The Deposition of Pope St. Silverius
John C. Pontrello
May 25, 2019
Pope Francis and his global network of boy lovers are destroying what remains of the Roman Catholic Church and many among the faithful want a new pope. Recently, Francis was warned yet again to make straight his ways, this time by a group of signatories accusing him of heresy. Of course traditionalists are all over the story with the "recognize & resist" faction thrilled that this could gain momentum and force the Church to “depose” the pope. The Sedevacantists are annoyed that the "r & r" traditionalists think a reigning pope can actually be deposed in the first place because prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur (Canon 1556) — “The First See is judged by no one.” One Sedevacantist wrote a convincing article on why it is impossible to remove a validly elected pope. That article is found here: https://novusordowatch.org/2016/03/impossibility-judging-deposing-true-pope/
The debate about deposing Pope Francis is very interesting to me. The "r & r" traditionalists are adamant that a heretical pope must be deposed before the see officially becomes vacant and the "Sedes" say the papal dogmas preclude any juridical action against a reigning pontiff. Who is right here? The case of Pope St. Silverius may add weight to the debate.
(Source Wikipedia) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Silverius
Pope Silverius (died 2 December 538) ruled the Holy See from 8 June 536 to his deposition in 538, a few months before his death. His rapid rise to prominence from a deacon to the papacy coincided the efforts of Ostrogothic king Theodahad (nephew to Theodoric the Great), who intended to install a pro-Gothic candidate just before the Gothic War. Later deposed by Byzantine general Belisarius, he was tried and sent to exile on the desolated island of Palmarola, where he starved to death in 538.
He was a legitimate son of Pope Hormisdas, born in Frosinone, Lazio, some time before his father entered the priesthood. Silverius was probably consecrated 8 June 536. He was a subdeacon when king Theodahad of the Ostrogoths forced his election and consecration. Historian Jeffrey Richards interprets his low rank prior to becoming pope as an indication that Theodahad was eager to put a pro-Gothic candidate on the throne on the eve of the Gothic War and "had passed over the entire diaconate as untrustworthy" The Liber Pontificalis alleges that Silverius had purchased his elevation from King Theodahad.
On 9 December 536, the Byzantine general Belisarius entered Rome with the approval of Pope Silverius. Theodahad's successor Witiges gathered together an army and besieged Rome for several months, subjecting the city to privation and starvation. In the words of Richards, "What followed is as tangled a web of treachery and double-dealing as can be found anywhere in the papal annals. Several different versions of the course of events following the elevation of Silverius exist." In outline, all accounts agree: Silverius was deposed by Belisarius in March 538 and sent into exile after being judged by the wife of Belisarius, Antonina, who accused him of conspiring with the Goths. Not only did Belisarius exile Silverius, he also banished a number of distinguished senators, Flavius Maximus—a descendant of a previous emperor—among them. Vigilius, who was in Constantinople as apocrisiarius or papal legate, was brought to Rome to replace Silverius as the pontiff.
The fullest account is in the Breviarium of Liberatus of Carthage, who portrays Vigilius "as a greedy and treacherous pro-Monophysite who ousted and virtually murdered his predecessor." In exchange for being made Pope, Liberatus claims he promised Empress Theodora to restore the former patriarch of Constantinople Anthimus to his position. Silverius was sent into exile at Patara in Lycia, whose bishop petitioned the emperor for a fair trial for Silverius. Rattled by this, Justinian ordered Silverius returned to Rome to be tried accordingly. However, when Silverius returned to Italy, instead of holding a trial Belisarius handed him over to Vigilius, who according to The Liber Pontificalis banished Silverius to the desolate island Palmarola (part of the Pontine Islands), where he starved to death a few months later.
The account in the Liber Pontificalis is hardly more favorable to Vigilius. That work agrees with Liberatus that the restoration of Anthimus to the Patriarchate was the cause of Silverius' deposition, but Vigilius was initially sent to persuade Silverius to agree to this, not replace him. Silverius refused and Vigilius then claimed to Belisarius that Pope Silverius had written to Witiges offering to betray the city. Belisarius did not believe this accusation, but Vigilius produced false witnesses to testify to this, and through persistence overcame his scruples. Silverius was summoned to the Pincian palace, where he was stripped of his vestments and handed over to Vigilius, who dispatched him into exile. Procopius omits all mention of religious controversy in Vigilius' actions. He writes that Silverius was accused of offering to betray Rome to the Goths. Upon learning of this, Belisarius had him deposed, put in a monk's habit and exiled to Greece. Several other senators were also banished from Rome at the same time on similar charges. Belisarius then appointed Vigilius. Deprived of sufficient sustenance, Silverius starved to death on the island of Palmarola.
Richards attempts to reconcile these divergent accounts into a unified account. He points out that Liberatus wrote his Breviarium at the height of the Three-Chapter Controversy, "when Vigilius was being regarded by his opponents as anti-Christ and Liberatus was prominent among these opponents", and the Liber Pontificalis drew from an account written at the same time. Once these religious elements are removed, Richards argues that it is clear "the whole episode was political in nature." He points out for Justinian's plans to recover Rome and Italy, "that there should be a pro-Eastern pope substituted as soon as possible. The ideal candidate was at hand in Constantinople. The deacon Vigilius' principal motivation throughout his career, as far as can be ascertained, was the desire to be pope and he was not really concerned about which faction put him there."
I draw the reader’s attention to three facts about Pope St. Silverius:
1. It is indisputable that Pope Silverius was deposed. I realize that some papists will argue “well that deposition didn’t really count and so Silverius remained the pope until his death.” But they are contradicted by all accounts of history. Pope Silverius’ deposition is an historical fact. This occurred by most accounts in March 537. The story is inconsistent on dates and a few other points. For example, Wikipedia says, “In outline, all accounts agree: Silverius was deposed by Belisarius in March 538 and sent into exile…” The Catholic Encyclopedia recounts 537 as the date of Silverius' deposition. Regardless, what is consistent by all accounts is that Pope Silverius was in fact deposed and replaced by Pope Vigilius. This is a problem because according to the papal dogmas deposing a pope is supposed to be impossible. We must remember that the papal dogmas (defined much later) could not be considered new revelation but only re-confirming / defining what had already belonged to the original deposit of faith. The dogmas of the Roman papacy should have been known and believed from the very beginning. Nevertheless, Pope St. Silverius was deposed.
2. The charges against Silverius that precipitated his deposition, whether true or false, had nothing to do with heresy. The charge was political in nature (treason). So in the 6th Century not only could a reigning pope be deposed but the cause could be conspiring against the government. This is interesting because it would later be defined that no earthly power can judge a pope who is the highest authority on earth. Pope Boniface VIII had something to say about this, especially in his well-known papal bull Unam Sanctam. The question should be asked, if secular powers possessed no authority over the papacy in the Boniface VIII regime of the 14th century why was it not true in the 6th?
3. The Catholic Encyclopedia relates:
“After the death of this predecessor Vigilius was recognized as pope by all the Roman clergy. Much in these accusations against Vigilius appears to be exaggerated, but the manner of his elevation to the See of Rome was not regular.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15427b.htm
What is interesting about the above is that the reason some would have continued to recognize Silverius as lawful pope is not because they contested the idea of deposing a reigning pope and installing a new pope but rather that the deposition was based on false information. In other words, the 6th century Church had no problem with deposing a pope for just cause. Silverius’ deposition was only contested on the veracity of the charges.
Conclusion: The "r & r" Traditionalists are right, popes can be deposed. At the same time the Sedevacantists are right; Catholic teaching on the papacy says they can't. One thing about Roman Catholicism is that no matter which position you adopt in any given controversy, you're probably right.