4 November 2014

The Diocletian Persecution

Someone was puzzled by a phrase I used in my last post "the traditor bishops of the Diocletian persecution". A timely question; Cardinal Pell preached a splendid sermon in Rome in which he sketched a historical background to suggest that we should not panic at the trifling woes the Church is going through at the present time: things have been much, much, worse! I agree. So did Dom Gregory 'Anglican Patrimony' Dix. I will let him tell you the story.

"[I]t cannot be said that the episcopate as a whole had come well out of the universal crisis of the Diocletian persecution. 

Few bishops when it broke out were men of much distinction. Eusebius, who as a bishop and a contemporary has some claim to be heard, says frankly that they were on the whole a poor lot, and ascribes the persecution largely to divine anger at their conduct. He is rather given to pious thoughts of this kind, which have not quite the value of historical judgments. But the precise and definite evidence of episcopal failure everywhere at this time can hardly be discounted ... The better bishops, of course, proved faithful and were martyred. But a shockingly large number at the first question turned traditor - i.e., handed over the Scriptures and sacred vessels to the authorities for destruction, the formal act required of them, which Church and State agreed to consider as constituting apostasy. Others denied that they had them in their keeping, but gave the names of the lectors who had them. Others again salved their consciences by handing over other books instead ...

"When the African Council of Cirta met in 305, after the persecution had spent its first violence in these parts, it revealed a pitiful state of affairs. All the bishops present but two seem to have been traditores in some sense. The president himself was compromised, and agreed to suspend all enquiries to avoid unpleasantness. Nor were the only faults those of lack of courage. More than one of these men was afterwards found guilty of direct theft; others of simony and adultery, and of peculating Church funds. One bishop, who admitted to two murders, retained his seat in this assembly by a timely display of diabolically bad temper.

"We may hope that this sort of thing was exceptional, but the evidence is not reassuring. We hear, e.g., of bishops in Palestine who after the persecution, "because they had not rightly shepherded the rational flock of Christ, were by divine justice turned into camel-drivers, an animal of a natural perversity to which they were suited". It is a fact that though there were a score of sees in Palestine, no bishop was martyred there in ten years of persecution ... "

Jolly stuff, eh? 


Noah Moerbeek said...

If times have been worst, that also means they can get much worst.

All the same
"Bad times, hard times - this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times." St Augustine

Stephen said...

If ever there were a punishment to fit the crime....

Grumpy Beggar said...

The Diocletian persecution would appear to have had the effect of a catalyst - polarizing the pious and the less-than-pious to extreme degrees - particularly if the information which comes to us through tradition concerning St. Philomena is accurate.
. . . While today , the field of modern genetics continues to expose irreconcilable holes in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

From a Diocletian era so devoid of the “jolly”, perhaps one might still might be able to draw a tad of consolation out of knowing the events of that era actually shamed Darwin some1500 years before his birth. I consider the following two observations :

1. The events as recounted by Dom Gregory, when viewed through the lens of human character traits certainly do not support the theory of “survival of the fittest” , but rather its inversion.

2. While Darwin remained incurably bent on the idea of convincing everyone the human species had evolved from primates , the Diocletian era offers the plausibility of a counterproposal : That primates actually evolved from jellyfish and exhibited a natural tendency towards camels.

Black's Law Dictionary Free Online Legal Dictionary 2nd Edition at the link just below, describes “traditor” as :
In Old English Law. A traitor; one guilty of high treason.

That’s downright frightening – we might as well betray our Blessed Lord with a kiss. Preserve us Lord from ever becoming traditors. AMEN.

Sadie Vacantist said...

The jaundiced view that we have "seen it all before" seems to run contrary to the optimism of the aggiornamento project. Of the latter, the mistake was surely to believe that there was a "modern" World with which to interact. The World of 1962 was no more modern than it was in 1862. In fact, in many ways it was less so not least in the United States where the modernisers of the South were at war with old fashioned tyrants from the North and winning. The latter would eventually vanquish their opponents of course which begs the question who on earth did the Council fathers think they were talking to a 100 years later if all the modernists had been slaughtered at Gettysburg?

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

There is a great privilege in living though an age which may yet be a period of recorded history. As also a responsibility.

M. Prodigal said...

The better bishops, of course, proved faithful and were martyred... This is not happening in the western world as of yet but the white martyrdom is in demoting, removing, exiling and there is also the deposing of a certain founder of a holy and growing Franciscan Order.

The red martyrdom is happening, however, in places in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Nothing much changes in the episcopate as a whole perhaps. How many first stood up to Henry VIII? The martyr St. John Fisher. How many bishops, even in almost whole countries, embraced Protestantism in the 16th century? How many went Arian in the 4th? ALMOST ALL!

Yes, the few that stand upon the Rock of Christ and His true teachings through the age-old teachings of the Church are the ones who have the opportunity to be saints.

Marco da Vinha said...

We often hear that the Church got through great crises, but never how. For example, how did Arianism eventually die out given that the majority of bishops had been, at one time, Arians? I am much more interested in knowing how these crisies were eventually overcome than I am in hearing "we got through hard times, and we'll do it again" (note: this comment is not aimed at anyone: I'm just expressing a question I've had for a long time, which this post reminded me of).

Melinda said...

Pigging-backing on Marco--Father, is there any one rough time period (or book about it) that you'd recommend to our reading? I'd very much appreciate some historical perspective.