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How the Pope Caught a Robber

The early ecumenical councils were summoned to respond to heresies which threatened the Church’s life. The doctrinal decrees of those councils reflected teaching previously promulgated by one or more of the popes. By issuing their decrees the assembled bishops concurred in the papal decisions. When he confirmed the actions of a council — and his approval was required to make them binding — a pope sometimes exercised what today we call a line-item veto, as we shall see in the case of the fourth council.

In the face of these facts, Eastern Orthodox apologists still contend that the councils themselves were by God’s design the supreme authority in the Church. Between councils, they further assert, the affairs of the Church were supervised by the “pentarchy,” the five patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Those five patriarchs, says one spokesman for this claim, Archbishop Joseph M. Raya, “have, throughout the course of history, borne together, under the primacy of the Titular of the Roman Church, the weight of the responsibility of the Universal Church.” Though Melkite Catholic, the Archbishop is here stating Eastern Orthodox, not Catholic, teaching.

The phrase “throughout the course of history” is key for several reasons. The whole concept of patriarchates is a later development. Prior to the fifth century there was no patriarchate of Constantinople. The notion of “five patriarchates” who presided over the Church became popular in the East only in the sixth century, under the influence of the Emperor Justinian. All the while, however, the bishop of Rome had been exercising his divinely-endowed universal jurisdiction.

The Archbishop’s statement of the pentarchy theory goes even further. “Rome,” he says, “never interfered with the ecclesiastical affairs of the Eastern Church unless called upon to exercise its role of arbitration.” This is simply wrong. Rome never negotiated with heretics. She deposed them. Equally wrong is the statement that “arbitration” itself “was not a unique privilege of Rome, but was shared by all the five patriarchs.” Not once did the five patriarchs act jointly as equals. They were not equals; the successor of Peter was always the ultimate authority.

In every single case of heresy which threatened the Church’s truth, one or more of the Eastern patriarchs were themselves the culprits. How could five patriarchs jointly bear responsibility for the integrity of the Church’s doctrine when all but one-the Roman patriarch-often were heretics? How could heretics work with popes to overcome the very heresies they had created and were actively fomenting? The pentarchy theory is an apologetic figment. 

We resume now the story of the popes’ continuous safeguarding of the truth. The first ecumenical council (Nicaea, 325) affirmed that Jesus Christ is God (“of one substance with the Father”). The second (Constantinople, 381) taught that the Holy Spirit is fully God. The third (Ephesus, 431) acknowledged that the Blessed Virgin is truly Mother of God, not merely of the humanity of Jesus. The promulgation of these dogmas focused attention on the two natures of Christ. Granted that he is fully human and fully divine, the question of the relation of these two natures remained. That relation was disastrously described by Eutyches (378-451), archimandrite of a monastery outside Constantinople, in terms of a heresy that convulsed the Church in the East.

According to Eutyches, our Lord had only one nature after he became man. His human nature was swallowed up, so to speak, by his divine nature. This “foolish old man,” as Pope Leo the Great later characterized him, declared that the earthly body of Jesus was not “consubstantial with us.” It was a body different from all other human bodies. A synod at Constantinople condemned Eutyches in 448, depriving him of all monastic rank, but it did not anathematize his heresy. Eutyches wrote to Rome, falsely claiming he had appealed to Rome during the synod. According to the Church’s canons, if he had appealed, the synod’s sentence would have been suspended automatically until the Pope remanded the case or himself made a final judgment. (Does this sound like “arbitration”?) Eutyches told Pope Leo that at the synod “I requested that this might be made known to Your Holiness, and that you might judge as you should think fit.” Eutyches added that he had declared to the synod “that in every way I should follow that which you approve.” 

Eutyches also appealed to Peter Chrysologus (406-445) for support. The saintly bishop of Ravenna said he could not offer an opinion after hearing only Eutyches’ version of events. He urged Eutyches “to attend obediently in all things to all that is written by the most blessed Pope of the city of Rome. For blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own see, grants the truth of the faith to those who ask him.” The saint added that “we, for the love of peace and faith, cannot hear causes of faith without the consent of the bishop of the city of Rome.” The pope, in other words, is the ultimate judge in matters of the faith.

The patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian, immediately sent to Pope Leo the full records of the synod. They were long delayed in transit. Not having received them, the Pope wrote to the Emperor, who supported Eutyches, to tell him he could make no judgment until he heard from Flavian. In that letter the Pope severely criticized Flavian for not having done his duty in sending him the acts of the synod. Before he received the Pope’s letter, the Emperor had been persuaded by Dioscorus, patriarch of Alexandria and ally of Eutyches, to summon a council that would be asked to reverse the synodal condemnation of Eutyches. 

Leo also wrote to Flavian, censuring him for his failure. In his reply to the Pope, Flavian showed no sign of resentment, though the delay in getting the report to the Pope was not his fault. Flavian asked the pope to approve the acts of the synod: “The matter only needs your impulse and the help that is due from you through your own consent to bring everything into peace and calm, and so the heresy which has arisen, and the trouble that has ensued, will be brought to a happy conclusion, with the help of God, through your holy briefs.” No arbitrator, the Pope. He took charge. 

Flavian regarded as unnecessary both the council the Emperor was summoning and the decision of any other patriarch. The exercise of the Pope’s universal jurisdiction alone would bring about peace in the Church. As the leading archbishop in the East, Flavian must have known that the other bishops would readily accept the papal decision. Otherwise, his request to the Pope would have been pointless. (Flavian himself was one of the “pentarchs.” Unlike Eastern Orthodox apologists, Flavian had never heard of the “pentarchy theory.”)

After Flavian’s report reached him, Leo decided to send legates to Constantinople to settle the issue. With the legates he sent to Flavian a long letter known as the “Tome of St. Leo.” In this document he set forth the authentic Catholic faith: Jesus Christ is fully God, fully man, two natures perfectly united (not merged) in one Person. (This “Tome” was later issued by the Council of Chalcedon as the authentic Catholic faith concerning the two natures of Christ. That council accepted the “Tome” because it was the teaching of the holder of the keys, the earthly head of the Church.)

Pope Leo also dealt at length with the acts of the synod that had condemned Eutyches. He confirmed the bishops’ sentence of Eutyches, but reprimanded them for not having anathematized Eutyches’ heresy (now known as “Monophysitism,” “one nature-ism”). He expressed the hope that Eutyches could be convinced of his error and be saved. To the Emperor Leo wrote that he acquiesced in the calling of a council to stress to Eutyches the necessity of accepting the papal decision. There can be no doubt, he said, about the error of Eutyches. He recalled that Eutyches had promised to correct anything the Pope judged to be erroneous.

Clearly expressing his teaching authority, the Pope told the Emperor, “What things the Catholic Church universally believes and teaches concerning the sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation are more fully contained in the writings which I have sent to my brother and fellow-bishop Flavian.”

In a letter to the Empress Pulcheria, devout sister of the Emperor, Leo said that, if Eutyches persisted in his error, he could not be absolved. He added, “The Apostolic See both acts with severity in the case of the obdurate and wishes to pardon those who suffer themselves to be corrected.” Eutyches’ absolution, in other words, eventually must come from the Apostolic See.

The Pope wrote to the archimandrites of Constantinople, telling them he was sending his legates to help them defend the truth. He did not say they should ascertain the truth. His “Tome” had already done that: “Our teaching from the tradition of the Fathers is sufficiently explained in letters to Flavian, so that you may know from your chief what in accordance with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ we wish to be established in the hearts of all the faithful.” 

To the synod about to meet, Pope Leo wrote that the Emperor “has paid such respect to the divine institutions, as to apply to the authority of the Apostolic See for a proper determination” of Eutyches’ offense. The Pope charged the synod with affirming and impressing on Eutyches and his followers the judgment already made by the Apostolic See. The papal legates were to preside. Leo gave directions for dealing with Eutyches himself, telling the council that, in a letter to the Pope, Eutyches had promised to obey whatever the Apostolic See commanded.

The synod, held in Ephesus in 449, was a disaster. The Emperor Justinian appointed as president of the assembly Dioscorus, patriarch of Alexandria and ally of Eutyches. (Pope Leo aptly called Dioscorus the “Egyptian plunderer.”) Dioscorus refused to allow Leo’s “Tome” to be read to the assembly. The papal legates denounced the proceedings and fled for their lives. Dioscorus directed soldiers and violent monks to do physical harm to any bishops who opposed his will. Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople, was beaten so severely that he died shortly thereafter. The cowed bishops exonerated Eutyches and deposed Flavian and a number of other orthodox bishops. This ill-fated synod, which was supposed to have been an ecumenical council, has always borne the name given it by Pope Leo: “the Robber Council,” or “Latrocinium.” The Emperor gave the synod his approval. Many of the Eastern bishops condemned the synod and affirmed their allegiance to the Apostolic See. Theodoret of Cyprus, one of the orthodox bishops deposed by the synod at Ephesus, appealed to the Pope to reverse his deposition. Here is a prominent fifth-century Eastern bishop appealing to the Pope as the ultimate authority in matters of faith and discipline to reverse the sentence of an ostensibly ecumenical council. He is not asking for “arbitration” but for exoneration. And yet he knows he is bound by the Pope’s decision, whatever it is. “I await the verdict of your Apostolic See.” Again, “I appeal to your just tribunal.” Most important, “I await your sentence, and if you command me to abide by my condemnation, I will abide by it.” 

Or consider what the most prominent of Eastern bishops wrote to the Pope. One of the papal legates who escaped his assailants at the council brought to the Pope the appeal Flavian had made before his martyrdom. In part, this is what the lawful patriarch of Constantinople wrote to Leo: “Therefore I beseech Your Holiness not to permit these things to be treated with indifference . . . but to rise up first on behalf of the cause of our orthodox faith, now destroyed by unlawful acts . . . further to issue an authoritative instruction . . . so that a like faith may everywhere be preached, by the assembly of a united synod of the fathers, both Eastern and Western.” Thus-and only thus-would “all that has been done amiss be rendered null and void.” Flavian’s final appeal to the Pope was “bring healing to this ghastly wound.

The situation was desperate. Now put the Pope in the straitjacket of the Eastern Orthodox job description. It says he was only “first among equals” (primus inter pares), and that only because of the prestige of the city of Rome itself. They say he had a certain moral leadership (what they call “primacy of honor”) but no divinely-appointed authority over any other bishop. They say a council was the supreme authority for the Church; therefore there could be no appeal from its decisions, except perhaps an appeal to another council. If this were the true role of the successor of Peter, he would have been powerless to deal with the Robber Council. 

By Jesus Christ’s own appointment, Pope Leo was fully empowered to tend the wayward sheep. (See John 21:16; the Greek word for “tend” also means to govern.) He accepted the appeals of Flavian and Theodoret and others. He condemned the proceedings of the council at Ephesus and excommunicated all who had taken part in condemning Flavian. His action included the patriarchs of both Alexandria and Jerusalem and most of the principal bishops of the East. The Robber Council had designated Anatolius, secretary of Dioscorus, to be Flavian’s successor as patriarch of Constantinople. Pope Leo cancelled that appointment. In all that Pope Leo did to rescue the East from its doctrinal Frankenstein, he acted consciously and explicitly as sovereign pontiff of the Church. Only heretics opposed the papal decisions. Even they did not deny his role as sovereign pontiff.

G. K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, once lamented the fact that people tend to think of Christian orthodoxy “as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway in that. . . . The Church in its early days went fierce and fast as any war-horse. . . . She swerved to left and right, so as exactly to avoid enormous obstacles. . . . In my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” The chariot is the Catholic Church. The charioteer, of course, is Jesus Christ. His driver is the successor of Peter. Arbitrator? First among equals? No. Sovereign pontiff.

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