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Pelagius and the Pope

A favorite arrow in the quiver of anti-papal apologists is the assertion that in early centuries the Church in North Africa resisted papal jurisdiction. In an attempt to justify their separation from Rome, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican theologians cite as precedent an alleged opposition to papal authority on the part of the early African bishops.

The bishops of northern Africa, says John Meyendorff in Catholicity and the Church, were “traditionally opposed to the interventions of Rome in their provincial affairs.” (Note the strong word “traditionally,” which means consistently, over a long period of time.) Edward Pusey, a nineteenth-century Anglican scholar, expressed a commonly-held Anglican view in these words: “England is not at this moment more independent of any authority of the Bishop of Rome than Africa was in the days of St. Augustine.”

The facts of history contradict these claims. The Church’s dealings with the heretic Pelagius (born c. 354) demonstrate that the bishops of North Africa were by no means restive under papal jurisdiction. Quite the contrary.

Pelagius was a British monk who, with his disciple Celestius, came to Hippo in 411. He denied that human nature has been affected or weakened in any way by sin. Death is not the result of sin. Human beings can keep the law without the operation of grace. To follow God’s commands, we do not need grace; we need only the instruction Jesus gives us in his teaching and in his example. God does help us, but by properly using our free will we merit that divine aid.

This heresy was extremely difficult to combat. When confronted, Pelagius declared his conformity with the Church’s teaching. As soon as he was absolved of heresy, he resumed teaching it. He moved on to Palestine, but Celestius remained in North Africa. Because he openly taught the Pelagian heresy, a synod of Carthage, held in 412, condemned him. The synod informed the Pope of its action. Celestius appealed to Rome for reversal of his conviction. The African bishops raised no objection to his appeal. They recognized that, when the truth of the faith was at stake, the final word lay with Rome. Instead of going to Rome, Celestius went to the East to secure ordination to the priesthood before he was finally condemned. He was ordained in Ephesus.

Meanwhile, Pelagius had gone to Jerusalem, where he enlisted the sympathy of Bishop John of Jerusalem. A synod of priests was convened when news of Celestius’s condemnation at Carthage reached them. Confused by Pelagius’s slippery language and duplicity, the synod agreed to ask the Pope to determine whether Pelagius was in heresy. The bishop of Jerusalem concurred in this referral to Rome.

A member of the synod, Orosius, a Spanish priest, wrote that the bishop’s concurrence confirmed “our demand and contention that the parties and the letters should be sent to the blessed Innocent, the Roman Pope, all agreeing to follow what he should decide, but on the understanding that the heretic Pelagius should impose silence on himself meanwhile” (here and below, emphasis added). But John himself had been deceived by Pelagius. Sympathetic to him and thinking he might be condemned in Rome, John persuaded the bishop of Caesarea to convoke a synod of bishops of the province at Diospolis. Pelagius appeared before the synod and deceived them by his pretence of orthodoxy.

When the African bishops learned that Pelagius had been acquitted by the Caesarean synod and that his heresy was spreading in the East, a large number of them assembled in council in Carthage. Their canon law forbade condemning a man who was not present. They intended to persuade the province to confirm their previous condemnation of Celestius. Then one further and final step would have to be taken.

Shortly thereafter another synod of African bishops was convened at Milevis. Augustine, who had taken part in the council at Carthage, was in Milevis for this council. These bishops concurred in the condemnation of Pelagius and Celestius pronounced by the council of Carthage. 

According to Eastern advocates of the conciliar, theory the action taken at Carthage and Milevis should have ended the matter. So why did both councils appeal to Rome? The answer is simple. Their declaration that Pelagius and Celestius were heretics, condemned until they recanted, was binding only in Africa, in their part of the Church. A decision by the Pope—and only a decision by the Pope—would bind the entire Church. They were clearly not opposing the Pope’s authority; they were pleading for it to be exercised.

In a letter to Pope Innocent, the Carthaginian council reported that it had reviewed the previous condemnation of Celestius and had reaffirmed it. Then the bishops explained why they were communicating this fact to the Pope. “This act, lord brother, we thought right to intimate to your holy charity, in order that to the statutes of our littleness might be added the authority of the Apostolic See for the preservation of the safety of many, and the correction of the perversity of some.”

In terms similar to those used by the Carthaginian council, the bishops at Milevis asked the Pope to settle the Pelagian heresy. At one point they wrote, “But we consider that with the help of the mercy of our God, whom we pray to direct your counsels and to hear your prayers, those who hold such perverse and baneful opinions will more easily yield to the authority of your Holiness, which has been taken from the authority of the Holy Scripture.”

Anti-Catholic apologists have tried to read a Protestant meaning into the italicized words just quoted. They claim that in these words the African bishops were asking the Pope to refute the heretics with words from Scripture. This is absurd. If, in good Protestant fashion, the heretics were demanding proof-texts, why would they find the Pope’s Bible any more convincing than the councils’ Bible? The truth is, the North Africans (like all Catholics) knew that the authority of Rome is clearly reflected in Sacred Scripture. (Note that we do not say “based on Scripture.” Christ established his Church decades before the first book of the New Testament was written. Under inspiration, the Church wrote the New Testament, not vice versa.) 

A covering letter for the two councils was signed by five bishops, including Augustine, and taken to Rome by Bishop Julius. Stating their reasons for appealing to Rome, and speaking for the two councils, the bishops wrote that “the family of Christ . . . with suspense of heart, with fear and trembling, waits for the help of the Lord also by the charity of your Reverence.” The conclusion of this letter is significant. “We do not pour back our little stream for the purpose of replenishing your great fountain; but in the great temptation of these times . . . we wish it to be approved by you whether our stream, though small, flows from the same head of water as your abundant river and be consoled by your answer in the common participation of the same grace.” What else can this mean than that the Pope’s decision in this matter of faith will be both final and true? If it is true, of course, it is infallibly true.

Incidentally, in its letter to the Pope, the council of Milevis spoke of Celestius and Pelagius as still being in the Church. At first glance this is puzzling. Celestius had been condemned and excommunicated in Africa. How could he still be spoken of as a member of the Church? The answer is simple. Though condemned and excommunicated by a provincial council, he had appealed to Rome, and Rome had not yet spoken. See where the ultimate authority lies!

Pope Innocent responded to the letters from the two councils. Writing to the synod which had met at Carthage, he commended their appeal to his office. He recalled the long tradition of universal papal jurisdiction. He told them that “by preserving, as you have done, the example of ancient tradition, and by being mindful of ecclesiastical discipline, you have truly strengthened the vigor of our religion, no less now in consulting us than before in passing sentence.” In other words, their appeal to the Pope’s universal jurisdiction strengthened the Church as much as did their condemnation of the Pelagian heresy. The Pope continued: “For you decided that it was proper to refer to our judgment, knowing what is due to the Apostolic See, since all we who are set in this place desire to follow the apostle from whom the very episcopate and whole authority of this name is derived. Following in his steps, we know how to condemn the evil and to approve the good

Reflecting a figure of speech used by the bishops’ in their covering letter, the Pope wrote, “So also, you have by your sacerdotal office preserved the customs of the Fathers, and have not spurned that which they decreed by a divine human sentence, that whatsoever is done, even though it be in distant provinces, should not be ended without being brought to the knowledge of this See, that by its authority the whole just pronouncement should be strengthened, and that from it all other Churches (like waters flowing from their natal source and flowing through the different regions of the world, the pure streams of one incorrupt head), should receive what they ought to enjoin, whom they ought to wash, and whom that water, worthy of pure bodies, should avoid as defiled with uncleansable filth.”;

Pope Innocent declared that the charism of truth attends what the successors of Peter teach in matters of faith and morals. This the Fathers have “decreed by a divine human sentence.” Objections to this description of the Church’s magisterium came not from African bishops in the early centuries, but from schismatic Eastern apologists centuries later.

The Pope praised the African bishops for their pastoral concern, which extended far beyond their own churches in that, “while caring for the Churches which you rule, you also show your solicitude for the well-being of all, and that you ask for a decree that shall profit all the Churches of the world at once.” The bishops showed their solicitude for the whole Church by seeking from the Pope the guidance that the Church needed and that only he, by Christ’s appointment, could give. Then Pope Innocent stated his decision, upholding the condemnation and excommunication of Pelagius and Celestius until they repented and renounced their heresy.

In responding to the letter from the council of Milevis, the Pope commended the bishops for consulting him, “following the ancient rule, which, you know as well as I do, has been kept always by the whole world.” He continued, “Especially as often as a matter of faith is being ventilated, I consider that all our brethren and fellow-bishops are in duty bound to refer only to Peter . . . what may be for the common good of all Churches through the whole world.” The Pope again ruled that Pelagius and Celestius were excommunicated until they repented. His decision, he said, would apply to Pelagius wherever he may be in the world. If Pelagius has truly repented and renounced his heresy, then he must go quickly to Rome to be absolved and restored to communion in the Church.

Innocent wrote these letters in 416. They demonstrate that what Vatican I taught (and Vatican II reiterated) about papal authority was common knowledge—indeed, was a long-standing tradition—in the early fifth century. The facts of the Church’s dealing with the heresy of Pelagius flatly contradict the Eastern and Anglican claim that the African bishops were (or longed to be) independent of Roman control. Not a single African bishop took exception to what Innocent wrote about Rome’s relation to the rest of the world by virtue of its being the see of Peter. Not a single African bishop accepted the Pope’s condemnation of the heretics while rejecting what he said about his authority for issuing that definitive condemnation. Not a single contemporary writer, African or not, even hinted that Innocent overstated the authority of the see of Peter.

Meyendorff admits that “there are plenty of cases where the Roman judgment was solicited in Africa.” But, he insists, whatever authority the bishop of Rome exerted was purely a “moral authority.” His explanation is that “as long as no council gave any right to the bishop of Rome, he did not possess that right ex sese, for ‘no province is deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit’; the latter is more likely to be working through the intermediary of ‘innumerable bishops’ than through one only.” The Pope had no juridical authority outside his own diocese, according to Meyendorff, because no council had given him that right. This begs two important questions. Who says the Pope could have no authority over the Church unless some council bestowed it on him? And who says a council had the right to bestow authority on the Pope? No council ever claimed that right. Nor is it persuasive to say that because the Holy Spirit works everywhere, the office of the papacy had no divinely-bestowed right of jurisdiction. At best, a non sequitur. 

The concluding clause of the quotation from Meyendorff is the heart of what he is urging. It is the basic axiom of conciliarism, the Eastern theory that God put his Church under the authority of councils. On a purely human basis, a multiplicity of bishops more likely might discern the truth than might one bishop—but not if that one bishop had been given the power of the keys of the kingdom and the charism of infallibility. And that is precisely what was given to the one bishop who sits in the seat of Peter, the Apostolic See. The African bishops, being good Catholics, recognized that fact and relied on it to confirm them in the truth.


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