Liberius is the second most notorious “pope”, whose adoption of heresy Rome had to deal with while trying to wriggle out some form of “infallibility” (following Honorius, 625-638).
This question came in an email: “I wonder if you might point me to some scholarly materials on pope Liberius. I know that it is standard Protestant apologetic to argue against the papacy by pointing out that this pope succumbed to Arian pressure. Of course the standard Catholic reply is that those materials are forgeries. If you have some time would you mind recommending some sources?”
Johnann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger, who was a Roman Catholic historian prior to Vatican I (and who argued strenuously against “Infallibility”), described it this way:
In the Arian disputes, which engaged and disturbed the Church beyond all others for above a half century, there were discussed in more than fifty Synods, the Roman See for a long time remained passive. Through the long episcopate of Pope Silvester (314-335) there is no document or sign of doctrinal activity, any more than from all his predecessors from 269 to 314.
Julius and Liberius (337-366) were the first to take part in the course of events, but they only increased the uncertainty. Julius pronounced Marcellus of Ancyra, an avowed Sabellian [see below], orthodox at his Roman Synod; and Liberius purchased his return from exile from the Emperor by condemning Athanasius, and subscribing an Arian creed. “Anathema to thee, Liberius!” was then the cry of zealous Catholic bishops like Hilary of Poitiers. This apostasy of Liberius sufficed, through the whole of the middle ages, for a proof that Popes could fall into heresy as well as other people.
[Dollinger, Johann (2014-08-18). The Pope and the Council (Kindle Locations 1056-1060), Kindle Edition. Pgs 67-68 from the Janus editions reprint (Rivington’s, 1869).]
Schaff, in his history (vol 3, pg 636) says in a footnote: “Hefele, from his Roman point of view, knows no way of saving him but by the hypothesis [note: hypothesis!] that he renounce the Nicene word (“homoousious”) but not the Nicene faith. But this [rejection], in the case of so current a party term as “homoousious”, which Liberius himself afterwards declared “the bulwark against all Arian heresy” is entirely untenable”. He notes that Athanasius, Hilary, Jerome, Sozomen, and Liberius’s own letters, all agree on the factual nature of the apostasy.
J.N.D.Kelly, in his 1986/2005 “Oxford Dictionary of Popes” (there is a revision, but I don’t have it), while suggesting that Liberius was at first a strong defender of Nicene Orthodoxy, wrote this in response to an exile from a pro-Arian emperor:
Here, as the months slipped by and the local (pro-Arian) bishops worked on him his morale collapsed and, in painful contrast to his previous resolute stand, ne now acquiesced in Athanasius’s excommunication, accepted the ambiguous First Creed of Sirmium (which omitted the Nicene ‘one in being with the Father’), and made abject submission to the emperor. His capitulation is pathetically mirrored in his four letters which he wrote from exile in spring 357 to Arianizing bishops, and which suggested that he was ready to pay almost any price to return home. Finally, brought to Sirmium (Mitrovica in Yugoslavia) in 358, he was content to sign a formula which, while rejecting the Nicene ‘one in being with the Father’, declared the Son to be like the Father in being and indeed in everything.
Now, this “formula” that Liberius signed, most likely the “Creed of Sirmium” (one of them, either 351 or 358), was “an Arian creed” (according to R.P.C. Hanson, in his standard monograph “The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381).
Hanson says: “Some letters of Liberius [the ones that Kelly refers to] are extant, which throw light upon the question but which do not clear up all difficulties. Wikipedia notes that these were “quite possibly forgeries”, but that was likely written by a Roman apologist.
Hanson then cites the French scholar of Hilary, “A. Haman”, as follows:
These letters are given us in Hilary’s Collectio Antiariana. Their authenticity has been questioned [likely by Roman apologists of one form or another], but they are now regarded in almost all respects as genuine by scholars of all traditions. Hilary leads up to the first by a piece of narrative: “Later Liberius rendered wholly useless everything which he had either done or promised when, sent into exile, he corresponded with the heretical Arian traitors who had unjustly condemned that Orthodox bishop Athanasius.” Hilary then quotes from a letter of Liberius … addressed to the Eastern bishops. Liberius gives way entirely on the subject of Athanasius, whom he is now ready to condemn. He had only defended him, he says, out of reverence for Liberius’ predecessor, Julius, and he has sent a letter of condemnation to the Emperor Constantius by the hand of Fortunatiaus (bishop of Aquileia). He [Hilary] then refers to a document which [Liberius] had signed, …
In which, according to Haman, Liberius “contradicted no part of” what Hilary calls the “betrayal at Sirmium”.
There is no question that all of the above refers to legitimate documents. (Hansen notes as well, “Athanasius deals more gently with Liberius”, stating, “even if in the end he could not tolerate the misery of banishment, still for two years he remained in exile”, and “in fear of death with which he was threatened, signed”. There is some question as to precisely what he “signed”. Whatever it was, it appeased the pro-Arian emperor Constantius, and permitted him to return to Rome as a “co-Pope” with Felix (who later – after being declared a saint – was eventually deemed to be an “anti-Pope”).
By the way, shortly thereafter (365/6), Liberius and Felix both died at the around same time. While Damasus was the “successor” of Felix, the “successor” of Liberius, Ursinus, found himself and 137 of his followers brutally murdered by a mob of pick-axe-bearing gravediggers hired by Damasus. Damasus “reached the see of Rome by walking over the corpses” of the followers of Ursinus, (Hanson cites bot Sozomenus and Theodoret in this). Damasus, by the way, is “Pope St. Damasus”, for his work in re-writing the history of Rome to include the ancient church.
Such were the times in and around “the Holy See” –
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There is one document that is a forgery bearing Liberius’s name from this period, known as “Pseudo-Liberius” or “Epistula Liberii ad Athanasium”. Hanson says:
[This document] purports to be a letter of Liberius of Rome to Athanasius, but manifestly is a document exhibiting several Marcellan traits [Marcellus of Ancyra, d. 374], such as an insistence on only one hypostasis with one ousia in the Godhead; [one scholar] thinks it cannot be by Marcellus because of its marked concern for the divinity of the Holy Spirit, It also insists that the Logos at the Incarnation assumed “a whole man” i.e, a human body with an human soul”.
The authorship of this document is unknown, but it made its way into the corpus of Marcellus. So it does not seem to factor at all into the “papal” controversy of Liberius.