Did Pope St. Gregory the Great Deny the Papacy?


Did Pope St. Gregory the Great explicitly deny Papal authority when he persistently denied the existence of a “universal bishop”? No, and this blogpost will briefly explain why that is. First let’s look at some background information so we can gather some context. Prior to entering into Papal office, Gregory was the Papal Apocrisiary in Constantinople, and so was familiar with all things East. This position is that of a Papal legate to continually represent the Pope in the East, as well as share the interests of the Roman Church. In Constantinople, Gregory became friends with Patriarch John IV, surnamed the “Faster”, with whom he would later enter into feud over a title, Ecumenical Patriarch.  It was thereafter, when Gregory returned to Rome that this controversy broke out. Now, this title was not new. Even before Gregory entered the Papacy, John had used this title in a synod where he had summoned Gregory of Antioch to answer charges brought to him, all of which he was acquitted from. The Acts of this Council were sent to Rome in order to obtain popepelagiusiiconfirmation. The Pope at the time, Pope Pelagius II, had annulled the proceedings of the Council because the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” had been used. This will be mentioned again below. The title goes even further back, even to Acacius of Contsantinople (484), and it is clear that the Western Popes misunderstood the import. The title “Ecumenical” was meant to convey Imperial, not universal (see Church and the Papacy, Trevor Jalland, page 355). While this present blogpost won’t be devoted to speaking on the appropriatness and purpose of the Patriarchs using this title, it should be mentioned that there was no intention by the Easterns to attribute some sort of illegitimate supremacy of the See of Constantinople, in fact. Even the deacons of Constantinople could be called the “ecumenical deacons”, since they were serving in that Church wherein the summit of Imperial authority was operative. Needless to say, Gregory misunderstood, as did his predecessors. Even his successors would bring the issue up . Pope Hadrian I had an issue with Patriarch Tarasius being so entitled (See letter of Hadrian to the Council of Nicaea 787, Session II). But our main concern here is, despite this misunderstanding, Gregory made some stark comments in opposition, not just to the title that was being used, but to even the concept of a universal bishop. The focus of this blog post will be to address whether, in consequence of this, Gregory be used by Protestants and Eastern Orthodox as a witness against a universal primacy of jurisdiction, and therefore the Catholic dogma of the Papacy?




The question of whether Gregory believed that the Roman bishop could exercise coercive authority over the universal church might be answered, initially, by the scenario mentioned shortly above – the Eastern council, annulled by Gregory’s predecessor Pelagius II, where another Gregory, Patriarch of Antioch, was being interrogated for heresy by Patriarch John IV. As I mentioned, John had used the title “ecumenical patriarch”. Gregory himself wrote an epistle recounting this event. We read:  ‘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, seeking occasion from another cause, 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” (Book V, Letter 43 – To Eulogius of Alexandria & Anastasius of Antioch).  How is it that Pope Gregory ties together the figure of Peter and the power to make null and void synods outside of his Roman territory? This sounds just like when Pope Leo the Great wrote in response to the decree of canon 28 at the Council of Chalcedon. Leo wrote, “by the blessed Apostle Peter’s authority we absolutely annul…” the 28th canon (Letter 105). It is likely, therefore, that Gregory believed he had authority over the decrees of Councils, Ecumenical or not. Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, while Lutheran, commented on this matter:  “The bishop of Rome had the right of 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 consent of the Apostolic See, none of the matters transacted have any binding force’. …he was already beginning to formulate a doctrine of the dogmatic authority of Rome, based on the primacy of Peter and corroborated by a record and reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy.” (The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1- page 354). In a letter to John of Syracuse, Gregory speaks of a Byzacene primate: “ as to his saying that he is subject to the Apostolic See, if any fault is found in bishops, I know not what bishop is not subject to it.” (Book 9, Letter 59). In the same Book of epistles, letter 12, Gregory writes: ‘For as to what they say about the Church of Constantinople, who can doubt that it is subject to the Apostolic See, as both the most pious lord the emperor and our brother the bishop of that city continually acknowledge?”. Even the Oxford historian,  member of the Church of England, J.N.D. Kelly, said that, for St. Gregory, “St. Peter’s commission made all churches, Constantinople included, subject to Rome” (Oxford Dictionary of Pope, p. 67) . Now, if someone who had only been told certain statements from Gregory’s letter to Patriarch John IV (Book 5, Letter 18), probably the most famous letter from which anti-Papists gather evidence for Gregory’s denying any and all Papal authority, they might never imagine that Gregory believed that all bishops of the universal church stood in subjection to the See of Rome. This is the sort of erroneous route taken by  Abbé Vladimir Guettée in his The Papacy . And it would seem from that letter  that there is no reason to blame them, for Gregory makes some very outstanding statements in opposition to this concept of “universal bishop”. Things such as:

“Certainly the apostle Paul, when he heard some say, I am of Paul, I of Apollos, but I of Christ, regarded with the utmost horror such dilaceration of the Lord’s body, whereby they were joining themselves, as it were, to other heads, and exclaimed, saying, Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul ? If then he shunned the subjecting of the members of Christ partially to certain heads, as if beside Christ, though this were to the apostles themselves, what will you say to Christ, who is the Head of the universal Church”. And one stands out above all, “Certainly Peter, the first of the apostles, himself a member of the holy and universal Church, Paul, Andrew, John,— what were they but [mere] heads of particular communities? And yet all were members under one Head [Christ]”.

And yet we know from a different epistle of Gregory that he wrote “the Apostolic See, which is the Head of all the churches” (Book 13, Letter 50). Does not this sound a bit contradictory with what he says to John? Not if we interpret Gregory aright. What Gregory was disputing against was that a title such as “Universal Bishop” would imply that there is only one single bishop over the whole universal Church, whereas the other “bishops” are just deputies or vicars of the single Bishop. We know this because Gregory says in the very same letter to John IV that the Council of Chalcedon, in the 3rd session by the audible reading of the archdeacon Aëtius, had referenced Pope Leo as the “universal archbishop”. Gregory recounts this as follows:

Was it not the case, as your Fraternity knows, that the prelates of this Apostolic See which by the providence of God I serve, had the honor offered them of being called universal by the venerable Council of Chalcedon. But yet not one of them has ever wished to be called by such a title, or seized upon this ill-advised name, lest if, in virtue of the rank of the pontificate, he took to himself the glory of singularity, he might seem to have denied it to all his brethren”.

So the title, for Gregory appears to have denoted this idea of singularity to the exclusion of others, where Rome always claimed a primacy together with others. In fact, the ecclesiology of Vatican 1 & 2 teaches nothing different than this. The Pope is not the only bishop, but is the bishop of Rome, and yet he holds universal primacy over the whole Church. In other words, the Pope is the Head of the episcopate, but the office of the bishops and their rightful authority in their respective boundaries is given by Jesus Christ directly in the sacrament of Holy Orders. They are not mere vicars or deputies of the Pope. That is much similar to what we read in Gregory as you continue to read his other works. That Gregory believed that he was “above” the Patriarch John IV is clear by the statements we’ve already read, but also in the very epistle often quoted to show Gregory was an anti-Papalist, he shows himself to almost threaten the Patriarch with excommunication: “And, in case of your refusing to amend, I forbade his celebrating the solemnities of mass with you; that so I might first appeal to your Holiness through a certain sense of shame, to the end that, if the execrable and profane assumption could not be corrected through shame, strict canonical measures might be then resorted to.”



Practically speaking, Pope Gregory was a huge enforcer of the canons of Sardica, even in the East. The Council of Sardica, held then in modern day Sophia of Bulgaria, was convened in 343, and was a response to the open policy of the East on the binding closure of synods, even provincial. There had been two synods held to depose St. Athanasius from his office as Bishop of the Church of Alexandria. Pope St. Julius I had intervened into the situation and reversed these synodal rulings. Going off this, which was even a habit pre-Nicaea, the Sardican council put into official canonical legislation the appellate procedure of appeals to the Holy See. The Council had justified doing so since the Roman See held the “memory of Peter the Apostle” (canon 3). It is not a mere endearing thought, but rather an appeal to the memory of Peter’s judicial role as Primate amongst the Apostles which had continued forward in the episcopal succession at the church of pope_julius_iRome. The binding or loosing of episcopal synods would fall into the hands of the prelate of that See where Peter’s primacy was left. Now, while many historians and interpreters have read these canons as simply giving a position to hear appeals or to re-open cases for proximate judges to be re-situated, they have no good reason to downplay it in such fashion, as I’ve written about elsewhere. We also see that even in the East, there was recognition of these Petrine canons of as early as the late 4th century, only 30 or so years after Sardica (see Jalland, pg 237), and Eastern canonical law includes Sardica in canon 2 of Trullo 692. The Patriarch John IV and many bishops in the East accepted the binding authority of the Pope to overturn Eastern synodal decisions. Two instances prove this point. A priest, John, who served in the city of Chalcedon, was judged by the tribunal of Constantinople as a condemned heretic. The Patriarch allowed the condemned priest to appeal to the Apostolic See, and Pope Gregory actually found the priest John innocent, and sent him back to the East with paper restoring his priestly position (Book 6, Epistles 15-17). Then, a monk, Anastasius, was condemned a heretic in Constantinople, and was allowed to appeal to Rome for a re-examination, after which the Constantinopolitan decision was reversed, and Anastasius was restored and even became head of a Monastery (see Byzantium and the Roman Primacy, Dvornik, page 80). In another place, Gregory makes it clear that , while there is an order of hierarchy proper to proximate judges, the final decision rests with the tribunal of the Roman See: “”If, however it is stated in opposition to this, that he has neither metropolitan nor patriarch, it must also be said that the case must then be heard and settled by the Apostolic See, which is the head of all the churches.” (Book 13, Epistle 50). That is the same exact claim to Papal power that was written by Pope Nicholas I to Emperor Michael in the 9th century (Mansi, xvi. 59), and even Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, in his lecture “Primacy and the Pope given at the Conference “Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury, Mother Churches?” in 8th of June 2008 admitted Nicholas I was making clear claims of universal jurisdiction over the entire church.


Having seen the place of Rome in the perspective of Gregory, it would seem unnecessary to look at that letter to Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria (Book 7, Epistle 40) where mention is made of Peter’s seat being in three different locations. In all that we’ve seen, Gregory understood that “Rome”, in particular, was the head of all churches, including that of Alexandria and Antioch. While many would like to make it seem as though Gregory here is making an equation of authority between the three Patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, it is most definitely disproven by the large amount of evidence in his other letters to the contrary. Pelikan recognizes the fact when he writes: “To be sure, Peter had also been in Alexandria and in Antioch, and Gregory sometimes put forth the idea that these two patriarchs shared with him the primacy given to Peter: Rome was the see where Peter had died, Alexandria the see to which he had sent Mark, and Antioch the see which he himself had occupied for seven years. There was one see of Peter in three places. But this touch of whimsy about the apostle did not have any far-reaching implications for Gregory’s concrete doctrine of primacy in the church. Everybody knew that the see of Peter was Rome. When the legates at Chalcedon in 451 responded to the reading of Leo’s Tome with the exclamation, ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo!’ they were simply giving voice to this general assumption. For the early church, primacy had belonged in a special way to Jerusalem, the mother city of all believers. But it had moved from the capital city of the old Israel to the capital city of the world, which became the capital city of the new Israel….The churches of the Greek East, too, owed a special allegiance to Rome. As far as the Church of Constantinople was concerned, ‘who would doubt that it has been made subject to the apostolic see’, that is, of course, to Rome? By hailing the authority of Leo, the fathers at Chalcedon gave witness to the orthodoxy of 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 had 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 have any binding force’.   (The Christian Tradition, Vol 1, pages 353-4).

Monsignor Pierre Batiffol, critical in the Catholic historical ranks of scholarship wrote:  Saint Gregory did not sacrifice any part of the principatus inherited from Saint Peter. He claimed it, however, with a manifest anxiety less he interfere with the right of another in holding his privilege. This is very noticeable in his relations with Alexandria and Antioch. Some have made this a pretext for saying Gregory considered this apostolic principatus as being possessed by the Sees of Alexandria and Antioch, and that this concession enabled him to obtain the aid of Alexandria and Antioch in his campaign against the oecumenical pretensions of the patriarch of Constantinople (Dudden, Gregory the Great, II, 227). An examination of the texts which one can bring forth, proves, above all, the deference with which Gregory treated the See of Alexandria and the See of Antioch, both of which were apostolic. But the sincere and skillful humility of Saint Gregory does not harm the privilege of his own proper See, and nowhere do we find that he actually attributed this prerogative to other Sees than his own. Saint Peter honored (decoravit) the See of Alexandria by giving it his disciple, Saint Mark. He strengthened (firmavit) the See of Antioch where he reigned for seven years. And he exalted (sublimavit) the See of Rome which had been the term of his life and the place of his death.” (Saint Gregoire le Grand, 188)

Thus on this matter, Gregory is only alluding to the long known fact of the tri-Petrinity between the three great Churches. Pope Damasus made an explicit account of Peter’s influence on the churches of Alexandria and Antioch in his Roman synodal decree (382), and it is mentioned in the writings of Pope St. Boniface I (422), and it is elaborated in the writings of Pope St. Leo the Great (451-453). Therefore, Gregory was admitting nothing different than his Papal supremacist predecessors had. There is not an equation of powers, but a similitude of founding, namely, a common source of influence, namely, the Apostle Peter.


Now, to return to Gregory’s argument against the concept of Universal Bishop. How did this saintly Pope figure that the See of Rome and the successor of Peter is the head and pastor of the universal church, and yet deny the universal bishop concept? For, not only does he insist that the prelate of Constantinople should not hold the title, but that no one in the Episcopate should hold that title. The solution is to read what Gregory had to say about St. Peter in relationship to the Apostles, as well as the entire Church. To begin, we need to take note that Pope Gregory believed that St. Peter was commissioned to the Pastor of the universal church of Christ:

“To all who know the Gospel [presumably, the account of Sts. John & Matthew] it is obvious that by the voice of the Lord [divine institution] the care of the universal church was committed to the holy apostle and prince of all the apostles, Peter…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, and yet he is never called the Universal Apostle. But that most holy man, my fellow-bishop John, wishes to be called the Universal Bishop. I am compelled to exclaim, O tempora! O mores!“” (Book 5, Epistle 37)

Some preliminary observations: It is obvious that St. Gregory here takes from that passage in the gospel of John (21:15-17) where the Lord Jesus asks Simon Peter if he loved him three consecutive times. Each time Peter answered in the affirmative, in contradistinction from his three-fold negative when he betrayed the Lord during His trial. Jesus then instructed Peter to “Feed My Lambs”, three times as well. Now, in the English we might take this whole matter rather lightly, as just a gentle exhortation to be a support to the early Christians. But Jesus is commanding Peter to be a Shepherd. That is the imagery, after all. Secondly, the first and third time the Lord commands, the translator used the Greek word βόσκω (Feed), which is just as general as our basic meaning to feed someone food for their nourishment. This contains all sorts of pastoral metaphors, but the second time the Lord commands, he uses the word ποιμαίνω which means to govern the lambs as a Shepherd. For example, the very same author uses the word ποιμαίνω to translate “rule” in the Apocalypse 2:27 (“And he shall rule them with a rod of iron”), and the same for Apoc 12:5 & 19:15; or another place would be in gospel according to St. Matthew where ποιμαίνω is used to translate “rule” in 2:6 (“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel”). Other occurrences in New Testament clearly illustrate the role of a Shepherd. One in particular, however, explicitly uses ποιμαίνω to describe the function of a Bishop. St. Paul says to the elders of the Church in Ephesus , “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (ἐπίσκοπος), to feed (ποιμαίνω) the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Notice, therefore, the word for overseers is episkopos, meaning Bishop. Thus, if the word used by St. John to describe the commission of Christ to St. Peter “Feed my Lambs” uses ποιμαίνω to translate “Feed”, and if ποιμαίνω elsewhere by the same author means “rule”, and if in other places ποιμαίνω is used to describe the function of a Bishop, then we have good solid ground to believe, with St. Gregory, that this commission to Peter was one of commissioning a Pastorate, and that, over the whole flock (i.e. the universal church). But a problem of inconsistency arises, does it not? If St. Gregory vociferously fought against the title “Universal bishop”, then what is he here describing about St. Peter, if not a universal pastor? It seems unavoidable that he saw St. Peter as the universal Pastor, and by the divine institution of Jesus Christ. And if the argument thus far hasn’t proved anything, than Gregory’s tie between “Feed My Lambs” and the “Keys of the Kingdom” and the power to “Bind and loose” would surely convince the unbiased reader that he has in mind the role of a Governor.  Moreover, Gregory says that Peter was given the “principality” of the whole Church. Batiffol remarks that principatus “designates a power, which in its order, is supreme. St. Leo qualifies the power of the emperor as the principatus.” (Cathedra Petri, 83).

The key to interpret Gregory here is to notice what he says about Peter in the last part – though Christ the Lord had made Peter the chief Shepherd of the whole church [no boundary], established him as the “principiate” (by then a title for the Byzantine Emperor), ordained him to be the Key-holder of the church and thus chief in binding and loosing, but yet, Christ did not make Peter the universal Apostle. What this means it that though Peter was given this primacy role, he was not the *only Apostle* in existence. In fact, Peter was still one of the twelve. Likewise, the successor of Peter, the Bishop of the Apostolic See, though he has the primacy he has, of which Gregory was not ashamed to defend in many diverse places, he is still one bishop among all the bishops. As Gregory describes: “For what are all your brethren, the bishops of the universal Church, but stars of heaven, whose life and discourse shine together”. In his letter to John IV (Book 5, Letter 18), the opening has an explicit description of what Gregory thought was entailed by assuming the title: “At the time when your Fraternity was advanced to Sacerdotal dignity, you remember what peace and concord of the churches you found. But, with what daring or with what swelling of pride I know not, you have attempted to seize upon a new name, whereby the hearts of all your brethren might have come to take offense. I wonder exceedingly at this, since I remember how you would fain have fled from the episcopal office rather than attain it. And yet, now that you have got it, you desire so to exercise it as if you had run to it with ambitious intent. For, having confessed yourself unworthy to be called a bishop, you have at length been brought to such a pass as, despising your brethren, to covet to be named the only bishop”. Thus, in Gregory’s mind, the Patriarch of Constantinople was assuming the title which entailed he was truly the only Bishop of the whole world, and that is more than worth denying.

Of interest is the the Eastern Orthodox,  who to this day, venerate St. Gregory with the following in their service-books:

“Thou, most holy Pastor, art the successor to the See and also to the zeal of the corphaeus, church_of_st-_alexis_in_the_chudov_monastery_detailcleansing the people and bringing them to God. Successor to the throne of the prince of the choir of the disciples, thou dost fulfill thine office; and from thence, O Gregory, thou dost by thy word as with a torch enlighten the faithful.
The First of the churches, having embraced thee, waters every land that is under the sun with the streams of her most holy teachings. Hail, torch of religion, who dost light up all the world with the rays of they words! Beacon, calling back to the haven those tossed among the waves of error, and ransoming them from death. Organ acted upon by the breath of the holy Ghost” (Kalendarium manuale utriusque ecclesiae orientalis et occidentalis academiis clericorum accomodatum auspiciis commissarii apostolici, Nikolaus Nilles , i, 121)

4 thoughts on “Did Pope St. Gregory the Great Deny the Papacy?

  1. Pingback: St. Peter and the Keys of the Kingdom – Part 2 | Erick Ybarra

  2. Pingback: S. Pedro e as Chaves do Reino (Parte II) — Apologistas da Fé Católica

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