For many years, heresies were started in the Eastern churches. These heresies taught many unorthodox teachings regarding Mary, the Incarnation, the Trinity, and many others. It was a big problem for the Church to correct these new teachings which were spread widely. Heresies in the East were abundant and could spread easily because of numerous reasons, and, furthermore, the position of the government had great influence in the affairs of the Church.
In the East, there was a copious amount of heresies especially in the first couple of hundred years; and it took the Catholic Church, often times, many years to uproot them. One observation is that the technology was in its beginning stages; therefore, communication was slow. Information might take weeks to get from Constantinople to Rome; consequently, the Pope couldn’t keep in touch with the Eastern churches as well as today. Also, the Eastern Empire was more stable in its branches of government especially in finances and in the military. Thus, when the people in the West were worried about the Huns, Ostrogoths, Goths, and Vandals attacking them; the East was more worried with everyday matters, such as, their faith, business exchanges or their own well-being. Another reason for the spreading of these heresies is that the Eastern Catholics had little education in their faith—even the bishops’ knowledge of their Catholic faith was limited. Consequently, when heresies were taught, the faithful could be swayed easier. These heretics looked holy and pious: they would testify that they were reforming the church. These new heresies spread easily because when the king or some other important person asked for a synod or council to rule on a new teaching, it could take years to assemble the bishops. Also, in order for a teaching to be ratified, a synod’s “power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff” (CCC 883). When ratified, the teaching had to be enforced and/or the heretics banished or repent. If not, the heretics and their followers would just keep going. To make matters worse, the heretical leaders would tell lies about the orthodox bishops and have them banished. They, then, used threats if necessary to have the remaining bishops approve the new creed. One time at a council (also called the Robber Council),
A document was then introduced which had been signed by 35 monks in Eutyches’ monastery, praising him [Dioscorus, a Monophysite leader] and condemning Bishop Flavian, although it [the document] incautiously admitted that there were over 300 monks… leaving the question why the other 265 had not signed it (Warren 133).
Though heretics “stole” councils to get their teachings accepted, these different sects would sometimes even set up their own anti-council to commend their doctrine, of course, without papal approval. The majority of these new “churches” thrived when they had the emperor’s backing which happened when one of their sect was an adviser to the emperor or when the emperor himself believed in their religion. Without the state backing, they generally died away with time. Another important fact is that the popes’ papacies were short, many of which were just a couple of years. This is vital since it took years to address a problem, and then even more years (sometimes) to correct the heresy plus have the leaders reconciled or excommunicated. This almost could never have been done in a short papacy. Lastly, unlike today, the bishopric was instated by another bishop, this would have been a tool the heretics used to control and spread their teaching. It is easy, therefore, to see how these “problems” were fertile ground for heresies to start in the East.
By Nick John
To be continued…