In 330, a synod at Antioch, instigated by Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a Semi-Arian, deposed and subsequently exiled Eustathius on the grounds the he held to the doctrine of Sabellianism, which was a common claim made against those who held to the credo of Nicaea. The see of Antioch was held by a succession of Arian and Semi-Arian bishops, culminating with Eudoxius in 358. Meanwhile, the Nicaean resistance in Antioch, led by a presbyter named Paulinus, continued to consider
Eustathius to be the rightful bishop of Antioch until his death in 337. When Eudoxius became the bishop of Constantinople, Meletius was elected to succeed him. Socrates Scholasticus wrote that Meletius “at first avoided all doctrinal questions…but subsequently he expounded to his auditors the Nicene creed, and asserted the doctrine of the homoousion. The emperor being informed of this, ordered that he should be sent into exile and caused Euzoius, who had before been deposed together with Arius, to be installed bishop of Antioch in his stead."
The Rejection of Meletius
Despite this demonstration, at cost, of adherence to the doctrine of Nicaea, the followers of Eustathius still refused to recognize Meletius as rightful bishop due to his prior connections with the Arian party. In 361, Constantius died and was succeeded by Julian the Apostate, who annulled all his predecessor’s decrees of expulsion in an effort to weaken the Christians with division. In this, he succeeded. Along with Meletius, returned the rigorist Lucifer of Cagliari. Soon to start a
schism of his own, Lucifer exacerbated the one at Antioch by beating Meletius to the city and consecrating Paulinus as bishop. The adherents of Nicaea were thus divided and unable to present a united front against the Arians.
The Involvement of St. Basil of Caesarea
Since his consecration in 370, St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, had been trying to bring in Western support for Meletius and thus end the schism. He communicated this plan with Meletius himself who cooperated with Basil in carrying it out by loaning his deacon Dorotheus to serve as Basil’s envoy to Rome. Basil also wrote a number of letters to St. Athanasius of Alexandria, in an attempt to gain his aid as well, but Athanasius supported Paulinus. Among the Epistulae of Basil is a letter with no addressee, which is nonetheless grouped with Basil’s other letters from this period. The text of the letter indicates that it was originally addressed to Damasus. The most compelling evidence for this is Basil’s mention of “the blessed bishop Dionysius, conspicuous of your see as well for soundness of faith as for all other virtues.” Dionysius succeeded the martyred St. Xystus II as bishop of Rome, where he reigned for a year and half. Basil apparently never sent this letter.
Justin Taylor theorized that “Basil may have had a presentiment…that Damasus may not be as sympathetic as he had hoped, and so refrained from making the sort of personal appeal to him that he had earlier planned.” Eamon Duffy sums up well the mindset of Damasus at this time. “With no intention of embroiling himself in the nightmare complexities of the Eastern theological debates, he thought the right procedure was for the bishops of the East to establish their orthodoxy by signing Roman formulas.” Meanwhile, the situation went from bad to worse.
Pope Damasus Settles the Issue
In 373, Athanasius died. In the same year Evagrius, a presbyter who had been serving as another of Basil’s envoys to the West, refused to receive communion with Dorotheus, indicating his rejection of Meletius as bishop. When Damasus finally entered the fracas, he came in decidedly on the side of Paulinus. Damasus sent a letter to Paulinus, in which the pope addressed Paulinus as the bishop of Antioch and explained the terms for communion with Vitalis. Vitalis had been a follower of Meletius and was well respected by adherents of Nicaea, but Apollinaris of Laodicea had consecrated him as bishop. Apollinaris taught that Christ had no human soul, essentially, the divine Logos had simply taken up residency in Christ’s human body. Adherence to this belief made Vitalis, despite his adherence to Nicaea, anathema to both the Meletians and Paulinians. On account of the letter, Evagrius officially joined with Paulinus, and would succeed him as bishop upon his death in St. Jerome took this letter as the decision for which he had beseeched Damasus and returned to his home see to be ordained as a presbyter by Paulinus. Theodoret also records a profession of faith that Damasus sent to Paulinus, demonstrating their communion.