Roma Locuta Est – Causa Finita Est

An accounting of what transpired between Pope St. Innocent I, Pope St. Zosimus, St. Augustine, Pelagius and Celestius.

By Scott Windsor

Roma Locuta Est, Causa Finita Est

First off, let me begin with the phrase, so often used by Catholics, “roma locuta est, causa finita est,” translated:  “Rome has spoken, the case is closed.”  One of the first things a sharp Protestant apologist may pick up on is St. Augustine didn’t use “those words.”  That is how I began studying this topic, in fact.  I had “quoted” that phrase in Latin, and a Protestant apologist challenged me, stating, “Augustine didn’t use those words.”  I thought this strange, since I had heard and read that phrase many times before, so I started looking into it.  I came to find out that St. Augustine didn’t use “those words,” at least not all of them.

 

The phrase comes from Sermon 131.10 of St. Augustine, the Latin is: 

jam enim de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad sedem apostolicam; inde etiam rescripta venerunt; causa finita est [1]

Translated, it reads,

. . . for already on this matter two councils have sent to the Apostolic See, whence also rescripts (reports) have come. The cause is finished.

What DID St. Augustine say?  Two councils (from the African bishops) had been sent to Rome (the Apostolic See) and Rome had replied by sending a reports (rescripts – in other words, “had spoken”), and upon that the cause is finished.

So, even though St. Augustine didn’t use all of “those words” he did “say that!”  Catholics who wish to use the paraphrase of “roma locuta est, causa finita est” must then be aware that it IS a paraphrase so as to not be caught off-guard by a challenger and allow the challenge of “But Augustine didn’t use those words,” to derail and/or sidetrack the point they were trying to make.[2]

Why DID St. Augustine Say That?

Well the controversy at the time was that of Pelagianism.  Pelagianism basically is a condemned heresy that denies Original Sin and Christian Grace.  Pelagius was a Catholic priest from Britain (though there are discussions that he came from Scotland or Ireland).  At some point Pelagius moved to Rome, and according to St. Augustine, (De peccat. orig., xxiv) he lived in Rome "for a very long time.”[3]  Pelagius had denied Original Sin and was teaching this.  In 411 AD he left Rome for Africa, where he first meets St. Augustine.  The African bishops, of which St. Augustine has become the spokesperson, convene a council in 416 and they, through Augustine, write to Pope Innocent I.

 

 

Council of Carthage, June 416 AD, To Innocent I:

(Speaking about Celestius) 2. This act, lord brother, we thought right to intimate to your holy charity, in order that to the statutes of our mediociry might be added the authority of the apostolic see to protect the safety of many, and to correct the perversity of some. 

(Then speaking about Pelagius) 4. If, therefore, Pelagius seems to your holiness to have been justly absolved by the Episcopal acts which as said to have been transacted in the East, at all events the error itself and the impiety, which now has many asserters in different places, ought to be anathematized by the authority of the apostolic see also…[4]

Council of Mileve, 416 A.D., To Innocent I:

Since God has by a special gift of his grace set you in the apostolic see, and has given such a man to our times, so that it could be rather imputed to us as a fault of negligence, if we withheld from your reverence whatever is to be furnished for the Church, than that you should be able to receive the same contempt or neglect, we beseech you to apply your pastoral care to the great peril of the weak members of Christ…

The authors of this most pernicious error are said to be Pelagius and Celestius, whom, indeed, we should prefer to be cured in the Church, rather than that they should be cut off from the Church, if no necessity compels…

We consider that by the help of the mercy of our Lord God, who deigns both to direct your counsel and to hear your prayers, those who hold such perverse and pernicious opinions will more easily yield to the authority of your holiness, drawn from the authority of Holy Scripture, so that we may be congratulated by their correction, than saddened by their ruin…

We write this from the council of Numidia, imitating our colleagues of the church and province of Carthage, who we understand have written on this matter to the apostolic see, which your blessedness adorns.[5]

Aurelius, Alypius, Augustine, Evodius, and Possidius, To Innocent, A.D. 416

We send to your holiness letters from the two councils of the provinces of Carthage and Numida (Mileve)…

We have heard that there are some in the city of Rome, where he [Pelagius] lived long, who favored him for various reasons, some clearly because he is said to have persuaded them, but more because they do not believe him to hold such views, especially as it is boasted that ecclesiastical acts were drawn up in the East, where he is living, by which he is declared innocent.  If indeed the bishops pronounced him catholic, we must believe that it was for no other reason than because he said he acknowledged the grace of God…

No doubt your blessedness will judge of the accusations in the same way as the acts [of the two councils], and we assume that your kindness of heart will pardon us for having sent to your holiness a longer letter than you might have perhaps wished.  For we do not pour back our little stream for the purpose of replenishing your great fountain; but in these times of severe testing . . . we wish this to be proved by your, whether our littleness flows from the same head of waters as your abundance, and by your reply to be consoled, because we share in common the one grace.[6]

Innocent I, to the Council of Carthage, January 27, 417

In inquiring about those things which should be handled with all care by priests, and especially by a true, just and catholic council, by preserving as you have done, the example of ancient tradition, and by being mindful of the discipline of the Church, you have truly strengthened the vigour of our religion, no less in consulting, than before in passing sentence.  For you decided that it was proper to refer to our judgment, knowing what is due the apostolic see, since all we who are set in this place desire to follow the very apostle from whom the very episcopate and whole authority of this name emerged… and that you ask for a decision which may benefit all the churches of the world together; so that the Church, being established in her rules, and confirmed in this decree of just proclamation against such errors, may be unable to tolerate those men.[7]

 

Noting quickly here, the proclamation is against the errors primarily, and secondarily to those that hold them.

Innocent I, to the Council of Mileve, January 27, 417

We declare that Pelagius and Celestius, that is the inventors of new doctrines which, as the apostle said, are wont to produce no edification, but rather utterly empty questionings, should be by the authority of apostolic vigour be deprived of ecclesiastical communion (excommunication), until they recover from the snares of the devil, by whom they are held prisoners according to their own choice; and that meanwhile they should not be received within the Lord’s fold, because, following the course of a crooked way, they have themselves chosen to desert.[8]

 

So, we have two councils in Africa that have convened and condemned primarily Pelagianism and have also excommunicated Pelagius and Celestius.  They write to the Bishop of Rome (the apostolic see), Innocent I, seeking his adjudication on this matter – for his judgment would “benefit all the churches of the world together.”  And Pope St. Innocent I does indeed agree with Carthage and Mileve and he condemns the heresy as well as excommunicating the heretics.

 

In March of 417 Innocent I dies and is succeeded by Pope Zosimus.  Celestius writes a letter of confession to the Bishop of Rome, which is received by Zosimus.  Keep in mind that Pope Innocent I “left open” the door of reconciliation to Pelagius and Celestius, “until they recover from the snares of the devil…”  Celestius attempts to appease the new pope by sending that confession entitled Libellus.  Zosimus writes to Aurelius and the African bishops (Magnum pondus, September, 417 A.D.) stating that Celestius came to “us for examination, asking to be acquitted of those charges on which he had been wrongly accused to the apostolic see.”[9]  Zosimus was not satisfied with just Celestius’ written confession, and called him to Rome for further interrogation. 

 

Pelagius had also written a confession entitled Libellus Fidei, in 417.  E. Giles (the source for the above quotes and an Anglican with no motive to support the cause of the papacy) admits that Pelagius’ confession is orthodox – but includes some evasive passages on free will and baptism (baptism being one of the chief precepts of Pelagianism).[10]  From a commentary on the University of Notre Dame web site:  “Pope Zosimus, whom the stratagems of Celestius had for a moment deluded…”[11]  A known opponent to the Catholic Church and public defender of Protestantism writes:  “Zosimus (417-426)—He was deceived by Pelagius’ pretensions to orthodoxy, and reversed Innocent’s policies regarding the Pelagians.”[12]  So, what we see here is that Pope Zosimus was deceived by Celestius and Pelagius in their confessions – both in writing and in person.  Based on those confessions, Zosimus declared that Pelagius and Celestius had “unfettered faith.”  I must note, that Zosimus is not declaring the error of Pelagianism to be orthodox, only that the two priests – after presenting their case to the apostolic see, as Pope Innocent I had allowed for – had been absolved.  The African bishops knew Zosimus had been deceived, and continued their protest. 

Sermon 131 of St. Augustine, September 23, 417 A.D.:

10. …”For being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and wishing to establish their own, they have not submitted to the righteousness of God.”  My brethren, have compassion with me.  When you find such men, do not hide them; have no misdirected mercy.  Refute those who contradict, and those who resist bring to us.  For already two councils on this question have been sent to the apostolic see; and replies have also come from there.  The cause is finished; would that the error might be sometime finished also![13] 

 

So, I reiterate, St. Augustine refers to the two African councils that were sent to Pope Innocent, then Bishop of Rome, and that Rome had responded (had spoken) and Pelagianism is condemned – the case IS closed.  The problem though, is that even though Rome has ruled on Pelagianism – there still were heretics about, and “would that their error might sometime be finished also!”  Though St. Augustine doesn’t use the words “roma locuta est” – clearly, Rome had spoken, and he did use the words, “causa finita est” (the case is closed – or cause is finished).

 

In 418, Pope Zosimus is convinced that he had been deceived, and he reverses his statement regarding the orthodoxy of Pelagius and Celestius and renews the excommunication of the heretics.  The deception of Zosimus was short-lived, but notorious.  Some Protestants (those that are even somewhat aware of the details of this incident – but ignorant in how the Church defines infallibility) attempt to use this to counter Papal Infallibility.  The question gets asked, “This was clearly a matter of faith, how could an ‘infallible pope’ err in this matter?  Granted, Pelagianism is a matter of faith – but also for a decree to be considered infallible, it must be something that is binding on the entire Church.[14]  Since the excommunication of individuals (Pelagius and Celestius, in this case) is only binding on those individuals – it is not a matter of infallibility.[15]

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Catholic Encyclopedia Online, Pelagius and Pelagianism.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11604a.htm

[2] I wrote this article due to several debates I have had with a well known Protestant apologist on this subject (see: http://www.americancatholictruthsociety.com/jrw ), and was further motivated after watching video of a debate between him and a well known and respected Catholic apologist.  The debate was on Purgatory, and had nothing to do with the Pelagian controversy.   However the Catholic used the phrase, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est” at one point, and the Protestant challenged, “Did you know that Augustine never said those words?”  Well, the Catholic was quite sure St. Augustine had indeed used those words – but the Protestant said, “I have the Latin right here in front of me, he clearly did not!”  From that point on, the Catholic seemed a bit flustered and those watching would likely agree – it was a turning point, as far as “debate points” go, in favor of the Protestant.  Had the Catholic been prepared with the facts presented in this article, he could have easily refuted the Protestant’s implication and proceeded on in confidence.  Technically, the Protestant is correct, St. Augustine didn’t use “those words” – not all of them anyway – but this article clearly shows that even though “those words” were not used, St. Augustine DID “say that.”  Also, as the excerpts show, the African councils were also attributing a special authority to “the” apostolic see – that of St. Peter’s successor, the Bishop of Rome.

[3] Catholic Encyclopedia Online, Pelagius and Pelagianism.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11604a.htm

[4] E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority A.D. 96-454  (London: S.P.C.K., 1952), 195-196.

4 ibid, 197-198

[6] ibid, 199-200

[7] ibid, 201-202

[8] ibid, 202-203

[9] ibid, 206

[10] ibid, 207

[11] Notre Dame, http://www.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/augustin.htm

[12]  Tim Enloe, http://www.graceunknown.com/Scholastica/LiberPontificalis.doc

[13] E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority A.D. 96-454  (London: S.P.C.K., 1952), 204  (a bit anachronistically presented in Giles’ book).

[14] Catholic Encyclopedia Online, Infallibility.   http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07790a.htm#IIIB

[15] My thanks to Chris Muha for reviewing earlier drafts of this article.