Gregory the Great: Friend or Foe of the Papacy? (Part 1)

 

As readers of this blog already know, I shy away from calling myself “Eastern Orthodox”. I do so because there’s nothing particularly “Non-Western” about American Orthodoxy. Sure there are parts of “Western” civilization that are not Orthodox, but the same holds true for the East. Moreover, I’ve found many wonderful “Western” things in the Orthodox Church, one of which is St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome.

St. Gregory (6th Century), was the first Pope named Gregory and it is he we refer to when we use the term “Gregorian”. Sometimes he is known as Gregory the Diologist, in reference to some of his enormous extant writings. He is well known for his liturgical reform (the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy is ascribed to him) and his loving leadership and steady guiding hand. Reading through his epistles one gets the sense of a loving, humble, and clearly communicating shepherd; a man who poured out his live for the faithful.

However, when the issue of the papacy comes up; St. Gregory becomes subject to various interpretations. Roman Catholics claim him as the first great pope, and a pivotal figure in the establishment of the papacy. Obviously this is due to his great success as a pastor, and the success of the Roman See under his guidance. Protestants latch onto some of his epistles where he critiques the claim of Patriarch John the Faster of “ecumenical patriarch”, taking particular pleasure in his statement that “I confidently affirm that whoever calls himself Universal Bishop is the precursor of Antichrist.” Obviously this, coming from a pope, reads like an immediate and monumental blow to the papal claims of the Vatican.

The RC response is massive: piling quote upon quote, and listing examples of the claims and exercises of authority by the Saint. Besides, they claim, isn’t what he is doing denying primacy to a bishop that was not pope?

I’ve been trudging through these proof texts, and though I am no expert on St. Gregory, there is some clarity to the issue that I wish to offer. Because this is a blog, and not a site for academically argued essays, I’ll try to keep this bearable; a task that requires sacrificing some degree of thoroughness. St. Gregory has become quite close to me, and I wish to honor him and his spirit by listening to his words with humility and tenderness, and not to plunder them for proof-texts for academic ammunition. All quotes and summations should reveal the Saint’s heart, and I do not mean them to deal directly with a dilemma of which St. Gregory was not familiar.

Thus, we should begin with some history. As it applies to his dispute with John the Faster, it should be noted that John’s title “ecumenical patriarch” did not translate well into Latin. John’s use of “ecumenical” had an implied sense of “imperial”, because the role of the Emperor and the Senate affects the church and ecumenical gatherings. This same argument explains a great deal of Rome’s original placement in primacy (though it is not the sole reason, as we see in St. Ignatius’ praise for its loving and charitable example). St. Gregory’s reaction is based on a misunderstanding of John’s claim, though the misunderstanding is telling: namely of the fact that St. Gregory saw a claim of a certain kind of primacy as threatening the very offices of bishop and priest. What exactly this is will be looked at later, though it will not be answered comprehensively.

Obviously I have less at stake studying St. Gregory than an Roman Catholic does. Though he is a great saint in the Church, not every word needs to be infallible and dogmatic. Nonetheless, I’ve tried to be as thorough and diligent in researching the RC claims as possible, but with minimal effect. Mainly I used New Advent’s compilation, numbering, and translation for my research, but I’ve found that this doesn’t always help the RC cause. I rifled through RC material on the subject assiduously, but I was continually frustrated by reference errors, illegitimate summations, and violent proof-texting. (Any help sorting some of this out is appreciated.)

I tried approaching the texts with the assumption that St. Gregory held the current Roman Catholic belief about the papacy. However, this I simply did not see. Indeed, almost all of the Roman Catholic proof-texts can be dealt with forthwith due to a couple Orthodox (and common-sense) considerations. First, reference to St. Peter, as “Prince” of the Apostles is coherent with St. Cyprian’s understanding of all bishops being successors of the “Seat of Peter” (a phrase which St. Cyprian originated). Second, this does not mean that St. Peter does not have a particular relationship and kinship to the Roman bishop, but the nature of this relationship is not clearly exposited by St. Gregory. Nor does St. Gregory’s exercising authority, even particular authority, make the case for spiritual authority or papal infallibility. (The closest to this seems to be in Book III, Epistle 30, but the implications of the text are far from clear, especially since “Apostolic See” does not denote Rome only.) Condemnation of other bishops and priests, and critiques of the goings outside of Rome is a frequent occurrence among the writings of many ancient and contemporary bishops, and does not imply Roman supremacy.

Therefore, most of what I was anticipating simply was not there. This lack is conspicuous, especially considering the context. Many of the Epistles deal with his disagreement with Patriarch John, which one would expect to warrant an articulation of the papal claims. St. Gregory, however, gives nothing of the sort. In considering John’s claims St. Gregory is politically blind (the cause of his misunderstanding), giving consideration only to spiritual authority.

At this juncture, many of the RC sources I looked at would quote something from the Saint, usually something like, “ For my honour is the honour of the universal Church”. Typifying my frustration, I would go back to the Epistle to read the rest of the sentence: “For my honour is the honour of the universal Church: my honour is the solid vigour of my brethren.” For your consideration I have posted the rest of the context of the Epistle.

 

Book VIII, Epistle 30: (To Eulogius)

Your Blessedness has also been careful to declare that you do not now make use of proud titles, which have sprung from a root of vanity, in writing to certain persons, and you address me saying, As you have commanded. This word, command, I beg you to remove from my hearing, since I know who I am, and who you are. For in position you are my brethren, in character my fathers. I did not, then, command, but was desirous of indicating what seemed to be profitable. Yet I do not find that your Blessedness has been willing to remember perfectly this very thing that I brought to your recollection. For I said that neither to me nor to any one else ought you to write anything of the kind; and lo, in the preface of the epistle which you have addressed to myself who forbade it, you have thought fit to make use of a proud appellation, calling me Universal Pope. But I beg your most sweet Holiness to do this no more, since what is given to another beyond what reason demands is subtracted from yourself. For as for me, I do not seek to be prospered by words but by my conduct. Nor do I regard that as an honour whereby I know that my brethren lose their honour. For my honour is the honour of the universal Church: my honour is the solid vigour of my brethren. Then am I truly honoured when the honour due to all and each is not denied them. For if your Holiness calls me Universal Pope, you deny that you are yourself what you call me universally. But far be this from us. Away with words that inflate vanity and wound charity.

And, indeed, in the synod of Chalcedon and afterwards by subsequent Fathers, your Holiness knows that this was offered to my predecessors . And yet not one of them would ever use this title, that, while regarding the honour of all priests in this world, they might keep their own before Almighty God.

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