This is going to be a short article  about why popular Roman Catholic apologetics concerning the Formula of Hormisdas proving Vatican I, Papal Supremacy, or anything of the sort is a sham. In short, Roman Catholic apologists claim that the “libellus” essentially shows us two things:

  1. The the Roman Church was Papalist.
  2. That the Eastern Patriarchates submissively signed this document, proving that they submitted to a Papalist eccesiology.

This is not some sort of strawman. A Uniate website sums up the events as follows:

The formula of Hormisdas which the Pope sent to be signed on this occasion is a masterpiece of clarity. It repeats the condemnation of the heresies condemned by the ecumenical councils and it formally condemns the memory of Acacius who had started this schism. It so clearly stated the primacy and infallibility of the Roman See that from that day to the time of the Vatican Council, it has been a powerful weapon in the arsenal of Catholic orthodoxy. It was subscribed to by the patriarch of Constantinople, it swept the East and in the end was signed by 2,500 bishops.

To quote modern Roman Catholic apologist Erick Ybarra:

[W]hat was written in the Formula by Hormisdas were actually authentic Papal claims, which means that 6th century Rome was Papalist. And if that was truly the case, than it makes matters even worse since the Eastern Patriachates entered into communion with Papalist Rome in order to escape schism…reality was that there wasn’t a hint of rejection of Papal claims. Only this issue of the expunging of names from the diptychs…as I’ve mentioned above, there is no objection to the Papalist statements of the Formula by these bishops. If they were honest enough to withhold their agreement and signature because they couldn’t fulfill all the demands of the original request of the Formula, why would they fail to mention their honest objection to the statements made about Peter and the infallibility of the Apostolic See?

Elsewhere, the same apologist claimed that “2,500” priests and Bishops signed an essentially unaltered libellus showing that “Christ promised an indefectible faith in blessed Peter.”

Finally, I will quote popular blogger Catholic Nick who both offers his comments and presents an English translation of one of the Latin manuscripts of the formula:

To effect the restoration of communion, Pope Hormisdas wrote a theological Formula and demanded that Justin, John II, and the Eastern bishops sign it. This “Formula of Hormisdas” stated the following (red highlights mine):

“The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” [Matthew 16:18], should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied. From this hope and faith we by no means desire to be separated and, following the doctrine of the Fathers, we declare anathema all heresies, and, especially, the heretic Nestorius, former bishop of Constantinople, who was condemned by the Council of Ephesus, by Blessed Celestine, bishop of Rome, and by the venerable Cyril, bishop of Alexandria. We likewise condemn and declare to be anathema Eutyches and Dioscoros of Alexandria, who were condemned in the holy Council of Chalcedon, which we follow and endorse. This Council followed the holy Council of Nicaea and preached the apostolic faith. And we condemn the assassin Timothy, surnamed Aelurus [“the Cat”] and also Peter [Mongos] of Alexandria, his disciple and follower in everything. We also declare anathema their helper and follower, Acacius of Constantinople, a bishop once condemned by the Apostolic See, and all those who remain in contact and company with them. Because this Acacius joined himself to their communion, he deserved to receive a judgment of condemnation similar to theirs. Furthermore, we condemn Peter [“the Fuller””] of Antioch with all his followers together with the followers of all those mentioned above.

Following, as we have said before, the Apostolic See in all things and proclaiming all its decisions, we endorse and approve all the letters which Pope St Leo wrote concerning the Christian religion. And so I hope I may deserve to be associated with you in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the whole, true, and perfect security of the Christian religion resides. I promise that from now on those who are separated from the communion of the Catholic Church, that is, who are not in agreement with the Apostolic See, will not have their names read during the sacred mysteries. But if I attempt even the least deviation from my profession, I admit that, according to my own declaration, I am an accomplice to those whom I have condemned. I have signed this, my profession, with my own hand, and I have directed it to you, Hormisdas, the holy and venerable pope of Rome.” [Source: “Eastern Orthodox opposition to papal supremacy”]

As far as I can tell, no Eastern Orthodox denies this Formula is a historical document and is accurately presented here. What they do deny are the Papal ‘overtones’ of the document, which is what I’ll be addressing in a moment.

From this Formula, it is clear that the See of Rome saw itself as the head of the Church by which all controversies are to be settled and all bishops (and Emperors) must submit to. Pope Hormisdas quotes Matthew 16:18-19 in regards to himself, he anathematizes the previous Patriarch of Constantinople, and he demands the new Patriarch of Constantinople and schismatic bishops all unconditionally sign this Formula. All these factors are huge for anyone who has common sense, for they clearly spell out that the Pope didn’t see himself as subject to the whims of other bishops. Just the fact the Pope unilaterally condemned a Patriarch is huge, since that’s something which is impossible in Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology.

There are plenty of articles that speak of how the Bishop of Constantinople, John II, signed the document with the qualification that Constantinople and Rome are “one” see. In short, he was obviously assuming ecclesiastical prerogatives that may be inferred by such a document, an observation made by scholars such as Frend. So, I will not address that issue at length. Instead, I will make the following two points.

First, the document, if one simply reads it plainly (especially the embolden section), really is not that radical in its claims. It makes the somewhat dubious, but generally true, claim that Rome had  up until that point kept the faith “unsullied” and predicates this upon Matt 16:18. In Rome there is “perfect security,” but the libellus does not really flesh out what this means. And…That’s it. It does not say a Pope can never make a theological error, or that communion with Rome is necessary for salvation, or that Rome has jurisdiction over the entire world, or that any of these assertions will persist throughout time–or really anything Orthodox would take issue with.

The document itself is really not that radical at all, despite the astonishment at its existence among Roman Catholic apologists. I honestly wonder why people react so strongly to the libellus. Is it the first sentence? Even Protestants concur that we ought to keep the norm of the true faith. Do Roman Catholics read the end of the first sentence to be about the Papacy, when in fact the libellus never explicitly claims this? Is it the “perfect security” thing? Is that statement really so strong and explicit that it proves Papal infallbility, a far more fleshed out doctrine? All the formula really says is that Rome has been a stalwart, is blessed by God in this, excommunicates heretics, and extols maintaining communion with Rome instead of the heretics in which there is the security of right doctrine. If one agreed with Rome on dyophysitism, the preceding would be easy to concede.

Second, the additional “versions” of the text which are extant lack anything that one can infer to be a Papal claim. This is surprising given that even the Latin manuscripts are ecclesiastically tame in their claims and that the real point of contention was the libellus’ excommunications.

For example, the proto-Maronites (these were Syrian monks who were Roman allies in the sixth century and out of communion with Constantinople) signed something that amounted to the libellus. It was in fact a petition for acceptance back into communion in response to an earlier, more strictly worded version of the libellus which was circulating since 516 AD. This petition had massive alterations that put the document at variance with the one we see above. Letter 139 records the following (take note of how the embolden sections above compared to this letter):

To you God has given the power and authority to bind and to loosen [Matt 16:19]. Not the healthy ones have need of the physician but the sick [Matt 9:12]. Arise, holy Fathers, come to save us! Be imitators of the Lord Christ, who has come down from the heavens onto the earth to seek the sheep that is going astray, Peter, that leader of the apostles, whose seat you adorn, and Paul, who is the vessel of election, the ones who are going around and have illuminated the world. Great wounds, namely, are in need of greater remedies. For the hired shepherds, when they see the wolves come against the sheep, abandon them so that they are scattered by them [cf. John 10:12], but to you, the true shepherds and teachers, to whom the care for the well-being of the sheep has been committed, the flock come who know their shepherd when they have been freed from the pitiless wild animals and they are following the voice of the shepherd, as the Lord says: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.” [John 10:3] Therefore, do not despise us, most holy one, since daily we are being wounded by wild beasts.

But so that your holy angel may have complete knowledge, we courageously anathematize with our very petition both all the ones who have been put forth in the libellus and the ones who have been excommunicated by your Apostolic See: We speak, however, of Nestorius, who was bishop of Constantinople, Eutyches, Dioscorus, and Peter of Alexandria, who also has the name Balbus, and Peter, who was named “the Fuller,” of Antioch, and last not least Acacius, who was bishop of Constantinople, the one in communion with them and all, who defend any one of those heretics.

As we can see, the Maronite petition in response to the libellus reaffirms the Roman excommunications which are of people they already had excommunicated, quotes Matt 16:19, and extols the authority Rome derives from both Peter and Paul. Interestingly, it identifies fathers and teachers of Rome, indicating the authority appealed to in the west was not invested in a singular office holder. There are no “clear statements” of “the primacy and infallibility of the Roman See,” or anything of the sort. The fact that they only quoted the excommunications shows that they did not understand the rest of it to be doctrinally important in any way. Lastly, the fact they responded to the libellus with their petition’s non-substantial flattery, essentially written to the same effect, shows they merely interpreted the rest of the libellus as such.

How about the Greek version of the formula? Fortescue in The Reunion Formula of Hormisdas claims in Footnote 47 that an alternate “Greek text is shorter but contains the same clauses.” This is evidence, Roman Catholic apologists allege, that the Greek version had all the relevant Papal claims. I will respond to this in three ways.

First, his comments pertain to the Greek formula as found in the minutes of of the Council of Constantinople 869-870 AD–a pro-Roman reunion council which was considered such an embarrassment to the east that they immediately tried destroying its Libelli and later (with a Pope!) completely anathematized it, claiming the council to be invalid.

Second, it is not actually the Formula of Hormisdas. It is the Formula of Adrian II. It only in its second paragraph quotes about two sentences from the Formula of Hormisdas.

Third, Fortescue’s footnote contains a citation to something he likely has never read. If one actually follows up on his citation and reads the Greek, the Greek that is quoted does not even belong to the Formula of Hormisdas. So, his analysis is based upon the reading of an unknown Greek text and one cannot substantiate his conclusion.

So, what did the Greek minutes of Constantinople contain? These can be accessed in Mansi, Volume 16, Column 316.


Edward Denny in his book Papalism discusses what the Greek formula states. Denny writes:

The Greek omits the greater part of the references to the Roman See, running as follows: ‘The chief means of salvation is that we should keep the rule of right faith, and in no way deviate from the decrees of God and the Fathers,’ then are omitted all the remaining words down to ‘following in all things the ordinances of the Fathers’ and the document proceeds at once with the anathemas and concludes, ‘Concerning the most reverend Patriarch Ignatius, and those who think with him, whatever the authority of the Apostolic throne has decreed we embrace with our whole mind. This profession of faith, I, N., Bishop of the holy Church of N. have made and subscribed with my own hand, etc.’ The fact that it was a Greek and not a Latin Synod makes it not improbable that the Greek text is the more trustworthy, at all events the divergence is remarkable. The Synod was greatly under Roman influence, and it was anathematised by the Greeks in the Synod of Constantinople A.D. 879 (vide n. 918), and was again expressly repudiated by the Easterns at the Council of Florence (vide nn. 266, 919). (p. 474).

For those who are visual learners, here is the Latin document (left) with the parts in common with the Greek (right) embolden:


Salvation lies first and foremost in keeping the rule of the orthodox faith, and then in departing in no way from the decrees of God and the fathers. Of these one pertains to faith and the other to good works. For as it is written, ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’, so we also read, ‘Faith without works is dead.’ And as it is impossible to overlook the saying of our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘You are Peter and on this rock I shall build my church’, so these words are proved by the actual outcome, since the catholic religion has always been preserved without stain, and the holy doctrines preached, in the apostolic see.

Since, therefore, we have no desire to depart from her faith and doctrine, but follow in all things the decrees of the fathers and in particular of the holy bishops of the apostolic see, we anathematize all the heresies together with the iconomachs.
We also anathematize Photius…[complains about Photius and Gregory of Syracuse]
Moreover, as regards our most venerable patriarch Ignatius and those who belong to his party, we follow with total conviction and revere with religious devotion what the authority of your apostolic see has decreed, and to the full extent of our knowledge and ability defend it with pious resolve and spiritual contestation.
Because, as we have already said, we follow the apostolic see in all things and observe all its decrees, we hope for the favour of enjoying the single communion that the apostolic see proclaims, in which is the complete and true totality of the Christian religion. And as regards those who are separated from the communion of the Catholic Church, namely those who are in opposition to the apostolic see, we promise not to read out their names in the sacred mysteries.
This my profession I myself — Bishop so and so of such and such a holy church — have written with my own hand and present to you most holy, thrice blessed and coangelic lord the supreme pontiff and universal Pope Hadrian through your legates.



The chief means of salvation is that we should keep the rule of right faith, and in no way deviate from the decrees of God and the Fathers. Following in all things the ordinances of the Fathers we anathematize all the heresies together with the iconomachs. We also anathematize Photius…[complains about Photius and Gregory of Syracuse] We embrace with all our heart whatever the authority of the Apostolic throne decreed, concerning Ignatius, the most reverend patriarch, and those who think like him. I, N[ame], bishop of such a church, have made this profession of argument, and by my hand I deliver it to you, a most holy despot and great pontiff, and an ecumenical father Hadrian through the legates.

Notice the difference? All of the “questionable” parts of the libellus are notably missing. Additionally, the Greek notably lauds Pope Adrian II using terminology toned down a notch, though it interestingly ascribes to him the term “ecumenical” which bears all the hallmarks of authenticity, as this would have been an obvious humbling of the Ecumenical Patriarch–a bishop that all attendees to that council wanted humbled.  Again, I reiterate, this was a pro-Roman source (Constantinople IV 869-870), just like the proto-Maronite petition!

Being that Fortescue claims, “Only in the acts of the Fourth Council of Constantinople do we find a Greek version” (p. 14 of 1955 Graymoor edition), this means that Roman Catholic apologists are making their claims based on the above. Do we have any indication of Vatican I-level concessions among the Greeks? Absolutely not.

It should be noted that the surviving Greek minutes to Constantinople 869-870 read like a “Readers Digest” version so it cannot be ascertained whether the excisions made are due to the Greeks purposely not affirming Papal claims, as perhaps not so coincidentally the excisions fall upon those lines, or if they were removed simply to save space because they were understood to be meaningless honorifics. Lending credibility to the fact that the Greek is likely an intact, original version of the formula is that when the formula’s contents are described later in the Council of Constantinople 869-870 during session 7, any mention of Papal claims is absent. Yet, every other feature of the formula is mentioned:

Baanes the most magnificent patrician and praepositus went across and said, ‘Most holy legates of Elder Rome, what libellus [Formula] are you requiring of them?’

The most holy legates of Elder Rome said: ‘The one we brought from the holy Roman church, requiring them to condemn Photius and all his acts and anathematize Gregory of Syracuse, to accept the most holy patriarch Ignatius and prostrate themselves at his feet, and to do everything that the holy Roman church has set out.’

The most holy legates of the oriental sees said: ‘This is also our judgement and wish.’ (Price and Montinaro, Constantinople 869-870, p. 271)

One would expect that if the original Formula of Adrian II contained important teachings on the infallibility of the Pope and an acknowledgement of his supremacy, the Roman legates would have said so. Granted the statement “do everything that the holy Roman church has set out” is cryptic, as it may pertain to refusing to commune “those in opposition to the Apostolic See.” However, this general statement more likely implies what the Greek generally recommends in its final clause: “We embrace with all our heart whatever the authority of the Apostolic throne decreed, concerning Ignatius…” and the specific instructions concerning signing and signing the libellus for a legate.

To conclude, I can only say that all Roman Catholic apologetics on the issue of the libellus are a big, old sham. If two first millennium documents from staunch Papal allies do not deliver the goods on this issue, I personally doubt any will and we can put this to rest. The better question is why the Latin manuscript record is always so exaggerated with its Papal claims, but these claims always magically disappear when translated into Greek, even to a friendly and receptive audience. That’s a question for another day.

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