Conservative Colloquium

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Pope Siricius, Papal Authority, and Catholic Doctrines (4th c. AD)

Posted by Tony Listi on April 10, 2010

In 385 Pope Siricius responded back to a letter from Bishop Himerius of Tarragona (Spain) with regard to clerical discipline (Directa decretal). He clearly exercises papal authority according to Catholic doctrine. This is just one of several ecclesiastical letters that popes sent to bishops, exercising their Petrine authority.

The account which you, brother, directed to our predecessor of holy memory Damasus, found me now installed in his see because the Lord thus ordained.

Papal authority is passed down in a line of succession.

When we read that [account] more carefully in an assembly of brethren, we found to the degree we had hoped to recognize things which ought to be praised and much which was worthy of reprimand and correction.

The Church of Rome gives “reprimand and correction” to this other church.

And since it is necessary for us to succeed to the labors and responsibilities of him whom, through the grace of God, we succeeded in honor, having first given notice, as was necessary, of my promotion, we do not refuse, as the Lord deigns to inspire, a proper response to your inquiry in every point.

Again, there is a succession. One of  the “labors and responsibilities” of the Church of Rome is to give a “proper response” to all doctrinal questions. The very fact that another bishop wrote to the bishop of Rome for guidance is significant. Notice it is the office that is important here. Pope Siricius felt obliged to respond back, even though it was addressed to his predecessor.

For in view of our office there is no freedom for us, on whom a zeal for the Christian religion is incumbent greater than on all others, to dissimulate or to be silent.

Again, the Church of Rome cannot “dissimulate” or “be silent” on doctrinal issues important “for the Christian religion.” In fact, it has a “greater” responsibility “than…all others,” all other churches.

We bear the burdens of all who are oppressed, or rather the blessed apostle Peter, who in all things protects and preserves us, the heirs, as we trust, of his administration, bears them in us.

The responsibilities and “burdens” of the Church of Rome, including response to doctrinal questions, is attributed to St. Peter, of whom Pope Siricius and his ministers claim to be the “heirs.” Moreover, it is St. Peter himself and “his administration” which “protects and preserves” the Church of Rome. He continues to bear the burdens of the Church even after death.

On the first page of your letter, therefore, you indicated that multitudes who were baptized by the impious Arians were hastening to the catholic faith, and that certain of our brothers wished to baptize these same people again.

Notice “catholic faith.” There was only one universal faith, not several, despite the presence of heresies like Arianism.

This is not allowed, since both the Apostle forbids and the canons oppose doing it; and after the Council of Rimini was annulled, the general decrees sent to the provinces by my predecessor of venerable memory Liberius prohibit it.

The Apostle? I believe this to be a title for St. Paul. The canons are Church law. Notice that the previous pope sent “general decrees…to the provinces” prohibiting a certain practice. Seems demonstrate that the bishop of Rome had authority over other churches in the Roman Empire. Pope Siricius appeals to past tradition to justify his judgment, not Scripture or any arbitrary, egocentric whims.

We unite these people, and the Novatianists and other heretics, to the assembly of catholics, just as it was constituted in the synod, solely through invocation of the sevenfold Spirit by imposition of the bishop’s hand. Indeed all the East and the West preserves this practice, and it is also inappropriate henceforth for you to deviate from that path, if you do not wish to be separated from our company by synodal sentence.

Notice that true Christian are called “catholics,” those who adhere to the catholic (universal) faith throughout the Church. Also, Pope Siricius threatens this church of Tarragona with excommunication if they do not adhere to this universal practice for readmitting certain heretics into the Church.

Then follows objectionable confusion, in need of correction, about those who are about to be baptized just as it pleases each and every one of them.

Pope Siricius goes on to discuss more “objectionable confusion, in need of correction” with regard to when new members of the Church should be baptized.

Our fellow priests–we speak in indignation–not by reason of any authority but by temerity alone presume this, so that throngs of people, as you report, attain the mystery of baptism randomly and freely at Christmas, or Epiphany, and also on the feasts of the apostles or martyrs, although both with us and in all churches the Lord’s Resurrection and Pentecost claim this privilege specially for themselves. On these days alone through the year is it proper for the complete rites of baptism to be bestowed on those coming to the faith, but only on those select people who applied forty or more days earlier, and were cleansed by exorcisms, daily prayers, and fasts, so that the precept of the Apostle is fulfilled that with old leaven having been driven out, new dough comes into being.

Notice that “priests” perform the baptism. Notice that the Church of Rome speaks “in indignation” against these priests who, without “any authority” but rather with defiant “temerity,” perform baptisms “randomly and freely” at different times of the year. Pope Siricius informs the bishop that “with us and in all churches the Lord’s Resurrection and Pentecost” are the only “proper” days for this sacrament.

But just as we say that sacred Paschal reverence in no way ought to be diminished, so we wish for the waters of sacred baptism to be of assistance with all speed to infants, who because of age are not yet able to speak, and to those for whom in any emergency it is needed, lest the destruction of our souls be at stake if, the salutary font being denied to those seeking it, someone departing from the world loses both the kingdom and life….

Infant baptism is clearly upheld as sound doctrine. Also, the “waters” are necessary for the sacrament. Baptism is not merely mental acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Enough error on this matter! All priests who do not wish to be torn from the solidity of the apostolic rock, upon which Christ built the universal Church, should now hold the aforementioned rule.

This is quite a strong passage! Pope Siricius declares what is in error and demands that it stop. Otherwise, those deviant priests and churches will be removed from the steadfast Rock of the Apostle Peter “upon which Christ built the universal Church” (Mt 16:18). Lacking the “solidity of the apostolic rock,” their souls will then be in danger to the floods of evil and sin.

It was also added that certain Christians, crossing over into apostasy–which is abominable to be uttered–have been profaned by the worship of idols and the pollution of sacrifices. We order that they be cut off from the body and blood of Christ, by which formerly they were redeemed in new birth. And if coming to their senses at some point perhaps they turn to grieving, they should do penance as long as they live, and in their final moments the grace of reconciliation ought to be given, because, as the Lord teaches, we do not wish the death of a sinner, only that he be converted and live.

Again, the Church of Rome is giving out orders to Bishop Himerius. This cannot be construed to be mere exhortation and encouragement. Apostates are to be excommunicated, deprived of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Moreover, see how the Church views the nature of sin for the baptized Christian. Penance is required. There is no “It’s ok. Jesus has already forgiven me, so I can just continue  to live normally as before.” Moreover, the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation is cited and upheld.

You also asked about marriage, whether someone can marry a girl who was betrothed to another. We forbid by all means that this be done because that blessing which a priest imposes to a girl who is to be married is, if it is violated by any transgression, a kind of sacrilege among the faithful.

Again, the Church of Rome forbids certain practices for the entire Church.

Not improperly, beloved, you believed that the apostolic see should be consulted about those who, having performed penance, again hungered, just as dogs and swine returning to old vomit and wallowing ponds, for the military belt, pleasures of the theater, new marriages, and forbidden liaisons whose manifest incontinence was shown by children born after absolution.

If the Church of Rome really was just like any other church, why should it be consulted by another church? It wasn’t equal to other churches; it was the “apostolic see.” And again, notice that “absolution” from the Church is required to be free from sin.

Concerning them, because now they do not have the option of doing penance, we decided that this ought to be decreed. Inside church they can be united with the faithful only in prayer; they can be present for the sacred celebration of the mysteries, although they are unworthy, but should be excluded from the banquet of the Lord’s table, so that reproached at least by this stricture they can castigate their faults within themselves and give an example to others that they may be drawn back from obscene desires. But since they fell by weakness of the flesh, we wish them to be supported by the gift of a viaticum through the grace of communion when they are about to depart to the Lord. We are of the opinion that this procedure should be observed also for women who, after penance, devoted themselves to such pollutions.

Penance, castigation, penance for sin. It is necessary. Again, the Church of Rome is handing down decrees. Notice that “the banquet of the Lord’s table” is celebrated at these Christian gatherings, just as in the Catholic Church today. The viaticum is the host of the Body of Christ given to someone on their deathbed during the Sacrament of the Sick/Dying. Again, Pope Siricius upholds Catholic doctrine as practiced today.

You indicate, furthermore, that certain monks and nuns, having thrown off the life of sanctity, plunged into so much wantonness that they tangled themselves up in illicit and sacrilegious intercourse, first in secret, as it were under cover of the monasteries, but afterward, led on precipitously by abandonment of conscience they freely produced children with illicit partners, which both civil laws and ecclesiastical regulations condemn. We command, therefore, that these shameless and detestable persons should be banished from the community of monasteries and the congregations of churches, so that having been thrust away in personal imprisonment, bewailing with constant lamentation so great an outrage, they can roast in the purifying fire of repentance so that at least at death, out of consideration of mercy alone, forgiveness through the grace of communion can assist even them.

And you thought sex scandals were something recent in the Church! Ha. Again, the Church commands excommunication for these sinners. The “purifying fire of repentance” is clearly a reference to Purgatory, which, in some broad sense, actually begins in this life and can continue after death.

Let us come now to the most sacred orders of clerics, which we learn from your report, beloved, are thus so scorned and disordered throughout your provinces, to the injury of religion which should be venerated, that we should be speaking with the voice of Jeremiah…. For we learned that many priests and deacons of Christ, long after their ordination, have produced offspring both from their own wives and even through filthy liaisons, and defend their sin with this excuse, that it is read in the Old Testament that the opportunity to procreate was given to priests and ministers. Let him speak to me now, whoever is an addict of obscenities and a teacher of vices….

Pope Siricius indicates that there is a hierarchy of clerics and that it is a sacred office. Notice also that he denounces sexual intercourse by clerics as a sin, even with “their own wives.”

All we priests and deacons are bound by the unbreakable law of those sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination we subject our hearts and bodies to moderation and modesty in order that in every respect we might please our God in these sacrifices which daily we offer….

Again, he asserts an “unbreakable law” for “all” clergy. And yes(!), Christ’s sacrifice is not the end of all sacrifices by Christians. In fact, all Christian sacrifices, including the Eucharist, are one with the ultimate sacrifice at Calvary.

… And because a considerable number of those of whom we speak, as your holiness reported, lament that they lapsed in ignorance, we declare that mercy should not be denied to them, with this condition: if henceforth they strive to conduct themselves continently, they should continue as long as they live in that office which they held when they were caught, without any advancement in rank. But those who lean on the excuse of an illicit privilege by asserting that this was conceded to them in the old law, let them know that they have been expelled by the authority of the apostolic see from every ecclesiastical office, which they used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the mysteries which ought to be venerated, of which they deprived themselves when they were obsessed with obscene desires. And because present examples forewarn us to be vigilant in the future, any bishop, priest, and deacon henceforth found in this situation–which we hope will not happen–should understand right now that every avenue of forgiveness from us for himself is blocked….

Again, “mercy” and “forgiveness” are dealt out by the Church. The Church of Rome declares what sins are to be bound and loosed (Mt 16:19). Notice that the bishop of Rome claims jurisdiction over “every ecclesiastical office” and over “any bishop, priest, or deacon.”

Moreover, notice that he speaks of mysteries that one can “touch” and that “ought to be venerated.” It is quite clear to any Catholic that he is referring to the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, which are mysteries and which Catholics worship.

We place blame for this not so much on those who reach for these things with immoderate ambition as on the metropolitan bishops specifically, who, when they close their eyes to forbidden strivings, disdain as far as is possible the precepts of our God…. And because we should not ignore presumptions of this sort, lest the just voice of an indignant Lord reproach us when he says, “You saw a thief and you ran with him, and you cast your lot with adulterers,” what henceforth should be followed by all churches, what should be avoided, we decree by general pronouncement….

Again, the Church of Rome is passing judgment on other bishops. Moreover, it is decreeing to “all churches” by “general pronouncement” what “should be followed” and “what should be avoided.” That is papal authority and supremacy.

The letter goes on and on in detail about when and under what conditions men should move up the ranks from acolyte all the way to bishop.

… It is proper also for us to ensure that just as it is not conceded to any member of the clergy to do penance, thus after repentance and reconciliation it is not permitted to any layman to attain the honor of clerical office. For although they have been cleansed of the contamination of all sins, nevertheless those who formerly were vessels of iniquities ought not to take up any of the instruments of the sacraments….

Again, notice the nature of sin and its relation to the clerical service, esp. in the sacraments.

… Any penitent, any twice married man, any husband of a widow who improperly and unsuitably slipped into the sacred militia should understand that pardon has been bestowed on them by us with this condition, that it should be counted as a great benefit if, having removed from himself all hope of promotion, he remains with perpetual steadfastness in that order where he is. Hereafter the bishops of all provinces will know that if they believe that anyone of this sort should in the future be taken into sacred orders, an appropriate judgment is to be given by the apostolic see concerning both their own status and that of those whom they promoted contrary to the canons and to our prohibitions.

Again, pardon for clergy comes from Rome, which claims authority to render “an appropriate judgment” on “bishops of all provinces.” Pope Siricius puts his “prohibitions” on an equal standing with “the canons.” What Rome says is law.

We explicated, I believe, dearest brother, all the things which were set forth as being at issue, and we provided adequate replies, in my opinion, to the individual cases which you referred to the Roman Church, just as to the head of your body, through our son the priest Bassianus.

The Church of Rome, which is the “head” of the “body,” settles what is “at issue.”

Now, brother, we incite your spirit more and more for observing the canons and adhering to the constituted decretals, so that you make known to all our fellow bishops, and not only those situated in your region, what we wrote back in response to your questions. But these things which were set forth by us in salubrious fashion should even be sent by escort of your letter to all the Carthaginians, Baeticians, Lusitanians, and Gallicians, and those who border you in neighboring provinces on either side.

The Church of Rome demands adherence to its decretals (such as the one this blog post is examining right now). Again, this papal decretal/letter is for “all our fellow bishops,” not just Himerius or the bishops in his region.

And although there is freedom for no priest of the Lord to be ignorant of the statutes of the apostolic see and the venerable decrees of the canons, it can, nevertheless, be helpful, and because of the antiquity of your see, beloved, exceedingly glorious for you, if those things of a general sort which were written to you by name are brought to the attention of all our brothers through your cooperative solicitude, so that the things which were salubriously established by us, not haphazardly, but prudently, with very great care and deliberation, might remain inviolate, and that in the future access to all excuses should be blocked, which according to us cannot be available now to anyone.

All priests, “all of our brothers,” are subject to the “statutes of the apostolic see,” i.e. the decretal commands of Rome are binding and should “remain inviolate.”


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