The Understanding of Papal Supremacy as revealed in the Letters of Pope Gregory the Great

The Understanding of Papal Supremacy as revealed in the Letters of Pope Gregory the Great

By Graham Nicholson

Access History, Vol. 1:2 (1998)

14th century painting of Pope Gregory the Great by TheorPrague

14th century painting of Pope Gregory the Great by Theoderic of Prague

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.

Other early Popes after Leo continued to build on these claims, helped by ecclesio-political events in Constantinople. In 482 Emperor Zeno issued his Henotikon as an attempt to ease growing political pressures from the monophysite “wing” of the eastern Church. In it he sought to define the substance of the Christian faith in terms of the first three Ecumenical Councils but without any reference to Chalcedon, and without any recourse to a Church council or to the then pope, Simplius I (468-483). The subsequent silence from Constantinople in response to Simplius’ protests led to the excommunication of the patriarch and the reciprocal excommunication of the pope. The resulting Acacian schism was to last for thirty five years and provided the background for renewed papal concerns for the primatical integrity of the Roman See.

After Acacius’ death, P. Felix III (489-492) wrote to the emperor “as an anxious father desiring the welfare and prosperity of my most clement son.” However the same letter also saw fit to mention that he did have the power to wrest concessions by virtue of being “vicar of blessed Peter” and “by the authority of the apostolic power as it were.” His successor Gelasius I (492-496) wrote a strongly worded letter to Emperor Anastasis which reminded him that he was but one of two powers in the governing of the world, and by far the greater responsibility lay with the priests. Accordingly the Emperor “… ought to submit … rather than rule, and in these matters … should depend on their [ie those in charge of divine affairs] judgement rather than seek to bend them to your will.”

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