Yes, St. Augustine Really Did Mean “Roma Locuta, Causa Finita Est”

Augustine_of_Hippo_Sandro_Botticelli

Those who take any means available to undermine the Papal claims will rightly point their finger at the text of what St. Augustine actually said, and come out with the following:

For already two councils have, in this cause, sent letters to the Apostolic See, whence also rescripts have come back. The cause is ended: would that the error might some day end! Therefore we admonish so that they may take notice, we teach so that they may be instructed, we pray so that their way be changed.” (Sermon 131)

But it truly gets them nowhere since what is meant by St. Augustine here is substantially equal with the oft cited mis-quotation in the title . And it is relatively easy to demonstrate. But first, allow for a brief sketch of the historical background, and then this will be followed by the (numbered) points below which includes extensive detailing.

Within the first decade of the 5th century, Italy had fallen victim to the power take of Alaric the Goth, and even Rome had experienced not only intermittent siege but even a capture and sack.  In order to avoid the hardship which resulted, many in the populace sought asylum in the provinces of North Africa. Of those who emigrated was a monk named Pelagius, and Celestius, a layman of Rome. Soon to be popularized, both Pelagius and Celestius became recognized heads of a pietistic movement in Carthage. Shortly after his stay in Africa, Pelagius had traveled Eastward towards Jerusalem, and Celestius remained in Africa. The latter caught attention by Paulinus, a deacon of Milan and disciple of the great St. Ambrose, who put forth effort to condemn Celestius’ teaching. PelagiusConsequently, a council was held in Carthage which had condemned his teaching. An appeal was put to Rome for the matter, but before this could amount to anything ,Celestius followed his teacher into the East. Now, by a coincidence, an inquiring catholic Orosius, who had traveled to Africa from Braga and studied under Augustine, had found interest in making the hike to Jerusalem to discuss a number of theological matters with St. Jerome,  himself living in Jerusalem for the past 25 years. There, Orosius had run into Pelagius, and it was by consequence of this that he challenged Pelagius’ influence over the bishop of Jerusalem, John. A synod was held in Jerusalem, and there was no power to defend Pelagius’ doctrine. It was resolved by the synod that “brethen and letters should be sent to blesed Innocent, Pope of Rome, and that all should follow what he should decide“, but no record of a reply exists {1}. After this, the case against Pelagius was picked up again by two Gaulish bishops, exiled from the West and now residing in the East, who encouraged a synod in Diospolis to press charges for heresy. By a turning of events, this synod ended up absolving Pelagius from all charges, concluding that his doctrine was pure. Orosius, having returned to Africa in 416, reported these Oriental events, and it was taken up by provincial synods of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia to renew the condemnation of the heresy of Celestius, as well as Pelagius, now absolved in the East. In fact, according to Augustine, Pelagius had fans not only in the East, but there existed even Christians in the West, no less than in Rome herself, where his teachings were admired {2}. Therefore, these African synods knew that if they were to achieve a final condemnation of this error, it would have to gain an ecumenical or universal condemnation (i.e. definitive/certain), and no place but the Roman see could accomplish this.  But this was by no means without precedent. Rome had been consulted prior to in many occasions, though this may be the first time after the events surrounding Pope Julius I and the semi-Arian controversy in the East that Rome is involved in a doctrinal dispute of such a scale. The most important aspect of these foregoing events is that it reveals the interior and exterior Papal logic that was known, accepted, and relied upon in the 5th century, and which would continue to be the logic for future controversies in the Church, and which I believe the Greek Catholicism prior to the schism had accepted.  Such is the historical background; and below are 7 points showing the details of the intellectual content of the goings on.

(1) The two councils which had been held in Northwest Africa (Mileve/Carthage) had sent reports to the Apostolic See in order to procure a universal condemnation of the error of Pelagius. This is proven by one of St. Augustine’s letters which provides an often overlooked detail, one which prompted the actual reports to Rome: “After a letter had reached us from the East, quite openly pushing the [Pelagian] heresy, it was now quite our340px-simone_martini_003 duty not to fail the Church in any way, by any episcopal authority whatever; accordingly reports were sent on this matter from two councils, those of Carthage and Mileve, to the apostolic see...” (Epistle 186). As already mentioned, one of the aims of this reporting to Rome was to confront the *Eastern* embrace of Pelagius, as well. Thus, this was no Western phenomenon… at least for the Africans. Nor was it purely Eastern for the Pope himself,  who is Saint Innocent I, and is called as such in modern Chalcedonian-Orthodox parlance, for, in one of his rescripts to the application of African synods, he writes: “I congratulate you, therefore, dearest brothers, that you directed a letter to us by our brother and fellow bishop Julius, and that while caring for the churches which you rule, you also show your concern for the advantage of all, and that you ask for a decision which may benefit all the churches of the world together” (P.L. 33. 780). So we see that both the Pope and those reporting to him were of the belief that this exchange would output a judgment of universal value, for both East & West.

(2) It must be asked just why these African councils would report to Rome in order to confute this heresy on an ecumenical front. Was it merely due to the fact that the Roman “Patriarch” (a term not used by this time) was the obvious hierarch to funnel the occasion to? More specifically, what would Rome’s judgment add to what had already been decided by the African councils, and how could its judgment yield the definitive character already spoken of? The councils themselves provide the answers. From the Council of Carthage, the bishops write, “This act, lord brother, we thought right to intimate to your holy charity, in order that to the statutes of our mediocrity might be added the authority of the apostolic see to protect the safety of many, and to correct the perversity of some” (P.L. 33.759). Again, here we see the intention of achieving an ecumenical judgment, especially since the aim was to overturn the exoneration of Pelagianism received in the East at the Synod of Diospolis. But, it is still left to be asked: what would be superior in Rome’s teaching authority that could be added to the authority of African councils? Would it not be, according to some, just another local decision, that of Rome’s local synod? This would merely turn the game from 2 councils vs. Pelagius, to the 3 councils vs. Pelagius. Fortunately, there is more to observe. nuremberg_chronicles_f_133v_1From the Council of Mileve, the bishops write to Innocent saying: “We consider that by the help of the mercy of our Lord God, who deigns both to direct your counsel and to hear your prayers, those who hold such perverse and pernicious opinions will more easily yield to the authority of your holiness, drawn from the authority of Holy Scripture, so that we may be rather congratulated by their correction..” (P.L. 33.763). Aside from the clear cognizance of a special guidance from God, there is this added note of Innocent’s authority having “Scripture” as its source. Of course, a critical Anglican historian has already taken the chance and commented that this was simply a reference to Innocent’s potential use of the bible to confute the errors of Pelagius {3}. But our gifted Benedictine, Dom John Chapman, was quick to respond by saying that the Africans had already been immersed in Scriptural refutations, as can be seen from the broader English translations of the African reports to Rome {4}. If all Milevis expected from Innocent was Scriptural citations, than what value was there to be added by Rome to the decisions of their councils? And I will add here my own observation – what Africa is sending to Rome is the Acts of their councils, not inquiries into Scripture’s theology of the fallen human being and its recovery to salvation by grace. Thus, what is called upon is a verdict; not quotes from Scripture. It is more probable, therefore, that the Africans understood the source of Rome’s authority here as being the primacy texts (Matt 16, Luke 22, John 21) of the New Testament concerning the Apostle Peter; and that would then mean the Africans believed in a Papal authority by divine,  that is, Christic or Petrine, origin.

(3) More is revealed by the statements made Innocent himself in response to these reports. For example, he writes to Carthage: “In inquiring about those things which should be handled with all care by priests, and especially by a true, just, and catholic council, by preserving, as you have done, the example of ancient tradition, and by being mindful of the discipline of the Church, you have truly strengthened the vigour of our religion, no less now in consulting, than before in passing sentence. 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 [Rome’s episcopate] desire to follow the very apostle from whom the very episcopate and whole authority of this name has emerged [in origin]; following whom [Peter], we know how to condemn the evil and to approve the good. So also, you have by your priestly office preserved the institutions of the fathers, and have not spurned that which they decreed by a sentence not human but divine, that whatever is done, even though it be in distance provinces, should not be ended until it comes to the knowledge of this see, that by its authority the whole just pronouncement should be strengthened, and that from there the other churches , like waters proceeding from their natal source and flowing through the different regions of the world, the pure streams of an in-corrupt Head, should take up what they ought to believe” (P.L. 33.780). Such could have been expected from an Innocent III. So we see here the basic framework wherein Innocent writes from, and which is very clearly that Rome carries a primacy of doctrinal authority, one which had been invested in the office of Peter, to which he himself ascends. And more importantly, he gives the rationale for reporting to the apostolic see, i.e. so that conciliar decrees might be endowed with definitive (ecumenical) strength. Moreover, his response to the council of Milevis goes like this: “It is therefore with due care and fitness that you consult the secrets of the apostolic office (that office, I mean, to which belongs, aside those things that are outside, the care of all the churches) as to what opinion should be held on doubtful matters, following the form of the ancient rule which, Pope_Innocent_I (1)you and I know, has ever been kept in the whole world. But this I pass by, because I am sure you prudence is aware of it: for how could you by your actions have confirmed it, unless you knew that answers to questions always flow through all provinces from the apostolic spring? Especially as often as questions of faith are to be ventilated, I think all our brothers and fellow bishops ought to refer to none but Peter, that is to the author of their name and office, even as your affection has now referred...” (P.L. 33.784). Here we are told, from a Pope venerated by the Eastern Orthodox, that the Roman See inherits the primacy of St. Peter, that the See of Peter is the source of doctrinal purity and jurisdiction, and that its judgment will settle the question definitively. But how did the Africans receive this?

(4) To quote again from St. Augustine, only further, here is what he says of these responses from Pope Innocent: “After a letter had reached us from the East, quite openly pushing the [Pelagian] heresy, it was now quite our duty not to fail the Church in any way, by any episcopal authority whatever; accordingly reports were sent on this matter from two councils, those of Carthage and Mileve, to the apostolic see... We also wrote to the late Pope Innocent, in addition to the reports of the councils, a private letter, in which we dealt more fully with the same question. To all he wrote back to us in the manner that was right and proper for the Pontiff of the apostolic see” (Epistle 186). It would appear then, that St. Augustine raised no objection to the Papalism of Innocent. On top of this, we also know that St. Augustine believed these replies from Innocent merited to definitively resolve the issue since he wrote precisely that in his Contra Duas Epistolas Pelagianorum: “..This was thought to be themarco_cardisco_-_saints_augustine_jerome_and_gregory_the_great_-_walters_371147 case with him when he replied that he consented to the letters of the late Pope Innocent, in which all doubt about this matter was removed..” (P.L. 44.573). It is interesting here to read Augustine saying “all doubt” was removed on the matter of Pelagius’ teaching by Innocent’s replies. Especially since elsewhere Augustine speaks of only ecumenical councils as having the power to remove all doubt on doctrinal matters {5}. However, things may have shifted in Augustine’s thinking throughout the 16 years that transpired, as well as from a real life interaction with the Roman see on a doctrinal dispute. I say this because some historians have been quick to jump to one of Augustine’s epistles (#43, paragraph 7) which has him implying that a universal council had the power to reverse a judgment formerly given at Rome on the schismatic group called the Donatists. The quote goes as such: “Well, let us suppose that those [Donatist] bishops who decided the case at Rome were not good judges; there still remained a plenary Council of the universal Church, in which these judges themselves might be put on their defence; so that, if they were convicted of mistake, their decisions might be reversed”. Now, if this epistle is read in full, one can see that Augustine does not think that the judgment of Pope Militades (AD 313) was wrong, since he says it was done with the “clearest light of truth“. Rather, he is speaking by way of concession or “for the sake of argument“. Be that as it may, the text does seem to suggest what Augustine believed could happen in reality. So what do we make of this? I think that it is clear from the context of the Pelagian controversy, to which this post is devoted, that Augustine did not believe councils were definitive until it had reached the approving ratification of the see of Peter (see his above agreement with Pope Innocent). Moreover,  we should also take note that Rome may revise her judgments on disciplinary matters if good reason suggests it to be such (and at least part of the original dispute of the Donatists had been between Caecilian of Carthage and the pseudo-bishop Majorinus, particularly whether the former had been ordained by a traditor). Simply because Rome is the supreme court of last appeal does not mean that she herself cannot re-open a former case. This much is admitted by even a staunch Papalist such as Pope St. Nicholas I, whom Metropolitan Kallistos Ware even admitted believed in a universal Papal jurisdiction. Pope Nicholas wrote to the Emperor Michael: “Wherefore since according to the canons, the judgments of lesser tribunals must Pope_Nicholas_Ibe referred to a tribunal having greater authority, that is, for their reversal or confirmation; it is immediately clear that the judgement of the Apostolic See, than which there is no greater authority, cannot be handled by any other tribunal, nor is it permissible for any to sit in judgment upon its decision. Appeals are to be made to that See from any part of the world…We do not say that the decision of the said See cannot be amended; some of the facts may have been withheld, or the See may have made a decree of a dispensatory nature in view of the circumstances of the time or of some serious and compelling reasons….” {6} So a revision is not out-ruled . But the idea here is that Rome herself is permitting as much, and that the rescinding of a prior judgment can be due to a better case being made, more facts coming to light, further evidence to contradict the former sentence, etc,etc. When all is said and done, however, it would be a poor investment to stock so much of what Augustine believed about the authority of councils in relation to the Roman see into this quote since it does not even reflect the advice of Augustine on the matter. Even more so since we have such a clear acceptance of the Papalism of Innocent coming in the “rescripts” (Sermo 131) which Augustine both explicitly accepted as true, valid, proper, and which he said resolved to put an end to the  doctrine of Pelagius. To inquire any further might suggest that our Saint was being dishonest. Now, if it is to be further questioned (since one might ask in which text was Augustine being honest due to the seeming contradiction), we could resort to the fact already alluded to:  Augustine may have spoke wrong in 397 when he wrote that epistle, and that the events in 417 which has Augustine  actually employed in a doctrinal controversy which requires there to be a forceful ecumenical condemnation of a particular heresy reflects his more re-formed belief. By this time, which court does Augustine refer? To which but Rome? The Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox (both who are happy to identify certain Retractations in Augustine) are wont to flush the pro-papal statements that are made by this or that father(s) or saint(s), and prefer to focus on the “actions” of said father(s) or saint(s). Why not be consistent and apply the same method here? Namely, that while Augustine may have said X, he in practice not only Gerard_Seghers_(attr)_-_The_Four_Doctors_of_the_Western_Church,_Saint_Augustine_of_Hippo_(354–430)followed Rome’s judgment on a matter as the definitive judgment, not only embraced the very logic of said condemnation, which, as shown, was anything but Conciliaristic or non-Papal, but also relied on said condemnation for the definitive closure upon the teaching of Pelagius. One wonders why there is such a hype on what Augustine said while it is his very own person which speaks of the superior authority of the see of Peter, and by way of implication, would reasonably incite the reader to prefer Rome’s logic to the situation over Augustine’s. But that is hypothetically said in the case that the two are at odds, which I argue above is not the case. Furthermore, when the Pelagians wanted to appeal above Pope Innocent to an ecumenical council, Augustine reproved them for willing to disobey the decree of the Apostolic See, something, as is shown below, they themselves vowed against. And lastly, in Augustine’s disputation against the Donatists, he 18194957_1648993738448457_9211140373021407704_nutilized the means of acrostic hymn to produce a statement which can be sung by people as a quick and simple antidote to the Donatist error, and it goes as follows: “Number the bishops from the See of Peter itself. And in that order of fathers see who succeeds whom; That is the rock against which the gates of hell do not prevail” {7} . Now, lest one hastily runs to his Retractations as an antidote to this, it should serve to advise that the “rock” being directly applied to Christ himself in no way supersedes the primacy of the Papacy from the passage, and can be shown by the teaching of no less the Papalist of the early middle ages himself, Pope Saint Leo the Great, as well as the great Papalist of the 11th century, Pope Leo IX. Besides, if one reads the full explanation of Augustine’s Retractation on the passage of the gospel according to St. Matthew, there is no repudiation of former beliefs, only the added element that the prime referent is Christ as the “rock”, where Peter is simply being named “after the rock who is [ultimately] Christ” , and it makes no great difference to him since he permitted the reader to decide, which means he didn’t see two resultant differences of either exegesis (Retractationes, 1:21).

(5) The supreme authority of the Roman see is likewise testified by the heretics themselves. The close associate of Pelagius, Celestius, wrote the following to Pope Zosimus who had succeeded immediately from Innocent: “If indeed any questions have arisen beyond the faith, on which there might be much dissension, I have not passed judgment as the originator of any dogma, as if I had definite authority for this; but whatever I have derived from the fountain of the apostles and prophets, I have offered for approval to the judgement of your apostolate; so that if by chance any error of ignorance has crept it, human as we are, it may be corrected by your sentence {8}. This letter was actually in response to the condemnations that had been made by Innocent. Clearly, Celestius thought himself worthy a new hearing. Pelagius, likewise, thought he earned the merit to be heard again by Rome, and wrote to Zosimus: “This is the faith, most blessed Pope, which we have learned in the Catholic Church, which we have ever held and hold. If we have by chance set down aught in it unskillfully or without due caution, we desire to be corrected by you, who hold both the faith and the see of Peter. If, however, this our confession is approved by the judgment of your apostolate, then whoever desires to blacken me will not prove that I am a heretic, but that he himself is unskillful or evil-minded or not a catholic” (P.L. 45. 1718). Now, Augustine records how while Zosimus had been tricked into thinking that the confessions of Celestius and Pelagius were not worth condemnation, upon receiving clarity, had reported to the original condemnation of Innocent {9}. In any case, here is proven that the holy See of Rome was the center of ordinary final appeal, from which all decisions were brought to a binding close.

(6) One last citation from Innocent’s successor, Zosimus (417-418), in his follow up exchange with the Council of Carthage, will demonstrate the sort of Papal-logic that was in operation during the course of these events, and which are hand waved off by some interpreters. More importantly, St. Augustine had defended Zosimus in some bitter disputes that had arisen in Italy and elsewhere. Anyhow, here goes the penultimate statement from Zosimus on the character of the Roman See during the Pelagian controversy: “Although the tradition of the Fathers has attributed such great authority to the Apostolic See that no one would dare to disagree wholly with its judgment, and it has always preserved this [judgment] by canons and rules, and current ecclesiastical discipline up to this time by its laws pays the reverence which is due to the name of Peter, from whom it has itself descended …; since therefore Peter the head is of such great authority and he has confirmed the subsequent endeavors of all our ancestors, so that the Roman Church is fortified … by human as well as by divine laws, and it does not escape you that we rule its place and also hold power of the name itself, nevertheless you know, dearest brethren, and as priests you ought to know, although we have such great authority that no one can dare to retract from our decision, yet we have done nothing which we have not voluntarily referred to your notice by letters … not because we did not know what ought to be done, or would do anything which by going against the advantage of the Church, would be displeasing.…” (P.L. 20.676)

(7) Concluding Remarks: Is there then a solid ground upon which to make the case that when St. Augustine said “the cause is ended” , he really just meant to add Rome to an already growing list of conciliar movements? As shown, we must answer in the negative. But what do we make of the operation of Councils? Would it be that the Papacy were a real actor in this drama, there would have merely been a single script from Rome on the matter, right? Well, the quickest corrective to this sort of thinking is the existence of Councils hundreds of years after the “heresy” of Papalism had been well accepted and absorbed in the Latin West (post-Leo IX). In fact, there was even a Council convened after the Council of Florence, which is the Council of Trent, and Florence had already defined Papal supremacy. And what might be to the amazement of others, there was even a Council called by the Pope himself, even nearly a century after Vatican I had defined the prerogative of Papal infallibility. What this tells us is that the Papal claims are not contra Councils, nor do they render them useless or unhelpful. Rather, the Pope is bound by the natural means of arriving at definitive truth, and this includes the inspection of the ecumenical confession of the Church, among many other things. A slow read of the letters already quoted from the Popes of the 5th century can show quite clearly that episcopal councils are not just a right of bishops everywhere, but a duty, and yet they co-operate nicely with the authority of the Papacy. But in what way? The Papal judgment ratifies, i.e. solidifies, the decrees of bishops, and brings them to a level whereby one can use them as a standard for knowing what is catholic and what is heretical, as Pelagius said in his letter to Zosimus. So, the Pope’s teaching is more so the last resort, the field wherefrom the question is brought to an end. And what is “ended” is the entire doctrinal controversy, and it is ended by an authority which speaks with finality, as a doctrinal norm and final court of appeals; and that, one ascending from the primatial authority invested in St. Peter by Jesus Christ when he gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the Church. Therefore, much to the initial disappointment of some, I proudly hold up the oft quoted mis-quotation: “Roma Locuta, Causa Finita Est”Lastly, what of the objection which says that if Rome truly had this sort of authority, there would not be a single disagreement amongst Catholics on issues such as contraception, divorce/re-marriage, fornication, abortion, homosexuality, etc,etc. Well, the objection is undone simply by showing that Jesus unmerited the persuasion of the Judas. That is 1 out of 12, or 8.3%. But then add those who disbelieved him. Does that remove the authority of the teaching of Christ? Or what of the Apostles themselves? There were already growing sects who were protesting the tradition passed on by the Apostles, even in their own lifetime! And this is not to mention the further fragmenting that would occur down throughout church history up unto our very own day. It is the case, as St. Augustine said to his Catechmens, that the Catholic Church will always and perpetually be fighting against heresies , “This Church is Holy, the One Church, the True Church, the Catholic Church, fighting as she does against all heresies. She can fight, but she cannot be beaten. All heresies are expelled from her, like the useless loppings pruned from a vine. She remains fixed in her root, in her vine, in her love. The gates of hell shall not conquer her” {10}. This “root” is the unchanging magisterium which always was and continues to this day to confute the lies of the Serpent.

{1} Liber Apologeticus, 6, 5. C.S.E.L., vol. v, p. 611; Trevor Jalland, “Church and Papacy“, page 281
{2} Jalland, 282
{3} Roman See, 1896, p. 127
{4} All of which can be read in “Documents Illustrating Papal Authority AD 96-461”, E. Giles, p. 195-223
{5} De Baptismo Contra Donatistas, Book 1, Paragraph 9
{6} Preposueramus Quidem, 865 AD, Mansi, xv. 196 D sqq.
{7} Ps. c. Partes Don. str. 18
{8} P.L. 45.1715 – In Augustine, De Pecc. Orig. 26, pg 5 & 6
{9} Contra Julianum Pelagianum, Book 6, paragraph 37
{10} Sermon to Catechumens, on the Creed, 6,14,

5 thoughts on “Yes, St. Augustine Really Did Mean “Roma Locuta, Causa Finita Est”

    • Yes sure thing.

      Quod ergo dictum est de Iudaeis, hoc omnino in istis videmus. Zelum Dei habent. Testimonium illis perhibeo, quia zelum Dei habent, sed non secundum scientiam. Quid est: Non secundum scientiam? Ignorantes enim Dei iustitiam, et suam volentes constituere, iustitiae Dei non sunt subiecti 32. Fratres mei, compatimini mecum. Ubi tales inveneritis, occultare nolite, non sit in vobis perversa misericordia: prorsus ubi tales inveneritis, occultare nolite. Redarguite contradicentes, et resistentes ad nos perducite. Iam enim de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad Sedem Apostolicam: inde etiam rescripta venerunt. Causa finita est: utinam aliquando finiatur error! Ergo ut advertant monemus, ut instruantur docemus, ut mutentur oremus. Conversi ad Dominum…

      You can get the extent latin from this link (where the above was taken from the 10th paragraph)

      http://www.augustinus.it/latino/discorsi/index2.htm

      • An English translation from the Anglican E. Giles, in his “Documents illustrating papal power….”:

        “For being ignorant of God’s righteousness , and wishing to establish their own , they have not submitted to the righteousness of God. My brethren , have compassion with me. When you find such men, do not hide them; have no misdirected mercy. Refute those who contradict, and those who resist bring to us. For already two councils on this question have been sent to the apostolic see; and replies have also come from there. The cause is finished; would that the error might sometime be finished also!”

  1. Pingback: Review of East/West Debate (Part 1) | Erick Ybarra

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