By Peter O'Dwyer
In SSPX mythology, St. Athanasius' crusade against Arianism plays a huge role in justifying the schism.
The narrative put forward is that Athanasius was excommunicated by a doctrinally compromised and exiled pope, but since the excommunication was unjust, Athanasius ignored it and continued to act as the local ordinary.
The story presented as such is not factually incorrect, but isn't set in proper context, and is therefore deceptive. Also, while there is a tendency to simply accept the account unquestioningly, there is actually a ferocious historical debate over whether Liberius actually excommunicated Athanasius — under duress or not.
Lefebvre's relationship with St. John Paul II was much different than that of the relationship between St. Athanasius and Pope Liberius.
Lefebvre referred to St. John Paul II as an "antichrist," and clashed with him throughout his pontificate.
The See of Peter and the posts of authority in Rome being occupied by antichrists, the destruction of the Kingdom of Our Lord is being rapidly carried out even within His Mystical Body here below. ... This is what has brought down upon our heads persecution by the Rome of the antichrists. ("Letter to the future bishops," August 29, 1987)
Pope Liberius did not oppose Athanasius; on the contrary, he was actually supportive of Athanasius both before and after his exile (and possibly during it). He had upheld the acquittal of Athanasius in a previous trial even under heavy pressure.
It is also on record that he singlehandedly checked several attempts to condemn Athanasius, declaring that he could not go back on what his predecessors had decided. Before his exile (and perhaps during it), Liberius was one of Athanasius' greatest supporters.
But eventually the emperor took things into his own hands and had Liberius dragged before him. Liberius stared down the emperor himself when the latter demanded that Liberius denounce Athanasius.
Ironically, the phrase “Athanasius Contra Mundum” was first used to taunt Liberius
This account is taken from the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia:
Constantius: Who are you to stand up for Athanasius against the world?
Liberius: Of old there were found but three to resist the mandate of the king.
Eusebius (A court eunuch): You compare the emperor to Nebuchadnezzar.
Liberius: No, but you condemn the innocent.
At this point, Liberius demands that all must pledge their alliegence to the Nicene Creed, all bishops exiled must return, and that Athanasius be given a fair trial.
Epictus: But the public conveyances will not be enough to carry so many.
Liberius: They will not be needed; the ecclesiastics are rich enough to send their bishops as far as the sea.
Constantius: General synods must not be too numerous; you alone hold out against the judgment of the whole world. He has injured all, and me above all; not content with the murder of my eldest brother, he set Constans also against me. I should prize a victory over him more than one over Silvanus or Magnentius.
Liberius: Do not employ bishops, whose hands are meant to bless, to revenge your own enmity. Have the bishops restored and, if they agree with the Nicene Faith, let them consult as to the peace of the world, that an innocent man be not condemned.
Constantius: I am willing to send you back to Rome, if you will join the communion of the Church. Make peace, and sign the condemnation.
Liberius: I have already bidden farewell at Rome to the brethren. The laws of the Church are more important than residence in Rome.
After Liberius' dogged refusal to condemn Athanasius, even after the emperor's demands, Liberius was banished from Rome. It was during this banishment that he was said to have been tortured into signing ambiguous statements and a supposed excommunication of Athanasius.
The evidence is contradictory here, and depends heavily on whether or not you trust an Arian to tell the truth. The argument that Liberius fell is based heavily on letters long since thought to be forgeries. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
But the strongest arguments for the innocence of Liberius are a priori. Had he really given in to the emperor during his exile, the emperor would have published his victory far and wide; there would have been no possible doubt about it; it would have been more notorious than even that gained over Hosius. But if he was released because the Romans demanded him back, because his deposition had been too uncanonical, because his resistance was too heroic, and because Felix was not generally recognized as pope, then we might be sure he would be suspected of having given some pledge to the emperor; the Arians and the Felicians alike, and soon the Luciferians, would have no difficulty in spreading a report of his fall and in winning credence for it. It is hard to see how Hilary in banishment and Athanasius in hiding could disbelieve such a story, when they heard that Liberius had returned, though the other exiled bishops were still unrelieved.
Further, the pope's decree after Rimini, that the fallen bishops could not be restored unless they showed their sincerity by vigor against the Arians, would have been laughable, if he himself had fallen yet earlier, and had not publicly atoned for his sin. Yet, we can be quite certain that he made no public confession of having fallen, no recantation, no atonement.
The forged letters and, still more, the strong words of St. Jerome have perpetuated the belief in his guilt.
But let's suppose Liberius did fall. Even if Athanasius was excommunicated and shrugged it off, he'd be obeying what Liberius told him to do before his exile: fighting the Arians.
Furthermore, Athanasius may very well have discarded news of his excommunication as a lie. He would have had strong grounds for suspicion, especially given Liberius' previous support.
So there isn't an issue of disobedience to the express will of the Pope, which certainly occurred with Lefebvre and Pope St. John Paul II.
Lefebvre had no doubt that the Pope's will was genuine.
Not only are the circumstances vastly dissimilar, the method of excommunication wasn't even the same.
Athanasius, if he was actually excommunicated at all, was excommunicated motu proprio, or by the Pope's own initiative, under extreme physical and mental duress.
Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated automatically, or latae sententiae, for consecrating bishops without a papal mandate and circumventing the Church's divinely ordered hierarchy. Pope St. John Paul II never excommunicated Lefebvre. It is more proper to say that Lefebvre excommunicated himself.
When Liberius returned from exile, he continued his support of Athanasius, and began to sack Arian and even semi-Arian bishops. No recantations were given and none were asked for.
Athanasius himself lauded Liberius in his memoirs, and Liberius was also praised by numerous popes from that time period. As recently as the early 20th century, Pope Benedict XV defended his legacy.
In the Byzantine Rite of the Catholic Church, he is even a saint with his own feast day.
Catholics are free to debate whether or not Liberius condemned St. Athanasius. Saint Jerome, for instance, is one of the only people from that time period to assert that Liberius fell, and there have been others throughout the years. However, it must be noted that the strongest condemnation of Liberius comes from the Orthodox, Protestants, and Gallican heretics, who use it as a pretext to attack papal infallibility.
We may never know the truth this side of eternity, but one thing is certain: St. Athanasius and Marcel Lefebvre are not analogous.