Gregory the Great: Defender of Papal Supremacy?

by Thomas Seraphim Hamilton

Whoever calls himself universal bishop, or desires this title, is, by his pride, the precursor to the Antichrist.” Pope St Gregory the Great (540-604 AD)

“The Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.” Pope Gregory VII (1015/1028 – 1085 AD)

popeClearly, we have a change in ecclesiology taking place in between these two (Roman) Popes. The first is written by a holy Pope, an orthodox Pope, The second is written by a “Pope” who was in fact a schismatic and heretical usurper to the Throne of Old Rome, which to this day, remains vacant, occupied instead by pseudo-Bishops who have fallen into heresy.

[I admire and respect Thomas, and he has given me freedom to post his articles, but I personally disagree with him in using absolutist statements such as “to this day the throne of Old Rome remains vacant and is occupied by heretics.”  – RAS]

James Likoudis, a prolific Papal apologist, attempts to reconcile the ecclesiology of the present-day Papal Church with the ecclesiology held by Gregory of Rome, Primate of the Ancient Catholic Church. Let’s look at his article and see if it stands up.

The background of the controversy is that John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople, had recently adopted the title “Ecumenical Patriarch.” All this title means is that he is Patriarch of the imperial, or ecumenical, city. This was mistranslated as “Universal Patriarch”, and Gregory read it as such. Thus, Gregory, misunderstanding John, wrote these epistles, which, by the providence and grace of God, have survived and come down to us as a stunning witness to the orthodoxy of these Holy Popes. The quotation in question:

“Therefore, dearly beloved brother, have humility with all your heart. It is that which inspires peace among the brethren…What will you say to Christ, Who is the Head of the universal Church – what will you say to Him at the last judgment – you, who by your title of universal, would bring all His members into subjection to yourself? Whom I pray you tell me, whom do you imitate by this perverse title if not Lucifer who, despising the legions of angels, his companions, endeavored to mount to the highest?…But if anyone usurp in the Church a title which embraces all the faithful, the universal Church – O blasphemy! – will then fall with him, since he makes himself to be called the universal. May all Christians reject this blasphemous title – this title which takes the sacerdotal honor from every priest the moment it is insanely usurped by one.”

So, the issue, for Gregory is that any bishop who claims to have jurisdiction over all the people of the Church is an antichrist. Universal jurisdiction is described in fairly clear terms: bringing the entire Christian people in subjection to a single bishop in the Church. But Likoudis attempts to reconcile this to the Papal position:

“But what our Eastern Orthodox writer utterly fails to note is that the Pope rejected the title because he understood it as involving a claim to be the one sole bishop in the Church (“solus conetur appellari episcopos”) – thereby un-churching all other bishops including their Primate, the Bishop of Rome!”

Let’s be clear here. Gregory was not an idiot. He did not actually believe that John the Faster was actually requesting the deposition of every single bishop in the Church besides himself. Rather,  Gregory’s argument is that if a bishop claims universal jurisdiction, every bishop essentially becomes a representative of that single bishop. This is absolutely crucial. His argument was not that John the Faster actually said this. It was that if John the Faster claimed universal jurisdiction, this would essentially be the situation. Understanding this (and it really should be fairly easy to understand), it is plainly seen how the Bishop of Rome today has become exactly what Gregory condemned. When Hans Kung was removed from teaching “Catholic theology”, it was not the local bishop who did this. Instead, the Bishop of Rome just did it directly. How many Roman Catholics know the name of their local bishop? How many Roman Catholics know the name of the Pope? For a Roman Catholic, the local bishop is only an auxiliary bishop of the Pope of Rome in practice, no matter how much they attempt to officially deny it. The condemnation of Pope Gregory was towards the practical outworking of the claim of universality. The condemnation was not towards an explicit formulation on the part of John the Faster of an unchurching of the other bishops.

The careful reader will also note that I above, together with Mr. Likoudis, referred to the Pope of Rome as the Primate of the Ancient Catholic Church. The question is not whether the Pope was primate. This is undoubtedly the case. He was the highest ranking bishop in the Church, and therefore held authority over the entire episcopate as an Archbishop holds authority over his Holy Synod. An Archbishop’s authority is mediate. He cannot act unilaterally. Likewise, the Pope of Rome, as “Archbishop of all the Churches”, had mediate jurisdiction. He could not act unilaterally.  Primacy does not equal universal, immediate, jurisdiction.

Mr. Likoudis rather quickly ends his comments on this particular letter of Gregory at this point, attempting to divert attention to other letters which he believes demonstrate a belief in Papal supreme jurisdiction. Let’s look:

“As to what they say of the Church of Constantinople, who doubts that it is subject to the Apostolic See? This is constantly owned by the most pious Emperor and by our brother and Bishop of that city.” (Lib. ix., Ep. 12);

The constant use of this quotation, in my view, demonstrates a serious problem in the critical thinking abilities of Papal apologists. Whenever a Father of the Church uses a term or phrase also used by modern Roman Catholics, it is assumed that the Father means the exact same thing as modern Roman Catholics. Was the Church of Constantinople subject to the Church of Rome? Yes, in particular sense. The See of Constantinople was of a lower rank than the See of Rome, just as the See of Jerusalem is of a lower rank than the See of Constantinople? Mr. Likoudis never explains why “subject to” means “being subject to immediate jurisdiction.” This is a premise hidden in virtually all Papal argumentation. We see the same error committed in the next quotation:

“If any fault is found among bishops, I know not any one who is not subject to it (the Apostolic See); but when no fault requires otherwise, all are equal according to the estimation of humility.” (Lib. ix., Ep. 59)

Why does this mean anything? The error is the same as the one committed above. The Pope of Rome was the primate of the Catholic Church, the head of the universal Synod of Bishops. This says nothing about whether he can hold immediate jurisdiction over every local Church. This is what Mr. Likoudis needs to prove, and this is exactly what St Gregory refutes.


I have noted previously that the ancient Church understood that Peter established three local Churches – the Church of Rome, the Church of Alexandria through Mark, and the Church of Antioch. They understood that the unique responsibility to preserve the faith of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, fell not just to the Church of Rome, but to all three of these Petrine Sees. With this in mind, let’s look at Mr. Likoudis’ final quotation of Gregory:

“Pope Gregory the Great was the Roman Pontiff from 590-604 A.D. Acknowledged by the Eastern Orthodox themselves as a Saint, he may be said to have destroyed the fundamental rationale for the Byzantine Schism when he affirmed in unmistakable terms:

‘Who does not know that the holy Church is founded on the solidity of the Chief Apostle, whose name expressed his firmness, being called Peter from Petra (Rock)?…Though there were many Apostles, only the See of the Prince of the Apostles…received supreme authority in virtue of its very principate.” (Letter to the Patriarch Eulogius of Alexandria, Ep. 7)’

The careful reader will certainly wonder what the ellipses hide. Certainly, Mr. Likoudis intends his readers to understand the “See of the Prince of the Apostles” to refer to the See of Rome. Here is the key text as Mr. Likoudis presents it:

Though there were many Apostles, only the See of the Prince of the Apostles . . . received supreme authority in virtue of its very principate.

Here is the text as Gregory presents it:

Though there were many Apostles, only the See of the Prince of the Apostles, [which is the See of one in three places], received supreme authority in virtue of its very principate.

Thus, Gregory refutes the Roman position in the very quotation that Mr. Likoudis presents. It is appalling enough when a Father is wrenched from the context of his whole body of writing. It is absolutely unacceptable when an ellipsis is used to completely mask what a Father of the Church is actually saying in the quotation itself.

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