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Strengthening Brethren

From the first century on, the successors of Peter in Rome consistently exercised universal jurisdiction to preserve the truth and unity of the Catholic Church. In the latter fourth century Popes Liberius (352–366) and Damasus I (366–384) used their papal authority to heal schism in the venerable see of Antioch.

In 330 the Arians had enlisted the power of the heretical emperor to depose Eustathius, staunchly orthodox bishop of Antioch, and elect Meletius, one of their own. Unknown to them, Meletius had returned to the Catholic faith. When the Arians learned of his orthodoxy, they deposed him, sent him into exile, and elected Euzoius. Some Catholics remained loyal to Meletius, while others chose Paulinus as their leader. The two groups were united in doctrine, but divided over the regularity of Meletius’s election as bishop of Antioch. 

Pope Liberius authorized Athanasius to convoke a council to resolve the schism in Antioch. He sent two legates (Eusebius and Lucifer) with jurisdiction and authority in the East to preside with Athanasius over a council in Alexandria. The synod at Alexandria accepted the regularity of Meletius’s ordination. It appointed an episcopal commission, which included the papal legates, to reconcile the divided Catholics in Antioch.

When one of the papal legates, Lucifer, arrived in Antioch he found the people had no bishop. Meletius had not returned from exile, and Paulinus was only a priest. Though many Antiochians were completely loyal to Meletius, Lucifer very unwisely decided not to await the return of Meletius. Instead, he ordained Paulinus as bishop of Antioch.

When Eusebius, the other papal legate, arrived, he was greatly disappointed by Lucifer’s action. The council of Alexandria had intended that all the people of Antioch would rally around Meletius. Now that Paulinus had been ordained bishop, the commission could neither ignore him nor make him the only bishop. The papal legates left Antioch without resolving the dilemma Lucifer had created.

All who deny that the pope had universal jurisdiction, please note. No council in Alexandria would have authority on its own to settle affairs in the see of Antioch. It would have no competence to clear up irregularities in the election of an Antiochian bishop. It could not appoint an episcopal commission to heal the near-schism in Antioch. It certainly could not elect a new bishop for Antioch.

But this was no ordinary council. It acted with papal authority. If Rome’s jurisdiction over Antioch had not been universally recognized, the action of Pope Liberius’s legate Lucifer would have been a clear act of schism. Yet everyone accepted the legitimacy of Lucifer’s action.

The great Eastern Father, Basil of Caesarea, was a friend of Meletius and an opponent of Paulinus. After Paulinus was ordained bishop, Basil maintained communion with Meletius. Yet Basil did not utter a word of objection to the exercise of papal authority which bypassed his friend Meletius and elevated Paulinus to the episcopate. Indeed, Basil figured prominently in Pope Damasus’s later resolution of the problems in Antioch.

Rome had not forgotten that Meletius’ election involved canonical irregularities and did not fully trust his orthodoxy. Without rejecting Meletius, Rome continued to deal with Paulinus, whom Lucifer, the papal legate, had ordained prematurely. Basil proposed that Rome settle matters in Antioch by sending a legation there, but Rome did not want to become involved in Eastern intrigue. Basil did complain privately to a friend in Antioch about Rome’s ignoring Meletius and handing over the bishopric to Paulinus.

The canons of the time expressly forbade a bishop to ordain another bishop outside his province. Basil himself had once sought advice on whether, in time of persecution by the state, he could fulfill a request to ordain a bishop outside his province. As an ordinary bishop, he was denied that authority, even under exceptional circumstances. Not so with the bishop of Rome. The popes’ intervention in Antioch was an unmistakable act of their universal jurisdiction.

Note that Basil never disputed the right of the bishop of Rome (through his legate) to ordain a bishop for Antioch. Basil wrote a letter asking Pope Damasus to make clear who at Antioch was in communion with Rome. (Then as now, the hallmark of catholicity was being in communion with the successors of Peter.) Basil said that the Easterners would abide by Rome’s decision “by reason of the grace of God conferred on you for the oversight of those in trouble.”

Basil’s request echoes our Lord’s words to Peter (and his successors), “tend my sheep” (John 21:16), “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). As precedent for his request, Basil cited the exercise of papal jurisdiction in the case of Eustathius of Sebaste. Forced out of his bishopric, Eustathius went to Rome and laid his case before Liberius. The pope gave him a letter reinstating him in his bishopric. When Eustathius presented the letter to a synod in Tyana, the synod restored him to his former position.

This is supreme jurisdiction in action. The bishops at Tyana, said nineteenth-century historian Luke Rivington, “took it for granted that a papal letter directing his restitution was to be obeyed, and Basil has not a word to say against their attitude in the matter.”

Basil asked Pope Damasus if there were any irregularity in Paulinus’s ordination. To understand the significance of Basil’s question, recall that Paulinus had been ordained on the spot by the pope’s legate. If the pope did not have jurisdiction over the East, Paulinus’s ordination would have been totally irregular. Basil had no objection to the papal legate’s having ordained Paulinus, but he did have some misgivings about Paulinus’s orthodoxy.

To be in communion with the Catholic Church, one must be in communion with Rome. Basil relied on this fact. He wrote to Pope Damasus, “We ask for your careful oversight of these things, which will be effectual if you will vouchsafe to write to all the Churches in the East, to the effect that those who [adopt heretical teaching] . . . are, if they amend, in communion [with Rome and therefore with the Catholic Church], but if they determine to persist in their novelties, you withdraw from them.”

Both Paulinus and Meletius rightly claimed they were in communion with Rome. Which should be the bishop of Antioch? The two Catholic parties in Antioch finally agreed in 378 to acknowledge as sole bishop the survivor of the two prelates. So for a time, peace came to the church in Antioch.

Not long before these events, the Council of Nicaea had proclaimed a definition of the Church’s teaching regarding the relationship of the Son to the Father. The key word was homoousios, “of one substance.” Yet in the East the creed itself was a constant subject of controversy. The heretics made into a new heresy each new formula offered to explain the creed. For almost fifty years the see of Constantinople had been occupied by heretical bishops. This half-century of turmoil again reminds us that the Eastern conciliar ideal of church government is fatally flawed. A council can be neither the interpreter nor the guardian of its own decrees.

One of the many heresies which appeared in the East was associated with the name of Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople. It denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, degrading him to the status of a creature of the Son. Under Pope Damasus a synod in Rome had condemned this heresy, proclaiming the Holy Spirit to be one in deity and substance with the other two Persons of the Trinity. Not long thereafter a council assembled by Bishop Meletius of Antioch adopted the dogmatic letter issued by the Roman synod.

In January of 381 the Emperor Theodosius tried to bring doctrinal order out of chaos. He forbade heretics to gather for worship by recalling the Easterners to the center of teaching, which is Rome. His order was this: “We will that all people who are governed by our clemency should practise the same religion as the divine apostle Peter delivered to the Romans, as the religion proclaimed by him up to this time declares it; and which it is clear the pontiff Damasus follows, and Peter, the bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity . . . Those who follow this law we order to take the name of Catholic Christians.” Not a word about the Council of Nicaea.

Notice that Damasus is identified only as the pontiff. No other reason is given for following his teaching. Peter, however, is identified as a man of great sanctity and therefore to be emulated by adherence to the teaching of Rome. Rome is the standard. There is no evidence that the Eastern Christians in any way resented being called to practice the religion of Rome. If fourth-century Easterners had been anti-Roman like their modern counterparts, this decree by Theodosius would have provoked them to armed rebellion.

After issuing this edict, the Emperor decided to hold an Eastern council. He sought and obtained concurrence by Pope Damasus through Damasus’s vicar in Thessalonica. The purpose of the council was not to decide an open question. Theodosius’s edict just described makes that fact plain. The Pope already had defined the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit in what came to be called the “Tome of the Westerns.” The Tome was the Pope’s response to Basil’s pleas for help from Rome to overcome the Macedonian heresy. In its fifth canon, the Council of Constantinople concurred in this papal teaching.

Thus the faith of the orthodox Eastern Catholics was brought into line with Rome and the West. The Constantinopolitan council’s acceptance of the dogma of the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son won ecumenical status for the council, so far as its dogmatic decree was concerned. As with the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 50, so it was with all the early ecumenical councils. They affirmed decisions already made by Peter or by one of his successors. That is why the Council of Constantinople is recognized by Rome as an ecumenical council, even though it was composed entirely of Eastern bishops.

The significance of the second ecumenical council’s third canon has been widely debated. The canon reads, “Because it is new Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honor after the bishop of Rome.” Some Eastern Orthodox and Anglican apologists claim that the Greek word for “after” (meta) indicates simply a chronological distinction—that is, the canon is saying that Rome preceded Constantinople in point of time but not in rank; they are therefore equal in rank.

Zonaras, a twelfth-century Greek canonist and historian, quotes from the Imperial Constitutions of Justinian, which interpret the third Constantinopolitan canon this way: “We decree that the most holy pope of Old Rome, according to the decrees of the holy synod, is the first of all priests and that the most blessed bishop of Constantinople and of New Rome should have the second place after the apostolic chair of the Elder Rome and should be superior in honor to all others.” This commentary clearly does not support the claim that Constantinople is of equal rank with Rome. Whatever its meaning, the third canon of Constantinople was never accepted by Rome.

The second ecumenical council had appointed new patriarchs for Constantinople (Nectarius) and Antioch (Flavian). Not fully satisfied with these appointments, the Pope and his bishops called for another council, suggesting Alexandria as the site. Meanwhile, in response to the Emperor Theodosius’ summoning a synod at Constantinople, a number of bishops already had gone to Constantinople, and it was too late to change the Eastern plans.

The Eastern bishops of the Council of Constantinople in 382 expressed their regret at being unable to go to Rome for a council. They declared their faith to be in complete accord with what the Pope and his synod had taught about the full divinity of the Holy Spirit in 372. The council of 382 asked Rome to approve Nectarius’s appointment as bishop of Constantinople. The Emperor made the same request, sending an embassy of bishops and court officials to Rome with his letter. Rome gave its approval.

From the first century onward, the successor of Peter in Rome repeatedly exercised universal jurisdiction, carrying out our Lord’s command to strengthen the brethren. In the first millennium, almost every papal intervention involved the pope’s rescuing the Church from Eastern heresies.

Still today, Eastern Orthodox apologists declare that universal papal authority never existed in those early centuries. Is it due to prejudice that (in Isaiah’s words) they “hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive”? 


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