Papal Infallibility and the Case of Pope Vigilius

The Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church (Constantinople II) met in 553 and has a complex history. It deals with condemning the Three Chapters, a set of heretical writings from three authors who had died over a century prior. What makes it complicated is that Eastern Orthodox apologists allege this Council condemns Pope Vigilius as a heretic, thus disproving papal infallibility. This assessment is much too simplistic, however. In this essay we will examine the details of the controversial case of Pope Vigilius.

The Acts of Constantinople II

From the accounts of the Council given in the popular Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) series, scholars raise questions as to the authenticity and accuracy of the records. That said, the accounts given in NPNF are at least worthy of a look. The following are quotes from the council that mention Pope Vigilius, and as will be shown, the situation is much more complicated than the orthodox make it out. First let’s quote the Letter of the Emperor to the Council in Session I:

When, for example, Vigilius, Pope of Old Rome, came hither, he, in answer to our questions, repeatedly anathematised in writing the Three Chapters, and confirmed his steadfastness in this view by much, even by the condemnation of his deacons, Rusticus and Sebastian. We possess still his declarations in his own hand. Then he issued his Judicatum, in which he anathematised the Three Chapters, with the words, Et quoniam, etc. You know that he not only deposed Rusticus and Sebastian because they defended the Three Chapters, but also wrote to Valentinian, bishop of Scythia, and Aurelian, bishop of Arles, that nothing might be undertaken against the Judicatum. When you afterwards came hither at my invitation, letters were exchanged between you and Vigilius in order to a common assembly.

But now he had altered his view, would no longer have a synod, but required that only the three patriarchs and one other bishop (in communion with the Pope and the three bishops about him) should decide the matter. In vain we sent several commands to him to take part in the synod. He rejected also our two proposals, either to call a tribunal for decision, or to hold a smaller assembly, at which, besides him and his three bishops, every other patriarch should have place and voice, with from three to five bishops of his diocese.

We further declare that we hold fast to the decrees of the four Councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Theophilus, John (Chrysostom) of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo and their writings on the true faith.

First note: the editors of the NPNF state that this section bound by the triple-asterisk has variations in the manuscripts. What is interesting about this is that Vigilius is not on trial for heresy here, and in fact made various concrete acts condemning the Three Chapters, yet for some reason Vigilius didn’t want a Council held and refused to attend, preferring a small gathering instead. What is also interesting is that all this seems to implicitly give evidence of Vigilius’ Papal authority, for why else would the Emperor and Council be so eager that Vigilius approve of it if Vigilius had no true extraordinary authority? And why else would Vigilius claim he could deal with this in his own way? The claim that he “altered his view” should not be taken to mean he at some point approved of the heresy because he’s never condemned later on when then Council issues condemnations for the heretics.

In Session VII there is debate about various points of authenticity, but what is provided is still quoting:

You know how much care the most invincible Emperor has always had that the contention raised up by certain persons with regard to the Three Chapters should have a termination.…For this intent he has required the most religious Vigilius to assemble with you and draw up a decree on this matter in accordance with the Orthodox faith. Although therefore, Vigilius has already frequently condemned the Three Chapters in writing, and has done this also by word of mouth in the presence of the Emperor, and of the most glorious judges and of many members of this synod, and has always been ready to smite with anathema the defenders of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and the letter which was attributed to Ibas, and the writings of Theodoret which he set forth against the orthodox faith and against the twelve capitula of the holy Cyril: yet he has refused to do this in communion with you and your synod…

[W]e had visited Vigilius, the most religious bishop, and that he had said to us: “We have called you for this reason, that you may know what things have been done in the past days. To this end I have written a document about the disputed Three Chapters, addressed to the most pious Emperor [this was the “Constitutum”], pray be good enough to read it, and to carry it to his Serenity.” But when we had heard this and had seen the document written to your serenity, we said to him that we could not by any means receive any document written to the most pious Emperor without his bidding. “But you have deacons for running with messages, by whom you can send it.” He, however, said to us: “You now know that I have made the document.” But we, bishops, answered him: “If your blessedness is willing to meet together with us and the most holy Patriarchs, and the most religious bishops, and to treat of the Three Chapters and to give, in unison with us all, a suitable form of the orthodox faith, as the Holy Apostles and the holy Fathers and the four Councils have done, we will hold thee as our head, as a father and primate.

But if your holiness has drawn up a document for the Emperor, you have errand-runners, as we have said; send it by them.

Notice the language used throughout, Vigilius is described by the Council as “religious” and “most religious bishop” and “your blessedness”—impossible if he’s being condemned for heresy. Instead, they make it clear they deeply want him to attend the council, which only makes any sense if he carries a superior authority. Why else would Vigilius tell the Council fathers that he issued a major document, the Constitutum, that supposedly takes care of it from Vigilius’ view, and clearly contains no heretical error by the Council’s view if he nor the Council saw himself as head of the Church? And in a stunning concession, the Council says they will hold Vigilius as “our head, as a father and primate”. Why such exalted words?

In the conclusion of the above Session VII account, the NPNF records a judgment by the Emperor who allegedly said: “concerning the name of Vigilius, that it be no more inserted in the holy diptychs of the Church, on account of the impiety which he defended.” Whether this is true or not is unclear, but even then all the Council was really upset about was that Vigilius refused to attend. To complicate matters even more, the Council allegedly responded: “What has seemed good to the most pious Emperor is congruous to the labors which he bears for the unity of the churches. Let us preserve unity to the Apostolic See of the most holy Church of ancient Rome, carrying out all things according to the tenor of what has been read.” (Session VII)

The Council’s View of Pope Vigilius

Clearly, they allegedly recognized Rome was the Apostolic See and they needed to remain in union with it. Why or to what degree Vigilius was allegedly “excommunicated” from the Council’s view is unclear. The Protestant authors of NPNF are overjoyed at this account, but seriously, is such dubious information really the definitive argument against Rome they were looking for? To the fair minded reader, this is pure desperation.

When the Council issued their sentence, notice where Vigilius fits in:

Since it is manifest to all the faithful that whenever any question arises concerning the faith, not only the impious man himself is condemned, but also he who, when he has the power to correct impiety in others, neglects to do so.

The sidenote of NPNF says the latter man, not the one who is “impious,” but rather the one who has the power to correct impiety but does not, is a reference to Vigilius. This makes sense considering how the Council’s sentence continues:

When, therefore, we saw that the followers of Nestorius were attempting to introduce their impiety into the church of God through the impious Theodore, who was bishop of Mopsuestia, and through his impious writings; and moreover through those things which Theodoret impiously wrote, and through the wicked epistle which is said to have been written by Ibas to Maris the Persian, moved by all these sights we rose up for the correction of what was going on, and assembled in this royal city called thither by the will of God and the bidding of the most religious Emperor.

And because it happened that the most religious Vigilius stopping in this royal city, was present at all the discussions with regard to the Three Chapters, and had often condemned them orally and in writing, nevertheless afterwards he gave his consent in writing to be present at the Council and examine together with us the Three Chapters.

Again, “the most religious” Vigilius is clearly distinguished from the three heretics as one who condemned them but apparently broke his promise to attend the Council. Why he broke this promise is unclear. Some suggest one factor was because the three heretics had been dead for over a hundred years, and to condemn them now would make it appear the Church wasn’t alert that whole time. Others say the three heretics died in communion with the Church, without suggesting their writings were orthodox. The sentence later gives evidence that this indeed might be at least one reason when it says things like:

Moreover several letters of Augustine, of most religious memory, who shone forth resplendent among the African bishops, were read, shewing that it was quite right that heretics should be anathematized after death. And this ecclesiastical tradition, the other most reverend bishops of Africa have preserved: and the holy Roman Church as well had anathematized certain bishops after their death, although they had not been accused of any falling from the faith during their lives: and of each we have the evidence in our hands.

Leaving aside the fact no Council to this day has anathematized Augustine, it draws on his blessed memory and testimony that deceased men have been still anathematized, along with that of Rome’s history. This would indicate the Council is trying to prove this is not a “new thing,” though none the less can be a difficult judgment when it goes from judging a document to judging a person, especially if by outward appearances the person died in communion. Of course, none of these legal proceedings on how or whether to judge after death is a matter of dogma, so it can be fair to say Vigilius had a right to voice concern. In fact, the Council in all its condemnations of Ibas made it clear the heretical letter was only alleged to be from him, which is hardly sufficient grounds to condemn the man and name Ibas himself.

In the 14 Condemnations the Council issued next, the name Vigilius is absent, while a host of other heretics, including an alleged condemnation of Origen (mentioning only his name in a list, no explanation), and the Three Chapters (by name and explanation) are clearly anathematized.

According to the NPNF, six months after the Council, Vigilius decided to accept the Council and sends a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople affirming his decision. It should be noted that historical accounts say Vigilius was effectively under a house arrest in Constantinople for years before this until he accepted the Council. If so, then this abuse and political pressure by the Emperor could have something to do with the unwillingness of Vigilius. In his letter, Vigilius states he reconsidered the evidence and saw just how severe the errors of the Three Chapters were, and thus approves of the Council’s decisions. The Catholic Encyclopedia states this is because he was given poor translations in the earlier times. All that said, it still remains important that the very fact the Emperor wouldn’t release Vigilius (who was never even accused of heresy) until he approved the Council strongly suggests everyone was aware it would be lacking a key approval for the Church until he did so.

Lawrence McCready, “Papal Infallibility and the Case of Pope Vigilius,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, July 7, 2012. Available online at