Did Photius die in communion with the Holy See?

Originally posted 3/19/2011.

Hail Joseph the just, Wisdom is with you; blessed are you among all men and blessed is Jesus, the fruit of Mary, your faithful spouse. Holy Joseph, worthy foster-father of Jesus Christ, pray for us sinners and obtain divine Wisdom for us from God, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. — St. Louis de Montfort

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Note: Photius is a saint of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church; see February Menaion (Diocese of Newton: Sophia Press, 2000), 69-84 <https://melkite.org/products-page/menaia/february-menaion>.

Previously I answered with a resounding yes, and I hope this is the case. Yet I can’t really be enthusiastic about Photius anymore, in light of the following observations of Fr. Venance Grumel, A.A. of happy memory in “New Light on the Photian Schism,” Unitas 5 (1953), 147-148.

Did Photius die in communion with the Holy See?
The most striking result of this recent research on the Photian question is the disappearance of the presumed second Photian schism. For many people this conclusion takes the concrete form: Photius died in communion with the Holy See. Is the conclusion justified? To respond we must avoid hasty conclusions, and distinguish between the position in the eyes of the law and the conduct or personal conscience of the deposed patriarch.

We cannot pass over in silence the fact that the Council of 869 was omitted from official lists of ecumenical councils, even in the West, until the second half of the eleventh century. Dvornik has established this with great erudition, and concludes that this silence is equivalent to the annulment of the Council. But we claim that it is more reasonable to suppose that since the Council concerned itself only with a personal issue and not with any question of dogma there was no great reason for emphasizing its importance at the time, and that also it seemed diplomatic in the West to remain silent after the Photian affair was settled in 899.

If it is a question of the position of Photius in the eyes of the law, all that we can say is that Photius died in communion with the Church of Byzantium. If this was in communion with Rome at the time, the former patriarch died in communion with Rome; if it was in schism, he died in schism. We are faced with two uncertainties here—the date of Photius’s death and the situation of the two Churches from the time of Formosus until the reunion council held under John IX in 899. We cannot give a reply to the main question until we can answer these two.


In regard to the personal attitude and the conscience of the ex-patriarch we are on even more difficult ground. Photius composed his two principal works against the doctrine of the Filioque after his re-establishment as patriarch under John VIII, his letter to the Archbishop of Aquilea and his Mystagoge. He was not manifesting a desire for reconciliation, and he even avoids the expression through the Son, used by the Second Council of Nicaea and current among the Greek Fathers. Would this latter have embarrassed him just as later it was to embarrass the adversaries of Johannes Beccos?

What of the genuine attitude of Photius towards the Roman Church? It is argued that he had different attitudes, and many of them, not so much against the Roman Church as against those who headed it. He spurned St. Nicholas I, he admired John VIII and Adrian III; the one had eyed him with disfavor, the other two with forgiveness. He measured the merit of those who occupied the Apostolic See by their treatment of himself. With this in mind we conclude that the question: “Did Photius die a Catholic?” is a strange one. We are even more fully convinced that in seeking a patron for works of Unity, we should not pause to consider the possibility of choosing Photius, as some others would suggest (19).

(19) Fr. Dvornik, “Photius, père du schisme ou apôtre de l’union” in Vie intellectuelle, Dec. 1945, pp. 16-28.

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3 Responses to Did Photius die in communion with the Holy See?

  1. “He measured the merit of those who occupied the Apostolic See by their treatment of himself.”

    Perhaps its more that he differed with those on a linguistic and political basis as much as the filioque issue.

    • Will Huysman says:

      Dear Tom, my brother in Christ,
      I hope your Lent is going well!

      It seems like a both/and case. What leads you to your opinion of the case?

      John XI Bekkos of holy memory is right about Photius’s motives; see Bekkos on Photius’s motives, trans. Dr. Peter Gilbert, who is absolutely right when he says the following: “When the question of his status as patriarch was still up in the air, Photius paid Rome all the traditional compliments, but issued subtle warnings; when Rome rejected his legitimacy, Photius charged Rome with heresy (on some of the very matters on which, in the earlier letter, he had argued that there is a legitimate diversity of practices, e.g., fasts on Saturdays, shaving of the beard, married clergy, etc.); when Rome later accepted him, he acknowledged Rome as orthodox and as head of all the churches.” See Photius’s 861 Epistle 2 to Pope St. Nicholas I the Great of Rome [PG 102:604605D]: “Everybody must preserve what was defined by common ecumenical decisions, but a particular opinion of a church father or a definition issued by a local council can be followed by some and ignored by others. Thus, some people customarily shave their beards; others reject this practice by local conciliar decrees. Thus, as far as we are concerned, we consider it reprehensible to fast on Saturdays, except once a year (on Holy Saturday), while others fast on other Saturdays as well. When the faith remains inviolate, common and catholic decisions are also safe; a sensible man respects the practices and laws of others; he considers it neither wrong to observe them nor illegal to violate them.” You’ll find part of this quoted in my 11/5/2008 post “On Beardless Clergy.”

      I look forward to hearing back from you, and may God bless you and yours with everlasting life. Pray for me, a sinner. Thank you.

      Will Raphael Huysman

  2. Actually Lent has been a bit of a struggle for me to focus on it or should I say more so then many in the past, but hopefully it will be a benefit for me in the long run.

    I don’t have access to “Migne Patrologia Graeca” and i haven’t engage in this issue in at least a decade. However if memory serves the issue extends well before Photius IMO. The issue of Bulgaria and who was the rightful authority and was the point of divergence over western and eastern usage as to customs. Perhaps Photius viewed it as an issue of custom and Pope Nicholas view it as church authority over the Illyrian vicariate which was eroded over the past 450 years to the point of it being moot in Photius eastern eyes.

    Photius didn’t move to excommunication of St. Nicholas until after the murder of Bardas and the elevation of Basil along with urging Louis king of the Franks to remove the pope.

    I have had no documentation in the transition btwn Pope Marinus I and Pope Stephen V. It seems the former never recognized Photius (some say condemned him) but I tend to think he simply withheld approval. At any rate it seems Pope Stephen V recognized Photius but I don’t know why.

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