Of the final decision of the trials of bishops, and graver ecclesiastical cases in the seat of the apostles.
Zephyrinus, archbishop of the city of Rome, to all the bishops settled in Sicily, in the Lord, greeting.
We ought to be mindful of the grace of God to us, which in His own merciful regard has raised us for this purpose to the summit of priestly honour, that, abiding by His commandments, and appointed in a certain supervision of His priests, we may prohibit things unlawful, and teach those that are to be followed. As night does not extinguish the stars of heaven, so the unrighteousness of the world does not blind the minds of the faithful that hold by the sure support of Scripture. Therefore we ought to consider well and attend carefully to the Scriptures, and the divine precepts which are contained in these Scriptures, in order that we may show ourselves not transgressors, but fulfillers of the law of God.
Now patriarchs and primates, in investigating the case of an accused bishop, should not pronounce a final decision until, supported by the authority of the apostles, they find that the person either confesses himself guilty, or is proved so by witnesses trustworthy and regularly examined, who should not be fewer in number than were those disciples whom the Lord directed to be chosen for the help of the apostles-that is, seventy-two. Detractors also, who are to be rooted out by divine authority, and the advisers of enemies (auctores inimicorum), we do not admit in the indictment of bishops or in evidence against them; nor should any one of superior rank be indicted or condemned on the accusations of inferiors. Nor in a doubtful case should a decisive judgment be pronounced; nor should any trial be held valid unless it has been conducted according to order. No one, moreover, should be judged in his absence, because both divine and human laws forbid that. The accusers of those persons should also be free of all suspicion, because the Lord has chosen that His pillars should stand firm, and not be shaken by any one who will. For a sentence should not bind any of them if it is not given by their proper judge, because even the laws of the world ordain that that be done. For any accused bishop may, if it be necessary, choose twelve judges by whom his case may be justly judged. Nor should he be heard or excommunicated or judged until these be chosen by him; and on his being regularly summoned at first to a council of his own bishops, his case should be justly heard by them, and investigated on sound principles. The end of his case, however, should be remitted to the seat of the apostles, that it may be finally decided there. Nor should it be finished, as has been decreed of old by the apostles or their successors, until it is sustained by its authority. To it also all, and especially the oppressed, should appeal and have recourse as to a mother, that they may be nourished by her breasts, defended by her authority, and relieved of their oppressions, because "a mother cannot," and should not, "forget her son."(1) For the trials of bishops and graver ecclesiastical cases, as the apostles and their holy successors have decreed, are to be finally decided along with other bishops(2) by the seat of the apostles, and by no other; because, although they may be transferred to other bishops, it was yet to the blessed Apostle Peter these terms were addressed: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."(3) And the other privileges which have been granted to this holy seat alone are found embodied both in the constitutions of the apostles(4) and their successors, and in very many others in harmony with these. For the apostles have prefixed seventy(5) decrees, together with very many other bishops, and have appointed them to be kept. For to judge rashly of the secrets of another's heart is sin; and it is unjust to reprove him on suspicion whose works seem not other than good, since God alone is Judge of those things which are unknown to men. He, however, "knoweth the secrets of the heart,"(6) and not another. For unjust judgments are to be guarded against by all, especially however by the servants of God. "And the servant of the Lord must not strive,"(7) nor harm any one. For bishops are to he borne by laity and clergy, and masters by servants, in order that, under the exercise of endurance, things temporal may be maintained, and things eternal hoped for. For that increases the worth of virtue, which does not violate the purpose of religion. You should be earnestly intent that none of your brothers be grievously injured or undone. Therefore you ought to succour the oppressed, and deliver them from the hand of their persecutors, in order that with the blessed Job you may say: "The blessing of him that was ready to perish will come upon me, and I consoled the widow's heart. I put on righteousness, and clothed myself with a robe and a diadem, my judgment. I was eye to the blind, and foot to the lame. I was a father to the poor, and the cause which I knew not I searched out most carefully. I brake the grinders of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth; "(8) and so forth. You, therefore, who have been placed in eminence by God, ought with all your power to check and repel those who prepare snares for brethren, or raise seditions and offences against them. For it is easy by word to deceive man, not however God. Therefore you ought to keep these off, and be on your guard against them, until such darkness is done away utterly, and the morning star shines upon them, and gladness arises, most holy brethren. Given on the 20th September, in the consulship of the most illustrious Saturninus and Gallicanus.(9)