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Ex Cathedra (Latin: from the chair), the Chair of Peter. When a Pope speaks from the chair (cathedra) of authority as the visible head of all Christians, his teaching is infallibly Christ’s true teaching.
The Catholic Church has been governed by 264 popes over the past two thousand years. They have proclaimed the Faith with such absolute consistency that only four have even appeared heterodox: St. Callistus (217-222), Liberius (352-366), Honorius I (625-638) and John XXII (1316-1334). All were in fact orthodox.
St. Callistus, before becoming Pope, had been associated with Sabellius, the advocate of the monarchian heresy. However, after becoming Pope, St. Callistus condemned Sabellius and ex-communicated him.
Emperor Constantius II embraced the Arian heresy and forced all the bishops in the empire to proclaim it. St. Athanasius stood virtually alone. When Pope Liberius stood with Athanasius in proclaiming the true faith, Constantius imprisoned and so cruelly mistreated him that Liberius finally agreed to condemn Athanasius. Popes are not infallible in disciplinary decisions. In the crucial matter of doctrine, under extreme pressure Liberius signed an ambiguous confession of faith which was capable of Arian interpretation subordinating the Son to the Father, but he added to it even in prison an anathema on all who said that the Son is not like the Father in substance and in all things. Although Constantius led many people at the time to believe that Pope Liberius had accepted the Arian heresy, the documents show that he never did.
The Catholic Church teaches that Christ’s divine and human natures each had their own will and operation. We call this doctrine dyothelitism: “two wills.” Christ plainly indicated “two wills” at Gethsemane. Mt 26:39 “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Emperor Heraclius at Constantinople promoted the monothelite heresy, which said that Christ has two natures but only one divine will. Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople wrote to Pope Honorius I asking his opinion. Honorius refused to dispute the issue as Sergius had framed it. He did say that Christ had taken the original human nature that existed before the Fall, not the one that had been corrupted by sin, so that His human nature had “one will,” in St. Paul’s sense of the two wills within man, Rom 7:19 “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Honorius affirmed that Christ’s human nature had its own will, else there would have been no need to distinguish between original and fallen human nature. Sergius, however, took Honorius’ words “one will” out of context in an attempt to prove that monothelitism was not heretical. Pope Agatho (678-681) affirmed Honorius’ orthodoxy when he declared in a letter to the Emperor that he and all his predecessors “have never ceased to exhort and warn [the monothelites] with many prayers that they should, at least by silence, desist from the heretical error of the depraved dogma.” Honorius is often condemned for negligence in leaving the Lord’s flock exposed to heretical teachers but never for any doctrine attributable to him. Papal infallibility addresses only what a Pope teaches, not what he does not teach.
Pope John XXII proposed in three sermons that the souls of the just do not enjoy the beatific vision immediately after their particular judgment but only after the general judgment. However, he added that he was not sure and invited theologians to comment, making it abundantly clear that he had been speaking as a private theologian. A Pope speaking ex cathedra, exercising the magisterium of his office, speaks authoritatively.
No other institution on earth has had 264 consecutive leaders over two thousand years proclaim with absolute fidelity the teachings of its founder. When a man sits in the Chair of Peter the Holy Spirit makes him Vicarius Christi (Latin: Vicar of Christ), just as he makes ordinary bread and wine into Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The man’s outer appearance is unchanged, but his substance, his teaching of true faith and morals, is completely transformed.
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