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Celestine: Defender of Theotokos

Non-Catholics consistently deny the facts of history with regard to the papacy. They claim papal power only gradually arose in later centuries, purely the product of fortuitous historical circumstances and not of divine appointment. This is the logic of this claim: If Jesus had given to Peter and his successors the authority which the Catholic Church claims to possess, that authority would have been exercised from the first century onward. But (and now comes the false minor premise) that authority was never exercised in early centuries. Therefore, authority claimed for the papacy is purely a human invention.

Here is an Eastern Orthodox example of the faulty minor premise. Prior to the Council of Chalcedon in 451, “The Roman Church had no decisive influence on the trinitarian and christological debates raging in the East” (John Meyendorff, A Pope For All Christians?, 133). Paraphrasing the sentence passed on Paul by the Roman governor Festus (Acts 25:12), Catholics can say, “You have appealed to history; to history we shall go.”

Previous articles in this series have recounted a few of the many instances in which papal action determined the outcome of battles with heresy in the second, third, and fourth centuries. Indeed, not one of the early heresies was finally defeated apart from the intervention of a pope. As we shall see in future articles, at least up into the tenth century the pope was the acknowledged supreme authority in doctrinal and moral matters in the East as well as the West. 

The Eastern churches’ appeal to ecumenical councils as their supreme authority arose only after they had separated from the Catholic Church. Still, an Eastern theologian declares, “The supreme power in the Church belongs to the bishops [that is, to councils of bishops, not to the pope]. This truth needs no elaboration for the whole Tradition supports it” (Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 17). True, there is no need of “elaboration”-because there is no possibility of “elaboration.” This statement has no basis in fact. The “whole Tradition” claimed for its support is only the tradition developed by Eastern apologists since the great schism. 

We continue our survey of the exercise of universal papal jurisdiction in early centuries by turning now to the third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, 431. The issue which occasioned the Ephesian Council was the question of the relation between the two natures in the one divine Person of Christ. Was the union substantial, or was it accidental? Various Fathers had spoken of the relation of the two natures in terms which were easily misinterpreted. Ignatius referred to Christ as “bearing flesh.” According to Tertullian, Christ was “clothed with flesh.” Other Fathers had written about the “mixture” of the divine and human in Christ. The term Theotokos (Mother of God) had been used but had never been analyzed and declared an item of faith.

Beginning on Christmas Day, 428, and continuing for several months, the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, preached a series of sermons in his cathedral, denouncing use of the term Theotokos to designate the Virgin’s maternity. Because our information about Nestorius is limited, scholars today are somewhat divided over the degree of Nestorius’s heresy. He appears to have taught that two natures — one divine, one human — were joined in Jesus Christ, but God did not become man (as we say in the Creed). In the Incarnation, he said, Christ’s humanity was only “a garment” which God put on. The Virgin conceived and bore only that garment. She is mother only of the humanity of Christ. She must not be called Theotokos. At most she is Christotokos. 

When Nestorius’s teachings became known in Egypt, Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, remonstrated with him by correspondence. Nestorius was adamant, so Cyril wrote to Pope Celestine, telling him about the heresy and the confusion it was causing in Constantinople and beyond. Cyril said he thought he should withdraw from communion with Nestorius, but did not want to take action until he had consulted the Pope. Cyril, himself a leading Eastern Father, asked the Pope to settle the controversy. “Deign, therefore, to decide what seems right, whether we ought to communicate at all with him or to tell him plainly that no one communicates with a person who holds and teaches what he does.” Cyril further requested the Pope to communicate his decision by letter “to all the bishop of the East.” This would both give the Eastern bishops “the opportunity of standing together in unity of soul and mind and lead them to contend earnestly for the orthodox faith which is being attacked” (emphasis added, here and in later quotations). 

Celestine convoked a synod, condemned the errors of Nestorius and communicated his decision to Cyril. He authorized Cyril to act in his behalf: “Wherefore assuming to yourself the authority of our see, and using our stead with power, you will deliver the following sentence with strict severity.” The sentence: Unless within ten days of receiving the Pope’s admonition Nestorius in writing denounced his erroneous teaching and adhered to the true faith, he would be excommunicated. Cyril would administer the see of Constantinople until a successor could be chosen.

Celestine informed the people and clergy of Constantinople of his ruling, stating again that if Nestorius did not recant he was to be “excommunicated from the entire Catholic Church.” Writing to Patriarch John of Antioch, Celestine called his verdict “the sentence passed by Christ our God” which eliminates Nestorius from “the roll of bishops” if he persists in his heresy. In a letter to Cyril, Celestine said his decree was not so much his as it was “the divine judgment of Christ our Lord.” Thus speaks the successor of Peter, the key-keeper. Yet in the face of this and similar facts, Meyendorff still affirms, “The Orthodox Church for its part has always confessed the impossibility of a bishop’s exercising a power of divine right over another bishop or over the community presided over by another bishop.” Impossible? Not all. Jesus Christ planned it that way.

In his key role as patriarch of the court church of the East, Nestorius persuaded the Emperor to call a general council. Eastern apologists try to make of this calling a proof that an ecumenical council, not a pope, has supreme authority in the Church. Orthodox Archbishop Peter L’Huillier argues that the Emperor knew the Pope already had condemned Nestorius, but he also knew the Pope’s ruling could be revoked by a general council. There is no evidence that the Emperor held that false belief. No council ever revoked a papal ruling. No council ever decreed that it could do so. 

Catholic scholars assert that the Emperor did not know of the papal condemnation when he summoned the Council. Even though he asserts the Emperor did know, L’Huillier himself offers proof to the contrary. He tells us that in summoning the Council, the Emperor thought the issue was simply a dispute between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria. We know that when the Emperor learned of the papal condemnation, he raised no objection, even though Nestorius was a favorite of his. Had the Emperor known of the Pope’s action, he certainly would not have regarded the whole matter as simply a personal theological dispute between the two Eastern patriarchs.

Against his own evidence, which we have just seen, L’Huillier insists that “the imperial decision to convoke a general council clearly meant that the Roman sentence was not held to be irrevocable.” He goes on to say that the Emperor believed “nothing had already been decided; it was up to the Council to decide everything in complete independence.” L’Huillier offers no evidence for his claim. Not a word from the Council even hints that the bishops thought the Pope’s sentence was revocable. As we shall see, the Council quickly submitted itself to Celestine’s decision and condemned Nestorius as a heretic. 

In the conciliar action there was not the slightest indication of an independent spirit on the part of the Eastern bishops. In a single day’s session they conducted other business and issued a condemnation of Nestorius. They said, in part, “we being necessarily compelled thereto by the canons and by the letter of our most Holy Father and colleague Celestine, bishop of the Roman Church, have arrived at the following sentence against him [Nestorius]: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been b.asphemed by him, defines by this present most holy synod that the same Nestorius is deprived of episcopal dignity and all sacerdotal intercourse.'”

Why were the Ephesian Council fathers so confident that in their decree Jesus Christ himself was passing the sentence on Nestorius? Simply because they were aligning themselves with the ruling of the Pope, who had already told them his decision (which they echoed) was from Jesus Christ himself.

The Council said it was impelled (constrained, obligated) both by the canons and by the Pope’s letter condemning Nestorius. The canons required that the Council condemn Nestorius for his stubbornly persevering in his heresy. The letter of the Pope to Cyril also compelled them to join their voices to that of the vicar of Christ, the successor of Peter.

Neither the Council nor Cyril nor any other patriarch had authority to depose Nestorius. Only the Pope had that universal authority. No one questioned his authority; only the heretics opposed it. (As they still do today.)

Cyril presided at the Council sessions, acting as Celestine’s agent. Thus, the bishops of the next ecumenical council (Chalcedon, 451) stated that Celestine and Cyril had presided over the Council of Ephesus. So did the letter of the emperors confirming the Chalcedonian Council’s condemnation of Eutyches. So did the letters of many bishops, writing to the Emperor after the Council of Chalcedon. 

The legates were under orders from Celestine not to take part in the discussions of the Council. He sent them to be judges of the discussion and insure that his sentence on Nestorius was carried out. They had not yet arrived when the Cyril and the Council repeated the Pope’s condemnation of the Nestorian heresy. When they arrived at the Council, one of the legates asked that the minutes of the preceding meetings be read aloud in the assembly. The reason he gave was that “we may follow the formula of the most holy Pope Celestine, who committed this care (that is, the care of this whole matter) to us, and of your holiness and may be able to confirm the decisions.” Note that it was both the prerogative and the responsibility of the Pope, here speaking through his legates, to confirm (or reject) the decisions of the Council. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church reminds us that there has “never been an ecumenical council that was not confirmed as such or at least received by the successor of Peter” (section 22).

After the public reading of the Council’s concurrence in Celestine’s sentence, the legate Philip gave the Council a clear, strong statement of the universal jurisdiction of the successors of Peter. “There is no doubt, and in fact, it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who, even to this time and always lives and judges in his successors. Our holy and most blessed Pope Celestine the bishop is according to due order his successor and holds his place, and he sent us to supply his presence in this holy synod.” The papal legate expressed in plain language what the Catholic Church teaches about the role of the pope in the life of the Church. He was reminding the bishops of something they already knew. With regard to matters of faith, the successor of Peter is final judge. With regard to disciplinary matters, he is the ruler. Both responsibilities are his by divine appointment.

Not a word of protest was spoken. L’Huillier admits this, but insists that Philip’s intervention “certainly did not reflect the thinking of the majority of the fathers of the Council.” L’Huillier does not tell us how he knows what was in the minds of the Council fathers. We know that in all the early councils, on all contested points of doctrine, the bishops battled one another furiously, sometimes resorting to physical violence. On such a basic theological issue as this, why would they remain silent if they disagreed with Philip?

L’Huillier does offer an explanation for the bishops’ silence. He quotes an Anglican author (E. Symonds, The Church Universal and the See of Rome): “It is not the custom of Eastern bishops, or perhaps of bishops in any part of the world, to protest against the claims of Rome, when Rome is on their side.” In other words, the Eastern bishops were a bunch of hypocrites. For selfish reasons they pretended to acquiesce in a statement of doctrine which in fact they rejected. Can L’Huillier or Symonds tell us one other time when these or any other orthodox Eastern bishops so behaved? 

The cynical author whom L’Huillier quotes has his facts backward. Cyril, the leader of the Eastern bishops, had appealed to the Pope to eradicate the Nestorian heresy. Celestine had complied with Cyril’s request. Without a single protest, the bishops dutifully and exactly carried out the sentence the Pope told them to impose on Nestorius. Rome was not on the side of the Eastern bishops; the Eastern bishops were on the side of Rome.

In a letter to Celestine the Council reported its support of his sentence on Nestorius. After its greeting, the Council said, “The zeal of Your Holiness for piety, and your care for the right faith [heretics came and went in the East, but Rome always held the true faith], so dear and pleasing to God the Savior of us all, are worthy of all admiration. For it is your custom in such great matters to make trial of all things, and to support the churches [all the churches] which you have made your own care. But since it is right that all things which have taken place should be brought to the knowledge of your holiness, we are writing of necessity” to inform the Pope of their acceptance of his decision about Nestorius.Who is on whose side? The Council itself says it is on the Pope’s side.

The Council of also dealt with the case of John, bishop of Antioch. A friend of Nestorius, he had abstained from taking part in the Council. Instead, he convoked a synod which condemned, excommunicated, and deposed both Cyril and Memnon, bishop of Ephesus. John of course had no jurisdiction over Alexandria or over Ephesus. The Council summoned John to appear before it, but he refused. Both Cyril and Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem, declared that Rome alone had jurisdiction over the see of Alexandria. The Council invalidated all that John had done and excommunicated him and his associates if they refused to acknowledge their error. Note, however, that the Council chose not to depose John, though it could have done so because of the broad power delegated by Celestine to his legates and to Cyril. It deferred to the superior authority of the see of Peter, and so informed the Pope.

After the bishops of the Ephesian Council had returned to their homes, Celestine congratulated them on having joined with him in settling the Nestorian problem and related issues. The Pope obviously regarded his decision and the Council’s carrying it out as one action. He gave instructions for dealing with the Nestorians and for reconciling John of Antioch if he repented of his actions.

In a letter to the clergy and people of Constantinople, Celestine praised Cyril for his work in helping resolve the Nestorian crisis. He warned the people that Nestorius would make strenuous efforts to reinstate himself. But, he said, Rome will not be outdone in vigilance. “The blessed apostle Peter did not desert them when they were toiling so heavily, for when the separation of such an ulcer [as Nestorius] from the ecclesiastical body seemed advisable by reason of the putrid decay which became sensible to all, we offered soothing fomentation together with the steel. . . . We could not delay longer lest we should seem to run with the thief, and to take our portion with the adulterer against faith.”

Reflecting their present situation, the Eastern churches today hold that national churches are by God’s design totally independent of one another. (In the early centuries, of course, there were no national churches.) The events surrounding the third ecumenical council, Ephesus, contradict such claims of local autonomy. As successor of Peter and earthly head of the Church, for just cause Pope Celestine deposed the occupants of two patriarchates, Constantinople and Antioch. Then through his emissary, Cyril, the Pope ordered the Council summoned by the Emperor to carry out his sentence. This the Council did unhesitatingly.

What is our divine Lord’s plan for his Church? The Eastern Orthodox pattern? More than a dozen autonomous flocks each with its own shepherds-and no one shepherd to unify the flocks? Not at all. “There shall be on flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). Today the one shepherd yearns and prays and works for the return of his flocks who have left the fold. 

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