Pope Innocent on His Office

Pope_Innocent_IThe following are quotes taken from Pope Innocent’s responses to the letters sent on behalf of the Council of Carthage and the Council of Milevis, written around 416 and 417 respectively. The numbering is based on Augustine’s letter collection, which includes these two letters. I will highlight portions that seem of particular interest for understanding his role as bishop of Rome, as well as the role of councils and tradition. [Fun fact: Pope Innocent was a native of Albania!]

181.1. In examining questions about God, with which it is proper that bishops and especially an authentic, legitimate, Catholic council deal with the greatest care, you have observed the patterns set by ancient tradition and have been mindful of Church discipline. In that way you have added strength to the vigor of our religion by true reason, no less now in consulting us than earlier when you issued the decree. For you wanted it to be referred to our judgment, knowing what is due to the Apostolic See, since all of us who have held this position desire to follow that apostle from whom the episcopacy itself and the whole authority of this name is derived. Following him, we know how to condemn what is evil and to approve what is praiseworthy, just as we approve the fact that in observing the teachings of our predecessors you did not think that they should be ignored. For they established it not by a human but by a divine decision that one should not regard as settled, whatever questions are dealt with, even in distant and remote provinces, before it comes to the knowledge of this see. In this way a correct declaration is upheld by the whole authority of this see, and–just as all waters go forth from their original source and the pure waters of their incorrupt spring flow through the different regions of the whole world–from this see the other churches learn what they should teach, whom they should absolve, and whom a stream fit for clean bodies should avoid like those persons filthy with a foulness that cannot be purified. [A note: Augustine uses the language of “stream” and “spring” in Letter 177, apparently in the same sense used here.]

181.2. …you are demonstrating your solicitude for the good of all, and you ask that we decree through all the churches of the world what at the same time benefits all.

182.2. You act conscientiously and appropriately, therefore, in consulting the office of the Apostolic See, that mystical office, I say, to which, except for those matters that lie outside, there pertains the solicitude for all the churches over what judgment should be maintained in troubling affairs. You have followed the form of the ancient rule, which you know has been observed with me by the whole world. But I set aside this issue, because I do not believe that this has escaped the attention of Your Wisdom. Why did you endorse this practice by your action if it was not because you knew that responses always flow from the apostolic fountain through all the provinces for those who ask for them? I think that, especially when a question of faith is discussed, all our brothers and fellow bishops ought to refer it only to Peter, that is, to the source of their title and dignity, as Your Charity has now referred this question, which could benefit all the churches in common through the world. For these churches must necessarily become more cautious when they see that the inventors of these evils have been separated from communion with the Church by decrees of our judgments in response to the two synods.

182.6. …[Pelagius and Caelestius] are excommunicated from the Church by the authority of our apostolic power until they come to their senses (2 Tim 2:26).

[The translation cited is the New City Press edition of Augustine’s works.]

Augustine to Pope Innocent

The following passages are taken from letters written to Pope Innocent by St. Augustine on behalf of African councils of bishops. They indicate that the Apostolic See has a special role in matters of Church teaching and discipline. The context is that Pelagius was recently exonerated by bishops in the East who probably misunderstood his teaching on grace. The goal is to have Pope Innocent condemn the errors of Pelagius.

175.2. [from the Council of Carthage] We believed, our lord and brother, that we should inform Your Charity of this action so that the authority of the Apostolic See might be added to the decrees of our humble selves in order to defend the salvation of many and to correct the perversity of some. …

175.6. We have no doubt that, once Your Reverence has seen the episcopal proceedings that are reported to have been held in the East, Your Reverence will pronounce that judgment over which all may rejoice in the mercy of God. Pray for us, most blessed lord and pope.

176.5. [from the Council of Milevis] We think that with the help of the mercy of the Lord our God, who deigns to guide you when you consult him and to hear you when you pray to him, those who hold such perverse and destructive ideas will more easily yield to the authority of Your Holiness, which is derived from the authority of the holy scriptures, so that we may rejoice over their correction rather than be saddened by their destruction.

177.3. [from 5 African bishops] …He should either be summoned to Rome by Your Reverence and carefully questioned about what he means by the grace which he admits… And when he has been found to say what the apostolic truth of the Church teaches, then he should be acquitted without any worry on the part of the Church and without any shadow of ambiguity.

177.15. … Or if he denies that they are his writings or says that the passages which he denies are his own were inserted in his writings by his enemies, let him still anathematize and condemn them thanks to the fatherly exhortation and authority of Your Holiness. … For, if they know that the same book that they either believe or know is his has been anathematized and condemned by the authority of Catholic bishops and especially of Your Holiness, which we do not doubt carries greater weight with him, and by Pelagius himself, we do not think that they will dare to disturb the faithful and simple Christian hearts by speaking against grace…

177.19. … We do not presume that our little stream increases your bountiful spring, but in this great trial of our time, from which we pray that he to whom we say, Bring us not into temptation, may set us free, we want you to test whether our stream, though small, flows from the same headwaters from which yours also flows in abundance, and by your replies we want you to console us concerning our common participation in the one grace.


The following selections are references to the Apostolic See in other letters by Augustine.

186.2. [Augustine to Paulinus of Nola] After we received a letter from the East that aired the same views in full openness, we ought by no means to have failed to help the Church with whatever episcopal authority we had. Reports from two councils in Carthage and in Milevis were sent to the Apostolic See, therefore, before the ecclesiastical proceedings at which Pelagius was said to have been acquitted in the presence of some bishops of the Province of Palestine arrived either in our hands or in Africa. We also wrote to Pope Innocent of blessed memory a personal letter in addition to the reports of the councils, in which we dealt with this issue somewhat more at length. He replied to us on all these points in the way in which it was right and necessary for a bishop of the Apostolic See.

190.22. [Augustine to Optatus of Milevis] By the vigilance of the councils of bishops along with the help of the savior, who watches over his Church, as well as by two venerable bishops of the Apostolic See, Pope Innocent and Pope Zosimus, [the Pelagians] have been condemned throughout the whole world, unless they are corrected and do penance.

190.23. … These words of the Apostolic See contain the Catholic faith that is so ancient and well-founded, so certain and clear, that it is impious for a Christian to doubt it.

194.1. [Augustine to Sixtus, a future pope] But now in your letter the very faith of the Roman church states more openly and more at length what you hold about and in opposition to that teaching along with us. For it was especially to that church that the blessed apostle Paul said many things in many ways about the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25).

194.43. … For they are bound by the authority of the divine Scriptures and by the rite of the Church handed down from of old and held firmly [antiquitus tradito et retento firmo] in the baptism of infants. [Not related to the Pope, but a good text on being bound by Scripture and tradition.]

209.9. [A very sad letter from Augustine to Pope Celestine. Augustine had recommended a certain man for the episcopacy who ended up devastating. It seems to Augustine that only the Apostolic See can set things aright.] … Do not allow this to go on, I beg you by the blood of Christ, by the memory of Peter the apostle, who warned the leaders of Christian peoples not to lord it over brethren with violence. … Both of them deserve your mercy–the people in order that they may not suffer wrongs, Antonius in order that he may not cause them; they in order that they may not hate the Catholic Church if they do not received help from Catholic bishops, especially from the Apostolic See itself, against a Catholic bishop, but he in order that he may not involve himself in such a great crime that he alienates from Christ those whom he wants to make his own against their will.


In a consequent post, I intend to highlight passages from Pope Innocent’s three responses, where he is far more explicit about the purpose of his office. Although these are not from Augustine’s own mouth, they indicate what the Church of Rome taught even in the 4th century concerning the Apostolic See.

One final quote from Augustine. This is from Sermon 131, speaking about the Pelagians: “Concerning this case, two councils were sent to the Apostolic See: whence also the responses came. The case is finished. [Causa finita est.]”

Augustine, Sermon 131, Against Pelagians

[I found this sermon in the course of looking for places where Augustine speaks of Papal authority. The last paragraph refers to the “Apostolic See,” but the whole sermon looked interesting enough that I attempted a translation of the whole.]

Sermon 131 (Sermon 105 on the New Testament)
On the words of the Gospel of John (6:54-66), “Unless ye eat flesh,” etc., and on the words of the Apostle and the Psalms, against Pelganians. Had for the feast of the Martyr Saint Cyprian, 9th Kalends of October [Sep 22?], on the Lord’s Day.

Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.

1. We have heard the true Teacher, divine Redeemer, human Savior, commending to us our reward, his blood. For it was spoken to us about his body and blood; the body he called food, the blood drink. The faithful recognize the sacrament of the faithful. However what do those hearing hear different? Therefore the one commending such food and such drink would say: Unless you eat my flesh, and drink my blood, you will not have life in you (and he would say this about life, who else than life itself? However it will be the death of man, not life, to him who thought life was lying). His disciples were scandalized, not all, but many, saying among themselves: This saying is hard, who is able to hear it? However when the Lord would have himself been aware of this, and would have heard the murmurs of thought from those thinking, he did not respond with his voice to those making noise, that they would know themselves to be heard, and would stop thinking such things. What did he then respond? This scandalizes you? What then if you would see the Son of man rising to where he was before? What he want for himself: The scandalizes you? You think that about this my body which you see, I am to make parts, and chop up my members, and give them to you? What: What then if you would see the Son of man rising to where he was before? Surely who was able to ascend whole, is not able to be consumed. Therefore also from his body and blood he gave us healthy restoration, and so quickly solved a great question about his integrity. And so those who eat would eat, those who drink would drink; they would hunger and thirst: they would eat life and drink life. To eat that is to be rebuilt: but you are rebuilt so that you fail not from where you are rebuilt. What is it to drink that, except to live? Eat life, drink life: you will have life, and it is a whole life. Moreover, this will be, that the body and blood of Christ will be life for each; if what is taken in the Sacrament visibly would itself actually be eaten spiritually and drink spiritually. For we heard the Lord himself saying: It is the Spirit who vivifies, the flesh profits nothing whatsoever. The words which I have spoken to you, are spirit and life. But there are certain ones, he says, who do not believe. They themselves say: This saying is hard, who can hear it? It is hard, but you are hard: this is incredible, but you are incredulous.

Faith a gift of God. The violence of sweet grace.

2. But that he may also teach us to believe him to be gifts, not merits: Just as, he says, I said to you, no one comes to me, except him to whom it is given by my Father. However where the Lord will have said this (if we recall the higher things of the Gospel), we will find him to have said, No one comes to me, unless the Father (who sent me) will have drawn him. He did not say: “will have led”, but “will have drawn”. This becomes violence for the heart, not for the flesh. At what then do you wonder? Believe, and you will come; love, and you will be drawn. Lest you would judge this violence bitter and annoying: it is pleasant, it is sweet; sweetness itself draws you. Is not a sheep drawn, when grass is shown to a hungry sheep? And I think that it is not impelled in the body, but is brought by desire. So you also, come to Christ: do not consider long journeys; where you believe, there you come. For to him who is everywhere, one is come by loving, not by seafaring [navigating]. But even in such a journey, there abound the waves and tempests of diverse temptations; believe in the Crucified One, that your faith may be able to ascend the wood. You will not be sunk, but you will be carried by the wood. Thus and so was he navigating in the waves of this age, he who was saying: Far be it from me to glory, except in the cross of the our Lord Jesus Christ.

Neither faith nor a good life is conferred by one’s own powers.

3. However it is strange that with the foresaid crucified Christ, two hear, one contemns, the other ascends. Who comtemns would ascribe it to himself; who ascends would not confer [arroget] it on himself. For he heard from the teacher: No one comes to me, unless it is given to him by my Father. He would rejoice, because it is given: he would give thanks to the giver with a heart humble, not arrogant; lest what he merited humble, he would lose proud. For even those who now walk in the just path itself, if they were to attribute this to their powers, they would perish from that. And so teaching us humility, Holy Scripture says through the Apostle: Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. And lest they attribute something to themselves from this, that he said, work ye out, he immediately added, For it is God who work in you, both to will and to do, by his good will. It is God who works in us; therefore, with fear and trembling, make ye a valley, receive ye the rain. The depths are filled, the high places are dried up. The rain is grace. Why therefore do you wonder, if God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble? Therefore: with fear and trembling; that is, “with humility.” Do not desire to know the height, but be afraid. Be afraid, that you may be filled; do not desire to know the height, lest you be dried up.

It is necessary to be justified by grace, that he may walk in the just path.

4. But now you say, “I walk this path. It was useful that I learn, useful that through the teaching of the Law I would know what I would do: I have free choice of will; who will separate me from this path?” If you read carefully, you will find a certain one who from his abundance (which he had received) began to extol himself; however you will find the Lord took away the mercy he had given him, that he may teach humility; but you will find immediately that he remained poor, and you will find that he confessed by recollection the mercy of God, saying: I said in my abundance: I will not move, forever. I said in my abundance. But I said; I, a man, said: Every man is a liar. I said. Therefore: I said in my abundance; such was the abundance, that I would dare to say this: I will not move, forever. What then? Lord, in your your will you set applied virtue to me honor. However you turned your face from me, and I was made disturbed. You showed me, he says, that that by which I was abounding, was from yours. You showed me from whom I would ask, to whom I would attribute what I had received, to whom I ought to give thanks, to whom I would run thirsting, from whom I would be filled, and by which I would guard that to for which I was filled. For I will guard my strength for you, you great giver, by whom I would be filled, you savior I would not lose. I will guard my strength for you. That you may show this to him: You turned your face from me, I was made disturbed. Disturbed, because dried up; dried up, because exalted. Therefore, dry and arid, say, that you may again be filled: My soul is for you as a land without water. Say: My soul is for you as a land without water. For you had said, not the Lord: I will not move, forever. You said this, presuming about yourself; but it was not from yourself, and you were thinking as if it was from yourself.

One walking in a just path, if he attributed that to himself, perishes from the just path.

5. What therefore says the Lord? Serve the Lord in fear, and exalt him with trembling. So also the Apostle: Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you. Therefore, Exalt with trembling. Lest the Lord be angered. I see that you anticipate with shouting. For you know what I am going to say, so you anticipate with shouting. And whence do you have this, except that he taught you, him to whom you came with trusting? Therefore he says this: Hear what you learned; I do not teach, but I recall by preaching: indeed, I neither teach, because you had learned; nor do I recall, because you had remembered; but together we say what you hold with us. The Lord says this: Apprehend teaching, and exalt, but: with trembling, that always humble you may hold that you received. Lest the Lord be angered, with the proud, attributing what they have to themselves, not with those giving thanks to the one from whom they have. Lest the Lord be angered, and you perish from the just way. Is it said: Lest the Lord be angered, and you would not come to the just path? Or is it said: Lest the Lord be angered, and leads you not to the just path, or not admit you to the just path? You now walk in this path, do not be proud, lest even now you would perish from it. And you would perish, he sais, from the just path. When he will have blazed up in his quick wrath upon you. Not taking a long time. Where you are proud, there you have accepted that you will perish. By these things a man will be frightened as if he would say: What then will I do? It follows: Blessed are all who confide in him; not in themselves, but in him. By grace we are saved, not from us, but it is a gift of God.

Against Pelagians. Remission of sins in baptism. Faintness after baptism.

6. Perhaps you will say: What does he want for himself that he often says this? And the again, and the a third time: and he almost never speaks, except when he says this. If only I spoke [not?] with out cause. For there are men ungrateful of grace, many attributing it their blind and weak natures. It is true, a man with great powers of free choice, when he was put together, accepted it; but by sinning he lost it. He lapsed into death, was made infirm, he was left aside on the path by thieves, half-alive; the Samaritan going out to him, lifted him onto his mule (Samaritan is interpreted “Guard”); he led him even to the stable. Who will be lifted up? For this he will be provided. But indeed it suffices, he says, for me to have received in baptism the remission of all sins. But is the infirmity finished because the iniquity is wiped out? To have received the remission of all sins, he says. It is entirely true. All sins were baptized in the sacrament of baptism, certainly all things said, done, thought, were all wiped away. But indeed this was poured out on the path: oil and wine. You retain, most beloved, how he was consoled, the half-alive in the path wounded by thieves, receiving oil and wine for his wounds. Now certain he was dispensed from his errors, and yet his weakness is healed in the stable. If you recognize the stable, it is the Church. Only a stable, because by living we go over: it will be a house, whence we will never depart, when we will come sound to the kingdom of the heavens. Meanwhile may we be freely cared for in the stable, that the weak may not glory about soundness; may we make nothing else so as to be made proud, unless we would never be healed by caring.

Four benefits of grace: remission of sins, treatment of weakness, redemption from every corruption and concupiscience.

7. Bless, my soul, the Lord. Say to your soul, say: You are still in this life, you still carry this fragile flesh, the body which is corrupted still aggravates the soul; even after the wholeness of remission, you received the remedy of prayer; you still certainly say, until your weaknesses are healed: Forgive us our debts. Say then to your soul, humble in the valleys, do not set up in the hills; say to your soul: Bless, my soul, the Lord, and do not forget all his retributions. Which retributions? Say, number them, give thanks. Which retributions? That he comes to be well-disposed to all your iniquities. This was done in baptism. What came to be in this way? He who heals all your weaknesses. This comes to be in this way: I acknowledge. But while I am here, the body which is correupted aggravates the soul. Say therefore also what follows: Who redeems your life from corruption. What remains after redemption from corruption? When this corruptible will be clothed in incorruption, and the mortal will be clothed in immortality, then will come to be the word which is written: death is swallowed up in victory. Where, death, is your contention? Right there: Where, death, is your sting? You seek his place, and you will not find. What is the sting of death? What is it: Where, death, is your sting? Where is sin? You seek, and it is nowhere. For the sting of death is sin. Not my words, but the Apostle’s. Then it is said: Where, death, is your sting? Sin will be nowhere, that it may neither take you, nor attack you, nor titillate your concupiscence. Then it will not be said: Forgive us our debts. But what will be said? Lord our God, give us peace: for you have restored to us all things.

The last benefit of grace, the crown of justice.

8. Finally, after redemption from every corruption, what remains except the crown of justice? This certainly remains that he may receive a crown, but yet in this or under this crown is not an inflated head. Hear, attend to the Psalm, which does not want this crown on an inflated head. When he would have said: Who redeems your life from corruption; he says, Who crowns you. Now you are about say: He crowns you, my merits confess [?], my power did this: a debt is rendered, it is not given. Hear what God would say: Who crowns you in pity and mercy. From mercy he crowns you, from pity he crowns you. For you were not worthy that he would call, and called that he would justify, and justified that he would glorify. The remnants were saved through election of grace. However if by grace, it is not now from works: otherwise grace is not now grace. For to him who works, rewards are not imputed according to grace, but according to debt. The Apostle speaks: Not according to grace, but according to debt. However he crowns you in pity and mercy: and if your merits would go before you, God says to you: Inquire well into your merits, and you will see that they are my gifts.

The justice of God, which is unknown to Jews and Pelagians. Grace hidden in O.T., revealed in N.T.

9. Therefore this is the justice of God. Just as it is said: Salvation of the Lord, not as if the Lord is saved, but that he gives it to those whom he saves: so also the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, is called the justice of God, not as if Lord is just, but that he justifies those whom he makes just from being wicked. [Super long sentence:] But certain ones, as Jews in another time, and wanting themselves to be called Christians, and yet not knowing the justice of God, want to establish their own, even in our times, in times of open grace, in times of grace now revealed but before hidden, in times now in the area of manifest grace, which at sometime was lying hidden in a fleece. I see few to have understood, many to have not understood, those who I will by no means defraud by keeping quiet. A certain Gideon from the ancient just ones asked the from the Lord a sign, and he said: I ask, Lord, that this fleece which I put in this area, that it be rained upon, and that the area be dry. It was done: the fleece was rained upon, the whole area was dry. In the morning, he pressed out the fleece into a shallow bowl; for grace is given to the humble: and in a shallow bowl you learned what the Lord will have done for his disciples. Again he asked another sign: I want, he says, Lord, that the fleece be dry, and the area be rained upon. And it was done. Return to the time of the Old Testament, grace is hidden in a cloud, like fire in a fleece. Attend now to the time of the New Testament, examine the Jewish people, you will find them as a dry fleece; but the whole world (like the area) is full of grace, not hidden, but manifest. Whence we are compelled to lament for many of our brothers who contend, not against hidden grace, but against open and manifest grace. The Jews are pardoned. What, Christians? Why are you enemies of of the grace of Christ? Why are you presuming about yourselves? Why ungrateful? For why did Christ come? Was this not nature? Was it not nature, which by praising you deceive many? Was this not the Law? But the Apostles says: If justice is through the Law, then Christ died for nothing [gratis]. What the Apostle said that about the Law, this you know we say about nature: If justice is through nature, then Christ died for nothing [gratis].

Council against Pelagians.

10. What then is said about the Jews, we see this entirely in these. They have the zeal of God. I will a witness to them, because they have the zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. What is it: Not according to science? For not knowing the justice of God, and wanting to build their own, they are not subject to the justice of God. My brothers, suffer with me. Where you find such things, do not hide them, may it not be a perverse mercy in you: by all means, if you find such things, do not hide them. Refute the contradictors, and lead the resistant ones to us. For now about this case, two councils were sent to the Apostolic See: whence also responses came. The case is finished: if only the error were at some point finished! Therefore we warn that they may turn, we teach that they may be instructed, let us pray that they may be changed. Turn to the Lord…