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Forged letters

In the fragments of St. Hilary are embedded a number of letters of Liberius. Fragment IV contains a letter, "Studens paci", together with a very corrupt comment upon it by St. Hilary. The letter has usually been considered a forgery since Baronius (2nd ed.), and Duchesne expressed the common view when he said in his "Histoire ancienne de l'Église" (1907) that St. Hilary meant us to understand that it is spurious. But its authenticity was defended by Tillemont, and has been recently upheld by Schiktanz and Duchesne (1908), all Catholic writers. Hermant (cited by Coustant), followed by Savio, believed that the letter was inserted by a forger in the place of a genuine letter, and he took the first words of St. Hilary's comment to be serious and not ironical: "What in this letter does not proceed from piety and from the fear of God?" In this document Liberius is made to address the Arian bishops of the East, and to declare that on receiving an epistle against St. Athanasius from the Oriental bishops, which had been sent to his predecessor Julius, he had hesitated to condemn that saint, since his predecessor had absolved him, but he had sent legates to Alexandria to summon him to Rome. Athanasius had refused to come, and Liberius on receiving new letters from the East had at once excommunicated him, and was now anxious to communicate with the Arian party. Duchesne thinks this letter was written in exile at the beginning of 357, and that Liberius had really sent an embassy (in 352-3), suggesting that Athanasius should come to Rome; now in his exile he remembers that Athanasius had excused himself, and alleges this as a pretext for condemning him. It seems inconceivable, however, that after heroically supporting Athanasius for years, and, having suffered exile for more than a year rather than condemn him, Liberius should motive his present weakness by a disobedience on the saint's part at which he had testified no resentment during all this stretch of time. On the contrary, St. Hilary's comment seems plainly to imply that the letter was forged by Fortunatian, Metropolitan of Aquileia, one of the bishops who condemned Athanasius and joined the court party at the Council of Milan in 355. Fortunatian must have tried to excuse his own fall, by pretending the pope (who was then still in Rome) had entrusted this letter to him to give to the emperor, "but Potamius and Epictetus did not believe it to be genuine when they condemned the pope with glee (as the Council of Rimini said of them)", else they would not have condemned him to exile, "and Fortunatian sent it also to many bishops without getting any gain by it". And St. Hilary goes on to declare that Fortunatian had further condemned himself by omitting to mention how Athanasius had been acquitted at Sardica after the letter of the Easterns against him to Pope Julius, and how a letter had come from a council at Alexandria and all Egypt in his favour to Liberius, as earlier to Julius. Hilary appeals to documents which follow, evidently the letter "Obsecro" to the emperor (already mentioned), in which Liberius attests that he received the defence by the Egyptians at the same time with the accusation by the Arians. The letter "Obsecro" forms fragment V, and it seems to have been immediately followed in the original work by fragment VI, which opens with the letter of Liberius to the confessors, "Quamuis sub imagine" (proving how steadfast he was in his support of the faith), followed by quotations from letters to a bishop of Spoleto and to Hosius, in which the pope deplores the fall of Vincent at Arles. These letters are incontestably genuine.

There follows in the same fragment a paragraph which declares that Liberius, when in exile, reversed all these promises and actions, writing to the wicked, prevaricating Arians the three letters which complete the fragment. These correspond to the authentic letters which have preceded, each to each: the first, "Pro deifico timore" is a parody of "Obsecro"; the second "Quia scio uos", is a reversal of everything said in "Quamuis"; the third "Non doceo", is a palinode, painful to read, of the letter to Hosius. The three are clearly forgeries, composed for their present position. They defend the authenticity of "Studens paci", which they represent as having been sent to the emperor from Rome by the hands of Fortunatian; the genuine letters are not contested, but it is shown that Liberius changed his mind and wrote the "Studens paci"; that in spite of this he was exiled, through the machinations of his enemies, so he wrote "Pro deifico timore" to the Easterns, assuring them not only that he had condemned Athanasius in "Studens paci", but that Demophilus, the Bishop of Beroea (reprobated as a heretic in "Obsecro"), had explained to him the Sirmian formula of 357, and he had willingly accepted it. This formula disapproved of the words homoousios and homoiousios alike; it had been drawn up by Geminius, Ursacius, and Valens. "Quia scio nos" is addressed precisely to these three court bishops and Liberius begs them to pray the emperor for his restoration, just as in "Quamuis" he had begged the three confessors to pray to God that he too might be exiled. "Non doceo" parodies the grief of Liberius at the fall of Vincent; it is addressed to Vincent himself and begs him to get the Campanian bishops to meet and write to the emperor for the restoration of Liberius. Interspersed in the first and second letters are anathemas "to the prevaricator Liberius", attributed by the forger to St. Hilary. The forger is clearly one of the Luciferians, whose heresy consisted in denying all validity to the acts of those bishops who had fallen at the council of Rimini in 359; whereas Pope Liberius had issued a decree admitting their restoration on their sincere repentance, and also condemned the Luciferian practice of rebaptizing those whom the fallen bishops had baptized.

The aforesaid "Fragments" of St. Hilary have recently been scrutinized by Wilmart, and it appears that they belonged to two different books, the one written in 356 as an apology when the saint was sent into exile by the Synod of Béziers, and the other written soon after the council of Rimini for the instruction (says Rufinus) of the fallen bishops; it was entitled "Liber adversus Valentem et Ursacium". The letters of Liberius belonged to the latter work. Rufinus tells us that it was interpolated--he implies this of the whole edition--and that Hilary was accused at a council on the score of these corruptions; he denied them, but, on the book being fetched from his own lodging, they were found in it, and St. Hilary was expelled excommunicate from the council. St. Jerome denied all knowledge of the incident, but Rufinus certainly spoke with good evidence, and his story fits in exactly with St. Hilary's own account of a council of ten bishops which sat at his urgent request at Milan about 364 to try Auxentius whom he accused of Arianism. The latter defended himself by equivocal expressions, and the bishops as well as the orthodox Emperor Valentinian were satisfied; St. Hilary, on the contrary, was accused by Auxentius of heresy, and of joining with St. Eusebius of Vercelli in disturbing the peace, and he was banished from the city. He does not mention of what heresy he was accused, nor on what grounds; but it must have been Luciferianism, and Rufinus has informed us of the proofs which were offered. It is interesting that the fragments of the book against Valens and Ursacius should still contain in the forged letters of Liberius (and perhaps, also in one attributed to St. Eusebius) a part of the false evidence on which a Doctor of the Church was turned out of Milan and apparently excommunicated.

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It would seem that when St. Hilary wrote his book "Adversus Constantium" in 360, just before his return from exile in the East, he believed that Liberius had fallen and had renounced St. Athanasius; but his words are not quite clear. At all events, when he wrote his "Adversus Valentem et Ursacium" after his return, he showed the letter "Studens paci" to be a forgery, by appending to it some noble letters of the pope. Now this seems to prove that the Luciferians were making use of "Studens paci" after Rimini, in order to show that the pope, who was now in their opinion too indulgent to the fallen bishops, had himself been guilty of an even worse betrayal of the Catholic cause before his exile. In their view, such a fall would unpope him and invalidate all his subsequent acts. That St. Hilary should have taken some trouble to prove that the "Studens paci" was spurious makes it evident that he did not believe Liberius had fallen subsequently in his exile; else his trouble was useless. Consequently, St. Hilary becomes a strong witness to the innocence of Liberius. If St. Athanasius believed in his fall, this was when he was in hiding, and immediately after the supposed event; he was apparently deceived for the moment by the rumours spread by the Arians. The author of the preface to the "Liber Precum" of Faustinus and Marcellinus is an Ursinian masquerading as a Luciferian in order to get the advantage of the toleration accorded to the latter sect, and he takes a Luciferian view of Liberius; possibly he followed Jerome's "Chronicle", which seems to be following the forged letters; for Jerome knew St. Hilary's book "Against Valens and Ursacius", and he refused to accept the assertion of Rufinus that it had been interpolated. In his account of Fortunatian (De Viris Illust., xcvii) he says this bishop "was infamous for having been the first to break the courage of Liberius and induce him to give his signature to heresy, and this on his way into exile". This is incredible, for St. Athanasius twice tells us that the pope held out two whole years. Evidently St. Jerome (who was very careless about history) had got hold of the story that Fortunatian had a letter of Liberius in his hands after the Council of Milan, and he concludes that he must have met Liberius as the latter passed through Aquileia on his way to Thrace; that is to say, Jerome has read the forged letters and has not quite understood them.

Rufinus, who was himself of Aquileia, says he could not find out whether Liberius fell or not. This seems to be as much as to say that, knowing necessarily the assertions of St. Jerome, he was unable to discover on what they were based. He himself was not deceived by the forgeries, and there was indeed no other basis.

Positive evidence in favour of Liberius is not wanting. About 432 St. Prosper re-edited and continued St. Jerome's "Chronicle", but he was careful to omit the words tædio victus exilii in relating the return of Liberius. St. Sulpicius Severus (403) says Liberius was restored ob seditiones Romanas. A letter of Pope St. Anastasius I (401) mentions him with Dionysius, Hilary, and Eusebius as one of those who would have died rather than blaspheme Christ with the Arians. St. Ambrose remembered him as an exceedingly holy man. Socrates has placed the exile of Liberius after the Council of Milan, through too carelessly following the order of Rufinus; unlike Rufinus, however, he is not doubtful about the fall of Liberius, but gives as sufficient reason for his return the revolt of the Romans against Felix, and he has expressly omitted the story which Sozomen took from Sabinus, a writer of whose good faith Socrates had a low opinion. To Theodoret Liberius is a glorious athlete of the faith; he tells us more of him than any other writer has done, and he tells it with enthusiasm.

But the strongest arguments for the innocence of Liberius are a priori. Had he really given in to the emperor during his exile, the emperor would have published his victory far and wide; there would have been no possible doubt about it; it would have been more notorious than even that gained over Hosius. But if he was released because the Romans demanded him back, because his deposition had been too uncanonical, because his resistance was too heroic, and because Felix was not generally recognized as pope, then we might be sure he would be suspected of having given some pledge to the emperor; the Arians and the Felicians alike, and soon the Luciferians, would have no difficulty in spreading a report of his fall and in winning credence for it. It is hard to see how Hilary in banishment and Athanasius in hiding could disbelieve such a story, when they heard that Liberius had returned, though the other exiled bishops were still unrelieved.

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Further, the pope's decree after Rimini, that the fallen bishops could not be restored unless they showed their sincerity by vigour against the Arians, would have been laughable, if he himself had fallen yet earlier, and had not publicly atoned for his sin. Yet, we can be quite certain that he made no public confession of having fallen, no recantation, no atonement.

The forged letters and, still more, the strong words of St. Jerome have perpetuated the belief in his guilt. The "Liber Pontificalis" makes him return from exile to persecute the followers of Felix, who becomes a martyr and a saint. St. Eusebius, martyr, is represented in his Acts as a Roman priest, put to death by the Arianizing Liberius. But the curious "Gesta Liberii", apparently of the time of Pope Symmachus, do not make any clear allusion to a fall. The Hieronymian Martyrology gives his deposition both on 23 Sept. and 17 May; on the former date he is commemorated by Wandalbert and by some of the enlarged manuscripts of Usuard. But he is not in the Roman Martyrology.

Modern judgments on Pope Liberius

Historians and critics have been much divided as to the guilt of Liberius. Stilting and Zaccaria are the best known among the earlier defenders; in the nineteenth century, Palma, Reinerding, Hergenröther, Jungmann, Grisar, Feis, and recently Savio. These have been inclined to doubt the authenticity of the testimonies of St. Athanasius and St. Jerome to the fall of Liberius, but their arguments, though serious, hardly amount to a real probability against these texts. On the other hand, Protestant and Gallican writers have been severe on Liberius (e.g. Moeller, Barmby, the Old-Catholic Langen, and Döllinger), but they have not pretended to decide with certainty what Arian formula he signed. With these Renouf may be grouped, and lately Schiktanz. A more moderate view is represented by Hefele, who denied the authenticity of the letters, but admitted the truth of Sozomen's story, looking upon the union of the pope with the Semi-Arians as a deplorable mistake, but not a lapse into heresy. He is followed by Funk and Duchesne (1907), while the Protestant Krüger is altogether undecided. The newest view, brilliantly exposed by Duchesne in 1908, is that Liberius early in 357 (because the preface to the "Liber Precum" makes Constantius speak at Rome in April-May as though Liberius had already fallen) wrote the letter "Studens paci", and, finding it did not satisfy the emperor, signed the indefinite and insufficient formula of 351, and wrote the three other contested letters; the Arian leaders were still not satisfied, and Liberius was only restored to Rome when the Semi-Arians were able to influence the emperor in 358, after Liberius had agreed with them as Sozomen relates. The weak points of this theory are as follows: There is no other authority for a fall so early as the beginning of 357 but a casual word in the document referred to above; the "Studens paci" is senseless at so late a date; the letter "Pro deifico timore" plainly means that Liberius had accepted the formula of 357 (not that of 351), and had he done so, he would certainly have been restored at once; the story of Sozomen is untrustworthy, and Liberius must have returned in 357.

It should be carefully noted that the question of the fall of Liberius is one that has been and can be freely debated among Catholics. No one pretends that, if Liberius signed the most Arian formulæ in exile, he did it freely; so that no question of his infallibility is involved. It is admitted on all sides that his noble attitude of resistance before his exile and during his exile was not belied by any act of his after his return, that he was in no way sullied when so many failed at the Council of Rimini, and that he acted vigorously for the healing of orthodoxy throughout the West from the grievous wound. If he really consorted with heretics, condemned Athanasius, or even denied the Son of God, it was a momentary human weakness which no more compromises the papacy than does that of St. Peter.

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The letters of Liberius, together with his sermon on the occasion of the consecration of St. Ambrose's sister to virginity (preserved by that Father, "De Virg.", i, ii, iii), and the dialogue with the emperor (Theodoret, Church History II.16) are collected in Coustant "Epistolæ Rom. Pont." (reprint in P.L. VIII). A critical edition from manuscripts of the three spurious epistles of St. Hilary, 'Frag.' VI, in "Revue Bénéd." (Jan., 1910).


STILTING in Acta SS., Sept., VI (1757), 572; TILLEMONT, Mémoires, VI; ZACCARIA, Dissertatio de commentitio Liberii lapsu in PETAVIUS, Theol. dog., II, ii (1757); PALMA, Prælectiones Hist. Eccl., I (Rome, 1838); REINERDING, Beiträge zur Honorius und Liberiusfrage (1865); LE PAGE RENOUF, The Condemnation of Pope Honorius (London, 1868); HEFELE, Conciliengeschichte, I (2nd ed. and later ones; Eng tr. vol. II, 1876); JUNGMANN, Dissertationes selectæ, II (Ratisbon and New York, 1881); BARMBY in Dict. Christ. Biog., s.v.; HERGENRÖTHER, Kirchengesch., I, (1884) 374; GRISAR in Kirchenlex., s.v.; FEIS, Storia di Liberio Papa e dello scisma dei Semiariani (Rome, 1894); MOELLER-SCHUBERT, Lehrbuch der Kirchengesch., I (Leipzig, 1902); LOOFS in Realencyklopädie für protestantitsche Theologie und Kirche, s.v. Hilarius; KRUGER, ibid., s.v. Liberius; SCHIKTANZ, Die Hilariusfragmente (Breslau, 1905); SALTET, La formation de la légende des papes Libère de 357, ibid. (Dec., 1907); WILMART, L'Ad Constantium liber I de S. Hilaire in Revue Bénéd. (April and July, 1907); IDEM, Les Fragments historiques et le synode de Béziers, ibid. (April, 1908); IDEM, La question du pape Libère, ibid. (July, 1908); DUCHESNE, Libère et Fortunatien in Mélanges de l'école française de Rome, XXVIII, i-ii (Jan.-April, 1908); SAVIO, La questione di papa Liberio (Rome, 1907, an answer to SCHIKTANZ); IDEM, Nuovi studi sulla questione di papa Liberio (Rome, 1909; in reply to DUCHESNE); FEDER, Studien zu Hilarius von Poitiers, I, in Sitzungsber. der K. Akad. Wiss. von Wien (Vienna, 1910), follows DUCHESNE.

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APA citation. Chapman, J. (1910). Pope Liberius. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 31, 2022 from New Advent:

MLA citation. Chapman, John. "Pope Liberius." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 31 Jul. 2022 <>.


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