The Council of Carthage and the Limits of Papal Authority

In his recent letter to Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, Patriarch Bartholomew says this:

… after all everyone knows very well that there has never been any danger whatsoever that “the cloudy delusion of the world would conceivably penetrate the Church of Christ, which offers the light of simplicity and dawn of humility to those who desire to see God.”

Here, Patriarch Bartholomew quotes directly from the letter of the Fathers of the Council of Carthage (which began in 419) to the Pope of Rome, which was composed at the conclusion of the Council and is appended to the Council’s canons. By quoting from this letter, Patriarch Bartholomew invites us to examine the letter in full, and also to review the canons of the Council that produced it. So, what does the letter say — and what was the Council about?

The Council of Carthage and Its Letter to the Pope

It all begins with a priest named Apiarius, who was accused by his parishioners in Tabraca (Tabarka in modern Tunisia) of “very great crimes.” The Council of Carthage ordered an investigation and found him guilty, deposing him from the priesthood. At this time, Carthage and the western part of North Africa were nominally “under” the Church of Rome, although that was far from a clear and settled matter. Apiarius and his friend Bishop Faustinus — who had originally been assigned by the Council of Carthage as the investigator in the case, but had turned into Apiarius’ advocate and defender — traveled to Rome and appealed to the Pope, who purported to overturn the decision of the Council of Carthage and reinstate Apiarius to the priesthood. The pair returned from Rome, and Apiarius came to the Council and “vehemently opposed the whole assembly, inflicting on us many injuries, under pretense of asserting the privileges of the Roman Church, and wishing that he should be received into communion by us.”

“But this we by no means allowed,” wrote the Council. Instead, they held a three-day inquiry. Apiarius and his friend Bishop Faustinus did their best to stall and evade questions, but in the end, Apiarius admitted that he was guilty of the charges against him — charges that weren’t explicitly described in the letter, but were referred to obliquely as “secret crimes,” “all infamies beyond belief,” and “shameful blots.”

The Council respectfully but firmly told the Pope not to hear appeals from anyone who has been deposed or excommunicated by the synod of Africa. Among other arguments, the Council said, “whosoever thinks himself wronged by any judgment may appeal to the council of his Province, or even to a General Council [i.e. of Africa] unless it be imagined that God can inspire a single individual with justice, and refuse it to an innumerable multitude of bishops (sacerdotum) assembled in council.”

Toward the end of the letter, the Council said the following, from which Patriarch Bartholomew quoted (on the basis of the Greek version) in his letter to Archbishop Anastasios:

Moreover whoever desires you to delegate any of your clergy to execute your orders, do not comply, lest it seem that we are introducing the pride of secular dominion into the Church of Christ which exhibits to all that desire to see God the light of simplicity and the day of humility.

Before we continue in our examination of the Council of Carthage, let us pause for a moment and consider this quotation. The context of the letter is that the African Church, through its bishops assembled at Carthage, is telling the Pope of Rome in no uncertain terms that he is not welcome to interfere in their jurisdiction or hear an appeal from a clergyman they disciplined. It is remarkable, then, that the Ecumenical Patriarch would choose to pull a quotation from this letter, out of context, to support his own intervention into the jurisdiction of another Local Church and his own granting of an appeal to another Church’s defrocked and excommunicated clergyman.

Carthage on Appeals

Adding to the irony that Patriarch Bartholomew would choose to quote from this particular Council is the fact that the Council adopted canons that further serve to undercut Patriarch Bartholomew’s claims. Canon 28 of Carthage (sometimes numbered Canon 36) prescribes, “Presbyters, deacons, or clerics, who shall think good to carry appeals in their causes across the water [i.e., to Rome] shall not at all be admitted to communion.” The canon goes on:

It also seemed good that presbyters, deacons, and others of the inferior clergy in the causes which they had, if they were dissatisfied with the judgments of their bishops, let the neighbouring bishops with the consent of their own bishop hear them, and let the bishops who have been called in judge between them: but if they think they have cause of appeal from these, they shall not betake themselves to judgments from beyond seas, but to the primates of their own provinces, or else to an universal council, as has also been decreed concerning bishops. But whoever shall think good to carry an appeal across the water shall be received to communion by no one within the boundaries of Africa.

This immediately followed by Canon 29 (sometimes numbered Canon 37), which provides, “If anyone who is excommunicated shall receive communion before his cause is heard he brings damnation on himself.” The canon continues:

Likewise it pleased the whole Council that he who shall have been excommunicated for any neglect, whether he be bishop, or any other cleric, and shall have presumed while still under sentence, and his cause not yet heard, to receive communion, he shall be considered by so doing to have given sentence against himself.

According to this canon, for a deposed individual such as Filaret Denisenko to ignore his deposition and continue to commune and act as a clergyman, renders him ineligible for any appeal. By his disobedience, he forfeits his right to appeal and has “given sentence against himself.”

Carthage on Primacy

It’s all the more remarkable that Patriarch Bartholomew chose to draw our attention to the Council of Carthage, given the content of Canon 39 (sometimes numbered Canon 46) — this canon corrects any inclination of one bishop to set himself above other bishops: “That the bishop of the first see shall not be called Prince of the Priests or High Priest (Summus Sacerdos) or any other name of this kind, but only Bishop of the First See.”

For reasons that remain unclear, Patriarch Bartholomew selected a quotation in support of his own decisions and authority from a letter and a Council that argue in precisely the opposite direction. This certainly calls into question the reliability of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s prooftexting and precedent citation. Perhaps, though, we can see the hand of Divine Providence, whereby the Lord, in his abundant mercy, is using the voices of His holy bishops assembled at Carthage sixteen centuries ago to call to repentance His misguided but still beloved Patriarch of Constantinople.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close