Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Seventy-Ninth Letter (Item 143): Archbishop Stephen to Pope Damasus I

After the greater part of the anathemas that Pope Damasus I directed to Paulinus of Antioch, we have the first forgery of the dossier. Archbishop Stephen of Mauritania and all the bishops from the three concilia of Africa (here, concilium seem to mean "archiepiscopal province") write to Damasus. They are very upset because some of their brothers are attempting to depose others of their brothers, and they're doing this without having consulted the the pope, i.e. Damasus. These pernicious bishops are persisting in this path despite the fact that the decrees of all the fathers have reserved every decision relating to the judgment of bishops to the apostolic see.

It has moreover been established by ancient laws that no judgments are to be accepted in any province, however distant it may be,  unless these judgments have been brought to the notice of the holy and apostolic see. Stephan and his colleagues thus beg the pope to intercede in the case of their persecuted brothers ("ut semper vestrae sedi consuetudo fuit"), like a father fighting on behalf of his sons. They   throw in lines from Ecclesiasticus 4:33 ("Even unto death fight for truth, and the Lord your God will always fight for you") and Proverbs 18:5 ("It is not good to accept the person of the wicked, to decline from the truth of judgment") for emphasis.

Stephan and co. say that if the persecuting bishops are not overstepping their authority -- if the things they're doing are not illicit -- then they should be allowed to do similar things. That is, they want to know if they're allowed to call accused clerics to a synod for condemnation even while these clerics are deprived of their possessions and deposed from their sees, in the absence of legitimate accusers, credible and innocent witnesses, and either a canonical conviction or a freely-willed confession. Stephan and his fellow letter-writers are wondering, because they have read that judgment of accused clerics cannot occur until said clerics have held their own possessions and governed their sees for some time, and until they have been reinstated entirely in their prior position.

Stephen and his fellow bishops conclude their letter by wishing Damasus a long pontificate, because he extends his soul for his spiritual sheep and expels rapacious wolves with his pastoral staff and brings help to all the oppressed. In a rather cute gesture towards verisimilitude, we then read that someone, presumably Stephen himself, has supplied a subscription ("Pray for us, most blessed father") in a hand distinct from that responsible for the letter.

All in all, what you might call a typical 'trigger' letter--that is, the sort of piece that Pseudo-Isidore forges now and again (only in Part III; the earlier popes, from Clement to Melchiades, do not respond to any epistles actually included in the collection) to provoke an especially thunderous reply. Short but not too short, exceedingly deferential, this sort of text a) complains about the wrongdoing of others and b) seeks papal authority to deal with it. Interestingly, these letters aren't as heavily dependent on source texts as the actual forged decretals; here the main source is the Lateran Synod of 649, but there are only allusions -- no literal borrowings.


Recipients: Damasus I

Date: none; no consuls, and Damasus's reply (which we'll get to next time) has consuls "ad libitum ficta," as Hinschius puts it. But Damasus was pope from 366-384, so we're in the solidly post-Nicene church now.

Sources: the Lateran council of 649; the third synod of Symmachus

Words: 380

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