St. Basil was born into a saintly, aristocratic and wealthy Christian family in Caesarea, Cappadocia (Turkey) in 330. His family produced seven saints - aside from St. Basil himself, they are: St. Macrina the Elder (St. Basil's grandmother), St. Emmilia (his mother), St. Macrina the Younger and St. Theosevia (his sisters), and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Peter of Sebaste (his brothers).
St. Basil was a brilliant student of rhetoric and philosophy, completing extensive studies in Caesarea, Constantinople, and Athens. On the death of his father, St. Basil turned his back on a promising career, sold his property, received baptism, and joined his mother and sister Macrina in a small ascetic community at Annesi in Pontus. In 370 he became archbishop of Caesarea. At that time the Arian heresy (which denied the divinity of Christ) was sweeping through the Roman empire. Even the Emperor had fallen to the heresy and was vigorously persecuting orthodox Christians who stood against the heresy.
Defense of the true faith was St. Basil's primary task as archbishop, and he carried it out for the rest of his life with unflinching courage, great intellectual power, and charity. He was one of the principals in expunging Arianism from the Eastern Roman Empire - for this he is called St. Basil the Great.
He was one of the first Church Fathers to appreciate the value of pagan literature in the education of Christian youth. In overcoming Christians' opposition to page literature, St. Basil in his Address to the Youth (Sermon 22) offer his classic solution, often called the "theory of the honeybee." Here St. Basil insists "that pagan literature must not be totally condemned; rather Christians must, like the bee, select what is to their profit and reject what is inacceptable [sic] to the Christian point of view." At the age of 49 in 379, worn out by work and continually plagued by a serious liver condition that caused him endless distress and depression, Basil breathed his last with the words, "Into Thy hands I commend my spirit."
*Pope Damasus: Birth of the Imperial Papacy*
St. Basil's correspondence with Pope Damasus and his clash with him over St. Meletius' succession to the see of Antioch tell us a lot about how the Eastern Church perceived the bishop of Rome.
Damasus was elected bishop of Rome by a majority of the Roman clergy and people. However, a rival party had also elected their own candidate, Ursinus, to the same position. An ugly riot broke out between the partisans of the rival claimants. Damasus was supported by the charioteers, and by the grave-diggers, who emerged from the catacombs armed with their spades and picks to 'exchange their task of burying corpses for the more exciting occupation of making them.' Close to 150 people were killed before order was restored and Damasus was firmly seated as Rome's new bishop.
Pope Damasus was devoted to the Christian martyrs who lay buried in the catacombs. He encouraged their veneration by enlarging public access to the burial crypts and passages for pilgrims. He is also credited with finding and restoring graves of martyrs all but forgotten. It was Damasus who commissioned his secretary, St. Jerome, to undertake a new Latin translation of the Bible, which later became known as the Vulgate.
Pope Damasus (366-384) was the first pope to seriously promote the Petrine text of Matthew 16:18 as "a theological and scriptural foundation on which the claims to Primacy were based...From Damasus onwards there is a marked crescendo in the expression of the claims made by the bishops of Rome." Pope Damasus and his successors began responding to requests for guidance in the manner a Roman emperor would respond to his colonial governors - answers "composed in a formal chancery style modelled on imperial rescripts."
He now customarily referred to his see as 'apostolic' and adopted the imperial 'We'. In a Church where all bishops had regarded one another (and referred to one another) as 'brother', be now addressed all other bishops as 'son'. Unsurprisingly, he wasn't very welcome in the East. His reserved and haughty manner offended many, including the Cappadocian doctor of the Church, St. Basil.
*St. Basil Rejects Rome's Candidate*
The see of Antioch became vacant in 375. Pope Damasus made the mistake of recognizing Paulinus as bishop. A man who was clearly rejected by St. Basil and the Eastern Church. St. Meletius was recognized by the East as the true bishop of Antioch and they were unflinching in their support of him. Despite this, Catholic apologist Stephen K. Ray, in his book Upon This Rock, claims that "Basil sees Rome as the caretaker of the troubled Eastern Churches," and uses Pope Damasus' support of Paulinus as clear evidence of Rome's supreme universal jurisdiction over the Eastern Church.
Mr. Ray briefly quotes St. Basil's letter to Terentius as saying that certain men were "carrying about letters from the westerners, handing over the bishopric of Antioch to them." From this Mr. Ray concludes: "How could Rome prove its primacy in any stronger terms than to hand the Antiochian bishopric over to someone of its own choosing? Obviously Rome had the right and duty of overseeing such ecclesiastical matters, and Basil recognized this authority."
Mr. Whelton claims that the quote from St. Basil is taken massively out of context. He does give Mr. Ray the benefit of the doubt by saying that he likely was quoting from an intermediate source, and so has no idea of the context of the letter he is misusing. St. Basil's first real clash with Rome was over the episcopal succession at Antioch, and his letter to Terentius clearly shows that he did not recognize Rome's authority in the East.
"I hear moreover, that the Paulinians are carrying about a letter of the Westerns, assigning to them the episcopate of the Church in Antioch, but speaking under a false impression of Meletius, the admirable bishop of the true Church of God. I am not astonished at this. They are totally ignorant of what is going on here; the others, though they might be supposed to know, give an account to them in which party is put before truth: and it is only what one might expect that they should either be ignorant of the truth, or should even endeavor to conceal the reasons which led the blessed Bishop Athanasius to write to Paulinus. But your excellency has on the spot those who are able to tell you accurately what passed between the bishops in the reign of Jovian, and from them I beseech you to get information. I accuse no one; I pray that I may have love to all, and "especially unto them who are of the household of faith;" and therefore I congratulate those who have received the letter from Rome. And, although it is a grand testimony in their favour, I only hope it is true and confirmed by facts. But I shall never be able to persuade myself on these grounds to ignore Meletius, or forget the Church which is under him, or to treat as small, and of little importance to the true religion, the questions which originated the division. I shall never consent to give in, merely because somebody is very elated at receiving a letter from men. Even if it had come down from heaven itself, but he does not agree with the sound doctrine of the faith, I cannot look upon him as in communion with the saints."
This clash over the person of St. Meletius, Bishop of Antioch, is historically known as the Meletian schism. St. Basil, along with the Eastern Church, supported Meletius as the rightful claimant to the see of Antioch over Rome's candidate, Paulinus. St. Meletius was made president of the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople), convened by Emperor Theodosius. When he died during the council, Rome's candidate Paulinus was *still* ignored, and Flavian was elected to the see of Antioch.
While St. Basil had no desire to disrespect the bishop of Rome ("I accuse no one"), he does not accept the pope's choice for bishop of Antioch. Indeed, he considers Pope Damasus's decision to support Paulinus to be against the sound doctrine of the faith.
*St. Basil and the Arian Heresy*
We know that the Arian heresy was a great heresy that almost overwhelmed the Church. It was actually fought and conquered without Rome's involvement. In his lifelong battle with the Arian's, St. Basil never displays any awareness that in the bishop of Rome resided a supreme authority for settling doctrinal disputes. Rather, it is to St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria that he looks for leadership, guidance, consolation, and healing of the spiritual sickness in the Church. St. Basil says of St. Athanasius:
"Who has more capacity than yourself, with your intelligence and prudence? Who is keener to see the needful courses to be taken? Who has more practical experience in working a profitable policy? Who feels more deeply the troubles of the brethren? What through all the West is more honoured than your venerable gray hairs?
"The worse the diseases of the Churches grow, the more do we all turn to your excellency, in the belief that your championship is the one consolation left to us in our troubles.
"...that I could not make a more fitting beginning than by having recourse to your excellency, as to the head and chief of all.
"[I] direct my gaze in the direction of your reverence; I remember that our Lord has appointed you to be physician of the diseases in the Churches; and I recover my spirits."
As the Arian heresy raged in the Eastern Church, St. Basil appealed to the Western churches as a whole for aid and support. He never appealed to the bishop of Rome as 'supreme pastor', or any other phrase or title that would imply universal jurisdiction. He addresses his appeals as one equal to another. In another letter, he places Rome second after Gaul in his appeals. He appears to be unaware of any divinely ordained Roman supremacy.
*St. Basil and the Westerners*
Pope Damasus's continued rejection of St. Meletius along with the Westerners' lack of support for the troubled East finally discouraged St. Basil. His references to the Western Church became less than favorable. In a letter to his old friend Eusebius, St. Basil expresses doubts that sending more letters to the Western churches would produce anything of value at all, and is certainly less than flattering in his remarks. In another letter regarding his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa's proposed visit to Rome, St. Basil comments on the pride and arrogance of Pope Damasus.
It seems fairly obvious from his actions and his letters that St. Basil was completely ignorant of any one bishop rightfully possessing the office of 'supreme pastor'. It is also obvious that he found pretensions such as those practiced by the bishop of Rome insufferably arrogant.