QUESTION: Is it true that Pope Gregory I denied that the pope is the “universal bishop” and taught that the Bishop of Rome has no authority over any other bishop?
ANSWER: No. Gregory the Great (540 - 604), saint, pope, and doctor of the Church, never taught any such thing. He would have denied that the title “universal bishop” could be applied to anyone, himself included, if by that term one meant there was only one bishop for the whole world and that all other “bishops” were bishops in name only, with no real authority of their own. Such a distorted version of the biblical model of bishops is incompatible with Catholic teaching.
But that isn’t to say that the title didn’t – and doesn’t – have a proper sense of which Gregory approved. If meant in the sense that the Bishop of Rome is the leader of all the bishops, the title is correct. If it means he is the only bishop and all the other “bishops” are not really successors to the apostles, it’s false.
What Gregory condemned was the expropriation of the title Universal Bishop by Bishop John the Faster, the patriarch of Constantinople, who proclaimed himself Universal Bishop at the Synod of Constantinople in 588. Gregory condemned the patriarch’s act because universal jurisdiction applies solely to the pope.
Some anti-Catholics cite the following quotations to give the false impression that Gregory was rejecting his own universal authority:
“I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of the Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others” (Epistles 7:33).
“If then he shunned the subjecting of the members of Christ partially to certain heads, as if besides Christ, though this were to the apostles themselves, what wilt thou say to Christ, who is the head of the universal Church, in the scrutiny of the last judgment, having attempted to put all his members under thyself by the appellation of universal? Who, I ask, is proposed for imitation in this wrongful title but he who, despising the legions of angels constituted socially with himself, attempted to start up to an eminence of singularity, that he might seem to be under none and to be alone above all?” (Epistles 5:18)
Predictably, anti-Catholics neglect to inform their audiences that the context of these statements makes it clear that Gregory was not making these statements in regard to himself or to any other pope. He believed the bishop of Rome has primacy of jurisdiction over all other bishops.
Like his predecessors and successors, Gregory promulgated numerous laws, binding on all other bishops, on issues such as clerical celibacy (1:42,50; 4:5,26,34; 7:1; 9:110,218; 10:19; 11:56), the deprivation of priests and bishops guilty of criminal offenses (1:18,32; 3:49; 4:26; 5:5,17,18), and the proper disposition of church revenues (1:10,64; 2:20-22; 3:22; 4:11)
Gregory’s writings show that he regarded and conducted himself as the universal bishop of the Church. He calls the diocese of Rome “the Apostolic See, which is the head of all other churches” (13:1).
He said, “I, albeit unworthy, have been set up in command of the Church” (5:44). He taught that the pope, as successor to Peter, was granted by God a primacy over all other bishops (2:44; 3:30; 5:37; 7:37).
He claimed that it was necessary for councils and synods to have the pope’s approval to be binding and that only the pope had the authority to annul their decrees (9:56; 5:39,41,44).
He enforced his authority to settle disputes between bishops, even between patriarchs, and rebuked lax and erring bishops (2:50; 3:52,63; 9:26,27).
When Gregory denounced John the Faster’s attempt to lay claim to the title Universal Bishop, his words were in accord with his actions and with his teachings. He was unequivocal in his teaching that all other bishops are subject to the pope:
“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” (Epistles 9:26).
Source: Catholic Answers, This Rock, (December 1992).