MONDAY
March 11, 2002
volume 13, no. 46

Historical Precedents for Resisting Popes in Error

    " After various hypocritical maneuvers of Pelagius, Pope Zosimus, in the presence of the Roman clergy, recognized the perfect orthodoxy of the statements of the heretic. He expressed indignation that a man of the Pelagius' merit could have been so calumniated (Letter Postquam nobis, of November 21, 417). This papal support for Pelagius can also be found in the Letter Magnum pondus. In addition to this inconceivable position, the Holy See demanded a formal retraction from the African Bishops. The Africans appealed, asking Rome to take into consideration the prior condemnation of Pope Innocent I and the two councils of Carthage. The request was unheeded. In face of this situation, St. Augustine and St. Aurelius made an energetic protestation, or obtestatio - an oath with God as witness - affirming that the prior Catholic Doctrine prevailed over the judgment of Zosimus. A plenary council of all Africa then assembled to uphold the condemnation made by Pope Innocent I against Pelagius. Finally, Pope Zosimus, breaking with his prior measures, accepted the condemnation of Innocent I and renewed the excommunication of Pelagius. A brilliant example of resistance.

    In my last column, readers could see that every Catholic has the right to resist commands and teachings of the ecclesiastical authority when they are in error and prejudice the Holy Church or the common good. In it are excerpts from very authoritative authors, among them St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Robert Bellarmine, who all hold that the faithful have the right and the duty to resist authority, and that the latter should receive such resistance and admonishments with the same spirit of humility that St. Peter received the famous reprimand of St. Paul. (Gal 2:11). Departing from this exceptional example, the authors do not retreat before the possibility of a Pope who could fall into error or heresy or try to destroy the Church, and for this reason, merit the resistance and admonitions of the faithful.

    The considerations of these authors are not academic hypothesis, elaborated behind closed doors in theological disputes and classrooms. They are well grounded in the reality of the Church be it past or present.

    Without being overly concerned over documentation, I will briefly cite some cases of errors or heresies of Popes in the past and of the resistance that they occasioned. I leave open the possibility of returning to deal with these incidents in a more detailed and minutely documented way, should it be necessary.

1. In the second century, the rites of the Church still were not fixed. There was a natural tendency to maintain the Judaic rites. There was the influence of the Roman empire, dominant in almost the whole known world. There was the Greek influence, present principally in Egypt and Syria. With this, a question understandably presented itself to the Church. Which of these influences should the liturgical rite follow? Pope St. Anicetus (155-168) wanted to regularize the rites of the Church, initiating what would come to be the Roman Rite. St. Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, wanted to keep the same rites that he had learned from St. John and had been followed by the other Apostles. This Saint traveled from the East to Rome and spoke firmly to St. Anicetus, opposing this uniformization. St. Polycarp was intransigent. St. Anicetus could not manage to persuade him of his reform. The two rites were maintained, because of the resistance of the great Bishop of Smyrna. St. Polycarp, along with St. Clement of Rome, the Pope, and St. Ignatius of Antioch are honored with the singular title of Apostolic Father, that is, among the great apologists of the Church, these were instructed by one or another of the Apostles.

2. In the year 190, a similar question arose. Pope St. Victor (189-199) suffered the provocations of Blastus, a Catholic of the Jewish race who went to Rome with the intention of provoking a schism in the Church over the celebration of the Easter rites. St. Victor had decided to resolve the problem by making a uniform rite to be followed under the threat of excommunication. All the Churches agreed, with the exception of the Asian church, which at that time was very numerous. St. Irenaeus, an Asian and at that time Bishop of Lyons (France) opposed the decision of the Pope, and presented himself before St. Victor to show him all the evils that could come for the Church with the possible schism. The resistance of St. Irenaeus had the desired effect, and St. Victor, while maintaining the general rule for the rest of the Church, opened an exception for the Asians.

3. A more serious and sad case was that of Pope Marcellinus (296-304), which took place in the years 303-304. It is not a case of resistance per se, but the precedence of a Pope who fell into an error contrary to Catholic Doctrine. With regard to this, the Roman Breviary (reading of April 5) says: "During the cruel persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, Marcellinus of Rome, overcome with terror, offered incense to the idols of the gods. For this sin he did penance, and wearing a hairshirt, went to the Council of Sinuesso, where many Bishops had assembled, and there he openly confessed his crime." There is no account of resistance to this attitude, but one can well imagine that the heroic Catholics who were disposed to offer their lives as martyrs to avoid the crime of Marcellinus strongly opposed the shameful defection of the Supreme Pontiff.

4. The epoch of Pope Liberius (352-366), in the middle of the fourth century, was marked principally by three men. The Roman Emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine, directed the semi-Arian persecutions. St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, and St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, resisted. At first, Liberius took a strong, laudable stance supporting the Bishops who had resisted the Emperor and were exiled for refusing to sign semi-Arian decrees. In view of this, Constantius ordered the Pope to be taken and submitted him to pressures to intimidate him. Since the Pope remained constant up to this point, he was sent to Thrace. Then Constantius had Felix elected to occupy the Chair of Peter. This exile was more difficult for Liberius to sustain than the other pressures. After some time, he submitted to the desires of the Emperor. Four letters preserved by St. Hilary of Poitiers in his Historical fragments, and his work Ad Constantium contains the testimony of Pope's submission. St. Athanasius also left a record of the papal defection in his History of the Arians (41) and his Apologia against the Arians (89). From Thrace, Liberius was taken to Sirmium, where he signed a semi-Arian profession of faith in the year 357. After he signed this document, the Pope was authorized to return to Rome. In his Chronicle (a. 349), St. Jerome wrote: "Liberius, conquered by the tedium of exile, with heretical perversity signed [the profession of semi-Arian faith] and entered into Rome as a conqueror." It is interesting to note that neither St. Athanasius nor St. Hilary had any problem in resisting the Arian politics of Pope Liberius. It is largely from the writings of these two saints that the heresy of Pope Liberius is known today.

5. At the beginning of the fifth century, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, St. Aurelius, Archbishop of Carthage, and St. Jerome in Bethlehem were shining lights in North Africa. The Church was afflicted with the Pelagian heresy. The doctrine of Pelagius was first condemned by the Council of Carthage in 411. Afterward, it gave rise to the great polemic of St. Jerome and Orosius in Jerusalem, where the heretic had established an important base. St. Augustine wrote various books against the Pelagian doctrine: The Remission of Sins and the Baptism of Children, the Spirit and the Letter, Letter to Hilary, Nature and Grace, Perfect Justice, The Acts of Pelagius, The Grace of Christ, and Original Sin. Alongside these intellectual efforts, the Bishop of Hippo and the Bishop of Carthage exercised their influence so that the two African Councils of Carthage and Mileve held in 416 condemned the Pelagian doctrine and its promoters. This effort of the African bishops was approved and praised by Pope Innocent I (401-417), who also expressly condemned Pelagius, his doctrine and his followers.

    With the rise of Pope Zosimus (417-418) to the papal throne, the Pelagians found an unexpected opportunity to return to the offensive. After various hypocritical maneuvers of Pelagius, Pope Zosimus, in the presence of the Roman clergy, recognized the perfect orthodoxy of the statements of the heretic. He expressed indignation that a man of the Pelagius' merit could have been so calumniated (Letter Postquam nobis, of November 21, 417). This papal support for Pelagius can also be found in the Letter Magnum pondus. In addition to this inconceivable position, the Holy See demanded a formal retraction from the African Bishops.

    The Africans appealed, asking Rome to take into consideration the prior condemnation of Pope Innocent I and the two councils of Carthage. The request was unheeded. In face of this situation, St. Augustine and St. Aurelius made an energetic protestation, or obtestatio - an oath with God as witness - affirming that the prior Catholic Doctrine prevailed over the judgment of Zosimus. A plenary council of all Africa then assembled to uphold the condemnation made by Pope Innocent I against Pelagius. Finally, Pope Zosimus, breaking with his prior measures, accepted the condemnation of Innocent I and renewed the excommunication of Pelagius. A brilliant example of resistance.

6. Vigilius was a kind of puppet of the Empress Theodora. He was the one who gave the order to Belisarius, one of the principal generals of Justinian, to depose Pope Silverius (536-537). Silverius was exiled to Asia, returned to Rome, and then newly exiled to the island of Palmaria where he died, abandoned. After Silverius, Vigilius himself was raised to the Pontifical Throne (537-555). At that time the question of the "Three Chapters" was a much-discussed topic. In summary, this referred to a position in relation to the Council of Chalcedon, which condemned the heresy of Eutiques, monophysitism. To condemn the "Three Chapters" was equivalent to condemning the Council and approving monophysitism. The Emperor Justinian wanted the Council of Chalcedon to be condemned. At first, Pope Vigilius took a firm attitude. For this, he was made prisoner and exiled to Constantinople. After years of struggle, in which he suffered ridicule and physical violence, Vigilius gave in. On the orders of Justinian, a new council of Constantinople was convoked and the "Three Chapters" were condemned, that is to say, it adhered to monophysitism. Vigilius, who wanted to end his exile, asked Justinian permission to return to Rome. The Emperor made the condition that the Pope approve the decisions of the recent Council. Vigilius turned from his former orthodox position, wrote a letter of retraction, condemned the "Three Chapters" and launched an anathema against its authors. After this reconciliation with Justinian, Vigilius was rewarded with concessions that would have allowed him to reorganize the government of Rome and Italy. He left Constantinople, but he never carried out his plans, because he died before he reached Rome.

    I had intended to give a brief account of nine historical precedents that illustrate errors of Popes in the past and the consequent possibility of opposing them with a legitimate and salutary resistance. I will save three more interesting cases for next week's column. God permitting.

Atila Sinke Guimar„es

www.DailyCatholic.org

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Monday, March 11, 2002
volume 13, no. 46
STANDING WITH THE CHURCH MILITANT
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