The Athanasius Question
Athanasius was excommunicated. He continued his job, uncaring. More than that – and something I seldom read about – he and St. Eusebius started appointing bishops of their own, again ignoring the Pope. The bishops they appointed – and I read about that seldom, too – were not bishop without territorial jurisdiction, like the SSPX one. They were bishops in charge of a diocese all right. Nor can it be said that in that world of difficult communications the Pope might not have had control of certain territories. Firstly, it is poppycock (communications in the Roman Empire were, like all the rest, stunningly efficient), secondly it is neither here nor there, because the fact remains that Athanasius and Eusebius clearly appointed those bishops without caring a bit of what the Pope thought about it. He could approve them if he wanted to. If he did not like them, though luck.
To make a modern comparison, it is as if the SSPX appointed the new archbishop of Chicago without either asking or caring for what Francis says, and the Catholic faithful of Chicago accepted this appointment as a matter of course, fully uncaring of Francis’ more or less sensible thought on the matter.
Let us, then, now pose the “Athanasius question”: did those Bishops have jurisdiction? Could they hear confession, administer the Last Rites, marry their sheep? And could the priests appointed by them do the same?
If yes, why? If not, why not?
It is very tricky, the Athanasius question. There is no doubt whatever Athanasius was a Lefebvre on steroids. There is also no doubt there was no precedent for the situation in which Athanasius found himself, whilst the SSPX has the shining example and illuminating precedent of… Athanasius. We know as a fact that Athanasius refused to obey to the point of incurring excommunication, did not recant after receiving it, appointed bishops of his own, and really did not care what Patheos would have said.
Therefore, if you follow modern mainstream V II conservatism Athanasius and his brave men had no jurisdiction, those sacraments were not valid, etc. If, however, we accept the principle that when those at the top behave like heretics the tough Catholics begin to play then we must apply the same reasoning to the 100%, 2k years-certified SSPX.
There is no doubt in my mind that the second applies. Every now and then, the Church loses her mind from the very top. It is then the task of a handful of very tough Catholics to simply keep doing what they have always done, safe in the certainty of their orthodoxy because… they do what Catholics have always done. There is no better guarantee of orthodoxy, and no better litmus test of Catholicism.
Athanasius did not know when sanity would come back. Nor did he ever care. He kept doing the Catholic thing and if the entire world derides him, so be it. Athanasius knew he might have to die in the middle of rampant, apparently triumphant heresy. He did not care for that, either.
Truth is truth. How many people refuse to follow the truth is ultimately irrelevant. If the Pope sabotages the truth, then he will be punished more harshly unless he repents, but sabotage it still is.
Truth is truth. It does not depend of from the rank of those who spread lies.
So: Athanasius disobeyed to the Pope. What say you? Athanasius appointed bishops, and bishops with territorial competence, fully ignoring the Pope. Schism? Athanasius decided to disobey and to die, if needs be, excommunicated for being (far) more Catholic than the Pope. What is the difference with Archbishop Lefebvre?
Why, why all those semi-conservative legalists apply all their clerical rigidity to Archbishop Lefebvre, and forget all of it when they speak of Athanasius? Was Athanasius schismatic in the moment, and Catholic only after victory? Or was he, as logic commands, 100% Catholic all the time?
The Athanasius question cannot be easily avoided. It stares at us straight in the face every time we compare Athanasius’ “disobedience” to Lefebvre’s. It has no other answer than this: no heresy can be acceptable because it’s promoted or protected or encouraged from the very Pope, and those who defend orthodoxy are right even when the pope excommunicates them.
In times of great turmoil, God sends us great men.
Thank God for Athanasius, and for Archbishop Lefebvre.