Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Innocentius, bp. of Rome
Innocentius (12) I., bp. of Rome, after Anastasius, from May 402, to Mar. 12, 417.
The circumstances of his time and the character and talents of Innocent render his pontificate important. Christianity had now for nearly a century been the religion of the emperors; paganism was fast becoming a system of the past; the capture of Rome by Alaric during his pontificate, regarded as the divine judgment on the heathen city and causing the dispersion and ruin of the remains of the heathen nobility, completed the downfull of the ancient order. With the ascendancy of the church had grown that of the hierarchy, and especially of the head of that hierarchy in the West, the Roman bishop. The need of centres of unity and seats of authority to keep the church together amid doctrinal conflicts; the power and importance hence accruing to the patriarchal sees, and especially to Rome as the one great patriarchate of the West, the see of the old seat of empire and the only Western one that claimed apostolic origin; the view now generally received of the bp. of Rome as the successor of the prince of the apostles; the removal of the seat of empire to Constantinople, leaving the pope, when there was but one emperor, the sole Western potentate, and when there were two, as in Innocent's time, the fixing of the imperial residence at Ravenna instead of Rome,—such were among the causes of the aggrandizement of the Roman see. The Western church had been comparatively free from the controversies which had divided the East, nor had the popes taken much personal part in them; but they had almost invariably supported the orthodox cause, received and protected the orthodox under persecution, and, after watching with quiet dignity the Eastern struggle, had accepted and confirmed the decisions of orthodox councils. Hence Rome appeared as the bulwark of the cause of truth, and its claim to be the unerring guardian of the apostolic faith and discipline gained extensive credence. Innocent himself was eminently the man to enter into, and make the most of, the position he was called to occupy. Unstained in life, able and resolute, with a full appreciation of the dignity and prerogatives of his see, he lost no opportunity of asserting its claims, and under him the idea of universal papal supremacy, though as yet somewhat shadowy, was already taking form. At his accession the empire had for seven years been divided between the two sons of Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius; the latter, now 18 years of age, under the control of the great general Stilicho, ruling in the West. Two years after Innocent's accession (a.d. 404) he fixed his residence at Ravenna.
I. WEST. (i) Illyria.—Immediately after his election Innocent wrote to Anysius, bp. of Thessalonica, informing him of the event and giving him the oversight of the churches of eastern Illyria. The prefecture of Illyria had been dismembered since 388, the Eastern part, including Dacia and Macedonia, being assigned to the Eastern empire, but popes Damasus and Siricius had continued to claim ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the separated portion, delegating their authority to the bishops of Thessalonica. Innocent thus made no new claim, nor did he hereby assert any authority over the East generally (Innoc. Ep. 1; Galland. Bibl. Patr.). When Rufus, some years after, succeeded Anysius as bp. of Thessalonica, a letter was at once sent to him, reversing the vicariate commission, defining its extent, and reminding him that his jurisdiction was derived from the favour of the apostolic see only. In 414 we find Innocent exercising authority of a summary kind, without the intervention of the bp. of Thessalonica, in East Illyria. The bishops of Macedonia had sent him a synodal letter, desiring directions as to: (1) Whether persons ordained by one Bonosus, a deceased heretical bishop, might be admitted to the priesthood. (2) Whether persons who had married widows might be ordained and made bishops, for which allowance they pleaded the custom of their church. (3) They had asked leave to raise to the episcopate one Photinus, who had been condemned by Innocent's predecessors, and to depose a deacon called Eustatius. Some at least of these questions had already been decided by Innocent, for he expresses surprise and displeasure at their being again mooted. He then authoritatively decides them. Those who had married widows he debars from ordination, citing the prohibition of such marriages to the high-priest under the Mosaic law. Those ordained by Bonosus are debarred the priesthood by the law of the Roman church (lex nostrae ecclesiae), which admitted to lay communion persons baptized by heretics, but did not recognize their orders. The Nicene canon about the Novatianists, he says, applied to them only, and the condonation by Anysius had only been a temporary expedient. The question whether those who had married one wife before and another after baptism were to be accounted deuterogamists, and so incapable of ordination, he discussed at length also in other epistles. He decides that they are to be so accounted, for baptism is not the commencement of a new life in such sort as to relax the obligations of a previous marriage. Though with hesitation and much anxiety, he allows the promotion of Photinus, notwithstanding
the condemnation of him by previous popes, on the ground that they had been imposed on by false reports; and he disallows the deposition of Eustatius (Ep. xvii. Galland.). Another epistle, addressed to the bishops of Macedonia, confirms the deposition of Babalius and Taurianus, who had appealed to Rome from the sentence of the bishops of their province. This appeal the bishops seem to have taken amiss, for Innocent presses upon them the advantage of having their judgment revised (Ep. xviii. Galland.).
(ii) Gaul.—Victricius, bp. of Rouen, having been in Rome towards the end of 403 (Ep. ad Victric. § 14, and Paul. Nolan. Ep. ad Victric. xxxvii. 1), applied to the pope soon after for information as to the practice and discipline of the Roman church. Innocent sent him a letter containing 14 rules, of which he says that they are no new ones, but derived by tradition from the apostles and fathers, though too generally unknown or disregarded. He directs Victricius to communicate them to the bishops and others, with a view to their future observance. Among them were: (1) No bishop may ordain without the knowledge of his metropolitan and the assistance of other bishops. (3) Ordinary causes against bishops are to be determined by the other bishops of the province, saving always the authority of Rome. (4) Greater causes, after the judgment of the bishops, are to be referred to the apostolic see, "as the synod [referring, probably, to the canons of Sardica] has decreed." (6, 7) No layman who has married a widow, or been twice married, may be ordained. (8) No bishop may ordain any one from another diocese without leave of its bishop. (9) Converts from Novatianism and Montanism are to be received by imposition of hands only, without iteration of baptism; but such as, having left the church, had been rebaptized by heretics, are only to be received after long penance. (10) Priests and Levites who have wives are not to cohabit with them. This rule is supported by argument, resting mainly on the prohibition of intercourse with their wives to priests under the old law before officiating. Christian priests and Levites, it is argued, ought always to be prepared to officiate. (11) Monks, taking minor orders, may not marry. (12) Courtiers and public functionaries are not to be admitted to any clerical order; for they might have to exhibit or preside over entertainments undoubtedly invented by the devil, and were liable to be recalled to his service by the emperor, so as to cause much "sadness and anxiety." Victricius is reminded of painful cases he had witnessed in Rome, when the pope had with difficulty obtained from the emperor the exemption even of priests from being recalled to his service. (13) Veiled virgins who marry are not to be admitted even to penance till the husband's death; but (14) such as have promised virginity, but have not been "veiled by the priest," may be reconciled after penance.
In 405 Innocent was similarly consulted by another bp. of Gaul, Exsuperius of Toulouse, whom he commends for referring doubtful questions to the apostolic see, and gives him the following directions: (1) Priests or deacons who cohabit with their wives are to be deprived, as pope Siricius had directed. The prohibition of conjugal intercourse to the priests in O.T. before officiating is adduced as before; also St. Paul's injunction to the Corinthian laity to abstain for a time, that they might give themselves unto prayer; whence it follows that the clergy, to whom prayer and sacrifice is a continual duty, ought always to abstain. When St. Paul said that a bishop was to be the husband of one wife, he did not mean that he was to live with her, else he would not have said, "They that are in the flesh cannot please God"; and he said "having children," not "begetting" them. The incontinence of clergy whom the injunction of pope Siricius had not reached may, however, be condoned; but they are not to be promoted to any higher order. (2) To the question whether such as had led continually loose lives after baptism might be admitted to penance and communion at the approach of death, Innocent replies that, though in former times penance only and not communion was accorded in such cases, the strict rule may now be relaxed, and both given. (3) Baptized Christians are not precluded from inflicting torture or condemning to death as judges, nor from suing as advocates for judgment in a capital case. Innocent, however, elsewhere precludes Christians who had been so engaged from ordination (Ep. xxvii. ad Felicem). (4) To the question how it was that adultery in a wife was more severely visited than in a husband, it is replied that the cause was the unwillingness of wives to accuse their husbands, and the difficulty of convicting the latter of transgression, not that adultery was more criminal in one case than in the other. (5) Divorced persons who marry again during the life of their first consort and those who marry them are adulterers, and to be excommunicated, but not their parents or relations, unless accessory. Lastly, a list is given of the canonical books of Scripture, the same as are now received by the church of Rome; while certain books, bearing the names of Matthias, James the Less, Peter, John, and Thomas, are repudiated and condemned.
(iii) Spain.—In 400 had been held the first council of Toledo, mainly to deal with Priscillianists returning to the church. Two such bishops, Symphorius and Dichtynius, with others, had been received by the council; but certain bishops of Baetica still refused to communicate with them. A Spanish bishop, Hilary, who had subscribed the decree of the council of Toledo, went with a priest, Elpidius, to Rome, to represent this to the pope; complaining also of two bishops, Rufinus and Minicius, who had ordained other bishops out of their own province without the knowledge of the metropolitan; and of other prevalent irregularities with respect to ordinations. The complainants do not appear to have been commissioned by any synod, or other authority of the Spanish church, to lay these matters before the pope, but Innocent took the opportunity to address a letter, after a synod held at Rome, to the bishops of the Toledo council, advising or directing them; though without asserting, as he does to other churches, the authority of the Roman see. He condemns those who refused to communicate with reconciled Priscillianists, and directs the
bishops to inquire into the cases of Rufinus and Minicius and to enforce the canons. As to other prevalent irregularities—such as the ordination of persons who had, after baptism, pleaded as advocates, served in the army, or as courtiers (curiales) been concerned in objectionable ceremonies or entertainments—he directs that such past irregularities should be condoned for fear of scandal and disturbance, but avoided in the future. He insists, as so often in his letters, on the incapacity for ordination of such as had married widows or had married twice, and again protests that baptism cannot annul the obligation of a previous marriage. He supports these prohibitions by arguments from O.T. and from St. Paul, "Husband of one wife" (Ep. iii. Bibl. Patr. Galland.). We do not know how this admonitory letter was received in Spain.
(iv) Africa.—In 412 or 413 Innocent wrote to Aurelius, bp. of Carthage, requesting him to announce in synod the day for keeping Easter in 414, with the view of its being announced, as was then customary, to the church by the bp. of Rome (Ep. xiv. Galland.). Towards the end of 416 he received synodal letters from councils at Carthage and Milevis in Numidia, and from St. Augustine (who had taken part in the latter council), with four other bishops, on the Pelagian controversy; to all of which he replied in Jan. 417. This correspondence illustrates the relations then subsisting between the West African church and Rome. (For such relations at an early period see STEPHANUS; CYPRIANUS; SIXTUS II.) The synodal letters inform Innocent of the renewal of the condemnation of Pelagius and Coelestius pronounced five years previously at Carthage, and very respectfully request him to add the authority of the apostolical see to the decrees of their mediocrity ("ut statutis nostrae mediocritatis etiam apostolicae sedis auctoritas adhibeatur"); setting forth the heresies condemned, and arguments against them. They recognize the weight that the pope's approval would carry, but do not at all imply that the validity of their own condemnation depended on it. The five bishops imply some doubt as to his probable action, having heard that there were some in Rome who favoured the heretic; and they await the result with suspense, fear, and trembling. Innocent, in replying, assumes much greater dependence on the see of Rome on the part of the Africans than their language had implied, and asserts very large claims to general authority. He commends the bishops of the Carthaginian synod for referring the matter to his judgment, as knowing what was due to the see of the apostle from whom all episcopal authority was derived; and for having observed the decrees of the Fathers, resting on divine authority, according to which nothing done, even in remote and separated provinces, was to be considered settled till it had come to the knowledge of the Roman see and been confirmed by its authority, that all waters proceeding from the fountain of their birth, the pure streams of the uncorrupted head, might flow through the different regions of the whole world. The abundant stream of Rome, flowing, the bishops hoped, from the same fountainhead as the smaller stream of Africa, becomes in Innocent the fountain-head from which all streams must flow. He addresses the bishops of the Milevetan synod in the same strain. He then proceeds to condemn the Pelagian heresy in strong terms and to anathematize all its abettors and supporters. To adduce proofs, he says, is unnecessary, since his correspondents had said all that was wanted. He declines to accede to their suggestion that he should make overtures to Pelagius, or send for him to Rome. It is for the heretical, he says, to come to me of his own accord, if ready to retract his errors; if not ready, he would not obey my summons; if he should come, repudiate, his heresy, and ask pardon, he will be received (Epp. Augustine, xc.–xcv.; Epp. Innoc. clxxxi.–clxxxiii. Galland.).
In a letter to Decentius, bp. of Eugubium in Umbria (dated a.d. 416), the claims of the Roman see are no less strongly asserted than in the letters to the African bishops. Innocent tells him that no one can be ignorant of the obligation of all to observe the traditions, and those alone, which the Roman church had received from St. Peter, the prince of the apostles, and which that church ever preserved—especially as no churches had been founded in Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily, or the interjacent islands, except by St. Peter or his successors. The letter proceeds to require observance of various Roman usages. (1) The pax in the Eucharist must be given after communion, not before. (2) The names of such as offer oblations at the Eucharist are not to be recited by the priest before the sacrifice, or the canon. (3) Infants after baptism may not be confirmed by unction except by the bishop; but priests may anoint other parts of the body than the forehead, using oil blessed by the bishop. (4) Saturday as well as Friday in each week is to be observed as a fast, in commemoration of the whole time Christ was in the grave. (5) Demoniacs may receive imposition of hands from priests or other clergy commissioned by the bishop. (6) St. James's direction that the sick are to call for the elders of the church does not preclude the bishop from administering the unction; but not only priests, but any Christian may anoint, using chrism prepared by the bishop. Penitents, however, to whom the other sacraments are denied, may not receive unction, "quia genus sacramenti est." It appears plain from the way the unction of the sick is spoken of that it was then used with a view to recovery, not as a last rite. (7) One Roman custom, that of sending, on the Lord's day, the Eucharist consecrated by the bishop to the presbyters throughout the city, that all on that day at least may partake of one communion, is not to be observed where it involved carrying the sacrament to great distances. Even in Rome it is not taken to the priests in the various cemeteries (Epp. xxv. Galland.).
II. EAST.—In 404 Innocent began to intervene in the affairs of the East in the matter of St. Chrysostom, who had been deposed and driven from Constantinople after the synod of the Oak in 403, and finally expelled on June 20, 404. A letter reached Innocent from Chrysostom himself, another from the 40 bishops who remained in his communion, a third from his clergy. That from Chrysostom
(given by Palladius in his Dialogus de Vita S. Johan. Chrysost.) was addressed to the bps. of Rome, Aquileia, and Milan, as the three great bishops of the West. It requests them to protest against what had been done, and to continue in communion with the writer. To all these letters Innocent replied that, while still in communion with both parties, he reprobated the past proceedings as irregular, and proposed a council of Easterns and Westerns, from which avowed friends and enemies of the accused should be excluded. A second letter arrived from Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, with the Acts of the synod of the Oak, shewing that Chrysostom had been condemned by 36 bishops, of whom 29 were Egyptians. Innocent's brief reply, is that he cannot renounce communion with Chrysostom on the strength of the past futile proceedings and demands that Theophilus should proffer his charges before a proper council, according to the Nicene canons. Communications from Constantinople continued to reach Innocent, one from about 25 bishops of Chrysostom's party, informing him of Chrysostom's banishment to Cucusus and the burning of his cathedral church. To them and to the banished prelate the pope sent letters of communion, being unable to render help. Cruel persecution of the friends of Chrysostom, set afoot by the Eastern emperor Arcadius, brought a number of letters to Rome from oppressed bishops and clergy, and the resort thither of many in person, including Anysius of Thessalonica, Palladius of Helenopolis (the author of the Dialogus de Vit. S. Johan. Chrysost.), and Cassianus, famous afterwards as a monk and a writer. Innocent represented the matter to the emperor Honorius, who wrote thrice to his brother Arcadius on the subject. His third letter, sent under the advice of a synod assembled by the pope at his request, urged the assembling of a combined council of Easterns and Westerns at Thessalonica. He desired Innocent to appoint five bishops, two priests, and one deacon as a deputation from the Western church; and these he charged with this third letter, in which he requested his brother to summon the Oriental bishops. He also sent letters addressed to himself by the bishops of Rome and Aquileia, as specimens of many so addressed, and as representing the opinion of the Western bishops on the question at issue (Innoc. Ep. ix. Galland.; Pallad. Dialog. c. iii.). The deputation was accompanied by four Eastern bishops who had fled to Rome. It failed entirely. Persecution was continued in the East; Honorius contemplated a war against his brother, but was deterred by a threatened invasion of the Goths; and Innocent, failing in his attempt to bring about an impartial council, separated himself from the communion of Atticus, Theophilus, and Porphyrius.
This appeal of St. Chrysostom and his friends involved no acknowledgment of any authority of the Roman bishop over the Eastern church. They apply to him not as a superior or a judge, but as a powerful friend whose support they solicit. Chrysostom's letter, which in Roman editions appears as addressed to the pope alone, was really written to the three principal bishops of the West. Its contents leave no doubt of this. Honorius, in his letters to his brother, speaks of the Western bishops generally having been applied to, and quotes their views as of equal moment with that of the bishops of Rome. Innocent in his replies makes no claim to adjudicate, nor does he make any assertion of the universal supremacy of his see, such as appears in his letters to the Africans and to Decentius, but recommends a council of Easterns and Westerns as the proper authoritative tribunal. For a view of papal claims over the East less than a century later see FELIX III. and ACACIUS (7).
After the death of Chrysostom the pope and all the West remained for some time out of communion with Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. The church of Antioch was the first to be reconciled, when bp. Alexander in 413 replaced the name of Chrysostom in the diptychs of his church, and sent a legation to Rome to sue for restoration of communion. This was cordially granted in a synodal letter signed by 20 Italian bishops. Innocent wrote to Alexander congratulating him warmly and desiring a frequent interchange of letters. At the same time Acacius of Beroea, one of Chrysostom's bitterest opponents, was received into communion by Innocent through Alexander, to whom the letter of communion was sent for transmission. Atticus of Constantinople was reconciled a few years later. Moved partly by the threatening attitude of the populace, and partly by the advice of the emperor, he consented, with a bad grace, to place Chrysostom's name on the diptychs, and was received into communion. The church of Alexandria was the last to come to terms. Theophilus's nephew Cyril, succeeding him Oct. 18, 412, was urged by Atticus to yield, and did so at last, though not till 417, ten years after the death of Chrysostom. Throughout Innocent appears to have acted with dignity, fairness, firmness, and moderation. Alexander having, later, consulted the pope as to the jurisdiction of his patriarchal see of Antioch, Innocent replied that in accordance with the canons of Nice (Can. vi.) the authority of the bp. of Antioch extended over the whole diocese, not only over one province. Diocese is here used, in its original sense, to denote a civil division of the empire comprising many provinces. The Oriental diocese here referred to included 15 provinces, over the metropolitans of which the patriarchal jurisdiction of Antioch is alleged to extend.
Two more letters, written in the last year of his life, further illustrate Innocent's attitude towards the churches of the East. St. Jerome had been attacked in his cell at Bethlehem by a band of ruffians and had narrowly escaped; the two noble virgins, Eustochium and her niece Paula, living in retirement under his spiritual direction, had been driven from their house, which had been burnt, and some of their attendants killed. The party of Pelagius was suspected. Innocent wrote to Jerome, offering to exert "the whole authority. of the apostolic see" against the offenders, if they could be discovered, and to appoint judges to try them; and to John, bp. of Jerusalem, who was no friend to Jerome, in an authoritative tone, reproving him severely for allowing such
atrocities within his jurisdiction (Epp. xxxiv. xxxv. Galland.).
III. ALARIC.—There were three Gothic invasions of Italy—the first under Alaric, the second under Radagaisus, the third led by Alaric himself, who laid siege to Rome a.d. 408. Innocent was within the city, the emperor at Ravenna. Famine and plague having ensued during the siege, Zosimus, the heathen historian, alleges that Pompeianus, the prefect of the city, having been persuaded by certain Etruscan diviners that their spells and sacrifices, performed on the Capitol, could draw down lightnings against the enemy, Innocent was consulted and consented, but the majority of the senators refused (v. 40). Sozomen mentions the circumstance but does not implicate Innocent (ix. 6). It seems highly improbable that Innocent would sanction such rites of heathenism. In 409 the offer of a ransom led Alaric to raise the siege, and two deputations were sent to the emperor at Ravenna to induce him to sanction the terms agreed on. The first having failed, Innocent accompanied the second, and thus was not in the city when it was finally taken on Aug. 24, 410. Alaric's invasion was regarded as a judgment on heathen rather than Christian Rome, and as a vindication of the church, the pope's providential absence being compared by Orosius to the saving of Lot from Sodom. Undoubtedly the event was a marked one in the supersession of heathenism by Christianity. The destruction of the old temples, never afterwards restored, the dispersion and ruin of families which clung most to the old order, the view that judgment had fallen on old heathen Rome, which its deities had been powerless to protect, all helped to complete the triumph of the church and to add importance to the reign of Innocent. Soon after this great event Augustine (a.d. 413) began his famous work, de Civitate Dei, though he took 13 years to complete it, in which he sees a vision of the kingdom of God rising on the ruins of the kingdom of the world—a vision which gradually took more distinct shape in the idea already more or less grasped by Innocent, of a Catholic Christendom united under the Roman see.
Innocent's Epistolae et Decreta are printed in Galland's Bibl. Pat. t. viii. and in Migne, Patr. Lat. t. xx. Cf. Innocent the Great by C. H. C. Pirie-Gordon (Longmans; 4 maps and 8 genealogical tables).
- Cf. Epp. ii. iii. Bibl. Patr. Galland. St. Jerome, in one of his letters, strongly maintains the opposite view to Innocent, and Jerome's view was probably the prevalent one at the time, for he speaks of the number of persons ordained, and even advanced to the episcopate, after marrying a second wife after baptism, being large enough to compose a council.