14 Sep The Once and Present Crisis: Ancient Heretics and Modern Arians
By Sean Kater
“The very crisis of the Church in our days consists in the ever growing phenomenon that those who don’t fully believe and profess the integrity of the Catholic faith frequently occupy strategic positions in the life of the Church, such as professors of theology, educators in seminaries, religious superiors, parish priests and even bishops and cardinals.”
-Bishop Athanasius Schneider, 2-23-17
The Catholic Church is in crisis, one comparable to the great Arian crisis of the fourth century. Traditional Catholics today are like the faithful Catholics of those ancient days, and our leaders, particularly our bishops, are like the courageous Fathers whom the Arians persecuted.
They have the churches, but we have the Faith.
Today, liberal modernists are well-represented and influential in the Catholic hierarchy, the dioceses, academia and the media, largely because they support and promote their own while suppressing opposition to their agenda. They also hold heterodox views, like the heretics of old.
As an example, liberal modernists tend to emphasize Our Lord’s humanity over His divinity, and treat traditional and orthodox Christology as unimportant or obsolete. This makes it easy to compare their ideas to those of the ancient Arians, who taught that Christ is a creature.
Seen in this clear light, today’s liberal modernists are indeed an “Arian church.”
The Ancient Arians
In ancient times Arianism, like liberal modernism, was widespread among the general population and the elite. But there is another important similarity in the historical character of our two crises.
Arianism, unlike other heresies, was not simply a set of ideas that appealed to a more or less limited set of people in the Church. It was not an esoteric or Gnostic school, a personality cult or an enthusiast craze. Rather, it was a massive conspiracy, a vehicle for the ambitions of designing men.
What happened? The heresiarch Arius, a deposed Alexandrian priest, supplied the theological errors we now call by his name. In fact, however, the heresiarch himself is perhaps a less important figure in the story of his own heresy than his patron, a grasping bishop known to history as Eusebius of Nicomedia.
A distant relative of Constantine the Great, Eusebius used his influence over the imperial family to advance himself and his network of fellow Arians. For decades, these conspirators used the power of the Church and state, public opinion and mob violence, to repress and terrorize anyone who resisted or opposed them.
The Ancient Resistance
The great Church Fathers of this era wrote numerous works refuting the errors of Arianism and investigating the mysteries of the Trinity. The theological works of St. Athanasius, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Gregory Nazianzen, for example, remain with us today as ancient classics.
Most interestingly, these writers also recognized that they were confronting a conspiracy, and not just working out a disagreement.
Athanasius the Hunted Bishop
Easily the best-known and most celebrated opponent of Arianism was St. Athanasius of Alexandria. As bishop of an apostolic see that was also one of the leading cities of the Roman world, Athanasius was the successor of St. Alexander of Alexandria, who had deposed Arius and denounced the new heresy to the Catholic Church. The Arian network, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, persecuted Athanasius ruthlessly, repeatedly driving Athanasius from his see by order of the emperors, accusing him of murder, terrorism and witchcraft, and even attempting to have him assassinated.
Athanasius refuted Arianism at length in his writings, but wrote at comparable length about the Arians’ predatory, conspiratorial intrigues. He did not pretend that he was simply having a discussion about ideas with someone who disagreed with him in good faith. He knew that Arianism — the crisis of his times — was about not only ideas, but mostly about power and the goods of this world.
The Modern Arians
The crisis of our times, too, is partly about ideas — about truth, and the Faith. Today’s Arians believe that the content of the Faith and the nature and life of the Church can and must evolve over time. They work to revise the Church’s teaching, discipline and message to suit themselves.
But they also collude to amass power and the spoils of victory: preferment, privilege, pleasure. They comprise a vast, far-flung network of networks, a super-clique resting its great bulk upon the Catholic world. In this way, and not only in terms of a debate with heterodoxy, faithful Catholics today are involved in a struggle like that of the Fathers in antiquity.
The Modern Catholic Resistance
Like the wise Athanasius, today’s Catholics can ill afford to forget that this struggle is not a simple dialogue with an interlocutor who disagrees with us in good faith. Make no mistake, Catholic resistance today is an effort to roll back, outmaneuver and finally outlast a hostile and powerful cohort determined to hold the institutions they have captured and occupied in the 20th century.
Sean Patrick Kater is a traditional Catholic from the Chicago area, with a background in classical studies and biblical studies. He also enjoys hiking, travelling and, of course, Regina Magazine.