At his blog, Fr. John Hunwicke has an interesting and controversial (not to say explosive) post, which refers to Cardinal Newman’s judgment on the hierarchy convulsed by the Arian crisis following Nicaea. We are not wholly taken by Fr. Hunwicke’s argument about the present day, but we will pass over that. Fr. Hunwicke helpfully explains that Pope Liberius, when he subscribed the third Sirmian confession, was unfaithful to his office or obscured the truth. Yet, as a commenter on Fr. Hunwicke’s blog observes, a word ought to be said for poor Liberius, who so often comes up as an example of a disastrous pope. First of all, it has long been controversial whether and when Liberius blotted his copybook, so to speak. Assume that it is not controversial, however. There is still a plea to be made for the defense.
Under the circumstances that bring us here, who better should make it than Cardinal Newman, in his Arians of the Fourth Century:
There are men, in whose mouths sentiments, such as these, are becoming and admirable, as being the result of Christian magnanimity, and imposed upon them by their station in the Church. But the sequel of the history shows, that in the conduct of Liberius there was more of personal feeling and intemperate indignation, than of deep-seated fortitude of soul. His fall, which followed, scandalous as it is in itself, may yet be taken to illustrate the silent firmness of those others his fellow-sufferers, of whom we hear less, because they bore themselves more consistently. Two years of exile, among the dreary solitudes of Thrace, broke his spirit; and the triumph of his deacon Felix, who had succeeded to his power, painfully forced upon his imagination his own listless condition, which brought him no work to perform, and no witness of his sufferings for the truth’s sake. Demophilus, one of the foremost of the Eusebian party, was bishop of Berœa, the place of Liberius’s banishment; and gave intelligence of his growing melancholy to his own associates. Wise in their generation, they had an instrument ready prepared for the tempter’s office. Fortunatian, Bishop of Aquileia, who stood high in the opinion of Liberius for disinterestedness and courage, had conformed to the court-religion in the Arian Council of Milan; and he was now employed by the Eusebians, to gain over the wavering prelate. The arguments of Fortunatian and Demophilus shall be given in the words of Maimbourg. “They told him, that they could not conceive, how a man of his worth and spirit could so long obstinately resolve to be miserable upon a chimerical notion, which subsisted only in the imagination of people of weak or no understanding: that, indeed, if he suffered for the cause of God and the Church, of which God had given him the government, they should not only look upon his sufferings as glorious, but, being willing to partake of his glory, they should also become his companions in banishment themselves. But that this matter related neither to God nor religion; that it concerned merely a private person, named Athanasius, whose cause had nothing in common with that of the Church, whom the public voice had long since accused of numberless crimes, whom Councils had condemned, and who had been turned out of his see by the great Constantine, whose judgment alone was sufficient to justify all that the East and West had so often pronounced against him. That, even if he were not so guilty as men made him, yet it was necessary to sacrifice him to the peace of the Church, and to throw him into the sea to appease the storm, which he was the occasion of raising; but that, the greater part of the Bishops having condemned him, the defending him would be causing a schism, and that it was a very uncommon sight to see the Roman prelate abandon the care of the Church, and banish himself into Thrace, to become the martyr of one, whom both divine and human justice had so often declared guilty. That it was high time to undeceive himself, and to open his eyes at last; to see, whether it was not passion in Athanasius, which gave a false alarm, and opposed an imaginary heresy, to make the world believe that they had a mind to establish error.”
The arguments, diffusively but instructively reported in the above extract, were enforced by the threat of death as the consequence of obstinacy; while, on the other hand, a temptation of a peculiar nature presented itself to the exiled bishop in his very popularity with the Roman people, which was such, that Constantius had already been obliged to promise them his restoration. Moreover, as if to give a reality to the inducements by which he was assailed, a specific plan of mutual concession and concord had been projected, in which Liberius was required to take part.
(Emphasis supplied.) A note quotes the great German Church historian, Bishop von Hefele, who observed:
“We therefore conclude without doubt that Liberius, yielding to force and sinking under many years of confinement and exile, signed the so-called third Sirmian formula, that is, the collection of older formulas of faith accepted at the third Sirmian Synod of 358. He did not do this without scruples, for the Semi-Arian character and origin of these formulas were not unknown to him; but, as they contained no direct or express rejection of the orthodox faith, and as it was represented to him, on the other side, that the Nicene [homoousios] formed a cloak for Sabellianism and Photinism, he allowed himself to be persuaded to accept the third Sirmian confession. But by so doing he only renounced the letter of the Nicene faith, not the orthodox faith itself.”
One would have to be very firm indeed not to be moved by Liberius’s plight. It is not as though he was merely banished from Rome by the Arian Constantius, forced to see Felix set up as an antipope in his place, and beguiled with the honeyed words of his erstwhile friend Fortunatian, though all of that did happen. He was threatened with martyrdom if all of those blandishments proved insufficient. And even then, Bishop von Hefele argues, Liberius could have told himself that he was not defecting from the faith of the Apostles, but merely rejecting a disputed formulation of that faith. (Though, as it happens, an extremely correct formulation of that faith.)
And if the argument at bar of Cardinal Newman is not quite persuasive, would you be interested to know that Athanasius himself saw grounds for mitigation in Liberius’s lapse? In his Historia Arianorum (5.41), he wrote:
Who that shall hear what they did in the course of these proceedings will not think them to be anything rather than Christians? When Liberius sent Eutropius, a Presbyter, and Hilarius, a Deacon, with letters to the Emperor, at the time that Lucifer and his fellows made their confession, they banished the Presbyter on the spot, and after stripping Hilarius the Deacon and scourging him on the back, they banished him too, clamouring at him, ‘Why did you not resist Liberius instead of being the bearer of letters from him.’ Ursacius and Valens, with the eunuchs who sided with them, were the authors of this outrage. The Deacon, while he was being scourged, praised the Lord, remembering His words, ‘I gave My back to the smiters (Isaiah 50:6);’ but they while they scourged him laughed and mocked him, feeling no shame that they were insulting a Levite. Indeed they acted but consistently in laughing while he continued to praise God; for it is the part of Christians to endure stripes, but to scourge Christians is the outrage of a Pilate or a Caiaphas. Thus they endeavoured at the first to corrupt the Church of the Romans, wishing to introduce impiety into it as well as others. But Liberius after he had been in banishment two years gave way, and from fear of threatened death subscribed. Yet even this only shows their violent conduct, and the hatred of Liberius against the heresy, and his support of Athanasius, so long as he was suffered to exercise a free choice. For that which men are forced by torture to do contrary to their first judgment, ought not to be considered the willing deed of those who are in fear, but rather of their tormentors. They however attempted everything in support of their heresy, while the people in every Church, preserving the faith which they had learned, waited for the return of their teachers, and condemned the Antichristian heresy, and all avoid it, as they would a serpent.
Now, all of this is not to turn, as some popular Jesuit commentators are apt to do these days, black into white and wrong into right. Martyrdom is, indeed, preferable to signing an intentionally ambiguous (at best) creed. Indeed, recall what John Paul II said in Veritatis splendor:
Finally, martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church. Fidelity to God’s holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem, so that the splendour of moral truth may be undimmed in the behaviour and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities. By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendour of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church’s Saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good, they are a living reproof to those who transgress the law (cf. Wis 2:12), and they make the words of the Prophet echo ever afresh: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Is 5:20).
Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice. Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment. In this he or she is sustained by the virtue of fortitude, whereby — as Gregory the Great teaches — one can actually “love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards”.
(Emphasis supplied.) It is true that Liberius chose, it seems, to save his own neck and to return to the adulation of the Roman people after he was ground down by exile and humiliated and threatened with death. His martyrdom, had he made that choice, would have been a reproach to the Arians and a light to Christians even today. But we ought not to pretend—or even imply—that Liberius’s failure came lightly and laughingly and voluntarily.