Thursday, December 17, 2009

Did Pope Gregory I (the great) deny the supremacy of the pope?

Everyone loves it when a member of “the other side” says things that support your position. If it can be shown that prominent members of a society didn’t believe what that society believes today then the credibility of those beliefs can more easily be questioned.

For example, Catholic apologists love to point out that while many Protestants claim Peter wasn’t the rock in Matthew 16:18; Martin Luther thought Peter was.

The problem with this is that it can be tempting to push someone’s words farther than they were intended to go. In the case of Martin Luther, he thought Peter was the rock but he denied that any authority was passed on to future generations. To say he said Peter was the rock and therefore the papacy is authoritative would be to grossly misrepresent him.

I mention this because I have heard several non-Catholic Christians tell me “even a pope denied that pope’s have special authority”, and they cite Pope St. Gregory I (Gregory the Great) who was pope from 590-604. The following two quotes are generally supplied to “prove” how anti-papist this pope was.

"I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of the Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others" (Epistles 7:33).

"If then he shunned the subjecting of the members of Christ partially to certain heads, as if besides Christ, though this were to the apostles themselves, what wilt thou say to Christ, who is the head of the universal Church, in the scrutiny of the last judgment, having attempted to put all his members under thyself by the appellation of universal? Who, I ask, is proposed for imitation in this wrongful title but he who, despising the legions of angels constituted socially with himself, attempted to start up to an eminence of singularity, that he might seem to be under none and to be alone above all?" (Epistles 5:18)

The argument is then made that since Pope Gregory denies a “universal priest” (other translations say “universal bishop”) then he must deny the papacy. However, this requires ignoring the context of the quotes and the rest of Pope Gregory’s writings.

First, the context of the above writings. Pope Gregory the Great was writing to a fellow named John the Faster of Constantinople. John the Faster wanted the title of “universal bishop” and Pope Gregory said, in no uncertain terms, that wasn’t going to happen.

The issue here is what “universal” means. John the Faster wanted to be the one and only bishop. He wanted to have control of other bishop’s diocese. He wanted to make them his puppets who had no authority of their own. This definition of “universal” is way outside Catholic teaching and Pope Gregory had every right to condemn it.

While we hold the pope “above” the rest of the bishops; they aren’t his puppets. All bishops are successors of the apostles and have authority by that succession. The pope is the successor of Peter and therefore has greater authority as Peter had greater authority than the other apostles.

What’s funny is those who know Pope Gregory so well that they can quote the above always forget that he also called the Diocese of Rome “the Apostolic See, which is the head of all other churches" (13:1) and "I, albeit unworthy, have been set up in command of the Church" (5:44). He also declared clerical celibacy as binding on all priests and bishops, taught that priests and bishops who broke the law could be stripped of faculties, required council decisions to have the pope’s signature before they were binding, and other declarations that were binding upon all bishops.

If he was such an anti-pope hero; why did he make decisions binding upon all bishops and why did he say he had command of the Church? The answer is that he has been taken badly out of context for the benefit of those who deny the supremacy of the papacy when he clearly never intended to do any such thing.

More information can be found here.


Noutax said...

i hope he did. God Bless you.

dave r said...

I partially agree but it is still muddled as it should be with this doctrine, for by its' fruit you can judge. History is full of ironies, as eveidenced here with Gregory. You clarify partially his position, now I am wondering what John of Conststinople meant by "universal". Are you taking his words out of context ? Did he not merely want to be as the bishop of Rome ? Could it be ironic for Romes' bishop to call anti-Christ one who acts in the same fashion ? You yourself said Rome issued decrees that bound all clergy, yet when someone else does it it is anti- Christ ?Either way ,the doctrine has its' "eruptions"....... "Be careful how you judge,for you do the very same thing" seems like Gregory did the very same thing he judged against .He (Gregory) makes no hint that he had the right because he was in Rome or was Peters' successor. His words against John of Constatinople is what protestantism feels like saying to the pope today .They do not believe Peter had more authority than the rest of the bishops.....Tell me if this is the spirit of anti-Christ: "I claim to be the supreme judge and director of the conscience of men....I am the sole, last, supreme judge of what is right and wrong". Is this Darth Vader or is it Cardinal Manning writing for a pope, which too soon would state his infallibility ?...... Anyways, I think it is safe to say Gregory was the first to say such a declaration sounds like the anti-Christ, a thousnd years before protestants made similar claims, against Romes' claim to supremacy. It could be splitting hairs of what "universal" means otherwise.

Dan said...

Dave, I think it’s pretty obvious that Gregory didn’t see his actions and the actions of John the Faster as the same thing. They are quite different.

John the Faster wanted to be the ONLY bishop with authority from the apostles. He wanted all of the other bishops to receive their authority from his authority. This was the “universal bishop” denounced by Gregory

Catholic teaching says all bishops derive their authority as successors of the apostles and the pope has higher authority as the successor of Peter to whom Jesus gave the keys in Mt 16:19. While the pope has more authority than the other apostles he certainly isn’t the ONLY apostle with authority.

Imagine the Supreme Court and how there are several justices (judges). One of them is the chief justice. John the Faster would say only the chief justice has authority given to him by the people while the other justices get their authority from the chief justice. Gregory (and the Catholic Church) would say all of the justices got their authority from the people but the chief justice has the most authority of them all.

Another analogy would be an Old Testament king’s cabinet. In the cabinet were several ministers but chief among them was the vicar or prime (first) minister. John the Faster’s approach would be that the other ministers derive their authority from the prime minister’s authority. The reality is all of the ministers get their authority from the king and the prime minister simply has more authority than the others.

I hope these illustrate the difference between the “universal bishop” that Gregory condemns and the Catholic definition of papal supremacy. Yes, the pope has more authority than his fellow bishops but they do not get their authority from him.

dave ruiz said...

Dan, you contradict yourself by saying first John wanted to be the "only " bishop, then you say he wanted to be bishop over other bishops. Anyways,I have read some sites that are reputable and more catholic than protestant. It is not clear what John of Constantinople meant.The latin word "unus" does not mean "only" as you state .Many believe he was or wanted to be head bishop of the "See of Constantinople",much like Rome's head bishop. Besides ,are all bishops equal ,or are there some above others _archbishop or even cardinal ? I do not know but many debaters I believe wrongly assume badly of John. There is little or no evidence that all bishops were to come "from" him rather than being "under" him.At any rate ,Rome could have none of it, in order to remain supreme,of course with interpetation of biblical authority.....Indeed ,perhaps many protestants wrongly read too much of Gregory's words, but it seems Catholics wrongly read to much of John's words.

Dan said...

There is no contradiction; John the Faster wanted to be the only bishop with apostolic authority while the others would be bishop in name only.

Regardless, the question at hand is whether or not Pope St. Gregory I denied the authority of the papacy and the answer is a clear “no”. No matter what “universal bishop” Gregory condemned it wasn't the supremacy of the bishop of Rome.