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Council Minus Papacy Equals Chaos

At the heart of all divisions among Christian traditions is the basic issue of doctrinal and moral authority. By what means do we determine what is the Christian faith and how are we supposed to live it?

The Catholic Church always has taught that the magisterium (the pope and the bishops teaching in harmony with him) is Jesus Christ’s provision for determining and preserving Catholic truth.

From the time they severed communion with Rome, the Eastern Orthodox churches have exalted conciliarism—the authority of councils—as their alternative to the papacy. In a previous article (June 1997) I detailed the Eastern claims for councils in connection with the first ecumenical council, that of Nicaea in 325.

In dialogue with members of the Orthodox churches, Catholics must address the Eastern claims for conciliarism on two levels, theoretical and historical. The utter impracticability of conciliarism, even on the theoretical level, is illustrated by the assertion of an Eastern conciliarist that ecumenical councils have “the supreme authority in the Orthodox Church.” And which councils are truly ecumenical and therefore authoritative? His answer: The decisive criterion of the ecumenicity of a council is whether it receives “the recognition of its decrees by the whole Church, which is therefore in fact the sole authority in Orthodoxy.” How is it possible to vest “supreme” authority in one agency (a council) and “sole” authority in another (the whole Church)?

Now for the historical level. No council ever decreed that its decisions were to be binding only after all the churches had received them. Nor is there any way in the conciliar scheme by which to determine whether or when all churches have accepted a conciliar ruling. Has any major conciliar decision ever fulfilled this requirement?

In my June article I examined the way in which the early Church dealt with the heresies that threatened her existence. Eastern apologists commonly ignore the decisive role played by the papacy in preparing for and confirming conciliar decisions. They are equally silent about the frequent exercise of universal papal jurisdiction in the early centuries.

Despite his conciliar presuppositions, John Meyendorff admits that the Council of Nicaea did not resolve the “quarrel” over Arianism. Indeed, the council “became but one of that quarrel’s first stages. Arianism soon became so strong that Constantine himself and several of his successors were led to rescind Nicaea.” What, then, did bring about the final triumph of the orthodox faith in the Arian controversy? It was “the indefatigable struggle of its defendants, Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian Fathers.”

Athanasius was indeed an outstanding individual defender of the Nicene faith, but his defender was the successor of Peter. Very soon after the Council of Nicaea in 325, orthodoxy came under heavy attack by the Arians and the emperor whom they had won to their side. It was obvious that a council could neither interpret authoritatively nor enforce its own canons. Not the Council of Nicaea, but the See of Peter was the guardian of Nicaea’s interpretation of the gospel. It protected the true faith from the attacks of a heretical emperor and of the great majority of Eastern bishops, who were heretics.

Four Eastern councils condemned Athanasius on trumped-up charges. He appealed to the bishop of Rome, who had been notified of the conciliar action taken against Athanasius. Julius wrote to the Eastern bishops who had deposed Athanasius. He demanded to know why they had presumed to make a judgment about the bishop of Alexandria without consulting the pope.

In his letter Pope Julius asked the Eastern bishops, “Are you ignorant that this is customary, for word to be written to us first, and then for a just sentence to be passed from this place? If, then, any suspicion rested upon the bishop there, notice thereof ought to have been sent to the Church of this place [Rome]; whereas, after neglecting to inform us, and proceeding on their own authority as they pleased, now they desire to obtain our concurrence in their decisions. . . . Not so have the directions of the Fathers prescribed. This is another form of procedure, a novel practice. . . . What we have received from the blessed apostle Peter, that I signify to you.”

Athanasius tells us that Julius summoned him and his accusers to Rome. A synod led by the Pope exonerated Athanasius on all counts. Several fifth-century Eastern historians commented on the Pope’s action. Theodoret wrote, “Pope Julius, adhering to the law of the Church, both commanded them to repair to Rome and summoned Athanasius to trial.” Note the phrase “adhering to the law of the Church.” Universal papal jurisdiction is “the law of the Church.”

The historian Socrates reported that Julius did not send representatives to either of two heretical councils that condemned Athanasius; he noted that “the ecclesiastical canon expressly commands that the churches shall not make ordinances contrary to the judgment of the bishop of Rome.” Sozomen recounts the same episode and refers to the canon in question in terms almost identical with those of Socrates. Thus we have clear witness to the fact that in the Nicene period Rome claimed to have a divinely constituted authority over both West and East.

Only the heretical bishops challenged Julius’s authority. They argued that the Council of Tyre’s condemnation of Athanasius in 335 was not subject to appeal to the Pope because the emperor convened the council. The heretical bishops insisted that decisions of a council in the East simply should be accepted by the West. They, in turn, would reciprocate with regard to Western conciliar rulings.

The Arian bishops’ strategy was to convert the emperor to their heresy and persuade him to call councils to carry out their attack on orthodoxy. Heretical bishops and the emperor sought to replace the supreme authority of the See of Peter with that of the state. Had they succeeded, they would have laid the groundwork for the eventual emergence of independent national churches, loosely federated. This is the institutional form that developed in the East after those churches broke with Rome. It is the institutional form of Eastern Orthodoxy today.

The pontificates of three popes encompass the turbulent period between the first and second ecumenical councils: Julius (337–356), Liberius (352–366), and Damasus (366–384). We already have noted Pope Julius’s rescue and rehabilitation of Athanasius. Now we shall glance at two other significant events in Julius’s pontificate.

Ossius of Cordoba had presided at the council of Nicaea in 325, apparently as one of Pope Sylvester’s three representatives in the council. A dozen years later, to continue the battle against Arianism, Ossius persuaded the emperor to summon another council, which was held at Sardica (the modern Sofia in Bulgaria) in 343.

From all over the empire approximately 170 bishops came to Sardica. Only a slight majority were orthodox, loyal to Pope Julius and supporters of Athanasius, who was also present. The Pope was represented by two priest-legates. The heretical minority refused to participate in the council because of their opposition to Athanasius. They adjourned to Philippopolis, where they condemned Athanasius and other loyal bishops and even tried to excommunicate Pope Julius.

The bishops who remained at Sardica enacted several important canons. Canon 3 provided that if one bishop brought charges against another, the metropolitan of that area should summon a provincial synod to hear the case. If the plaintiff prevailed, the accused had the right of appeal to a panel of judges in his own region. That panel was to be appointed by the pope.

Canon 4 concerns the case of an accused bishop who lost in the court of appeal provided in canon 3. That bishop had the right of appeal to Rome for a reversal of the adverse decision. While he was pursuing his appeal, none could replace him in his see.

Canon 7 provided that a bishop declared guilty in the first court could appeal directly to Rome. The bishop of Rome would decide whether the case should be reconsidered. If the pope decided affirmatively, he would remit the case to the bishops of the province adjacent to the accused bishop’s province or he would send a legate to settle the case by himself or in cooperation with the bishops of the adjacent province.

These canons were adopted in the West and eventually throughout the East. Not a single objection was raised by any of the leading Eastern bishops. These canons, in providing for appeals to Rome, simply take for granted the legitimacy of the appeals and the universal jurisdiction of Rome.

In 358 Eastern and Western councils were held in Ariminum (Rimini) in Italy and in Seleucia in Asia Minor. Pope Liberius’ legate presided at the opening of the Council of Ariminum, at which more than 400 bishops were present. The council excommunicated heretics who were disturbing the Church. With the Pope’s confirmation this could have become an ecumenical council. However, the emperor took control, and the Pope’s legate left the council. Then the emperor forced the remaining bishops to sign a heretical creed.

Things went no better at the council in Seleucia. There the bishops submitted to the emperor’s will and signed the heretical creed exacted from the bishops in Ariminum. Ultimately, hardly more than eighteen or nineteen bishops in all of Christendom remained faithful to the Nicene faith. And so, wrote Jerome later, “The whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian.”

Athanasius, Eusebius, Hilary—all faithful bishops and all exiles—did not sign the heretical creed. But it remained to Pope Liberius to repudiate the formula. Because he repudiated it, the emperor sent him into exile. Because Jesus Christ had commissioned Peter and his successors to “strengthen the brethren,” the Pope’s repudiation prevailed. It remained to Damasus, Liberius’s successor, to make the papal repudiation of Ariminum finally effective. Earlier I noted Meyendorff’s claim that Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers brought about the final triumph of orthodoxy over Arianism. We have seen that Athanasius appealed to the pope and ultimately was vindicated by the pope. We turn now to one of the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, and to his dependence on the universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome.

From Athanasius we learn that in the East there was great anxiety regarding the heretical councils of Ariminum and Seleucia. Basil described in detail the distress created by the defection of most of the bishops to the Arian heresy. He appealed to the pope, in desperation. Later he said he had written to the bishop of Rome and had asked him “to oversee [the verb form of the word for “bishop”] matters here in the East and to give judgment, so that he might act on his own authority in the matter and choose out men equal to the task.” What Basil really said was, “We cannot overcome this heresy. You can. You have the authority. Use it!”

See what Basil is asking. The task of the papal legates he is pleading for would be to persuade the Eastern bishops to accept the pope’s nullification of the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia. Today Easterners claim the bishops of the East always rejected any notion of universal papal jurisdiction, yet Basil never would have urged a procedure based on a principle which the Eastern bishops denied.

Concede for the moment the Orthodox claim that Eastern bishops did not accept universal papal jurisdiction. If that were true, their response to Basil’s plan—had it been carried out—would be obvious. They would declare the bishop of Rome had no authority to send legates to secure their acceptance of his ruling. Never forget that Basil was a leading Eastern theologian and prelate. He well knew what his fellow bishops would and would not accept. By his request he acknowledged that Rome could (and did) legitimately exercise jurisdiction over the East. He must have been certain his fellow prelates would acknowledge that jurisdiction.

Damasus addressed a letter to the Illyrian bishops and, through them, to all Eastern bishops. He assured them they must not be alarmed by the large number of bishops who lapsed into heresy at Ariminum. In these matters numbers are irrelevant, said Damasus, “for it is evident that neither the Roman bishop [Liberius] whose judgment was the one to be looked for before all, nor Vincentius, nor others, gave any consent to such decrees” (emphasis added). Damasus was reminding the Eastern bishops that Liberius’s refusal to confirm the Ariminian formula ipso facto rendered the heretical bishops’ action null and void. No one took exception to this reminder.

In his letter Damasus recalled the work of the Nicene Council. “Our ancestors, 318 bishops, directed from the city of the most holy bishop of the city of Rome, a council having been arranged at Nicaea, erected this bulwark against the devil’s weapons” (emphasis added).

Note these facts. Neither the Council of Nicaea nor its creed could make orthodoxy secure. Within a few years after the council new forms of Arianism appeared in the East. The council could not interpret its own canons. The council therefore could not safeguard its own canons. It is obvious that a council as such cannot function as a magisterium.

In accordance with Christ’s plan, “the ordinary government of the Church does not lie with general councils, but with the bishops in union with the Holy See. It was to Rome that men looked in the anguish of those days, and not to general councils. In one sense, indeed, the eyes of all were for a while turned to the great bishop of Alexandria; but St. Athanasius himself looked to Rome.”

The conciliarism espoused by Eastern Orthodox apologists as an alternative to papal authority is only a theory. It cannot replace the papacy, because the papacy is God’s plan for his Church.

The formula from history is simple: Council minus papacy equals chaos.

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