Pope Julius died on 12 April, according to the “Liberian Catalogue”, and Liberius was consecrated on 22 May. As this was not a Sunday, 17 May was probably the day. Of his previous life nothing is known save that he was a Roman deacon. An epitaph preserved in a copy by a seventh-century pilgrim is attributed to Liberius by De Rossi, followed by many critics, including Duchesne. The principal points in it are that the pope confirmed the Nicene Faith in a council, and died in exile for the Faith, unless we render “a martyr by exile”. The epitaph is attributed by Funk to Saint Martin I. De Rossi, however, declared that no epigraphist could doubt that the verses are of the fourth and not the seventh century; still it is not easy to fit the lines to Liberius.
First years of pontificate
By the death of Constans (January 350), Constantius had become master of the whole empire, and was bent on uniting all Christians in a modified form of Arianism. Liberius, like his predecessor Julius, upheld the acquittal of Athanasius at Sardica, and made the decisions of Nicæa the test of orthodoxy. After the final defeat of the usurper Magnentius and his death in 353, Liberius, in accordance with the wishes of a large number of Italian bishops, sent legates to the emperor in Gaul begging him to hold a council. Constantius was pressuring the bishops of Gaul to condemn Athanasius, and assembled a number of them at Arles where he had wintered. The court bishops, who constantly accompanied the emperor, were the rulers of the council. The pope’s legates (of whom one was Vincent of Capua, who had been one of the papal legates at the Council of Nicæa) were so weak as to consent to renounce the cause of Athanasius, on condition that all would condemn Arianism. The court party accepted the compact, but did not carry out their part; and the legates were forced by violence to condemn Athanasius, without gaining any concession for themselves. Liberius, on receiving the news, wrote to Hosius of Cordova of his deep grief at the fall of Vincent; he himself desired to die, lest he should incur the imputation of having agreed to injustice and heterodoxy. Another letter in the same strain was addressed by the pope to Saint Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli, who had formerly been one of the Roman clergy.
Earlier than this, a letter against Athanasius signed by many Eastern bishops had arrived at Rome. The emperor sent a special envoy named Montanus to Alexandria, where he arrived 22 May, 353, to inform the patriarch that the emperor was willing to grant him a personal interview; but Athanasius had never asked for this; he recognized that a trap had been set for him, and did not move. He quitted Alexandria only in the following February, when George, an Arian, was set up as bishop in his place, amid disgraceful scenes of violence. But Athanasius had already held a council in his own defence, and a letter in his favour, signed by seventy-five (or eighty) 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 dignified and touching letter (Obsecro, tranqullissime imperator), in which he declares that he read the letter of the Easterns to a council at Rome (probably an anniversary council, 17 May 353), but, as the letter which arrived from Egypt was signed by a greater number of bishops, it was impossible to condemn Athanasius; he himself had never wished to be pope, but he had followed his predecessors in all things; he could not make peace with the Easterns, for some of them refused to condemn Arius, and they were in communion with George of Alexandria, who accepted the Arian priests whom Alexander had long ago excommunicated. He complains of the Council of Arles, and begs for the assembling of another council, by means of which the exposition of faith to which all had agreed at Nicæa may be enforced for the future. The letter was carried by Lucifer, Bishop of Calaris (Cagliari), the priest Pancratius, and the deacon Hilary, to the emperor at Milan. The pope asked Saint Eusebius to assist the legates with his influence, and wrote again to thank him for having done so. A council was in fact convened at Milan, and met there about the spring of 355. Saint Eusebius was persuaded to be present, and he insisted that all should begin by signing the Nicene decree. The court bishops declined. The military were called in. Constantius ordered the bishops to take his word for the guilt of Athanasius, and condemn him. Eusebius was banished, together with Lucifer and Dionysius of Milan. Liberius sent another letter to the emperor; and his envoys, the priest Eutropius and the deacon Hilary, were also exiled, the deacon being besides cruelly beaten. The Arian Auxentius was made Bishop of Milan. The pope 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; he asks for their prayers that he may yet be worthy to share their exile.
That these were not mere words was proved, not only by Liberius’s noble attitude of protest during the preceding years, but by his subsequent conduct. Constantius was not satisfied by the renewed condemnation of Athanasius by the Italian bishops who had lapsed at Milan under pressure. He knew that the pope was the only ecclesiastical superior of the Bishop of Alexandria, and he “strove with burning desire”, says the pagan Ammianus, “that the sentence should be confirmed by the higher authority of the bishop of the eternal city”. Saint Athanasius assures us that from the beginning the Arians did not spare Liberius, for they calculated that, if they could but persuade him, they would soon get hold of all the rest. Constantius sent to Rome his prefect of the bed-chamber, the eunuch Eusebius, a very powerful personage, with a letter and gifts. “Obey the emperor and take this” was in fact his message, says Saint Athanasius, who proceeds to give the pope’s reply at length: He could not decide against Athanasius, who had been acquitted by two general synods, and had been dismissed in peace by the Roman Church, nor could he condemn the absent; such was not the tradition he had received from his predecessors and from Saint Peter; 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; the Faith must first be settled, and then only could other matters be treated; let Ursacius and Valens, the court bishops from Pannonia, be disregarded, for they had already once disowned their bad actions, and were no longer worthy of credit.
The eunuch was enraged, and went off with his bribes, which he laid before the confession of Saint Peter. Liberius severely rebuked the guardians of the holy place for not having prevented this unheard-of sacrilege. He cast the gifts away, which angered the eunuch yet more, so that he wrote to the emperor that it was no longer a question of simply getting Liberius to condemn Athanasius, for he went so far as formally to anathematize the Arians. Constantius was persuaded by his eunuchs to send Palatine officers, notaries, and counts, with letters to the Prefect of Rome, Leontius, ordering that Liberius should be seized either secretly or by violence, and despatched to the court.
There followed a kind of persecution at Rome. Bishops, says Saint Athanasius, and pious ladies were obliged to hide, monks were not safe, foreigners were expelled, the gates and the port were watched. “The Ethiopian eunuch”, continues the saint, “when he understood not what he read, believed Saint Philip; whereas the eunuchs of Constantius do not believe Peter when he confesses Christ, nor the Father indeed, when He reveals His Son”–an allusion to the declarations of the popes that in condemning Arianism they spoke with the voice of Peter and repeated his confession, “Thou art [the] Christ, the Son of the living God”, which the Father Himself had revealed to the Apostle. Liberius was dragged before the emperor at Milan. He spoke boldly, bidding Constantius cease fighting against God, and declaring his readiness to go at once into exile before his enemies had time to trump up charges against him. Theodoret has preserved the minutes of an interview between “the glorious Liberius” and Contstantius, which were taken down by good people, he says, at the time. Liberius refuses to acknowledge the decision of the Council of Tyre and to renounce Athanasius; the Mareotic acts against him were false witness, and Ursacius and Valens had confessed as much, and had asked pardon from the Synod of Sardica. Epictetus, the young intruded Bishop of Centumcellæ, interposes, saying that Liberius only wanted to be able to boast to the Roman senators that he had beaten the emperor in argument. “Who are you”, adds Constantius, “to stand up for Athanasius against the world?” Liberius replies: “Of old there were found but three to resist the mandate of the king.” The eunuch Eusebius cried: “You compare the emperor to Nabuchodonosor.” Liberius: “No, but you condemn the innocent.” He demands that all shall subscribe the Nicene formula, then the exiles must be restored, and all the bishops must assemble at Alexandria to give Athanasius a fair trial on the spot.
Epictus: “But the public conveyances will not be enough to carry so many.”
Liberius: “They will not be needed; the ecclesiastics are rich enough to send their bishops as far as the sea.”
Constantius: “General synods must not be too numerous; you alone hold out against the judgment of the whole world. He has injured all, and me above all; not content with the murder of my eldest brother, he set Constans also against me. I should prize a victory over him more than one over Silvanus or Magnentius.”
Liberius: “Do not employ bishops, whose hands are meant to bless, to revenge your own enmity. Have the bishops restored and, if they agree with the Nicene Faith, let them consult as to the peace of the world, that an innocent man be not condemned.”
Constantius: “I am willing to send you back to Rome, if you will join the communion of the Church. Make peace, and sign the condemnation.”
Liberius: “I have already bidden farewell at Rome to the brethren. The laws of the Church are more important than residence in Rome.”
The emperor gave the pope three days for consideration, and then banished him to Beroea in Thrace, sending him five hundred gold pieces for his expenses; but he refused them, saying Constantius needed them to pay his soldiers. The empress sent him the same amount, but he sent it to the emperor, saying: “If he does not need it, let him give it to Auxentius or Epictetus, who want such things.” Eusebius the eunuch brought him yet more money: “You have laid waste the Churches of the world”, the pope broke out, “and do you bring me alms as to a condemned man? Go and first become a Christian.”
On the departure of Liberius from Rome, all the clergy had sworn that they would receive no other bishop. But soon many of them accepted as pope the Archdeacon Felix, whose consecration by the Arian Bishop Acacius of Cæsarea had been arranged by Epictetus at the emperor’s order. The people of Rome ignored the antipope. Constantius paid his first visit to Rome on 1 April, 357, and was able to see for himself the failure of his nominee. He was aware that there was no canonical justification for the exile of Liberius and the intrusion of Felix; in other cases he had always acted in accordance with the decision of a council. He was also greatly moved by the grandeur of the Eternal City–so Ammianus assures us. He was impressed by the prayers for the return of the pope boldly addressed to him by the noblest of the Roman ladies, whose husbands had insufficient courage for the venture. There is no reason to suppose that Felix was recognized by any bishops outside Rome, unless by the court party and a few extreme Arians, and the uncompromising attitude of Liberius through at least the greater part of his banishment must have done more harm to the cause the emperor had at heart than his constancy had done when left at Rome in peace. It is not surprising to find that Liberius returned to Rome before the end of 357, and that it was noised abroad that he must have signed the condemnation of Athanasius and perhaps some Arian Creed. His restoration is placed by some critics in 358, but this is impossible, for Saint Athanasius tells us that he endured the rigours of exile for two years, and the “Gesta inter Liberium et Felicem episcopos”, which forms the preface to the “Liber Precum” of Faustinus and Marcellinus, tells us that he returned “in the third year”. The cause of his return is variously related. Theodoret says that Constantius was moved by the Roman matrons to restore him, but when his letter to Rome, saying that Liberius and Felix were to be bishops side by side, was read in the circus, the Romans jeered at it, and filled the air with cries of “One God, one Christ, one bishop”. The Arian historian Philostorgius also speaks of the Romans having eagerly demanded the return of their pope, and so does Rufinus. Saint Sulpicius Severus, on the other hand, gives the cause as seditions at Rome, and Sozomen agrees. Socrates is more precise, and declares that the Romans rose against Felix and drove him out, and that the emperor was obliged to acquiesce. The reading in Saint Jerome’s “Chronicle” is doubtful. He says that a year after the Roman clergy had perjured themselves they were driven out together with Felix, until (or because) Liberius had re-entered the city in triumph. If we read “until”, we shall understand that after Liberius’s return the forsworn clergy returned to their allegiance. If we read “because”, with the oldest manuscript, it will seem rather that the expulsion of Felix was subsequent to and consequent on the return of Liberius. Saint Prosper seems to have understood Jerome in the latter sense. The preface to the “Liber Precum” mentions two expulsions of Felix, but does not say that either of them was previous to the return of Liberius.
On the other hand, the Arian Philostorgius related that Liberius was restored only when he had consented to sign the second formula of Sirmium, which was drawn up after the summer of 357 by the court bishops, Germinius, Ursacius, Valens; it rejected the terms homoousios and homoiousios; and was sometimes called the “formula of Hosius”, who was forced to accept it in this same year, though Saint Hilary is surely wrong in calling him its author. The same story of the pope’s fall is supported by three letters attributed to him in the so-called “Historical Fragments” of Saint Hilary, but Sozomen tells us it was a lie, propagated by the Arian Eudoxius, who had just invaded the See of Antioch. Saint Jerome seems to have believed it, as in his “Chronicle” he says that Liberius “conquered by the tedium of exile and subscribing to heretical wickedness entered Rome in triumph”. The preface to the “Liber Precum” also speaks of his yielding to heresy. Saint Athanasius, writing apparently at the end of 357, says: “Liberius, having been exiled, gave in after two years, and, in fear of the death with which he was threatened, signed”, i.e. the condemnation of Athanasius himself; and again: “If he did not endure the tribulation to the end yet he remained in his exile for two years knowing the conspiracy against me.” Saint Hilary, writing at Constantinople in 360, addresses Constantius thus: “I know not whether it was with greater impiety that you exiled him than that you restored him”.
Sozomen tells a story which finds no echo in any other writer. He makes Constantius, after his return from Rome, summon Liberius to Sirmium (357), and there the pope is forced by the Semi-Arian leaders, Basil of Ancyra, Eustathius, and Eleusius, to condemn the “Homoousion”; he is induced to sign a combination of three formulæ: that of the Catholic Council of Antioch of 267 against Paul of Samosata (in which homoousios was said to have been rejected as Sabellian in tendency), that of the Sirmian assembly which condemned Photinus in 351, and the Creed of the Dedication Council of Antioch of 341. These formulæ were not precisely heretical, and Liberius is said to have exacted from Ursacius and Valens a confession that the Son is “in all things similar to the Father”. Hence Sozomen’s story has been very generally accepted as giving a moderate account of Liberius’s fall, admitting it to be a fact, yet explaining why so many writers implicitly deny it. But the date soon after Constantius was at Rome is impossible, as the Semi-Arians only united at the beginning of 358, and their short-lived influence over the emperor began in the middle of that year; hence Duchesne and many others hold (in spite of the clear witness of Saint Athanasius) that Liberius returned only in 358. Yet Sozomen mentions the presence of Western bishops, and this suits 357; he says that Eudoxius spread the rumour that Liberius had signed the second Sirmian formula, and this suits 357 and not the time of Semi-Arian ascendancy. Further, the formula “in all things like” was not the Semi-Arian badge in 358, but was forced upon them in 359, after which they adopted it, declaring that it included their special formula “like in substance”. Now Sozomen is certainly following here the lost compilation of the Macedonian (i.e. Semi-Arian) Sabinus, whom we know to have been untrustworthy wherever his sect was concerned. Sabinus seems simply to have had the Arian story before him, but regarded it, probably rightly, as an invention of the party of Eudoxius; he thinks the truth must have been that, if Liberius signed a Sirmian formula, it was the harmless one of 351; if he condemned the “Homoousion”, it was only in the sense in which it had been condemned at Antioch; he makes him accept the Dedication Creed (which was that of the Semi-Arians and all the moderates of the East), and force upon the court bishops the Semi-Arian formula of 359 and after. He adds that the bishops at Sirmium wrote to Felix and to the Roman clergy, asking that Liberius and Felix should both be accepted as bishops. It is quite incredible that men like Basil and his party should have done this.
Later years of Liberius
At the time of his return, the Romans cannot have known that Liberius had fallen, for Saint Jerome (who is so fond of telling us of the simplicity of their faith and the delicacy of their pious ears) says he entered Rome as a conquerer. It was clearly not supposed that he had been conquered by Constantius. There is no sign of his ever having admitted that he had fallen. In 359 were held the simultaneous Councils of Seleucia and Rimini. At the latter, where most of the bishops were orthodox, the pressure and delay, and the underhand machinations of the court party entrapped the bishops into error. The pope was not there, nor did he send legates. After the council his disapproval was soon known, and after the death of Constantius at the end of 361 he was able publicly to annul it, and to decide, much as a council under Athanasius at Alexandria decided, that the bishops who had fallen could be restored on condition of their proving the sincerity of their repentance by their zeal against the Arians. About 366 he received a deputation of the Semi-Arians led by Eustathius; he treated them first as Arians (which he could not have done had he ever joined them), and insisted on their accepting the Nicene formula before he would receive them to communion; he was unaware that many of them were to turn out later to be unsound on the question of the Divinity of the Holy Ghost. We learn also from Saint Siricius that, after annulling the Council of Rimini, Liberius issued a decree forbidding the re-baptism of those baptized by Arians, which was being practiced by the Luciferian schismatics.
In the fragments of Saint Hilary are embedded a number of letters of Liberius. Fragment IV contains a letter, “Studens paci”, together with a very corrupt comment upon it by Saint Hilary. The letter has usually been considered a forgery since Baronius, and Duchesne expressed the common view when he said in his “Histoire ancienne de l’Église” (1907) that Saint Hilary meant us to understand that it is spurious. But its authenticity was defended by Tillemont, and has been recently upheld by Schiktanz and Duchesne (1908), all Catholic writers. Hermant (cited by Coustant), followed by Savio, believed that the letter was inserted by a forger in the place of a genuine letter, and he took the first words of Saint Hilary’s comment to be serious and not ironical: “What in this letter does not proceed from piety and from the fear of God?” In this document Liberius is made to address the Arian bishops of the East, and to declare that on receiving an epistle against Saint Athanasius from the Oriental bishops, which had been sent to his predecessor Julius, he had hesitated to condemn that saint, since his predecessor had absolved him, but he had sent legates to Alexandria to summon him to Rome. Athanasius had refused to come, and Liberius on receiving new letters from the East had at once excommunicated him, and was now anxious to communicate with the Arian party. Duchesne thinks this letter was written in exile at the beginning of 357, and that Liberius had really sent an embassy (in 352-353), suggesting that Athanasius should come to Rome; now in his exile he remembers that Athanasius had excused himself, and alleges this as a pretext for condemning him. It seems inconceivable, however, that after heroically supporting Athanasius for years, and, having suffered exile for more than a year rather than condemn him, Liberius should motive his present weakness by a disobedience on the saint’s part at which he had testified no resentment during all this stretch of time. On the contrary, Saint Hilary’s comment seems plainly to imply that the letter was forged by Fortunatian, Metropolitan of Aquileia, one of the bishops who condemned Athanasius and joined the court party at the Council of Milan in 355. Fortunatian must have tried to excuse his own fall, by pretending the pope (who was then still in Rome) had entrusted this letter to him to give to the emperor, “but Potamius and Epictetus did not believe it to be genuine when they condemned the pope with glee (as the Council of Rimini said of them)”, else they would not have condemned him to exile, “and Fortunatian sent it also to many bishops without getting any gain by it”. And Saint Hilary goes on to declare that Fortunatian had further condemned himself by omitting to mention how Athanasius had been acquitted at Sardica after the letter of the Easterns against him to Pope Julius, and how a letter had come from a council at Alexandria and all Egypt in his favour to Liberius, as earlier to Julius. Hilary appeals to documents which follow, evidently the letter “Obsecro” to the emperor (already mentioned), in which Liberius attests that he received the defence by the Egyptians at the same time with the accusation by the Arians. The letter “Obsecro” forms fragment V, and it seems to have been immediately followed in the original work by fragment VI, which opens with the letter of Liberius to the confessors, “Quamuis sub imagine” (proving how steadfast he was in his support of the faith), followed by quotations from letters to a bishop of Spoleto and to Hosius, in which the pope deplores the fall of Vincent at Arles. These letters are incontestably genuine.
There follows in the same fragment a paragraph which declares that Liberius, when in exile, reversed all these promises and actions, writing to the wicked, prevaricating Arians the three letters which complete the fragment. These correspond to the authentic letters which have preceded, each to each: the first, “Pro deifico timore” is a parody of “Obsecro”; the second “Quia scio uos”, is a reversal of everything said in “Quamuis”; the third “Non doceo”, is a palinode, painful to read, of the letter to Hosius. The three are clearly forgeries, composed for their present position. They defend the authenticity of “Studens paci”, which they represent as having been sent to the emperor from Rome by the hands of Fortunatian; the genuine letters are not contested, but it is shown that Liberius changed his mind and wrote the “Studens paci”; that in spite of this he was exiled, through the machinations of his enemies, so he wrote “Pro deifico timore” to the Easterns, assuring them not only that he had condemned Athanasius in “Studens paci”, but that Demophilus, the Bishop of Beroea (reprobated as a heretic in “Obsecro”), had explained to him the Sirmian formula of 357, and he had willingly accepted it. This formula disapproved of the words homoousios and homoiousios alike; it had been drawn up by Geminius, Ursacius, and Valens. “Quia scio nos” is addressed precisely to these three court bishops and Liberius begs them to pray the emperor for his restoration, just as in “Quamuis” he had begged the three confessors to pray to God that he too might be exiled. “Non doceo” parodies the grief of Liberius at the fall of Vincent; it is addressed to Vincent himself and begs him to get the Campanian bishops to meet and write to the emperor for the restoration of Liberius. Interspersed in the first and second letters are anathemas “to the prevaricator Liberius”, attributed by the forger to Saint Hilary. The forger is clearly one of the Luciferians, whose heresy consisted in denying all validity to the acts of those bishops who had fallen at the council of Rimini in 359; whereas Pope Liberius had issued a decree admitting their restoration on their sincere repentance, and also condemned the Luciferian practice of rebaptizing those whom the fallen bishops had baptized.
The aforesaid “Fragments” of Saint Hilary have recently been scrutinized by Wilmart, and it appears that they belonged to two different books, the one written in 356 as an apology when the saint was sent into exile by the Synod of Béziers, and the other written soon after the council of Rimini for the instruction (says Rufinus) of the fallen bishops; it was entitled “Liber adversus Valentem et Ursacium”. The letters of Liberius belonged to the latter work. Rufinus tells us that it was interpolated–he implies this of the whole edition–and that Hilary was accused at a council on the score of these corruptions; he denied them, but, on the book being fetched from his own lodging, they were found in it, and Saint Hilary was expelled excommunicate from the council. Saint Jerome denied all knowledge of the incident, but Rufinus certainly spoke with good evidence, and his story fits in exactly with Saint Hilary’s own account of a council of ten bishops which sat at his urgent request at Milan about 364 to try Auxentius whom he accused of Arianism. The latter defended himself by equivocal expressions, and the bishops as well as the orthodox Emperor Valentinian were satisfied; Saint Hilary, on the contrary, was accused by Auxentius of heresy, and of joining with Saint Eusebius of Vercelli in disturbing the peace, and he was banished from the city. He does not mention of what heresy he was accused, nor on what grounds; but it must have been Luciferianism, and Rufinus has informed us of the proofs which were offered. It is interesting that the fragments of the book against Valens and Ursacius should still contain in the forged letters of Liberius (and perhaps, also in one attributed to Saint Eusebius) a part of the false evidence on which a Doctor of the Church was turned out of Milan and apparently excommunicated.
It would seem that when Saint Hilary wrote his book “Adversus Constantium” in 360, just before his return from exile in the East, he believed that Liberius had fallen and had renounced Saint Athanasius; but his words are not quite clear. At all events, when he wrote his “Adversus Valentem et Ursacium” after his return, he showed the letter “Studens paci” to be a forgery, by appending to it some noble letters of the pope. Now this seems to prove that the Luciferians were making use of “Studens paci” after Rimini, in order to show that the pope, who was now in their opinion too indulgent to the fallen bishops, had himself been guilty of an even worse betrayal of the Catholic cause before his exile. In their view, such a fall would unpope him and invalidate all his subsequent acts. That Saint Hilary should have taken some trouble to prove that the “Studens paci” was spurious makes it evident that he did not believe Liberius had fallen subsequently in his exile; else his trouble was useless. Consequently, Saint Hilary becomes a strong witness to the innocence of Liberius. If Saint Athanasius believed in his fall, this was when he was in hiding, and immediately after the supposed event; he was apparently deceived for the moment by the rumours spread by the Arians. The author of the preface to the “Liber Precum” of Faustinus and Marcellinus is an Ursinian masquerading as a in order to get the advantage of the toleration accorded to the latter sect, and he takes a view of Liberius; possibly he followed Jerome’s “Chronicle”, which seems to be following the forged letters; for Jerome knew Saint Hilary’s book “Against Valens and Ursacius”, and he refused to accept the assertion of Rufinus that it had been interpolated. In his account of Fortunatian he says this bishop “was infamous for having been the first to break the courage of Liberius and induce him to give his signature to heresy, and this on his way into exile”. This is incredible, for Saint Athanasius twice tells us that the pope held out two whole years. Evidently Saint Jerome (who was very careless about history) had got hold of the story that Fortunatian had a letter of Liberius in his hands after the Council of Milan, and he concludes that he must have met Liberius as the latter passed through Aquileia on his way to Thrace; that is to say, Jerome has read the forged letters and has not quite understood them.
Rufinus, who was himself of Aquileia, says he could not find out whether Liberius fell or not. This seems to be as much as to say that, knowing necessarily the assertions of Saint Jerome, he was unable to discover on what they were based. He himself was not deceived by the forgeries, and there was indeed no other basis.
Positive evidence in favour of Liberius is not wanting. About 432 Saint Prosper re-edited and continued Saint Jerome’s “Chronicle”, but he was careful to omit the words tædio victus exilii in relating the return of Liberius. Saint Sulpicius Severus (403) says Liberius was restored ob seditiones Romanas. A letter of Pope Saint Anastasius I (401) mentions him with Dionysius, Hilary, and Eusebius as one of those who would have died rather than blaspheme Christ with the Arians. Saint Ambrose remembered him as an exceedingly holy man. Socrates has placed the exile of Liberius after the Council of Milan, through too carelessly following the order of Rufinus; unlike Rufinus, however, he is not doubtful about the fall of Liberius, but gives as sufficient reason for his return the revolt of the Romans against Felix, and he has expressly omitted the story which Sozomen took from Sabinus, a writer of whose good faith Socrates had a low opinion. To Theodoret Liberius is a glorious athlete of the faith; he tells us more of him than any other writer has done, and he tells it with enthusiasm.
But the strongest arguments for the innocence of Liberius are a priori. Had he really given in to the emperor during his exile, the emperor would have published his victory far and wide; there would have been no possible doubt about it; it would have been more notorious than even that gained over Hosius. But if he was released because the Romans demanded him back, because his deposition had been too uncanonical, because his resistance was too heroic, and because Felix was not generally recognized as pope, then we might be sure he would be suspected of having given some pledge to the emperor; the Arians and the Felicians alike, and soon the Luciferians, would have no difficulty in spreading a report of his fall and in winning credence for it. It is hard to see how Hilary in banishment and Athanasius in hiding could disbelieve such a story, when they heard that Liberius had returned, though the other exiled bishops were still unrelieved.
Further, the pope’s decree after Rimini, that the fallen bishops could not be restored unless they showed their sincerity by vigour against the Arians, would have been laughable, if he himself had fallen yet earlier, and had not publicly atoned for his sin. Yet, we can be quite certain that he made no public confession of having fallen, no recantation, no atonement.
The forged letters and, still more, the strong words of Saint Jerome have perpetuated the belief in his guilt. The “Liber Pontificalis” makes him return from exile to persecute the followers of Felix, who becomes a martyr and a saint. Saint Eusebius, martyr, is represented in his Acts as a Roman priest, put to death by the Arianizing Liberius. But the curious “Gesta Liberii”, apparently of the time of Pope Symmachus, do not make any clear allusion to a fall. The Hieronymian Martyrology gives his deposition both on 23 Sept. and 17 May; on the former date he is commemorated by Wandalbert and by some of the enlarged manuscripts of Usuard. But he is not in the Roman Martyrology.
Modern judgments on Pope Liberius
Historians and critics have been much divided as to the guilt of Liberius. Stilting and Zaccaria are the best known among the earlier defenders; in the nineteenth century, Palma, Reinerding, Hergenröther, Jungmann, Grisar, Feis, and recently Savio. These have been inclined to doubt the authenticity of the testimonies of Saint Athanasius and Saint Jerome to the fall of Liberius, but their arguments, though serious, hardly amount to a real probability against these texts. On the other hand, Protestant and Gallican writers have been severe on Liberius, but they have not pretended to decide with certainty what Arian formula he signed. With these Renouf may be grouped, and lately Schiktanz. A more moderate view is represented by Hefele, who denied the authenticity of the letters, but admitted the truth of Sozomen’s story, looking upon the union of the pope with the Semi-Arians as a deplorable mistake, but not a lapse into heresy. He is followed by Funk and Duchesne (1907), while the Protestant Krüger is altogether undecided. The newest view, brilliantly exposed by Duchesne in 1908, is that Liberius early in 357 (because the preface to the “Liber Precum” makes Constantius speak at Rome in April-May as though Liberius had already fallen) wrote the letter “Studens paci”, and, finding it did not satisfy the emperor, signed the indefinite and insufficient formula of 351, and wrote the three other contested letters; the Arian leaders were still not satisfied, and Liberius was only restored to Rome when the Semi-Arians were able to influence the emperor in 358, after Liberius had agreed with them as Sozomen relates. The weak points of this theory are as follows: There is no other authority for a fall so early as the beginning of 357 but a casual word in the document referred to above; the “Studens paci” is senseless at so late a date; the letter “Pro deifico timore” plainly means that Liberius had accepted the formula of 357 (not that of 351), and had he done so, he would certainly have been restored at once; the story of Sozomen is untrustworthy, and Liberius must have returned in 357.
It should be carefully noted that the question of the fall of Liberius is one that has been and can be freely debated among Catholics. No one pretends that, if Liberius signed the most Arian formulæ in exile, he did it freely; so that no question of his infallibility is involved. It is admitted on all sides that his noble attitude of resistance before his exile and during his exile was not belied by any act of his after his return, that he was in no way sullied when so many failed at the Council of Rimini, and that he acted vigorously for the healing of orthodoxy throughout the West from the grievous wound. If he really consorted with heretics, condemned Athanasius, or even denied the Son of God, it was a momentary human weakness which no more compromises the papacy than does that of Saint Peter.
The letters of Liberius, together with his sermon on the occasion of the consecration of Saint Ambrose’s sister to virginity, and the dialogue with the emperor are collected in Coustant “Epistolæ Rom. Pont.”. A critical edition from manuscripts of the three spurious epistles of Saint Hilary, ‘Frag.’ VI, in “Revue Bénéd.” (January 1910).