Storytime with John Lane: The Case of Marcellinus Offering Incense to Idols

Storytime with John Lane: 
The Case of Marcellinus Offering Incense to Idols

Robert J Siscoe

In a recent podcast, the Sedevacantist apologist, John Lane, argued that the case of Marcellinus offering incense to idols was only included in the Liber Pontificalis to serve as a moral lesson for what Catholics should never do, and not because it was believe to be historically true. Is Mr. Lane right?

Pope St. Nicholas certainly believed it was historically true. Not only did he testify to the legitimacy of the case, but he even appealed to it as an historical precedent for the doctrine that 'the first see is judged by no one'.  In his letter to the Emperor Michael, he wrote:

“In the reign of the sovereigns Diocletian and Maximan, Marcellinus, Bishop of the city of Rome, who afterward became an illustrious martyr, was so persecuted by the Pagans that he entered one of their temples, and there offered incense. Because of this act, an inquiry was held by a number of bishops in Council (the Councilio of Sinuessanensi), and the Pontiff confessed his fall. None of them ventured to pronounce sentence upon him, but they all proclaimed: ‘judge your cause with your own mouth, we will not judge you’; and again: ‘Let not,’ they said, ‘our judgment be heard,  but you judge your own cause’; and again,  ‘for of thyself thou shalt be justified, or of thyself condemned, by thy own mouth: The first see is judged by no one’.” (Pope Nicholas I, Proposueramus Quidem, ad Michaelem Imperatorem, Anno 865, p. 940)

The Liber Pontificalis of Pope Damasus (AD 366-384) relates the following about Marcellinus: 

"XXX. Marcellinus (296-304)

 "Marcellinus, by nationality a Roman, son of Projectus, occupied the see 8 years, 2 months and 25 days.  He was bishop in the time of Diocletian and Maximian, from July I in the 6th consulship of Diocletian and the 2nd of Constantius (a.d. 296) until the year when Diocletian was consul for the 9th time and Maximian for the 8th (a.d. 304). At that time was a great persecution, so that within 30 days 17,000 Christians of both sexes in divers provinces were crowned with martyrdom.

"For this reason Marcellinus himself was haled to sacrifice, that he might offer incense, and he did it. And after a few days, inspired by penitence, he was beheaded by the same Diocletian and crowned with martyrdom for the faith of Christ in company with Claudius and Cyrinus and Antoninus, and the blessed Marcellinus on his way to his passion adjured Marcellus, the priest, that he should not fulfil the commands of Diocletian. And afterwards the holy bodies lay in the street for an example to the Christians 26 days by order of Diocletian.

"Then the priest Marcellus and the other priests and the deacons took up the bodies by night with hymns and buried them on the Via Salaria in the cemetery of Priscilla in a chamber which is well known unto this day, as Marcellinus himself had commanded…” (Liber Pontificalis

Bellarmine accepted the account of Marcellinus as an historical fact, and cited the authority of Pope Nicholas and Pope Damasus as evidence for it. In Book IV of  De Romano Pontifice, he writes:

Bellarmine: “The Tenth is Pope Marcelinus, who sacrificed to idols, as is certain from the Pontifical of Damasus, the Council of Sinvessanus, and from the epistle of Nicholas I to the Emperor Michael. But Marcelinus neither taught something against faith, nor was a heretic, or unfaithful, except by an external act on account of the fear of death.” (Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, lib. IV, cap. VIII

Bellarmine discusses the account of Marcellinus in numerous other places.  For example:

Bellarmine: “The first example is Marcellinus, who in the Council of Sinvessano was condemned by the bishops and deposed. I respond: (a) Marcellinus was accused of an act of infidelity, in which case a Council can discuss the case of the Pope, and if they were to discover that he really was an infidel, the Council can declare him outside the Church and thus condemn him.  (b) I say the Bishops did condemn Marcellinus, but only after he had condemned himself, i.e., after he abdicated the Papacy; for beforehand they all declared: ‘The first see is judged by n one, you are guilty, you are the judge, do not be judged by us,’ etc. See Nicholas I’s epistle to Michael.”

Bellarmine: “The fourth reason [a council can be convened] is suspicion of heresy in the Roman Pontiff, if perhaps it might happen; or if he were an incorrigible tyrant; for then a general Council ought to be gathered either to depose the Pope if he should be found to be a heretic; or certainly to admonish him if he seemed to be incorrigible in morals. As it is related in the 8th Council, act. ult. can. 21, general Councils ought to impose judgment on controversies arising in regard to the Roman Pontiff—albeit not rashly. For this reason, we read that the Council of Sinvessano was gathered in the case of St. Marcellinus, and a council in Rome for the cases of Pope Damasus, Sixtus III, and Symmacus, as well as Leo III and Leo IV, none of whom were condemned by the Council. Marcellinus enjoyed penance upon himself in the presence of the Council, and the others purged themselves (See Platina and the volumes on Councils.” (Bellarmine, On the Authority of Councils, lib. I, cap IX).

The earliest mention of Marcellinus is found in Eusebius’ Church history.  Bishop Eusebius was a contemporary of Pope Marcellinus, and he began writing his multi volume work (AD 300 – 325) during the Pontificate of Marcellinus (AD 294-304). In Volume VII, he writes:

“At this time, Felix, having presided over the church of Rome for five years, was succeeded by Eutychianus, but he in less than ten months left the position to Caius, who lived in our day. He held it about fifteen years, and was in turn succeeded by Marcellinus, who was overtaken by the persecution.”

Commenting on the phrase “overtaken by persecution,” Monsignor Johan Kirschs, the first Director of the Historical Institute of the Görres Society in Rome, and founder of the Swiss Journal of Church history, said this “obscure expression” is not a reference to martyrdom, since if it were, “Eusebius would have distinctly stated it.”[1]

An objection is raised that St. Augustine did not believe the accusation against Marcellinus was true.  Here is what Augustine wrote about the case in reply to the Donatist, Petilianus: 

"[Petilians said] 'Maximian also perished, at whose command that men should burn incense to their gods, and burn the sacred volumes, Marcellinus indeed first, but after him also Mensurius of Carthage, and Cæcilianus …'

“Augustine replies: …  you go on to make mention of the bishops whom you are wont to accuse of having delivered up the sacred books, concerning whom we on our part are wont to answer: Either you fail in your proof, and so it concerns no one at all; or you succeed, and then it still does not concern  us. For they have borne their own burden, whether it be good or bad; and we indeed believe that it was good. But whatever character it was, it was their own doing; just as your bad men have borne their own burden, and neither you theirs, nor they yours.  But the common and most evil burden of you all is schism.” (St. Augustine, Letter Against Petilian, Book II, 203, 207-208).

Notice that he doesn’t explicitly deny the accusation.  He implies that he thinks the accusation is untrue ("we believe that it was good"), but says if it is true, it doesn't concern the rest of the Catholics. 

Mr. Lane claimed that Dollinger (Janus) rejected the story of Marcellinus, and implied that doing so actually worked against Dollinger's efforts to prove the extent to which Popes have sinned against the faith.  The truth, however, is quite different.  Denying the case of Marcellinus helps Dollinger's position, because the historical case confirms a  doctrine that Dollinger rejects.   Here is what Dollinger wrote in context:

Dollinger: “The conduct of the Popes since Innocent I and Zosimus, in constantly quoting the Sardican canon on appeals as a canon of Nice, cannot be exactly ascribed to conscious fraud — the arrangement of their collection of canons misled them. There was more deliberate purpose in inserting in the Roman manuscript of the sixth Nicene canon, "The Roman Church always had the primacy," of which there is no syllable in the original, — a fraud exposed at the Council of Chalcedon, to the confusion of the Roman legates, by reading the original.

“Towards the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth century, the process of forgeries and fictions in the interests of Rome was actively carried on there. Then began the compilation of spurious acts of Roman martyrs, which was continued for some centuries, and which modem criticism, even at Rome, has been obliged to give up, as, for instance, is done by Papebroch, Euinart, Orsi, and Saccarelli. The fabulous story of the conversion and baptism of Constantino was invented to glorify the Church of Rome, and make Pope Silvester appear a worker of miracles. Then the inviolability of the Pope had to be established, and the principle that he cannot be judged by any human tribunal, but only by himself. … So the acts of the Council of Sinuessa and the legend of Pope Marcellinus were invented, and the "Constitution of Silvester," viz., the decision of a Synod of 284 bishops, pretended to have been held by him in 321 at Rome, evidently compiled while the bloody scenes in which clerics were murdered or executed for their crimes were fresh in men's minds. There again the principle was inculcated that ‘no one can judge the first See.’ (The Church and the Council, Janus)

Rejecting the case of Marcellinus did not harm Dollinger’s case, as Lane implied.  On the contrary, it helped it, since the historical case, and the reaction to it, confirms the papal prerogative ("first see is judged by no on") that Dollinger and all the other heretics denied. 

The account of Marcellinus offering incense to idols was accepted as true by Catholic theologians and historians from the time of Pope Nicholas (AD 865) until the 16th century.  The first to question it (after the time of Pope Nicholas) was Baronius, and even he was cautious in doing so.  It was the heretics who rejected the story outright, since, again, it affirms the doctrine that ‘the first see is judged by no one,’ which they reject. 

Here is what Suarez wrote about Marcellinus in his book Against the Anglicans:

Suarez: “The old example, however, about the deposition of Marcellinus is not appealed to by the king [King James] as an objection, since he does not admit the acts of that Council and accuses it of contradiction, because in it is repeatedly said that “the Pontiff is judged by no one,” and yet Marcellinus left it after being judged, for a sentence of anathema was passed against him, to which all the bishops subscribed; for Marcellinus also could not excommunicate himself. Nor are there lacking some Catholic writers who doubt the history of Marcellinus, as one can see in Baronius Vol.2 for the year 302 (n. 95) and following, as well as for the year 303 (n.89) and following. However, Baronius himself advises that an ancient history commonly received in the Church should not be called into doubt. Especially since Pope Nicholas in his epistle to the emperor Michael reports it as true, and uses it to confirm the authority of the Apostolic See.

“One must note, therefore, that the sin of Marcellinus was a kind of infidelity and therefore it pertained to the Council to inquire about it, both because of public scandal in the matter of faith and because of the safety of the Church. Because, however, his guilt was only against confession of faith and not heresy, therefore did the assembled bishops often say: ‘Judge yourself by your own mouth, for the first See is judged by no one’.” (Suarez, Defensio Fidei Catholicae et Apostolicae contra Errores Anglicanae Sectae, lib. III, cap. 18, nos. 9-10).

A portion of Pope Nicholas’ letter to the Emperor is found in Denzingers, and the part that speaks of him offering incense to the idols is included in Corpus Juris Canonici, promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII. Here is a scanned copy of the entry:

Pope Gregory XIII, Corpus juris canonici, Volume 1, By Aemilius Ludwig Richter

[1] 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article on Marcellinus