Monday, November 4, 2019
The strange case of Pope Vigilius
The increasingly strange pontificate of Pope Francis is leading many Catholics into increasingly strange behavior. Some, like the emperor’s sycophants in the Hans Christian Anderson story, insist with ever greater shrillness that nothing Pope Francis does is ever really in the least bit problematic. If your eyes seem plainly to be telling you otherwise, then it is, they insist, your lying eyes that are the problem. Others, incapable of such self-deception, are driven into a panic by the pope’s manifestly problematic words and actions. They overreact, either beating a retreat into sedevacantism or judging that the claims of Catholicism have been proven false and that the only recourse is Eastern Orthodoxy.
This is all quite ridiculous, and evinces an ignorance of the theology and history of the papacy. Both sides falsely assume that Catholic teaching rules out a pope’s being guilty of the errors the pope is accused of. Hence the one side concludes that he must not really be guilty of them (all the evidence notwithstanding), and the other side concludes that either he must not really be a pope or that Catholicism must not be true.
In fact, popes are in principle capable of a fairly wide range of errors of governance and even of teaching, when not speaking in a manner that meets the strict criteria for an ex cathedra declaration. And in practice some popes have been guilty of very grave errors – witness the condemnation of Pope Honorius I by his successors for his failure to uphold orthodoxy, the notorious and bizarre Cadaver Synod of Pope Stephen VI, the sacrilege and Caligula-like lifestyle of Pope John XII, the doctrinal error for which Pope John XXII was criticized by the theologians of his day, and so on. All of this is consistent with the doctrine of papal infallibility, because the fathers of Vatican I who defined the doctrine formulated the conditions under which a pope speaks infallibly very precisely, and in a way that took account of this history.
I have discussed the examples just cited on earlier occasions. (See the posts linked to at the end of this one.) Another instructive example, one perhaps especially relevant today, is that of Pope Vigilius (who was pope from 537-555).
The circumstances under which Vigilius became pope were scandalous. His predecessor Boniface II had wanted Vigilius, a Roman deacon, to succeed him as pope, but the Roman clergy resisted this and Boniface withdrew the nomination. Vigilius later became instead a nuncio to Constantinople, where he also became a confidant of the eastern Roman empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian. Now, Theodora was a monophysite, and keen to reverse the fortunes of this heresy. She made a secret pact with Vigilius, the terms of which were that in exchange for her getting him installed as pope, he would repudiate the Council of Chalcedon and reinstate a bishop who had been dismissed because of his adherence to the monophysite heresy. Vigilius agreed. The trouble was that a new pope, Silverius, had already been elected. So Justinian’s general Belisarius pressured Silverius to resign, and when that failed, had Silverius deposed on trumped up charges. He then forced through a new election, by which Vigilius was made pope. Naturally, some questioned the legitimacy of this procedure. Hence, so as to ensure that Silverius would not be restored to the papal throne, Vigilius had his predecessor exiled. While in exile, Silverius suffered great hardships, seems to have abdicated under pressure, and soon died. Vigilius’s legitimacy was at this point recognized by all the Roman clergy.
Vigilius’s pontificate was doctrinally problematic as well. As pope, he would end up pleasing neither the monophysite heretics nor the orthodox, though he tried to appease both. Privately he appears at first to have assured the monophysites that he sympathized with them, while also emphasizing that stealth was necessary in order to advance the monophysite cause. However, he did not keep his end of the bargain with Theodora. Moreover, he also later assured Justinian, who had turned against the monophysites, that he too was against them and would uphold Chalcedon.
Now, the sequel was the notorious incident of the “Three Chapters.” Justinian decided that to reconcile the monophysite heretics to orthodoxy, it would be a good idea to condemn the persons and works of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa. Chalcedon had not challenged the orthodoxy of these theologians, and they had died in good standing with the Church. But they were disliked by the monophysites, who suspected them of Nestorianism, an opposite extreme heresy from that of monophysitism. The condemnation was seen as a way to placate the monophysites and to facilitate their reunion. Justinian demanded that the bishops endorse this trio of condemnations (or “Three Chapters”), and many did so even if reluctantly.
The theological issues here were complex, but the basic problem was this. On the one hand, some of the views of the three theologians in question were indeed problematic. On the other hand, since the Council of Chalcedon had not questioned the orthodoxy of these men, condemning them was seen by many as unjust and even as an attack on Chalcedon. Hence, signing on to Justinian’s condemnation was regarded by many to amount to a sell-out to the monophysite heretics.
Vigilius initially refused to sign on, but eventually, under pressure from Justinian, he agreed to do so. For this he was denounced by many bishops for having betrayed Chalcedon, and a synod in Carthage even declared him excommunicated. This led to Vigilius withdrawing his condemnation, though also to his calling for a council to settle the matter. But after a long and complicated period of conflict with Justinian over the issue, Vigilius once again agreed, under pressure, to the Three Chapters condemnation. Unsurprisingly, he was not popular when he died, and consequently was not buried in St. Peter’s.
What should we think of the legitimacy of Vigilius’s election, and of his orthodoxy? It is widely agreed that the theological issues surrounding the Three Chapters are complicated, and that Vigilius’s understanding of them was impaired by his inability to read Greek (the language in which the relevant controversial documents were written). His statements on the matter were also hedged with qualifications. Moreover, Vigilius was under duress during much of the long controversy. Certainly, then, if he erred in his public statements or actions, he did not do so in a way that conflicts with what the Church teaches about papal infallibility. The conditions under which a pope might make an infallible ex cathedra pronouncement simply did not obtain.
But what about Vigilius’s personal orthodoxy? In Book IV, Chapter 10 of his treatise On the Roman Pontiff, St. Robert Bellarmine considers, but rejects as unproved, the thesis proposed by some that a letter in which Vigilius had assured the monophysite heretics of his sympathy with them was a forgery. He allows that Vigilius really did speak contrary to orthodoxy. But he says that since the letter in question was written while Silverius was still alive, Vigilius was at the time not yet a true pope but an anti-pope! After Silverius’s death, Bellarmine argues, Vigilius was a true pope – but also after that point never again expressed sympathy with monophysitism, and instead refused to keep his bargain with Theodora.
What we have, then, is a pope whom heterodox parties favored and schemed to get elected; who was made pope while his predecessor, who had been under pressure to resign, was still alive; whose legitimacy as pope was questioned by some as a result; and who was known for speaking out of both sides of his mouth and for ambiguous theological positions. Sound familiar?
It should, because these features are claimed by many to fit Francis’s pontificate. The pope’s doctrinally problematic statements (on Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, capital punishment, etc.) are well known and have been discussed here in other posts. Some have alleged, on grounds not all of which are entirely frivolous (though in my view still mistakenly), that the validity of Pope Francis’s election is doubtful. Several arguments are given for this claim, one having to do with the allegation that Benedict XVI resigned under pressure, and thus invalidly. Another has to do with alleged irregularities in the conclave, involving between liberal cardinals of the “St. Gallen Group” to do what they could to get Cardinal Bergoglio elected. I don’t myself find these theories convincing, .
The most interesting of the theories concerns the claim that Benedict never fully renounced the papacy, but renounced only the “active” papal ministry (leaving that to Francis) while retaining a “contemplative” papal ministry. The reason this is interesting is that the theory is grounded in from none other than Benedict’s close associate Archbishop Georg Gänswein – who , and who was presumably speaking with the knowledge and approval of the former pope himself. The notion of an “expanded” Petrine ministry certainly seems theologically problematic; there cannot be two popes at once. But as an argument for the invalidity of Benedict’s resignation, this theory still faces a serious problem of its own – namely that Gänswein, once again surely speaking with the knowledge and approval of Benedict, that Benedict did indeed resign, that there is only one pope, and that that pope is Francis.
The point is this. Not only do the odd and unsavory aspects of recent papal history not entail either that Francis is not pope or that Catholicism is false, but as the example of Pope Vigilius shows, they are not unprecedented either. This sort of thing sometimes happens. It does not happen often, and when it does it is horrible and damaging to souls and to the Church. But it does happen.
Why does Christ tolerate this? Why the brinksmanship? Why doesn’t he
In part, I would argue, precisely to prove that the Church is indestructible. Even bad popes cannot destroy it, as history shows. Catholics are well advised to learn more about this history, so as to get a more balanced and sober perspective on current events. They might start with books like E. R. Chamberlin’s , or Rod Bennett’s recent . As St. John Henry Newman famously said, to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant. It is also to cease to be a naïve and worried Catholic. Keep calm and do not abandon your Holy Mother Church in her hour of need.