Monday, March 12, 2007

Pope Gregory the Great and the Universal Papacy

Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox) somehow manage to simultaneously claim that Pope St. Gregory the Great was 1) the first pope, but nevertheless 2) a denier of papal supremacy (see below). Neither is true. I therefore ask Protestants (particularly anti-Catholics): who, then, was the first pope, if Gregory the Great was not one in any Catholic sense of the word? Or is the argument more subtle than that?

The commonly-heard polemic of Gregory the Great allegedly eschewing the universal jurisdiction of the papacy is easily disposed of. One must examine context and the rest of the author's works and actions, if possible (just as with biblical exegesis). When that is done in this particular instance, Gregory's meaning becomes quite clear, and alas, it is not what the anti-Catholic endeavor would have hoped.

Gregory the Great condemned the title universal bishop in the sense of meaning that all other bishops are not really bishops, but mere agents of the one Bishop, a concept that is blatantly contrary to Catholic teaching, which holds that all bishops are by divine institution true successors of the Apostles. For he states:


    For if one, as he supposes, is universal bishop, it remains that you are not bishops.

    {Epistle LXVIII}

Elsewhere, in the very same correspondence in which he condemns this term in the sense above, Gregory clearly upholds the universal authority and supremacy of the Roman bishop:

    Now eight years ago, in the time of my predecessor of holy memory Pelagius, our brother and fellow-bishop John in the city of Constantinople, . . . held a synod in which he attempted to call himself Universal Bishop. Which as soon as my said predecessor knew, he dispatched letters annulling by the authority of the holy apostle Peter the acts of the said synod; of which letters I have taken care to send copies to your Holiness.

    {Epistle XLIII, emphasis added}

    To all who know the Gospel it is clear that by the words of our Lord the care of the whole Church was committed to Blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles . . . Behold, he received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power to bind and loose was given to him, and the care and principality of the entire church was committed to him . . . Yet he was not the universal Apostle. But . . . John would be called universal Bishop . . . [Popes had never assumed this title, though it had been given them], lest all the Bishops be deprived of their due meed of honor whilst some special honor be conceded to one.

    {Epistles, 5, 37; to Emperor Maurice, emphasis added}

In writing to John, Bishop of Constantinople, who had usurped "this new, proud and profane title," Gregory wonders,

    how one, who had professed himself unworthy to be called a Bishop at all, should now despise his brethren, and aspire to be called the sole Bishop.

    {Epistles, 5,44}

The title Universal Bishop may also be used in the sense of Bishop of Bishops, and in this sense it was applied by Eastern Christians (i.e., Catholics - this is before the Schism) to Popes Hormisdas (514-523), Boniface II (530-532) and Agapetus (535-36), although the popes never used it themselves (ostensibly wishing to avoid the above interpretation) until the time of Leo IX (1049-54).

Pope St. Gregory the Great, like St. John Chrysostom two centuries earlier, and Pope St. Leo the Great 150 years earlier (arguably with even more force and vigor), states the Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy in many passages of his letters. He calls the Roman See "the head of the faith," and the "head of all the churches," because "it holds the place of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles." "All Bishops," including Constantinople, "are subject to the Apostolic See."

{Taken from: The Question Box, Bertrand Conway, New York: Paulist Press, 1929 ed., 158-159}

Likewise, Lutheran historian Jaroslav Pelikan writes:


    The churches of the Greek East, too, owed a special allegiance to Rome . . . One see after another had capitulated in this or that controversy with heresy. Constantinople had given rise to several heretics during the fourth and fifth centuries, notably Nestorius and Macedonius, and the other sees has also been known to stray from the true faith occasionally. but Rome had a special position. The bishop of Rome had the right by his own authority to annul the acts of a synod. In fact, when there was talk of a council to settle controversies, Gregory asserted the principle that "without the authority and the consent of the apostolic see, none of the matters transacted [by a council] have any binding force."

    (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 354; cites Gregory's Epistle 9.156)

Written by Dave Armstrong in 1997.

1 comment:

aaron. said...

Fantastic. The one thing in our human dimension that attests to the Catholic Church is Human history. It is Human history, among many tools given by God, that can allow us to find the true mother of the Church in Rome.