Christ's Faithful People
352 - 366 AD
The scene is a council at Milan in 355. Emperor Constantius demands that Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, be condemned. The bishops cry out that to do so would be against the canon of the Church. Emperor Constantius, a bandy-legged fellow, roars: "My will is the canon." Five words which clearly and brutally define caesaropapism: The Emperor's will is the rule of the Church. From now on the popes will be troubled again and again by imperial interference, and of this Pope Liberius is an outstanding example.
Liberius was a Roman who succeeded St. Julius as pope in the May of 352. He was soon to face despotic meddling. Constans, emperor in the West, had been killed in a rebellion; and though his brother Constantius mastered the rebels to become sole emperor, this spelled trouble. Constantius, under the influence of Arians, had long vexed the Eastern Church. Now he began to make matters unpleasant for the West. Pope Liberius appealed to him to hold a council. Constantius did so, but bullied the assembled bishops and the papal legates into abandoning Athanasius. Liberius, naturally, was displeased. Another council was held at Milan in 335. Emperor Constantius bluntly told the bishops to obey him or face exile. A few brave souls refused and were promptly banished. Pope Liberius wrote to the victims, hailing them as martyrs.
Constantius realized that his pet project of uniting the Christians by a semi-Arian formula would not succeed as long as the Pope defended orthodoxy. He sent his confidential eunuch to Rome laden with gifts and loud with threats. But when Liberius spurned gifts and threats alike, he was hustled off to the imperial court to be browbeaten by Caesar in person. Constantius angrily asked the Pope who he was to stand out for Athanasius against the world. He then exiled Liberius to Thrace and isolated him from friends and counselors. To rule the Church the Emperor set up an antipope, Felix, but the disgusted Romans refused to cooperate with the imperial whim.
Liberius returned to Rome but what price did he pay? Scholars still dispute the matter. There is evidence that Liberius abandoned Athanasius and signed some vaguely worded compromise formula. In any case, the question is historical not theological, for papal infallibility is not involved.
Whether or not Liberius had a moment of weakness in exile, he continued to fight on for orthodoxy after his return. He deplored the weakness of those bishops who signed a compromise formula at Rimini in 359. He had the satisfaction of seeing the Arians first split into factions, then decline rapidly. Their great power at this period depended on imperial backing; when imperial policy changed they had little to fall back on. And change it did. Julian the Apostate succeeded Constantius in 361. Since Julian despised all Christians, orthodox or Arian, the Church was freed from the smothering embrace of Caesar. Liberius had the joy of receiving back into the Church a large number of moderate Arians.
Liberius died April 12, 366. He is not honored as a saint.