A brief article attacking the Papacy has recently been circulated among the Eastern Orthodox. Entitled "The Universal Patriarch", it originally appeared in "The Orthodox Christian Witness" [issue of] 8/16/81, and serves to revive familiar Protestant and Orthodox polemics attempting to show that Pope St. Gregory the Great rejected with horror the concept of Papal supremacy which allegedly emerged only with Pope St. Nicholas I in the 9th century. The evidence for this is said to be found in the famous letters of Pope St. Gregory the Great to John the Faster, the first Patriarch of Constantinople to be termed "Ecumenical Patriarch". As the author of this anti-papal diatribe writes:
St. John's new title 'Ecumenical Patriarch' was translated into Latin as 'Universal Patriarch'. Here is where some of the papacy's troubles began. Today's papacy, that is.
...Pope Saint Gregory the Great did not know Saint John personally; he did not know that Saint John had not assumed this title himself, nor that he had not wanted to become patriarch, and that he was not the power-hungry, ambition-driven despot that his supposed new title 'Universal Patriarch' seemed to imply.
Alarmed at the thought that one bishop was claiming authority over all the other bishops, Saint Gregory wrote to Saint John. Thus, history has bequeathed to us these incredibly beautiful letters written by the saintly pope, letters which gently but firmly demolish the foundations of the papacy as it later came to be known and hated."
The following quotations from Pope St. Gregory's letters are given as "proof" that he repudiated Papal supremacy over the entire Church:
"Therefore, dearly beloved brother, have humility with all your heart. It is that which inspires peace among the brethren...What will you say to Christ, Who is the Head of the universal Church - what will you say to Him at the last judgment - you, who by your title of universal, would bring all His members into subjection to yourself? Whom I pray you tell me, whom do you imitate by this perverse title if not Lucifer who, despising the legions of angels, his companions, endeavored to mount to the highest?...But if anyone usurp in the Church a title which embraces all the faithful, the universal Church - O blasphemy! - will then fall with him, since he makes himself to be called the universal. May all Christians reject this blasphemous title - this title which takes the sacerdotal honor from every priest the moment it is insanely usurped by one."
Our anti-papal author concludes:
"Thus, letter after letter, like a deadly artillery barrage, Pope Saint Gregory the Great's epistles to the Orthodox bishops of his day fell with point-bland accuracy upon today's 'infallible' popes, with their claims to supremacy as 'successors' of Saint Peter's throne in the Vatican City."
The import of Pope St. Gregory's letters is
totally distorted by our polemicist.
He is correct in observing that the title 'Ecumenical Patriarch' really meant nothing more than "the Imperial Patriarch" (since the bishop of the city of Constantinople had become in effect the "right-hand man" of the Emperor). When the title was translated into Latin as "Universal Patriarch", it caused Pope St. Gregory the Great to denounce the title as "a name of blasphemy, of diabolic pride, and a forerunner of Antichrist". But what our Eastern Orthodox writer utterly fails to note is that the Pope rejected the title because he understood it as involving a claim to be the one sole bishop in the Church ("solus conetur appellari episcopos") - thereby un-churching all other bishops including their Primate, the Bishop of Rome! Such a claim was also suspected to represent an assault by the Imperial power on the entire episcopacy as well as on the divine Primacy of the Roman See over all the Patriarchs and Bishops of the Church. The mischievous title "Universal Patriarch" granted by the Emperor similarly implied the assumption that the spiritual jurisdiction exercised by members of the hierarchy derived from determination by the Emperor rather than from Jesus Christ.
That Pope St. Gregory the Great expressed traditional Catholic belief in the universal Jurisdiction of the See of Rome over the universal Church is clear from testimonies in his other correspondence — testimonies which our polemicist suppresses.
For example, the holy Pontiff wrote:
"As to what they say of the Church of Constantinople, who doubts that it is subject to the Apostolic See? This is constantly owned by the most pious Emperor and by our brother and Bishop of that city."
(Lib. ix., Ep. 12)
and again, "If any fault is found among bishops, I know not any one who is not subject to it (the Apostolic See); but when no fault requires otherwise, all are equal according to the estimation of humility."
(Lib. ix., Ep. 59)
In gazing upon the battered Church in the East torn by various schisms and heresies and increasingly subject to imperial interference, Pope St. Gregory the Great strongly defended Papal power and the prerogatives of the See of Peter. Reacting firmly to the presumptuous title of "Universal Patriarch" assumed by the [self-]aggrandizing Bishop of Constantinople, the Pope took to himself the title of "servus servorum Dei" ("servant of the servants of God") in upholding the authority of his fellow Bishops. That title would be used by all subsequent occupants of the Chair of Peter.
Eastern Orthodox writers often appeal to the "Church of the 7 Ecumenical Councils" (of the first 8 centuries) to justify their unwarranted schism. Pope St. Gregory the Great was the Roman Pontiff from 590-604 A.D. Acknowledged by the Eastern Orthodox themselves as a Saint, he may be said to have destroyed the fundamental rationale for the Byzantine Schism when he affirmed in unmistakable terms:
"Who does not know that the holy Church is founded on the solidity of the Chief Apostle, whose name expressed his firmness, being called Peter from Petra (Rock)?...Though there were many Apostles, only the See of the Prince of the Apostles...received supreme authority in virtue of its very principate."
(Letter to the Patriarch Eulogius of Alexandria, Ep. 7)
- St. Ambrose -