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Papal Supremacy: Pope Gregory the Great vs. Patriarch John the Faster

Why Pope St. Gregory the Great believed he possessed a Primacy over all the churches

“We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord.” (1st Vatican Council, Session 4)

The teaching of the First Vatican Council on the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff is very clear: that the Blessed Apostle Peter possessed supreme jurisdiction over the universal Church, whose keys continue to pass down to the present Roman Pontiff. This irreversible divinely revealed truth, clarified by both Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, has always been believed by the Church since apostolic times. Unfortunately, various arguments spring up against this clear infallible dogma. Ever since the Great Schism and the Reformation, heretics and schismatics often appeal to a very common argument that the early Roman Pontiffs rejected the Vatican I teachings on the Roman Primacy. From my research, the most common argument, which even dates back to the writings of the Protestant reformers, involves quotations from one of the most famous Popes in history, none other than St. Gregory the Great.

In this article, we will examine the argument presented to us and explain why Pope St. Gregory the Great believed he possessed a Primacy over all the churches.

Before we jump in, let us examine the two figures we will address today.

Who Was St. Gregory the Great?

One of our God-bearing Roman Pontiffs to sit on the throne of St. Peter is St. Gregory I. He is one of 3 popes who has received the title of Great in Church history (the other 2 being St. Leo the Great (400–461 A.D.) and St. Nicholas the Great (800–861 A.D.)) The Catholic Church considers him as one of the Latin Fathers of the Church as well as one of the 4 original Doctors of the Latin Church alongside Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome.

Despite being a Latin Church Father, he receives the same amount of honor among the Eastern Orthodox, who grant him the title St. Gregory the Dialogist for his writings called the Dialogues. Even the very Protestant John Calvin, who foolishly pretended the Pope was the anti-Christ, remarked he was the “last good pope.”

The Pontiff accomplished many different feats during his 14-year reign and emphasized the supreme authority of the Roman See. He combated corruption in secular and religious politics, conducted liturgical reforms for the Roman liturgy by codifying the Roman Canon of the Traditional Latin Mass (Eucharistic Prayer 1 in the Novus Ordo), sent St. Augustine of Canterbury along with missionaries to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons, and guided the Church through the transition from the patristic age to the Middle Ages.

Many of his letters and commentaries on Scripture still survive today, and he receives credit for the development of modern Gregorian Chant, which bears his name in memory. St. Gregory the Great was a blessing to the Church and a role model for all bishops, and he reposed in 604 A.D. Popular acclamation led to his very rapid canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church. Because of his canonization prior to the Great Schism, both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches jointly venerate him, as he is one of our common Fathers.

Who Was Patriarch John the Faster?

Patriarch John the Faster, or John IV of Constantinople was born at an unknown date. He was a deacon at the great Church of Hagia Sophia and conducted ministry to the poor. He eventually became Patriarch of Constantinople in 582 A.D. and often mediated in debates between Catholics and Monophysite heretics. He was the first to assume the title “Ecumenical Patriarch”, and this has been passed down to the present Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. He died in 595 A.D. While venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church has not marked him with any layer of canonization. (Note, St. Gregory and Patriarch John IV lived centuries before the Great East/West Schism.)

Did St. Gregory the Great Reject Papal Supremacy?

Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants possess different understandings of Church authority. For a Catholic, the Pope has supreme jurisdiction over the Universal Church. For Eastern Orthodox, Church government is more collegial with equal bishops only differing in honor. They consider Rome the “primus inter pares”, or the first among equals. For a Protestant, authority is based on Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) without any Magisterial authority or Sacred Tradition.

Now that we know the differences Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants share regarding Church authority, the major question of this debate is: Did St. Gregory the Great reject the modern understanding of Papal Supremacy?

The Eastern Orthodox attempt to claim that Papal Supremacy was a later innovation dating to the 8th and 9th Centuries with Pope St. Nicholas I and the Photian Schism (a schism due to a dispute between the Pope and Patriarch which eventually healed). Protestants also make use of this argument in an attempt to claim that an apostate medieval Church changed the doctrine on the Papacy and that the Papacy has no biblical or patristic roots. When engaging in apologetics, both Protestants and Eastern Orthodox make use of a certain writing of St. Gregory the Great. The quote frequently cited against Papal Supremacy comes from one of Gregory’s epistles as “proof” the most prominent 1st Millenium Pope repudiated Papal Supremacy.

This comes from a letter to Patriarch John the Faster of Constantinople:

“Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others. Nor is it by dissimilar pride that he is led into error; for, as that perverse one wishes to appear as above all men, so whosoever this one is who covets being called sole priest, he extols himself above all other priests,”(Book VII, Letter 33).

In fact, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the heresiarch John Calvin even cites this example in an attempt to disprove the doctrine on Papal Supremacy. This argument is as old as the first Protestant Reformers!

From the outside, it appears as if St. Gregory the Great is denouncing any claims to supremacy in favor of an Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology, and this could easily be misquoted by Fundamentalist Protestant and Adventist polemics also as a method of claiming the Pope of Rome is the anti-Christ.

Eastern Orthodox often take advantage of this argument as well. Is St. Gregory the Great denouncing the modern papacy as a forerunner of the anti-Christ? What does the term ‘universal priest’ mean? Perhaps some context will be useful in properly understanding Pope Gregory’s words. But first, we need to consult a Jesuit friend of ours from the Vatican.

St. Robert Bellarmine to the Rescue!

In disputes with Protestant reformers, St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, one of the earliest apologists to defend the Catholic faith and teachings of the Roman Primacy against John Calvin, wrote hundreds of pages on the Roman Primacy in a book called On the Roman Pontiff: In Five Books (De Controversiis). There, he presents objections from the Protestants and puts them in their proper place with thorough refutations. For instance, Calvin objects to Papal Supremacy by appealing to the fact that St. Gregory the Great called the Emperor in his 5th epistle of the 1st book of the Registrum Epistolarum a “serene Lord.” It may logically proceed that Gregory the Great felt bound to the emperor and not the other way around. However, Bellarmine responds to this objection by mentioning a biography from John the Deacon, a 9th century Roman deacon who compiled a biography of Gregory’s life called Vita D. Gregorii. Bellarmine states:

“For as John the Deacon writes, he called all priests brothers, all clergy sons, all laity his lords. Still it is not right to gather from there that Gregory could be judged by all from the laity,” (pg. 303).

Pope Gregory was known for displaying compassion and keeping the peace, but he also was politically assertive. He was indeed a Pope whose deeds left their mark in Church history despite being originally hesitant to assume the Papal Throne. He did not intimidate clergy, laity, and kings to submit to him through means of sheer power (as Pope Boniface VIII), but rather displayed meekness and charity in times of need. He resisted evil through self-discipline and always kept his cool. St Gregory did not focus on being Great, but embraced humility, while maintaining his principles as the Supreme Pontiff. It is possible he knew how to remain calm from his experiences in the monastic life.

St. Robert Bellarmine continues on by saying:

“Add that Gregory spoke so humbly with the emperor not without reason, because in that time, the emperor obtained temporal dominion over the city of Rome, and Gregory required his help and friendship, so that both he and the temporal goods of his Church, and the Roman people would be defeated from the words and fury of the Lombards,” (pg. 304).

For those who do not know, the Lombards were a Germanic tribe of pagans and Arian heretics who threatened to sack Rome, and the Pontiff was able to utilize his diplomatic skills to prevent Rome from being pillaged by negotiating a ceasefire and tolerable peace.

He had to balance not only ecclesiastical affairs, but political affairs and prevent them from tearing up the Church.

Bellarmine points out that despite Gregory’s diplomatic attitude, he still viewed himself as Supreme Pontiff:

“Thus, St. Gregory understood which person ruled the Church, and what reverence was due to himself from the emperor; even if in the meantime he partly subjected himself from humility, partly from necessity,” (pg. 304).

Interestingly enough, Pope Gregory added a title to a list of titles attributed to the Pope, namely “Servus Servorum Dei”, which means “Servant of Servants of God.” This title requires that Popes be selfless during their reign on the throne of St. Peter. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope Gregory introduced the title and used it many times and that John the Deacon recorded that he even applied the title to teach Patriarch John the Faster some humility!

Who Is Head of the Church, Christ or the Pope?

St. Robert Bellarmine also defends various titles that emphasize the Pope’s authority such as the titles “Vicar of Christ” and “Head of the Church.” Regarding the latter one, St. Robert Bellarmine also brings forward another objection from John Calvin, where the reformer argues once again the claim that Patriarch John wished to make himself the head of the Church.

In the 7th Chapter of Part 4 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin makes a reference to St. Gregory’s epistle to Patriarch John the Faster (Book V, Letter 18), which says:

“Certainly, Peter, the first of the apostles, himself a member of the holy and universal Church, Paul, Andrew, John, — what were they but heads of particular communities? And yet they were members under one Head.”

Calvin also proceeds on by claiming this contradicts the present understanding of Papal Supremacy and that the Pope condemned the Patriarch for attempting to set himself up as the head of the Church (the “universal bishop”). Non-Catholics may also use this patristic quote in conjunction with a Bible verse such as the following:

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of church, his body and is himself its Savior.” (Ephesians 5:23)

First off, we must remember that in Matthew 16:18, when Christ changes Simon’s name to Peter, it is undoubtedly Peter being mentioned as the rock. In Aramaic, Christ would use the term Kephas to apply to Peter’s name and the rock on which He would build the Church. Christ is definitely the foundation, but he decided that St. Peter would be that Kephas. Next, some may believe that calling the Pope the Head of the Church and Christ the Head of the Church are still two contradictory points. However, this is not true when understood in the proper sense.

Everything comes from Christ, including the Pope’s authority to bind and loose. Anything that comes not from Christ is indeed a false foundation. The fact that Christ is indeed the Head of the Church does not contradict that the Pope can be called Head of the Church in a different sense.

St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae clarifies this very well:

“First, inasmuch as Christ is the Head of all who pertain to the Church in every place and time and state; but all other men are called heads with reference to certain special places, as bishops of their Churches…Secondly, because Christ is the Head of the Church by His own power and authority; while others are called heads, as taking Christ’s place, according to 2 Corinthians 2:10, ‘For what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes I have done it in the person of Christ,’ and 2 Corinthians 5:20, ‘For Christ therefore we are ambassadors, God, as it were, exhorting by us.’”

Calling the Bishop of Rome head of the Church is not contradictory to calling Christ the Head of the Church. Bishops are heads of their dioceses, for instance. A bishop is an overseer of the Church, which the Bible mentions in several places (see Philippians 1:1 and Acts 20:28). A bishop oversees his diocesan territory within his jurisdiction as does the Pope to the rest of the bishops. To call bishops heads of their dioceses and the Pope the Head of the Church does not contradict that Christ is the Head of His Mystical Body because the office of St. Peter is the highest office of pastor. He is the “Vicarius Filius Dei” (Vicar of Christ). He is the Vicar of the Head, the Vicar of the Boss. The Pope is the supreme shepherd, the visible representative of Christ on earth. It does not mean he is the replacement of Christ, but rather like the Vice President.

St. Robert Bellarmine points out 2 separate ways to understand what being Head of the Church means:

“Christ alone is head of all churches; accordingly being compared to Christ, all are vicars and administrators, nor can any be said to be his colleagues or fellow bishops; and Peter in this mode is not the head, except of the particular Roman Church…In the other way, Peter was and now is the Roman Pontiff, truly the head of every Church,” (pg. 321).

Using the term “Head of the Church” possesses two different ways of being understood. Christ is the Head of the Church as the head is to a human body, and in this sense, the Pope is only the head of the Church of Rome, but in the other sense, the Pope being the Vicar of Christ, is the Head of the Church in the sense he is the highest shepherd. Christ left His Church with overseers, presbyters, and deacons to act authoritatively in His name. Certainly, Pope St. Gregory affirming Christ as Head does not automatically indicate a denial of his primacy of authority.

The Final Refutation

It is time to get back to the main argument where Calvin continues to object to the title “universal bishop” as a title of sacrilege and a precursor of the Antichrist (see the first quote at the top). However, Bellarmine asserts Calvin misunderstands Pope Gregory by mentioning how the title has 2 separate understandings:

“In one way, as he who is called universal, should be understood to be the only bishops of all the cities if Christians…In another manner, a bishop can be called universal who has care for the whole Church, but generally not so as to exclude particular bishops,” (pgs. 324–325).

In the letter to the Patriarch, St. Gregory writes to the Patriarch of Constantinople John IV (or John the Faster) at the time. He was the first Eastern Patriarch to assume the title “Ecumenical Patriarch”, which the See of Constantinople still retains today as the Primus Inter Pares (first among equals) of the Orthodox Church. However, the term “Ecumenical” translated into “Universal”, which prompted St. Gregory to react with strict condemnations. (It is also important to know Pope St. Gregory did not know Greek, but Latin).

The main problem is that Pope St. Gregory the Great rejected the title “Universal Bishop” because it led to the claim that there is only one bishop in the whole Church! In his letter to Patriarch John the Faster, he mentions how the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) attempted to confer the title Universal Bishop to St. Leo the Great, but he refused it altogether. The title also led to the assumption that the emperors distributed spiritual and temporal jurisdiction throughout the Church.

This leads to the error of Caesaropapism, which taught that the Emperor and State were supreme in religious matters and not the Pope!

As a response to Patriarch John the Faster, Pope St. Gregory the Great actually expresses the Catholic concept of papal supremacy. St. Gregory the Great knew that he was Pope, and he showed (in the second sense that Bellarmine mentions) that he was universal bishop in the sense of universal jurisdiction! The fact the Pope has supreme jurisdiction does not negate the need for other bishops, primates, and patriarchs. Pope Gregory believed that Patriarch John might have wanted to gain more power which negates the necessity of other bishops and patriarchs to the point where he was almost the only bishop around. However, Patriarch John the Faster desired this, he would be adhering to heresy because while Christ gave the keys alone to St. Peter, he enabled all 12 to bind and loose as bishops.

St. Gregory the Great condemns this concept of only one bishop in his very own writing:

“For if one, as he supposes, is universal bishop, it remains that you are not bishops.” (Book IX, Letter LXVIII).
“But yet not one of them has ever wished to be called by such a title, or seized upon this ill-advised name, lest if, in virtue of the rank of the pontificate, he took to himself the glory of singularity, he might seem to have denied it to all his brethren.” (Book 5, Letter XVIII).

Now, just because Pope Gregory warned against the title of “universal bishop”, this does not prevent him from believing he possessed authority over the Eastern Patriarchates and primates, but rather condemned it because of its exclusion of all other sources of authority. St. Gregory never pretended or thought there was only one bishop throughout Christendom, but on the other hand, the dispute with Patriarch John the Faster compliments Gregory’s papal power as having both primacies of honor and authority over the Eastern Patriarchate. St. Gregory also possibly condemned the title “universal bishop” because of its implications that all other clergy are simply vicars and delegates of one man. To say this applies to the bishops in communion with the Pope is a misconception because diocesan bishops receive jurisdiction from Christ (just as all the Apostles received it), but they may only licitly operate within communion with the Holy See.

St. Gregory Displays His Papal Supremacy

Throughout history, Popes and Ecumenical Patriarchs have clashed over authority. Think of Pope St. Nicholas the Great vs. Patriarch Photios and Pope St. Leo IX against the renegade Patriarch Michael Cerularius. Contrary to popular belief, St. Gregory the Great was a great arbiter of Papal Supremacy who believed he possessed universal jurisdiction over Eastern Christendom. Some of these quotes are often overlooked amidst anti-Catholic polemics. Some examples of his writings are as follows.

“As regards the Church of Constantinople, who can doubt that it is subject to the Apostolic See? Why, both our most religious Lord the Emperor and our brother the Bishop of Constantinople continually acknowledge it” (Book IX, Letter XII).
“For who can be ignorant that holy Church has been made firm in the solidity of the Prince of the Apostles, who derived his name from the firmness of mind, so as to be called Petrus from petra. And to him it is said by the voice of the Truth, ‘To you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 16:19)…Wherefore though there are many apostles, yet with regard to principality itself, the See of the Prince of the apostles alone has grown strong in authority…” (Book VII, Letter XL).

Pope St. Gregory strongly defended Papal power, and his writings strongly indicate his belief that the Eastern churches must obey him. Interestingly enough, various Protestant scholars admit that Pope St. Gregory the Great upheld Papal Supremacy in the East contrary to the opinions of many Eastern Orthodox scholars.

This is very crucial considering other Protestants often use him in order to claim he rejected Papal Supremacy. An Anglican book titled The Oxford Dictionary of Popes admits that Pope St. Gregory advocated for supreme jurisdiction:

“[Pope St. Gregory the Great] successfully maintained Rome’s appellate jurisdiction in the east. Gregory argued that St. Peter’s commission made all churches, Constantinople included, subject to Rome” (pg. 67).

As we can see here, the idea that the Church of Constantinople must be subject to the Roman Pontiff does not originate from Pope St. Nicholas I and his disputes with Patriarch Photius of Constantinople as many anti-Catholics carelessly pretend. Without a doubt, despite Constantinople’s schismatic tendencies approaching the time of the Great Schism, these texts are crucial in uncovering the truth that all Churches must remain loyal to Rome, the Apostolic Throne.


Pope St. Gregory the Great, perhaps the most well-known 1st Millennium Pontiff ruled as Supreme Pontiff from 590–604 A.D. He defended the traditional Catholic teaching of Papal Supremacy by condemning Patriarch John the Faster when he assumed the title of Universal Bishop, as in the only bishop of the Church!

Sancte Gregori, ora pro nobis!


By Nick Howard

Other Sources

  • Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes by Charles Coulombe

  • Popes Through the Ages by Joseph Brusher, S.J.


Michael Snellen
Michael Snellen
May 24, 2022

Great article!

Michael Snellen
Michael Snellen
May 24, 2022
Replying to

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