At the same time, the secular world is in disarray with discontent and cultural exhaustion at home and great powers rising in the east, threatening the traditional political centre and that seems poised to fracture or even end a millennial world order. Huge numbers of foreigners, many with a violent and hostile alien religion, have been allowed to settle but not assimilate, and now more are flooding into Christian lands. A completely new breed of opportunistic ruler – a class that does not share the cultural values of its subjects – is stepping into the political void left by a century of war, depopulation, loss of confidence and social upheaval.
In the midst of all this one young man, the son of well to do civil servants, has come to the big city to begin the second half of an education in politics that his family expects will lead to a career in public life. But he has looked around at the dissolute lives of his fellow students and professors and the disintegration of social order in the city and, as a good Catholic raised in the country and schooled at home, he quickly realizes that he cannot follow this path without imperiling his immortal soul.
He’s a rather rare bird in these difficult times, neither sheltered nor a bumpkin but an intelligent, serious-minded and devout young man whose moral sensitivities have not been blunted by city living, but have instead been formed by holy clergy who live near his small home town, well away from this corrupt urban life.
The crunch comes, and the young man makes the decision to leave, when a real, honest-to-goodness papal schism breaks out right in front of his eyes. Two different men, with completely opposed characters – and backed by two ideologically opposed groups – are called pope. One is regarded by many of the faithful as a saint, or at least as the lawfully elected pope, and the other as a usurper, put in place by a group of heretics – backed by a foreign secular power – bent on the corruption of Catholic doctrine and the destruction of the Church as it has hitherto been known.
The year is 498 AD, the city is Rome and the two men are Pope St. Symmachus and Antipope Laurentius. The young man will become known to history as St. Benedict of Nursia. And the doom-sayers are right, it was, indeed, the end of an age.
The fifth century of Christianity was one of great confusion and upheaval. It had barely begun in 410 when Rome herself was sacked by the Goths – an unthinkable calamity the like of which hadn’t happened in 700 years. And it was the death-knell of the Roman Empire of Augustus. Three more times, and with increasing violence, the old Caput Mundi would be invaded and put to shame until she would finally give up the splendid old Imperial ghost and be ruled by her foreign invaders, becoming a mere provincial town in the new Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy.
Already the Church, barely past its period of bloody state-sponsored persecution, was facing devastating schisms over essential doctrine. Arianism was only part of the whole mess, derived mainly from the arguments over the nature of Christ. The Christological heresies – that up to our own day have never entirely gone away – divided and splintered Christendom like no other crisis before it or since.
The First Council of Ephesus in 431 had deemed it necessary to condemn Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople for his rejection of the doctrine of the Theotokos – Mary as mother of God – and this anathema was repeated by the bishops of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Nestorius held that Christ’s two natures comprised two persons and that therefore Mary was the mother of the man, Christ, but not of God. Ephesus declared it “unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa.”
But while Nestorius was deposed from his see and his heresy condemned, his followers continued in it. When Christians in the Eastern Empire encompassed or tolerated this doctrine, the Nestorian Schism helped to widen the division between the western and eastern Churches that ultimately resulted in a separation that remains unresolved to this day.
And Nestorianism was only one of a multitude of Christological heresies and disputes of this period. Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Monophysitism, Miaphysitism; the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon addressed these unpronounceables but were unable to stop their spread in the east, especially in Syria, and into the Byzantine empire’s great rival, Persia, Egypt and North Africa.
Meanwhile, Arianism and Semi-Arianism continued to be a force, united with political power in the barbarian tribes and kingdoms, that persecuted Catholic bishops and threatened the unity of Christendom. Tensions also continued over how the Church should see its unifying authority, the primacy of the see of Rome being far from decided.
In the secular realm, the Empire had been irrevocably divided by the removal of the capital to the city of Nova Roma – later called Constantinople after its founder – and Rome herself fell deeper into decline, separated from the great movements of religious, political, economic and intellectual life.
The northern Germanic tribes, many of them Arian, began to conquer and invade the western provinces of the empire starting in the north, and began to impose their own system of bishops and dioceses on the old Roman territories whose people were orthodox Nicaean Catholics, the creed that remained the state religion of the whole empire.
The term “barbarian invasions” has fallen out of favour with contemporary historians, who now prefer the milder expression “Migration Period,” but it is difficult to see what difference the terminology would have made to the peoples of the old Western Empire faced with the rebelling Arian Goths in the north and the hitherto unknown violence of the Vandals from the south. The invasions started in earnest the winter of 406 when the Rhine froze over and the northern tribal warriors poured over that ancient barrier to attack their weakened and divided enemy.
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After the shock of 410, the city fell again in 455 to the Vandals, and saw a new and unprecedented level of violence. Thirty-five years before, the Arian Goths had at least respected the sanctuary of the churches of Rome – many Romans had taken refuge in Santa Maria Maggiore and the other great basilicas. The pagan Vandals left nothing but devastation and ruin, forever lending their name to the idea of pointless, wanton destruction. In 476 it was finally over; the last western Emperor had abdicated and the Ostrogothic Kingdom – ruled from Ravenna – was born. “Late antiquity” had ended and become the early middle ages.
The final fall of Rome as the capital of the old empire was an outcome that furthered the weakening of orthodox Nicaean, Latin Christianity that was the Roman state religion, and pleased the various eastern patriarchs who regarded the bishop of Rome as a frequently meddlesome and provoking presence.
The growing distance between eastern and western Christianity finally snapped at the outbreak of the Acacian Schism in 484. The Patriarch of Constantinople, with the collusion of the Emperor, attempted to reconcile the growing Monophysitism and Miaphysitism of the eastern, Egyptian Christians with the Christological definitions of Chalcedon by issuing a document that proposed an ambiguous and imprecise definition of Christ’s nature as a compromise.
Called the Henotikon, the document attempted to appease both sides by glossing over the question of whether Christ had one or two natures, while repeating the anathemas and condemnations of Chalcedon and subsequent orthodox writers. It was written and approved by Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and promulgated by the Emperor without the bishop of Rome having seen it, this despite the population of Constantinople being mostly orthodox Chalcedonian Christians.
Angered at having the Emperor – a layman – dictating Christian doctrine, the document was rejected by the Patriarch of Alexandria, whom the Emperor Zeno deposed and replaced with a more docile man.
Pope Felix III, meanwhile, after writing to both the Patriarch and the Emperor to remind them of their duty to uphold the orthodox Faith, eventually excommunicated Acacius, who died in 489, followed by the Emperor in 491. Zeno’s successor, Anastasius I, was favourable to the Henotikon and Monophysitism, causing tensions within the Eastern Empire that culminated in an attempted coup in 514.
The Acacian schism was not settled until 519 when the Emperor Justin I recognized the excommunication of Acacius and the eastern and western Churches were temporarily reunited, though this left the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch firmly Miaphysite, a break that was never healed.
Pope Felix had died in 492. His successor, Pope Saint Gelasius, wanted to confirm the primacy of the Petrine See and put a stop to any more meddling in theology by emperors. After Gelasius’s death in 496, with the Acacian schism with the east still unresolved, Emperor Anastasius attempted to intervene again by imposing his choice as pope in 498.
Laurentius was an antipope chosen to succeed Pope Anastasius II by a Senator and former Consul of Rome who had promised the Emperor to find a man who would accept the Henotikon and take a less intransigent, more tolerant, attitude to the Monophysite heresy, appease the heretics and thus reconcile the growing split between Rome and the other patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch.
The problem of course was that following Gelasius’s decrees that Emperors could have no say in purely ecclesiastical matters, the Roman clergy, who were orthodox Chalcedonians, were not having it. On the same day, November 22nd, that Laurentius was acclaimed pope in Maria Maggiore by the Emperor’s followers among the clergy and Roman Senate, a majority of Roman clergy elected Symmachus, down the road in the Lateran Basilica. With two living claimants to the papal see, the Church found itself in the extraordinary position of having to appeal to the Ostrogoth king of Italy in Ravenna – an Arian – for arbitration. Theodoric chose for Symmachus, and the Latin Catholic Church was saved by a hair from waking one morning and groaning to find itself Monophysite and ruled by the Byzantine Emperor through a puppet-pope.
But this was not the end, and Laurentius’s supporters (really the Emperor’s) continued to agitate for Symmachus’s removal, resulting in disputes that lasted until 506. Eventually Symmachus was confirmed as the lawful head of the Catholic Church and reigned as pope until 514. A Synod held in 499 decreed that any clergyman should be deposed who would attempt to gain votes by campaigning for a successor to the papacy during the lifetime of a pope.
The resolution of the schism in Rome allowed Symmachus to continue to promote orthodox Christianity in the face of the Acacian schism and continued Gelasius’s efforts to oppose the Manichaeans who had begun to grow in numbers among Rome’s Christian population.
What lessons can we draw from all this? It is often heard in our own difficult time that we shouldn’t worry so much. We’ve all heard the patronising reassurance, scoldings really, from people who wish we would stop making such a fuss… “Things have been bad before. There have been bad popes, even antipopes, and it all turned out in the end. There have been ups and downs in the secular world too, and life has carried on…”
But if we look at this period – perhaps one of the few in Christian history that is realistically comparable to our own in the sheer number of parallel movements, we see that although, yes, both the Church and more or less regular life did carry on, things were never the same again. The unity of Christendom was ended, and forever. The Acacian schism, brought on by the Nestorian, Monophysite and Miaphysite heresies, helped to widen the gulf between the Latin Western Church and the Byzantine Eastern Church into a final schism that has endured for a millennium.
And old heresies never die; they just put on bellbottoms and tie-dyed t-shirts and adopt the lingo of fashionable socialism. The idea that Jesus was just a nice man who wants you to be nice to poor people and migrants is one that has about it the whiff of these old Christological heresies. Certainly we have seen that the Bergoglian/Kasperian faction in Rome manifestly do not hold the orthodox, Catholic, Chalcedonian Christology and have no compunctions about correcting the Son of God for His lack of “mercy”.
Did not one of their junior lieutenants go so far as to suggest in a Synod of bishops in Rome, and to the pope’s face, that it was Christ whose “hardness of heart” they must now correct? “Can Peter not be more merciful, like Moses…” and simply allow or at least wink at divorce? The silence from the successors of the Apostles in the aula that morning at this outrage rang as loud as the bells of St. Peter’s. Heaven must surely have heard it.
The main point to be taken away is that while it is true that the “gates of hell will not prevail” – that is, the Church will never be completely destroyed – the things we do have consequences; the harm we do is real and lasting. The damage that can be done by a single person by concrete decisions and actions in a real place and time will last, maybe for thousand years, possibly until the end of time, however close or far off that may be.
But we can also look in hope to the good that comes of such evils. If those controversies had never arisen, the Church would never have heard from the likes of St. Gelasius or the opponents of Nestorius like St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. John Cassian. Without something wrong to push against, the Church would possibly not have been able to speak out so clearly, and so down through the subsequent centuries, on the nature of God and we would not have known Him as we do.
In His permissive will, the Lord allows errors for one reason alone; not to lead men astray, but to give them a chance to define and declare the truth. He allows upheavals and difficulties not to make us miserable, but to “prove” and hone and sanctify us, by giving us something to push back against.
Finally, we can look at the person of the young man at the beginning of the story. Scholars believe that Benedict left Rome at this time, right in the middle of all this upheaval, abandoning his worldly education to live in a small town, probably in a small community of devout laymen, to strengthen his life of prayer. From there he was to retreat even further, to live in a cave on Monte Subiaco, to give himself completely to prayer and the ascetical life, achieving a deep, transforming union with Christ.
It was only after that purification and sanctification that he emerged as the great saint we know today, the father of western monasticism, and the patron of the Europe. The same Europe that, though he did not know it at the time, was being born in Rome, when he was a 20-year-old university student, transfixed, as many of us are today, with the horror of it all.
It is worth remembering that the Rule, a document that has served for the sanctification of thousands upon thousands of people through every imaginable vicissitude of human life, made not a single reference to what was going on in the world at the time it was written. These great and memorable historical movements which the young Benedict was witness to, made not one iota of difference to the task immediately at hand.
 The parallels between the Henotikon of the 5th century and the Anglican schism of the 16th noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia article are fascinating: “It was a plea for reunion on a basis of reticence and compromise. And under this aspect it suggests a significant comparison with another and better known set of ‘articles’ composed nearly eleven centuries later, when the leaders of the Anglican schism were threading a careful way between the extremes of Roman teaching on the one side and of Lutheran and Calvinistic negations on the other.” Plus ca change…
 Given our current circumstances, it might be of interest to note a comment from the author of the same article about the character of Acacius. As patriarch of the imperial capital of Constantinople his was an office which, at a time when the papal primacy was not yet a decided doctrine, put him on a footing of influence equal to the pope. Acacius had enjoyed popularity with a winning and commanding personality in public. But his shortcomings as a religious leader became apparent with his writing and promotion of the Henotikon – a new creed, proposing in essence a new religion but one couched in carefully ambiguous terms - the Amoris Laetitia of its day. “It may be doubted whether Acacius, either in orthodox opposition now, or in unorthodox efforts at compromise later on, was anything profounder than a politician seeking to compass his own personal ends. Of theological principles he seems never to have had a consistent grasp. He had the soul of a gamester, and he played only for influence.” The article continues, saying that it was his machinations over these Christological definitions that succeeded in deposing one emperor – a holder of the orthodox Chalcedonian creed – and replacing him with Zeno. Acacius’s objective seems to have been to use the controversy to exalt “the authority of his see…claiming for it a primacy of honour and jurisdiction over the entire East, which would emancipate the bishops of the capital not only from all responsibility to the sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, but to the Roman Pontiff as well.”
 These eastern congregations are known in our time as the Oriental Orthodox Church, including that of the Armenians and the Copts in Egypt and Ethiopia.
 Gelasius is worth reading about; he was the first pope to assert doctrinal authority over the whole Church, east and west, and the first one to insist that the Emperor must bow to the bishops in spiritual matters. He was the first to propose the doctrine of the “two swords,” meaning the separation of the power of the state and the power of the Church, with the former being subject to the latter. This idea was to form the basis of Catholic doctrine on Church/State relations down to today. His letters to the eastern patriarchs – of which over 40 survive – form a treatise on the primacy of Rome.
 Laurentius ended his days surprisingly well, retiring to the private estate of the Roman senator who had first put him forward, doing penance until his death.
 It’s also worth examining the shortsightedness, gross incompetence and malicious self-serving idiocy of the Roman generals and governors on the German frontiers who mismanaged the 5th century immigrant crisis sufficiently to turn it into a military invasion that lost the Empire its western lands forever. The fall of Rome was not inevitable.