Oftentimes, Pope Agatho’s letter to the bishops at convening at Constantinople is cited as proof of Papal claims being universally accepted pre-schism. However, after reading a synopsis of Constantinople III, I find such claims untenable. The following highlights from the council have been selected because I feel that they are especially important for those trying to discern Orthodoxy’s claims vis a vis Roman Catholicism.

Excerpts from Pope Agatho’s Letter

Let’s read the following excerpts and try to figure out what Pope Agatho was claiming and what he was allowing people to construe his words to mean:

To these same commissioners we also have given the witness of some of the holy Fathers, whom this Apostolic Church of Christ receives, together with their books, so that, having obtained from the power of your most benign Christianity the privilege of suggesting, they might out of these endeavour to give satisfaction, (when your imperial Meekness shall have so commanded) as to what this Apostolic Church of Christ, their spiritual mother and the mother of your God-sprung empire, believes and preaches…

Peter was pronounced blessed by the Lord of all things, was revealed by the Father of heaven, for he received from the Redeemer of all himself, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church; under whose protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error, whose authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church, and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced, and followed in all things; and all the venerable Fathers have embraced its Apostolic doctrine…This is the living tradition of the Apostles of Christ, which his Church holds everywhere…For this is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of Almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end…

Consequently, therefore, according to the rule of the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, she [Rome] also confesses and preaches that there are in him two natural wills and two natural operations

In short, it seems to me pretty obvious that Pope Agatho is saying that “this Apostolic Church” (i.e. Rome) is infallible. In the first paragraph, “this Apostolic Church” clearly is identified as Rome (“we also have given the witness of some of the holy Fathers, whom this Apostolic Church of Christ.”) It is possible I am hinging too much on an English translation, but I think the third paragraph (which clearly identifies “the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ” as mutually exclusive from “she” [Rome]) is the key to the purposefully vague point being made in the second paragraph.

Clearly, Pope Agatho is saying that “this Apostolic Church never turned away from the path of truth” is in reference to Rome. He invokes Saint Peter before and after the claim. Further, “the whole Catholic Church” is mutually exclusive in the sentence. However, the latter sentence in the second paragraph (“the Apostolic Church of Christ…has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition“) would appear to some to be a reference to the Church at large. She is called “the spiritual mother” of the Roman Empire. This is a term employed by Saint Augustine in reference to the Church at large and not merely the Roman church (see Confessions Book VII, Par 1; Letter 34, Par 3). Nevertheless, in the sixth council, it tends to be explicitly in reference to the Roman church and as the sentence continues, it appears to be in reference to the Roman church.

In short, it appears to me that the Pope was purposely ascribing infallibility to his See, but leaving open the door for his oriental audience to perceive his words in a different way. Being that Pope Honorius was condemned in the same council, the eastern bishops probably viewed such statements seemingly about the peculiar grace granted to the Roman see as hyperbole and that such “grace” pertained to everyone all around. In other words, it was a general promise that the Church would always teach the truth, not that at every moment and in every particular a Bishop would never teach heresy.

What proof is there that Rome was aware that the east would not take such high-minded words literally? A century later, Pope John VIII’s librarian, Anastasius, wrote the following about the eastern Bishops:

But inasmuch as the Greeks very improperly in this Synod have frequently styled their Patriarch as Ecumenical let your apostleship pardon their flattery for they are accustomed thus reprehensibly to flatter their superiors (p. xviii).

Anastasius then goes on to explain that eastern Bishops do not literally believe that the Bishop of Constantinople is Bishop of “the whole world.” I cite this as it shows that western diplomats and translators were well aware that their audience did not take grandiose statements literally and that, contrariwise, their own compatriots would.

So, quote council fathers chanting “Peter spoke through Agatho” as we may, it would appear ill advised to take this as approval of a literal view of Papal infallibility as understood since Vatican I. It seems pretty clear that Rome was purposely using verbosity and vagueness so as to assert their doctrine, but at the same time, not cause actual disputations which would have arisen if they were asserted seriously.

This is not mere speculation, but bears itself out in the manuscript records of the Formula of Hormisdas (often cited as “eastern capitulation to Roman claims” when the opposite appears true) and another another council.  New Advent preserves for us an example of Pope Adrian I speaking out of both sides of his mouth during Nicea II, devising a letter in Latin which states some doozies such as:

…you embrace the judgment of the Church of blessed Peter…For the blessed Peter himself, the chief of the Apostles, who first sat in the Apostolic See, left the chiefship of his Apostolate, and pastoral care, to his successors, who are to sit in his most holy seat forever. And that power of authority, which he received from the Lord God our Saviour, he too bestowed and delivered by divine command to the Pontiffs, his successors…

Which was then misleadingly translated into Greek as follows:

…if you follow the tradition of the orthodox Faith of the Church of the holy Peter and Paul, the chief Apostles…For the holy and chief Apostles themselves, who set up the Catholic and orthodox Faith, have laid it down as a written law that all who after them are to be successors of their seats, should hold their Faith and remain in it to the end.

Clearly, Petrine authority was watered down as Paul is added to the mix in the Greek letter and the whole assertion of inherited authority is completely twisted to apply to “all” Bishops.

Interestingly, a whole section of the letter (which bitterly criticizes the Bishop of Constantinople’s designation as “Ecumenical Patriarch) was not read at all during Nicea II–so committed were the legates to diplomacy and not pressing Papal claims when the opportunity did not allow it.

Pertaining to Constantinople III, there are no radical differences between the Latin and Greek renderings of Agatho’s letter with one exception. In passing Agatho writes, “…the See of Blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, by the authority of which, all Christian nations venerate and worship with us…” which in Greek is rendered, “The authority of which for the truth, all the Christian nations together with us worship and revere, according to the honour of the blessed Peter the Apostle himself.” Little examples of tinkering such as the preceding and obvious vagueness/hyperbole makes it appear that Agatho was trying not to shock the Greeks with his ecclesiological claims. This means, those who cite Pope Agatho’s letter as evidence of the Church literally accepting Papal Infallibility in an ecumenical council are, I believe, reading the Pope’s words incorrectly and divorced from the historical context.

Greek fathers appeared to be examining matters in their own right and not relying upon Papal authority

The following is a notable example of this:

I have diligently examined the whole force of the suggestions sent to your most pious Fortitude, as well by Agatho, the most holy Pope of Old Rome, as by his synod, and I have scrutinized the works of the holy and approved Fathers, which are laid up in my venerable patriarchate, and I have found that all the testimonies of the holy and accepted Fathers, which are contained in those suggestions agree with, and in no particular differ from, the holy and accepted Fathers. Therefore I give my submission to them and thus I profess and believe (Reply of Patriarch George of Constantinople in Session VIII).

The preceding is a strange statement if it was readily acknowledged that Pope Agatho stating something ex cathedra settled an issue and the council itself was some sort of coronation/teaching session for Agatho’s teaching. As we can see, he evaluated “the suggestions sent to your most pious Fortitude, as well by Agatho,…the works of the holy and approved fathers” and finding that they agree with tradition he then “therefore” gives submission.

We have another example of this in the letter of Prosphoneticus to the Emperor sent by the council:

Thereafter being inspired by the Holy Ghost, and all agreeing and consenting together, and giving our approval to the doctrinal letter of our most blessed and exalted pope, Agatho, which he sent to your mightiness, as also agreeing to the suggestion of the holy synod of one hundred and twenty-five fathers held under him…Peter spoke through Agatho….

As we can see, “Peter spoke through Agatho” does not pertain to a submission or acknowledgement of his charism, but to reception of Agatho’s thought–i.e. a recognition that he was inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the council.

We see the same idea referred to in the council’s letter to Agatho:

Thus, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and instructed by your doctrine, we have cast forth the vile doctrines of impiety, making smooth the right path of orthodoxy, being in every way encouraged and helped in so doing by the wisdom and power of our most pious and serene Emperor Constantine. And then one of our number, the most holy praesul of this reigning Constantinople, in the first place assenting to the orthodox compositions sent by you to the most pious emperor as in all respects agreeable to the teaching of the approved Fathers and of the God-instructed Fathers, and of the holy five universal councils, we all, by the help of Christ our God, easily accomplished what we were striving after. For as God was the mover, so God also he crowned our council.

Condemnations of Pope Honorius

[All of the bishops said:] we define that there shall be expelled from the holy Church of God and anathematized Honorius who was some time Pope of Old Rome, because of what we found written by him to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines (Session VIII’s sentence).

Honorius who was Pope of the elder Rome [amongst others]…[was active in] disseminating, in novel terms, amongst the orthodox people, an heresy similar to the mad and wicked doctrine of the impious Apollinaris, Severus, and Themistius… (Session XVIII)

Pope Honorius, who was their adherent and patron in everything, and confirmed the heresy…(Imperial edict following council)

As we can see, Honorius is explicitly called a heretic who “confirmed…impious doctrines” and accused of “disseminating” them throughout the Church. Clearly, Pope Agatho’s claims could have not been so literally that Rome “never turned from the path of truth” when in fact they recently had a heretic who not only did so privately, but disseminated the heretical doctrine publicly.

While Vatican I has categories of thought which, if imposed upon the actions of Honorius, would absolve him from “breaking the infallibility doctrine,” we must admit these categories are not being thought of here. Therefore, it would be historically inaccurate to say that Pope Agatho implied them in his grandiose claims or, even if he did, the fathers of the council would have inferred them.

My own reading would be that Pope Agatho had very high views of the Papacy, but they could have not been as absolute and categorical as they are today. The only way this is not true is if he had anachronistic categories of thought to understand his own papacy that were not devised for centuries.


Easter Egg: Constantinople III banned changes to the Creed

Whosoever shall presume to compose a different faith, or to propose, or teach, or hand to those wishing to be converted to the knowledge of the truth, from the Gentiles or Jews, or from any heresy, any different Creed; or to introduce a new voice or invention of speech to subvert these things which now have been determined by us, all these, if they be Bishops or clerics let them be deposed, the Bishops from the Episcopate, the clerics from the clergy; but if they be monks or laymen: let them be anathematized (Session XVIII).

Interestingly, changing the Creed, even in order to deal with heresy, is banned. No wonder the “Latins” initially accused the “Greeks” of changing the Creed.