St. Athanasius: Defender of the Faith

Review from the publisher Angelus Press

"The whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Arian." So cried Saint Jerome. Athanasius was in exile (again), a compromised Pope occupied the Chair of Peter, hardly a bishop had the courage to confront Constantius. Twelve different creeds were competing for the allegiance of Christians; the Nicean Creed was forbidden.

The true Faith was being upheld by laymen, inspired by Athanasius, who held fast to what their bishops had taught them even though those same bishops had abandoned it by now.

Are there modern-day parallels in the Church and Her Churchmen?

Michael Davies' book provides a fascinating insight into one of the most troubled periods in the history of the Church and the life of one of Her greatest saints. Documents the facts on the "Fall of Pope Liberius," who confirmed the excommunication of Saint Athanasius, and signed an ambiguous formula of doubtful orthodoxy.

Mr. Davies reminds us that the Faith is not served by explaining away historical facts, but in understanding them in the light of Catholic teaching. The fact that the Church survives every crisis with the integrity of Her doctrinal teaching intact is a dramatic testimony to Her divine origin and the necessity of Athanasian perseverance.

96 pp. Softcover.

St. Athanasius and the Current Crisis of Faith

St. Athanasius: Defender of the Nicene Faith

Athanasius was born around the year 296 and died in 373. He became Bishop of Alexandria within five months of the Council of Nicea, at the age of about thirty.

Hardly had the Council Fathers dispersed when intrigues to restore the fortunes of Arius began. Emperor Constantine was induced to write to Athanasius ordering him to admit Arius to communion in his own see of Alexandria.

As he constantly refused to do so, Athanasius was eventually banished to Gaul, and Arius returned to Alexandria but fled in the face of the wrath of the populace. He eventually arrived in Constantinople where he was struck dead in so dramatic a manner that no one doubted that, as Athanasius remarked, “there was displayed somewhat more than human judgment.”

The Emperor Constantine died in 337 and the Empire was shared among his three sons. The fortunes of Athanasius are more bewildering than ever during this period. The See of Peter was occupied by Pope St. Julius I from 337 to 352. Pope Julius consistently and courageously upheld the cause of Athanasius and the faith of Nicea. In 350 the entire Empire was united under Constantius following the murder of his brother Constans (another brother having vanished from the scene soon after the death of Constantine). Constantius was an Arian.

The Fall of Pope Liberius

The Emperor Constantius used a combination of threats and flattery to put pressure on Pope Liberius, who had been weakened by an exile, to obtain from him the condemnation of St. Athanasius and a confession or creed which had been framed by the Arians at Sirmium.  The fall of so great a prelate and so illustrious a confessor is a terrifying example of human weakness, which no one can call to mind without trembling for himself. St. Peter fell by a presumptuous confidence in his own strength and resolution, that we may learn that everyone stands only by humility.

Liberius did not have the strength of character of his predecessor Julius I, or of his successor Damasus I. The troubles that erupted upon the latter's election indicate that the Roman Church had been weakened from within as well as from without during the pontificate of Liberius. His name was not inscribed in the Roman Martyrology.

The True Voice of Tradition

What, then, are the lessons we can learn from the fall of Liberius, the triumph of Arianism, the witness of Athanasius, and the fortitude of the body of the faithful? Newman provides us with the answers, recognizing that what has happened once can happen again. In his July 1859 Rambler article, he wrote:

“I see, then, in the Arian history, a palmary example of a state of the Church, during which, in order to know the tradition of the Apostles, we must have recourse to the faithful; for I fairly own, that if I go to writers, since I must adjust the letter of Justin, Clement, and Hippolytus with the Nicene Doctors, I get confused: and what revives me and reinstates me, as far as history goes, is the faith of the people. For I argue that, unless they had been catechized, as St. Hilary says, in the orthodox faith from the time of their baptism, they never could have had that horror, which they show, of the heterodox Arian doctrine. Their voice, then, is the voice of tradition...”

It is also historically and doctrinally true, as Newman stressed in Appendix V to The Arians of the Fourth Century, “that a Pope, as a private doctor, and much more Bishops, when not teaching formally, may err, as we find they did err in the fourth century. Pope Liberius might sign a Eusebian formula at Sirmium, and the mass of Bishops at Ariminum or elsewhere, and yet they might in spite of this error, be infallible in their ex cathedra decisions.”

Finally, what the history of this period proves is that, during a time of general apostasy, Christians who remain faithful to their traditional faith may have to worship outside the official churches, the churches of priests in communion with their lawfully appointed diocesan bishop, in order not to compromise that traditional faith; and that such Christians may have to look for truly Catholic teaching, leadership, and inspiration not to the bishops of their country as a body, not to the bishops of the world, not even to the Roman Pontiff, but to one heroic confessor whom the other bishops and the Roman Pontiff might have repudiated or even excommunicated. And how would they recognize that this solitary confessor was right and the Roman Pontiff and the body of the episcopate (not teaching infallibly) were wrong? The answer is that they would recognize in the teaching of this confessor what the faithful of the fourth century recognized in the teaching of Athanasius: the one true faith into which they had been baptized, in which they had been catechized, and which their confirmation gave them the obligation of upholding. In no sense whatsoever can such fidelity to tradition be compared with the Protestant practice of private judgment. The fourth-century Catholic traditionalists upheld Athanasius in his defense of the faith that had been handed down; the Protestant uses his private judgment to justify a breach with the traditional faith.

The truth of doctrinal teaching must be judged by its conformity to Tradition and not by the number or authority of those propagating it. Falsehood cannot become truth, no matter how many accept it. Writing in 371, St. Basil lamented the fact that:

“The heresy long ago disseminated by that enemy of truth, Arius, grew to a shameless height and like a bitter root it is bearing its pernicious fruit and already gaining the upper hand since the standard-bearers of the true doctrine have been driven form the churches by defamation and insult and the authority they were vested with has been handed over to such as captivate the hearts of the simple in mind.”

But there will never be a time when the faithful who wholeheartedly wish to remain true to the Faith of their Fathers need have any doubt as to what the faith is. In the year 340 St. Athanasius wrote a letter to his brother bishops throughout the world, exhorting them to rise up and defend the faith against those he did not hesitate to stigmatize as "the evil-doers." What he wrote to them will apply until the end of time when God the Son comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead:

“The Church has not just recently been given order and statutes. They were faithfully and soundly bestowed on it by the Fathers. Nor has the faith only just been established, but it has come to us from the Lord through His disciples. May what has been preserved in the Churches from the beginning to the present day not be abandoned in our time; may what has been entrusted into our keeping not be embezzled by us. Brethren, as custodians of God?s mysteries, let yourselves be roused into action on seeing all this despoiled by others.”

Excerpts from an article originally published by The Remnant, and available from The Angelus Press.