14 June 2012

The papal paradox

Not many people are aware of a remarkable assertion by St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 540-604), as recounted by Michael Horton:
Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word ['universal']….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest” (Gregory I, Letters; tr. NPNF 2 ser.XII. i. 75-76; ii. 170, 171, 179, 166, 169, 222, 225).

These words are also quoted by Jean Calvin in his Institutes IV.vii.16.

This would seem to raise a logical difficulty similar to the famous Cretan Paradox. St. Gregory is esteemed as an early Pope by the Roman Catholic Church. A decree of the First Vatican Council in 1870 proclaimed the Pope's infallibility when speaking ex cathedra. The Pope claims to be universal head of the Church, set above the other bishops. Yet Gregory himself explicitly repudiated this title for himself. If he did so infallibly, that might mean that the universal head of the Church is nothing of the sort. Or does it? Assuming they are aware of it, how would the current leadership in Rome go about resolving this paradox?


Baus said...

Answers HERE and HERE.

The short of it is this. The Papists say (convincingly, I think) that what Gregory denied in rejecting "universal bishop" was not Roman supremacy, but that anyone could rightly claim to be sole bishop.

Baus said...

Actually, reading Calvin again, he does address this issue quoting Gregory: "In another place, he [Gregory] says, “None ever wished to be called by such a name; none arrogated this rash name to himself, lest, by seizing on the honour of supremacy in the office of the Pontificate, he might seem to deny it to all his brethren” (Gregor. Lib. 4 Ep. 82)."

Calvin's understanding (in Inst.4.7.4) of Gregory's argument is that although Gregory was wrong about Leo (in so far as no such title was actually offered Leo and/or the Roman See at Chalcedon), Gregory is right in saying that the claim to the honor of supremacy is what in effect 'defrocks' or un-bishops or denies honor of office to other bishops.

This seems to answer the Papist answer. Now I'm not sure the Papists can show that Gregory affirms supremacy per se. It may depend on what he meant by "head (of the faith and of all the churches)" and in what sense he understood all bishops to be "subject" to the Apostolic See.

Warrants further clarification.


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