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§ 51. Gregory and the Universal Episcopate.


The activity, of Gregory tended powerfully to establish the authority of the papal chair. He combined a triple dignity, episcopal, metropolitan, and patriarchal. He was bishop of the city of Rome, metropolitan over the seven suffragan (afterwards called cardinal) bishops of the Roman territory, and patriarch of Italy, in fact of the whole West, or of all the Latin churches. This claim was scarcely disputed except as to the degree of his power in particular cases. A certain primacy of honor among all the patriarchs was also conceded, even by the East. But a universal episcopate, including an authority of jurisdiction over the Eastern or Greek church, was not acknowledged, and, what is more remarkable, was not even claimed by him, but emphatically declined and denounced. He stood between the patriarchal and the strictly papal system. He regarded the four patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, to whom he announced his election with a customary confession of his faith, as co-ordinate leaders of the church under Christ, the supreme head, corresponding as it were to the four oecumenical councils and the four gospels, as their common foundation, yet after all with a firm belief in a papal primacy. His correspondence with the East on this subject is exceedingly important. The controversy began in 595, and lasted several years, but was not settled.

John IV., the Faster, patriarch of Constantinople, repeatedly used in his letters the title “oecumenical” or “universal bishop.” This was an honorary, title, which had been given to patriarchs by the emperors Leo and Justinian, and confirmed to John and his successors by a Constantinopolitan synod in 588. It had also been used in the Council of Chalcedon of pope Leo I.216216    Gregory alludes to this fact in a letter to John (Lib. V. 18, in Migne’s ed. of Greg. Opera, vol. III. 740) and to the emperor Mauricius (Lib. V. 20, in Migne III. 747), but says in both that the popes never claimed nor used ”hoc temerarium nomen.” ... ”Certe pro beati Petri apostolorum principis honore, per venerandam Chalcedonensem synodum Romano pontifici oblatum est [nomen istud blasphemiae]. Sed nullus eorum unquam hoc singularitatis nomine uti consensit, dum privatum aliquid daretur uni, honore debito sacerdotes privarentur universi. Quid est ergo quod nos huius vocabuli gloriam et oblatam non quaerimus, et alter sibi hanc arripere at non oblatam praesumit?” Strictly speaking, however, the fact assumed by Gregory is not quite correct. Leo was styled οἰκουμενικὸςἀρχιεπίσκοποςonly in an accusation against Dioscurus, in the third session of Chalcedon. The papal delegates subscribed: Vicarii apostolici universalis ecclesiae Papae, which was translated by the Greeks: τῆςοἰκουμενικῆςἐκκλησίαςἐπισκόπου. The popes claimed to be popes (but not bishops) of the universal church. See Hefele, Conciliengesch. II. 526. Boniface III is said to have openly assumed the title universalis episcopis in 606, when he obtained from the emperor Phocas a decree styling the see of Peter ”caput omnium ecclesiarum.” It appears as self-assumed in the Liber Diurnus, a.d.682-’5, and is frequent after the seventh century. The canonists, however, make a distinction between “universalis ecclesiae episcopus.” and ”episcopus universalis“ or ”oecumenicus,” meaning by the latter an immediate jurisdiction in the diocese of other bishops, which was formerly denied to the pope. But according to the Vatican system of 1870, he is the bishop of bishops, over every single bishop, and over all bishops put together, and all bishops are simply his vicars, as he himself is the vicar of Christ. See my Creeds of Christendom, I. 151. But Gregory I. was provoked and irritated beyond measure by the assumption of his Eastern rival, and strained every nerve to procure a revocation of that title. He characterized it as a foolish, proud, profane, wicked, pestiferous, blasphemous, and diabolical usurpation, and compared him who used it to Lucifer. He wrote first to Sabinianus, his apocrisiarius or ambassador in Constantinople, then repeatedly to the patriarch, to the emperor Mauricius, and even to the empress; for with all his monkish contempt for woman, he availed himself on every occasion of the female influence in high quarters. He threatened to break off communion with the patriarch. He called upon the emperor to punish such presumption, and reminded him of the contamination of the see of Constantinople by such arch-heretics as Nestorius.217217    See the letters in Lib. V. 18-21 (Migne III. 738-751). His predecessor, Pelagius II. (578-590), had already strongly denounced the assumption of the title by John, and at the same time disclaimed it for himself, while yet clearly asserting the universal primacy of the see of Peter. See Migne, Tom. LXXII. 739, and Baronius, ad ann. 587.

Failing in his efforts to change the mind of his rival in New Rome, he addressed himself to the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, and played upon their jealousy; but they regarded the title simply as a form of honor, and one of them addressed him as oecumenical pope, a compliment which Gregory could not consistently accept.218218    Ep. V. 43: ad Eulogium et Anastasium episcopos; VI. 60; VII. 34, 40.

After the death of John the Faster in 596 Gregory instructed his ambassador at Constantinople to demand from the new patriarch, Cyriacus, as a condition of intercommunion, the renunciation of the wicked title, and in a letter to Maurice he went so far as to declare, that “whosoever calls himself universal priest, or desires to be called so, was the forerunner of Antichrist.”219219    Ep. VII. 13: ”Ego autem confidenter dico quia quisquis se universalem sacerdotem vocat, vel vocari desiderat, in elatione sua Antichristum praecurrit, quia superbiendo se caeteris praeponit.”

In opposition to these high-sounding epithets, Gregory called himself, in proud humility, “the servant of the servants of God.”220220    “Servus servorum Dei.” See Joa. Diaconus, Vit. Greg. II. 1, and Lib. Diurnus, in Migne, Tom. CV. 23. Augustin (Epist. 217, ad Vitalem) had before subscribed himself: “Servus Christi, et per ipsum servus servorum ejus.” Comp. Matt. xx. 26; xxiii. II. Fulgentius styled himself ”Servorum Christi famulus.” The popes ostentatiously wash the beggars’ feet at St. Peter’s in holy week, in imitation of Christ’s example, but expect kings and queens to kiss their toe. This became one of the standing titles of the popes, although it sounds like irony in conjunction with their astounding claims.

But his remonstrance was of no avail. Neither the patriarch nor the emperor obeyed his wishes. Hence he hailed a change of government which occurred in 602 by a violent revolution.

When Phocas, an ignorant, red-haired, beardless, vulgar, cruel and deformed upstart, after the most atrocious murder of Maurice and his whole family (a wife, six sons and three daughters), ascended the throne, Gregory hastened to congratulate him and his wife Leontia (who was not much better) in most enthusiastic terms, calling on heaven and earth to rejoice at their accession, and vilifying the memory of the dead emperor as a tyrant, from whose yoke the church was now fortunately freed.221221    His letter ”ad Phocam imperatorem,” Ep. XIII. 31 (III. 1281 in Migne) begins with ”Gloria in excelsis Deo, qui juxta quod scriptum est, immutat tempora et transfert regna.” Comp. his letter ”ad Leontiam imperatricen“ (Ep. XIII. 39). This is a dark spot, but the only really dark and inexcusable spot in the life of this pontiff. He seemed to have acted in this case on the infamous maxim that the end justifies the means.222222    Gibbon (ch. 46): “As a subject and a Christian, it was the duty of Gregory to acquiesce in the established government; but the joyful applause with which he salutes the fortune of the assassin, has sullied, with indelible disgrace, the character of the saint.” Milman (II. 83): “The darkest stain on the name of Gregory is his cruel and unchristian triumph in the fall of the Emperor Maurice-his base and adulatory praise of Phocas, the most odious and Sanguinary tyrant who had ever seized the throne of Constantinople.” Montalembert says (II. 116): “This is the only stain in the life of Gregory. We do not attempt either to conceal or excuse it .... Among the greatest and holiest of mortals, virtue, like wisdom, always falls short in some respect.” It is charitable to assume, with Baronius and other Roman Catholic historians, that Gregory, although usually very well informed, at the time he expressed his extravagant joy at the elevation of Phocas, knew only the fact, and not the bloody means of the elevation. The same ignorance must be assumed in the case of his flattering letters to Brunhilde, the profligate and vicious fury of France. Otherwise we would have here on a small scale an anticipation of the malignant joy with which Gregory XIII. hailed the fearful slaughter of the Huguenots. His motive was no doubt to secure the protection and aggrandizement of the Roman see. He did not forget to remind the empress of the papal proof-text: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” and to add: “I do not doubt that you will take care to oblige and bind him to you, by whom you desire to be loosed from your sins.”

The murderer and usurper repaid the favor by taking side with the pope against his patriarch (Cyriacus), who had shown sympathy with the unfortunate emperor. He acknowledged the Roman church to be “the head of all churches.”223223    The words run thus: ”Hic [Phocas] rogante papa Bonifacio statuit Romanae et apostolicae ecclesia caput esse omniuim ecclesiarum,quia ecclesia Constantinopolitana primam se omnium rum scribebat.” Paulus Diaconus, De Gest. Lomb. IV., cap. 7, in Muratori, Rer. Ital., I. 465. But the authenticity of this report which was afterwards frequently copied, is doubtful. It has been abused by controversialists on both sides. It is not the first declaration of the Roman primacy, nor is it a declaration of an exclusive primacy, nor an abrogation of the title of “oecumenical patriarch” on the part of the bishop of Constantinople. Comp. Greenwood, vol. II. 239 sqq. But if he ever made such a decree at the instance of Boniface III., who at that time was papal nuntius at Constantinople, he must have meant merely such a primacy of honor as had been before conceded to Rome by the Council of Chalcedon and the emperor Justinian. At all events the disputed title continued to be used by the patriarchs and emperors of Constantinople. Phocas, after a disgraceful reign (602–610), was stripped of the diadem and purple, loaded with chains, insulted, tortured, beheaded and cast into the flames. He was succeeded by Heraclius.

In this whole controversy the pope’s jealousy of the patriarch is very manifest, and suggests the suspicion that it inspired the protest.

Gregory displays in his correspondence with his rival a singular combination of pride and humility. He was too proud to concede to him the title of a universal bishop, and yet too humble or too inconsistent to claim it for himself. His arguments imply that he would have the best right to the title, if it were not wrong in itself. His real opinion is perhaps best expressed in a letter to Eulogius of Alexandria. He accepts all the compliments which Eulogius paid to him as the successor of Peter, whose very name signifies firmness and solidity; but he ranks Antioch and Alexandria likewise as sees of Peter, which are nearly, if not quite, on a par with that of Rome, so that the three, as it were, constitute but one see. He ignores Jerusalem. “The see of the Prince of the Apostles alone,” he says, “has acquired a principality of authority, which is the see of one only, though in three places (quae in tribus locis unius est). For he himself has exalted the see in which he deigned to rest and to end his present life [Rome]. He himself adorned the see [Alexandria] to which he sent his disciple [Mark] as evangelist. He himself established the see in which he sat for seven years [Antioch]. Since, then, the see is one, and of one, over which by divine authority three bishops now preside, whatever good I hear of you I impute to myself. If you believe anything good of me, impute this to your own merits; because we are one in Him who said: ’That they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that all may be one in us’ (John xvii. 21).”224224    Ep. VII. 40 (Migne III. 899). This parallel between the three great sees of Peter—a hierarchical tri-personality in unity of essence—seems to be entirely original with Gregory, and was never used afterwards by a Roman pontiff. It is fatal to the sole primacy of the Roman chair of Peter, and this is the very essence of popery.

When Eulogius, in return for this exaltation of his own see, afterwards addressed Gregory as “universal pope,” he strongly repudiated the title, saying: “I have said that neither to me nor to any one else (nec mihi, nec cuiquam alteri) ought you to write anything of the kind. And lo! in the preface of your letter you apply to me, who prohibited it, the proud title of universal pope; which thing I beg your most sweet Holiness to do no more, because what is given to others beyond what reason requires is subtracted from you. I do not esteem that an honor by which I know my brethren lose their honor. My honor is that of the universal Church. My honor is the solid strength of my brethren. I am then truly honored when all and each are allowed the honor that is due to them. For, if your Holiness calls me universal pope, you deny yourself to be that which you call me universally [that is, you own yourself to be no pope]. But no more of this: away with words which inflate pride and wound charity!” He even objects to the expression, “as thou hast commanded,” which had occurred in hid correspondent’s letter. “Which word, ’commanded,’ I pray you let me hear no more; for I know what I am, and what you are: in position you are my brethren, in manners you are my, fathers. I did not, therefore, command, but desired only to indicate what seemed to me expedient.”225225    Ep. VIII. 30 (III. 933).

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Gregory, while he protested in the strongest terms against the assumption by the Eastern patriarchs of the antichristian and blasphemous title of universal bishop, claimed and exercised, as far as he had the opportunity and power, the authority and oversight over the whole church of Christ, even in the East. “With respect to the church of Constantinople,” he asks in one of his letters, “who doubts that it is subject to the apostolic see?” And in another letter: “I know not what bishop is not subject to it, if fault is found in him.” “To all who know the Gospels,” he writes to emperor Maurice, “it is plain that to Peter, as the prince of all the apostles, was committed by our Lord the care of the whole church (totius ecclesiae cura) .... But although the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and to loose, were intrusted to him, and the care and principality of the whole church (totius ecclesiae cura et principatus), he is not called universal bishop; while my most holy fellow-priest (vir sanctissimus consacerdos meus) John dares to call himself universal bishop. I am compelled to exclaim: O tempora, O mores!”226226    Epist. V. 20 (III. 745). He quotes in proof the pet-texts of popery, John xxi. 17; Luke xxii. 31; Matt. xvi. 18.

We have no right to impeach Gregory’s sincerity. But he was clearly inconsistent in disclaiming the name, and yet claiming the thing itself. The real objection is to the pretension of a universal episcopate, not to the title. If we concede the former, the latter is perfectly legitimate. And such universal power had already been claimed by Roman pontiffs before Gregory, such as Leo I., Felix, Gelasius, Hormisdas, in language and acts more haughty and self-sufficient than his.

No wonder, therefore that the successors of Gregory, less humble and more consistent than he, had no scruple to use equivalent and even more arrogant titles than the one against which he so solemnly protested with the warning: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.”227227    Such titles as Universalis Episcopus (used by Boniface III., a year after Gregory’s death), Pontifex Maximus, Summus Pontifex, Virarius Christi, and even “ipsius Dei in terris Virarius“ (Conc. Trid. VI. De reform., c. 1). First Vicar of Peter, then Vicar of Christ, at last Vicar of God Almighty! But it is a very remarkable fact, that at the beginning of the unfolding of the greatest power of the papacy one of the best of popes should have protested against the antichristian pride and usurpation of the system.



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