This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 03 (2021).
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There are numerous indications that the Roman Catholic doctrines of papal universal jurisdiction and infallibility, as elaborated at the First and Second Vatican Councils, are not in harmony with how the church of the first millennium understood Scripture, the papacy, and itself. This included the popes themselves.
None of the Fathers denied that St. Peter was given primacy in the church. However, Roman Catholic apologists often tend to assume that this means that papal primacy, infallibility, and universal jurisdiction were given by our Lord Jesus Christ to St. Peter. The evidence is very much to the contrary.
Primacy Not Supremacy
St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, who was martyred in AD 156, traveled to Rome and met with Pope Anicetus. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius notes that Polycarp and Anicetus could not come to an agreement over the date of Easter. Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp of the rightness of his position. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the pope to order Polycarp to obey him, since, as Vatican II says, “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.”1 Clearly Anicetus and Polycarp were meeting as equals, not as superior and subordinate. And Polycarp has no idea that he has any obligation to agree with the church of Rome.
The controversy over the date of Easter continued, but around 190, a new bishop of Rome resolved to settle it. Eusebius notes that “Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.”2 About this, Catholic author Patrick Madrid writes: “The fact that no bishop in the world — not a single one — disputed [Victor’s] authority as bishop of Rome to carry out such an excommunication is a powerful piece of evidence that the early Church recognized the unique authority of the bishop of Rome”3 (emphasis in original). That isn’t, however, necessarily so. Eusebius goes on to say that Victor’s decision “did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor.”4
It’s true that Eusebius doesn’t record the bishops saying that Victor had no right to excommunicate the Asian churches. Nonetheless, their rejection of that right may be contained in the fact that the excommunications “did not please” them and that they “sharply rebuked Victor.” To see this more clearly, simply imagine a group of Roman Catholic bishops having opposed Pope Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception as a divinely revealed dogma of the Faith in 1854. Can you envision these bishops writing to Pius and explaining that they were “not pleased” with his definition, and “sharply rebuking” him? The scenario is inconceivable. When papal infallibility was voted on among the bishops of the First Vatican Council in 1870, eighty-eight bishops voted against it, although many assured the pope that they simply thought it was inopportune to define it at that time. Ultimately, sixty left Rome to avoid being compelled to approve the final document. None, however, dared to declare that they were not pleased with the doctrine or to rebuke Pope Pius IX. And it was an ecumenical council, not a papal decree, that finally laid the matter of the date of Easter to rest.
Councils Not Papal Decrees
The Third Ecumenical Council, in Ephesus in 431, condemned Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, for teaching that Mary was more properly called “Mother of Christ” (Christotokos) than “Mother of God” (Theotokos). Pope Celestine had condemned Nestorius in 430 and affirmed the orthodoxy of the term Theotokos; if he had been recognized as having the authority that the pope has today, why wasn’t that the end of the matter? The Fathers of the Council of Ephesus acknowledged that Celestine already judged the matter, but that didn’t stop them from examining it themselves. If it had been understood that “definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable,” as Vatican I says,5 why did they even bother? But they did.
At the Fourth Ecumenical Council, in Chalcedon in 451, the Fathers again examined a papal document and pronounced it orthodox; they did not simply accept it as the infallible judgment of Christ’s Vicar. Before the council, Pope Leo wrote a document, known as the Tome, which set forth the orthodox position on the question of Christ’s natures. Anatolius, patriarch of Constantinople, declared: “The letter of the most holy and religious Archbishop Leo agrees with the creed of our 318 Fathers at Nice, and of the 150 who afterwards assembled at Constantinople, and confirmed the same faith….I therefore agree to it, and willingly subscribe to it.”6 These words indicate that Anatolius studied the Tome carefully before declaring it as orthodox, instead of simply receiving it as the final judgment of the one who was the final arbiter of what constituted orthodoxy; otherwise he wouldn’t have known whether or not the Tome agreed with the earlier statements. When the Tome was read out, the Fathers exclaimed:
This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, thus the orthodox believe. Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken thus through Leo. So taught the Apostles. Piously and truly did Leo teach, so taught Cyril….Leo and Cyril taught the same thing, anathema to him who does not so believe. This is the true faith. Those of us who are orthodox thus believe. This is the faith of the fathers.7
Similar exclamations were made at Ephesus. But again, why was the Fathers’ approval necessary? Why did they need to affirm that Leo’s letter was orthodox? Why did they affirm that Leo’s teaching was the same as that of St. Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, who had died several years before? Imagine the bishops of Vatican II exclaiming that the teaching of John XXIII or Paul VI coincided with that of the Archbishop of Paris or Milan: it would have been seen as incongruous, an unnecessary affirmation.
Not Universal Jurisdiction
In 586, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice conferred the title “Ecumenical” on Patriarch St. John the Faster of Constantinople, and Pope St. Gregory the Great was alarmed. The title simply meant that John was patriarch of the imperial city, but Gregory took it as meaning that John was proclaiming himself to be the universal bishop of the entire church. Modern-day Roman Catholics might have expected Gregory to write to John and say that the pope alone was the universal bishop and that there was no room in the church for another. Instead, however, Gregory told John that the title was illegitimate because there was no universal bishop: “Whoever calls himself universal bishop, or desires this title, is, by his pride, the precursor to the Antichrist.”8
How could Gregory possibly have written this as pope if he believed that, as Vatican I says, “the Roman Church possesses a superiority of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate,” and the Roman Pontiff possesses the “supreme power” of “governing the Universal Church”?9 Clearly, Gregory the Great disagreed with his eleventh-century successor, Pope Gregory VII, who wrote: “The Roman Pontiff alone can with right be called ‘Universal.’”10
Defenders of the idea that the pope has universal jurisdiction have pointed out that Gregory the Great also wrote: “As to what they say about the church of Constantinople, who can doubt that it is subject to the Apostolic See, as both the most pious lord the emperor and our brother the bishop of that city continually acknowledge?”11 And also: “If any fault is found in bishops, I know not what bishop is not subject to it [the Apostolic See]. But when no fault requires it to be otherwise, all according to the principle of humility are equal.”12
However, the primacy of the pope, as being the first bishop in the church at that time, is not what is at issue. The question is whether that primacy conferred ordinary and universal jurisdiction over the entire church, as well as infallibility when defining doctrines of faith and morals. Often, Roman Catholic apologists produce evidence that the pope had the primacy in the first millennium as if that established his universal jurisdiction and infallibility, but it is clear that no one — not anyone — in the first millennium believed that universal jurisdiction and infallibility were components of papal primacy. And, as mentioned, Gregory the Great clearly rejected the idea that any bishop had universal jurisdiction.
Not Papal Infallibility
Nor did the church of the first millennium believe in papal infallibility. In the seventh century, Pope Honorius wrote: “We confess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ,” agreeing with the heretical Monothelites, who held that Christ had no human will.13 Honorius clearly meant to define a doctrine of faith to be held by the whole church, as his statement comes in a letter to Sergius, who was ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, in response to the ecumenical patriarch’s doctrinal question. It was not, therefore, simply Honorius’ private opinion.
Honorius was condemned after his death by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third Council of Constantinople in 680. The seventeenth-century French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet held this condemnation to be “a certain proof” that the Fathers did not believe it was “necessary to receive without discussion every decree of Roman Pontiffs even de fide [‘of the faith’ — essential teaching of the Roman Catholic Church], inasmuch as they are subjected to the supreme and final examination of a General Council.”14 The papal legates who were present at the Council raised not one word of protest against all this.
Honorius was subsequently condemned by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787; Rome did not protest. There is a great deal of controversy among opponents and defenders of the doctrine of papal infallibility over whether Honorius was condemned by the popes for heresy or simply for neglecting to defend the Orthodox Faith, and over whether he was speaking ex cathedra — defining a dogma binding on the universal church. The most important aspect of the condemnation of Honorius, however, is that two ecumenical councils and numerous popes for several centuries would dare condemn the pope at all. If a pope today approved of a heretical formula that had not yet explicitly been defined as a heresy by an ecumenical council or previous popes, it would become the new orthodoxy among Roman Catholics; no subsequent Roman Catholic council would dare to condemn it or the pope who endorsed it. The very fact that Honorius was condemned by the Third Council of Constantinople and that popes accepted that condemnation even with reservations indicates that no one in the church in those days thought that Roma locuta, causa finite est (Rome has spoken, the matter is finished).
When one looks at the church of the first millennium, one sees an assembly of local churches under the unifying authority of bishops, who were themselves under the authority of metropolitans and ultimately the five patriarchates of the early church — Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. None of these patriarchs was considered infallible or to have universal jurisdiction. Great doctrinal issues were settled in ecumenical councils, which the Orthodox Church and, in principle, the Roman Catholic Church regard as infallible. When one looks at what is presented as Christianity today, the Orthodox Church alone operates in the same way.
Robert Spencer is the author of the forthcoming The Pope and the Church: The Case for Orthodoxy (Uncut Mountain Press).
- Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumengentium_en.html.
- Eusebius Pamphilus, Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chapter 24, section 9, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, 1890, The Saint Pachomius OrthodoxLibrary, http://www.voskrese.info/spl/HE5_23.html.
- Patrick Madrid, Pope Fiction: Answers to 30 Myths & Misconceptions About the Papacy (Gastonia, NC: Basilica Press, 2016), 120.
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chapter 24, section 10.
- First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus IV, July 18, 1870, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/i-vatican-council/documents/vat-i_const_18700718_pastor-aeternus_la.html.
- Council of Chalcedon, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 14, ed. Henry Percival (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1900), 244.
- Council of Chalcedon, Second Session, October 10, 451, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 14, Percival, 259.
- Epistle of Pope St. Gregory I to St. John the Faster, quoted in “St. Gregory the Great on Papal Supremacy,” Icliks Incoming, https://icliks.wordpress.com/gods-changes/traditional-vs-modernist/traditional-catholic/stgregory-the-great-on-papal-supremacy/.
- Pastor Aeternus, III, trans. Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, http://catholicplanet.org/councils/20-Pastor-Aeternus.htm.
- Pope Gregory VII, compiled by Hildebrand, Dictatus Papae (1075), 2. http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/dict_pap.html.
- Epistle of Pope St. Gregory I to John, Bishop of Syracuse, book IX, letter XII, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 13, trans. James Barmby, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898), 9.
- Epistle of Pope St. Gregory I to John, Bishop of Syracuse, book IX, letter LIX, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 13, Barmby, 15.