St. Gregory the Great on Papal Supremacy

Arguments for and against the Papal Claim as per the Pope St. Gregory the Great are presented below.

An Argument for it

The “servus servorum Dei” (a title given by the popes to themselves in documents of note such as papal bulls) —the title of St. Gregory’s choice—has written, “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 the Bishop of that city” (Lib. ix. Ep. 12); and again, “If any fault is found amongst bishops, I know not any one who is not subject to it (the Apostolic See); but when no fault requires otherwise, all are ‘secundum rationem humilitatis’ equal” (Lib. ix. Ep. 59). See too lib. iv. ep. 7, and lib. vii. ep. 64, in which he establishes his vicariate in Illyria and Gaul. (Catholic Controversy, Henry I. Ryder)

The Roman Church, says Dr. Littledale (p. 7), has, by the Vatican decree of infallibility, brought things to such a pass that “the faith of Roman Catholics depends now on the weakness or caprice of a single man, (and) thus no Roman Catholic can any longer tell what his religion may be at any future time.” (Catholic Controversy)

Henry I. Ryder, in his book Catholic Controversy: a reply to Dr. Littledale’s Plain Reasons responds,

The theory of Papal infallibility defined at the (First) Vatican Council—viz., that in virtue of Christ’s promise to St. Peter the Pope is preserved from defining anything untrue in faith and morals—if it be true, renders the faith of Catholics quite independent of “the weakness or caprice of a single man.”

The infallibility of a General Council, or of a majority of the Episcopate with the Pope… [also] require some super-natural security. The history of General Councils shows that they present a very wide and sensitive surface to the action of secular influences, and so to the intrusion of human error. At most the difference of the two difficulties is one of degree only (Catholic Controversy, Henry I. Ryder)

He further fences the notion of papal infallibility by making it subservient to the infallibility of the Church.

If the Pope were… to define the contrary or contradictory of an undoubted article of faith, we are perfectly certain that the Church, in virtue of the passive infallibility—bestowed in the unconditional promise, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it”— would not and could not receive it, and that the seemingly canonical definition would turn out to be manifestly irregular, either on the score of coercion, or madness, or because its Papal utterer was no Pope when he uttered it. (Catholic Controversy, Henry I. Ryder)

He cites the comment of St. Vincent of Lerins on the verse “If any one shall announce to you other than what has been received let him be anathema.”

“Separated, severed, excluded; though Peter, though Andrew, though John, though the whole Apostolic choir should preach another Gospel than that which has been preached”. (Common, c. 13) (Catholic Controversy, Henry I. Ryder)

And he cites St. Maximus.

“The Holy Spirit anathematises even angels that should bring in some new thing beside what has been delivered”. (Dial, cum Pyrrho) (Catholic Controversy, Henry I. Ryder)

Ryder is not saying that popes will issue heretical statements and the Church will reject them. He defends the papacy, saying no such thing could happen since the pope as infallible can not err.

Finally he fences infallibility by minimizing the scope of papal pronouncements.

When upon any question which arises upon a point of faith or morals the Pope pronounces a final decision, then, according to the doctrine of the Vatican Council, he is infallible… [but] Protestants… fail to see how sharply defined is the outline of each question that comes before the Pope, by previous definitions. It is for the most part a question whether a certain brick is to be laid at this or that angle, in the very limited space that is open to it, or rejected altogether. (Catholic Controversy, Henry I. Ryder)

So he concludes that a Roman Catholic can be confident that,

at any future time he will hold every one of the articles of faith he holds at present, with (possible additions) as they grow out of the twilight of doubt into the light of certainty, beneath the articulation of the Church, … as the natural complement and explication of those he already possesses. (Catholic Controversy, Henry I. Ryder)

It has always been maintained by Catholic theologians that for heresy the Church may judge the Pope, because, as most maintain, by heresy he ceases to be Pope. There is no variance on this head amongst theologians that I know of, except that some… hold that by heresy he ipso facto ceases to be Pope; whilst others… maintain that he would not formally cease to be Pope until he was formally deposed.” (Catholic Controversy, Ryder, Charge 2 section 1)

(Catholic controversy: a reply to Dr. Littledale’s Plain reasons, by Henry I. Ryder)


An Argument Against Characterizing St. Gregory the Great as Defender of Papal Supremacy

The view of St. Gregory the Great is contrasted with that of Pope Gregory VII in the article excerpted below by an Orthodox writer, Thomas Seraphim Hamilton.  The article, titled, Gregory the Great: Defender of Papal Supremacy? responds to Catholic argumentation on Papal supremacy.

Whoever calls himself universal bishop, or desires this title, is, by his pride, the precursor to the Antichrist.” Pope St Gregory the Great (540-604 AD)

“The Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.” Pope Gregory VII (1015/1028 – 1085 AD)

The article comments,

Clearly, we have a change in ecclesiology taking place in between these two (Roman) Popes. The first is written by a holy Pope, an Orthodox Pope, a Pope venerated as a Saint by (both the Orthodox and Catholic churhes). The second is written by a “Pope” who was in (the Orthodox view) a schismatic and heretical usurper to the (ecclesiastical) Throne of Old Rome, which to this day, remains vacant, occupied instead by pseudo-Bishops who have fallen into heresy. …

The following comments on a letter from the sixth century St. Gregory the Great to St. John Patriarch of Constantinople who had recently adopted the title “Ecumenical Patriarch.”

All this title means is that he is Patriarch of the imperial, or ecumenical, city. This was mistranslated as “Universal Patriarch”, and St Gregory read it as such. Thus, St Gregory, misunderstanding St John, wrote … a stunning witness to the Orthodoxy of these Holy Popes. The quotation in question:

“Therefore, dearly beloved brother, have humility with all your heart. … 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.

So, the issue, for St Gregory is that any bishop who claims to have jurisdiction over all the people of the Church is an antichrist. (Also) that if a bishop claims universal jurisdiction, every bishop essentially becomes a representative of that single bishop. … (So understanding these principles set out by St. Gregory), it is plainly seen how the Bishop of Rome today has become exactly what St Gregory condemned. …

… I … together with (Catholics refer) to the Pope of Rome as the Primate of the Ancient Catholic Church. The question is not whether the Pope was primate. This is undoubtedly the case. He was the highest ranking bishop in the Church, and therefore held authority over the entire episcopate as an Archbishop holds authority over his Holy Synod. An Archbishop’s authority is mediate. He cannot act unilaterally. Likewise, the Pope of Rome, as “Archbishop of all the Churches”, had mediate jurisdiction. He could not act unilaterally.  Primacy does not equal universal, immediate, jurisdiction.

The article moves on to the infamous quote from St. Gregory purportedly supporting Papal supreme jurisdiction.

“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);

The constant use of this quotation, in my view, demonstrates a serious problem … . Whenever a Father of the Church uses a term or phrase also used by modern Roman Catholics, it is assumed that the Father means the exact same thing as modern Roman Catholics. Was the Church of Constantinople subject to the Church of Rome? Yes … (but Catholics never explain) why “subject to” means “being subject to immediate jurisdiction.” This is a premise hidden in virtually all Papal argumentation. …

(St. Gregory is quoted,) “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)

Why does this mean anything? The error is the same as the one committed above. The Pope of Rome was the primate of the Catholic Church, the head of the universal Synod of Bishops. This says nothing about whether he can hold immediate jurisdiction over every local Church. This is what (Catholics need) to prove, and this is exactly what St Gregory refutes.


The ancient Church understood that St Peter established three local Churches – the Church of Rome, the Church of Alexandria through St Mark, and the Church of Antioch. They understood that the unique responsibility to preserve the faith of St Peter, Prince of the Apostles, fell not just to the Church of Rome, but to all three of these Petrine Sees. With this in mind, let’s look at (this often abused) quotation of St Gregory:

“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)”

The careful reader will certainly wonder what the ellipses hide. Certainly, (the quote as given intends) readers to understand the “See of the Prince of the Apostles” to refer to the See of Rome.

Here is the text as St. Gregory presents it:

“Though there were many Apostles, only the See of the Prince of the Apostles, [which is the See of one in three places], received supreme authority in virtue of its very principate.”

Thus, St Gregory refutes the Roman position in the very quotation (where it is presented). It is appalling enough when a Father is wrenched from the context of his whole body of writing. It is absolutely unacceptable when an ellipsis is used to completely mask what a Father of the Church is actually saying in the quotation itself.

2 Responses to St. Gregory the Great on Papal Supremacy

  1. M. says:

    Well done! Great article.

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