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The Pope vs. Tradition?

St. Irenaeus points to how we can handle a roiling controversy, where the pope seems to be setting himself against a venerable tradition of the Church

After hearing from certain bishops, the pope decided to tamp down on the liturgy. Whereas his predecessors were fine with two different forms of celebration, the pope now insisted that everyone should celebrate in the same way. The pope’s motives seem to have been good: fostering liturgical unity in the Church and weeding out division among Catholics. But it was instead quickly received as a threat to Tradition. After all, the liturgical practice in question was “from an older tradition,” indeed an ancient one dating back to the time of the apostles. Almost overnight, schism or excommunication suddenly seemed possible.

Of course, the pope I’m describing is Pope Victor I (reigned c. A.D. 189-199), and the controversy was the so-called Quartodeciman controversy, about when to celebrate Easter.

If you’re not familiar with the controversy, it starts with a calendaring problem. At the time of Christ, Jews used two calendars: their own lunar calendar and the Julian calendar (the predecessor of the Gregorian calendar), used throughout the Roman Empire.

We see both of these calendars at play within Holy Week. When the Last Supper is connected with “the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Mark 14:1), that’s referring to the Jewish calendar. On the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, the lamb was slain, and its flesh was eaten that evening (Exod. 12:5-8). This also marks the beginning of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread (vv. 18-20). But when St. Mark says that three days later, Jesus rose from the dead “very early on the first day of the week” (Mark 16:2), he’s using the Julian calendar.

This creates a problem: what should Christians do when Passover doesn’t begin on Thursday? If you follow the Jewish calendar, you’ll end up celebrating Easter on a random weekday. If you follow the Roman calendar, you’ll preserve Holy Thursday on Thursday and Easter Sunday on Sunday, but your tradition will no longer be in sync with the Jewish liturgical calendar.

Apparently, the apostles chose different solutions to this problem. According to the Church historian Eusebius (c. 260-34), those churches of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) established by the apostles John and Philip made a tradition of following the Jewish calendar. Meanwhile, “the churches in the rest of the world” established by the other ten apostles followed the Roman calendar. And at first, this wasn’t a problem: different parts of the world simply used different liturgical calendars. But by the close of the second century, there was a growing desire to see the whole Church celebrate Easter on the same day.

As a result, “synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account,” including a synod in Rome attended by Pope Victor and St. Irenaeus of Lyon. These synods unanimously “drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day, and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only.” The Quartodecimans, having suddenly found their liturgical calendar forbidden by the Church, were outraged. Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus wrote to the pope, insisting that their liturgical practice dated back to two apostles and pointing out that great saints in the Church (like St. Polycarp of Smyrna) followed the Quartodeciman calendar.

Polycrates insists that he writes not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of “the bishops who were present, whom I summoned at your desire; whose names, should I write them, would constitute a great multitude.” From this reference, it appears that it was Pope Victor who had encouraged the Quartodeciman bishops to meet in a synod of their own. If so, the result was surely not what the pope was hoping for. Rather than complying, Polycrates challenged Pope Victor directly to defend the Quartodeciman tradition, saying he was “not affrighted by terrifying words” and quoting St. Peter that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). An enraged Victor employed the nuclear option, denouncing the churches of Asia Minor as heterodox and declaring “all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.”

Looking back on this, we can ask a few questions. First: Did the pope have the power to do this? Certainly. Second: Should he have done so? Almost certainly not. Third: What should the faithful have done in response?

It would be tempting to side uncritically with the pope, focusing on the fact that he could, and ignoring the question of whether he should, or else to side with those flouting the pope, focusing on the imprudence of his decision while ignoring his legitimate authority.

But Irenaeus shows us a different course.

Irenaeus was born in Smyrna and was a disciple of Polycarp, meaning he spent much of his life observing the Quartodeciman calendar. But as an adult, he had moved to the West, first to Rome and then to modern-day France, where he became the second bishop of the town now known as Lyon. He had been one of those bishops at the synod of Rome unanimously voting for the exclusive use of the Roman calendar, yet he almost certainly knew bishops on both sides of the controversy well.

Irenaeus was thus uniquely poised to be a voice of moderation and reason when those traits seemed in short supply. Irenaeus wrote to Victor, arguing that the pope “should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom.” He pointed out that liturgical differences existed not only in the dating of Easter, but in the length of the Paschal fast (what would eventually become the season of Lent). But, as Irenaeus observed, “this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors.”

So how had their ancestors, and specifically prior popes, handled these differences? By living “none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.” In other words, the Church’s unity of faith doesn’t require liturgical homogeneity. Specifically, Irenaeus pointed to the example of Pope Anicetus and Polycarp. When Polycarp came to Rome, “they disagreed a little about certain other things” but “immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter.” Ultimately, “Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.”

Irenaeus was not arguing that Quartodecimanism was superior to the Roman tradition; his own witness suggests that he preferred the Roman view. Rather, he was appealing to sanity and gentleness, not to make mountains out of molehills when it comes to legitimate differences in liturgical practice.

This gentle rebuke seems to have worked, and Victor appears to have backed down. Eusebius concludes by saying that Irenaeus (whose name means “peace” or “unity”) thus “was well named,” since he “became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches.” Pope Francis made a similar observation: in his recent decree proclaiming Irenaeus a Doctor of the Church, he calls him “a spiritual and theological bridge between Eastern and Western Christians” and suggests that his name “expresses that peace which comes from the Lord and which reconciles, restoring unity.”

Although most of us can’t bend the pope’s ear in the way Irenaeus could, we live in an age in which online Catholics are quick to “anathematize” one another. We can emulate the great Doctor of Unity by speaking up without losing our cool . . . or our charity.

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