When Eulogius (in our preceding article we were quoting from Philip Schaff to the effect that Gregory displayed in his correspondence with his rival a singular combination of pride and humility—H.V.), in return for his exaltation of his own see, afterwards addressed Gregory as “universal pope,” he strongly repudiated the title, saying: “I have said that neither to me nor to any one else ought you to write anything of the kind. And lo! in the preface of your letter you apply to me, who prohibited it, the proud title of universal pope; which thing I beg your most sweet Holiness to do no more, because what is given to others beyond what reason requires is substracted from you. I do not esteem that an honor by which I know my brethren lose their honor. My honor is that of the universal Church. My honor is the solid strength of my brethren. I am then truly honored when all and each are allowed the honor that is due to them. For, if your Holiness calls me universal pope, you deny yourself to be that which you call me universally (that is, you own yourself to be no pope). But no more of this: away with words which inflate pride and wound charity!” He even objects to the expression, “as thou hast commanded,” which had occurred in his correspondent’s letter. “Which word, commanded,’ I pray you let me hear no more; for I know what I am and what you are: in position you are my brethren, in manners you are my fathers. I did not, therefore, command, but desired only to indicate what seemed to me expedient.” (In these words Gregory apparently refuses to be called the universal pope; and what we read here appears to be a powerful refutation of the Roman Catholic claim with respect to the pope at Rome, that he, as the successor of the apostle Peter, must be acknowledged as the head upon earth of the entire Christian church throughout the world—H.V.)
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Gregory, while he protested in the strongest terms against the assumption by the Eastern patriarchs of the anti-Christian and blasphemous title of universal bishop, claimed and exercised, as far as he had the opportunity and power, the authority and oversight over the whole church of Christ, even in the East. “With respect to the church of Constantinople,” he asks in one of his letters, “who doubt that it is subject to the apostolic see?” And in another letter: “I know not what bishop is not subject to it, if fault is found in him.” “To all who know the Gospels,” he writes to emperor Maurice, “id is plain that to Peter, as the prince of all the apostles, was committed by our Lord the care of the whole church (totius ecclesiae cura) . . . . But although the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and to loose, were entrusted to him, and the care and principality of the whole church (totius exclesiae cura et principatus), he is not called universal bishop; while my most holy fellow-priest (vir sanctissimus consacerdos meus) John dares to call himself universal bishop. I am compelled to exclaim: “O tempora, O mores!”
We have no right to impeach Gregory’s sincerity. But he was clearly inconsistent in disclaiming the name, and yet claiming the thing itself. The real objection is to the pretension of a universal episcopate, not to the title. If we concede the former, the latter is perfectly legitimate. And such universal power had already been claimed by Roman pontiffs before Gregory, such as Leo I, Felix, Gelasius, Hormisdas, in language and acts more haughty and self-sufficient than his.
No wonder, therefore, that the successors of Gregory, less humble and more consistent than he, had no scruple to use equivalent and even more arrogant titles than the one against which he so solemnly protested with the warning: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” But it is a very remarkable fact, that at the beginning of the unfolding of the greatest power of the papacy one of the best popes should have protested against the anti-Christian pride and usurpation of the system.
The Writings of Gregory.
With all the multiplicity of his cares, Gregory found time for literary labor. His books are not of great literary merit, but were eminently popular and useful for the clergy of the middle ages.
His theology was based upon the four ecumenical councils and the four Gospels, which he regarded as the immovable pillars of orthodoxy (these four ecumenical councils are the great councils of Nicea, of Constantinople, of Ephesus, and of Chalcedon—H.V.); he also accepted the condemnation of the three chapters by the fifth ecumenical council. He was a moderate Augustinian, but with an entirely practical, unspeculative, uncritical, traditional and superstitious bent of mind. His destruction of the Palatine Library, if it ever existed, is now rejected as a fable; but it reflects his contempt for secular and classical studies as beneath the dignity of a Christian bishop. Yet in ecclesiastical learning and pulpit eloquence he had no superior in his age.
Gregory is one of the great doctors or authoritative fathers of the church. His views on sin and grace are almost semi-Pelagian. He makes predestination depend on foreknowledge; represents the fallen nature as sick only, not as dead; lays great stress on the meritoriousness of good works, and is chiefly responsible for the doctrine of a purgatorial fire, and masses for the benefit of the souls in purgatory(this is surely interesting, inasmuch as these teachings of Gregory surely constitute the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of today—H.V.)
His Latin style is not classical, but ecclesiastical and monkish (peculiar of a monk—H.V.); it abounds in barbarisms (the usage of words or expressions not approved or standard in a language—H.V.); it is prolix (wearisomely long and verbose—H.V.) and chatty, but occasionally sententious and rising to a rhetorical pathos, which he borrowed from the prophets of the Old Testament.
Being ignorant of the Hebrew and Greek languages, and of Oriental history and customs (although for some time a resident of Constantinople), Gregory lacked the first qualifications for a grammatical and historical interpretation.
The allegorical part is an exegetical curiosity: he reads between or beneath the lines of that wonderful poem the history of Christ and a whole system of theology natural and revealed. The names of persons and things, the numbers, and even the syllables, are filled with mystic meaning (and the following examples of Gregory’s way of interpreting Scripture, although not of major significance as far as the purpose of this quotation is concerned, inasmuch as we are dealing with the supremacy of the pope, may be of interest to our readers—H.V.). Job represents Christ; his wife the carnal nature; his seven sons (seven being the number of perfection) represent the apostles, and hence the clergy; his three daughters the three classes of the faithful laity who are to worship the Trinity; his friends the heretics; the seven thousand sheep the perfect Christians; the three thousand camels the heathen and Samaritans; the five hundred yoke of oxen and the five hundred she-asses again the heathen, because the prophet Isaiah says: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth now know, my people doth not consider.”
Among his many writings is also a treatise on the duties and responsibilities of the ministerial office, in justification of his reluctance to undertake the burden of the papal dignity (we wish to quote this from the writing of Philip Schaff because of its interesting suggestions which need no explanation—H.V.). It is more practical than Chrysostom’s “Priesthood.” It was held in the highest esteem in the Middle Ages, translated into Greek by order of the emperor Maurice, and into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred, and given to the bishops in France at their ordination, together with the book of canons, as a guide in the discharge of their duties. Gregory, according to the spirit of his age, enjoins strict celibacy even upon sub-deacons. But otherwise he gives most excellent advice suitable to all times. He makes preaching one of the chief duties of pastors, in the discharge of which he himself set a good example. He warns, them to guard against the besetting sin of pride at the very outset; for they will not easily learn humility in a high position. They should preach by their lives as well as their words. “He who, by the necessity or his position, is required to speak the highest things, is compelled by the same necessity to exemplify the highest. For that voice best penetrates the hearts of hearers which the life of the speaker commends, because what he commends in his speech he helps to practice by his example.” He advises to combine meditation and action. “Our Lord,” he says, “continued in prayer on the mountain, but wrought miracles in the cities; showing to pastors that while aspiring to the highest, they should mingle in sympathy with the necessities of the infirm. The more kindly charity descends to the lowest, the more vigorously it recurs to the highest.” The spiritual ruler should never be so absorbed in external cares as to forget the inner life of the soul, nor neglect external’ things in the care for his inner life. “The word of doctrine fails to penetrate the mind of the needy, unless commended by the hand of compassion.”
Four books of Dialogues he wrote on the lives and miracles of St. Benedict of Nursia and other Italian saints, and on the immortality of the soul. These dialogues between Gregory and the Roman archdeacon Peter abound in incredible marvels and visions of the state of departed souls. He acknowledges, however, that he knew these stories only from hearsay, and defends his recording them by the example of Mark and Luke, who reported the gospel from what they heard of the eyewitnesses. His veracity, therefore, is not at stake; but it is strange that a man of his intelligence and good sense should believe such grotesque and childish marvels. The Dialogues are the chief source of the mediaeval superstitions about purgatory. King Alfred ordered them to be translated into the Anglo-Saxon. (end of quotation from Philip Schaff concerning Gregory—H.V.)
Gregory strongly upheld the claim of the bishops of Rome over the entire Church as successors of the apostle Peter. It was Pope Gregory whose work in behalf of missions, as we saw, had such far-reaching results. To him has also been ascribed the style of church music known as the Gregorian chant. Gregory taught that the Lord’s Supper is a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, that the saints can be of help to us, and that there is a purgatory. He stood for all the things which form the most distinctive traits of the Church of the Middle Ages.