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When the Pope Communes and Colludes with Heretics…

Above: St. Basil Cathedral, Moscow. 

An Eastern Message to Western Trads, Part III

Russian icon of St. Maximus

St. Maximus the Confessor defended the Latins from accusations of heresy in the 7th century, just as John Bekkos and other Uniates did and still do in the 13th, 15th, and 16th centuries, and up to the current moment. He explained the orthodoxy of the Roman Filioque to the Greeks and said: ‘One should keep in mind that they [the Latins] cannot express their meaning in a language and idiom that are foreign to them as precisely as they can in their own mother-tongue, any more than we can do.’[1]

St. Maximus (who himself was torched for Orthodoxy by the heretics named monothelitists who were in power) knew exactly which Church and which Bishop is infallible in Christian dogmas. I shall provide two example quotes to have a taste of his devotion to the Papacy:

‘…how much more [it is true] in the case of the clergy and Church of the Romans, which from old until now, as the elder among all the Churches under the sun, presides over all? Having surely received this canonically, as well from councils and apostles, as from the princes of the latter [Peter & Paul], and being numbered in their company, she is subject to no writings or issues of synodical documents, on account of the eminence of her pontificate, even as in all these things all are equally subject to her according to sacerdotal law.’[2]

‘[For] he is only wasting words who thinks he must convince or lure such people as myself, instead of satisfying or entreating the blessed Pope of the most holy Catholic Church of Rome, that is, the Apostolic throne, which is from the incarnate Son Himself and which, in accordance with the holy canons and the definitions of faith, received from all the holy councils universal and supreme dominion, authority, and power of binding and loosing over all the holy churches of God which are in the whole world. For with it the Word who is above the celestial powers binds and looses in heaven also. For if he thinks he must satisfy others, and fails to implore the most blessed Roman Pope, he is acting like a man who, when accused of murder or some other crime, does not hasten to prove his innocence to the judge appointed by law, but only uselessly and without profit does his best to demonstrate his innocence to private individuals, who have no power to acquit him from the accusation.’[3]

These words of Maximus do read as some sort of post-Vatican I dogmatic theology. A pope-lovee he was indeed, but could he be a ‘popesplainer,’ an ultramontanist beyond repair?

We can only guess. A Russian Orthodox Archbishop Dimitry of Rostov in the 17th century created a text about St. Maximus in which he provided a supposed dialogue of the saint with the Royal messengers about his submitting to the heretical Patriarch Pyrr:

‘But what will you do,’ the messengers from the Emperor told St. Maximus, ‘when the Romans unite with the Byzantines? Yesterday, two apocrisiaries came from Rome, and tomorrow, on Sunday, they will commune with the Patriarch of the Most Pure Mysteries.’

The monk replied: ‘If the whole universe begins to commune with the patriarch, I will not commune with him.’ For I know from the writings of the holy Apostle Paul that the Holy Spirit would anathematise even the Angels if they preached the gospel differently, introducing anything new (Gal. 1:8).’[4]

Of course, neither did Rome unite with any heretics, nor did this dialogue ever happen. But there is a truth here for meditation, while not a historic one: if the dogmatically infallible Pope appoints some legates who sin against the Faith and create scandal, or if he even – God forbid – commune with some material heretics himself – one should eschew the two temptations – that of participation in the same sin and that of committing another, i.e. going into schism.

That being just a theory, let us now look at a true story about the Pope colluding with heretics and persecuting faithful men in our history.

When the Pope Persecutes Faithful Bishops

Pope Liberius was not himself a heretic. It is obvious from all his records, except for one: signing an ambiguous formula designed to establish a compromise treaty with the Arians, although under severe pressure and threat of life, while approving of St. Athanasius’s sentence to exile.

St. Athanasius had suffered through five exiles, and the third was the one approved by Pope Liberius. He was confronted by many bishops and civil authorities, but even after he saw his ‘last hope’ and a would be defender of faith Pope Liberius fall into dogmatic ambiguity, he never thought of mocking him or establishing his own Church or some kind of parallel structure or group of followers.

Moreover, in his book dedicated to the history of Arian heresy he wrote:

‘So even at the beginning they [the Arians] attempted to corrupt the Roman Church, wanting to introduce wickedness into it as well. The imprisoned [Pope] Liberius became exhausted after two years, and, fearing the death they threatened him with, he signed [the document against St. Athanasius]. But this proves both their violence and the fact that Liberius hated heresy and was fair to Athanasius when free. For what was done after the torture, [being] contrary to the initial opinion, shows not the will of those tortured, but that of the torturers.’[5]

A rather cynical mind would conceive of a thought that in being so generous towards the Pope who trespassed against him St. Athanasius simply wanted to be reasonable: the Papacy has been a very important institution, trusted and accepted throughout the Universal Church from the very beginning, so why kick against the pricks?

Even if it were the sole reason for meekness like that, it would be reasonable to embrace this behaviour in our current age. There is no need to fight the Papacy per se while fighting heresy, less to leave the Church one supposedly wants to clean up from filth. Wise as serpents…

But I believe in fact that wisdom did pair with charity in the heart of St. Athanasius who fought to death for Catholic Orthodoxy while staying sincerely obedient to the Pope and defending him to the limits set by a good-formed Christian conscience. Simple as doves…

I wish we could do the same. That we could be both. For pride is the common cause of both schism and heresy, one cannot be a cure for the other. Their kingdom stays undivided, but the Kingdom of God will come and conquer it. And our garden will flourish soon. If God wills and we work well, then… on earth as it will in Heaven.


Photo by Klim Musalimov on Unsplash

[1] Letter to Marinus in the English translation URL:

[2] Epistola Sancti Maximi Scripta ad Abbatem Thalassium, PL 129.585-6; the English text with minor changes is taken from:

[3] Epistle to Peter the Abbot, PG 91 141А-146А. The English text taken from: ibidem.

[4] Жития святых на русском языке, изложенные по руководству Четьих-Миней святого Димитрия Ростовского / 12 книг. – Москва : «Ковчег», 2010. URL:

[5] Translated from: Творения иже во святых отца нашего Афанасия Великаго, архиепископа Александрийскаго. – Изд. 2-е испр. и доп. – [Сергиев Посад] : Свято-Троицкая Сергиева Лавра собственная тип., 1902-. / Ч. 2. – 1902. – 494 с. / Послание епископа Афанасия к монахам повсюду пребывающим о том, что сделано арианами при Констанции (история ариан). 105-176 с. URL:

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