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 Greek 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 Maronites (who were Roman allies in the sixth century and out of communion with Constantinople) signed the libellus with glee…but with 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 excommunciations shows that they did not understand the rest of it to be doctrinally important in any way. Further, the fact they respond with their own non-substantial flattery to the same effect shows they merely interpreted the rest of the libellus as such.

Now, some may claim that historians such as Fortescue in The Reunion Formula of Hormisdas call the preceding into question. I will respond to this in two ways.

First, he makes no comments about the above Maronite response to the libellus. 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 manuscripts and later (with a Pope!) completely anathematized it, claiming the council to be invalid.

Second, he makes the claim in Footnote 47 that “the Greek text is shorter but contains the same clauses.” Apparently, Fortescue likes citing things he 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, he makes his observation based upon…who knows! We can throw it into the trash bin.

So, what did the Greek minutes of Constantinople contain? I have scoured all of the footnotes to find them in the Mensa (sp?) but what I can find open source does not correspond with the book and chapters in the citations. So, I will present what Edward Denny in his book Papalism preserves for us. I have no reason to disbelieve Denny’s research on this because I have followed up on many of his footnotes and they all checked out. 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 “Papal part” embolden and the Greek reconstruction (right) based on Denny:

Latin: “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.”

Greek reconsturction: “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. 

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.

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.”

Notice the difference? All of the “questionable” parts of the libellus, which were really not even all that questionable to begin with, are missing. Again, I reiterate, this was a pro-Roman source like the 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? Absolutely not.

To conclude, I can only say that all Roman Catholic apologetics on the issue are a big, old sham. If two first millenium 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.