Papal Supremacy: Pope Gregory the Great vs. Patriarch John the Faster

By Nick Howard

Originally written for Catholicism for the Modern World on Medium

 

“We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the Lord” - Vatican I , Session 4



The teaching of the First Vatican Council on the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff is very clear: that the Blessed Apostle Peter possessed supreme jurisdiction over the universal Church, whose keys continue to pass down to the present Roman Pontiff. This irreversible divinely revealed truth, clarified by both Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, has always been believed by the Church since apostolic times. Unfortunately, various arguments spring up against this clear infallible dogma. Ever since the Great Schism and the Reformation, heretics and schismatics often appeal to a very common argument that the early Roman Pontiffs rejected the Vatican I teachings on the Roman Primacy. From my research, the most common argument, which even dates back to the writings of the Protestant reformers, involves quotations from one of the most famous Popes in history, none other than St. Gregory the Great.


In this article, we will examine the argument presented to us and explain why Pope St. Gregory the Great believed he possessed a Primacy over all the churches.


Before we jump in, let us examine the two figures we will address today.



 


Who Was St. Gregory the Great?


St. Gregory the Great inspired by the Holy Ghost

One of our God-fearing Roman Pontiffs to sit on the throne of St. Peter is St. Gregory I. He is one of 3 popes who has received the title of Great in Church history (the other 2 being St. Leo the Great (400–461 A.D.) and St. Nicholas the Great (800–861 A.D.)) The Catholic Church considers him as one of the Latin Fathers of the Church as well as one of the 4 original Doctors of the Latin Church alongside Saints Ambrose ,Augustine, and Jerome.


Despite being a Latin Church Father, he receives the same amount of honor among the Eastern Orthodox, who grant him the title St. Gregory the Dialogist for his writings called the Dialogues. Even the very Protestant John Calvin, who foolishly pretended the Pope was the anti-Christ, remarked he was the “last good pope.”



The Pontiff accomplished many different feats during his 14-year reign and emphasized the supreme authority of the Roman See. He combated corruption in secular and religious politics, conducted liturgical reforms for the Roman liturgy by codifying the Roman Canon of the Traditional Latin Mass (Eucharistic Prayer 1 in the Novus Ordo), sent St. Augustine of Canterbury along with missionaries to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons, and guided the Church through the transition from the patristic age to the Middle Ages.


Many of his letters and commentaries on Scripture still survive today, and he receives credit for the development of modern Gregorian Chant, which bears his name in memory. St. Gregory the Great was a blessing to the Church and a role model for all bishops, and he reposed in 604 A.D. Popular acclamation led to his very rapid canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church. Because of his canonization prior to the Great Schism, both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches jointly venerate him, as he is one of our common Fathers.




Who Was Patriarch John the Faster?


Icon of Patriarch John the Faster

Patriarch John the Faster, or John IV of Constantinople was born at an unknown date. He was a deacon at the great Church of Hagia Sophia and conducted ministry to the poor. He eventually became Patriarch of Constantinople in 582 A.D. and often mediated in debates between Catholics and Monophysite heretics. He was the first to assume the title “Ecumenical Patriarch”, and this has been passed down to the present Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. He died in 595 A.D. While venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church has not marked him with any layer of canonization. (Note, St. Gregory and Patriarch John IV lived centuries before the Great East/West Schism.)



Did St. Gregory the Great Reject Papal Supremacy?


Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants possess different understandings of Church authority. For a Catholic, the Pope has supreme jurisdiction over the Universal Church. For Eastern Orthodox, Church government is more collegial with equal bishops only differing in honor. They consider Rome the “primus inter pares”, or the first among equals. For a Protestant, authority is based on Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) without any Magisterial authority or Sacred Tradition.


Now that we know the differences Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants share regarding Church authority, the major question of this debate is: Did St. Gregory the Great reject the modern understanding of Papal Supremacy?


 


The Eastern Orthodox attempt to claim that Papal Supremacy was a later innovation dating to the 8th and 9th Centuries with Pope St. Nicholas I and the Photian Schism (a schism due to a dispute between the Pope and Patriarch which eventually healed). Protestants also make use of this argument in an attempt to claim that an apostate medieval Church changed the doctrine on the Papacy and that the Papacy has no biblical or patristic roots. When engaging in apologetics, both Protestants and Eastern Orthodox make use of a certain writing of St. Gregory the Great. The quote frequently cited against Papal Supremacy comes from one of Gregory’s epistles as “proof” the most prominent 1st Millenium Pope repudiated Papal Supremacy.


This comes from a letter to Patriarch John the Faster of Constantinople:


“Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others. Nor is it by dissimilar pride that he is led into error; for, as that perverse one wishes to appear as above all men, so whosoever this one is who covets being called sole priest, he extols himself above all other priests,”(Book VII, Letter 33).

In fact, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the heresiarch John Calvin even cites this example in an attempt to disprove the doctrine on Papal Supremacy. This argument is as old as the first Protestant Reformers!

From the outside, it appears as if St. Gregory the Great is denouncing any claims to supremacy in favor of an Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology, and this could easily be misquoted by Fundamentalist Protestant and Adventist polemics also as a method of claiming the Pope of Rome is the anti-Christ.


Eastern Orthodox often take advantage of this argument as well. Is St. Gregory the Great denouncing the modern papacy as a forerunner of the anti-Christ? What does the term ‘universal priest’ mean? Perhaps some context will be useful in properly understanding Pope Gregory’s words. But first, we need to consult a Jesuit friend of ours from the Vatican.



St. Robert Bellarmine to the Rescue


In disputes with Protestant reformers, St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, one of the earliest apologists to defend the Catholic faith and teachings of the Roman Primacy against John Calvin, wrote hundreds of pages on the Roman Primacy in a book called On the Roman Pontiff: In Five Books (De Controversiis). There, he presents objections from the Protestants and puts them in their proper place with thorough refutations. For instance, Calvin objects to Papal Supremacy by appealing to the fact that St. Gregory the Great called the Emperor in his 5th epistle of the 1st book of the Registrum Epistolarum a “serene Lord.” It may logically proceed that Gregory the Great felt bound to the emperor and not the other way around. However, Bellarmine responds to this objection by mentioning a biography from John the Deacon, a 9th century Roman deacon who compiled a biography of Gregory’s life called Vita D. Gregorii. Bellarmine states:


“For as John the Deacon writes, he called all priests brothers, all clergy sons, all laity his lords. Still it is not right to gather from there that Gregory could be judged by all from the laity,” (pg. 303).

Pope Gregory was known for displaying compassion and keeping the peace, but he also was politically assertive. He was indeed a Pope whose deeds left their mark in Church history despite being originally hesitant to assume the Papal Throne. He did not intimidate clergy, laity, and kings to submit to him through means of sheer power (as Pope Boniface VIII), but rather displayed meekness and charity in times of need. He resisted evil through self-discipline and always kept his cool. St Gregory did not focus on being Great, but embraced humility, while maintaining his principles as the Supreme Pontiff. It is possible he knew how to remain calm from his experiences in the monastic life.


St. Robert Bellarmine continues on by saying:


“Add that Gregory spoke so humbly with the emperor not without reason, because in that time, the emperor obtained temporal dominion over the city of Rome, and Gregory required his help and friendship, so that both he and the temporal goods of his Church, and the Roman people would be defeated from the words and fury of the Lombards,” (pg. 304).

For those who do not know, the Lombards were a Germanic tribe of pagans and Arian heretics who threatened to sack Rome, and the Pontiff was able to utilize his diplomatic skills to prevent Rome from being pillaged by negotiating a ceasefire and tolerable peace.

He had to balance not only ecclesiastical affairs, but political affairs and prevent them from tearing up the Church.


Bellarmine points out that despite Gregory’s diplomatic attitude, he still viewed himself as Supreme Pontiff: