Did 300 Bishops Go Astray Into Arianism? No.

At a certain point in the long controversy over Arianism, the emperor Constantius, an Arian heretic, ordered Pope Liberius and about 300 Bishops to meet with him. He proposed to them what he though a solution to the Arian controversy. But they saw through the emperor’s clever wording to his “creed”, which was designed to allow Arianism to spread throughout his empire, removing all opposition from the Church. They refused to sign.

Liberius simply departed, with his retinue; he did not sign. Bishop Hosius, who was at this point about 99 years old, gave a speech against the emperor’s adopted heresy, and he also did not sign. But most of the Bishops there assembled, about 300, having refused to sign, were soon convinced to sign by threat of death. The emperor himself stood before them, sword drawn threatening them with death. And every Bishop knew from Church history that a Roman emperor like Constantius was capable of killing vast numbers of Christians. They feared for the lives of their flocks as well as their own lives. So about 300 Bishops signed the heretical document, under grave duress.

It is false to call these Bishops heretics. Formal heresy requires a deliberate knowing choice to assert material heresy (or to deny a dogma). Signing a document under grave duress is not formal heresy. The fact that the Bishops refused, and only signed under the threat of death for themselves (and likely, at least implicitly, the same threat against their flocks), indicates that they did not believe Arianism. None of these Bishops were Arian heretics.

In secular law, a contract signed under grave duress, such as a death threat, is not valid. It is no different under the eternal moral law. If a Pope were forced to sign a document, under threat of a massacre of his flock if he did not sign (may God forbid such a situation), the signature, if it were obtained, would not be valid. If the document contained a new Church law, it would not be a valid law. If the document contained a new definition of dogma under Papal Infallibility, it would not be valid, would not be a dogma, would not even be a teaching of the Church in any sense.

Similarly, signing a document or some other signification of adherence related to heresy, when under grave duress, does not make the person guilty of heresy, or apostasy, or schism, or idolatry. Such sins must be fully deliberate, meaning with the full consent of the will. Grave duress, such as torture or death threats, makes the person who signs or signifies innocent of the sin in question.

Each one of us imagines that we would not sign, and would be martyred instead. But what if your friends and family would also be put to death, if you did not sign? What if you were tortured severely? The holiest of Saints would not sign. But any of the faithful who signed under threat of death or after suffering torture, would not be guilty of an actual mortal sin.

Consider the case of Bishop Hosius, who refused to sign. After this meeting with the Bishops (which was not a valid Council or Synod of any kind), the emperor was determined to obtain Hosius’ signature, since his opposition to the emperor, while 300 Bishops instead complied, had become well known.

The emperor “first sent him flattering and persuasive letters, and when these failed, he proceeded to threats; but all were unavailing, and Hosius was banished to Sirmium. His relations were stripped of all their estates and reduced to beggary, but all without avail. Next he was closely imprisoned — still he refused. Then he was cruelly beaten, and finally put to the rack and most inhumanly tortured. Under these fearful torments, the aged bishop yielded at last, A. D. 356.” [Source]

Torturing an elderly man, who is liberally about one hundred years old, to obtain his signature is an exceedingly wicked act. And they are accessories to that act who say that Hosius committed heresy by that signature. He did not yield at last. He did not change his mind about Arianism. He is a true martyr for the faith, even though, being a sinner in the fallen state, he complied after severe torture. His fault in this matter is either a venial sin, due to extreme duress reducing culpability, or merely imperfection.

As for the 300 Bishops who signed based on the threat of death, it is certain that they considered the emperor entirely capable of undertaking a massacre of Christians, like other emperors in the past (e.g. Nero, Domitian**). They did not merely fear for their own lives. So while they were not heretics, they will be judged by God as to whether they made the right decision to sign.

The importance of a right understanding of this event relates to the indefectibility of the Church. Some claim that the body of Bishops is not indefectible, as shown by the 300 Bishops who supposedly went astray into Arianism. The truth of the event is that they were not Arian heretics. At Nicea, about 3 decades and exactly 3 Popes earlier, only 13 Bishops defended Arianism, and after much discussion, this was reduced to only 4 who refused the Nicean Creed. Under the very next Pope, in 381, Arianism was again condemned at the First Council of Constantinople. So the body of Bishops never fell into Arianism. And this undermines the heretical claim that most Bishops once fell away from the true faith.

{22:32} But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.”

The faith of the successors of Peter is never failing. And the Roman Pontiff, converted and confirmed in faith by the grace of God, confirms his brethren the Bishops, so that they too, as a body, are never-failing in faith. Thus, the indefectibility of the Church is obtained in large part by the indefectibility of the Roman Pontiff and the indefectibility of the Bishops, as a body (not individually).

The true Church is recognized by Her marks: one, holy, catholic (universal) and Apostolic. The true Faith is that taught by the successors of Peter and by the successors of the other Apostles, the body of Bishops. Heretics and schismatics, even those of today, can be recognized by their lack of these four marks. They lack charity. They have severe malice toward Pope Francis and other Popes and toward the Second Vatican Council and even the First Vatican Council; they are not holy. They lack unity, disagreeing among themselves over which Popes and Councils to accuse, and whether to reject Vatican II “en bloc” or just correct it. They lack unity as they have no Roman Pontiff to lead them, having rejected not only Pope Francis, but all the recent Popes. They reject Pope Benedict XVI by refusing to accept his resignation, or by refusing to submit to Francis as to the Vicar of Christ. They accuse many Popes of grave failures of faith. And since the Pope is the Rock on which the Church is founded, the one Rock who maintains the unity of the faithful and the Faith, their rejection of him is a rejection of unity.

They are not catholic, in the sense of universal. For they are divided among themselves. They claim that the worldwide institutional Church has gone astray. They have no recent Pope whom they do not accuse of grave failures of faith. But their position is not universally held and taught. It is a haphazard collection of off-the-cuff accusations against many Popes and multiple Councils. No one among them has the same position as another.

And most importantly, they have rejected Apostolic succession. For they accuse many different Popes of having failed in faith, of having not continued in the faith of Peter. Some of them also make grave accusations of failure of faith against Peter, when in fact his single fault while Pope (I said, while Pope) was the personal fault of eating only with the Christians who were converts from Judaism. So far from accepting the Apostolic Church, they reject even its very first Apostle in the succession. They do not accept the teaching that each successor of the Apostle Peter has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith. They do not accept the teaching of our Lord in Luke 22:32 that the body of Bishops are confirmed in never-failing faith by the Roman Pontiff. They do not accept any teaching of a Pope, or of the body of Bishops led by the Pope, or by an Ecumenical Council unless it agrees with their own mind. Thus, they have rejected the Apostolic character of the true Faith, as well as its characters of unity, holiness, and universality.

The malice with which they attack the Popes and Councils is astounding. If any of them are acquitted by God of actual mortal sin, under a sincere but mistaken conscience, they will nevertheless by sent to the deepest part of Hell for their extreme malice against so many Vicars of Christ and against the body of Bishops and even malice against the Church Herself. For no one is excused from fully deliberate severe malice as it cannot be chosen with sincere but mistaken conscience. No person in their right mind thinks that holiness and morality requires them to treat anyone with contempt, ridicule and hatred. Malice is always an actual mortal sin; it is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

** Note that Wikipedia denies the Christian holocaust that occurred under emperor Domitian. Modern media is rewriting history of the distant past and even as it is unfolding before us.

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