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In Defense of Pope Liberius


Objection: Pope Liberius submitted and signed an heretical statement regarding the divinity of God the Son at Sirmium, and subsequently excommunicated St. Athanasius

Reply: On the contrary, against such calumnies, here are few arguments in defense of Pope Liberius, champion of Holy Catholic Faith: 

“Not long after, Constans, who had resolved to control the influence of the Synod held at Rimini, threatened to send Pope Liberius into exile. The fearless representative of Christ replied: ‘Thou canst not diminish the words of faith by my solitude.’ Non diminues tu, solitudine mea, verba fidei. The import of this pithy little sentence can not be mistaken: 'Even when I am exiled and compelled to pine away in weary solitude, I still continue to be the bearer of the deposit of the holy Faith of all.'” (Rev. F.X. Weninger, On the Apostolical and Infallible Authority of the Pope, 1868, pg. 163)

“They tell us that Liberius taught Arianism... As to the fact itself, sound historical criticism tends directly to the contrary conclusion, namely, that Liberius did not do what they suppose him to have done. The historical documents to which they appeal are, some of them, of very doubtful authority, whilst the others are evidently false or corrupted. Their first authority is that of the so-called "Fragments," ascribed to Hilarius, which critics generally acknowledge not to have been written by him, but by some unknown author. They also appeal to two letters of Athanasius, which are spurious. 

“Two passages are quoted from the works of St. Jerome - the one from his book, "De Scriptoribus Ecclesiasticis," the other from his "Chronicon." Now, St. Jerome has himself complained of the interpolations made in his works, a thing, as we have mentioned, very easily done in the days of manuscripts; and critics prove that this actually occurred with regard to these two works. 

“They also bring forward four letters ascribed to Liberius himself, which are mere fabrications by the Lucifirians and Arians. Finally, they give a poorly-manufactured account, to the effect that, after his pretended fall, Liberius, on returning to Rome, was contemptuously driven out by the Roman people. This fiction is borrowed from a spurious work of Eusebius the Priest.

“[...] Against all their corrupted historical sources are arrayed most trustworthy historical documents, clearly showing that Liberius not only never betrayed the truth, but that he was its consistent, energetic champion. 

“Nobody pretends to call in question the fact, that it was he who withstood the one thousand Bishops, assembled at Rimini, who had suffered themselves to be entrapped by the Arian into subscribing an heretical formula, of which Saint Jerome exclaims: "The Christian world was astonished to find itself become Arian." This was the most numerous Council ever celebrated in the first thousand years of the existence of the Church. Opposed to it, great as it was in number and Episcopal dignity, we find the majesty and resplendent authority of the Apostolic See, and we find Liberius, the occupier of the Chair of Peter, using his power and privileges as Supreme Pontiff to condemn and cancel the erroneous professions of one thousand Bishops, or, rather, in the words of our Lord, to confirm his brethren, whom satan had tried to sift as wheat. 

“It was for this heroic resistance that the enraged Emperor Constantine sent Liberius into exile, and harassed him with vexations and persecutions, to escape which, as they pretend, the defender of the faith finally subscribed an Arian formula, and, on his return to Rome, was driven forth again by the Clergy and people. That such a man, after so heroic a resistance, should have fallen so low as to subscribe what he had denounced and condemned in others, is difficult of belief. History tells a different tale. 

“The oldest and most esteemed historians of the Church, such as Sulpicius Severus, Socrates, Sozomenus, Theodoretus, Menea, Theophanes, Nicephorus, and Calistus, have not a word concerning the pretended fall of Liberius. Even Photius does not speak of it, and he certainly should have known it, and would have used it, had there been any hope of success. On the contrary, all these historians speak quite differently of Liberius, and ascribe his return to Rome to another reason, and describe his reception in a very different way. Theodoretus, who, in his history of Arianism, made use of the writings of Athanasius, calls Liberius an illustrious and glorious champion of the faith."Celeberrimum Liberium, gloriosum veritatis athletam." He ascribes his return to Rome, not to a heretical acquiescence, but to the petition forwarded to the Emperor from the noble ladies of Rome, and to the acclamation of the people at the amphitheater, urging his recall. "Post has Christianae plebis acclamationes Liberium ab Imperatore postulantis in circo, reversus est admirabilis ille Liberius." 

“Sulpicius Severus also accounts for his return by the commotions and revolts of the Roman people, clamorous for his recall, and says that the Emperor did it against his will, "licet invitus." If Liberius had professed Arianism, Constantine would have let him return, but not unwillingly, "invitus," since it would have been for himself a victory and triumph. That this return, however, may have become in time a matter of suspicion and a ground of the accusation, is possible, if not probable. Communications were then difficult and tardy, and the Arians, hearing of his recall, may have spread the rumor that it could only be accounted for by his recantation and his subscription of the Arian formula. 

“No, the Pontiff who had withstood one thousand Bishops, and had braved exile and persecution, could not have accepted such ignominy as finally to subscribe what he himself had so lately denominated a blasphemy, "blasphemam." 

“[...] He can not, then, be stigmatized as a traitor to the faith, but must rather be accounted worthy of all those eulogies conferred upon him by the Holy Fathers. St. Ambrose calls him "Sanctae memoriae virum", a man of holy memory; St. Basil, "beatissimum," most blessed; Epiphanius and Pope Siricius, the latter in his letter to Himeric, calls him " blessed."” (Idem, pg. 333-340).

From Abbé Darras, General History of the Catholic Church, work praised by his Holiness, Pope Pius IX, we read that : 

“They [the Arians] succeeded, at length, in ruining him [saint Athanasius] in the opinion of [Emperor] Constantius, by incriminating a very simple and indifferent action. A new church had been built in Alexandria, at the public expense ; the archbishop [saint Athanasius] had inaugurated it without the participation of the emperor. This was sufficient to blot out from the remembrance of Constantius all his former letters to the patriarch, and his solemn promise ever to turn a deaf ear to his accusers. He appealed to Pope Liberius, to beg that Athanasius might be condemned (A.D. 352). Liberius assembled a council in Rome, and laid before it the emperor's letter, together with those of the Egyptian bishops, who unanimously proclaimed the innocence of their metropolitan. The council decided that it would be contrary to all law, human and divine, to anathematize a bishop whose faith was that of the Church, and whose virtue was the admiration of the whole world. The answer of Liberius was the expression of this sentiment.

“[...] The Arian eunuch, Eusebius, whose unlimited power over the weak mind of Constantius had reduced the Church to its present sad condition, was sent to Rome by the emperor to deceive Liberius, and force him to sign the condemnation of Athanasius. The eunuch found presents arid threats equally ineffectual ; he then procured a rescript ordering Lcontius, governor of Rome, to convey Liberius to Milan, where Constantius held his court. The interview between the pope and the emperor, as might have been foreseen, was full of passion, recrimination, and violence on the part of Constantius; dignified, reserved, and firm, on that of Liberius. Two days later, the pope was seized and exiled to Berea, in Thrace. The emperor sent him five hundred gold pieces (about ten thousand francs), to defray his expenses. Liberius sent them back, with these words : "Tell the emperor to keep his money for the support of his army." A like tender from the empress met with a like reply. When the eunuch Eusebius had the effrontery to make a similar proffer, the indignant pontiff answered : "You have desolated the churches throughout the world, and do you offer me an alms, as to a criminal! Go and begin by embracing the true faith." 

“[...] The Greek Menology relates the facts as we have given them. It speaks as follows: ‘The Blessed Liberius, defender of the faith, was Bishop of Rome, under the empire of Constantius. Burning with zeal for the orthodox faith, he protected the great Athanasius, persecuted by the heretics for his bold defence of the truth, and driven from Alexandria. Whilst Constantine and Constans lived, the Catholic faith was supported ; but when Constantius was left sole master, as he was an Arian, the heretics prevailed. Liberius, for his vigor in censuring their impiety, was banished to Berea, in Thrace. But the Romans, who always remained true to him, went to the emperor and besought his recall. He was therefore, on this account, sent back to Rome, and there ended his life, after a holy administration of his pastoral charge.’” (Abbé Darras, General History of the Catholic Church, pg. 448-462; Abbé Rohrbacher, Histoire Universelle de l'Église Catholique, vol. XI, pg. 374).

“The ancient Fathers, especially those who held the more illustrious chairs of the East, since they accepted these privileges as proper to the pontifical authority, took refuge in the Apostolic See whenever heresy or internal strife troubled them. For it alone promised safety in extreme crises. Basil the Great did so, as did the renowned defender of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius, as well as John Chrysostom. For these inspired Fathers of the orthodox faith appealed from the councils of bishops to the supreme judgement of the Roman Pontiffs according to the prescriptions of the ecclesiastical Canons. Who can say that they [Pontiffs] were wanting in conformity to the command which they had from Christ? Indeed, lest they should prove faithless in their duty, some went fearlessly into exile, as did Liberius and Silverius and Martinus. Others pleaded vigorously for the cause of the orthodox faith and for its defenders who had appealed to the Pope, or to vindicate the memory of those who had died.” (Pope Benedict XV, Principi Apostolorum Petro, 1920).

“But the neo-schismatics declare that they do not oppose the Catholic Church's principles in the least. Their sole aim is to protect the rights of their churches and their nation and even the rights of their supreme Emperor; they falsely allege that We have infringed these rights. By this means, they fearlessly make us responsible for the present disorder. Exactly in this way did the Acacian schismatics act towards Our predecessor St. Gelasius. [St. Gelasius epistle 12 to the emperor Anastasius, no. 1.]. And previously the Arians falsely accused Liberius, also Our predecessor, to the Emperor Constantine, because Liberius refused to condemn St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and refused to support their heresy. [St. Athanas., hist. Arianor ad Monach., no. 35.] For as the same holy Pontiff Gelasius wrote to the Emperor Anastasius on this matter, "a frequent characteristic of sick people is to reproach the doctors who recall them to health by appropriate measures rather than agree to desist from and condemn their own harmful desires." These appear to be the main grounds on which the neo-schismatics gain their support and solicit the patronage of powerful men for their cause, most wicked as it is. Lest the faithful be led into error, We must deal with these grounds more fully than if We merely had to refute unjust accusations.” (Pope Pius IX, Quartus Supra, On the Church in Armenia, 6 January 1873)

“That which is done for the love of Christ gives me very much joy; Italy, as victor with that zeal and aroused ardor for the godhead, retained that faith whole which was handed down from the Apostles and placed in the whole world by our ancestors. For at this time when Constantius of holy memory held the world as victor, the heretical African faction was not able by any deception to introduce its baseness because, as we believe, our God provided that that holy and untarnished faith be not contaminated through any vicious blasphemy of slanderous men - that faith which had been discussed and defended at the meeting of the synod in Nicea by the holy men and bishops now placed in the resting place of the saints. For this faith those who were then esteemed as holy bishops gladly endured exile, that is Dionysius, thus a servant of God, prepared by divine instruction, or those following his example of holy recollection, LIBERIUS bishop of the Roman Church, Eusebius also of Vercelli, Hilary of the Gauls, to say nothing of many, on whose decision the choice could rest to be fastened to the cross rather than blaspheme God Christ, which the Arian heresy compelled, or call the Son of God, God Christ, a creature of the Lord.” (Saint Anastasius I, From the Epistle “Dat mihi plurimum", to Venerius, Bishop of Milan, about the year 400; Denzinger n. 93).

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