St. Athanasius and the Current Crisis of Faith

What happened over 1600 years ago is repeating itself today, but with two or three differences: Alexandria is the whole Universal Church, the stability of which is being shaken, and what was undertaken at that time by means of physical force and cruelty is now being transferred to a different level. Exile is replaced by banishment into the silence of being ignored; killing, by assassination of character.

Mgr. Rudolf Graber, Bishop of Regensburg,
Athanasius and the Church of Our Times, p. 23.

The object of this appendix is not to explain the nature of the Arian heresy but to prove that a bishop who is faithful to tradition could be repudiated, calumniated, persecuted, and even excommunicated by almost the entire episcopate, the Pope included. Obviously, this would be an abnormal situation. A Catholic can normally presume that the majority of bishops in union with the Pope will teach sound doctrine; he would be imprudent not to conform his belief and behavior to their teaching. But this is not always the case as the present situation of the Church demonstrates. There is hardly a diocese in the English-speaking world where the bishop insures that Catholic children are taught sound doctrine, where Catholic moral and doctrinal teaching are not contradicted with impunity from the pulpit, where liturgical abuses which sometimes amount to sacrilege remain unrebuked. Writing of the time of St. Athanasius, St. Jerome made his celebrated remark: "Ingemit totus orbis et arianum se esse miratus est" - "The whole world groaned and wass amazed to finds itself Arian." The Catholic world in the West today finds itself in a state of accelerating disintegration but for the most part does not groan and certainly does not seem amazed. Indeed, most of the bishops repeat ad nauseum that things have never been better, that we are living in the most flourishing period of the Church's history. A bishop like the late Mgr. R. J. Dwyer, of Portland, Oregon, who had the courage to speak out and describe the situation in the Church as it really is was looked upon as an eccentric, as a crank, as a trouble-maker. The International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) received fulsome praise from the bishops of the U. S. A. for the liturgical translations now inflicted upon English-speaking Catholics. Archbishop Dwyer spoke of:

...the inept, puerile, semi-literate English translation which has been foisted upon us by the ICEL - the International Commission for English in the Liturgy - a body of men possessed of all the worst characteristics of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, which has done an immeasurable disservice to the entire English-speaking world. The work has been marked by an almost complete lack of literary sense, a crass insensitivity to the poetry of language, and even worse by a most unscholarly freedom in the rendering of the texts, amounting at times, to actual misrepresentation.1 (My emphasis.)

These are strong words. Archbishop Dwyer stood almost alone in denouncing ICEL - but did this make him wrong? It is the truth that matters. Are his criticisms correct or not? If they are then it would not have mattered if every other English-speaking bishop had denounced him. As Appendix II will show, Robert Grosseteste, a thirteenth-century Bishop of Lincoln, was as solitary as Archbishop Dwyer when he made his protest at the iniquitous practice of Pope Innocent IV appointing relations to benefices which they would not so much as visit, simply to provide them with a source of income. The other bishops tolerated the practice, just as most bishops today tolerate unorthodox catechetics and ICEL - but this did not make Bishop Grosseteste wrong.


The Arian Heresy

In his celebrated Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Cardinal Newman wrote:

Arianism had admitted that Our Lord was both the God of the Evangelical Covenant, and the actual Creator of the Universe; but even this was not enough, because it did not confess Him to be the One, Everlasting, Infinite, Supreme Being, but as one who was made by the Supreme. It was not enough in accordance with that heresy to proclaim Him as having an ineffable origin before all worlds; not enough to place Him high above all creatures as the type of all the works of God's Hands; not enough to make Him the King of all Saints, the Intercessor for man with God, the Object of worship, the Image of the Father; not enough because it was not all, and between all and anything short of all, there was an infinite interval. The highest of creatures is levelled with the lowest in comparison of the One Creator Himself.2

The Council of Nicea (325) defined that the Son is consubstantial (homoousion) with the Father. This meant that, while distinct as a person, the Son shared the same divine and eternal nature with the Father. If the Father was eternal by nature, then the Son must also be eternal. If the Father was eternal and the Son was not then clearly the Son was not equal with the Father. The term homoousion thus became the touchstone of orthodoxy. In her standard history of heresies, M. L. Cozens writes:

No other word could be found to express the essential union between the Father and the Son, for every other word the Arians accepted, but in an equivocal sense. They would deny that the Son was a creature as other creatures - or in the number of creatures - or made in time, for they considered him a special creation made before time. They would call Him "Only-begotten," meaning "Only directly created" Son of God.3 They would call Him "Lord Creator," "First-born of all creation"; they even accepted "God of God" meaning thereby "made God by God." This word (homoousion) alone they could not say without renouncing their heresy.4

The Council of Nicea had been convoked by the Emperor Constantine, who insisted upon acceptance of its definitions. Arius was excommunicated. But a good number of bishops signed the Creed only as an act of submission to the Emperor, including Eusebius of Caesarea, and Eusebius of Nicomedia. They were, according to Cozens:

Men of worldly character, they disliked dogmatic precision and wished for some comprehensive formula which men of all opinions could sign while understanding it in widely diverging senses. To these men the precise and exact faith of an Athanasius and the obstinate heresy of Arius and his plain-spoken followers were equally distasteful.

"Respectable, tolerant, broadminded" would be their ideal of religion. They therefore brought forward, instead of the too definite, ineradicable homoousion - of one substance - the vaguer term homoiousion, i. e., of like substance. They sent letters far and wide couched in seemingly orthodox and fervent language, proclaiming their belief in Our Lord's divinity, ascribing to Him every divine prerogative, anathematizing all who said He was created in time:5 in short, saying all the most orthodox could ask, except that they substituted their own homoiousion for the homoousion of Nicea.6

It is possible to interpret the term "of like substance" in an orthodox sense, i. e. exactly like, identical. But it can also be interpreted as meaning like in some respects but not in others, i. e., as not identical. A candle is like a star in that it generates heat and light, but it most certainly is not a star.

But a comparison between a candle and a star could be taken as an example of almost perfect precision of language when set beside a comparison between a being that is created (even before time began) and a being that is uncreated.

A mood soon grew up among many of the bishops and the faithful that too much fuss was being made about the distinction between homoousion and homoiousion. They considered that more harm than good was done by tearing apart the unity of the Church over a single letter, over an iota (the Greek letter "i"). They condemned those who did this, to quote Cozens again, as:

...over-rigid precisians, more anxious about terminology than about fraternal charity.

Meanwhile these latter, foremost among them Athanasius, at first deacon and disciple of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and afterwards his successor, refused to modify in any way their attitude. Steadfastly they refused to accept any statement not containing the homoousion or to communicate with those who rejected it.7

Athanasius and his supporters were right. That one letter, that iota, spelled the difference between Christianity as the faith founded and guided by God incarnate, and a faith founded by just another creature. Indeed, if Christ is not God, it would be blasphemous to call ourselves Christians.


St. Athanasius: Defender of the Nicene Faith

The Catholic Encyclopedia is far from exaggerating when it describes the life of St. Athanasius as a "bewildering maze of events." It would not be practical here to outline even the principal incidents of his truly amazing career, the various councils which declared for and against him, his excommunications, his expulsions from and restorations to his see, his relations with a formidable list of emperors, with his brother-bishops, with the Roman Pontiffs. It can also be added that in some cases the dates affixed to events in his life are only approximate. Those given here may not correspond with those found in other studies.

Athanasius was born around the year 296 and died in 373. He became Bishop of Alexandria within five months of the Council of Nicea, at the age of about thirty.

Hardly had the Council Fathers dispersed when intrigues to restore the fortunes of Arius began. Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, was able to gain favor with the Emperor chiefly through the influence which he exerted upon Constantia, sister of Constantine. He eventually prevailed upon the Emperor to recall Arius from exile. Constantine was induced to write to Athanasius ordering him to admit Arius to communion in his own see of Alexandria. He wrote:

On being informed of my pleasure, give free admission to all who are desirous of entering into communion with the Church. For if I learn of your standing in the way of any who were seeking it, or interdicting them, I will send at once those who shall depose you instead, by my authority, and banish you from your see.8

After various intrigues, Athanasius was eventually banished to Gaul, and Arius returned to Alexandria but fled in the face of the wrath of the populace. He eventually arrived in Constantinople where he was struck dead in so dramatic a manner that no one doubted that, as Athanasius remarked, "there was displayed somewhat more than human judgment."9

The Emperor Constantine died in 337 and the Empire was shared among his three sons. The fortunes of Athanasius are more bewildering than ever during this period. The See of Peter was occupied by Pope St. Julius I from 337 to 352. Pope Julius consistently and courageously upheld the cause of Athanasius and the faith of Nicea. In 350 the entire Empire was united under Constantius following the murder of his brother Constans (another brother having vanished from the scene soon after the death of Constantine). Constantius was an Arian.


The Fall of Pope Liberius

On 17 May 352, Liberius was consecrated as Pope. He immediately found himself involved in the Arian dispute.

He appealed to Constantius to do justice to Athanasius. The imperial reply was to summon the bishops of Gaul to a council at Arles in 353-354, where, under threat of exile, they agreed to a condemnation of Athanasius. Even Liberius' legate yielded. When the Pope continued to press for a council more widely representative, it was assembled by Constantius at Milan in 355. It was threatened by a violent mob and the Emperor's personal intimidation: "My will," he exclaimed, "is canon law." He prevailed with all save three of the bishops. Athanasius was once more condemned and Arians admitted to communion. Once more papal legates surrendered and Liberius himself was ordered to sign. When he refused to do so, or even to accept the Emperor's offerings, he was seized and carried off to the imperial presence; when he stood firm for Athanasius' rehabilitation, he was exiled to Thrace (355) where he remained for two years. Meanwhile, a Roman deacon, Felix, was intruded into his see. The people refused to recognize the imperial anti-pope. Athanasius himself was driven into hiding and his flock abandoned to the persecution of an Arianizing intruder. When he visited Rome in 357, Constantius was besieged by clamorous demands for Liberius' restoration. Subservient bishops around the court at Sirmium subscribed in turn to doctrinal formulas more or less ambiguous or unorthodox. In 358, a formula drawn up by Basil of Ancyra, declaring that the Son was of like substance with the Father, homoiousion, was officially imposed.10

The opposition to the anti-pope Felix made it imperative for Constantius to restore Liberius to his see. But it was equally imperative that the Pope should condemn Athanasius. The Emperor used a combination of threats and flattery to attain his objective. Then followed the tragic fall of Liberius. It is described in the sternest of terms in Butler's Lives of the Saints:

About this time Liberius began to sink under the hardships of his exile, and his resolution was shaken by the continual solicitations of Demophilus, the Arian Bishop of Beroea, and of Fortunatian, the temporizing Bishop of Aquileia. He was so far softened, by listening to flatteries and suggestions to which he ought to have stopped his ears with horror, that he yielded to the snare laid for him, to the great scandal of the Church. He subscribed to the condemnation of St. Athanasius and a confession or creed which had been framed by the Arians at Sirmium, though their heresy was not expressed in it; and he wrote to the Arian bishops of the East that he had received the true Catholic faith which many bishops had approved at Sirmium. The fall of so great a prelate and so illustrious a confessor is a terrifying example of human weakness, which no one can call to mind without trembling for himself. St. Peter fell by a presumptuous confidence in his own strength and resolution, that we may learn that everyone stands only by humility.11

According to A Catholic Dictionary of Theology (1971), "This unjust excommunication [of St. Athanasius] was a moral and not a doctrinal fault."12 Signing one of the "creeds" of Sirmium was far more serious (there is some dispute as to which one Liberius signed, probably the first). The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), describes it as "a document reprehensible from the point of view of the faith."13 Some Catholic apologists have attempted to prove that Liberius neither confirmed the excommunication of Athanasius nor subscribed to one of the formulae of Sirmium. But Cardinal Newman has no doubt that the fall of Liberius is an historical fact.14 This is also the case with the two modern works of rund=ence just cited and the celebrated Catholic Dictionary, edited by Addis and Arnold. The last named points out that there is "a fourfold cord of evidence not easily broken," i. e., the testimonies of St. Athanasius, St. Hilary, Sozomen, and St. Jerome. It also notes that "all the accounts are at once independent of and consistent with each other."15

The New Catholic Encyclopedia concludes that:

Everything points to the fact that he [Liberius] accepted the first formula of Sirmium of failed gravely in deliberately avoiding the use of the most characteristic expression of the Nicene faith and in particular the homoousion. Thus while it cannot be said that Liberius taught false doctrine, it seems necessary to admit that, through weakness and fear, he did not do justice to the full truth.16

It is quite nonsensical for Protestant polemicists to cite the case of Liberius as an argument against papal infallibility. The excommunication of Athanasius (or of anyone else) is not an act involving infallibility, and the formula he signed contained nothing directly heretical. Nor was it an ex cathedra pronouncement intended to bind the whole Church, and, if it had been, the fact that Liberius acted under duress would have rendered it null and void.

However, despite the pressure to which he was submitted, Liberius' fall reveals a weakness of character when compared with those such as Athanasius, who did remain firm. Cardinal Newman comments:

His fall, which followed, scandalous as it is in itself, may yet be taken to illustrate the silent firmness of those others of his fellow-sufferers, of whom we hear less, because they bore themselves more consistently.17

This is a judgment with which the New Catholic Encyclopedia concurs:

Liberius did not have the strength of character of his predecessor Julius I, or of his successor Damasus I. The troubles that erupted upon the latter's election indicate that the Roman Church had been weakened from within as well as from without during the pontificate of Liberius. His name was not inscribed in the Roman Martyrology.18


Tradition Upheld by the Laity

The fall of Pope Liberius needs to be considered within the context of a failure by the vast majority of the episcopate to be faithful to its commission; only then can the full extent of the heroism of St. Athanasius be appreciated (together with a few other heroic bishops such as St. Hilary, who supported him faithfully). Cardinal Newman cites numerous Patristic testimonies to the abysmal state of the Church at that time. In Appendix V to the third edition of his Arians of the Fourth Century, we read:

A. D. 360. St. Gregory Nazianzen says, about this date: "Surely the pastors have done foolishly; for, excepting a very few, who either on account of their insignificance were passed over, or who by reason of their virtue resisted, and who were to be left as a seed and root for the springing up again and revival of Israel by the influence of the Spirit, all temporized, only differing from each other in this, that some succumbed earlier, and others later; some were foremost champions and leaders in the impiety, and others joined the second rank of the battle, being overcome by fear, or by interest, or by flattery, or, what was the most excusable, by their own ignorance." (Orat. xxi. 24).

Cappadocia. St. Basil says, about the year 372: "Religious people keep silence, but every blaspheming tongue is let loose. Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in faith avoid the places of worship as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitude, with groans and tears to the Lord in heaven." Ep. 92. Four years after he writes: "Matters have come to this pass: the people have left their houses of prayer, and assemble in deserts, - a pitiable sight; women and children, old men, and men otherwise infirm, wretchedly faring in the open air, amid most profuse rains and snow-storms and winds and frosts of winter; and again in summer under a scorching sun. To this they submit, because they will have no part in the wicked Arian leaven." Ep. 242. Again: "Only one offense is now vigorously punished, - an accurate observance of our fatherss' traditions. For this cause the pious are driven from their countries, and transported into deserts." Ep. 243.

In this same appendix, the Cardinal also included an extract from an article he had written for the Rambler magazine in July 1859.19 The article dealt with the manner in which, during the Arian crisis, divine tradition had been upheld by the faithful more than by the episcopate. Three phrases in this article had been misinterpreted when first published, and Newman now took the opportunity of clarifying them in the appendix. The gist of these clarifications will be provided in footnotes. Here is Newman's assessment of the manner in which the laity, the Taught Church (Ecclesia docta), upheld the traditional faith rather than what is known today as the Magisterium or the Teaching Church (Ecclesia docens) - that is, the bishops united to the Roman Pontiff:

It is not a little remarkable, that, though historically speaking, the fourth century is the age of doctors, illustrated, as it is, by the Saints Athanasius, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine (and all those saints [were] bishops also, except one), nevertheless in that very day the Divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the episcopate.

Here, of course, I must explain: - in saying this then, undoubtedly I am not denying that the great body of the Bishops were in their internal belief orthodox; nor that there were numbers of clergy who stood by the laity and acted as their centres and guidesquotr that the laity actually received the faith in the first instance from the Bishops and clergy: nor that some portions of the laity were ignorant and other portions were at length corrupted by the Arian teachers, who got possession of the sees, and ordained an heretical clergy: - but I mean still, that in that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of Our Lord's divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the Ecclesia docta than by the Ecclesia docens ; that the body of the Episcopate20 was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism; that at one time the Pope, at other times a patriarchal, metropolitan, or other great sees, at other times general councils21 said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth; while, on the other hand, it was the Christian people, who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength of Athanasius, Eusebius of Vercellae, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them....

On the one hand, then, I say, that there was a temporary suspense of the functions of the Ecclesia docens.22 The body of bishops failed in their confession of the faith.


The True Voice of Tradition

What, then, are the lessons we can learn from the fall of Liberius, the triumph of Arianism, the witness of Athanasius, and the fortitude of the body of the faithful? Newman provides us with the answers, recognizing that what has happened once can happen again. In his July 1859 Rambler article, he wrote:

I see, then, in the Arian history, a palmary example of a state of the Church, during which, in order to know the tradition of the Apostles, we must have recourse to the faithful; for I fairly own, that if I go to writers, since I must adjust the letter of Justin, Clement, and Hippolytus with the Nicene Doctors, I get confused: and what revives me and reinstates me, as far as history goes, is the faith of the people. For I argue that, unless they had been catechized, as St. Hilary says, in the orthodox faith from the time of their baptism, they never could have had that horror, which they show, of the heterodox Arian doctrine. Their voice, then, is the voice of tradition....

It is also historically and doctrinally true, as Newman stressed in Appendix V to The Arians of the Fourth Century, "that a Pope, as a private doctor, and much more Bishops, when not teaching formally, may err, as we find they did err in the fourth century. Pope Liberius might sign a Eusebian formula at Sirmium, and the mass of Bishops at Ariminum or elsewhere, and yet they might in spite of this error, be infallible in their ex cathedra decisions."

Finally, what the history of this period proves is that, during a time of general apostasy, Christians who remain faithful to their traditional faith may have to worship outside the official churches, the churches of priests in communion with their lawfully appointed diocesan bishop, in order not to compromise that traditional faith; and that such Christians may have to look for truly Catholic teaching, leadership, and inspiration not to the bishops of their country as a body, not to the bishops of the world, not even to the Roman Pontiff, but to one heroic confessor whom the other bishops and the Roman Pontiff might have repudiated or even excommunicated. And how would they recognize that this solitary confessor was right and the Roman Pontiff and the body of the episcopate (not teaching infallibly) were wrong? The answer is that they would recognize in the teaching of this confessor what the faithful of the fourth century recognized in the teaching of Athanasius: the one true faith into which they had been baptized, in which they had been catechized, and which their confirmation gave them the obligation of upholding. In no sense whatsoever can such fidelity to tradition be compared with the Protestant practice of private judgment. The fourth-century Catholic traditionalists upheld Athanasius in his defense of the faith that had been handed down; the Protestant uses his private judgment to justify a breach with the traditional faith.

The truth of doctrinal teaching must be judged by its conformity to Tradition and not by the number or authority of those propagating it. Falsehood cannot become truth, no matter how many accept it. Writing in 371, St. Basil lamented the fact that:

The heresy long ago disseminated by that enemy of truth, Arius, grew to a shameless height and like a bitter root it is bearing its pernicious fruit and already gaining the upper hand since the standard-bearers of the true doctrine have been driven form the churches by defamation and insult and the authority they were vested with has been handed over to such as captivate the hearts of the simple in mind.23

But there will never be a time when the faithful who wholeheartedly wish to remain true to the Faith of their Fathers need have any doubt as to what the faith is. In the year 340 St. Athanasius wrote a letter to his brother bishops throughout the world, exhorting them to rise up and defend the faith against those he did not hesitate to stigmatize as "the evil-doers." What he wrote to them will apply until the end of time when God the Son comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead:

The Church has not just recently been given order and statutes. They were faithfully and soundly bestowed on it by the Fathers. Nor has the faith only just been established, but it has come to us from the Lord through His disciples. May what has been preserved in the Churches from the beginning to the present day not be abandoned in our time; may what has been entrusted into our keeping not be embezzled by us. Brethren, as custodians of God?s mysteries, let yourselves be roused into action on seeing all this despoiled by others.24


This appendix is available in an expanded version as a separate pamphlet published by The Remnant. It is available from The Angelus Press. Some of the works referred to in the notes have been abbreviated as follows:

AFC     J. H. Newman, Arians of the Fourth Century (London, 1876).
CD       W. Addis and T. Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary (London, 1925).
CDT    J. H. Crehan, ed., A Catholic Dictionary of Theology (London, 1971).
CE       The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1913).
HH      M. L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London, 1960), available from The Angelus Press.
NCE    New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1967).
PG       Migne, Patrologia Graeca.

1. National Catholic Register, 2 March 1975.

2. The Development of Christian Doctrine (London, 1878), p. 143.

3. Arius taught that Christ was the only being directly created by God and that having been created, He then created the rest of the universe on behalf of the Father. The rest of creation is, therefore, created directly by the Son and only indirectly by the Father.

4. HH, p. 34.

5. Arius taught that Christ was created before time began.

6. HH, pp. 35-36

7. HH, p.36.

8. AFC, p. 267.

9. AFC, p. 270.

10. E. John, ed., The Popes (London, 1964), p. 70.

11. A. Butler, The Lives of the Saints (London, 1934), II, p. 10.

12. CDT, III, 110, col. 2.

13. NCE, VIII, 715, col. 1.

14. AFC, p. 464.

15. CD, p. 522, col. 2.

16. NCE, VIII, 715, col. 2.

17. AFC, pp. 319-320.

18. NCE, VIII, 716, col. 2

19. The Rambler, Vol. I, new series, Part II, July 1859, pp. 198-230. This article had been written to refute criticisms of an unsigned article he had contributed to the May 1859 issue of The Rambler, of which he was editor.

20. Where Newman uses the term "body" he means "the great preponderance," the majority.

21. Newman is not referring to any of the recognized Ecumenical ("from the whole world") Councils of the Church, of which there were none in the period he is describing. He is referring to gatherings of bishops large enough to come under the classification of the Latin word generalia.

22. Newman explains that by "a temporary suspense of the functions of the Ecclesia docens" he means "that there was no authoritative utterance of the Church?s infallible voice in matters of fact between the Nicene Council, A. D. 325, and the Council of Constantinople, A. D. 381."

23. "Des heiligen Kirchenlehrers Basilius des Grossen ausgewählte Schriften," in Bibliothek der Kirchenväter (Kosel-Pustet, Munich, 1924), I, 121.

24. PG XXVII, col. 219.