The Contemporary Catholic Crisis in its Historical Perspective: Arianism

by Brent Klaske

Blog Note: The following text is posted to coincide with the feast of St. Athanasius. Written by Michael Davies, it originally appeared in the January, 1987 issue of The Angelus.

In order to place the contemporary crisis in Catholicism in its correct historical perspective, we must ask the question: “Has anything like it happened before?” The question must definitely be answered in the affirmative, but the correct precedent is not the one which would first suggest itself to most Catholics, i.e., the Protestant Reformation. There are, of course, many parallels with this event. We never cease hearing that after centuries of obscurantism, if not outright decadence, the Church is “renewing” herself at last, returning to her roots, casting aside the shackles of clerical domination, giving the laity their rightful role, making the liturgy accessible to everyone. The parallels to be found in the post-Vatican II liturgical revolution and the liturgical revolution initiated by the Protestant Reformers are particularly striking and particularly horrifying. This can be verified by referring to my book, Cranmer’s Godly Order.


There is one fundamental point upon which a comparison of the present crisis with the Protestant Reformation breaks down. Although many of the Protestant Reformers began by working within the structures of the Church to propagate their new ideas, they all eventually broke with her; they attacked her from without, claiming that Catholicism had deviated so far from the Gospel that it could no longer be termed Christian. Many of them insisted that each succeeding pope was an incarnation of Anti-christ, as some still do today. There was thus no problem about the lines of demarcation. You were either a Catholic or a Protestant, and if you were a Catholic, you were within the jurisdiction of a bishop in communion with the pope. You could be sure that any bishop accepted as Catholic by the Holy See would be orthodox in his belief, even if his conduct sometimes left something to be desired.


The most distressing aspect of the contemporary crisis is that there are no such clear lines of demarcation. This was made very clear in one of he most important articles to appear in the English-speaking world since Vatican II. It was entitled “The Plight of the Papalist Priest,” and appeared in the December 1981 issue of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review. This periodical is the leading English-language journal for priests and is militantly orthodox. The author of the article needed to remain anonymous in order to escape persecution by his own bishop, in itself a most depressing “sign of the times.” It is not without precedent that Catholic priests have had to conceal their opinions from their bishops, but this has been necessary because their views are unorthodox. Modernist clerics during the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X frequently resorted to pseudonyms or anonymity. But the author of this article had to conceal his name because he is an orthodox Catholic priest. The thesis of his article was that a number of dioceses in the U.S.A. are now dominated by theological Modernism. In some cases the bishops themselves are Modernists, in other cases they have lost the will to resist Modernism and have allowed Modernists to take over all the key posts in the diocese. Those priests who refuse to abandon their Catholic faith are, in his words, treated as pariahs, “the butt of obloquy, of condescending pity, barred from any positions of influence, quarantined to small enclaves, usually isolated rural areas where he can do the least ‘damage.’ ” In these dioceses Modernists have total control over the seminaries, liturgy, cathecetics, and the Catholic press. And, most depressing of all, the few orthodox priests, estimated at about one-eighth of the total, can expect no help from the Holy See which seems unwilling to offend, let alone remove the Modernist bishops. The author of the article comments:


Words of exhortation from Rome will not effect changes so long as the present bishops are in place in the control of dioceses. There is simply no way to reform seminaries, religious education offices, marriage tribunals, the diocesan press, liturgical abuses, until tough, papally-oriented bishops are in position.


This situation is by no means unique to the United States, it prevails in Great Britain and most European countries and is certainly the case in a number of dioceses in Australia and New Zealand. Thus, during the contemporary crisis, the faith of millions of Catholics is being destroyed, not by the attacks of enemies of the Faith operating outside the Church, but by enemies of the Faith operating within her own structures, enemies of the Faith who sometimes include the diocesan bishop, or can at least rely on no opposition from him! These men are the “partisans of error” condemned by St. Pius X in his encyclicalPascendi, men who operate, he warned, within the very bosom of the Church, and who “put into operation their designs for her undoing, not from without but from within….They proceed to diffuse poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth which they leave untouched, none that they do not strive to corrupt.”


It is clear, then, that if we wish to find a historical precedent for the current crisis, it must be one during which the official structures of the Church were controlled by heretics, including bishops, who used their positions of authority to destroy the Faith from within. Such a precedent can be found in the Arian heresy.


It is not necessary here to go into any detail on the nature of Arianism. The essence of the heresy was its denial that Our Lord Jesus Christ was truly God, one in substance with the Father, equal to Him in every way. They would term Our Lord the “only-begotten,” “Son of God,” “Lord Creator,” “First-born of all creation,” and even “God of God”—meaning thereby “made God by God.” But they would not accept the expression “one in substance” or “con-substantial”—the Greek term homoousion which had been used in the definition of the Council of Nicea (325). This council had been convoked by the Emperor Constantine who ordered everyone to accept his definitions. Arius himself was excommunicated and banished, but within a few years his friends prevailed upon the Emperor to allow him to return to Alexandria.


Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, was ordered to receive him in communion, but refused to do so. Athanasius was then banished to Gaul, and the stage was set for a dramatic resurgence of Arianism. The Emperor Constantine died in 337, and was eventually succeeded by his son Constantius, who was an Arian. Constantius had at first shared the Empire with two other brothers, but became sole ruler in 350, following their deaths.


The Catholic Encyclopedia rightly describes the life of St. Athanasius as “a bewildering maze of events.” No attempt will be made here to describe his life in any detail, the various councils which declared for or against him, his expulsions from, and restorations to, his see, his relations with a formidable list of emperors, bishops and popes. Suffice to say that during the reign of Constantius, the apparent triumph of orthodoxy at Nicea was reversed, and those who defended orthodoxy became the victims of persecution. There is an evident parallel here with the apparent defeat of Modernism during the pontificate of St. Pius X.



On May 17, 352, Liberius was consecrated as Pope. He immediately found himself involved in the Arian dispute. He appealed to the Emperor to do justice to Athanasius, refused to submit to various forms of intimidation, was exiled to Thrace in 355, and a Roman deacon, Felix, intruded into his see. The Romans were outraged, refused to accept the anti-pope, and made it imperative for Constantius to restore Liberius to his see. But it was equally imperative for the prestige of Constantius that Liberius should condemn Athanasius. The courage and resolution of the Pope had been shaken by the rigors of exile. He was subjected to a sustained campaign of threats, persuasion, and flattery, and eventually he succumbed. He subscribed to the condemnation of Saint Athanasius and signed an ambiguous Arian formula which, while not formally denying the divinity of Our Lord, was open to such an interpretation. The tragic fall of Liberius is described in the sternest terms in Butler’s Lives of the Saints “The fall of so great a prelate and so illustrious a confessor is a terrifying example of human weakness, which no one can call to mind without trembling for himself.” Evidently, the restoration of Liberius to his see after he had compromised himself was a triumph for Constantius and the Arians. Within a few years, and almost everywhere, Arianism was triumphant, and its triumph had been virtually imperceptible. Writing of this period, St. Jerome commented: “The whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Arian.”


The Arian triumph involved no dramatic and manifest change of position as had been the case with the Protestant Reformation. In the fourth century the simple fact of communion with the Pope did not guarantee orthodoxy as the Arian bishops were in communion with Liberius. The vast majority of the episcopate had been unfaithful to its commission. In AD 360, St. Gregory Nanzianzen wrote:


Surely the pastors have done foolishly; for, excepting a very few, who either on account of their insignificance were passed over, or by reason of their virtue resisted, and who were to be left as a seed and root for the springing up again and revival of Israel by the influence of the Spirit, all temporized, only differing from each other in this, that some succumbed earlier, and others later; some were the foremost champions and leaders in the impiety, and others joined the second rank of the battle, being overcome by fear, or by interest, or by flattery, or, what was most excusable, by their own ignorance.


Among the few who resisted by reason of their virtue, Athanasius was outstanding. Excommunicated, hunted, and abused, he became a focus of hope and inspiration for the Catholic remnant which kept the Faith. It was, for a time, communion with Athanasius rather than communion with the Pope which signified a true Catholic. Those who wished to remain faithful to tradition became a despised and persecuted minority who had no alternative but to worship outside the “official” churches, the churches of bishops in communion with Liberius.


St. Basil wrote:


Religious people keep silence, but every blaspheming tongue is let loose. Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in the faith avoid the places of worship as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitude with groans and tears to the Lord in heaven.


He also commented:


Only one offense is now vigorously punished: an accurate observance of our fathers’ traditions. For this cause the pious are driven from their countries, and transported into deserts.


Evidently St. Athanasius felt obliged to disregard the normal rules of episcopal jurisdiction. He had no hesitation in entering the dioceses of Arian bishops to preach, encourage, console, and administer the sacraments, including that of ordination, in order to ensure the survival of a truly Catholic priesthood. Among the most striking manifestations of this period was one which made a particular impression upon Cardinal Newman, that St. Athanasius received most of his support from the laity: “The body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism.” Eventually, after several changes of emperor, Athanasius was vindicated and was able to spend the last years of his life in working to restore orthodoxy. Athanasius died in 373, but his greatest triumph was posthumous—the triumph of orthodoxy over Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.


And what of Liberius? He died in 366, and was the first pope not to be raised to the honors of the altar. Some Protestants have attempted to cite his pontificate as an argument against papal infallibility, but this is ridiculous. It is not part of Catholic teaching that every pope will be a courageous defender of the Faith at all times. St. Peter himself denied Our Lord, and, later, was rebuked by St. Paul at Antioch. Nor is it Catholic teaching that a pope will always be prudent in his decisions, nor even that he cannot err in his capacity as a private doctor. Liberius made no attempt to impose the ambiguous formula which he signed upon the entire Church as a formal definition to which all Catholics were bound to assent, e.g., an ex cathedra pronouncement. Cardinal Newman noted that the Arian crisis shows us that: “A pope, as a private doctor, and much more bishops, when not teaching formally, may err, as we find they did err in the fourth century. Pope Liberius might sign a Eusebian formula at Sirmium, and the mass of bishops at Arimium or elsewhere, and yet they might, in spite of this error, be infallible in their ex cathedra decisions.”


Neither Athanasius nor any pope or council, has ever suggested that, as a result of his failings, Liberius ceased to be pope. A pope can be weak, unjust, tolerant of heresy, and even hold heretical private beliefs, and yet still retain his office. In the case of Liberius, the fact that he was acting under such great pressure must be looked upon as an extenuating circumstance. St. Athanasius made this point himself in a most generous manner: “For things done through torments contrary to the original judgment—these are not acts of the will on the part of those who have been put to fear, but of those who inflict the torture.” Nevertheless, Liberius cannot be totally exculpated for his weakness which harmed the cause of orthodoxy. In the New Catholic Encyclopedia, it states:


Liberius did not have the strength of character of his predecessor, Julius I or of his successor, Damasus I. The troubles that erupted on the latter’s election indicate that the Roman Church had been weakened from within as well as without during the pontificate of Liberius. His name was not inscribed in the Roman Martyrology.


What the history of the Arian crisis proves is that, during a time of general apostasy, Catholics who remain true to their traditional faith may have to worship outside the official churches, the churches of priests in communion with the lawfully appointed diocesan bishop who is in communion with the lawfully elected Roman Pontiff. Such Catholics may have to look for truly Catholic teaching, leadership and inspiration—not to their diocesan bishop, not to the bishops of their country as a body, not even to the pope, but to one heroic bishop, a confessor repudiated by the other bishops and even by the Roman Pontiff, and possibly excommunicated.


The parallels with the present situation of the Church are evident, that between St. Athanasius and Archbishop Lefebvre being the most striking. But there have been other bishops who have been uncompromising in their defense of orthodoxy: Bishop Sullivan of Baton Rouge, Bishop Graber of Regensberg in Germany, and Bishop Stewart of Sandhurst in Australia, are outstanding examples. These bishops have not been traditionalist in the same sense as Archbishop Lefebvre for they have deemed it prudent to accept the official liturgical reforms, but they have not wavered for an instant in their defense of the deposit of faith, the teaching of the Church on faith and morals, which can never be modified. Mention must be made of Bishop de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, who, until his recent retirement, made the same stand as Archbishop Lefebvre within his diocese.


Where the post-conciliar popes are concerned, just as Pope Liberius endorsed an ambiguous doctrinal statement, they have endorsed a liturgical reform which presents Catholic eucharistic teaching far less explicitly than the rites it has replaced. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have not wavered in their adherence to the fundamental dogmas of the faith, but they, like Liberius, have not removed from their sees, bishops who undermine these dogmas. And it is here that we see most clearly how closely the present crisis corresponds with the period of the Arian heresy. The faith is being destroyed by bishops, or with the connivance of bishops who are in de facto communion with the Pope. The protest of the papalist priest which was cited earlier is valid, and can be applied to the entire English-speaking world. Note carefully, however, that he did not say that all dioceses are under Modernist control; some, at least, are resisting. The only effective way in which the orthodox clergy and faithful within Modernist dioceses can preserve the faith is to go outside official structures, as was the case in the Arian crisis.


We can be sure that, as was the case in the fourth century, orthodoxy will eventually triumph. Until then we must redouble our prayers not simply for heroic bishops such as Mgr. Lefebvre and Mgr. de Castro Mayer, but for His Holiness Pope John Paul II, that he will fulfill his apostolic mandate as effectively as did Pope St. Pius X. Meanwhile, for our comfort, we can bear in mind an exhortation of St. Athanasius:


The Church has not just recently been given order and statutes. They were faithfully and soundly bestowed on it by the Fathers. Nor has the faith only just been established, but it has come to us from the Lord through His disciples. May what has been preserved by the Churches from the beginning to the present day not be abandoned in our time; may what has been entrusted into our keeping not be embezzled by us. Brethren, as custodians of God’s mysteries, let yourselves be roused to action on seeing all this despoiled by others.


This message was addressed by St. Athanasius to his fellow bishops but it can be applied to every Catholic. Each of us has a duty to do all in his power to ensure that what has been entrusted to the Church from the beginning is not abandoned, and our most effective means of achieving this objective will be to get down on our knees and pray!


Brent Klaske
Brent Klaske


Director of Operations at Angelus Press. I have worked in Catholic publishing for more than 20 years. I currently live near St. Marys, KS with my wife and 10 children.

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