Occasionally, well-read Roman Catholic polemicists cite a little-known episode during the monothelite controversy as “proof” of Papal Supremacy being the ecclesiology of the early Church.
In short, the argument goes, Pope Saint Martin I was aghast at all of the eastern Bishops devolving into Christological heresy, so he used his Papal supremacist prerogatives to appoint Stephen of Dora (and then John of Philadelphia) as his vicars, to ordain new Bishops throughout the east. By doing so, allegedly, this demonstrates that the Pope is jurisdictionally superior to the rest of the Bishops and has universal jurisdiction, as evidenced by the fact he can appoint new bishops in new lands.
What is the historical response to this? Is this proof of Papal Supremacy?
In short, no. Just as Lucifer Caligari’s intervention in ordaining Paulinus in opposition to Saint Meletius of Antioch went over like a lead balloon in the east (and was eventually abandoned by the West, including the Papacy), the same is true in the above situation. Additionally, Stephen of Dora had some legitimate claim to jurisdiction in the Jerusalem Patriarchate, which means he was not a foreigner invading the territory on behalf of the Pope.
Of course, apologists are not very interested in really reviewing history impartially so the preceding never gets said. For everyone else, here is the real situation:
Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem attended the “quasi-ecumenical” (in the words of Phil Booth) Council of Cyprus in 636, where the rest of the Pentarchy (including Rome) other than Antioch (which was vacant for years thanks to wars with the Sassanids and then Arabs) was represented. (p. 239-240) The result of this council was a monothelite document called the Ekthesis issued in Constantinople in 638 at the latest (p. 136 of this source). Though most records of this council have been lost, the only explicit statements were that all the Bishops accepted it, including Rome and Jerusalem. Sophronius, perhaps wising up to the fact that monotheletism was monoenergism in disguise, according to tradition clarified his views and ended his life opposing the Ekthesis.
Sophronius appeared for a time a lonely voice among the world’s major bishops to oppose monotheletism, though the Bishops of Rome would begin to vocally take a stance against it in the 640s, not coincidentally after the Byzantine raiding of the Lateran Palace to help pay for wars against the Lombards. Tradition states that Sophronius sent Stephen of Dora, a local bishop acting as a legate of Jerusalem, to Rome to present his plaint against monotheletism in approx. 640 AD.* This would imply Rome was already friendly to Sophronius’ theology at this point. Also picking up Sophornius’ torch before his death were Palestinian monks, many of which had taken refuge in North Africa and knew Sophronius during his stay there. This included Saint Maximus the Confessor.
*Source, p. 26. Later in the book, a footnote claims that Stephen was sent in 638. (p. 187) It is commonly said that Sophronius died in March 11, 638 AD, though one hagiography of his says he died in 644 AD, as indicated by Saint Nicolai of Zica in the Prologue of Ochrid.
Not so coincidentally, around this time Jerusalem fell to the caliphate in 637. This meant that Constantinople’s ability to compel Sophronius in Jerusalem and his acolytes to tolerate the Ekthesis, or whatever agreement that predated its issuance, had come to an end. This gave Sophronius considerably more independence, if not with actual encouragement from local Arab authorities, to oppose Constantinople. Being that he is a saint, it is presumed the purity of Orthodoxy was his foremost motivator.
As referred to previously, the Arian Lombards (under Rothari) were making considerable gains against Byzantine possessions in Italy, conquering Genoa and the valley of the Po in 641. Plato, the exarch of Ravenna, was unable to check the Lombards. The city of Rome now had considerably more independence though it was still nominally under Byzantine control. As a side note, in the 640s, Byzantine fortunes in North Africa were also deteriorating both due to Arab invasion and Gregory the Exarch’s rebellion. The time was ripe to oppose Constantinople as power vacuums opened up throughout the world.
Therefore, both unable to appeal to Constantinople or to a previous council, Sophronius correctly assessed his best option was to reopen his case by appealing to Rome simply because (1) he was now free to thanks to the Arabs and (2) conditions were allowing for a more receptive audience in Rome, as Rome was never strongly monothelite. Though this is an unpopular opinion among Orthodox, as it is explicitly contradicted by the sixth ecumenical council, Pope Honorius’ (presumed) acceptance of the Ekthesis might have been highly qualified.** While Maximus would later argue that Honorius was in fact Orthodox, whatever the truth of the matter, it at least would have signaled to contemporaries like Sophronius that Rome was sympathetic. Hence, walking in the footsteps of Athanasius (though not too closely, he was not exiled), Roman support made sense—especially considering that after his death it appeared a monothelite may take his place.
**In his letter to Sergius, Honorius wrote: “We acknowledge the one will of the Lord Jesus Christ, since manifestly our nature was assumed by the Godhead but not the sin in it–namely the nature created before sin, not the one corrupted in consequence of the transgression.” Phil Booth notes that, “The implication is that Christ’s human will was akin to Adam before the Fall, as a rational will that obeyed the divine will and was therefore ‘one’ with it.” (The Acts of the Lateran Synod of 649, p. 95) The idea that prelapsarian human will, by nature, always cooperates with the divine will is Orthodox and is the explicit teaching of Maximus. It is unsurprising Maximus took a charitable reading of Honorius and did not presume he was literally teaching the human will was not mutually exclusive to the divine will.
In any event, while Stephen of Dora was in Italy, Sophronius died (if he had not had been already dead before he left Palestine***), and the Western Bishops treated Stephen as the locum tenens of Jerusalem (or in Stephen’s words “the episcopal dignity [of Sophronius] belonging to me…the first man in the jurisdiction of Jerusalem,” The Acts of the Lateran Synod 649, Session 2, par 42, p. 145) This made sense, because as opposed to Stephen, Sophronius’ enemy Sergius of Joppa (a monothelite) was elected Patriarch of Jerusalem by all accounts. It is unclear if his election was irregular as he is not recognized in Jerusalem’s succession list, did not have his predecessor’s favor, and he was allegedly only “ordained ‘by secular authority’”**** according to Stephen himself (see p. 138 of this source). Nevertheless, he enjoyed both Arab and Constantinopolitan support. The alleged Bishop of Jerusalem was considered a heretic in the West, which made Stephen’s claims (that he represented the last true Bishop of Jerusalem) apparently strong.
***A more cynical historian may surmise that according to Theophanes the Confessor’s history, Sophronius died in 638 (p. 96 of this source, or March 2, 639 according to Bathrellos) this would mean that the Ekthesis was most likely in circulation before his death. In 640, Pope John IV, sensing that Heraclius was in the mood to make concessions as his empire crumbled, immediately and publicly rejected the Ekthesis. Heraclius buckled and would soon reject the Ekthesis before his death. If all the preceding is the case, it is possible that Stephen of Dora left when he saw that Rome had taken (or was about to take) a vocal stance against Sergius of Joppa (who did in fact sign the Ekthesis). This would mean, that Stephen was in some respects attempting to be a Patriarchal usurper (though not literally, he never assumed the title) and Roman support would have been the only support he could actually hang his hat on.
****The above source is citing The Acts of the Lateran Synod, Session 2, par 46, p. 148. There Stephen states that “Sergius bishop of Joppa” usurped “the role of caretaker [locum tenens] of the see of Jerusalem after the withdrawal of the Persians, in virtue not of ecclesiastical procedure but secular power…he himself was far from being confirmed, he presumed to ordain others…their ordination was useless.” This indicates that Sergius was blessed to have a power grab by Constantinople before Sophronius’ election and after Sophronius’ death merely stepped back into the same role.
Stephen assumed the task of ordaining new Bishops in Palestine, as well as accepting into communion those loyal to the dyothelite cause. This, as the locum tenens, was something he was keen to do as this would have been consistent with someone who legitimately held the power of the Patriarchate. This task was particularly hard to accomplish particularly considering he spent most of his time in Italy as he was allegedly charged by Sophronius (in Stephen’s words) to “desist from vigorous exhortation” of dyothelitism “until with apostolic wisdom they [the Roman synod] bring their judgement…and issue canonically a total refutation” of monotheletism in a council. (The Acts of the Lateran Synod of 649, Session 2, par 41, p. 145; on p. 146, in the same paragraph, it is indicated that Stephen had three times entreated the Roman synod while fleeing persecution. It is unclear if this means he went back and forth from Italy three times or if he spoke to three different Popes: John IV, Theodore I, and finally Martin I, only the last holding the canonical synod he asked for. In any event, Ibid., p. 148 indicates that under Pope Theodore I “he by an apostolic letter appointed me his representative” and that he allegedly deposed some people other than “those who submitted a declaration of repentance” from monotheletism. This is something hard to do without a return trip to Palestine.)
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that during the Lateran Council of 649, Stephen handed the job off to John of Philadelphia (present day Amman, Jordan). Traditionally, he made John the new locum tenens, at least according to the line of Bishops recognized by the West–though there is no indication that Stephen stepped down from being “the first man.” In fact, it appears that John was given this responsibility, in the words of Pope Martin, “through our beloved fellow bishop Stephen.” (Martin to John of Philadelphia in Allen, Conflict and Negotiation in the Early Church, p. 213)
Working with John were two other neighboring Bishops, Theodore of Esbas and Anthony of Bacatha. They would have been necessary to ordain new Bishops, as canon law required three bishops to be part of the ordination. According to Phil Booth:
Two letters of Pope Martin, dating to 31 October 649 (the final day of the synod), lament the failure of Stephen’s mission and appoint John of Philadelphia…[t]here is nothing to suggest that Rome’s intervention achieved anything. (The Acts of the Lateran Synod of 649, p. 139)
There is some indication that Stephen wrote to the contrary, but there is no tangible evidence of his work bearing fruits.
It is unclear whether Bishops continued to be ordained in Sergius’ line. The letter of Martin to John of Philadelphia alleges that “Catholic” churches were suffering vacancies, with those who were there being self-elected or politically imposed, in contravention of the canons. To correct this, Stephen of Philadelphia was requested to have such bishops both sign a confession of dyothelite faith and submit to “elect[ion] according to the canons.” (Allen, Conflict and Negotiation in the Early Church, p. 214) Eventually, a new Bishop of Jerusalem, Anastasisus II, appeared as part of the Quinisext Council of 692. Being that Anastasius was in Constantinople (as opposed to his legate, something that was common for the occupied Bishoprics of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), this indicates he was in fact a titular Bishop. In other words, he was not elected or consecrated by the local Jerusalem synod nor, probably, recognized by the Caliphate.
Vacant Bishoprics, as well as Bishoprics in exile for prolonged periods of time were (thanks to the Caliphate) likewise an issue for Alexandria and Antioch. This development, in effect, largely subjugated these Patriarchates, when they were once fiercely independent. Constantinople, with its Nicene exile, and Rome, with its Avignon Papacy, would prove not immune to this innovative historical development. Before this time, Bishops tended to be people who lived locally, were elected by locals, and were ordained by locals. In a real sense, the Bishopric would lose its distinctly local character and would in effect evolve to become a bureaucratic appointment of a centralized Church apparatus, both in the east and the west (and for different reasons).
In closing, it should not surprise us that in the 7th century Stephen of Dora’s mission to ordain new bishops, which was mainly tasked to John of Philadelphia, met with no success. The only earlier historical precedent is the Meletian Schism. Locals in the fourth century did not receive widely receive Paulinus, probably due to his foreign backing. His “Antioch Patriarchate” was relegated to a single church building. Saint Jerome, duty bound by his jurisdiction (Rome) to reject Meletius as well as the Apollinarian schismatic Vitalis of Antioch, appeared unimpressed with the “Papally recognized” Paulinus when he wrote from the city: “I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you [the Pope] scatters.” (Letter 15, par 2)*****
*****This is a strange Papal “proof text” as Jerome was, in effect, rejecting the Pope’s recognized Bishop. His flowery language served the purpose of conveying genuine loyalty amidst being in some measure disloyal, as he clearly recognized that the West’s selection of Bishop in Antioch was incorrect.
Locals must have been equally unimpressed with Stephen of Dora’s foreign machinations. Not surprisingly, monotheletism (perceived as the local faith in response to foreign encroachments) persisted for centuries in this region.
When the preceding is taken into account, one realizes that Pope Martin was not exercising “universal jurisdiction.” He was recognizing the somewhat legitimate claims to the Patriarchate by Stephen of Dora (presuming tradition is correct and he was actually sent by Sophronius). Stephen alleged he was countering Bishops with illegitimate ordinations and he was rightfully the “caretaker” (locum tenens) of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Hence, the context of Stephen’s actions is not Rome exercising supremacy over a foreign ecclesiastical territory, but Rome recognizing the claims of someone to be acting Patriarch of said territory. This was an anecdote intended to deal with a canonical crisis of there allegedly being no local synod validly ordaining new Bishops in the midst of Muslim persecution. (see Martin to John of Philadelphia in Allen, Conflict and Negotiation in the Early Church, p. 211, 214)
In any event, Stephen and his accomplice, John of Philadelphia, had their line of Bishops rejected by local opposition, Caliphate policy, and lack of Constantinopolitan recognition. When the matter was ultimately settled, the fully recognized Bishop of Jerusalem, Anastasius II, was a titular Bishop in Constantinople. It was unclear whose line of Bishops he hailed from, though chances are he was simply elected in Constantinople and rubber stamped by local Byzantine sympathizers in Jerusalem itself.
And so, Stephen of Dora’s understandable attempt to revive Sophronius’ Christology had failed in the short term, as did his ecclesiastical machinations. Perhaps this was providential, as success might have created an additional orthodox Bishopric in Palestine, thereby creating a problematic parallel jurisdiction. It is also likely, if Stephen’s plans had succeeded, the parallel Jerusalem Patriarchate could have been subservient to another local Church, Rome, for its legitimacy (as Constantinople would have not recognized it). In effect, it would have created the problem which caused the schism during of the Crusades hundreds of years in advance