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Acacius of Constantinople

Schismatic patriarch of Constantinople; d. 480

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Acacius, PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE; Schismatic; d. 489. When Acacius first appears in authentic history it is as the orphanotrophos, or dignitary entrusted with the care of the orphans, in the Church of Constantinople. He thus filled an ecclesiastical post that conferred upon its possessor high rank as well as curial influence; and, if we may borrow a hint as to his real character from the phrases in which Suidas has attempted to describe his undoubtedly striking personality, he early made the most of his opportunities. He seems to have affected an engaging magnificence of manner; was openhanded; suave, yet noble, in demeanor; courtly in speech, and fond of a certain ecclesiastical display. On the death of the Patriarch Gennadius, in 471, he was chosen to succeed him, and for the first five or six years of his episcopate his life was uneventful enough. But there came a change when the usurping Emperor Basiliscus allowed himself to be won over to Eutychian teaching by Timotheus Aelurus, the Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria, who chanced at that time to be a guest in the imperial capital. Timotheus, who had been recalled from exile only a short time previously, was bent on creating an effective opposition to the decrees of Chalcedon; and he succeeded so well at court that Basiliscus was induced to put forth an encyclical or imperial proclamation (egkuklios) in which the teaching of the Council was rejected. Acacius himself seems to have hesitated at first about adding his name to the list of the Asiatic bishops who had already signed the encyclical; but, warned by a letter from Pope Simplicius, who had learned of his questionable attitude from the ever-vigilant monastic party, he reconsidered his position and threw himself violently into the debate. This sudden change of front redeemed him in popular estimation, and he won the regard of the orthodox, particularly among the various monastic communities throughout the East, by his now ostentatious concern for sound doctrine. The fame of his awakened zeal even traveled to the West, and Pope Simplicius wrote him a letter of commendation. The chief circumstance to which he owed this sudden wave of popularity was the adroitness with which he succeeded in putting himself at the head of the particular movement of which Daniel the Stylite was both the coryphaeus and the true inspirer. The agitation was, of course, a spontaneous one on the part of its monastic promoters and of the populace at large, who sincerely detested Eutychian theories of the Incarnation; but it may be doubted whether Acacius, either in orthodox opposition now, or in unorthodox efforts at compromise later on, was anything profounder than a politician seeking to compass his own personal ends. Of theological principles he seems never to have had a consistent grasp. He had the soul of a gamester, and he played only for influence. Basiliscus was beaten.

He withdrew his offensive encyclical by a counterproclamation, but his surrender did not save him. His rival Zeno, who had been a fugitive up to the time of the Acacian opposition, drew near the capital. Basiliscus, deserted on all sides, sought sanctuary in the cathedral church and was given up to his enemies, tradition says, by the time-serving Patriarch. For a brief space there was complete accord between Acacius, the Roman Pontiff, and the dominant party of Zeno, on the necessity for taking stringent methods to enforce the authority of the Fathers of Chalcedon; but trouble broke out once more when the Monophysite party of Alexandria attempted to force the notorious Peter Mongus into that see against the more orthodox claims of John Talaia in the year 482. This time events took on a more critical aspect, for they gave Acacius the opportunity he seems to have been waiting for all along of exalting the authority of his see and claiming for it a primacy of honor and jurisdiction over the entire East, which would emancipate the bishops of the capital not only from all responsibility to the sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, but to the Roman Pontiff as well. Acacius, who had now fully ingratiated himself with Zeno, induced that emperor to take sides with Mongus. Pope Simplicius made a vehement but ineffectual protest, and Acacius replied by coming forward as the apostle of reunion for all the East. It was a specious and far-reaching scheme, but it laid bare eventually the ambitions of the Patriarch of Constantinople and revealed him, to use Cardinal Hergenrother’s illuminating phrase, as “the forerunner of Photius”.

The first effective measure which Acacius adopted in his new role was to draw up a document, or series of articles, which constituted at once both a creed and an instrument of reunion. This creed, known to students of theological history as the Henoticon, was originally directed to the irreconcilable factions in Egypt. It was a plea for reunion on a basis of reticence and compromise. And under this aspect it suggests a significant comparison with another and better known set of “articles” composed nearly eleven centuries later, when the leaders of the Anglican schism were threading a careful way between the extremes of Roman teaching on the one side and of Lutheran and Calvinistic negations on the other. The Henoticon affirmed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (i.e. the Creed of Nicaea completed at Constantinople) as affording a common symbol or expression of faith in which all parties could unite. All other sumbola or mathemata were excluded; Eutyches and Nestorius were unmistakably condemned, while the anathemas of Cyril were accepted. The teaching of Chalcedon was not so much repudiated as passed over in silence; Jesus Christ was described as the “only-begotten Son of God… one and not two” (omologoumen ton monogene tout heou ena tugchaneln kai ou duo… k. t. l.) and there was no explicit reference to the two Natures. Mongus naturally accepted this accommodatingly vague teaching. Talaia refused to subscribe to it and set out for Rome, where his cause was taken up with great vigour by Pope Simplicius. The controversy dragged on under Felix II (or III) who sent two legatine bishops, Vitalis and Misenus, to Constantinople, to summon Acacius before the Roman See for trial. Never was the masterfulness of Acacius so strikingly illustrated as in the ascendancy he acquired over this luckless pair of bishops. He induced them to communicate publicly with him and sent them back stultified to Rome, where they were promptly condemned by an indignant synod which reviewed their conduct. Acacius was branded by Pope Felix as one who had sinned against the Holy Ghost and apostolic authority (Habe ergo cum his … portionem S. Spiritus judicio et apostolica auctoritate damnatus); and he was declared to be perpetually excommunicate—nunquamque anathematis vinculis exuendus. Another envoy, inappropriately named Tutus, was sent to carry the decree of this double excommunication to Acacius in person; and he, too, like his hapless predecessors, fell under the strange charm of the courtly prelate, who enticed him from his allegiance. Acacius refused to accept the documents brought by Tutus and showed his sense of the authority of the Roman See, and of the synod which had condemned him, by erasing the name of Pope Felix from the diptychs. Talaia equivalently gave up the fight by consenting to become Bishop of Nola, and Acacius began by a brutal policy of violence and persecution, directed chiefly against his old opponents the monks, to work with Zeno for the general adoption of the Henoticon throughout the East. He thus managed to secure a political semblance of the prize for which he had worked from the beginning. He was practically the first prelate throughout Eastern Christendom until his death in 489. His schism outlived him some thirty years, and was ended only by the return of the Emperor Justin to unity, under Pope Hormisdas in 519.


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