Pope Saint Hormisdas is venerated as a crucial figure in Church history because he wanted the world’s churches to boldly confess the Dyophysite doctrines of the Council of Chalcedon. However, his demand required a reversal of a decades old policy in which the Eastern Roman Empire required that churches within the ecumene merely ascribe to the Henotikon—not explicitly the ecumenical council of Chalcedon. It would not be without significant tensions that Hormisdas would attain to his goal.
The Henotikon in of itself is not questionable in its explicit theological content. In fact, it condemned Eutyches (the heresiarch who was the chief expounded of classic Monophysite doctrine) and paraphrased by the third canon of the Council of Constantinople II in its teaching of Christ’s economic conversation (i.e. voluntary mode of living and suffering). Its chief defects were that it did not require adherence to Chalcedon (it in fact implied the council was defective and that heretics from the council should be condemned) and it did not explicitly affirm Christ’s human and divine natures. And so moderate Miaphysites were able to save face and re-enter communion with Acacius, the nominal Dyophysite Patriarch of Constantinople. This offered the theological justification for Saint Felix III, the Pope of Rome at the time, to excommunicate bishops in communion with Acacius (which was nearly all of the east).
The ecclesiastical dispute after this point generally hinged upon the importance of Chalcedonians having no communion with Miaphysites. Fravitta and Euphemius, the next two Patriarchs of Constantinople after Acacius, were known to be in favor of Chalcedon, but even still reunion eluded the Church. The former made the mistake of retaining union with the Miaphysite Bishop of Alexandria. The latter explicitly endorsed Chalcedon, restored Pope Felix III to the diptychs (i.e. commemoration during liturgy), and publicly denied communion to the same Miaphysite Bishop (possibly due to news of his death). However, due to Acacius being venerated and the communion situation with Alexandrian being iffy, both Popes Felix III and Saint Gelasius I denied communion to Constantinople.
The impropriety of venerating a deceased Bishop who was in communion with heretics was a scandal and it offered some justification for Rome’s position. However, it arguably delegitimized the present Bishops of Constantinople. So, though seemingly reasonable, Rome arguably pressed too far in condemning Acacius’ “sequaces” or followers.
And so, Rome had boxed themselves into a corner as their demands compromised the integrity of so many ordinations stemming after Acacius. The next Patriarch of Constantinople, Macedonius II, though being outside of communion with the Roman church his entire episcopal career had a sanctity so profound that he is venerated as a saint by not only the Orthodox, but even Roman Catholics today. Even under threat and exile he refused to renounce Chalcedon. Pope Hormisdas, though not in communion with Macedonius, publicly defended him. As for the next Bishop of Constantinople, Timothy I, he likewise did not reject Chalcedon which assured him support from Chalcedonian Bishops such as Saint Flavian II of Antioch and Elias of Jerusalem. However, Rome remained outside of their communion. This was not completely illegitimate, as Timothy I maintained communion with what was yet another Miaphysite Bishop in Alexandria. However, the fact that Rome to this day venerates both Macedonius II and Flavian II indicates that what appeared to be reasonable demands at the time were not vindicated by history.
With reconciliation in mind, John II of Constantinople began to take a realistic step in repairing the schism which began under Acacius. He excommunicated a Miaphysite bishop, this time Severus of Antioch. Hormisdas initially iterated Felix III’s terms for reunion—since 515 AD he had a formula circulating from Spain, to the Balkans, to Syria which demanded that all Bishops who had signed the Henotikon (the “sequaces” or “followers” of Acacius amongst others) be anathematized by name.
Hormisdas stated that the original Roman policy is as follows:
…inform him that it is not in your power to remove anything from the formula of the Libellus, in which not only the condemned persons are mentioned, but also in a similar manner their followers (in qua sequaces damnatorum pariter continentur). But if you are not able to turn them aside from this proposal, at least insist on this much, namely, that Acacius be anathematised by name in accordance with the Libellus which we have given to you, and that the names of his successors be removed from the diptychs, and so be passed over in silence. (Letter 158 in Collectio Avellana as quoted in Denny’s Papalism, p. 472)
In the earlier versions of the Formula of Hormisdas, the “sequcibus suis et omnium supracscriptis” (as per Hormisdas Letter 26) were anathematized. However, the version accepted by Constantinople said, “sequcibus suis et omnibus supracscriptis” (C.A. Letter 159), which according to Father Puller’s analysis (on p. 417 of The Primitive Saints) shifted the blanket anathemas from Acacius’ followers (amongst others) to just the followers of Peter the Fuller, a Miaphysite Bishop of Antioch.
As one can see in the preceding, Hormisdas deliberately permitted his Formula to be altered so its initial force, which would have admittedly delegitimized those ordained after Acacius, would be significantly blunted. The latter was Hormisdas chief compromise which would have made agreement to his terms realistic, as compared to the previous Popes. After all, no one cared if Peter’s followers were condemned, as his Patriarchate was already disputed during his time and there would have been Chalcedonian bishops to inherit succession from. Additionally, Hormisdas can save face that though the sequaces would not be anathematized in writing, they were to not be venerated. This is classic negotiation. One starts with a high demand that is at least worthy of some minimal consideration, prepares for a low-ball offer, and has some minimal demands that must be met in any event.
Why did Constantinople accept the compromises allowed for in Letter 158? The new emperor in Rome, Justin, did not want to squander an opportunity to forge an alliance with Roman clergy in anticipation of a future campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy. And so, John II of Constantinople signed the slightly altered aforementioned Formula of Hormisdas to which he added in subscribing: “I hold the most holy churches of your elder and our new Rome to be one church; I define that the see of the Apostle Peter [Rome] and this of the imperial city [Constantinople] to be one see.” (Hormisdas, Letter 63; this letter and others quoted have English translations from Puller’s book).
And so, John II had met all of Hormisdas’ minimal demands, but being a deal maker himself, made his ascription assert the integrity of Constantinople’s prerogatives as asserted in Canon 28 of Chalcedon. At this time, Rome did not accept this canon so they would have had to interpret these claims to “oneness” in a restrictive sense applying only to both of their communion. However, what Constantinople was doing was quite clever—it was muscularly asserting the integrity of Chalcedon, as demanded by Rome, and in so doing trumpeting a key canon from that council.
Contextually speaking, the Formula of Hormisdas was intended to be understood as an unequivocal rejection of the Henotikon and affirmation of Chalcedon. Therein, Miaphysite bishops are condemned by name and Acacius is condemned for having permitted himself to enter their communion. Those who “remain in contact and company” with the Miaphysites are also anathematized. Saints Macedonius II and Flavian II are passed over in silence, to preserve their honor. Initially, only the former was demanded, by Rome, to be removed from the diptychs.
The whole preceding episode is somewhat foreign to most people concerned about the formula today, but to a dispassionate observer it is pretty clear that both Rome and Constantinople took blows to the chin for the sake of attaining to compromise and union. The former had to suffer the indignity of accepting the sequaces of Constantinople’s Chalcedonian bishops, as only Acacius itself would be explicitly anathematized. Additionally, Constantinople put their implied prerogatives on the same bar as Rome’s implied prerogatives in the formula itself, making this a condition of their subscription. This, as WHM Frend observed, greatly minimized the intended exceptionalness (if we can coin a word) of Rome’s ecclesiastical claims.
However, Constantinople’s cowing to Rome in removing Macedonius II from the diptychs implied Roman superiority, in that Rome was determining (temporarily) who was and who was not a saint. This was obviously perceived as too much by all parties involved and Macedonius II would soon afterwards be commemorated by both churches. In any event, at the time this must have been a shocking blow and a visible humbling of Constantinople in the eyes of other eastern churches.
It is with a sense of irony that contrary to popular views today, Rome’s future veneration of Macedonius II had in fact negated one of Hormisdas’ key demands. The result is that if anyone “won” the negotiation and ongoing application concerning the Formula of Hormisdas, it would have been Constantinople, not Rome. This is not all that surprising considering the political situation, where Rome itself would be militarily and ecclesiastically subjugated after Eastern Roman military occupation and the imposition of the Byzantine Papacy for more than two centuries soon after the Formula’s signing.
In any event, outside of Constantinople, diplomatic “wins” were not cowing Christians. Due to the Formula’s auxiliary demands that saints be removed from local diptychs, the Formula did not gain a lot of traction. (See Puller’s discussion beginning on page 400) Saint Justinian, Emperor Justin’s nephew, complained to Hormisdas that even “fire and sword” did not compel Christians throughout the empire to accept these demands. (C.A. Letter 196) Epiphanius of Constantinople explicitly stated that these churches found it “impossible to expunge the names of their former bishops” from the diptychs. (C.A., Letter 233) Jerusalem’s lack of capitulation in this regard was perceived as scandalous to Rome, with Saint Justinian warning Hormisdas that “no one dares separate from that Church.” (emphasis added, C.A. Letter 232) In response, Hormisdas was unphased and encouraged Justinian to “use force” (in the words of Puller p. 401) in order to get compliance. (C.A. Letter 238)
Interestingly, there were no complaints being made about the Papal claims in the formula. Since Vatican I, some of the “Papalist” statements within the formula have garnered significant attention. Read without a Vatican I-lens, statements in the formula such as “in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied” or in Rome “the whole, true, and perfect security of the Christian religion resides” appear as simple honorifics.
How does one historically determine the actual intent of these statements? Reading contemporary documents that address the statements in some way is crucial.
When the pre-519 formulas were circulating, proto-Maronite monks sent a petition seeking Rome’s communion highly mimicking the formula’s language. In C.A. Letter 139, the petition issues different, equally lofty honorifics. Hormisdas is “blessed patriarch of the whole world” (as opposed to Constantinople being the “Ecumenical Patriarch,” the original Greek version of the Letter likely simply called Hormisdas “ecumenical Patriarch.”) Additionally, Syria is called “your province” (as the Christians here had broken off local communion due to the rejection of Chalcedon by local bishops and oppression by their partisans). Certainly, these statements are lofty and, in the latter case, perhaps literal as the monks would have lacked bishops to be communion with at this point.
However, the petition then takes a turn which implies the authors understood the Papal claims in the Formula itself as mere honorifics. Instead of citing Matt 16:18 as the formula does, it cites Matt 16:19. The petitioners appear unaware they were supposed to subscribe to the Formula ad verbatim, as modern Roman Catholic apologists presuppose (but don’t necessarily have any primary sources that literally state this). Additionally, the petition asserts that Rome’s authority to bind and loosen comes from both “Peter…and Paul.” It then without reservations anathematizes everyone that Rome sought to have anathematized.
Clearly, the aforementioned petition was in the same tenor as the formula, but it certainly did not take seriously that it was necessary to affirm the “unsullied” nature of Rome’s faith (with the exception of Liberius) up to that point or Rome’s “perfect security [of doctrine].” This is not so much that they were rejecting these claims on ecclesiastical grounds, but rather they did not understand these statements to be serious ecclesiastic prerogatives (as Vatican I would later hold) that would require explicit affirmation.
Not surprisingly, as the doctrines of Vatican I were on no one’s radar, Hormisdas himself consented to such sensibilities as found in the petition. Hormisdas in his acceptance of the petition in passing spoke of “the venerable [Pope] Leo” and his tome as having:
been set up from the hearts of the apostles [Peter and Paul] themselves. In these [Apostles] the banner of faith, in these the ramparts of truth, in these Christ is recognized, in these the hope and cause of our redemption is preserved. This is the foundation… (C.A., Letter 140)
Hormisdas viewed the petition as sufficient in of itself: “For we hold as a guaranty the firmness of your faith in its profession up to the individual letters.” (Ibid.; cf p. 420 in Puller’s book) There is no trace that Hormisdas felt that his ecclesial claims were exceptionally Petrine and had to be affirmed ad verbatim. Rather, the petition made clear the Chalcedonian sympathies of the petitions and their desire for Roman communion. They had no problem anathematizing everyone he wanted anathematized. This was clearly sufficient if one understands that these were the only things Hormisdas was actually looking for.
The preceding provides the context to understand how churches who did not concede due to “fire and sword” were brought back into communion. Hormisdas, seeing that force was not working, sent instructions in Letter 80 as to how to get the remaining Bishops into communion. In that letter he only explicitly demanded that Chalcedon and its doctrines be affirmed (Par 15-17) and “keep to these things as defined by the Fathers.” (Par 18) This would be done via a “written profession of faith” sent to both Constantinople and then forwarded to Rome for review, in which it would be accepted as long as it was “written however in the same tenor” as either the formula itself, or more likely, the Chalcedonian teachings found in the same letter. (Par 20) Not coincidentally, this is completely identical to how the episode played out with the proto-Maronites a few years previously.
For those that doubt the preceding analysis, it should be added that Constantinople was given discretion in determining the tenor of these letters. (Par 21; cf Par 9) This demands the understanding that churches were re-entering Roman communion without explicitly adhering to the Formula ad verbatim. If Bishops were merely signing the formula as stated, there would be no need for “discretion” or determining “tenor.” They either signed it or they did not. However, if these were petitions similar to C.A. Letter 139, then they would be similar in substance, but otherwise highly variant in wording requiring both discretion and multiple levels of review (hence both Constantinople and Rome reviewing these letters).
So, inferring that the preceding is what actually occurred, the explicit Papal claims in the formula would most likely be lacking. This is especially true if the petitioners did not understand the prerogatives, like the proto-Maronites, to be serious in some doctrinally binding way. However, for the same reason, it is not impossible that some simply signed the Formula as stated, due to the conditions in Letter 80 not demanding written anathemas of sequaces or that they be removed from the diptychs.
Adding more credibility to the preceding historical analysis is a re-telling of the episode penned a couple decades later by Archdeacon Rusticus (who accompanied then-Pope Vigilius to Constantinople). He recalled that “the Council of Chalcedon was ‘an Ecumenical Synod, which has often been confirmed…by the libelli [i.e. formulas] of perhaps 2,500 bishops [lit. sacredotes] in the reign of Emperor Justin.’” (Puller, p. 403; PL 67, p. 1251) Hence, Rome understood that most re-entered communion by explicitly affirming Chalcedon. There is no indication whatsoever that the Formula of Hormisdas was signed. Rather, the letter speaks of “formulas,” likely multiple petitions vaguely analogous to the one composed by the proto-Maronites.
Hence, the historian can with a fair degree of certainty come to the following conclusion. The original Formula of Hormisdas, with its Papal claims (how earnest these were is debatable) and anathemas was accepted by some, but ultimately rejected by many due to the veneration of recent saints that it demanded anathematized. And so, Hormisdas struck a compromise with Constantinople to not demand as many explicit anathemas, but required that these recent saints still be not commemorated during liturgies. Even this was too much for many, and so Hormisdas decreased his demands yet again and accepted that Bishops can re-enter communion by affirming the doctrines of Chalcedon in some sort of petition written in “the same tenor” as his own letter and/or Formula. None of these subsequent petitions have survived history, though chances are they were similarly worded to an earlier petition of the proto-Maronites. If so, it becomes clear that the ecclesiastical claims in the original Formula were either wholly lacking or seriously modified in these other petitions. Post Vatican I claims to the contrary in this light appear terribly anachronistic.
In conclusion, the written historical record nowhere bears out that the literal Formula of Hormisdas was adhered to by most of the Church. Rather, the only evidence that exists is that documents were issued by Bishops that were similar to the Formula inasmuch as they contained anathemas, foresworn communion with Miaphysites, and contained similar confessions of Chalcedonian doctrinal distinctives. Indeed, Constantinople itself did affirm only a slightly modified Formula, but in so doing Papal aggrandizements were minimalized in its expounding of Constantinopolitan ecclesiastical prerogatives.