Pope Liberius

From New World Encyclopedia

Birth name Liberius
Papacy began May 17, 3521
Papacy ended September 24, 366
Predecessor Julius I
Successor Damasus I
Born ???
Died September 24 366

Pope Liberius was the bishop of Rome from May 17, 352, to September 24, 366. He is noted for opposing Arianism during his early career, but later seems to have adopted a semi-Arian position, though under duress. His papacy was also notable in that, for a period, he and another pope, known to history as Antipope Felix II, were both recognized by the emperor as bishop of Rome.

During Liberius' early reign he was much involved in defending the strongly anti-Arian bishop Athanasius of Alexandria against Emperor Constantius II, who saw Athanasius as a divisive force in the empire. By 355 Liberius one of the few who still refused to condemn Athanasius, despite an imperial command to the contrary. The consequence was his banishment to Thrace and the appointment of Felix as his successor.

At the end of an exile of more than two years, the emperor recalled Liberius; but due to Felix' presence in the Holy See, a year passed before Liberius was sent to Rome. It was the emperor's intention that Liberius should govern the Roman church jointly with Felix, but after Liberius' arrival, Felix was forcibly expelled by the anti-Arian faction of the Roman people.

A great debate existed over the question of whether Liberius capitulated during his exile. However, several orthodox sources admit that he did consent to condemn Athanasius and/or sign a semi-Arian creed. After the death of Constantius II in 361, Liberius appears more orthodox again. He died on September 24, 366. Though not canonized in his own Roman Catholic tradition, he is recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.


Liberius reigned at one of the peaks of the Arian controversy, which had no means been permanently settled at the Council of Nicaea in 323. The vacillations of imperial politics witnessed several twists and turns as emperors changed their minds about the issue or were replaced by a new ruler who took a different view. The theological issue involved the question of whether Christ was merely of a "like" substance (homoiousios—the Arian position) with God the Father or of the same substance (homoousios—the orthodox view) with him. The most adamant and consistently outspoken opponent of Arianism was the powerful Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, who tolerated no comprise with the "heretics," regardless of what any emperor decreed.

At the death of Emperor Constans (January, 350), Constantius II became sole emperor. Believing that a large part of the population of his empire had been unnecessarily alienated by the persecution of Arianism and personally close to several semi-Arian bishops, he sought to unite Christendom by a less stringent creed.

Under Constantius' reign the troublesome Athanasius had been banished from Alexandria and was charged with various political and ecclesiastical offenses at Sardica, largely resulting from his hounding of the Arians and his refusal to accept even some of those who acknowledged the Nicaean formula but did not satisfy other criteria of "orthodoxy" as he saw it.

Liberius' papacy

Early on in his papacy, Liberius was drawn into the controversy over how much compromise with Arianism could be tolerated. Like his predecessor Julius, Liberius upheld the acquittal of Athanasius at Sardica, but, unlike Athanasius, would make the decisions of Nicæa the ultimate test of orthodoxy.

Athanasius of Alexandria

In 353, Liberius, in his first known act as pope, sent legates to the emperor in Gaul asking him to hold a council at Aquileia, Italy, to discuss Athanasius. Constantius, however, assembled a council of bishops at Arles where he had wintered, and where more of the churchmen were amenable to him. There, the pope's legates (of whom one was Vincent of Capua, who had been a papal legate at the Council of Nicæa) acquiesced to the emperor's wishes consented to renounce the cause of Athanasius. Liberius, on receiving the news, wrote to Bishop Hosius of Cordova of his deep grief at the spiritual fall of Vincent. The pope was so distraught as to admit that he himself desired to die, lest he should be seen as having agreed to a compromise with heresy.

During this time, a letter against Athanasius signed by many Eastern bishops had arrived at Rome, complaining that the Alexandrian bishop went too far in his zeal against Arianism. Athanasius, meanwhile, had already held a more localized council in his own defense, and a letter in his favor, signed by at least 75 Egyptian bishops, had arrived at Rome at the end of May, 353. Constantius publicly accused the pope of preventing peace and of suppressing the letter of the Easterns against Athanasius.

Liberius replied with a letter (Obsecro, tranqullissime imperator), in which he declared that he read the letter of the Easterns to a council at Rome (probably held in May, 353). However, as the pro-Athanasius letter was signed by a greater number of bishops, he argued that it was impossible to condemn Athanasius. He also admitted that he himself had never wished to be pope, but he had followed his predecessors in all things. Therefore, he could not make peace with the Easterns, for some of them refused to condemn Arius, and they were in communion with Bishop George of Alexandria, Athanasius' replacement, who accepted Arian priests who had long ago been excommunicated. The pope also complained of the proceedings of of the Council of Arles and begged for the assembling of another council.

Council of Milan

A council was in fact convened at Milan, and met there about the spring of 355. The future Saint Eusebius of Vercelli was persuaded to be present, and he insisted that all should begin by signing the Nicene decree. Certainty of the bishops loyal to Constantius II declined. Constantius reportedly ordered the bishops to accept his word for the guilt of Athanasius on political grounds and to condemn him for disrupting the peace of the Empire. Eusebius was banished, together with several others. Under these pressures the rest of the council duly followed the emperor's wishes.

Liberius then sent another letter to the emperor; and this time his envoys, the priest Eutropius and the deacon Hilary, were also exiled, the deacon also cruelly beaten. Auxentius, an Arian, was made bishop of Milan. The pope then wrote a letter, generally known as Quamuis sub imagine to the exiled bishops, addressing them as martyrs, and expressing his regret that he had not been the first to suffer so as to set an example to others.

For his part, Constantius was not satisfied by the condemnation of Athanasius by the Italian bishops who had lapsed at Milan under pressure. He "strove with burning desire," says the pagan writer Ammianus, "that [his] sentence [against Athanasius] should be confirmed by the higher authority of the bishop of the eternal city." Constantius sent to Rome his prefect of the bed-chamber, the eunuch Eusebius, with a letter and gifts. The pope's reply, according to the writings of Athanasius, was that he could not decide against the Alexandrian bishop, who had been acquitted by two general synods. Nor could he condemn those absent. Moreover, if the emperor desired peace, he must annul what he had decreed against Athanasius and have a council celebrated without emperor or counts or judges present, so that the Nicene faith might be preserved. The followers of Arius must be cast out and their heresy anathematized; the unorthodox must not sit in a synod.[1] The eunuch was reportedly enraged, but laid the gifts he intended for the pope before the tomb of Saint Peter.

Exile and Antipope Felix II

Constantius was then persuaded to send an official with letters to the prefect of Rome, Leontius, ordering that Liberius should be seized and brought to his court. In the trouble that followed, Athanasius reports that bishops and wealthy Christian ladies were obliged to hide, monks were not safe, foreigners were expelled, the gates and the port were watched.

Liberius was dragged before the emperor at Milan. He reportedly spoke boldly at first and refused to renounce Athanasius. The emperor gave the pope three days for consideration, and then banished him to Beroea in Thrace, sending him 500 gold pieces for his expenses, which the pope refused.

With Liberius deposed by the emperor, many churchmen and nobility at Rome accepted Archdeacon Felix as his successor, whose consecration by the Arian Bishop Acacius of Cæsarea had been arranged at the emperor's order in 355. The majority of the Roman clergy acknowledged the validity of his consecration but many of the laity resented the emperor's meddling in the affairs of the Roman church. Constantius paid his first visit to Rome on April 1, 357. There, he discovered that his pope held little authority outside of the nobility, and consequently Liberius was allowed to leave for Rome before the end of 357, where he was to rule jointly with Felix.

Liberius' lapse into semi-Arianism

It was widely reported that before returning, Liberius had signed the condemnation of Athanasius and perhaps some semi-Arian creed. Whether or not this was true, the Roman populace clearly welcomed him back and soon rose in violence against Felix driving him out of the city. He retired to Porto but did not relinquish the title of pope until his death.

Regarding Liberius capitulation, the Arian writer Philostorgius relates that Liberius was restored to the papacy only when he had consented to sign the second formula of Sirmium, which was drawn up after the summer of 357 by the semi-Arian bishops, Germinius, Ursacius, Valens. It rejected both the Nicaean term homoousios (same substance) and the Arian term homoiousios (like substance). The same story of the pope's fall into "heresy" is supported by three letters attributed to him in the so-called "Historical Fragments" of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, but the historian Sozomen tells us this was a fraud propagated by the Arian Eudoxius. A particularly compelling piece of evidence comes from Athanasius himself, writing at the end of 357. He admits: "Liberius, having been exiled, gave in after two years, and, in fear of the death with which he was threatened, signed." (Hist. Ar., xli) Finally, an undisputed letter of Hilary, in 360, addresses Constantius thus: "I know not whether it was with greater impiety that you exiled him than that you restored him" (Contra Const., II).

While denying the validity of the fragments of Hillary, Sozomen also relates his own story of Liberius' submission. In this version, Constantius, after his return from Rome, summoned Liberius to Sirmium (357). There, the semi-Arian leaders Basil of Ancyra, Eustathius, and Eleusius, convinced the pope to condemn the "Homoousion."

Later years

In 359 a major church council was held at Rimini, in which neither of the two reigning popes participated. Most of the bishops there were orthodox, but were persuaded or perhaps unwittingly accepted certain semi-Arian propositions. Liberius, now more at liberty than he had been previously, criticized these decisions, and when Constantius died at the end of 361, he publicly nullified the council's actions.

A last act that would haunt Liberius' memory is that, around 366, he received a deputation of the semi-Arians led by Eustathius and later held communion with them. His defenders claim that he was unaware that, although they accepted the Nicaean formula, many of them rejected the divinity of the Holy Ghost.


Damasus I

The division of the Roman clergy did not end with Liberius' death, but continued when Damasus I was elected his successor. Although Damasus had once been Liberius' archdeacon, he served Antipope Felix even more closely and was supported by the nobility and clergy who had been Felix's partisans. Damasus' early papacy was marred by violent factional strife in which hundreds died. He also faced accusations of moral corruption, but was highly successful from the standpoint of Catholic orthodoxy, since a change in imperial policy led to Nicene Christianity being recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Liberius himself was perhaps the only early pope never declared a saint by his own Catholic tradition, although he was sanctified by the Eastern Orthodox Church for his early resistance to Arianism.

Roman Catholic Popes
Preceded by:
Julius I
Bishop of Rome Pope
Succeeded by: Damasus I


  1. The pope's position here, as reported by Athanasius, seems suspiciously identical to Athanasius' own absolutism and must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chapman, John. Studies on the Early Papacy. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971. ISBN 9780804611398
  • Loomis, Louise Ropes. The Book of the Popes: To the Pontificate of Gregory I. Merchantville N.J.: Evolution Pub, 2006. ISBN 9781889758862
  • Newman, John Henry, and Rowan Williams. The Arians of the Fourth Century. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. ISBN 9780852444481
  • Rusch, William C. The Trinitarian Controversy. Sources of Early Christian Thought. Philadelphia: Fortress Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0800614100

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