Suspending Ecclesial Communion from the Pope – First Millennium Witnesses

There are early instances in ecclesial history where either canonized saints or Episcopal synods were ready to enter into a lapse of communion with the Pope over a disputed theological or disciplinary question (whether they were right or wrong about the matter ontologically). As the readers know, I am a Roman Catholic, and so my theological convictions are with the doctrine of the Church on this matter. Nevertheless, historical events which have happened are not to be ignored, even if their integrity and character betray something of the truth. After all, the disasters of Nicaea I and Nicaea II were do not reflect the expectation that many have of Ecumenical Councils today. Lately, there has been much discussion on the Papal privilege of being judgment-free, e.g. “The First See if judged by none” (canon 1404), and theologians are resurrecting debates from the second millennium experts who spoke to the question of the limits and fallibility of Popes, as well as whether he can be judged. I thought I would provide four examples from the first millennium where something of a reaction to Papal authority was conducted in such a way that illustrated, at least to some degree, the belief, however much in the minority, that the Pope’s communion was not absolute, or that he could be penalized in such a way as to be suspended from operating in that role as a functioning judge. The ideas of Papal deposition held by Papalists such as Cardinal Cajetan,  John of Torquemada, St. Robert Bellarmine, John of St. Thomas, or Francisco Suarez come across a tad bit differently than this, but that only reflects a variation in the quantity of authority attributed to the Pope’s office.  Now, I chose only four examples, but there are plenty more. However, not many of them are significant since in many instances the one’s opposing the Popes were so clearly inadequate to represent orthodox Christianity, or the history was too complicated to explore for this context. One such event was the condemnation of Pope Honorius I, but on this particular matter I primarily found no reason to contribute space because Honorius was actually not condemned in opposition to Rome, but with the official ratification of Rome. Pope St. Leo II completely supported the Council of Constantinople III (681) in its judgment on the heterodoxy of Honorius, and his anathematization. But still, theologians have been known to re-examine what actually happened, and/or what Honorius actually wrote in his infamous letters to Sergius of Constantinople (I’ve written more on this here), and the details can be quite dense. Suffice it to say my admission given thus far reveals my take on the subject.

Having made these preliminary remarks, I’d like also to say up front that I do not necessarily back the beliefs which stand behind those opposing the Popes in the below instances, and allude to reasons why in body of the article; nevertheless, what happened is what happened, and these instances should not be completely disregarded in the contemporary thought project on the subject of Papal failure and its practical consequences. Still, the reader might be wondering why a Catholic would venture to speak on this subject, seeing as it may undermine the truth of the Catholic dogma on the Papal office. That is not necessarily a conclusion that follows. At least, if we had every alternative Christian body or denomination up on the table, we would be able to surmount a great deal of historical events which would severely challenge the major tenets of their core beliefs. Historical happenings do not always coincide or reflect what the truth of the matter is, much less serve as the final word. But, more directly, I am drawn to these examples because they might just serve to inform those of us who are in pursuit of a whole breadth of what history has to show us, even if that information if simply to explain why the example is inadequate or incompetent to instruct.


(1) St. Polycrates’s Asiatic Synod – In the year 180, the historian Eusebius recounts an episode where the Pope had decided to cut off all the churches in Asia who refused to alter the date they celebrated holy Pascha to conform to the tradition of Rome (as well as the majority of other churches, East/West). St. Polycrates wrote an epistle back stating that he and all the episcopal fathers from Ephesus/Asia agreed that St. John the Apostle, as well as his associates, had delivered the traditional Jewish date for the Passover as the date for Pascha, and even said “We must obey God, rather than man” (Euesbius cites the contents). So here is a man who ended up being canonized (how/why, we don’t know) who was willing to take himself and his synod out of communion with the Pope over this disagreement.  See Chapters 23/24 in  Eusebius’s “Ecclesiastical History” (Vol V), for a detailed account.

Now, grant it – Pope Victor had just recently called a bunch of synods who all ruled in favor of the Roman tradition, and so St. Polycrates/Asia were not just contesting the judgment of Rome , but of the church catholic. However, when Victor attempted to enforce excommunication, many of the bishops in the West rebuked him for doing so (without making clear that he he did not have the right to do so).

These Asiatic churches continued on celebrating Easter on the 14th day of Nisan, and were called Quartodecimans. Future synods confronted the problem, such as the Council of Arles (314) and Nicaea (325), both of which ruled in favor of the Roman tradition. Eventually, the church recognized the Quartodecimans as “schismatics”, as we read from St. John Chrysostom already in the late 4th early 5th century.

Thus, this may register as an “insignificant” resistance to Papal power, but it was from a canonized Saint together with a Synodal portion of Eastern bishops gathered together in the middle of the 2nd century.


(2) St. Cyprian, North African synods, and St. Firmilian of Ceasarea – All were willing to enter into a loss of communion with Pope St. Stephen I (254) when the later attempted to enforce excommunication for all bishops who did not follow the Roman tradition on the manner of receiving converts who had been baptized by heretics (in the Trinitarian name). St. Firmilian opens up with scathing criticism to the Pope over his wish to excommunicate the “whole world”, and insisted that by doing so, he “excommunicated himself” (see Epistle 74) n the Cyprianic Epistolary linked below). St. Cyprian himself held to his guns on this and even assembled in some Councils in Carthage where the Roman edict was ignored as to its weight (7th Council of Carthage). Some like to say that St. Cyprian did not overtly break communion with Rome, which is true, but he was content to allow the Pope’s attempt to remove communion land its blow.

Now, St. Cyprian and St. Firmilian’s theological position on baptism was, in fact, wrong, and the Church catholic would eventually embrace the Roman tradition, and major theologians such as St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Optatus, and St. Vincent of Lerins would recount how Stephen was actually in the right, not just in his theological position, but in the exercise of his authority (see St. Vincent’s of Lerin’s commonitorium, Chapter 6 ) .

Thus, this also may register as another “insignificant” event, but it shows that this matter of invincible communion with the Pope was not a unanimous dogma at all time,  even in the West, and that there were numerous bishops, including saints, who thought of a “conditional” communion with the Pope. In other words, they did not think (these Christian men) that being deprived of the Roman communion was a fatality to catholic communion, and thus communion with Christ. I simply do not know of any other viable conclusion from the data. Many Catholic apologists take from the fact that St. Cyprian is canonized, that he must have died in communion with Rome, or Pope St. Stephen relaxed his judgment. All this is possible, but we simply don’t have enough data for those to be seriously considered. St. Augustine’s took from the fact that he died in the glory of martyrdom, which would have satisfied for his errors.


(3) When Pope Vigilius refused to attend the Council of Constantinople (II) in 553, which is accorded as the 5th Ecumenical Council for Catholics, the bishops of the Council decided to remove his name from the diptychs of divine services in the East. You can read the relevant sections in the below link:

(A) Session VII – Extracts from the Acts
(B) Sentence of the Synod
(C) The Decretal Epistle of Pope Vigilius in Confirmation of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod

One particularly interesting part of this Council is the rationale they gave in defense of their position against Vigilius. I will cite from the “Sentence of the Synod”:

“And because it happened that the most religious Vigilius stopping in this royal city, was present at all the discussions with regard to the Three Chapters, and had often condemned them orally and in writing, nevertheless afterwards he gave his consent in writing to be present at the Council and examine together with us the Three Chapters, that a suitable definition of the right faith might be set forth by us all. Moreover the most pious Emperor, according to what had seemed good between us, exhorted both him and us to meet together, because it is comely that the priesthood should after common discussion impose a common faith. On this account we besought his reverence to fulfil his written promises; for it was not right that the scandal with regard to these Three Chapters should go any further, and the Church of God be disturbed thereby. And to this end we brought to his remembrance the great examples left us by the Apostles, and the traditions of the Fathers. For although the grace of the Holy Spirit abounded in each one of the Apostles, so that no one of them needed the counsel of another in the execution of his work, yet they were not willing to define on the question then raised touching the circumcision of the Gentiles, until being gathered together they had confirmed their own several sayings by the testimony of the divine Scriptures.

And thus they arrived unanimously at this sentence, which they wrote to the Gentiles: It has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no other burden than these necessary things, that you abstain from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.

But also the Holy Fathers, who from time to time have met in the four holy councils, following the example of the ancients, have by a common discussion, disposed of by a fixed decree the heresies and questions which had sprung up, as it was certainly known, that by common discussion when the matter in dispute was presented by each side, the light of truth expels the darkness of falsehood.

Nor is there any other way in which the truth can be made manifest when there are discussions concerning the faith, since each one needs the help of his neighbour, as we read in the Proverbs of Solomon: A brother helping his brother shall be exalted like a walled city; and he shall be strong as a well-founded kingdom; and again in Ecclesiastes he says: Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.

So also the Lord himself says: Verily I say unto you that if two of you shall agree upon earth as touching anything they shall seek for, they shall have it from my Father which is in heaven. For wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

But when often he had been invited by us all, and when the most glorious judges had been sent to him by the most religious Emperor, he promised to give sentence himself on the Three Chapters (sententiam proferre): And when we heard this answer, having the Apostle’s admonition in mind, that each one must give an account of himself to God and fearing the judgment that hangs over those who scandalize one, even of the least important, and knowing how much sorer it must be to give offense to so entirely Christian an Emperor, and to the people, and to all the Churches; and further recalling what was said by God to Paul: Fear not, but speak, and be not silent, for I am with you, and no one can harm you. Therefore, being gathered together, before all things we have briefly confessed that we hold that faith which our Lord Jesus Christ, the true God, delivered to his holy Apostles, and through them to the holy churches, and which they who after them were holy fathers and doctors, handed down to the people credited to them.”

Now, it is questionable as to whether Pope Vigilius ratified those parts of the Synod where they excommunicated him, but it shows what bishops in the 6th century were willing to do in order to accomplish what they deemed was the survival of the Apostolic faith, even if they were largely under duress from the threats of punishment for non-compliance that the Emperor Justinian proved himself capable of doing (he had deposed the Metropolitan of Carthage, and replaced the Patriarch of Alexandria, in typical Ceasaro-Papist fashion). This was not exactly the best representation of proper Church or State authority, and so we shouldn’t expect to see the ideal being worked out.

What I think is even more concerning, however, is the responses of the *Western* churches during this time. Bishops in North Africa (including the Metropolitan of Carthage), Northern Italy, Aquielia, Milan, Spain, and Illyricum had all removed Pope Vigilius from the diptychs for being complicit with the Ecumenical Council at the time (they disagreed with Justinian and the Eastern bishops on the Three Chapters), and this launched a massive schism which lasted, for some churches, up to 100 years (some of the Spanish churches were out of communion w/ Rome for 150 years).  The history and the sources can be detailed concerning this story in the West by Fr. Klaus Schatz (I don’t agree with all of his history) in his book on Papal Primacy: Origins to Present.

One can respond by saying that the initial move of Justinian to convene a Council against the will and deliberation of the Pope violates the rules of Councils, as even admitted by the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea II (787) when in that Council John the Deacon stated the conditions requisite for Conciliar Ecumenicty, the first of which is acceptance of the Council’s decisions by Rome. St. Stephen the Younger (Byzantine) stated that “…according to the prescriptions of the canons, religious matters cannot be defined without the participation of the Pope of Rome”. And St. Nikiphorus of Constantinople (9th century) spoke to this by saying “…This Synod [Nicaea II] possesses the highest authority….In fact it was held in the most legitimate and regular fashion conceivable, because according to the divine rules established from the beginning it was directed and presided over by that glorious portion of the Western Church, I mean by the Church of Ancient Rome. Without them, no dogma discussed in the Church, even sanctioned in a preliminary fashion by the canons and ecclesiastical usages, can be considered to be approved, or abrogated; for they are the ones, in fact, who possess the principate of the priesthood and who owe this distinction to the leader[ship] of the Apostles“. More background on this , see Fr. Francis Dvornik’s Byzantium and the Roman Primacy, page 95-96. In the end, Justinian just wanted the Pope to condemn the Three Chapters to make things official. However, when Pope Viglius ended up condemning the Three Chapters definitively, he did so without reference to the authority of the Council, but on his own authority. Finally many Western churches eventually came back into communion on the terms of Vigilius’s successors, Pope Pelagius II and St. Gregory the Great on the terms that Rome had never wavered in the true faith on the matter, and that communion with Peter was necessary since the Church was founded upon his faith, and it was to him that Christ said “I will pray for you, that thy fail fail not”.


(4) The last example I have for this is Photius of Constantinople who attempted to depose Pope St. Nicholas I in a Council in Constantinople in 867. This was no doubt in response to the Pope’s failure to recognize his position as Patriarch, and the subsequent judgments which followed. However, one can dispute whether Photius had a right to do so. The Council of Constantinople (869) which is ranked the 8th Ecumenical Council for Catholics, states that Photius was wrong in attempting to judge the prelate of the Apostolic See, and compared him with the heretic Dioscorus (451) who attempted to excommunicate Pope St. Leo the Great.  The words of the Council are as follows:

Furthermore, nobody else should compose or edit writings or tracts against the most holy pope of old Rome, on the pretext of making incriminating charges, as Photius did recently and Dioscorus a long time ago. Whoever shows such great arrogance and audacity, after the manner of Photius and Dioscorus, and makes false accusations in writing or speech against the see of Peter, the chief of the apostles, let him receive a punishment equal to theirs.” (Canon 21)

One wonders if they had recalled the anathemas put on Vigilius and Honorius that they could only find Dioscorus as a comparison to what Photius did.

So what can be said in response to this? It had been already standard belief held by Rome that her decisions on doctrine and discipline were supreme and irreversible. We already see this in the teaching of many canonized Popes since the 4th century going forward. However, the earliest instance of the something close to the question of whether a Pope can’t be judged, save for heresy, as far as I am aware, is during the Pontificate of Pope St. Symmachus. During this time, there had been a schism over an anti-Pope, and there were saints (St. Ennodius and St. Avitus) who argued that no legal action could be taken against the Pope since he is the Head of the Episcopate, and that God would have to be his judge. This is at the end of the 5th century. I’ve written about this more in the below article (see link). And so the concept of “The First See is judged by none ” (aside from the well known Symmachian forgeries) has roots in the middle ages, and even if, as we have seen, there were those who were ready to contest the idea. By the 9th century, it was common place for the West to carry this as an axiom. The epistles of Pope St. Nicholas I (9th century) made it very clear, from his point of view, that the First See is judged by no man. A brief excerpt explains it all:

“…Furthermore, if you do not listen to us [Rome], it remains that you be held by us as our Lord Jesus Christ enjoins us to hold those who refuse to hear the Church of God; especially since the privileges of the Roman Church confirmed in St. peter by the words of Christ, ordained in the Church itself, observed from of old, proclaimed by the holy universal synods and ever venerated by the whole Church, can by no means be diminished, infringed, or Pope_Nicholas_Ialtered, since no effort of man has power to remove a foundation which God has laid, and what God has established stands firm and unshakable….These privileges, then, were bestowed on this holy Church by Christ: they were not bestowed by the Synod but were merely proclaimed and held in veneration by them….it is immediately clear that the judgments of the Apostolic See, than which there is no greater authority, cannot be handled by any other tribunal, nor is it permissible for any to sit in judgement upon its decision…..
(Pope Nicholas, Preposueramus Quidem, 865 AD, to the Emperor Michael, Epistle 8; Mansi xv. 196)

Surprisingly, in the Council held one decade later in Constantinople (879-80), the nearly 8th Ecumenical Council for the contemporary Eastern Orthodox, the texts of the Council which speak of the supremacy of the Pope were left untouched even by Photius. See more on that here.

In the end, we have some variance going on. Some say X, some say Y. Ultimately, in the second millennium, the Latin West tended to puts its stamp of approval on Papalism and that the Pope is judgment free save for heresy,  in which case it is most likely a self-deposition or a forfeiture from Peter’s chair. I’ve written a brief article summing up the historical positions on this in two other articles. And another short article summarizing the perspective of some theologians and canonists from the past. For those who espoused a conditional communion with the Pope, however much important they thought his communion was on the right terms and conditions, their ecclesiological instincts must have been different than those who were convicted of the Papal theory as it would be later codified in Catholic dogma.