was largely repeated on a number of  later occasions by both councils and popes. Vatican II in its  Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, "Lumen Gentium" #15-17 directly contradicts the manifest intent of this doctrine.

JOHN XXII (1316-1334)

John XXII was the second Avignon Pope - but this was before the schism of 1378 AD, and he is universally accepted as a legitimate Pope. In many respects he was one of the  greatest Popes of the 14th century in his efforts to reform the Church. He was also a vigorous preacher. In a sermon on All Saints day  in 1331 AD he espoused a heresy when he insisted that the souls of the dead do not attain the beatific vision until after the general resurrection. This teaching provoked much dispute. The Pope retracted it on his death bed. His successor, Benedict XII, issued the Constitution "Benedictus Deus" in 1336 AD. This asserted that the blessed souls of the dead "see the face of the triune God immediately after death". The same teaching was repeated by the Oecumenical Councils of Florence and Trent.

For a quick overview see William R. Canon, "History of Christianity in the Middle Ages", pp 293-4

For the relevant texts see J Neuner and J Dupuis, eds., "The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents if the Catholic Church", revised edition. ( New York: Alba House, 1981),  pp 684-687

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