Pontificate: May 17, 352 to Sepember 24, 366. Liberius, a native Roman, was elected bishop of Rome May 17 to succeed Pope Julius who had died April 12, 352. He came to the papacy under trying conditions.
Arian Controversy. constantius ii, sole emperor since the death of his brother Constans (350), was under the influence of the Eastern bishops hostile to the Creed of Nicaea. At the insistence of the Arians, the Emperor wanted the Western episcopate to reject the Nicaean doctrine of the homoousios or consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, and to abandon athanasius, the most stout defender of the Nicene Creed. Liberius had scarcely been elected pope when he became involved in the controversy and his attitude, which always seemed somewhat contradictory, still poses problems for the historian.
Athanasius. The Eastern bishops hostile to the Nicaean doctrine requested Liberius at the outset of his papacy to revise the decision in favor of Athanasius made by Pope St. julius i (340) and by the Council of Sardica (343). Apparently Liberius summoned Athanasius to Rome to exonerate him before a synod; but instead of appearing in Rome Athanasius sent a memorandum signed by 80 Egyptian bishops. After inspecting this document the Roman synod refused to support the enemies of Athanasius.
As Constantius was then located in Arles, Liberius sent Vincent of Capua and Marcellus, Bishop of Campania, to request the convocation of a council at Aquileia. But Ursacius of Singidunum and Valens of Mursa, the two Illyrian bishops who controlled the ecclesiastical politics of Constantius, induced the Emperor to convene a synod at Arles instead; that assembly confirmed the condemnation of Athanasius. The papal legates gave way under pressure and concurred in this condemnation. The only bishop present who refused to sign was Paulinus of Treves, who was immediately exiled.
Liberius reacted strongly against his representatives and in a letter to eusebius of vercelli expressed his determination to demand of Constantius the convocation of a council between the Western and Eastern bishops to establish the union that had not been achieved at Sardica (P., Regesta pontificum romanorum ab condita ecclesia ad annum post Christum natum 1198 211). This letter contains the first known use of the term "Apostolic See." Liberius then sent a letter to the Emperor through lucifer of cagliari, in which he defended himself energetically against the calumnies brought against him by the Emperor:
God is my witness that it is in spite of myself that I have accepted this office; but I want to live in it as long as I am in this world without offending God. It is not my own decisions [statuta ] but those of the Apostle [Peter] that I am to conserve and guard. Following the tradition of my predecessors I have added nothing to the episcopal power of the bishop of Rome; but neither have I allowed it to be diminished in any way. In preserving the faith handed down by the succession of bishops, many of them martyrs, I hope that it will always remain intact [Ad Constant., Jaffé 212].
Council of Milan. The council requested by the Pope was held at Milan in October 355; under the pressure of the Emperor and his court, all the bishops but three (Denis of Milan, Eusebius of Vercelli, and Lucifer of Cagliari) approved the condemnation of Athanasius (Jaffé 216; Athanasius, History of the Arians 31–35). A short while later, the imperial eunuch Eusebius arrived in Rome with a threatening letter demanding that the Pope accede to the condemnation of Athanasius. Liberius rejected Eusebius's credentials and when Eusebius attempted to deposit them before the Confession of St. Peter, Liberius had them thrown out. Constantius then had the Pope arrested at night in the papal palace at the Lateran and brought to Milan. Theodoret of Cyrus has preserved the record of the meeting between the Pope and the Emperor. Liberius's stand was noble and spirited (Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica 2.16; Athanasius, History of the Arians 39). Two days later the Pope was exiled to Beroea in Thrace (355).
The Capitulation of Liberius. Toward the end of 357, the Pope left Beroea for Sirmium where the court was in residence, and in 358 he returned to Rome. But what price did Liberius pay for his liberation? There is question of the "fall" or the "capitulation" of Liberius. Reliable and unanimous contemporary evidence supplied by Athanasius (History of the Arians 41; Apology against the Arians 89), Jerome (Chronicon Eusebii Caesariensis 2365; De Viris illustribus 3.37), Hilary of Poitiers (Contra Constantinus 11) and the Collectio Avellana (1), as well as by ancient historians, such as Sozomen (Historia Ecclesiastica 4.11) relate that Liberius was guilty of a culpable failure.
Probably weakened by infirmity and age the Pope could not withstand the rigors of exile nor resist the violent threats of Constantius. He abandoned the cause of Athanasius and subscribed to a document hostile to the Nicene cause. The Collectio Avellana speaks of "perfidy," and Jerome charges Liberius with haeretica pravitas, while Hilary of Poitiers cites the testimony of four letters, preserved in his Fragmenta historica, which he attributed to Liberius.
These letters, written in 357, are addressed to the Eastern bishops, to Ursacius, Valens, Germinius of Sirmium, and Vincent of Capua, whom the Pope had already blamed for the betrayal at the Council of Arles. They explain in an embarrassed fashion the manner in which Liberius had been induced to abandon the cause of Athanasius. They contain the pathetic request that his correspondents intercede with the Emperor so that the exile might return to Rome.
The Formula of Sirmium. Besides the abandonment of Athanasius, what are the nature and character of the concessions Liberius was forced to make? Everything points to the fact that he accepted the doctrine of "the first formula of Sirmium" of 351. This symbol is capable of an orthodox explanation, but it avoided the use of the most characteristic expressions of the Nicene faith, particularly the homoousios. Thus while apologists could maintain that Liberius did not teach false doctrine, one must concede that he did not do justice to the full truth. Liberius refused to sign the second formula of Sirmium (357), which is particularly subordinationist in tendency; and in his dealings with Basil of Ancyra, the leader of the Homoiousian party, he occasioned the composition of a formula of Sirmium that contradicted the doctrine of the Anomoeans or radical Arians. Liberius condemned the bishops who denied that the Son was similar to the Father "in essence and in all things" (Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica 4.15). Unsatisfactory though this expression might be, it was a considerable improvement over earlier formulas and checked for a time the triumph of the Arians.
When Constantius returned Liberius to Rome, the bishops gathered in Sirmium wrote to Felix, Liberius'
archdeacon, who had taken the place of the exiled Pope, and to the clergy of the capital that "the two bishops together should occupy the Apostolic See and assist each other in discharging their episcopal functions" (Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica 4.15). Actually Liberius was received with enthusiasm by the Roman populace who greeted him with the acclamation: "One God, one Christ, one Bishop." To avoid a riot, the usurper Felix had to flee the city, and after an attempt to occupy the Julian Basilica in Trastevere, he remained in hiding until his death (November 22, 365).
Last Years of Liberius. Little is known concerning the last years of Liberius. He was not invited personally nor did he send representatives to the Council of Rimini in 359, which approved the Homoiousian doctrine and the displacement of orthodoxy. In 385 Pope Siricius alluded to an "act" of Liberius, which set aside the synod of Rimini, and cited a decree forbidding the rebaptism of Arians addressed "to the provinces" (Jaffé 220, 255). There is also a letter of Liberius addressed in 362 to the bishops of Italy who had yielded at Rimini, in which the Pope acknowledges his agreement with the orthodox measures taken by a Synod of Alexandria in 362, and grants peace to those who rejected the error of Arius and sustained the faith of Nicaea (Jaffé 223; St. Hilary, Frag. hist., ed. Feder, 156).
Finally in 366, Liberius received a delegation of Eastern bishops including Eustathius of Sebaste, Sylvanus of Tarsus, and Theophilus of Castabala, sent by the Homoiousians who sought the support of the West. He asked them to accept the Creed of Nicaea and to discard the decisions of Rimini before he received them into communion with the Roman church. In a letter written some while later to their leaders, Liberius asserted that the Creed of Nicaea contained the complete truth and contradicted all heresies, and that the homoousios was a bulwark against Arianism. He condemned everyone who adhered to that error. (Jaffé 228; Socrates, Ekklesiastike historia 4.12.)
On the Esquiline hill in Rome near the Market of Livia, Liberius had constructed a basilica, which was renovated in the 5th century by Pope sixtus iii and known as Santa Maria Maggiore. It is probable that the Liberian basilica had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary. On Christmas, probably of 353, in the Vatican basilica, Liberius bestowed the veil of a virgin on Marcellina, the sister of St. ambrose. The address that the Pope delivered on this occasion is cited by Ambrose in his De Virginitate (3.1–3) but was doubtless revised by the bishop of Milan.
Liberius's character has been sharply discussed; as early as the 6th century legend made him out to be a heretic and a traitor in order to justify his rival Felix (Gesta Liberii ). Liberius did not have the strength of character of his predecessor julius i, or of his successor damasus i but he was a genuine if weak supporter of the Nicene cause. The troubles that erupted upon the latter's election indicate that the Roman Church had been weakened from within as well as without during the pontificate of Liberius. His name was not inscribed in the Roman martyrology.
Bibliography: Clavis Patrum latinorum, ed. e. dekkers (2d ed. Streenbrugge 1961). b. altaner, Patrology, tr. h. graef from 5th German ed. (New York 1960) 413–414. É. amann, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 9.1:631–659. a. l. feder, "Die Liberiusbriefe," Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien 162: 153–183. p. lorieux, Mélanges de science religieuse 1: 7–34. t.d. barnes, "The Capitulation of Liberius and Hilary of Arles", Phoenix 46: 256–265. e. ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (New York 1997) 2:680. h. jedin, ed., History of the Church (New York 1980) 2:41–63. j. n. d. kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (New York 1986) 30–31. c. pietri, Roma Christiana (Rome 1976) 237–268. c. pietri, "La question d'Athanase vue de Rome (338–360)," in Christiana Respublica. Élements d'une enquête sur le christianisme antique (Rome 1997) 631–664.
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