Appendix A: Schism of Gregory Asbestas
Appendix B: Supposed Abdication of Ignatius
Appendix C: Canonical Status of the Council of 869-70
The reason for the dispute between Gregory Asbestas, bishop of Syracuse, and Patriarch St. Ignatius of Constantinople is not clear. It is sometimes averred that the conflict was on account of St. Ignatius’ hard-line policy against former iconoclasts, calling for their permanent excommunication, while Gregory pursued the prior patriarch Methodius’ (843-847) more conciliatory policy. Yet there is nothing in the subsequent conflict between Gregory and Ignatius, or between Ignatius and Photius for that matter, that suggests that policy toward iconoclasts was a central issue. Attitudes on iconoclasm may have helped shape sympathies toward one or the other patriarch, accounting for the Stoudites’ support of Ignatius, for example, but this issue has no direct bearing on the controversy at hand, since neither Gregory nor Photius were former iconoclasts.
The most credible of the conflicting accounts of the dispute’s origin is that Gregory was in Constantinople during Ignatius’ consecration in order to address some canonical charge against him, and that Ignatius ordered him to stand aside, because his status as bishop was uncertain, pending his trial. The specific charge may have been consecrating a bishop outside of his diocese. In any event, Gregory was incensed by this treatment, so he dashed down his taper and denounced the new patriarch as a wolf rather than a shepherd. Many bishops sympathized with the Sicilian prelate for his humiliation, and a few sided with him in his schism against Ignatius.
After repeated attempts at reconciliation, the patriarch convened a synod in 853 (from which he recused himself), which excommunicated Gregory, both for his original canonical offense and for denunciation of his prelate. The few who followed Gregory in schism, and many more sympathizers, faulted Ignatius for overly rigorous application of the canons. Indeed, the rule against consecrating outside of one’s diocese was routinely flouted, for reasons of convenience. Gregory’s party appealed to Pope Leo IV to review their case, citing the right of appeal to Rome in the Council of Sardica. The pontiff rebuked Ignatius for deposing bishops without consulting the Holy See, and requested a copy of the synodal acts. These were finally received by his successor Benedict III, who refused to confirm the anathema until the patriarch sent his representatives. Meanwhile, he held Gregory and his co-defendants to be suspended until their trial was resolved.
At the time of the Photian controversy, Rome still considered Gregory Asbestas to be a suspended bishop, though not necessarily excommunicated.
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The fact that Ignatius was immediately exiled, when a voluntary abdication would have protected him from violence, suggests that he did not ever abdicate, notwithstanding the evidence adduced by Fr. Francis Dvornik in his book The Photian Schism (1948).
As evidence that Ignatius first abdicated, and later repented of his decision, Fr. Dvornik recounts the testimony of the monk Theognostos, an adherent of Ignatius. Theognostos paraphrases the words of Ignatius regarding the synod of 861, where he was pressured to declare his abdication:
Then those around the Emperor turned to me and invited me, by suasion and threats, to resign. But they failed to convince me. Then they turned to the metropolitans, insulting and incriminating them in many ways, saying that surely they had already accepted my resignation (apotaxin). Why then did they claim me as their Patriarch? To this the metropolitans replied: At that time, having to choose between two evils - the Emperor’s anger and the people’s revolt - we chose the lesser. To-day, you who are near the Emperor, return the throne to the Patriarch and leave us alone. Then the imperial officials began again to exhort me, insisting on my resigning of my own accord, so as to enable the adulterer to rule the Church in perfect peace. As I refused to be persuaded, they dispersed that day. (Dvornik, The Photian Schism, p. 47, emphasis added)
Dvornik cites the highlighted text, and the metropolitans’ response, as proof that Ignatius had abdicated. Yet if that were truly the case, why would the imperial officials continue to demand Ignatius’ resignation? They surely would be able to produce the original document of abdication with Ignatius’ signature. The key of course, is the phrase “of my own accord,” implying that any earlier resignation, if it existed, was coerced or fraudulent. The metropolitans, in their response, do not acknowledge the legitimacy of any earlier abdication. They say only that they assented to the putative fact of Ignatius’ abdication out of fear of the Emperor. This is consistent with the supposition that imperial officials had falsely declared the abdication of Ignatius, and the bishops assented without demanding proof, for fear of violence.
Indeed, Dvornik himself provides evidence that there was a real threat of violence imposed during the usurpation, quoting this eyewitness account:
Photius... like an adulterer, seized the throne of Constantinople during Ignatius’ lifetime. Without having been elected to the dignity by the bishops’ votes in accordance with law and usage, he was summarily installed by the Caesar. This is the reason why the bishops unanimously disowned him, nominated their own three candidates and for a long time stood by their decision. Eventually, they were outwitted and all gave in, except five, including myself. When we realized that all the bishops were corrupt, we considered that we should demand that he should sign an official declaration in which he professed to be a son of the Church in Christ and bound himself to remain in communion with our very saintly Patriarch. We preferred doing this rather than disobey our Patriarch, who had expressed a desire that we should elect as Patriarch one belonging to our Church in Christ. It was then that he signed in our presence a declaration affirming his wish to regard Ignatius as a Patriarch above suspicion and guiltless of the charges made against him; that he would never say a word against him nor allow anyone else to do so. On those conditions we accepted Photius, though under protest and pressure from those in authority. But he soon broke the word he had signed and deposed Ignatius. Thereupon the whole body of the bishops of Constantinople met and anathematized Photius, declaring him dethroned by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. so unanimous were the bishops at that moment that they turned the anathema against themselves, in case any one of them should acknowledge Photius. And as they went on holding meetings for forty days in the church of St. Irene, he retaliated by summoning, with the assistance of Bardas, a synod in the church of the Holy Apostles and again deposing and anathematizing Ignatius. It was then we personally upbraided him for his crime, with the result that we were subjected to violence, arrested without a warning and imprisoned for days in the evil-smelling jail of the Numeroi. Ignatius was imprisoned with us and put in irons; others were locked up in the Pretorium prison. Then we were set free and banished, the Patriarch to Mytilene, others elsewhere, whilst Photius sent to Old Rome four metropolitans of his own party, to explain his case to his own advantage and to Ignatius’ detriment. But the godly Pontiff, although there was none present on our behalf to plead our causeour enemies would not allow itsummoned a council of the Western bishops, condemned Photius on the strength of his own letters and treated him like a layman.
These coercive measures explain why the bishops at first accepted the vacancy of the patriarchal see and nominated their own candidates for a replacement. Ignatius himself is said to have advised them that they may do so. Fr. Dvornik uses this as proof that Ignatius had effectively abdicated at that point, but this does not follow. Ignatius might have thereby expressed a willingness to abdicate if an appropriate replacement were accepted, but he need not have abdicated prior to an election. His concession to the bishops that they should nominate a replacement is undoubtedly motivated by the recognition that Bardas would not restore him, but neither would he ever assent to Photius becoming patriarch. Here Ignatius gives evidence that he did put the good of the Church above his personal interests. At the same time, he recognized that the good of the Church entailed that it should not be subordinated to the whim of the emperor.
When the emperor insisted on Photius as his nominee, nearly all of the bishops eventually relented, except for the five who demanded that Photius should declare he was in communion with Ignatius. When Photius, two months later, tore up the agreement and anathematized his predecessor, many bishops repented of their capitulation. Their resistance was finally broken by the imprisonment and banishment of dissenters.
It is clear that the accession of Photius was imposed by coercive measures, so the freedom of the bishops in their election of him and assent to his consecration is doubtful, at best. Yet these acts would be invalid in any case, since there is no evidence that Ignatius ever formally abdicated. The known facts argue against it. Prior to his arrest and exile to the isle of Terebinthos, he ordered that no liturgical services should be conducted without his consent, thereby forbidding the usurper to take the see. Through all his acts, he bravely defied the emperor as Christian conscience demanded, knowing full well that he would suffer violence for it, so it is hardly credible that he would willingly make room for Bardas’ favorite to assume the patriarchal throne.
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Ivo of Chartres claims that Pope John VIII wrote to Photius in 879: “We make void that synod which was held against Photius at Constantinople and we have completely blotted it out for various reasons as well as for the fact that Pope Hadrian did not sign its acts.” This is from the forged version of John's letter, which adds the implausible assertion that Pope Hadrian did not sign the acts of the Council in which he played such a prominent role (along with Marinus, then a deacon and papal legate).
Ivo also quotes the Photian-altered version of Pope John's instructions to the legates: “You will say that, as regards the synods which were held against Photius under Pope Hadrian at Rome or Constantinople, we annul them and wholly exclude them from the number of the holy synods.” Evidently, Ivo's opinion on the canonical status of the eighth ecumenical council cannot be accepted, since it is based on documents now known to be forgeries.
Pope John did attempt a more conciliatory policy toward the East, as shown by his sending Anastasius to mediate the filioque controversy with Photius, and show that the Latin procession of the Son was understood only in the sense of missio (transmission or sending). Still, as Pope he made clear that he assented to the Council's deposition of Photius, as proved by his subsequent letters to the East in 871, dealing with the disposition of clerics consecrated by Photius.
Pope John ordered Anastasius, as his librarian, to make a literal translation of the Council's acts from his own Greek copy, after the legates’ copy had been robbed en route to Rome. Anastasius notes: “Whatever is found in the Latin copy of the acts of the eighth synod is completely free from the alloy of falsehood; however, whatever more is found in the Greek text is thoroughly infected with poisonous lies.” Anastasius was able to identify Greek additions to the text, generally to the detriment of papal authority, because he himself had attended the Council’s last session. Note that he describes it as “the eighth synod.”
The Greek text is preserved only in partial summary by the anti-Photian compiler. It often matches the Latin verbatim. Sometimes the Latin can only be understood by reference to the Greek, proving that Anastasius did a word-for-word translation.
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