The article concludes with a case study, the life of St. Sophronius, which illustrates patristic forebearance toward heretical opponents for the sake of avoiding provocation of an unnecessary schism. In the early 7th century, the Monophysite schism, which had resulted from the Council of Chalcedon, was nearly two centuries old. Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was promoting Monothelitism, which was intended as a compromise that would bring together those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon and those who rejected it. In 633, St. Sophronius traveled to Constantinople and Alexandria in an effort to persuade Patriarchs Sergius and Cyrus, respectively, of their errors in teaching Monothelitism. The following year, St. Sophronius became Patriarch of Jerusalem. In his enthronement epistle to his fellow patriarchs, all of whom favored the Monothelite heresy (including Pope Honorius), he boldly proclaimed the Orthodox belief in Christ's two natures and two wills. "Nevertheless," writes Monk Basil, "he refers to Sergius as 'the most holy of all bishops, and most blessed brother and concelebrant Sergius'. He asked him to acept his dogmatic epistle and to send the 'longed for letters', which will clearly express the correct faith." By this point, Sergius had already been teaching the Monothelite heresy for nearly two decades, yet St. Sophronius did not break communion with him, as indicated by his reference to Sergius as concelebrant, in the faint hope that Sergius would repent. There is no evidence that St. Sophronius broke communion with Sergius and Honorius before they all died in 638.
St. Sophronius would neither compromise the truth for the sake of unity, as the Monothelites desired, nor would he sacrifice unity for the cause of truth, as modern zealots demand. In short, he rejected the false choice between unity and truth.
In this era, when nearly every church has its purist-zealots who are eager to separate over the pettiest of differences, it is heartening to read of the Fathers' extreme hesistation to break communion. I think history shows that the Fathers were correct. Heresies often fade with the deaths of their respective heresiarchs, but schisms can persist long after their intial justifications become moot. Schism should always be a long-delayed last-resort response to persistent, documented, unrepented heresy, not a knee-jerk reaction to a passing fad or weak theology.
In the ongoing disintegration of Anglicanism, we see the spectacle of impatient bishops on both sides demonstrating their contempt for the Anglican Communion – and, indeed, for the Body of Christ – by instituting hasty, ad hoc schisms, ignoring the documents they signed and the procedures they initiated to strengthen the communion and bring to account those who cannot abide by the Anglican consensus.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI this weekend, in the explanatory letter accompanying his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, showed great concern for unity:
I now come to the positive reason which motivated my decision to issue this Motu Proprio updating that of 1988. It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew. I think of a sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes: "Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return . . . widen your hearts also!" (2 Cor 6:11-13). Paul was certainly speaking in another context, but his exhortation can and must touch us too, precisely on this subject. Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.