Gregory the Great on good bishops and bad schisms

Everyone who reads Gregory the Great’s letters — showcased by me here — will be drawn to different things. Social history, life in Sicily, Lombards, political history, and so forth. Because of my research interests (papal letters in Late Antiquity & Leo the Great in particular), I was drawn largely to things he had to say pertaining to canon law as well as to the Istrian Schism (on which, see below).

In Leo, we read about the preparation for consecrating a bishop as well as the necessity of the combined choice being made by people and clergy. Gregory talks about these things, but he also has beautiful things to say about what a good bishop is in Ep. 1.24, which is kind of refreshing:

I consider indeed that one must be vigilant and take all care that a bishop (rector) is pure in thought, outstanding in action, discrete in silence, useful with his speech, very close to individuals with compassion, more uplifted in contemplation than all others, allied with those doing good through humility, but upright with the zeal of justice against the vices of wrong-doers.

… Again, when I bring myself to considering what sort of bishop he should be with regard to compassion and what sort with regard to contemplation, I consider that he should be both very close to individuals in compassion and elevated before all thers in contemplation.

… For of course good preachers not only seek through contemplation the holy head of the Church up above, that is the Lord God, but by showing pity they also descend down below to its limits.

… the highest position is well-governed when the person in charge controls vices rather than his brethren. A person controls the power he has received well who knows both how to hold and condemn it. He controls it well, who knows how to rise above sins with it, and how to be made equal to others with it. (Trans. John R. C. Martyn)

This is Letter XXV in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation if you wish to read the whole thing. Later in the same letter, Gregory brings up the ecumenical councils — which brings me to schism. Gregory says that he adheres to and follows the four councils — Nicaea, Constantinople, the First of Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The Second of Constantinople is not mentioned. He writes:

These four I embrace with total devotion and I guard with purest approbation, because in them the structure of the holy faith rises up as if built on a square stone, and whoever does not uphold their solidity, whatever his life and works may be, even if he appears to be of stone, yet he lies outside the building. I also venerate equally the fifth council, in which are refuted …

Gregory then describes the ‘Three Chapters’. I’ve discussed these here before — they are a letter by Ibas of Edessa, passages of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and passages from Theodoret of Cyrrhus that Justinian proclaimed heretical first by edict then by council at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. Because Pope Vigilius ended up subscribing to the condemnation of the Three Chapters, a schism resulted between Rome and many of the churches of northern Italy. It is often called the Istrian Schism.

So it’s important that Gregory gives a long, big build up about the importance of the four councils and how he venerates them, etc, before saying, ‘Also, the Fifth.’ In later letters, in fact, he would studiously avoid mentioning the fifth council depending on his recipient when writing to people in northern Italy. In Ep. 4.37, Gregory tells his recipient to keep his focus on Chalcedon and the support for it, and then argues:

as for that synod which was held afterwards in Constantinople, which many call the fifth, I want you to know that it established and decided nothing contrary to the fourmost sacred synods. Indeed, nothing was done in it about the Christian faith, but only about persons, and about those person who are not mentioned in the council of Chalcedon.

This I am unsure what to do with, since two out of three persons mentioned in the Three Chapters were explicitly at Chalcedon, discussed, and reinstated into their bishoprics. Indeed, this is the nub of the issue in the Istrian Schism. If we reject the teachings of Theodoret and Ibas, are we rejecting Chalcedon?

The best is 4.33, though:

We also delcare that whosoever thinks other than these four synods did, is an enemy of the true faith. And we condemn whomsoever they condemn, and whomsoever they absolve, we too absolve. We strike down under the imposition of anathema anyone who presumes to add or substract from the faith of these same four synods, but especially the Chalcedonian, over which doubt has arisen in the minds of ignorant people.

In other letters North, Gregory pleads for the bishops to return to communion with Rome.

Schism and heresy are diseases to Gregory. As a good shepherd, he needs to root them out for the healing of his flock, as he says in Ep. 4.35 about Donatists in North Africa.

From these passages and many others, I believe that Gregory tried to be a good bishop, a shepherd overseeing his flock — a man of compassion and contemplation. I thank the Lord for men like him in whose spiritual tradition I stand, even if I am wounded by the pain of schism.

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One thought on “Gregory the Great on good bishops and bad schisms

  1. […] This is a very long preamble, but this is because most of us have far too many misconceptions about the Early Middle Ages and the mediaeval church. They may not have been as centrally organised as they are now, and they may have disputed just what it meant for the Bishop of Rome to hold primacy, but the Christians and Churches of western Europe saw themselves as structurally and organically united, and division and independence were problems for them. […]

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