Setting the Historical Record straight…
The Truth about Pope Liberius and the “Excommunication” of St. Athanasius
Now that Francis has successfully detonated his nuclear bomb called Amoris Laetitia — the “Apostolic Exhortation” effectively granting free rein to people in permanent adultery and other “irregular unions” to receive the Novus Ordo sacraments — the anti-sedevacantist “resistance traditionalists” are scrambling to justify their refusal to countenance the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, a man whom anyone can see is truly the Vicar of Satan cannot also be the Vicar of Jesus Christ at the same time (cf. 2 Cor 6:15).
One of the most predictable internet sites in this regard is the famous indult blog Rorate Caeli, which quickly recycled the old litany of “heretical Popes” of the past to justify the current situation:
- ‘More Catholic than the pope’ (Rorate Caeli)
Why it is intrinsically impossible to be more Catholic than the Pope, is something we explained to The Remnant’s chief rhetorician Christopher Ferrara a few months ago, and it bears repeating:
Last year we began a blog post series entitled The “Heretical” Popes, but, due to time constraints, we have only been able to publish a single installment so far. Nevertheless, it is well worth a read, as is the response we gave to the blogger Mundabor on one of his fantasies about the papacy:
- The “Heretical” Popes, Part 1: Adrian VI
- On those “Pitfalls of False Logic”: A Response to Mundabor on the Papacy
As the chaotic fallout from Amoris Laetitia continues — we’ve been chronicling it here —, we can expect that lots of people who believe themselves to be traditional Catholics but accept, however grudgingly, Jorge Bergoglio as the Pope of the Catholic Church, will once again invoke the argument that Francis must still be considered a valid Pope because we’ve allegedly had similar cases in the past where Popes succumbed to heresy and still remained Pope. One of the celebrated examples then brought forward on such occasions is typically the case of Pope Liberius, who “fell into Arianism” and “excommunicated St. Athanasius”, who was then the “only bishop who remained faithful” in a time when almost the entire Catholic world had defected into Arianism.
This perception of the “bad Pope Liberius” and the “excommunicated” St. Athanasius is extremely widespread in “traditionalist” circles, due in large part to the tireless efforts of the celebrated Lefebvrist apologist Michael Davies (d. 2004), who repeated these claims ad nauseam, as they provided a convenient basis from which to argue in favor of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and against John Paul II, while still accepting the latter as a valid Pope. Not surprisingly, in their new book True or False Pope?, the new SSPX apologists John Salza and Robert Siscoe also restate the old accusations against Pope Liberius.
There is just one problem with them: They aren’t true.
In his exhaustive critique of Davies entitled Michael Davies – An Evaluation (1st ed., 1989; 2nd ed., 2015), sedevacantist author John Daly dedicates an entire chapter of over 50 pages to demonstrating — not justclaiming — that there is no genuine historical evidence available that could establish with certitude that Pope Liberius either did or probably did subscribe to Arianism or Semi-Arianism, nor is there any genuine evidence that the Pope ever excommunicated St. Athanasius. Rather, the historical evidence is to the contrary, evidence accepted and mentioned by serious Catholic historians and theologians before Vatican II, glossed over by Davies.
Mr. Daly has kindly given permission to Novus Ordo Watch to reprint the chapter on Pope Liberius and the Arian crisis from his book against Davies. In fact, we have previously offered, likewise with the author’s permission, Daly’s entire book as a free PDF download (here), and it is also available in paperback:
Michael Davies – An Evaluation (2nd ed.)
by John S. Daly (2015)
An electronic version of this book is available in PDF format
FOR FREE by clicking here
Here, then, are a few select paragraphs of Daly’s chapter on Pope Liberius. The entire chapter can be read in full at the link given at the end of the excerpt:
It must now be shown that Davies’s representation of history, unfortunately both for the arguments he seeks to base on it and for the cause of truth in itself, is very far from reality. First, I shall list a few very clear facts which are strongly suggestive – to say no more – that the story of a fall from orthodoxy on the part of Pope Liberius is no more than a myth. This done, it will be possible to examine in more detail the great mass of evidence which, taken collectively, raises this conclusion from probability to certainty.
The main facts are these:
1. Pope Liberius was in reality a staunch opponent, not only of the Arians, but also of the Semi-Arians.
2. He was sent into exile by the Semi-Arian Emperor Constantius precisely because of the failure of the attempts of that emperor and his toady bishops to influence him to excommunicate St. Athanasius and accept as orthodox a compromised Semi-Arian statement of Catholic doctrine concerning Our Lord’s Divinity. 
3. Constantius appointed Felix to replace the absent Liberius in the See of Rome, but Felix was not at that time accepted as pope by the Romans.
4. Felix himself did not in fact subscribe to Arianism, but he did acknowledge ecclesiastical communion with arianisers, for which reason, the fifth century historian-bishop Theodoret informs us, “none of the citizens of Rome entered into the church while he was inside.” (History of the Latin Church, Bk. II, c. 17)
5. The people of Rome remained loyal to Liberius and protested to the emperor at his detention.
6. Eventually their peaceable protests gave way to rioting, and as a result Liberius was permitted by Constantius to return to Rome.
7. On his return he was received as a victor there by the populace.
8. His reign in Rome then continued for a few years more, during which time he remained entirely orthodox, refused to compromise in the slightest degree on the orthodox doctrine of the Council of Nicæa, and was in full communion and friendship with St. Athanasius.
9. Some extant historical texts apparently of that period assert that the immediate reason for his return to Rome was that he had subscribed to a Semi-Arian formula. But many others favour the contrary view.
10. The weight of subsequent scholarship is strongly in favour of Liberius’s orthodoxy, and orthodox Catholic scholars in particular – and it is they who have studied the subject in greatest depth and are most reliable – are overwhelmingly of the view that Liberius never fell, remained orthodox throughout his exile, and always remained in full communion with St. Athanasius.
Another fact which Davies does not mention, even if only to try to explain it away, is that Pope Liberius is honoured as a saint in the ancient Latin Martyrology. Although Davies says repeatedly that Athanasius was canonized and Liberius was not, this is in fact quite false. Neither was formally canonized, as the formal procedure of canonization did not exist at the period that the Church began to revere them (which was immediately after their deaths); but both benefited from the Church’s official recognition as saints in the form which did then exist, by their inclusion in the martyrologies of West and East.
In fact evidence in further support of the testimonies already given could be multiplied almost indefinitely, for instance from the historians Cassiodorus (490-583) and Theophanes (IXth century). But after such conclusive testimonies to Pope Liberius’s sanctity and unfailing orthodoxy, what can be the need?
Instead, let us move on to an examination of such early sources as can be adduced in favour of the allegation of his having subscribed to heresy. It need hardly be said that, even if these sources might appear to be conclusive, the testimony of the authors just cited would oblige us to pause long for thought and to make us in the highest degree reluctant to accept the conclusion they tend towards. But in fact no such dilemma would occur to anyone who looks at the evidence attentively, for the miserable clutch of references from which the opponents of Liberius and enemies of the Holy See attempt to construct an adamantine case against Liberius are no sooner scrutinized than they fall away as probably inauthentic and certainly erroneous – as will now be shown.
The Division of Scholarly Opinion
It would not be true to say that Davies never at all acknowledges that there is scholarly dissension on the question of the fall of Liberius and his excommunication of St. Athanasius; but such acknowledgements are very rare, and even when they are made they are formulated in terms which suggest that the dissenters are a small minority of overzealous fanatics whose historical learning is unworthy of serious consideration. Here, for instance, is what he writes in both Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Vol. I, p. 371 and The True Voice of Tradition, p. 9:
Some Catholic apologists have attempted to prove that Liberius neither confirmed the excommunication of Athanasius nor subscribed to one of the formulæ of Sirmium. But Cardinal Newman has no doubt that the fall of Liberius is an historical fact.
In other words, such is the measure of Davies’s contempt for these “Catholic apologists”, that he deems them worthy only of anonymous obscurity, and considers the weight of Cardinal Newman’s opinion alone sufficient to justify his readers in dismissing them as unworthy of further attention.
And what is the truth on this matter? It can easily be seen simply by comparing a list of those serious scholars who hold the theory that Liberius capitulated to Constantius with a list of those who defend his orthodoxy.
Let us begin with those who may broadly be regarded as on Davies’s side. They comprise Moeller, who was a Gallican; Barmby, who was a Protestant; Langen, who was an Old Catholic; Tillemont, whom Fr. W.H. Anderdon S.J. selects in his Britain’s Early Faith (p. 39) as the archetypal sceptic; Döllinger, the famous scholar who left the Church at the time of the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1870 and became an Old Catholic; Cardinal Newman, in his Arians of the Fourth Century, written in 1833, twelve years before his conversion in a work in which he accuses the papacy of having apostatized altogether at the Council of Trent ; Renouf; Schiktanz; Fr. Alban Butler ; the infidel Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall is on the Index and who seems to have decided whether or not to accept allegations hostile to the papacy purely on the basis of whether they would be useful for bringing the Catholic Church into disrepute. I cannot bring myself to add the name of St. Robert Bellarmine to this list, for he was at best no more than a highly tentative anti-Liberian and appears to express contradictory views on the subject in two different places (De Romano Pontifice lib. IV, cap. 9 and lib. II, cap. 30, para. 2). Moreover he was writing at the dawn of critical historiography, before any question had been raised as to the authenticity of some of the patristic manuscripts he was using, and he emphasizes that any brief defection from his celebrated orthodoxy on the part of Liberius is a matter of doubt.
On the other hand I freely offer Michael Davies the support of E. Amman in the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique. Indeed special mention is called for in his case, because the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique is a justly famous work and generally reliable. What must never be forgotten, however, is that all encyclopædic works inevitably suffer from the defect that some of their contributors tend to be less reliable than others, for equality in this field, as in any other field, is simply not a characteristic of the human race – a fact which obstinately continues to apply no matter what rarefied levels of scholarship are reached, and a fact which no editor can overcome because no editor is competent to verify all his contributions. As regards Amann’s article as an example of this phenomenon, it is sufficient to note that he quotes in inverted commas – yes, quotes – what purport to be the passages from the writings of St. Athanasius in which the “capitulation” of Pope Liberius has been interpolated, and that in each case the true meaning is both grossly distorted and further corrupted with inventions of his own. In other words, not content with passing off, in defiance of the overwhelming evidence we have seen earlier, the contemporary pseudo-Athanasius as Athanasius, he falsifies even that corruption. A forgery is not sufficient for his purposes; he must embellish it with further forgeries of his own. (See Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, Vol. IX, column 638.)
Anyhow the foregoing writers are the most renowned historians of the anti-Liberian school.
There are also writers who hold the more moderate position, similar to that maintained by Sozomen among the ancients, that Liberius subscribed to a formula deliberately couched in ambiguous terminology, which, although it was in fact open to a heterodox interpretation, led him genuinely to believe that the formula was a statement of the Catholic Faith. These writers include Baronius,  von Hefele, who was a liberal, Funk, and Duchesne, a notorious Modernist, some of whose writings are on the Index of Forbidden Books.
The very least that can be said of the list of writers who have defended the orthodoxy of Liberius is that it is no less impressive than what we have seen so far. It comprises the Mediæval Byzantine historian Georgio Cedrenos (c. 1100), faithful relayer of the traditions of Eastern Christendom; Stilting; Zaccaria; Palma; Dom Guéranger (The Liturgical Year: Feast of St Eusebius); Cardinal Hergenröther, the famous vindicator of Catholic orthodoxy against the attacks of Döllinger at the time of the 1870 Vatican Council; Jungmann, whose work on the subject covers eighty pages of close argument and is in this writer’s opinion entirely conclusive alone;  Grisar; Freis; Flavio; Corgne; Rohrbacher, whose Histoire Universelle de l’Église Catholique has been justly hailed as “sublime” (Palme), “monumental” (Catholic Encyclopædia), and the finest history of the Church written since the sixteenth century and should be snapped up by anyone with the ability to read French  who comes across it; Dom John Chapman in his article in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopædia; Alzog in his Universal Catholic History, Vol. I, p. 542; Darras in his General History of the Catholic Church, p. 456 et seq.; Reinerding; Schneeman; Wouters; Barthélémy in his Erreurs et Mensonges Historiques which earned a papal accolade; Harrold in The American Catholic Quarterly Review, 1883; Fr. Luke Rivington in The Primitive Church and the See of Peter; Dumont; the renowned Scriptural exegete Menochius; the very learned historian and theologian Ballerini; Galland; the Roman Breviary itself (December 16th); and the famous Gallican bishop Bossuet, who originally argued in favour of the capitulation of Liberius but, according to his secretary, D. Ledieu, wished to have what he had written on this subject deleted from his works. Nor ought we to overlook the renowned Enchiridion Symbolorum first edited by Fr. Heinrich Denzinger and later appearing in more complete editions with various learned editors, for under No 93 it lists the letter of St. Anastasius vindicating Pope Liberius (referred to earlier) under the heading “De orthodoxia Liberii Papæ” – “Concerning the orthodoxy of Pope Liberius”.
According to What Criteria Does Davies Select His Sources?
Very revealing and instructive is the bibliography to Davies’s booklet on Liberius and Athanasius, listing the six works which Davies has drawn on for the material used in the pamphlet. To offer a brief assessment of these works will not take long.
Two are “Catholic dictionaries”, one of them published as late as the 1970s and therefore obviously unreliable. One is a small book called A Handbook of Heresies by M.L. Cozens, which, though sound, devotes only seven pages to the entire topic of Arianism and Semi-Arianism and nowhere even mentions Liberius. Another, the only full-length book, is The Arians of the Fourth Century by Davies’s hero, Cardinal Newman. And the two remaining works are the 1913 Catholic Encyclopædia and the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopædia.
Bearing in mind how frequently and emphatically Davies has put forward his opinion on what is recognized by everyone else to be a very controversial subject, this bibliography is of course ludicrously short. But there is another feature of it which is of even greater interest. This, to which reference has already been made in this Evaluation, is that, whereas five of the works given in the bibliography are also cited in the text of the booklet – most of them more than once – the sixth, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopædia, does not feature in the text at all. It is in fact difficult to see why the 1913 Catholic Encyclopædia rates a mention in the bibliography, unless it is simply that Davies, who uses it as a reference work for many other purposes, was simply embarrassed to cite only the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopædia and thus admit openly that he was ignoring everything in the more traditional and obviously more reliable work in favour of this inferior post-Vatican II substitute which itself stands under far heavier accusation of compromise with heresy than Pope Liberius ever did! As for why he did the opposite of what any true Catholic would do who wanted to consult an encyclopædia, and turned single-mindedly to the post-Vatican II version published under the umbrella of the Conciliar Church – that admits no difficulty whatever of explanation. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopædia, which Davies frequently quotes in his works on subjects other than Pope Liberius, contains an excellent and cogent article arguing that the various charges made against Liberius are entirely spurious, and for Davies this is sufficient to make it, in Orwellian terms, an un-encyclopædia.
Needless to say, the dreadful New Catholic Encyclopædia, like all such works which have emanated from the Conciliar Church in order to “update” and outdate their pre-Conciliar counterparts, seizes every opportunity that presents itself to undermine the Church and diminish the esteem which Catholics should have for the Holy See, by invariably siding with the enemies of the Vicar of Christ in the allegations which they bring against him. Davies stands revealed as a man who is prepared to turn to such a source as this to bolster up his prejudices while dismissing traditional and trustworthy authorities who contradict the thesis which he finds it convenient to champion.
To read the entire chapter refuting Michael Davies, go here:
“The Alleged Fall of Pope Liberius, His Alleged Excommunication of St. Athanasius, and other Anti-Papal Libels” — Chapter 10 of John Daly’s Michael Davies – An Evaluation (2nd ed., 2015)
Over the last few decades, Michael Davies enjoyed among traditionalists a great, although unfounded, reputation for being a reliable scholar in historical and theological matters. Yet in this exhaustive critique of Davies, Daly proves that Davies was little more than a third-class propagandist for the pseudo-traditionalist positions of the SSPX. While giving credit where credit is due, Daly systematically and rigorously dismantles Davies’ main arguments, both those for the false recognize-and-resist traditionalism and those against sedevacantism.
It is highly deplorable that the great majority of English-speaking people today who are meaning to be good traditional Catholics, have unwittingly obtained their historical and theological information, ultimately, from Michael Davies.
It is time to stop reading Davies and to start reading real Catholic history!