Usually I do not take serious interest in online personalities and their slew of (self-published on Amazon) books. This is because generally their content is low quality (as compared to mainstream authors) and short, reading much more like a series of blog posts than a serious literary endeavor. However, when I heard Erick Ybarra, a popular Roman Catholic apologist, was after years of making promises mere “months” away from his book on the Papacy coming out, I was actually intrigued. Maybe I am a fool and its release is not months away, but I sincerely feel that this time it is different. Ybarra has a significant following and he would be leaving money on the table if he did not come out with something.

Recently, Ybarra has been updating with, what I can tell, articles that are not peer reviewed or academically published. This would mean that it is likely these articles are sections from books he is collaborating with others on, articles that need footnotes and were not quite fit for his blog, or, perhaps, chapters to his upcoming book on the Papacy. The best of these articles is his treatment of the fifth ecumenical council and Pope Vigilius specifically. If I had to guess, and that is all it is, this is probably a chapter in the anticipated Papacy book that will, shortly, be published. Perhaps my guess is wrong and if so then all that will be of serious interest here will be my musings on the actual history and interpretations of the events it covers.

If the article is a chapter for the book, I really appreciate its style. It tends towards more formal, which is lacking from a lot of the “pop” apologetics books out there. It is not quite scholarly, but its footnotes and some of its citations of relatively recent scholarship would perhaps lend this perception to the uninformed. I would prefer to believe that Ybarra is simply presenting what he really knows on the subjects therein covered and so, will cite some scholarship he has come across. He will not exaustively cover scholarship on this or that topic as one would only expect this from a subject-matter specialist.

When one is finished with the chapter, Ybarra’s motivation is obvious. The whole point of the exercise is to defend a Vatican-I notion of the papacy. One would not immediately get this impression, as the article begins somewhat impartially in establishing historical context surrounding events leading to the fifth ecumenical council. Nevertheless, by the point one is 2/3rds into it, it devolves into standard Papal apologetics, citing 1870s Roman Catholic documents to buttress his claims. Likewise, it imposes categories of thought (i.e. formal versus material heresy) which did not even explicitly exist at the time of the historical events discussed in the hope of explaining that Vigilius had not, in fact, expounded any heresy–even when Vigilius endorsed a letter whose theological contents were, by his later admission, heretical. So, to any informed reader, the presentation of history comes off as a quaint 1800s-styled eisegesis. Yet, it is somewhat noble in that it is faithful to Vatican-I in this regard unlike how Roman Catholic scholars’ treat the same subject, including Father Richard Price.

As stated previously, the article’s tone initially is quite impartial, if not somewhat liberal and overly “professional.” For example, Ybarra notes:

In the 5th century, the discussion of Christ as God and how that relates to the human being that was born in the womb of the Virgin Mary continued to yield some dissimilarities and even contradictions. (p. 2)

Traditional Catholics should hope he means “seeming” or “apparent” contradictions, not actual contradictions. Elsewhere, Ybarra communicates skepticism that the theological differences which forged the councils are actually substantial:

With enough patience, generosity, and willingness to bear with each other’s respective phraseology and word-usages, the controversies would have never taken root, let alone have grown into the massive divisions that endure today between the Chalcedonian Christologists and Miaphysite Christologists, better known today as the separation marked between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. (p. 4)

From the preceding, one may even gather that Ybarra is posing that the ecumenical councils’ condemnations of Miaphysite theologians as being literal heretics may even be in error. They were, allegedly, not linguistically on the same page, but they conceptually had agreement. This is not surprising from the likes of mainstream scholarship, but I am not sure this is actually Ybarra’s position given his traditional defense of Vatican I.

As for what one can glean about Ybarra’s erudition in the article, the following observation is a bit nitpicky, but a detail jumped out at me in a footnote. Ybarra acknowledges that “scholars today question whether Nestorius was espousing what he was accused of,” (p. 2) that being, allegedly rejecting Mary is the Theotokos. I ask myself, why would he appeal to scholarship, and not Nestorius’ own words in his Letter to John of Antioch (Price and Graumann, The Council of Ephesus, p. 180-186) where he asserts “she is called Theotokos” (Ibid., p. 181) or his Letter to Scholasticius:

…the impure who allege that we have rejected the expression Theotokos. It is a term, as you know, we have often used. (Ibid., p. 426, cf Letter of John of Antioch to Nestorius, p. 179: “you would not hestiate to call the holy Virgin Theotokos.”)

This betrays to me that he has not carefully read the minutes of Ephesus. While reading all the minutes of the ecumenical councils is hardly something an average layman, like Ybarra, should have to do, it is a pet peeve of mine when the authors of published works comment on something, such as ecclesiology, without having actually read all the formative documents in their entirety. I’d prefer not to read a book from someone about the Bible who has not finished reading the Bible even once. So, this is a principle of mine I expect upheld.

Later in the article, Ybarra makes a comment in passing whose emphasis is, to me anyway, misleading. For example, Ybarra classifies Vigilius’ time in Constantinople as a constant state of refusal to do Saint Justinian’s will:

Pope Vigilius proved to be uncooperative from the start…the Pope realized that the entire Western Episcopate saw this [the Iudicatum of 548] as an annulment of the Council of Chalcedon, and so immediately withdrew his decree. (p. 6)

One is left with the impression that Vigilius, until he penned the second constitutim after the fifth ecumenical council, had relentlessly opposed Justinian. I disagree. Here is some background. The Iudicatum of 548, a conciliar document, was penned by Vigilius when he was in Constantinople. The Three Chapters were repudiated in it and this caused a reaction in the West which led Vigilius to dither on the topic. He temporarily withdrew the Iudicatum, but otherwise upheld it in letters to Bishop Valentinus of Tomi and Aurelian of Arles. So, the truth is not so much that Vigilius either snubbed Justinian or the West by his actions. In reality, he did insincere things to show loyalty to both sides and inconsistently presented his own views.

By page 9, the fascade of impartiality is dropped and full-blown Roman Catholic apologetics begins. For example, when explaining why Vigilius was not a heretic when he had endorsed the contents of a heretical letter as orthodox, Ybarra states:

[T]he error of Vigilius’s first Constitutum on the pseudo-Ibasian letter [the Letter of Ibas] is an error in fact rather than a doctrinal error. Vigilius read it with Chaledonian lenses, and sincerely thought it was orthodox. This is an error of interpretation, rather than a positive error that contradicts the truth. (p. 9)

What Ybarra is attempting to do is employ some sort of criteria to absolve Vigilius from heresy. In some respects this is admirable, because to anyone who has read the first constitutim, it is obvious that Vigilius adheres to a “Neo-Chalcedonian” (as the scholars put it) Christology. It would be incorrect to impute Vigilius, the man, with the charge he explicitly embraced the Nestorian excesses of the “Letter of Ibas.” In exegeting the letter, Vigilius focuses on reinterpreting it as a denial of Nestorianism. He passes over the explicitly heretical portions in silence and explains that due to Ibas publicly recanting his condemnation of Saint Cyril at Chalcedon, that clearly they were not approving any condemnation of Cyril in that letter.

However, one cannot say that in so doing officially Vigilius was merely approving the acceptance of “his letter” and not it contents. This is because Vigilius himself admitted he was wrong about which letter of Ibas Chalcedon was approving and that the letter he formally approved was doctrinally incorrect. After all, the three chapters controversy was based squarely upon heretical doctrine in those chapters, to approve this or that chapter was to approve its doctrinal contents.

“Error in fact,” as Ybarra puts it, but not in doctrine handwaves away what was really done. By approving “Ibas’ letter” and contents therein, he endorsed a heretical document and everything it states. In fact, Vigilius plainly states, “We could by the grace of God give an account of each passage and statement of the said letter [of Ibas] in turn; but because the rest can be fittingly be accommodated to the same [anti-Nestorian] interpretation…even if some obscurity can be found in them, we should yield to the authority of the [Chalcedonian] fathers and their deeper understanding.” (First Constitutim, 267; The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553, Volume 2, p. 201) This would be akin to subscribing to clearly heretical documents such as Nestorius’ reply to Pope Celestine or the Ekthesis. To make it even simpler, what Vigilius did would be akin to Pope Francis having a council in Rome and declaring “the Quran is orthodox,” but allegedly being ignorant of its contents or for the wrong reasons thinking it can somehow be squared with orthodoxy.

“Stupidity” of some sort is not a defense. Those who expound heresy and “maintain it with passionate obstinacy” meet Augustine’s criteria for who is a heretic–only those laymen who both do not expound the heresy and were brought up with error (and therefore were being innocently obedient to what they were taught by clergy who they ought to be obedient to) can be pardoned in some way. (Letter 43, Par 1) Neither can be said of Vigilius, who very well understood the points at issue and was public with his views and expounded them in a council of his own in defiance to an ecumenical council.

Ybarra’s imposing of categories of error and heresy in reality does not solve the dilemma. It is plain for all to see. To teach that a heretical document, even for the wrong reasons, is not heretical is to teach heresy—even if by mistake, gross negligence, or demonic deception as Vigilius himself claimed (he asserts that “the enemy of the human race [i.e. satan]” caused him “confusion;” Second Letter of Vigilius to Eutychius of Constantinople in Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553, Volume 2, p. 215).

I suppose it is both possible, and somewhat reasonable, to say that the Pope is infallible unless he makes a mistake, is grossly negligent, or deceived by Satan–but what good is this sort of infallibility? And, wouldn’t almost everyone in human history be infallible by this criteria? Who goes out to say and do something wrong on purpose? Ybarra’s argument amounts to Papal Infallibility meaning that the Pope is immune against being doctrinally wrong, because one must presume his internal convictions (something no one can really know) must be correct and never verifiably incorrect, despite his actions and words supporting things that are wrong. Even if presuming such about the internal convictions of Vigilius is plausible, as I concur with Ybarra in this regard, ultimately one cannot know for sure. Thought processes, one way or the other, should never be presumed. People must be accountable only for their words and actions. By this criteria, Vigilius was undoubtedly a heretic as he both approved a heretical chapter and taught the Church cannot anathematize heretics after death.

Reflecting on this, it reminds me of a joke: “Once I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken.” If defending Vatican I is simply an exercise in ascribing one word for being fallible but not another, (i.e. Vigilius was “materially” a heretic, but not “formally”) then I fail to see how such a viewpoint can be epistemically compelling.

In any event, Ybarra goes on to defend Vigilius by enlisting the understandable error of Saint Maximus in the Disputation with Phyrrus where he defended Pope Honorius from accusations of monotheletism. Being that no one asserts Maximus is infallible, such a comparison (though sympathetic) is not applicable. (And in Maximus’ defense, he gave an Orthodox exegesis of Honorius’ words leaving no doubt that he himself was Orthodox in his reading.) However, in making the preceding observation, in the very next sentence Ybarra makes a claim without any citation–a citation whose absence is most curious:

It would be equal to the way St. Maximus the Confessor could be understood to have erred when he thought that Pope Honorius’s letters to Sergius of Constantinople were orthodox and free from the error of monotheletism. Pope John IV and Pope St. Agatho likewise understood Honorius to have been free from error. (p. 9)

Where do John IV and Agatho claim that Honorius was free from error? Ybarra does not say. According to Cardinal Hefele (p. 185 of this book) there were claims made by Pope Leo II that Honorius merely propagated error and did not teach it (something Hefele emphatically argues the sixth ecumenical council denies). If this article is in fact an unfinished chapter in a book, Ybarra can be forgiven for not specifying yet. This is still a work in progress after all.

As the article continues, it gets more apologetics-oriented and completely loses its historical tone. For example, Ybarra opines:

Now, it should be clear that Pope Vigilius [in rejecting anathematizing the dead in the first constitutim] was not defining any doctrine of the faith. (p. 10)

This would be incorrect, as it is an ecclesiastical doctrine whether or not the Church can anathematize people after death. Many councils and saints had discussed the same theological issue. It was not a random opinion or some mere “discipline” any more than the capacity of the Church to excommunicate living individuals.

Ybarra then claims (by mistake?) that the fifth council’s fathers became Nestorians when they excommunicated Vigilius:

This hindrance should exclude any reasonable person from insisting that Vigilius, contrary to his plain statements, suddenly turned into a Nestorian confessor by his defense of that letter, as did the Bishops at the Council of Constantinople (553) when they, by Imperial order, removed the Pope’s name from the diptychs. (p. 11)

This a bizarre statement. The Council, in deposing Vigilius, was in effect defending itself from Nestorianism by detaching themselves from him. It appears that Ybarra is trying to equate the two actions as both being equally ridiculous, but this is confusing, given that affirming any of the three seemed Nestorian to most of the Christian world at this time. Deposing a perceived-Nestorian would have been perceived as, clearly, anti-Nestorian.

The footnote following this passage is interesting, as it discusses the council propagated two sets of acts, one for western consumption which removed mention of Vigilius’ deposition (so that he can save face in the West and theoretically gain their acceptance of the council) and another, fuller form of the minutes, which is the only “full” set that is preserved (this set includes Vigilius’ deposition, it lacks the entirety of the second constitutim, whose beginning is lost to history). Being that the latter is not an original document, but a Latin translation of a Greek original, this demonstrates that the east understood this longer version to be the official minutes. Therefore, eastern Christians affirmed that the Pope can be deposed. The fact that this was retained in Latin shows that this view likewise held authority in the Latin West. See The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553, Volume 1, p. 104-105; cf 107 posits that this edition was suppressed after Constaintople III due to a monoenergist passage, though the reasoning given appears dubious as both editions had the passage.

What is one to make of the shorter, Vigilius-friendly version of the conciliar minutes? It must be understood as a diplomatic document with purposeful alterations made to help Vigilius (which became a moot point because he never made it back to Rome alive). According to Price (Ibid., p. 105) this edition fell out of favor with future Popes who simply affirmed the council itself and felt no need to hinge it upon Vigilius’ questionable authority.

Now the apologist hat goes on for a moment. It may also imply something else, at least to someone reading this history with an Orthodox lens. The fact that Pope Vigilius accepted this doctored document (likely) knowing the longer one was in circulation in the east shows that on some level he consented to (or, more likely, accepted as a fait accompli) the east having the view he can be deposed. If such an idea was something so abhorrent to the Christian faith, as Vatican I’s ecclesiology would demand, Vigilius’ had greatly propagated heresy by his inaction in this regard–as did future Popes.

Of course, inaction is not positively heresy, but as referred to before, theoretically (according to Ybarra) neither is propagating a heretical document either. No reasonable person would assert that a Pope being privately heretical in his own mind affects the Roman Catholic view of infallibility. But, all of this begs the question: what possibly can be heretical by such standards? Only propagating a heretical document and explaining its contents in a heretical manner? But, did not Vigilius do this when he denied the capacity of the Church to anathematize the dead? Isn’t whatever is bound on earth bound in heaven? This is just a “discipline, and not faith and morals” the Roman Catholic apologists retort. And on and on we go. This is why apologetics rarely makes for good history.

Despite the whole first constitutim parsing through matters of doctrine, Ybarra then makes the argument that the aforementioned document is not a “definition” of faith and morals which would pertain to the Vatican-I criteria for infallibility.

To the first question, the 2nd Vatican Council, in its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, made it clear that the Bishops of the Church gathered in a Council with St. Peter’s successor are infallible in their definitions on faith and morals. Since Chalcedon made no formal definition about the letter used to judge Ibas, but merely mentions it as a proper reason to confirm Ibas as orthodox, the treatment of said letter fails to be what the Catholic Church understands as a solemn judgment on faith and morals, and therefore infallible decree of an Ecumenical Council. And since Vigilius’s first Constitutum merely reinforces what Chalcedon accomplished, Vigilius’s decree cannot be thought to be an infallible definition, and therefore also not an associated dogmatic fact. (p. 13-14)

This is a rather anachronistic Papal apologetic. It is shooting the arrow (“infallibility”) and then painting the target (historical interpretations for the bullseye to work) around it. Despite the preceding, it contains a crucial error at its center. The first constitutim is a theological document.

It would appear Ybarra is aware that, and forgive me in advance for using the term, his special pleading is not convincing. Concerning Justinian’s rough treatment of Viglius, Ybarra observes:

[W]e can reasonably inquire as to whether the Pope’s decrees [in accepting Justinian and the council] were produced without duress. (p. 15)

Being that Pope Liberius, who signed an Arianized Creed due to torture, is a saint in both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions, a good argument can be made that duress absolves people from being considered heretics (though of course signing something heretical is never good). Yet, the preceding quotation, ironically, calls into question Vigilius’ orthodoxy! Duress was what primarily motivated Vigilius to take the “orthodox” stands on both the three chapters and the fifth ecumenical council itself, according to historians (and Ybarra). Wouldn’t this mean that Vigilius, unlike Liberius, is a heretic? How else is one to describe someone who has to be allegedly tortured (as Ybarra details) to do the right thing?

It is sad that because there are sectarian axes to grind, the analysis of history is thoroughly confused and twisted. The reader of Ybarra’s article walks away knowing that, somehow, the historical example of Vigilius is allegedly not contradicting a 19th-century Roman Catholic dogma. However, as Vigilius found out himself, the devil is in the details. An inconsistent analysis with the arbitrary application of anachronistic categories of thought ultimately does not explain events and their significance.

I anticipate, due to the contents of his article likely being normative for his work, much of Ybarra’s upcoming book will be largely the same. This is a shame, as there is some real artistic merit to the project. Ybarra is a good story teller and this is an underrated aspect of history. History is not always analysis. Sometimes, it is merely an interesting way of telling how events unfolded. Ybarra does this quite well. When his analysis is applied to what events he is recounting, then the overall quality of his work rapidly deteriorates–and this is a shame. As someone who enjoys reading, I can perceive something good in the work; but the overall execution is found wanting.

Disclaimer: Erick Ybarra, regrettably, does not get along with me on a personal level. Personal spats aside, hopefully the content here is helpful in evaluating the quality of his work. In the hope of averting a highly divisive back and forth, this will be my last word on the subject.