Academic journal article Theological Studies

Gregory the Great and the Sixth-Century Dispute over the Ecumenical Title

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Gregory the Great and the Sixth-Century Dispute over the Ecumenical Title

Article excerpt

NEARLY EVERY OBSERVER of the Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic dialogue recognizes that the most significant obstacle to reunion is ecclesiological in nature, namely, the role of the Roman pontiff with respect to the broader church. (1) Given the importance of tradition for both communions, it seems certain that an agreement on this issue would require a return to an ecclesiological practice rooted in the early church. But that begs the question, What was the role of the bishop of Rome in the broader church before the rise of the medieval papacy and the collapse of Byzantium? Even in the period between the conversion of Constantine (ca. AD 313) and the coronation of Charlemagne (AD 800) when the majority of Christians confessed a common creed and ostensibly belonged to a single empire, Christians held different views about the authority of Rome in the universal church. (2) This article examines one of the most important but least scrutinized cases in point, the dispute between Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome, 590-604) and John IV the Faster (bishop of Constantinople, 582-595) over the latter's use of the title "Ecumenical Patriarch." (3)

While many scholars (and modern apologists (4)) of early medieval Christianity are familiar with the controversy and Gregory's famous assertion that no bishop (the pope included) has universal authority, previous examinations have not appreciated the nuances of Gregory's thought or his strategic shifts in policy during the crisis with the East. Indeed, Gregory's reaction to the title was not static, nor was it developed in a vacuum. Moreover, most commentators seem to ignore the fact that it was Eastern intransigence, both imperial and patriarchal, that likely compelled Gregory later in his career to assert more fully the Roman claim to Petrine authority. To understand Gregory's thinking on the subject and to appreciate the equally compelling but divergent concerns of many churchmen of his day, both Greek and Latin, it is necessary to appreciate the tension between two of Gregory's ecclesiological principles: (1) that the preeminence of Peter passed to subsequent bishops of Rome, and (2) that individual bishops who confessed the apostolic faith were autonomous leaders of their own communities. Though Gregory never abandoned either of these positions, he became increasingly willing to appeal to the authority of Peter in his bid to check what he believed was the unprecedented ambition of the see of Constantinople.

THE CONTROVERSY

Although it may be that no one in the papal office was familiar with Constantinople's use of the title "ecumenical patriarch" before the 580s, its association with the patriarch of the Eastern capital went back to at least the year 518. (5) In that year, a letter from the clergy in Antioch addressed John II of Constantinople as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (holy archbishop and ecumenical patriarch). (6) In the same year, two regional synods also referred to John as "ecumenical patriarch." (7)

The patriarch's connection to the title was certainly reinforced when it was included in the Justinianic legislation of the 530s. For example, the first mention of Ephipanius (bishop of Constantinople, 520-535) in the Codex (a codification of prior Roman laws) identifies him as sanctissimo et beatissimo archiepiscopo huius regiae urbis et oecurnenico patriarchae (the very holy and blessed archbishop of this royal city and ecumenical patriarch), (8) The title featured prominently in the Novellae (new laws) issued by Justinian and his successors. Nine of the 134 Novellae issued during Justinian's reign were addressed to the patriarch of Constantinople and included the title, often in the form [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (archbishop of this capital city and ecumenical patriarch). (9) The phrase [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was explicitly affirmed in the text of Novella 58 and Novella 83. Unlike the Codex, which was produced primarily in Latin, the Novellae were, for the most part, issued in Greek or bilingually. …

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