The Dictatus Papae is a document found in Pope Gregory VII’s Papal registry in the late 11th century which in very succinct terms makes claims about Papal prerogatives. While not an “ex cathedra” statement, the fact that many of its claims were later to be taken up by the Council of Vatican I in effect make this document of serious historical importance. In this article, I will briefly exhibit how the claims it makes in relevant sections are ahistorical and anachronistic.
1. The Roman Church was founded solely by God.
The significance of this statement is that the Church of Rome’s prerogatives are sourced solely by God’s command to Peter and do not hinge whatsoever on Canons of the Church (such as Canon 3 of Constantinople I or Canon 28 of Chalcedon). This idea was first communicated in the Latin-rendition of JE 2448 during the Council of Nicea 2, only to later become the go-to talking point during the Papacy of Nicholas I during the Photian controversy.
Compare this contention to the previous, high-Papal assertions on the same topic:
No true Christian should be ignorant of the rule of each synod, one approved by the assent of the whole church, to the effect that no see ought to have a greater executive role [than Rome]… (Pope Gelasius—Fifth Century; Price, Nicea 2, p. 171)
So, while Petrine succession and God’s promises surely do not require a council to be in fact true, the implication that conciliar consent has no basis on Roman prerogatives is a betrayal of earlier high-Papal pretensions.
2. Only the Pope can with right be called “Universal”.
The idea that the Pope is a “universal bishop” or “Pope,” the latter a title honorifically given by the Council of Constantinople (869-870—not accepted by Orthodox), was denied by Saint Pope Gregory the Great in a plethora of correspondence. He rejected the term “Ecumenical Patriarch” because the word “ecumenical” meant “universal.” He warned, “if one…is [an] universal bishop, it remains that you are not bishops.” (Registrum Epistolarum, Book 9, Letter 68) He likewise found the title “Universal Pope” just as reprehensible as “Universal Bishop…For if your Holiness [the Pope of Alexandria] calls me Universal Pope, you deny that you are yourself what you call me universally.” (Registrum Epistolarum, Book 8, Letter 30)
In other words, the Pope cannot literally be a “universal” bishop or it otherwise removes the real jurisdictional prerogatives of other bishops. In Gregory’s own words:
Certainly Peter, the first of the apostles, himself a member of the holy and universal Church, Paul, Andrew, John, — what were they but heads of particular communities? And yet all were members under one Head [Christ]…not one of them [the saints] has wished himself to be called universal…[T]he prelates of this Apostolic See which by the providence of God I serve, had the honour offered them of being called universal by the venerable Council of Chalcedon. But yet not one of them has ever wished to be called by such a title, or seized upon this ill-advised name, lest if, in virtue of the rank of the pontificate, he took to himself the glory of singularity, he might seem to have denied it to all his brethren. (Registrum Epistolarum Book 5, Letter 18)
3. He alone can depose or reinstate bishops.
This claim is bizarre, as bishops that are not Popes have deposed bishops, including the Pope of Rome being deposed numerous times throughout history. For example, Pope Silverius was deposed and replaced by Pope Vigilius, himself later being deposed by the fifth ecumenical council in its seventh session. Saint Pope Martin I was deposed, being replaced by Pope Eugene against the former’s express wishes (covered later). Perhaps the most well attested deposition was that of Pope Nicholas, which Antipope Anastasius the Librarian (Nicholas’ right hand man, or more likely, the other way around) admits only “a tiny number” opposed it whereas as many as “one thousand [allegedly] forged subscriptions” approved of it. (Price and Montinaro, Constantinople 869-870, p. 87) The examples go on and on in the 10th and 11th centuries.
4. All bishops are below his Legate in council, even if a lower grade, and he can pass sentence of deposition against them.
25. He may depose and reinstate bishops without assembling a Synod.
These claims are likewise bizarre, as in council the Legates are frequently not named first (such as in the minutes of the Council of Ephesus and the case of Julian of Cos in the minutes of Chalcedon) nor do they unilaterally depose people. In fact, depositions required the consent of all those partaking in the council, which the drawn-out debates and votes make clear. In fact, a significant example of the Pope deposing anyone without conciliar consent is lacking until the Council of Constantinople 869-870, which peculiarly boasted of Photius’ deposition being settled by Rome (a plausible position to take considering their tact that he was never validly a bishop to begin with). Even then, in its final session, those present issued a deposition in their own names by signing onto the council’s judgement.
6. Among other things, we ought not to remain in the same house with those excommunicated by him.
26. He who is not at peace with the Roman Church shall not be considered “catholic”.
In other words, those who the Pope deposes are out of the Church. The problem is that this is historically untenable. The Meletian Schism is a tangible example against this idea. For example, the Illyrians and Alexandrians, were in communion with both Antioch and Rome. (Theodoret, Church History, Book 5, Chap 23) It should be noted that the Illyrians were locally under Roman jurisdiction! During the Crusades, Rome was out of communion with Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem (having replaced their synods with their own, parallel ones)—but in communion with Alexandria until the 13th century.
10. His name alone shall be spoken in the churches.
This certainly must be meant as an honorific as other bishops are regularly commemorated in their own localities.
11. His title is unique in the world.
This is contradicted by the “Pope” of Alexandria, who bears an additional, loftier title: “Judge of the Universe.”
12. It may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
The idea of “deposing” an emperor is a significant advancement from the dichotomy between state and Church postulated by Pope Gelasius. What is postulated here is a far more developed idea of the monarch being a secular vicar of Christ ordained to rule and what the Pope is claiming is the capacity to remove the monarch’s right to rule in the secular realm. This has no basis in the pre-schism Church, though surely emperors were excommunicated and warned that their lack of faith would have negative consequences on their empires—something Gelasius did not fail to do.
13. It may be permitted to him to transfer bishops, if need be.
This directly contradicts Canon 15 of Nicea I:
On account of the great disturbance and discords that occur, it is decreed that the custom prevailing in certain places contrary to the [Apostolic] Canon , must wholly be done away; so that neither bishop, presbyter, nor deacon shall pass from city to city. And if any one, after this decree of the holy and great Synod, shall attempt any such thing, or continue in any such course, his proceedings shall be utterly void, and he shall be restored to the Church for which he was ordained bishop or presbyter.
Apostolic Canon 14 only permits a bishop to be transferred “in obedience to the judgement of many Bishops and at their urgent request.” Hence, the Nicene canon is regulated by the canon it refers to, which the Dictatus Papae runs roughshod over.
16. No synod shall be called a “General Synod” without his order.
17. No chapter and no book shall be considered canonical without his authority.
Historically, emperors had convened synods, but this is likely not the point of 16. Rather, what is being posited is the Papal Ratification of synods. This is false inasmuch that Session 6 of Nicea 2 dictates that Pentarchic Ratification with the additional consensus of those outside these jurisdictions as the criteria of ecumenicity.
18. A sentence passed by him may be retracted by no one. He alone may retract it.
This is untrue as Saint Augustine explicitly states an ecumenical council can overturn a Roman judgement:
They [the Donatists] chose, therefore, as it is reported, to bring their dispute with Cæcilianus before the foreign churches [in Rome]…the common outcry of all worthless litigants, though they have been defeated by the clearest light of truth—as if it might not have been said, and most justly said, to them: “Well, let us suppose that those bishops who decided the case at Rome were not good judges; there still remained a plenary Council of the universal Church, in which these judges themselves might be put on their defence; so that, if they were convicted of mistake, their decisions might be reversed.” (Augustine, Letter 43, Par 19—Fifth Century)
Mere decades after writing this, precisely this occurred—as Nestorius was excommunicated by both Rome and Alexandria. He took his case to an ecumenical council in which he maintained his title as bishop. This indicates that Roman (and Alexandrine) excommunications were not understood to be final and binding, and that the final say (concurring with Augustine) belongs to the Ecumenical Council/consensus of the Church.
19. He himself may be judged by no one.
This is a repetition of the Pseudo-Symmachean forgery, which itself was a tactful application of the words of Pope Zosimus: “our authority is such that nobody may review our sentence” (Zosimus, Epist. ad Aurelium—Fifth Century; PL 20:676; Butler and Collorafi, Keys, 2004, p. 151) Zosimus was referring to there being no review of a Pope’s decision within its own synod. Clearly, as his contemporary Augustine acknowledged, this did not include appeals to outside the Roman synod. The Pseudo-Symachean forgery is worded specifically to prevent the deposition of Popes—something that occurred twice within four decades of its penning. So, while there is some historical pedigree to the very wording of the claim in Dictatus Papae, any historical adherence to its meaning is wholly lacking.
20. No one shall dare to condemn any person who appeals to the Apostolic Chair.
This statement is in some sense true, as there is no higher court of appeals than an ecumenical council—of which requires the synodical approval of Rome and the other members of the Pentarchy. Yet, those Rome had restored from uncanonical depositions meted out by Ephesus 2, such as Theodoret and Ibas, were only fully restored after a conciliar judgement in Chalcedon on their cases.
21. The more important cases of every church should be referred to the Apostolic See.
As discussed beforehand, this is true to a point as the highest court is that of the whole Church.
22. The Roman Church has never erred. Nor will it err, to all eternity—Scripture being witness.
Saint Liberius erred in ascribing to a semi-Arian creed under torture.
Pope Vigilius erred in defending the three chapters.
Pope Honorius erred on Monotheletism.
Vitalian erred entering into communion with Monothelites.
This has led to the creation of distinctions (material error versus formal error) and changing the goalposts from total inerrancy to selective infallibility (i.e. the incapability to err in apparently unsaid, limited circumstances). Obviously, material errors are allowed in this ad hoc apologetic, but not formal errors meeting a very peculiar set of criteria.
24. By his command and consent, it may be lawful for subordinates to bring accusations.
Historical depositions did not have the Pope’s consent. Saint Pope Martin’s deposition and replacement (Pope Eugene) explicitly lacked his consent, as the latter was ordained while the former was still alive and demanding: “in the absence of the pontiff, the archdeacon and the archpriest and the primeicerius take the place of the pontiff.” (Second Letter to Theodore—Seventh Century; Neil, Seventh Century Popes and Martyrs, p. 177)
Conclusion. It seems interesting that on so many points that Pope Gregory VII and his clique, the very reformers behind the first explicit elucidation of the modern Papacy, lack continuity with the Papacy of the past. The statements of saints and Popes, as well as indisputable details of history, contradict the claims that Dictatus Papae is trying to make. I will close with the sagacious words of Pope Gregory the Great: “believe facts rather than words.” (Registrum Epistolarum, Book 5, Letter 40)