In a couple recent debates, I quoted Pope Leo the Great as saying, “By the Holy Spirit’s inspiration the emperor needs no human instruction and is incapable of doctrinal error.” The quote is originally sourced from Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church, but it lacks a citation. By looking at details in Chadwick’s book, it appears that the quote is from Letter 165, as this letter essentially reiterates the Tome in several of its paragraphs. According to Chadwick, “the Henoticon was issued on the sole authority of the Roman Emperor” due to the ramifications of the aforesaid passage.

Did the Pope really ascribe doctrinal infallibility to a secular ruler?

A little more than a year ago, Father Maximilian Nightingale and I exchanged emails on the passage. My memory of this conversation and what actually was said do not exactly line up, which is why I should have never used Chadwick’s quote.

Father Max quickly identified the letter and found the actual passage in question:

Although I am aware that your Clemency does not lack instruction from men and that, from the abundance of the Holy Spirit, you have imbibed the purest doctrine…

He looked at the Latin and Greek versions of the letter and confirmed that the preceding rendering is more accurate than Chadwick’s. The words “incapable” and “error” are wholly lacking in the original languages. The word “need” is rendered as “lack,” but in Latin apparently both work. Nevertheless, the main thrust of Chadwick’s quote disappears when the letter is read in Latin:

Quamvis enim sciam clementiam tuam humanis institutionibus non egere, et sincerissimam de abundantia Spiritus sancti hausisse doctrinam…

Or Greek:

Ei kai ta malista gar egnokamen anthropines didaskalias ten umon emeroteta me prosdeisthai, kai ten katharotaten ek tes tou agiou pneumatos aphthonias mathesin entlekenai…

The standard rendering of the passage is high praise certainly, but it does not ascribe infallibility to the emperor.

Father Max kept digging, however, and found a couple passages in Letter 162 that may more accurately convey the idea which the Chadwick passage contains. The remainder of this article will be a discussion of these passages. In Part I, Leo wrote the following to the Emperor:

[Y]our clemency’s most excellent faith to be in all things enlarged by the gifts of heavenly grace, and I experience by increased diligence the devotion of a priestly mind in you. For in your Majesty’s communications it is beyond doubt revealed what the Holy Spirit is working through you for the good of the whole Church.

In the preceding, we see what appears to be similar praise to what we see in Letter 165. However, there are two details we should take special notice of.

First, the ascription of a special charism given to the emperor is referred to as “heavenly grace.” This grace pertains to the Emperor’s judgement as, “in your Majesty’s communications…the Holy Spirit working through you for the good of the whole Church.” The Emperor’s pronouncements (i.e. “communications”) in deciding which doctrines are to be propagated by the Church are apparently protected by God, if we are to take Leo literally. We must remind ourselves that ecumenical councils were enforced by Roman Law, so such a charism would not be useless to a Byzantine Emperor.

Second, the emperor is said to have “a priestly mind.” By this, Leo is asserting that the Emperor’s office has some sort of Apostolic (!) character.

Part II of the same letter continues in the same vein:

I know you, venerable Prince, imbued as you are with the purest light of truth, waver in no part of the Faith, but with just and perfect judgment distinguish right from wrong, and separate what is to be embraced from what is to be rejected.

The preceding passage, though perhaps worded less snazzy than Chadwick’s faulty rendering of the passage from Letter 165, is no less extreme in its claim. The Emperor’s charism is cited (“imbued…with the purest light”), his faith cannot waver, and his judgment of doctrinal matters is “perfect!” So, while the Emperor is not being ascribed infallible teaching authority (something that Leo would have ascribed to his own office), the same Emperor is being ascribed something not much less important–infallible doctrinal judgement.

Part III is the last passage pertinent to our discussion here:

I am very confident of the piety of your heart in all things, and perceive that through the Spirit of God dwelling in you, you are sufficiently instructed, nor can any error delude your faith, yet I will endeavour to follow your bidding so far as to send certain of my brothers to represent my person before you, and to set forth what the Apostolic rule of Faith is, although, as I have said, it is well known to you…

Again, Leo cites the charism of the Emperor in question (“the Spirit of God dwelling in you”) and the Emperor’s alleged infallibility in discerning doctrine (“nor can any error delude your faith.”) Yet, the passage ends with Leo tipping his hand–he’s not actually claiming the Emperor is infallible, as why would he have to send legates to “set forth…the Apostolic [See’s] rule of Faith [the Tome]” to reiterate what is already “well known” to the Emperor? Well, of course, Leo was flattering the Emperor hoping he would continue to uphold the Council of Chalcedon! It was because Leo was unsure that the Emperor would make the right decision that he wrote, so confidently, the Emperor would make the right decision.

In my honest assessment, the most outrageous form of flattery that Leo is employing is ascribing to the Emperor some sort of divine office within the Church. We see this in another letter. In Letter 156, Leo writes, “For your Majesty’s priestly and Apostolic mind ought to be still further kindled to righteous vengeance by this pestilential evil” (Par 6).

Here’s the problem: When we start ascribing an Apostolic character to the Emperor, even when it is an empty adjective (or adverb) and not an actual assertion of fact, it starts making other contemporary verbiages ring hollow. Rome, after all, is called the “Apostolic See” by Leo. Contemporary Bishops write that that “the oracles of the Apostolic Spirit [and] still recieve their [the Apostles’] interpretations” through Leo (Letter 68, Par 1).

We must ask ourselves, are such honorifics to be taken literally? That’s a topic which I will leave for another day. But in short, we do have reasons to be cautious in taking literally every glowing ancient statement we read. It is extremely important to discern the context of the statement and the actions consistent (or inconsistent) with the statement among contemporaries.