28 August 2008

on St.(sic) Cyril ...

Posted by at 4:11 PM Read our previous post

I overheard a conversation about saints among some Catholic folks in a chat room. I offered that saints are just a "Catholic Hall of Fame", but these chatters didn't think my encapsulation was all that funny. They instead described saints as departed people who had led super-holy, super-righteous lives, people whom the church subsequently saw fit to reward after they had died because of this righteousness. I reminded the chatters that there have been people who had been made saints by the church despite a marked lack of righteousness, and I mentioned Jerome and Cyril of Alexandria as examples. "What did they do?", one asked. "Well," I replied, "why don't you look up what Cyril did to Hypatia, for starters."

One chatter (we'll call him Brad), who had been silent during the discussion, took a couple of minutes to respond. He insisted, not unemotionally, that St. Cyril was "above reproach" in the murder of Hypatia and proceeded to quote from the google search results he was obviously reading from.

A little background for those who might not know who the main characters in this drama are:

Hypatia, you may know, was an eminently talented mathematician and philosopher of Alexandria. She was a polymath who ran her own school and was consulted and held in high esteem by the most illustrious scholars and diplomats of her day.

Cyril was the nephew of the bishop of Alexandria. Theophilus. Theophilus had tolerated Hypatia's school, but upon his death in 412, his nephew Cyril took it upon himself, once appointed to his uncle's bishopric after a highly controversial contest, to rid Alexandria of all dissenting views, pagan of Christian. Anything that in his estimation wasn't sufficiently "orthodox" was anathema, damnable, subject to persecution and termination.

In March of 415, during Lent, Hypatia was brutally murdered. The church historian Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian, tells of it:
Her life came to its unspeakably gruesome end when a sect of fanatical desert monks accosted Hypatia on the street one March day, stripped and dragged her into a church, skinned her alive with oyster shells, then dismembered and burned her body.
Brad's defense of Cyril in the chatroom was twofold:
  1. Cyril wasn't there. He didn't kill her, the mob did.
  2. Cyril, in his writings, reveals a piety and a sublime depth of thought that precludes the possibility of his being a murderer. In other words, he was a gentle man who would never do such a thing.
I'll take these in reverse order:
#2. How anyone could say that Cyril was a gentle soul who could never hurt anyone is strange to me. Only someone misinformed (or blind to Cyril's faults) could venture such a claim. By all but the most partisan accounts, Cyril was a nasty opportunist of a man. Here are a few brief citations describing Cyril's character, all from a single search in GoogleBooks:
"Cyril of Alexandria, a man of vehement temper and intolerant, but sincere in his opinions ..."
History of Christian Doctrine

George Frank Fisher
page 152
. . . here's another:
"…the vehement and impetuous Cyril…"
History of the Jewish Nation After the Destruction of Jerusalem Under Titus

Alfred Edersheim

page 513
. . . here's one that ends with a very poignant question:
"Cyril of Alexandria, to those who esteem the stern and uncompromising assertion of certain Christian tenets of the one Paramount Christian virtue, maybe the hero, even the saint: but while ambition, intrigue, arrogance, rapacity, and violence are proscribed as unchristian means -- barbarity, persecution, bloodshed as unholy and unevangelic wickednesses -- posterity will condemn the orthodox Cyril as one of the worst of heretics against the spirit of the Gospel. Who would not meet the judgment of the divine Redeemer loaded with the errors of Nestorius, rather than with the barbarities of Cyril?"
History of Latin Christianity
Henry Hart Milman

But it is not enough, I agree, to take such accusations at mere face value. It is always best to get some specific details of the circumstances surrounding a controversy before c omitting oneself to a position.
With this in mind, here's a more lengthy citation that I think brings the situation into more focus. Particularly weighty are the quotations from Cardinal Newman on the matter (I've highlighted where that is), as it shows that the indictment of Cyril is not a reactionary anti-Catholic position in the least, but it instead informed by the historical facts.

"Cyril of Alexandria, who presided over the third Council — that of Ephesus — is perhaps, of all those who have been honoured with the title of saint, the one whose character least commands our affection. In the fourth century the title hagios, applied to an orthodox bishop, meant, perhaps, little more than the title 'reverend' applied to a clergyman of the present day. But of the qualities which go to make up our modern idea of saintliness, the only one to which Cyril can lay claim is zeal for orthodoxy. Of the non-theological virtues of meekness, kindness, equity, obedience to law, we find in him no trace. There was no country where religious controversies were carried on with such violence as in Egypt. Cyril had been brought up in a bad school; and he handed down to his successor the traditions of that school with extensive evil developments. His whole career was marked by violence and bloodshed. He signalized the commencement of his episcopate by an assault on the Novatians, whose churches he shut up, seizing their sacred vessels, and depriving their bishop of all his property.* He followed this up by an attack on the Jews — not without provocation on their part. A leading member of his congregation had been punished by the magistrate on a charge brought against him by Jews. Cyril sent for the chief rabbis, and severely threatened them if such molestations were repeated. Riots followed ; and tidings were brought to Cyril one morning that during the night a concerted attack had been made by Jews upon Christians, in which several of the latter had lost their lives. Cyril forthwith took vengeance into his own hands, deciding that there was not room for Jews and Christians in the same city. He put himself at the head of an immense mob, which took possession of the synagogues, plundered the goods of the Jews, and turned them out of the city. These proceedings naturally brought him into collision with the civil authorities, and the relations between the bishop and the prefect became extremely strained. Five hundred Nitrian monks poured down to Alexandria to give substantial support to the cause of the affronted patriarch. They surrounded the prefect's chariot, drove his guards away with showers of stones, and not content with abusive language, one of them, Ammonius by name, struck him with a stone, and covered his face with blood. But the people rose in defence of their magistrate, overpowered the monks, and seizing Ammonius, carried him off to punishment, which, according to the barbarous usage of the time, was so severe that he died under it. Then Cyril set the evil example of canonizing criminals as martyrs. Though there is no reason to suppose that the assault on the prefect was due to direct instigation of his, he made himself an accessory to it after the fact by giving Ammonius a publicj funeral, bestowing on him the title 'Admirable;' and would have even enrolled him for permanent commemoration as a martyr had not the disapprobation of moderate men warned him to drop the design.

But a worse tragedy followed. The belief in Church circles was that the governor would have been on better terms with the bishop if he had not been too intimate with heathens. Prominent among his heathen friends was the celebrated Hypatia, who, in a licentious age, when public life was less open to women than now, exercised the functions of a lecturer in philosophy with such dignified modesty as to command universal respect. One Peter, who held the office of reader in the principal church, collected a band of zealots like-minded with himself, who watched for Hypatia returning from her school, tore her from her chariot, dragged her into a church, and there murdered her with every circumstance of brutal atrocity. It is not to be supposed that this deed had Cyril's sanction; but if a party leader tolerates and profits by the excesses of violent followers up to a certain point, he cannot escape responsibility if they proceed beyond the point where he would have preferred them to stop. If the maxim 'noscitur e sociis' is ever to have applicability, a Christian teacher must be judged of by the spirit manifested by those who have been the most zealous hearers of his instructions.

For excesses of zeal in his warfare against heretics, or Jews, or heathens, Cyril has not wanted apologists who willingly believe that the case against him has been coloured by witnesses too ready to sympathize with enemies of the Church. But there is one chapter in his history with regard to which his line of conduct now finds no defender. I refer to his treatment of a greater saint than himself, St. Chrysostom. I have already said that in reading the Church history of the centuries following the erection of Constantinople into a capital, we must constantly bear in mind the jealousy felt at Alexandria at the encroachments on the dignity of their ancient see by this upstart rival. I have told how Gregory Nazianzen was compelled, by Egyptian opposition, to resign his see. St. Chrysostom's election to the bishopric of Constantinople disappointed an attempt of the Alexandrian patriarch, Theophilus, to place in Constantinople a nominee of his own. From that time Chrysostom had in Theophilus a bitter enemy, through whose exertions he suffered deposition and exile, accompanied with treatment which hastened his death. Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus, was his aider and abettor in the warfare against Chrysostom ; and he continued his hostility when, on his uncle's death, he succeeded to the see. The death of Chrysostom did not soften his feelings; and a few years afterwards, when entreated to allow Chrysostom's name to be placed on the diptychs, he replied that this would be as great an affront to the orthodox bishops on the list as it would be to the Apostles if the traitor Judas were reckoned in their number. It was not until ten years after Chrysostom's death that he reluctantly gave way. Now what, in Roman Catholic eyes, makes this conduct inexcusable is that Cyril's obstinacy placed him in opposition, not only to Chrysostom, but to the Bishop of Rome, out of whose communion the Egyptians accordingly remained for twelve years.

Accordingly, Cardinal Newman here gives Cyril up. 'Cyril, I know, is a saint ; but it does not follow that he was a saint in the year 412.' ' Among the greatest saints are those who, in early life, were committed to very unsaintly doings.' 'We may hold Cyril to be a great servant of God without considering ourselves obliged to defend certain passages of his ecclesiastical career. It does not answer to call whity-brown white. His conduct out of his own territory, as well as in it, is often very much in keeping with the ways of the uncle who preceded him in his see, and his archdeacon who succeeded him in it.' I hope I am not ungrateful for so much candour if I say that if it does not answer to call whity-brown white, neither does it answer to call black whity-brown. Dr. Newman himself asks the question, ' Is Cyril a saint ? How can he be a saint if what has been said above is matter of historical truth ? ' His chief reason for giving a favourable answer is one that has not much weight with us. 'Catholics must believe that Providence would have interposed to prevent his receiving the honours of a saint, in East and West, unless he really was deserving of them.' ' It, is natural to think that Cyril would not have been divinely ordained for so prominent an office in the establishment of dogmatic truth unless there were in him moral endowments which the surface of history does not reveal to us.' And he suggests, that as we hear very little of Cyril during the last few years of his life, it may charitably be believed that he had repented of his early violence ; and he thinks that as ' he had faith, firmness, intrepidity, fortitude, endurance, these virtues, together with contrition for his failings, were efficacious in blotting out their guilt, and saving him from their penal consequences.' Now I am sure you will understand that if I pronounce a man to be undeserving of the title of Saint, I do not mean to deny that he may have repented of his sins, and have entered the kingdom of Heaven. In giving honours to historical characters we can only be guided by those 'moral endowments which the surface of history does reveal; 'and I count it to involve a degradingly low estimate of the Christian character if we hold up as a model of saintly perfection one in whom history only enables us to discover the excellencies and failings of an able and successful, but violent and unscrupulous, party leader. If Cyril changed his character towards the end of his life, his contemporaries do not seem to have been aware of it. Here is the language of one of them on hearing the news of his death : ' At last the reproach of Israel is taken away. He is gone to vex the inhabitants of the world below with his endless dogmatism. Let everyone throw a stone on his grave, lest perchance he may make even hell too hot to hold him, and return to earth.' ' The East and Egypt are henceforth united : envy is dead, and heresy is buried with her.' "

The Infallibility of the Church
George Salmon
pp. 304 --309

Any defense of Cyril in this matter (especially one appealing to his gentle, pious demeanor) can only be based on some previous commitment to defend one's church's party line—"my team: right or wrong"—and NOT to reality.

Now back to Brad's defense point #1.

By way of illustration, here's a quasi-contemporary analogue:
We know that Gladys wasn't there. We are also not certain of whether she ordered the action or knew about it beforehand.
We ARE certain of two things, however.
It was definitely the Pips who committed the crime.
Cyril never condemned the act as barbaric or otherwise wrong, as any man of God surely would.

In this case, I'm afraid that where there's smoke, there's fire.

And, if I may close with yet another humorous non-sequitur...

Hypatia was at least twice the man that Cyril ever was!




1 comment:

  1. My Patristics lecturer (an RC nun with an expertise on art in the early church) introduced her lecture on Cyril with the words "Now Cyril was a thug."


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