Pope Victor redux?
The Quartodeciman controversy of the second century A.D. had to do with the date on which the resurrection of Christ ought to be observed. Churches in Asia Minor preserved the custom of tying this observance to the date of the Passover, whatever day of the week that happened to fall on. The Roman practice was instead to observe it on a Sunday, since that was the day Christ was resurrected. The eastern practice was defended by St. Polycarp, who appealed to the authority of none other than his teacher St. John the Apostle. Pope St. Anicetus tried unsuccessfully to convince Polycarp to adopt the Roman practice, and they agreed to disagree.
Pope St. Victor I, who came along a few decades later, was not so accommodating. He tried to convince the eastern bishop Polycrates to adopt the Roman custom, just as Anicetus tried to convince Polycarp, and was equally unsuccessful. But unlike Anicetus, Victor decided to force the issue by excommunicating those who refused to conform. Whether the excommunications were ever rescinded is a matter of historical controversy. But Victor was criticized at the time for his intolerance even by some who agreed with the Roman practice, such as St. Irenaeus. Victor did what he did in the name of unity, yet the practice he forbade had a long precedent (indeed, one going back to the apostles themselves) and had been tolerated by his predecessors. So why act with such severity? Though they did not deny that Victor had, as pope, the right to do what he did, his critics questioned the wisdom and charity of his exercise of that right.
A pope who, in the name of unity, gravely offends much of his flock by needlessly and harshly curtailing ancient and legitimate liturgical practice that had been permitted by his predecessors. Sound familiar?
Catholic teaching has always acknowledged that popes can make grave mistakes of various kinds when they are not exercising the fullness of their authority in ex cathedra decrees. Usually, errant popes exhibit serious failings of only one or two sorts. But Pope Francis seems intent on achieving a kind of synthesis of all possible papal errors. Like Honorius I and John XXII, he has made doctrinally problematic statements (and more of them than either of those popes ever did). Like Vigilius, his election and governance have involved machinations on the part of a heterodox party. The Pachamama episode brings to mind Marcellinus and John XII. Then there are the bad episcopal appointments, the accommodation to China’s communist government, and the clergy sexual abuse scandal, which echo the mismanagement, political folly, corruption and decadence of previous eras in papal history. And now we have this repeat of Victor’s high-handedness. Having in this way insulted a living predecessor, might Francis next ape Pope Stephen VI by exhuming a dead one and putting the corpse on trial?
Probably not. But absolutely nothing would surprise me anymore in this lunatic period in history that we’re living through.