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Pope Vigilius’s excommunication

June 30, 2011

Found this on a Orthodox forum, and thought I would post it here on my blog, so that others can read it. The author of this thread I only know by the name Papa Gregorio, which I assume is his forum name. Anyways. Enjoy -Eric Castleman


The following comes from a cordial dialogue I had with an Eastern Catholic on CAF on a very interesting and crucial topic. I’ve included just my main points to get across the fact that, not only did the Church believe a pope could espouse heresy, but that an Ecumenical Council could also anathematize him and render him accountable to the Council, without of course minimising the sense of importance and esteem given to the See of Rome.

On Vigilius’ excommunication:

You might find it compelling that a prominent Jesuit papal scholar will have no problems in acknowledging this fact:

“Pope Vigilius (537-555), who had very little backbone in conflict situations, first gave way and condemned the three chapters in his Iudicatum of 548. Faced with a storm of protest in the West, where the pope was accused of betraying Chalcedon, he made an about-face and retracted his condemnation (Constitutum, 553). The emperor in turn called a council at Constantinople (the Second Council of Constantinople, 553) made up only of opponents of the three chapters. It not only condemned those three chapters but even excommunicated the pope. This was a unique case of an ecumenical council setting itself clearly against the pope and yet not suffering the fate of Ephesus II. Instead, over time it was accepted and even recognized as valid by the pope. The council got around the papal opposition by referring to Matthew 18:20 (“Where two or three are gathered in my name…”): no individual council could therefore forestall the decision of the universal Church. This kind of argument was invalid, of course, because the pope was not alone; the entire West was behind him, and yet it was not represented at the council. Broken in spirit, Vigilius capitulated after the end of the council and assented to its condemnation of the three chapters. The result was a schism in the West, where the pope was accused of having surrendered Chalcedon. A North African synod of bishops excommunicated the pope, and the ecclesial provinces of Milan and Aquileia broke communion with Rome….The Spanish Church did not separate from Rome, but throughout the Middle Ages it refused to recognize this Council. The authority of the papacy in the West had suffered a severe blow with regard to dogma as well” (Schatz, Klaus, Papal Primacy. From Its Origins to the Present, 1996, Liturgical Press: Collegeville, p. 53).

This is also backed up by JND Kelly:

“In reprisal, at the seventh session of the council (26 May) he [Justinian] humiliated Vigilius by revealing his secret correspondence condemning or promising to condemn them [the three chapters]. He then ordered the pope’s name to be struck from the diptychs, making it clear, however, that he was severing communion with him personally, not with the holy see”. (Kelly, J.N.D., Oxford Dictionary of Popes; 1986, Oxford University Press: Oxford, p. 62)

It’s sufficient to note that the undeniable facts herewith presented are not in dispute by the most reputable Church historians, papal or otherwise. I don’t regard the pleadings to the argument of a corruption of the MSS as one worthy of much consideration since, in addition to no sources being cited by you, many figures in the history of the RCC have attempted to employ the same desperate measures and have failed. One reference I can provide for further research comes from the [ccel] website. Notice that the Sixth Ecumenical Council is one reference point to the authenticity of the acts which you dispute:

“From all this it would seem that the substantial accuracy of the rest of the acts have been established by the authority of the Sixth Synod, and Hefele and all recent scholars follow Mansi’s Paris ms. It may be well here to add that a most thorough-going attack upon the acts has been made in late years by Professor Vincenzi, in defence of Pope Vigilius and of Origen.  The reader is referred to his writings on the subject:  In Sancti Gregorii Nysseni et Originis scripta et doctrinam nova defensio; Vigil., Orig., Justin. triumph., in Synod V. (Romæ, 1865.)  The Catholic Dictionary frankly says that this is “an attempt to deny the most patent facts, and treat some of the chief documents as forgeries,” and “unworthy of serious notice.”

Vigilius was caught between a rock and a hard place as he was facing strong pressure from two opposing factions – those loyal to the Council who tried to express the faith according to a more Cyrillian way in attempt to bring back the Oriental Orthodox to full communion with the Greek (Roman) Orthodox, and those loyal to the so-called “diophysite” theology of Chalcedon. His actions even led to his excommunication by the North African churches.

…your argument that the Council and Vigilius were of one mind is only a half-truth, because his reconciliation came only when heeding:

“the advice of the Council, and six months afterwards wrote a letter to the Patriarch Eutychius, wherein he confesses that he has been wanting in charity in dividing from his brethren.  He adds, that one ought not to be ashamed to retract, when one recognises the truth, and brings forward the example of Augustine.  He says, that, after having better examined the matter of the Three Chapters, he finds them worthy of condemnation.  “We recognize for our brethren and colleagues all those who have condemned them, and annul by this writing all that has been done by us or by others for the defence of the three chapters.” (

Again, the facts of the Council reveal that Vigilius’s faint-heartedness left him outside of the communion of the Church until he reconciled himself to the Council. How is this a “sensationalist interpretation” of the Acts when it is merely historical fact? The session in question is the third:

It is clear that most of the time of the first two sessions was consumed by attempts to bring Pope Vigilius to the council. At the third session a confession of faith was made which was based on the introductory speech by Justinian. To this there was added an anathema against anyone who separated himself from the Church — it is obviously Vigilius to whom they refer. (florovsky, Georges, the Byzantine Fathers of the sixth to eighth century,

It logically stands and there is no getting around the fact that:

“These things prove, that in a matter of the utmost importance, disturbing the whole Church, and seeming to belong to the Faith, the decrees of sacred councils prevail over the decrees of Pontiffs, and that the letter of Ibas, though defended by a judgment of the Roman Pontiff, could nevertheless be proscribed as heretical.” (

It is true that the Council finally honoured the pope as “head, father and primatus” and I’m happy that you brought this up, because it vindicates Orthodox doctrine that papal primacy depends on a right-believing pope and adds further weight to this fundamental insistence. If you had previously accounted for the Orthodox denial of papal primacy solely on its faithfulness to the conciliar model of the early Church, let me remind you of St. Symeon of Thessalonica:

“One should not contradict the Latins when they say that the Bishop of Rome is the first. This primacy is not harmful to the Church. Let them only prove his faithfulness to the faith of Peter and to that of the successors of Peter. If this is so, let him enjoy all the privileges of pontiff…Let the Bishop of Rome be successor of the orthodoxy of Sylvester and Agatho, of Leo, Liberius, Martin and Gregory, then we also will call him Apostolic and the first among the other bishops; then we also will obey him, not only as Peter, but as the Saviour Himself” (Meyendorff, J., ed., the Primacy of Peter, 1992, SVSP: Crestwood, p. 86).

Am I correct in saying that your major premise in this argument consists of the Roman Catholic view that communion with the pope is an unconditional precept of being in communion with the Church? In that case, were those who excommunicated Vigilius at Constantinople II in communion with the Church? If not, then they committed a schismatic act and all sessions subsequently held without the pope automatically become schismatic acts. If yes, then the edifice immediately collapses, taking with it the Vatican I’s defined dogma of papal supremacy. Now as regards the African churches’ excommunication of Vigilius after the Council (as well as that of the churches of Milan and Aquileia), these actions were clearly a case of the rejection of a pope whose orthodoxy had been vindicated by the Council after his denunciation of the heretical Three Chapters. There would be no question, therefore, that these churches can be considered to have been outside Orthodoxy.

I’m beginning to see a pattern akin to that observable in many of the ultra-montane sympathisers throughout history: modern Roman Catholic doctrine is the standard by which the authenticity of any historical document should be judged. It is a trait of the works of Dom Chapman, it is also a trait of the ultra-montane party at Vatican I (some of whom refused to acknowledge that the Sixth Ecumenical Council was in fact “ecumenical” because it had condemned pope Honorius! The lengths people will go in their subservience to papacy…) Granted, the injurious slanders to the memory of pope Vigilius had been established as forgeries, but you have not made any compelling case that we should equally consider the proven authentic acts of the excommunication of Vigilius as forgeries aside from your opinion. Once again I refer you to the statement of the Catholic Dictionary that this is “an attempt to deny the most patent facts, and treat some of the chief documents as forgeries,” and “unworthy of serious notice.”

The following citations are from a work by the French historian Claire Sotinel. In it, the author discusses the perimeters of church authority during the time of Justinian and seeks to define the relationship between Church and imperial authority in the period leading up to and following the Fifth Ecumenical Council. When discussing the relevance of Vigilius’ excommunication to her topic, she quotes Justinian’s letter in which Vigilius is clearly singled out. Remember that at this stage, Vigilius had retracted his condemnation of the three chapters:

“Le très religieux pape de l’ancienne Rome [s’est rendu lui-même] étranger à l’Église catholique en défendant l’impiété des chapitres et, d’autre part, en se séparent de lui-même de votre communion […]. Puis donc qu’il s’est rendu étranger aux chrétiens, nous avons jugé que son nom ne sera pas récité dans les saints diptyques, afin que nous ne nous trouvons pas, par ce moyen, en communication avec les impieties de Nestorius et de Théodore […]. L’unité avec le siège apostolique, nous la servons et vous la gardez, ceci est certain. La transformation de Vigile, ou de qui que ce soit d’autre, ne peut en effet nuire à la paix des Églises.” ” (Sotinel, C 2000, Le concile, l’empereur, l’évêque, in ‘Orthodoxie, Christianisme, histoire’, ed. Elm, S et al, École français de Rome, p. 294).

“The most religious pope of Old Rome [has made himself] a stranger to the catholic Church in defending the impiety of the chapters and, moreover, in separating himself from your communion by his own initiative […].  Thus, since he has made himself a stranger to Christians, we have judged that his name will not be recited in the holy diptychs lest, by this means, we find ourselves in communion with the impieties of Nestorius and Theodore […]. One thing is certain:  we serve unity with the apostolic see, and you maintain it.  Vigilius’ transformation, or anyone else’s, cannot, in fact, harm the peace of the Churches”.

To which the council responds:

Les projets du très pieux empereur sont conformes (congrua sunt) aux travaux qu’il a accomplis pour l’unité des saintes Églises. Que nous servions donc l’unité avec le siege apostolique de la sacrosainte Église de l’ancienne Rome en accomplissant tout selon la teneur du rescrit imperial (apex) qui vient d’être lu. (Sotinel, ibid., p.294-5)

“The plans of the most pious emperor are in conformity with his actions undertaken for the unity of the holy Churches. Let us therefore serve unity with the apostolic see of the all-holy Church of Old Rome by fulfilling everything according to the terms of the imperial decree which has just been read” (I am indebted to Fr. Andrew Wade from Fr. Ambrogio’s parish for editing my translations).

“Ainsi, la réalité de l’importance de Rome n’est pas entièrement evacuee, mais le statut particulier du siege apostolique n’est en rien le garant de l’orthodoxie de son titulaire aux yieux de l’empereur ou des pères du concile.” (Sotinel, ibid., p.295)

“As such, the reality of the importance of Rome is not entirely dispensed of, but the particular status of the apostolic see in no way guarantees the orthodoxy of her incumbent in the eyes of the emperor and the fathers of the council.” (My translation).

From these extracts we can definitively establish two critical facts, both of which refute any attempts to both excuse Vigilius’ excommunication, and excuse it on non-dogmatic grounds. Aside from the obvious, the citations draw particular attention to the grounds of Vigilius’ excommunication. The emperor gives explicit reason for his sentence –he is preserving the Church from communion with Nestorian sympathisers, a clear indication of which, for both him and the council, was the failure to condemn the three chapters. The topsy-turvy actions of the pope, by this stage a defender of the three chapters, bring him under the condemnations reserved for the heretics.

Let’s consider for a moment what the consequences for the Church would have been had Vigilius’ papacy been informed by the prevailing dogmatic conditions of the post-Vatican I church of Rome. We would unquestionably have a Church bound to heretical teaching. That Rome’s doctrinal authority had been grievously hurt by this episode is evident in the ensuing schism between several important Sees in the West and the pungent admonitions given to successive pontiffs to avoid the fate that had tarnished the memory of Viglius. St. Columbanus did just that, lamenting how “sad it is when the catholic faith is not preserved in the apostolic see” (Schatz 1996, p. 54) gives a stern warning to pope Boniface IV lest he follow his predecessor’s lack of vigilance (ibid.).

The fact remains, and is readily admitted by the highest scholarship, that:

“L’autorité du concile est légitime s’il fait la preuve de son orthodoxie. Ce n’est pas l’institution conciliaire qui fait l’orthodoxie, mais l’orthodoxie qui qualifie le concile comme institution.” (Sotinel, p. 293)

“The authority of the council is legitimate if its orthodoxy is proven. It is not the conciliar institution which determines orthodoxy, but orthodoxy which qualifies the council as an institution.” (My translation).

Against your position that:
a) Vigilius was not excommunicated,
b) Vigilius was of one mind theologically with the Council,

we have established that:

a) pope Vigilius was excommunicated by the Council,
b) he was placed into the category of Nestorian sympathisers, making it impossible to have been theologically one with the Council (well…it seems he was of two minds with the Council considering his character!)
c) he was ultimately reconciled to the Council’s decisions.

I now pose the following questions: who was and who wasn’t in the Church during the six months of the pope’s isolation from the Council? Were those in communion with the excommunicated pope Vigilius in communion with the Petrine Office? One is obliged to admit a radical development (if one can call it that) in the doctrine of the fundamental nature of church authority on the part of the Vatican I-era church of Rome. How do you reconcile the Vatican dogma’s extraordinary powers assigned to the pope in light of the historical conscience of the Church of the first millennium clearly allowing for the possibility to call into question the pope’s doctrinal orthodoxy?


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  1. Canadian permalink

    Great stuff.
    When I was deliberating between Rome and Orthodoxy, this was one of the two final straws that broke her back in my mind. The other was Rome renegging on which Council she considered the 8th Ecumenical (879 then 869 [Photian]).
    Perry Robinson patiently exchanged numerous emails with me as I was reading the Fifth Council. The Council even says that the pope would “condemn himself by his words” if he did not cease his waffling about the faith of the church. The Council spanked a sitting pope!

  2. Eric,

    Where the heck did you find this?

  3. Eric Castleman permalink

    Perry. I found this like a year ago on some Orthodox forum, and I saved it to my computer and decided to post it. I thought it was pretty good.

    Canadian: While I must admit, my movement towards Orthodoxy was not anything having to do with the pope not being infallible, at least in that it was not the fact that I thought he was or wasn’t, but Christological issues, which was the reason I left reformed theology, and thought about going Roman Catholic, after hearing, what I thought was consistent Christology from Rome’s defenders, only to find that Orthodoxy is completely submerged in Christology.

    I knew that after a certain amount of time I would see the papal issues with more clarity, and I did.

    On a side note. I get slammed every once in awhile from the reformed side, for entertaining Rome , and eventually heading East, as if it shows inconsistency on my part. However, Christology was the reason I left reformed theology, and Rome is allot deeper than any reformed catechism, or writer can even comprehend. It was only by the grace of God, and the hard work others have put into these issues that finally helped me find my way to Orthodoxy.

    I only bring this up Canadian, because you might deal with similar issues. Glad to meet another person who took the same road as I.

  4. There are some good points to bring up. However, as a Catholic, my initial question would be thus: If we are going to undermine the necessary-ness of Papal communion via the historical events of Vigilius in relation to C’ple 553, then how are we going to avoid undermining the necessary-ness of Conciliar authority expressed @ C’ple 553 via the historical events of the entire West not recognizing the Council itself, in some case, for more than 150 years??

  5. The problem here, is that this individual is interpreting Catholic documents in contradiction to the Catholic Church. It’s just another form of Protestantism. (They who interpret the Catholic Document that is more commonly called, the Bible) Jesus established one Church to Teach His Faith. The Catholic Church. All who oppose the Church, oppose the Pope, the Holy Spirit which guides them and Jesus who speaks through them. In other words, those who oppose the Catholic Church, oppose God.

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