Emperor Theodosius: The Edict of Thessalonica (380) and the Council of Constantinople (381)
Most Catholics are familiar with Emperor Constantine. We know that he legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire with the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. We are also aware that he summoned the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea in 325, to deal with the Arian heresy. What many do not know, however, is that the Arian heresy got worse after Constantine’s death.
Pope Liberius not only excommunicated St. Athanasius, but he also signed an ambiguously heretical document called the Second Formula of Sirmium.
When Constantine died in 337, he left the Roman Empire to three of his sons. By 350, one of his sons, Constantius II, consolidated power and was the sole emperor. Constantius II was an Arian sympathizer and persecuted orthodox Catholics. He even imprisoned Pope Liberius for two years. The pope cracked under the pressure. Liberius not only excommunicated St. Athanasius, but he also signed an ambiguously heretical document called the Second Formula of Sirmium. This betrayal was the likely reason that Liberius was the first pope not to be canonized.
Where were the other bishops during the crisis? They were also signing heretical documents at the “council” of Rimini in 359. The institutional Church was in a sorry state. So many bishops had turned heretical that St. Jerome said: “The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.” Amazingly enough, what turned the tide against the Arians was the ascension of an even worse emperor, Julian the Apostate.
In 361, Julian became emperor after the death of Constantius II. Julian was a proud apostate from the Faith. Ironically though, his interventions meant to destroy the Faith ended up having the opposite effect. His evil intentions helped to turn the tide against the Arians in favor of the orthodox Catholics.
Julian wanted to destroy the Faith and replace it with paganism.
Julian wanted to destroy the Faith and replace it with paganism. By 361, the Arians were so successful that Julian considered them as the institutional Church. To sew division in the Church, Julian restored the exiled Catholic bishops to their sees. Instead of harming the Faith, this move dealt a devastating blow to Arianism. Arianism had always been supported by the Roman army and elites. The common people, however, kept the Faith. Once the good bishops were reunited with their flocks, the Arian bishops lost influence and authority.
The lay intervention that decisively put an end to Arian “Christology” came with the ascension of Theodosius to the throne in 379. St. Augustine said that Theodosius considered it “more important to be a member of the Church than to be lord of the world.” Theodosius was the last man to rule a united Roman empire, and he used his power to great effect.
In 380, Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica and made Catholicism the sole religion of the empire. The next year, he called the Council of Constantinople, which defined the dogma of the Trinity, and took away any remaining arguments that Arians had to legitimacy. This turn of fortune was no doubt a work of the Holy Spirit. It is amazing to think that just a generation before the Council of Constantinople, the pope, and most bishops, had “bent the knee” to heretics.
Henry III: The Synod of Sutri (1046)
Henry III, King of the Germans, was a devout Catholic. During his reign, the papacy was subject to corruption and simony. Rome was in a state of disarray, and several factions vied for the papacy. There were three men claiming the title of “pope” during this period: Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI (the real pope). Gregory VI was a moral man, but he had bought the papal office from Benedict IX. This was an act of simony but done with good intentions. Benedict was so awful that Gregory felt (in this case at least) that simony was acceptable.
Pope Gregory VI was allowed to judge himself and abdicate. He was not deposed by the synod or Henry III. Yet, in a de facto way he was.
Henry III was due to be crowned as Holy Roman Emperor, and he wanted to ensure that it was done by a legitimate pope. Therefore, he crossed the Alps with his army and called the Synod of Sutri in 1046 to end the papal impasse. Henry III was familiar with canon law. He knew that he could force the pope to attend the synod, but he did not have the authority to sit in judgment of the pope. Pope Gregory VI was allowed to judge himself and abdicate. He was not deposed by the synod or Henry III. Yet, in a de facto way he was. One may judge whether Henry’s strong-arming of the pope was right or wrong, but no one can deny that Henry helped the institutional Church out of an uncontrolled crisis.
King Sigismund: The Council of Constance (1414-1418)
The 14th century was a disaster for the institutional Church, and many faithful lost respect for the papacy. From 1309 to 1376, seven successive popes resided in Avignon… not in Rome. This was a period that came to be known as the “Babylonian captivity of the Papacy.”
In 1377, Pope Gregory XI finally returned to Rome and ended the nearly 70-year-long exile in Avignon. The good news did not last long though, and Gregory XI died the next year. Urban VI succeeded Gregory as pope, and he immediately started acting like a tyrant.
Urban VI abused and alienated his cardinals so much that they ended up revolting against him. Several of the cardinals who had elected Urban (just months earlier) decided that he had to go. These cardinals "deposed" Urban VI and elected a new pope in his place. This started the Great Western Schism.
By 1414, three men were claiming to be pope, and the Great Western Schism had been dragging on for almost 40 years. Today, we know who the legitimate popes were during the schism, but that is because we have the benefit of 600 years of hindsight.
By 1414, three men were claiming to be pope, and the Great Western Schism had been dragging on for almost 40 years. Today, we know who the legitimate popes were during the schism, but that is because we have the benefit of 600 years of hindsight. To faithful Catholics living at that time, it was not at all clear who the real pope was. Even St. Vincent Ferrer got it wrong and served an antipope.
The only reason that the Great Western Schism finally came to an end was due to the intervention of King Sigismund (and the Holy Spirit of course!). King Sigismund was the King of the Germans and would later become the Holy Roman Emperor. He called the Council of Constance in part for secular reasons. Sigismund wanted a united Christendom that could help him in his fight against the Ottoman Turks. Whether his motivations were temporal or spiritual does not matter. He stepped in and solved a problem that generations of popes were not able to solve themselves.
The Council of Constance deposed antipopes John XXIII and Benedict XIII. The legitimate pope, Gregory XII, sent legates to the council to represent him. His legates carried letters from Gregory XII that formally acknowledged the council and abdicated his papal throne. After Gregory’s abdication the papacy was sede vacante and the council was able to elect a new pope. Thanks to King Sigismund’s intervention, the Great Western Schism was over.
The Great Western Schism made it explicit that cardinals do not have the authority to depose a sitting pope, and chaos ensues when they try.
The Great Western Schism made it explicit that cardinals do not have the authority to depose a sitting pope, and chaos ensues when they try. Ironically, what was implicit from the schism is that lay powers have the de facto ability (if not the outright authority) to depose a sitting pope, and in doing so they can potentially benefit the Church.
When faced with a bad pope and cardinalate, the laity should look to the laity, and the intervention of the Holy Spirit. God’s providence is beyond our comprehension, and lay rulers throughout Church history (even when they had bad intentions) have successfully guided the Church through intractable crises. This was done by the brute application of their temporal authority.
This article does not argue for caesaropapism. The goal of this article is to provide some much-needed historical context amid our current crisis. We are all aware that our Lord gave Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” and that the Pope has the authority to “bind upon earth” (Matt 16:19). On the other hand, Christ told Pontius Pilate that the governor had the power to crucify him because it was given “from above” (John 19:11). What does this mean? Who knows? Our prelates cannot even agree on basic principles of the Faith anymore, so good luck asking them. It is time for us laity to start to learn more for ourselves.
The Church Militant is not just made up of Francis and his like-minded prelates, it is also made up of the laity. Looking to the past gives us a reasonable hope that the Holy Spirit will raise up a lay son (or daughter) of the Church to fix this wicked problem.
Christ said that he would not leave us orphans, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. With this knowledge, we should not despair when we see Pope Francis participate in pagan ceremonies, or sell-out millions of Chinese Catholics, or even when he promotes heretics to the cardinalate. The Church Militant is not just made up of Francis and his like-minded prelates, it is also made up of the laity. Looking to the past gives us a reasonable hope that the Holy Spirit will raise up a lay son (or daughter) of the Church to fix this wicked problem. So, if Francis thinks that he can change the Faith… well… he's on the wrong side of history.
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