Saint Gregory the Great’s Concept of Papal Power

Like the Fathers of the Church before him, St. Gregory indicates in his teaching the proper preeminence of St. Peter in relation to the other apostles. Like them, he also states the exact nature of this preeminence. In the first place, it is to be observed that Gregory uses scripture as a doctrinal foundation. In doing so, he makes use of the three principal Petrine texts: that of the Tu es Petrus (Matt. xvi. 17-19), the Confirma fratres tuos (Luke xxii. 31-32), and the Pasce oves meas (John xxi. 15-17). To understand the force of Gregory’s appeal to these three texts, one must realize the position of the Petrine quotations before his time.

In the second century, there had been an implicit reference to the Tu es Petrus by Justin Martyr, when he declared: "For (Christ) called one of His disciples—previously known by the name of Simon-Peter, since he recognized Him to be the Christ, the Son of God, by the revelation of His Father."37 There had been another allusion to the same text in the Adversus haereses of Irenaeus. Speaking of heretics he had stated: "For they have not been founded on the one rock, but on sand, which has in it a multitude of stones."38

It is not to be wondered at, however, that in the second century there is no direct appeal to the Petrine texts to prove either the primacy of St. Peter or that of the bishop of Rome, though even in the second century the See of Rome did enjoy the primacy. In this regard, Jalland declares: "During the second century this primacy was accepted as a matter of practical convenience. As yet no one troubled to ask the reason. Only when questions began to arise, did it become necessary to show that the primacy rested not on the secular greatness of Rome but on the traditional and, as we believe, historical connexion of the Roman see with St. Peter. . . .”39

By the Rev. Neil Sharkey, C.P., S.T.L.

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