That Time the North African Church Excommunicated the Pope

For one section of my dissertation, I have been sifting through the history of papal interventions in fifth-century Gaul and Spain. It’s interesting material. One of the unexpected dynamics is the way in which local Christian authorities will invite papal guidance in a highly inconsistent, ad hoc fashion. For example, the notion and the compiling of “papal decretals”—decrees of the bishop of Rome addressed to a specific situation but setting down a general rule—appear to have gotten their start in places like southern Gaul and Spain to help establish ecclesiastical norms, whereas we might have expected them to come from Rome’s own initiative. Humorously, these local actors appear to have edited out portions of the decretals they found embarrassing or inconvenient, such as when the pope scolded a respected local bishop or monastery for irregular institutional behavior.

A more explosive example of this push-and-pull dynamic in early papal authority comes a century later, in the Justinianic era. Justinian (r. 527–565) had recently reincorporated Latin-speaking North Africa and Italy into the Roman fold, taking these territories from Vandal and Gothic regimes respectively. One would have thought Western bishops would have rejoiced at having an orthodox Christian prince after living under Arian potentates for many years. And perhaps for a time they did.

But, to paraphrase the words of Lady Wisdom to Boethius, “Stuff happens.”

North African bishops particularly came to chafe under the stricter, more hands-on oversight of the imperial administration regarding management of ecclesiastical property. (This seems like a comparatively trivial matter to us today, but in late antiquity the management and alienation of property was a major day-to-day concern for churches and monasteries.) Matters got worse when Justinian, in an effort to placate the Miaphysites, pushed his condemnation of the “Three Chapters”: writings from three theologians (Theodoret of Cyrus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Ibas of Edessa) that offended Miaphysite sensibilities. The trouble was, the authors had been considered orthodox up to that point, and it severely vexed the Africans that one could suddenly be condemned as a heretic in this manner, ex post facto.[1] While Justinian vied with the North African Christians, he had a somewhat more manageable task in pressuring the sitting pope, Vigilius, to agree to condemn the Three Chapters, which the pontiff did in 548.

Vigilius’ decision immediately provoked a fierce outcry from prelates in Dalmatia, Scythia, and Gaul. It was the North Africans, however, who took the news of the pope’s capitulation worst of all. As a result, the council of Carthage (550) formally condemned Vigilius, and his name was struck from the diptychs of orthodox bishops (i.e. excommunication).[2] One of these North Africans, a historian named Victor of Tunnuna, dryly comments about the end of Vigilius’ life:

After he acted faithlessly, Vigilius, the bishop of Rome, died on the island of Sicily under the excommunication of the priests of the entire African church.[3]

Not the most glorious assessment. Of course, Vigilius was far from the last Roman pontiff to be pushed around by secular rulers, and more charitable historians than Victor might decide the North Africans were too hard on the pope in hindsight. The reaction to Vigilius does, however, demonstrate the nature of “papal primacy” as it was understood for most (all?) of late antiquity. On one hand, the authority of the Roman bishop was certainly “real” in some sense; particularly among Western clerics, the popes were often seen to occupy the most prestigious seat in the church, an office that came with a sense of authority and owed deference. For those familiar with era, the hierarchization itself is hardly surprising. Everyone knew there was a pecking order, and toward the bottom, bishops and abbots frequently squabbled over whose prerogatives held sway.

For all the auctoritas of the Roman episcopacy, however, it is plain that many (most?) Western clerics did not deem the office and its occupant unchallengeable or beyond grave, excommunicable error. As George Demacopouolos argues in his monograph The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (see a review by our own Eric Hutchinson in the footnotes), popes usually asserted the kind of “primacy” we now associate with the office only when they were playing a very weak hand vis-à-vis the emperors or other bishops.[4] In fact, by Justinian’s day, imperial law essentially rejected universal Roman primacy of the sort envisioned by later medieval theorists.[5]


  1. Maureen A. Tilley, “The Collapse of a Collegial Church: North African Christianity on the Eve of Islam,” Theological Studies 62, no. 1 (February 2001): 15­–7.

  2. See a concise summary of the key events in Averil Cameron, “Justin I and Justinian,” in The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume 14: Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, AD 425–600, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby, vol. 14, The Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 79­–82, esp. 80.

  3. Victor’s Chronicon 157. My translation.

  4. George E. Demacopoulos, The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Hutchinson’s review: https://cj.camws.org/sites/default/files/reviews/2015.01.04%20Hutchinson%20on%20Demacopoulos.pdf

  5. Demacopoulos, 120.

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