January 10: St. Agatho, Pope and Dispeller of the Monothelitic Heresy

When Agatho became Pope in 679, he found himself in the midst of a widespread theological controversy that may well seem strange, and he eventually presided over a Council that declared Monothelitism to be a heresy, and, instead, declared Dyothelitism to be orthodoxy. Say what?

Some background: In 451, the Council of Chalcedon (a large gathering of the bishops, prelates, and hierarchically significant church folk from around the world, meeting at Chalcedon) declared that Jesus Christ possessed two natures: that Jesus Christ was BOTH fully human AND fully divine. The value of this formulation lies in making sure that no one can say that Jesus was a “special case” (i.e., “not like other humans”)–so everyone should be as good and moral and perfect as Jesus, who was fully human like all other–and that no one can say he or she is as good as Christ because Christ was fully divine, unlike any others. This creates a treadmill, on which keeps people striving and yet never arriving, and thus in perpetual need of the Church.

Well, people after Chalcedon began asking just how this “two nature” thing was supposed to be operational in a single being (albeit a fully human and fully divine one). They came to the conclusion that although Jesus Christ had/has two natures, he could only ever have had one will. This belief became known as Monothelitism…and Monothelitism appealed to many people! It focused on asking “What Would Jesus Do?” with the belief that one could, potentially and prayerfully, discern this and then implement it. [Note: No good heresy ever truly goes away–it just pops back up throughout history, such as the relatively recent WWJD fad.]

Well, Saint Agatho helped lead the Catholic Church away from this “dangerous” belief–after all, if individuals or even individual worshipping communities could begin to assert that they could answer what Jesus would do, they might reach different answers from one another and from the Holy See. So it is thanks in no small part to this Saint that the Church articulated the Dyothelitistic doctrine that Jesus not only had two natures but also two wills–one human and one divine–and that Christians should receive their life directives from Rome, which, said our Saint, was “acknowledged, by the whole Catholic church, to be the mother and mistress of all other churches, and to derive her superior authority from St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, to whom Christ committed the whole flock. . . .”

The goal posts must always be out of reach….right?