The Understanding of Papal Supremacy as revealed in the Letters of Pope Gregory the Great
By Graham Nicholson
Access History, Vol. 1:2 (1998)
Introduction: By the end of the sixth century, the city of Rome had been without the emperor in residence for over 250 years and itself outside the empire for a period of nearly seventy years before the disastrously liberating twenty years of war under the policies of the Emperor Justinian. The years of absent emperors and barbarian government had forced the Bishop of Rome to seek out a new identity, and had allowed that to happen free from the constraints of immediate imperial control. With the emperor’s departure, and Constantinople’s subsequent claim to be the “New Rome” with all the attendant ecclesiastical privileges at Constantinople in 381, some new rationale for Roman primacy was needed. Pope Damasus I (366-384) promptly convened a council which replied that primacy was not a matter of synodical decree but of apostolic foundation and divine decree. To this Pope Leo I (440-461) added a juristic basis with the idea of personal legal succession of monarchical government. What was once Peter’s was now inheritable, and an ongoing reality. The Christian corpus was founded on the Petrine commission and the emperor as a member of that corpus was charged with its protection.