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The Arian Crisis in 2016

December 15, 2016
The Synod on the Family in October 2015

The clamor for clarity continues a year after the Synod on the Family, and has in itself become a notable story in the Church.

On November 2, 2016, a Chilean university professor, Claudio Pierantoni, published a study in which he shows the parallel between the current controversy surrounding the exhortation Amoris laetitia and the Arian crisis that shook the Church sixteen centuries ago. On November 23, Bishop Athanasius Schneider voiced his support for the four cardinals who have published their dubia on Amoris laetitia (see "Contradictory Reaction to Cardinals' Dubia", Dec. 2, 2016), and mentioned “the general doctrinal confusion of the Arian crisis in the fourth century.” Here are a few extracts from these two voices in the debate triggered by Amoris laetitia.

Professor Pierantoni:

“The Arian Crisis and the current controversy about Amoris laetitia: A parallel”

It came natural to me to start comparing the two controversies. . . . The two moments can be viewed as an analogy, given that in both cases a significant pronouncement by the Magisterium is perceived by many Catholics as in conflict with traditional doctrine, in particular with recent and important Magisterial documents. In both cases one also perceives a deafening silence of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, with exceptions of course.

In terms of content, the two crises are certainly different: in the first crisis, the matter under dispute was purely theological, relating as it did to the foundation of Christian doctrine on a triune God, whereas the second matter is about moral theology and centrally concerned with the matter of marriage.

However, the key common characteristic of both crises is, I believe, the fact that both concern a pillar of the Christian message, the destruction of which would strip that message of its very essence.

Parallel between the two crises in doctrinal documents

In terms of doctrinal documents, the parallel element most deserving of attention is the characteristic of ambiguity in the pro-Arian formulas in the years 357-360.

In effect . . . , although holding power, the pro-Arian minority does not venture to put forward a position too clearly in opposition with the traditional view. It does not expressly state that the Son is inferior to the Father, but employs a generic term, “like to the Father”, which could lend itself to differing degrees of subordinationism. In short, although holding the reins of power, it seeks to conceal itself.

By analogy, the famous Chapter VIII of the current Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia does not openly deny the indissolubility of marriage, but indeed explicitly affirms it. However, it denies in practice the necessary consequences ensuing from matrimonial indissolubility. But it does so through a meandering and convoluted discourse, using wording which covers a range of diverse positions, some more extreme, others more moderate.

For example, it says that “in certain cases” persons in “so-called irregular” unions could be granted “the help of the sacraments.” What these cases are is not stated, so the text is open to at least four interpretations, the more restrictive of which are obviously incompatible with the broader ones.

Today, many bishops and theologians salve their consciences by asserting, both in public and to themselves, that saying that “in certain cases divorced and remarried persons can receive the sacraments” is not of itself erroneous and can be interpreted in a hermeneutic of continuity as in line with the previous Magisterium. By the same token, the fourth-century bishops believed it was not of itself incorrect to say “the Son is like to the Father according to the Scriptures.”

If one does not read the individual assertions in the document in isolation, but in their full context, and the document in turn in its immediate historic context, one readily discovers that the general mens which guides it is, in essence, the notion of divorce, in addition to the now widespread notion of not imposing clear boundaries between a lawful marriage and an irregular union.

Parallel between the two crises in historical development

By analogy, with regard to the current heresy, which, from the name of its principal proponent, we may call “Kasperian”, we have witnessed its slow preparation, beginning in the second half of the XXth century. Once out in the open, it was condemned in documents issued by John Paul II, such as Veritatis Splendor and Familiaris Consortio. However, these documents were rejected more or less openly and radically by a section of the Episcopate and by learned theologians, and orthodox practice has been disregarded in vast and important sections of the Catholic world. This rejection has been extensively tolerated, both in theory and in practice. Hence it has gathered strength to the point where, given the favorable political and political-ecclesiastical circumstances, it has reached a position of power. However, although in power, the heresy is not expressed frankly and directly, but through Synodal activities which are not entirely clear (2014- 2015), resulting in an apostolic document, which is exemplary for its tortuosity. But the very fact that this position has showed up in a Magisterial document is now arousing moral indignation and a much stronger and more dynamic intellectual reaction, calling for those with the necessary intellectual tools to rethink orthodox doctrine, in order to reach a deeper and clearer formulation, and so prepare for a definitive condemnation not only of the errors in the doctrine of matrimony, but also of all the other errors connected with it, that infect the sacramental and moral doctrine of the Church.

This also makes it possible, which is no mean feat, to put to the test, recognize and in many ways unite those who, truly and solidly, adhere to the Deposit of Faith.

This is precisely the stage at which we can say we find ourselves at this moment: it has scarcely begun, and promises to be not without obstacles. We cannot predict its duration, but must have the certainty of faith, that God would not allow this grave crisis, were it not for the superior good of souls. It will certainly be the Holy Spirit who will give us the solution, enlightening this Pope or his successor, maybe even through the convening of a new Ecumenical Council. However, in the interim, each of us is called, in humility and prayer, to give his testimony and contribution. And the Lord will certainly hold each of us to account.

This study was published in English in the German journal AEMAET – Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie (Nov. 2, 2016). Claudio Pierantoni is a professor of Medieval Philosophy for the University of Chili’s Faculty of Philosophy, former professor of Church History and Patristics for the Faculty of Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chili, and member of the International Association of Patristic Studies. He signed the theological critique addressed to the cardinals by 45 theologians on June 29, 2016.

Bishop Athanasius Schneider during a recent interview

Bishop Schneider:

 “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” (II Cor. 13:8) – The Prophetic Voice of Four Cardinals of the Holy Roman Catholic Church 

The entire Church in our days has to reflect upon the fact that the Holy Spirit has not in vain inspired Saint Paul to write in the Letter to the Galatians about the incident of his public correction of Peter. One has to trust that Pope Francis will accept this public appeal of the Four Cardinals in the spirit of the Apostle Peter, when St Paul offered him a fraternal correction for the good of the whole Church. May the words of that great Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas, illuminate and comfort us all: “When there is a danger for the faith, subjects are required to reprove their prelates, even publicly. Since Paul, who was subject to Peter, out of the danger of scandal, publicly reproved him. And Augustine comments: ‘Peter himself gave an example to superiors by not disdaining to be corrected by his subjects when it occurred to them that he had departed from the right path’” (Summa theol., II-II, 33, 4c).

The negative reactions to the public statement of the Four Cardinals resemble the general doctrinal confusion of the Arian crisis in the fourth century. It is helpful to all to quote in the situation of the doctrinal confusion in our days some affirmations of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, the “Athanasius of the West.”

You [the bishops of Gaul] who still remain with me faithful in Christ did not give way when threatened with the onset of heresy, and now by meeting that onset you have broken all its violence. Yes, brethren, you have conquered, to the abundant joy of those who share your faith: and your unimpaired constancy gained the double glory of keeping a pure conscience and giving an authoritative example” (Hil. De Syn., 3).

Today those bishops and cardinals, who ask for clarity and who try to fulfill their duty in guarding sacredly and faithfully interpreting the transmitted Divine Revelation concerning the Sacraments of Marriage and the Eucharist, are no longer exiled as it was with the Nicene bishops during the Arian crisis. Contrary to the time of the Arian crisis, today, as wrote Rudolf Graber, the bishop of Ratisbone, in 1973, exile of the bishops is replaced by hush-up strategies and by slander campaigns (cf. Athanasius und die Kirche unserer Zeit, Abensberg 1973, p. 23).

When Pope Liberius in 357 signed one of the so called formulas of Sirmium, in which he deliberately discarded the dogmatically defined expression “homo-ousios” and excommunicated Saint Athanasius in order to have peace and harmony with the Arian and Semi-Arian bishops of the East, faithful Catholics and some few bishops, especially Saint Hilary of Poitiers, were deeply shocked. Saint Hilary transmitted the letter that Pope Liberius wrote to the Oriental bishops, announcing the acceptance of the formula of Sirmium and the excommunication of Saint Athanasius. In his deep pain and dismay, Saint Hilary added to the letter in a kind of desperation the phrase: “Anathema tibi a me dictum, praevaricator Liberi” (I say to you anathema, prevaricator Liberius), cf. Denzinger-Schönmetzer, n. 141.

Pope Liberius wanted to have peace and harmony at any price, even at the expense of the Divine truth. In his letter to the heterodox Latin bishops Ursace, Valence, and Germinius announcing to them the above-mentioned decisions, he wrote that he preferred peace and harmony to martyrdom (cf. cf. Denzinger-Schönmetzer, n. 142).

In what a dramatic contrast stood the behavior of Pope Liberius to the following conviction of Saint Hilary of Poitiers:

We don’t make peace at the expense of the truth by making concessions in order to acquire the reputation of tolerance. We make peace by fighting legitimately according to the rules of the Holy Spirit. There is a danger to ally surreptitiously with unbelief under the beautiful name of peace.” (Hil. Ad Const., 2, 6, 2).

Document published in The Remnant on November 23, 2016. Bishop Athanasius Schneider is auxiliary bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan.

(sources: chiesa/blog J. Smits – roratecœli – DICI no.346 Dec. 9, 2016)