Craig Truglia, over at Orthodox Christian Theology, has written a brief article with some arguments which attempt to refute Roman Catholic doctrine surrounding the Papacy. I wish I had more time to offer a more in depth response to this one, but this is going to suffice for now. I have two points to show.
(1) Craig argues that the Popes of Rome prior to the schism condemned adding anything to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. He appeals to St. Leo III’s response letter to the Frankish envoys who requested him to allow filioque to be added to the creed, as well as Pope John VIII’s condemnation of any man who thought to do the same. Of course, the horos of the Council of Constantinople (879-80), which was ratified by John, and which condemned any word additions to the Creed is also brought up as a witness against the current Catholic Church which recites Filioque in the Creed.
Let’s examine the merits of this argumentation. Before I do that, I will give a more useful translation of Leo III’s letter here below as given by Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P:
“I dare not say that what they did they did badly, since undoubtedly they omitted other matters of faith as well even though they knew them… I dare not say that they understood less of this than we do. If they thought of it, why did they omit it? Or why, having admitted it, did they prohibit anything else from being added? See how I feel towards you and your people! I shall not say that I prefer myself to the fathers. Far be it from me to count myself their equal” (PL 102:971-76; taken from Rome and the Eastern Churches, pg. 238)
It would almost seem as though Leo III is saying that the “fathers” are a higher rule than himself, the successor of Peter. Well, that is not really any new language. In fact, it is actually so recent that it comes up in the 1st Vatican Council. One of the rules imposed upon both the Pope and the Catholic Magisterium is the “moral consensus” of the Church Fathers. For example, in Session II , on the 6th of January, 1870, the Pope himself states that he is under obligation to the Church fathers:
“I, Pius, bishop of the catholic church, with firm faith believe and profess each and every article contained in the profession of faith which the holy Roman church uses, namely….I accept sacred scripture according to that sense which holy mother church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy scriptures; nor will I ever receive and interpret them except according to the unanimous consent of the fathers”
Clearly, the very same Pope who ratified the Council which dogmatized Papal supremacy and infallibility is disavowing himself as superior to the fathers of the Church, i.e. where they are unanimous in consent. This is almost precisely what St. Vincent of Lerins gave as the norm of the true faith.
This language is also ancient. In the very formula of St. Hormisdas, which is recognized by all scholars as another document supportive of Papal supremacy and infallibility, you have the Pope putting the norm of the church fathers as a rule of the Apostolic faith. It says:
“The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. …. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied. ”
In two of the most famous texts supportive of the Papacy, we see the very language used by Leo III on the inferiority of the Popes underneath the Church fathers. But how can that be? The Pope and the bishops in the 19th century, or in the 6th century, are just as much Popes and bishops as those who were Popes and bishops in the 4th and 5th centuries where the Creed was constructed in its finality. The reference to “church fathers” , therefore, is more a reference to the true faith which traveled through the vehicle of the church fathers. They were the embodiment of the true faith when gathered together in Council. Popes cannot revise the dogmatic decrees of the bishops who preceded them, particularly when these bishops collaborated with the Pope of the time. In Leo III’s case, he seems to think that the Creed’s form itself is part of the irreformable teaching of the fathers, and this was certainly an opinion widely held. But the fact of the matter is this: there was more than one or two creeds, and the Nicene Creed (325) was different than the Creed of 381. The bishops who added and subtracted words to the Nicene Creed of 325 were not accused of claiming to be superior to the fathers of Nicaea. Surprisingly, that the bishops of 381 reformed the creed of the bishops of 325 was not always known by the Greek East. In fact, the Greek bishops, both in the 5th-century and so far as the 15th century Council of Florence, would cite the 7th canon of Ephesus (431) as supposedly teaching that the Nicene Creed of 325 was absolutely irreformable. Of course, they mistook that to refer to the developed Creed of 381, which itself added to the creed of 325, seemingly against canon 7 of Ephesus.
That would mean bishops so far as the mid-5th century were unsettled on whether the Creed of 325 could actually be reformed or appended with additions. Research Professor of Ancient and Late Antique History, Dr. David Gwynn writes a bit of historical background on this conundrum.
“We can at least be certain that some of those at Chalcedon did refuse to adopt the 381 creed. This attitude was particularly strong in Egypt where the earlier silence of Cyril and Dioscorus concerning the Council of Constantinople and their rejection of any creed other than Nicaea remain highly influential. When Diogenes of Cyzicus in the passage quoted earlier from the first session condemned Eutyches for failing to recognize the clarification of Nicaea provided and 381, the Egyptian bishops immediately defended Eutyches and appealed to canon 7 of (Ephesus) 431, exclaiming ‘No one admits any additional or subtraction. Confirm the work of Nicaea’ (Acts I.161). The 13 Egyptian bishops in the fourth session who asked to remain outside the debates until Dioscorus, who had been condemned in the third session, was replaced likewise refer in their petition only to the creed of 325 (Acts IV.25) and omit any reference to the creative 381 as a symbol of orthodoxy. The strength of the Egyptian feeling on this question was apparently recognized by the emperor Marcian when is letter to the Monks of Alexandrian 454 (Documents after the Council 14) appeals solely to the faith of 325 and not (as in his other writings after Chalcedon) to the creeds of both 325 and 381.” (Chalcedon in Context, the Definition of Christian Tradition, pp. 18)
As already briefly stated, the primary basis for the Greeks was this reference to the 7th canon of Ephesus (Siecienski, pg. 153) in order to refute the Latin insertion of filioque into the creed. Well, it is clear that the Council of Constantinople 381 added and subtracted to the original Nicene Creed of 325, and it was still the reformed Creed which was not accepted by everyone in the 5th century until the Council of Chalcedon. So the question really boils down to this – are canons which do not have as their object something essential to the Apostolic deposit reformable? Well, the West would answer yes, and the Council of Ephesus is a perfect example that canons can be reformed. If not this, then the creed of 381 shows that words can be added to the creed without “changing its faith”. Even if we choose the former option, canons which seek to lock away forever all reforms can be reformed by proper authority, because the same authority is what locked the creed to begin with. In that, Leo III was quite possibly wrong, technically speaking. For the “fathers” of Constantinople 381 thought it capable of adding/subtracting words to the creed of the “fathers” of Nicaea 325. Leo III would imply that adding words (i.e. filioque) to the creed would make him equal to the “fathers”, where he wishes to be inferior to them. As admirable the humility is, we should not think the “fathers” of Constantinople 381 were somehow doing something illegal in adding/subtracting words to the creed of 325. And if this is possible, then it is possible to do again in the future, for whatever reason the Church sees fit. Now, many modern Orthodox are under the impression that the 11th century Papacy unilaterally inserted the Filioque into the Creed against the consensus of that day, as well as against the consensus of the Church fathers going back. But this cannot stand under scrutiny. In the first place, the filioque doctrine was taught by many Western and Eastern fathers of the Church. Secondly, it was Western bishops who can be found adding filioque into the Creed more centuries before the 11th century in Council of Toledo, Spain. Third, it was Western bishops who sought to gain the approval of Rome to legitimize the insertion of the Filioque into the Creed in the 8th to the 9th centuries. When, therefore, we see Rome become Filioquist, it is only an act of confirming many pre-existing realities, regardless if one thinks it is legitimate or not.
As for the citation of John VIII, Fr Nichols also gives a more useful translation:
“We assure you concerning this issue, which has been such a scandal to the Church, that we [at Rome] not only recite the Creed [in its original form] but also condemn those foolish people who have had the presumption to act otherwise…[We condemn them] as violators of the divine words and distorters of the teachings of the Christ the Lord, and of the fathers who transmitted the holy Creed to us through the council” (pg. 246)
Scholars such as Dvornik and Hergenrother believe that this letter was forged. Whether it was authentic or not, it is extremely unlikely that the descriptions of the filioque as akin to heresy (that seems to be the idea) came from Rome. But even in the case that it was, this still does not really render the Catholic faith false since Popes are open to err in their day to day decrees. Even in documents which include ex-cathedra pronouncements, the Pope is protected from error only in the precise content which is said to be binding on the whole Church. Such a phenomena does not show up in this alleged letter of John VIII to Photius.
J.N.D. Kelly, an Anglican Patristic scholar, recognized how Rome could be diplomatic by affirming the decrees of the Council of Constantinople (879-80) which condemned all additions to the Creed while also defending the theology of the filioque:
“..the council [879-80], recognized in the East as the Eighth General Council…reaffirmed the creed of Constantinople (381), and forbade any additions to it; the Romans could assent because there was no discussion of the doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Spirit, and the creed used in Rome did not yet include the Filioque. John was statesman enough to ratify its decisions with the saving postscript that he rejected everything his legates might have agreed contrary to his instructions” (Oxford Dictionary of Popes, pg. 111)
In addition, Pope Stephen V (885), who reigned shortly after John VIII, seems to have had no problem with the doctrine of the filioque, just like Leo III. In fact, in a letter to a Slavic King Svatopluk concerning a dispute between St. Methodius and certain opponents, the Pope shares instructions that he gave to his legates who will be sent to the land of the Slavs to administer reconciliation on the matter. Although he would finally not allow any additions to the creed, he did write the following:
“The Holy Ghost is neither said to be begotten by the Father and the Son lest this imply two Fathers, nor begotten, lest this imply two Sons, but He is said to proceed. If they should say: ‘It is forbidden by the Holy Fathers to add or subtract anything from the symbol’, say: ‘The Holy Roman Church is the guardian of the holy dogmas and confirms them, because, representing the prince of the Apostles, she does not vacillate in anything concerning the catholic faith as the Lord himself said: ‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith may not fail; and do thou when once thou hast turned again, strengthen thy brethren’. This Church guided to the faith all erring churches and confirmed the vacillation, not by changing the holy dogmas, but by explaining them to people who did not understand them or were interpreting them wrongly” (MGH Epistle 7; taken from Byzantine Missions Among the Slavs, pg. 190)
At the very least, this confirms that there was more than one way to think about this even before the schism of 1054. Surely, it puts a clear fork in the road, however. If it is true that the Pope is the supreme arbiter on doctrine, then the Pope has the right to impose an addition to the creed. This is how all the Medieval papalists argued. However, there were many at the time who understood that while the Pope might occupy a place of primacy, he must abide by all the canons of the Church, whether doctrinal or disciplinary, and if he does not, then he can be either ignored or even disciplined himself by a synod. Well, the West went one way, and the East went the other way. In the West, the idea which won said the Pope cannot be judged by any man, except for heresy (more on that below). The East understood the Pope could be judged, or at least severed with from communion.
Of course, I am personally not happy with the manner in which the Filioque was added to the Creed, but as a Catholic, I am more bound to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and this would require me to submit my thoughts and opinions to the judgments of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I would also add, however, that by the time Rome does insert filioque into the creed (under Pope Benedict VIII, 1014), it was followed eventually by a Ecumenical Council in Lyons (1274) where the Byzantine Emperor and the delegation of Greek bishops assented to the orthodoxy of the Filioque, and even sang it in the creed. John Bekkos, the Patriarch of Constantinople at the time, was a pro-Unionist, and was able to see through the veneer perspective that many of his fellow Greeks did, and thought he could work with Rome and filioque. The pro-unionists eventually were condemned, and the Council of Balcharnae set the standard on the matter in favor of the anti-filioquists, and therefore anti-unionists with Rome. At the Council of Florence in the 15th century, the Greeks also agreed to the doctrine and addition of filioque into the Creed, but everyone knows this acceptance was short lived, and was rejected by the Greek episcopate in the East. Whatever might be said of Rome’s adding filioque into the Creed in the 11th century, it cannot be said after the Councils of Lyons and Florence that she “unilaterally” added to the Creed, since not only were there the two councils with Greek delegates showing one voice of agreement, but also the entire Western episcopate was together with Rome (even preceding Rome in having filioque in the Creed in some sectors). And lastly, in regards to the note on the horos of Constantinople 879-80, this Council has still failed to achieve ecumenical status in the universal Orthodox church today. So while there was a chance that Greek bishops at Florence could appeal to the 7th Canon of Ephesus (431) since the latter had been accepted by the Greek church as Ecumenical, what is there to gain from appealing to the horos of Constantinople 879-80 if it is not numbered by the Greek church (nor any of the other autocephalous bodies today) as Ecumenical?
(2) On the matter of Vigilius. First, it should be said at the outset that Vigilius was never a heretic, and his Christology was the same at the end of his captivity in Constantinople as it was before he was taken 9 years prior. The debate was whether to openly condemn the Three Chapters document, as well as the persons who wrote them. At first, the Pope issued a Judicatum basically condemning the Three Chapters, but quickly withdrew it based upon some of the reaction of Western reaction against such an act, namely, to withdraw communion. Pope Vigilius did change his mind about the Three Chapters (a couple times). Six months after the Council completed its sessions, he ratified the decision to condemn the Three Chapters, but did not do so on the terms of the Council, but on his own authority. This we gather from his letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Eutychius and the 2nd Constitutum. In neither of these letters does Vigilius concede any authority to the Council.
Towards the close of his letter to Eutychios, Vigilius writes:
“But whatever was done by myself or by others in defence of the aforementioned Three Chapters we annul by the authority of our present letter” (Price, 218)
And in the 2nd Constitutum, he writes:
“Whosoever at any time believes that these [the three chapters] ought to be accepted or defended, or who tries to rescind the present condemnation, we condemn with an equal anathema” (Price, 268)
On this, Dr. Richard Price comments:
“When he [Vigilius] capitulated to imperial pressure…he is no way lessened his claims. He confirmed the decrees of the Council, but he did not confirm its authority; indeed, he made no mention of it at all. Instead he took over its decrees and issued them in his own name” (Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553, pg. 57)
Anglican historian Dr. Trevor Jalland also concurs with this:
“The Pope [Vigilius], by a singular display of ingenuity, had apparently succeeded in satisfying Justinian without actually confirming the Council” (The Church and Papacy, pg. 250
As Craig noted, the Council took into consideration the fact that the faith of the Church cannot be something decided by one single man, and that Vigilius’s non-willingness to participate in the Council was illustrative of his wrongheadedness. They cite the example of the Apostles, for example, and say that even the Apostles, though they didn’t really need each other in their work, nevertheless gathered together. What they didn’t realize is that their own Synod was missing Western representation. However much they convened on “Ecumenical” terms, this was far from the truth. Justinian knew that the West was suspicious of his condemning of the Three Chapters, and so he knew not to worry too much about their non-involvement. There is, therefore, some inconsistency in the Council’s insistence on conciliarity and collegiality when it was Vigilius who originally wanted more Bishops from the East to partake of the Council.
J.N.D. Kelly remarks on this:
“In spite of strong pressure to attend, the Pope refused, pleading the complete inadequacy of Western representation” (Oxford Dictionary of Popes, pg. 61)
Even so, there is no doubt that Vigilius was claiming to be the supreme authority in the universal Church. Price actually quotes a contemporary miaphysite, John Philoponus, who complains about the behavior of Vigilius:
“No ecclesiastical canon..has enacted that the bishop of Rome is autocrat over the whole world. The arrogance of the Romans has been manifested in our days, in the council that met at Constantinople….Vigilius of Rome had been in Constantinople for a long time and was invite to the council, but did not go to it…” (Price, 57)
For a preview of what Vigilius believed about the authority of the Roman See, a fragment of one of his letters says the following:
“To no one well or ill informed is it doubtful, that the Roman Church is the foundation and the mould of the Churches, from which no one of right belief is ignorant that all churches have derived their beginning. Since, though the election of all the Apostles was equal, yet a pre-eminence over the rest was granted to blessed Peter, whence he is also called Cephas, being the Head and Beginning of all the Apostles: and what hath gone before in the Head, must follow in the members. Wherefore the holy Roman Church, through his merit consecrated by the Lord’s voice, and established by the authority of the holy Fathers, holds the primacy over all Churches, to which as well the highest concerns of Bishops, their causes, and complaints, as the greater questions of the Church, are ever to be referred, as to the Head. For he who knows himself to be set over others, should not object to one being placed over himself. For the Church itself, which is the first, has bestowed its authority on the rest of the Churches with this condition, that they be called to a part of its solicitude, not the fullness of its power. Whence the causes of all Bishops who appeal to the Apostolic See, and the proceedings in all greater causes, are known to be reserved to that holy See; especially as in all these its decision must always be awaited: and if any Bishop attempts to resist this course, let him know he will give account to that holy See, not without engendering his own rank” (Mansi, IX, 33; taken from The See of Peter, Thomas William Allies, 110-11)
This is the standard policy of the Roman see even before Vigilius, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, and it goes so far back as Popes St. Victor I and Stephen I, and to no surprise they also withstood challenge from bishops in the West, not least the East.
In fact, when once Bishop of Constantinople, Acacius (484), was understood to have made a motion undermining the authority of the Council of Chalcedon, the Pope at the time, St. Felix III, convened a Synod in Rome and issued the following decree concerning Acacius:
“Since Acacius, after being warned by us a second time has not ceased to show contempt…by a judgment pronounced from heaven God has banished him from the episcopate… Know that thou [Acacius] art thrust forth from the episcopate, as well as from Catholic communion and the number of the faithful, condemned by the judgment of the Holy Ghost and by our apostolic authority, and never at any time to be loosed from the bonds of anathema” (JK 601; taken from The Church and Papacy, Jalland, pg. 318-19)
In reaction to this, some of the Eastern bishops complained that the Bishop of Constantinople cannot be excommunicated without a Synod. One of Pope St. Felix’s successor, Pope St. Gelasius, had the following to say to this:
“The Apostolic See has frequently had occasion, as it has been said, by ancient custom, even without any previous council, both of absolving those whom a Council had unfairly condemned and of condemning without the presence of a council those whom it ought to condemn” (ibid 325)
Another instance of this policy was stated in clear terms by Pope St. Symmachus (498-514) , celebrated as a Saint in the East on July 19th, in a letter to the bishops of the Illyrian episcopate where he urges them to take warning from the detrimental stake of Eastern churches who fell away from Chalcedon during the Acacian schism (484-519):
“For those, who believed they could disregard the admonition of the Apostolic See have deservedly suffered what is bound to befall those who forsake their duty“ (JK 763; taken from Jalland, p. 336).
In fact, this Papal policy can already be seen in Pope St. Celestine’s excommunication of Nestorius of Constantinople, as well as Pope St. Leo the Great. Of the latter, Anglican historian Dr. Beresford Kidd writes:
“The Petrine theory , as finally put into shape by Leo, was, no doubt, held in good faith, and as the only guarantee of unity…The theory has undergone little modification since Leo’s day…but all other elements of the Leonine theory have remained and are to be found set forth by the Vatican Council ” (The Roman Primacy, B.J. Kidd, pg. 152-53)
Back to Vigilius.
Regardless of all the above, the Council did end up removing Vigilius’s name from the diptychs, and so they certainly felt it within their power to discipline or excommunicate (in some sense) a reigning Pope. Interestingly enough, the Western Popes also believed they could do this when they did the same, although for the opposite reasons than the Council (i.e. the East blamed Vigilius for not condemning the Three Chapters, the West blamed Vigilius for turning around and condemning the Three Chapters). Of course, the Western churches who did this would eventually also be considered heretics and schismatics for not embracing the decisions of the Council of Constantinople (553), and only returned to the Church through letters of peace to the successors of Vigilius, all of whom claimed the the Apostolic See was on the right side the whole time. Pope Pelagius II (579-590) stressed in a letter to some of these Western bishoprics that the “faith of Peter could not be shaken (Luke 22:31-2)” and he proceeded “on the presupposition that the papal position should a priori be considered the correct one” (The Rise of the Papacy, Robert Eno, pg. 139) Ironically, not all the Western bishops rejected Vigilius because they felt that the primacy of the Pope was a inessential to the Church’s magisterium, but rather, ironically, because it was and is. One perfect example would be the famous canonist of North Africa, Fulgentius Ferrandus (540s), who wrote vociferously against the Emperor for condemning the Three Chapters, because he thought by doing so, the Council of Chalcedon was being annulled. He wrote:
“Where would he [an accuser] go…when he had in front of him in its legates the Apostolic See itself, whose assent gave to whatever the synod defined invincible strength?….General councils, particularly those that have gained the assent of the Roman church, hold a place of authority second only to the canonical books” (Price, 117-118)
We can see, therefore, that despite the impending failure of Vigilius that bishops such as Ferrandus could foresee, he nevertheless understood that there was still a canonical rule about councils and the indispensable role that the Bishop of Rome played in making Councils final and irreformable. This perhaps shows a small glimmer of the distinction that Catholics would later flesh out in terms of ex-cathedra versus fallible mode of teaching.
We can say, in conclusion, that this would be an instance where the Pope’s authority was put on trial, and when he decided to insist on a judgment that was deemed unlawful or heretical by many bishops, they felt it unnecessary to follow him, and even felt capable of taking some motion of canonical separation. The Council of Eastern bishops, anyway, felt it within the power of the Council. Of course, Vigilius himself did not feel this way, nor did any of his successors who defended the content of the Council insofar as it condemned the Three Chapters. The sections against Vigilius no longer survive in the Latin editions of the Council , and Price argues that it was most likely deleted upon Vigilius’s obtaining agreement with the Emperor and the Bishops (Price, 104-105). But is that all we have to say about this? Absolutely not. In fact, even in and through the Medieval period (for ex: Aquinas) up unto the present day, there is still room in Catholic ecclesiology for the idea that a Pope who sets his nose like flint against the orthodox and apostolic faith can be, without being legally judged by the Church, recognized as forfeiting his own office. Cardinal Leo Burke, a canon lawyer as well as former prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signitura which, apart from the Pope himself, is the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church, said the following when asked if a Pope who commits to formal heresy can be recognized as forfeited from office by the Church: “If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen“. I myself have looked at the history of this point of view, and have drawn citations from pre-eminent theologians and canonists of the Church in my article [Historical Review] The Limits of Papal Authority and the Fate of a Heretical pope: An exclusive interview with +Bishop Athanasius Schneider (2nd Look). This would sound somewhat close to what the Bishops at the Council of Constantinople (553) said with respect to Vigilius: “Moreover, he made himself alien to the Catholic Church by defending the impiety of the aforesaid chapters, separating himself from your communion. Since therefore he has acted in this way, we have pronounced that his name is alien to Christians and is not to be read out in the sacred diptychs“. With all that said, the Council was wrong about Vigilius, since the latter had never supported the heresies of the men in the Three Chapters document, nor did he ever withdrawal his acceptance of the Council of Ephesus (431), nor Chalcedon (451). Therefore, while they may have felt it legitimate to make such a decision about a supposedly heretical Pope, their judgments were riddled with unfounded assumptions. Lastly, what does this all say about the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as defined by Vatican I and re-iterated by Vatican II? I would urge that neither in the situation of Leo III, John VIII, nor Vigilius, is there something which shows itself disproving or even undermining the doctrine of Papal infallibility. Leo III defended the doctrine of the Filioque, as alluded, and so his prohibition of the insertion of filioque into the creed is all that can be shown, and this has been shown to be a matter of Church law which can be reformed by legitimate authority, of which we have yet to dispute in particular. John VIII likewise ratified no Council which condemns the Filioque doctrine, but only puts a legal seal on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For the Orthodox who wish to point this out ever so frequently, what does the pro-unionist Greek acceptance of Lyons (1274) and Florence (14311449)? As for Vigilius, the whole period of his captivity has to be understood as acting against his free and deliberate will. Just that aspect alone would render everything he judges in that mode shelved until further notice. If the Orthodox wish to make a big deal about the Council’s explanation of conciliarity and its removal of Vigilius from the diptychs, nothing more is to be added than what I’ve said. But in no gloss of this history is the Pope enacting a decree on faith and morals to be believed by the entire Church, and on pain of exccommunication.