Today the Church commemorates the Bishop of Rome who brought the monothelite controversy to an end at last after more than half a century. Here I continue the story begun in my blog entry of 21 January for St Maximus Confessor, taking it from St Maximus’s death in A.D. 662 to the convening of the 6th Œcumenical Council in 680.
This is a story of weak popes and strong popes. It begins properly with Pope Honorius I (625–638). When Sophronius was elected Patriarch of Jerusalem in 634 and rejected the monothelite compromise, Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople wrote a clever letter to Pope Honorius that led the pope to make a few imprudent remarks, which were thenceforth used by the supporters of the compromise as evidence that they had the support of Rome.
Pope Severinus was elected on the death of Honorius in 638 but the Emperor Heraclius refused to confirm him until he subscribed to the Ecthesis, the decree making monotheletism the official doctrine of the Empire. The stalemate lasted a year and a half before Heraclius backed down. Severinus was installed as pope in 640 and thereupon condemned the Ecthesis, but only lived two months longer. Pope John IV (640–642) also condemned the Ecthesis, although he attempted to justify Honorius, saying that, by one will in Christ, he meant only to say that there were not two contrary wills.
John was succeeded by a Greek born in Jerusalem, who became Pope Theodore I (642–649). He also condemned the Ecthesis, refusing to recognise the monothelite Paul II as the new Patriarch of Constantinople. Paul, trying to placate everyone, had the Emperor Constans II withdraw the Ecthesis and substitute the Typos in 648—instead of being required to profess one will in Christ, the faithful were forbidden to profess anything at all on the subject. Theodore planned the Lateran Council of 649 to address the issue of monotheletism but did not live to convene it. He is commemorated by the Orthodox Church as a saint, his feast on 18 May.
Pope Martin I (649–655) convened the Lateran Council of 649, representing the Western bishops. He had been Pope Theodore’s representative in Constantinople and was well-informed on the politics of the issue. St Maximus Confessor was in Rome by this time and some believe that he wrote the council’s Acta. The council condemned monotheletism and rejected both the Ecthesis and the Typos. The Emperor Constans responded by having him arrested in 653, along with St Maximus, and taken to Constantinople, where he was subjected to much mistreatment. He was sentenced to death but Patriarch Paul obtained the commutation of the sentence. He was exiled to the Crimea where he died in 656. The Orthodox Church commemorates him as a saint and confessor, his feast on 13 April.
By this point, there was no longer any ambiguity concerning the theological issues involved. The only question still open was whether political expediency or the doctrinal purity of the Church would prevail. After the arrest of Martin in 653, the papal see remained vacant for a little over a year, until Pope Eugene I was elected in 654. The fate of Saint Martin had its intended effect: the new pope avoided any mention of the number of wills in Christ. He died in 657.
His successor, Pope Vitalian (657–672), although orthodox on the question of the number of wills in Christ, followed in the footsteps of Eugene and kept quiet as long as Constans was alive.
On the death of Constans in 668, his son came to the throne as Constantine IV. Constantine had little interest in maintaining the monothelite heresy but did not oppose it either, fully occupied as he was defending the empire against Arab and Slav invasions. Thus, while Vitalian now openly criticised monetheletism, he made little impression on the other patriarchs. The subsequent popes, Adeodatus II (672–676) and Donus (676–678) were conciliatory on the question of monotheletism, not wishing to make waves.
It was the next pope, St Agatho (feast, 20 February), who broke the deadlock at last. He was born in Sicily, became a monk on his parents’ death, was noted for his erudition and deep humility, and had been serving as treasurer of the Roman Church when Pope Donus died. He succeeded him in July 678. The Patriarch of Constantinople at the time was the monothelite Theodore I.
Agatho summoned a council in Rome in 680 which professed the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s wills and then wrote two letters to the Emperor Constantine, refuting monotheletism and proposing a council to resolve the issue finally. A year earlier, Theodore had been succeeded by the orthodox George I as Patriarch of Constantinople, commemorated by the Church as a saint, feast together with Patriarch John V (669–675) on 18 August. Constantine now agreed and the council was duly held in Constantinople, November 680–September 681, the 6th Œcumenical Council, condemning monenergism and monotheletism. After the reading of the pope’s letter to the assembled prelates at its opening, they declared, ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Agatho,’ echoing the famous cry, ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo,’ at Chalcedon. But before the council could conclude, the pope had already fallen asleep in the Lord on 11 January 681.
Leo II, not consecrated until August 682 because of disagreements with Constantinople over imperial control of papal elections, succeeded him and confirmed the acts of the council. This was the most important act in his brief reign. He attempted to mitigate the anathema of Honorius, pronounced by the council, saying that his fault was not heresy but being insufficiently active in refuting heresy. (A thousand years in the future, this anathema was to be hotly debated when the First Vatican Council (1869–70) defined the dogma of papal infallibility, although in fact it was quite irrelevant, Honorius having been musing rather than pronouncing ex cathedra.)
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.