Apiarius of Sicca, a priest of the diocese of Sicca, in proconsular Africa. Interest attaches to him only because of his appeal to Rome from his bishop’s sentence of excommunication, and the consequent protracted parleying between Rome and Carthage about the privileges of the African Church in regulating its own discipline. In the resentment which the peculiar circumstances of the case provoked in many African bishops opponents of the Papacy read the denial by the Church of St. Augustine of the doctrine of Papal supremacy; and thus the case of Apiarius has come to be the classical example in anti-Roman controversial works, illustrating the fifth-century repudiation of Papal claims to disciplinary control.
Apiarius, deposed by Urbanus, Bishop of Sicca, for grave misconduct, appealed to Pope Zosimus, who, in view of irregularities in the bishop’s procedure, ordered that the priest should be reinstated, and his bishop disciplined. Chagrined, perhaps, at the unworthy priest’s success, a general synod of Carthage, in May, 418, forbade appeal “beyond the seas” of clerics inferior to bishops. Recognizing in what was virtually a restatement of previous African legislation an expression of displeasure on the part of the African bishops, Pope Zosimus sent a delegation to defend his right to receive certain appeals, citing decrees believed by him to have been enacted at the Council of Nicaea, but which in fact were canons of the Council of Sardica. The African bishops who met the legates, while not recognizing these decrees as Nicene, accepted them pending verification. In May, 419, was held the sixteenth Council of Carthage, and there again the representations of Zosimus were accepted, awaiting the result of a comparison of the Nicene canons as they existed in Africa, in which the decrees cited by the Pope had not been found, with those of the churches of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. By the end of the year 419 Pope Boniface, who had succeeded Zosimus in December, 418, was informed that the Eastern codices did not contain the alleged decrees; but, as the now repentant Apiarius had meantime been assigned to a new field of labor, interest in the affair subsided. The letter to Pope Boniface, while evidencing irritation at the arrogance of the legate Faustinus, contains nothing incompatible with belief in the Pope’s supremacy.
Some four years later Apiarius relapsed into scandalous courses, was once more excommunicated, and again appealed to Rome. Pope Celestine, who had succeeded Boniface in September, 423, reinstated him and deputed the unwelcome Faustinus to sustain this decision before the African bishops. The legate’s exasperating efforts in behalf of the unworthy priest were miserably thwarted by Apiarius’s admission of his guilt. Incensed, in these provoking circumstances, by the heightened arrogance of Faustinus and the misinformed Pope’s haste in sustaining Apiarius, a number of African bishops addressed to Celestine the famous letter, “Optaremus”, in which they bitterly resent the insults of the tactless legate, and request that in future the popes will exercise due discretion in hearing appeals from Africa and exact from the African Church in such matters no more than was provided for by the Council of Nicaea. This letter, with all its boldness, cannot be construed into a denial of the Pope’s jurisdiction by the Church of Africa. It simply voices the desire of the African bishops to continue the enjoyment of those privileges of partial home-rule which went by default to their Church during the stormy period when the theory of universal papal dominion could not be always reduced to practice, because of the trials which the growing church had to endure. But before the time of Apiarius, as the Sardican canons referred to attest, Western Europe had come to accept Rome as a court of last appeal in disciplinary causes. Africa, too, was now ready, and its readiness is shown by the case of Apiarius as well as by the records of like appeals to Rome to which St. Augustine himself bears witness.
JOHN B. PETERSON