Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: When bishops knew how to respond to a pope suspected of heresy

by the Rev. Deacon Nick Donnelly

In his recent letter to the College of Cardinals Cardinal Brandmüller wrote that all cardinals must consider how they will react to ‘any heretical statements or decisions of the [Amazonian] synod.’ In the past, it wouldn’t have been necessary to ask this question because the bishops of the Western Church had a reputation for robustly reacting against heresy. 

A case in point is how the bishops reacted to the mere suspicion that Pope Vigilius (537-555 AD) was sympathetic towards the Monophysite heresy that sought to undermine the Council of Chalcedon. 

Pope Vigilius was already unpopular with many in Rome and the Western Church for conniving with the Monophysite Empress Theodora in the deposition and death of his predecessor, Pope Silverius (536-537 AD). Pope Silverius had earned the hostility of the heretics for refusing to restore the deposed and excommunicated Monophysite Patriarch of Constantinople. Vigilius secured the papacy by expressing sympathy for the Monophysite cause.  

But once he had gained the Petrine throne Vigilius realised he was stuck on the horns of a dilemma, caught between the expectations of his heretical patrons and the steadfast orthodoxy of the Western bishops. The Anglican papal biographer Frederick Homes Dudden describes the affect on Pope Vigilius of this realisation: 

As Pope he was no longer free. It was utterly impossible for him to annul the acts of his predecessors, or tamper with the inveterate traditions of the Apostolic See. Not the meanest of all his suffragans would for one moment have tolerated such an outrage. So Vigilius, having to choose between the fury of the Empress and the revolt of all the West, accepted the former as the lesser evil…(F. Homes Dudden, Gregory the Great: His Place in History and Thought. Vol.1, p.64.)

However, when Pope Vigilius was summoned to the Monophysite dominated court of Constantinople he quickly succumbed to pressure and publicly supported the controversial condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’, that was seen in the West as tampering with the Council of Chalcedon. This resulted in the immediate indignation and revolt of parts of the Western Church:

The Western Church was thrown into convulsions. Darius of Milan, whom Vigilius had consulted on the case, openly expressed his indignation. Facundus, bishop of Hermiana in Africa, posted home from Constantinople with the news, which was everywhere received with horror. Two even of Vigilius’s own clergy named Rusticus and Sebastian, who had first welcomed the Pope’s decision, now joined in the general outcry. Illyricum mutinied, and a synod at Carthage in 549 formally excommunicated the renegade Pontiff. (ibid.Vol.1, p.201.)

In the face of open revolt by Western bishops Emperor Justinian and Pope Vigilius backed tracked with the latter withdrawing his condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’. There followed a bitter and convoluted period of cloak-and-dagger ecclesial politics culminating in the Second Council of Constantinople that would result in parts of the Western Church going into schism for 136 years out of a concern to protect the Council of Chalcedon. 

Putting aside the complex theological issues around the ‘Three Chapters’, the steadfast determination of some Western bishops to oppose Pope Vigilius for his ambivalence in the face of heresy is striking.  The questions facing us during the Bergoglian pontificate is why has it become necessary for a cardinal to exhort his brother cardinals to do what should be their natural reaction — to oppose heresy emanating from a synod?  When did the Western bishops lose their fierce determination to uphold the orthodox faith against heresy, no matter the source?