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Disputed elections of a rather nasty sort

Special to National Catholic Reporter

Editor’s note: Gary Macy says his article, as submitted, contained 905 words, subject to a hand recount.

News reports tell us that this election year in the United States is unparalleled in our history. As we struggle to decide how best to honor our democratic traditions, Christians, as always, can take comfort in the past.

Disputed elections of a rather nasty and intractable sort have occurred all too often in church history. Most bishops were chosen by the people and clergy of their diocese right up until the end of the 19th century, affording lots of room for contention. In the 14th century, for example, all disputed elections of bishops were sent for adjudication to Rome (the effective Supreme Court of Europe). And because most elections were disputed, Rome wound up picking the winning candidate.

The process could take years in the really tough cases.

Disputes started early. Late in the second century, for instance, debate over the relationship of God the Son to God the Father broke out in Rome. A teacher in Rome about whom little is known, Sabellius, insisted that the Father and the Son must be somehow identical or Christians would be stuck believing in two gods.

Maybe, he suggested, the Father and the Son are just different names for the same being.

Hippolytus, however, a presbyter of the Roman church, insisted that the Father and Son must be separate persons and yet one God. Hippolytus had considerable political capital. Highly thought of in his own time, he is today considered one of the most important third-century theologians in the Western church. The great Alexandrian theologian, Origen, stopped by to hear his sermons while in Rome.

The debate about the relationship of the Father and Son was already pretty heated when the Roman deacon Callistus tried to steer a middle course between the two. While not accepting Sabellius’ teaching, Callistus publicly denounced Hippolytus’ theology as ditheism.

Hippolytus had never liked Callistus and now he was furious. Callistus, Hippolytus sneered, was not only a former slave, but (according to Hippolytus) an embezzler who had been rescued from punishment only through the intercession of the church.

Callistus was a bit of a celebrity, though, because he had been banished to Sardinia by Roman officials for his Christian beliefs (a banishment that resulted from Callistus’ own stupidity, according to Hippolytus) and had returned to Rome a confessor -- that is, one who had been imprisoned for the faith. His main job as deacon was supervising the new cemetery on the Appian Way near a place called Catacumbus.

Hippolytus was appalled when Callistus was chosen bishop of Rome in 217. Hippolytus’ sensibilities were further offended when Callistus not only offered reconciliation to those who had fallen into sin after baptism, but even recognized marriages between upper class women and men of lower social status.

Hippolytus and his followers separated from Callistus in a huff, and decided to declare their own leader. The separated Christian community picked Hippolytus to fill the post that Callistus already filled: bishop of Rome. Rome was thus split between two rival Christian communities, both of which had chosen their own bishops. In effect, there were two popes.

Rome was divided not for weeks, but for years. Callistus died and was replaced by Urban in 222. Hippolytus rejected and attacked Urban just as he had Callistus. Urban died and was replaced by Pontianus in 230. Still Hippolytus refused communion with the spiritual descendents of Callistus.

In 235, however, disaster struck both communities. Emperor Maximin exiled both bishops to Sardinia for their roles as leaders of outlawed Christians. Amazingly, suffering together seemed to have softened Hippolytus, and it is likely that he was reconciled with Pontianus while they were in exile together. At least it would seem so as the bodies of both Hippolytus and Pontianus were returned to Rome with honor by Pope Fabian (236-50) and Christians accepted both as martyrs. St. Hippolytus’ feast day is Aug. 13.

Christian history treats both candidates now with due reverence.

Tradition considers Callistus the true bishop of Rome and accepts both his teaching on confession and on marriage. Hippolytus, on the other hand, is considered one of the most important contributors not only to the liturgy, but also to the orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

Hippolytus’ most famous work, the Apostolic Tradition, is one of the earliest witnesses Christians have to the liturgy of the early Roman church. In return, Hippolytus’ congregation may have commissioned a statue of him engraved with the names of his books. Centuries later, this statue was dredged from the Tiber River and now greets scholars on their way into the Vatican Library.

We can, perhaps, take some comfort from the fact the two rival Roman camps were reconciled, even if it was under pressure of banishment. In our country, too, we hope both sides will come together to face national challenges, and tradition will record the virtues, and not just the vices, of the two contenders.

(Just to set to the record straight, I am not recommending, as at least one of my colleagues has hinted, that the United States might take a page out of Roman Christian history here and banish the candidates.)

Of course, the granddaddy of all disputed elections was in 1378 when the same group of cardinals elected two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. Two and then three popes all contended for rule of the church until 1415.

But then that is another story and we hope a precedent we will not need to examine.

Gary Macy is a professor in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000