St. THOMAS AQUINAS, DEFENDER OF THE PAPACY
AND THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH

By JAMES LIKOUDIS


It is one of the glories of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) to have been among the most stalwart defenders of Catholic doctrine concerning Papal supremacy and Papal infallibility throughout the centuries following the founding of the Order by St. Dominic. Dominican theologians have always been foremost in expounding Catholic teaching concerning the Primacy of Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome, in the Church Militant.

It has often been remarked that though there was overwhelming evidence of the existence of Papal supremacy and the Roman church's headship over all the Churches of East and West in the Catholic communion during the First Millennium, a systematic treatment of ecclesiology began with the great Scholastic theologians of the 13th century, especially the Prince of theologians, the incomparable St. Thomas Aquinas.

In my book "Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism" will be found the first English translation of the Angelic Doctor's famous tract "Contra Errores Graecorum" (somewhat misnamed as "Against the Errors of the Greeks" but actually a tract in response to a Papal request for an examination of patristic texts collected in a Libellus). Therein St. Thomas demonstrates the truth of Catholic doctrine concerning the Petrine primacy of universal jurisdiction over the entire Church and the Procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son - two dogmas being contested in his time by Byzantine Greek and Slav dissidents. In conformity with and echoing the full weight of Catholic tradition concerning the Roman Primacy, he proceeded to set forth succinctly and with support from Scripture and the Fathers the following propositions:

  1. That the Roman Pontiff is the first and greatest among all bishops;
  2. That the same Pontiff has universal jurisdiction over the entire Church of Christ;
  3. That the same Pontiff possesses in the Church a fullness of power;
  4. That he enjoys the same power conferred on Peter by Christ;
  5. That to him belongs the right of deciding what pertains to faith;
  6. That he is the superior of the other patriarchs;
  7. That to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation.

Though St. Thomas' ecclesiology dealing with the complex reality of the Church is found diffused through his many works, it is clear that what St. Thomas taught as Catholic truth concerning the Pope and the Church in his "Contra Errores Graecorum" is essentially the same doctrine taught today by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (see the Dogmatic Constitutions of Vatican I (1870) and Vatican II (1962-65).

The "Contra Errores Graecorum" was written by St.Thomas in 1263 at the time of negotiations with the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologos for a political rapprochement between Rome and Constantinople. In his correspondence with the Emperor, Pope Urban IV had affirmed the need to deal with the principal dogmatic issue raised by the Byzantine Schism, namely, the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff in doctrinal matters.

A polemical work against the errors of the Byzantines by a bi-lingual Catholic bishop Nicholas Durazzo of Cotrone in southern Italy, and of Greek origin, had been sent to Pope Urban IV. This Libellus written originally in Greek and somewhat poorly translated into Latin as "Liber de processione Spiritus Sancti de fide Trinitatis contra errores Graecorum" was then forwarded by the Pope to St. Thomas for his theological judgment and evaluation.

The bishop of Cotrone had attempted to show the Emperor that texts from the Greek Fathers showed the agreement in faith between the Greek and Latin Churches on the Primacy of the Pope, the procession of the Holy Spirit, the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist, and purgatory. In 1263 the Emperor had written Pope Urban:

"In the past legates and nuncios were often sent back and forth to bring about peace...but these nuncios [papal as well as Greek] in the first place did not know how to speak to each other and since they conversed through interpreters (who were insufficiently versed...or unable to understand the minds of both sides and could not correctly explain the dogmas of both churches. Thus a constantly increasing hatred of brothers, an extinction of love...and a covering over of the true faith developed. [The terrible sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders may be recalled here; it unleashed a torrent of hatred and animosity towards the Latins]. But a voice from the West...adorned with the dogmas of both churches touched our heart and there betook himself to our Empire, Nicholas, the venerable Bishop of Cotrone...to whom, in the third year of our reign we addressed a letter, asking him to come secretly to our presence, in order that we might hear directly from his mouth the truth of the faith which the Holy and Catholic Roman church of God confesses... And he revealed to us all things, one after another, of the true faith...We have found the holy Roman church of God not different from ours in the divine dogma of its faith, but feeling and chanting these things almost with us."

St. Thomas' "Contra Errores Graecorum", therefore, contained his critique of the Bishop of Cortrone's translated work wherein the Angelic Doctor's powerful and brilliant intellect unraveled with masterful skill the real meaning of the infelicitous and sometimes inaccurate expressions attributed to the Fathers. As one biographer noted:

"No man who had not gone through a thoroughly sound training, and who had not been familiar with the mind and system of the Fathers, could have succeeded as our Saint had done in so delicate an operation."
(Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughn, O.S.B. of Sydney)

In the "Prologue", St.Thomas wrote:

"The book, most Holy Father, Pope Urban, which your Excellency called to my attention, I have studied carefully and have found expressed in it much that is useful to the affirmation of our faith. I believe, however, its fruitfulness for many persons could be considerably diminished because of some perplexing statements contained in texts of the holy Fathers, and so could provide the quarrelsome with the material and occasion for calumny. And so, after eliminating all ambiguity from the authorities found in the aforesaid book so that the purest fruit of the faith might be harvested, I have proposed first to explain what seems perplexing in the abovementioned authorities, and then to show how by means of them the truth of the Catholic faith may be taught and defended."

Most of his examination deals with the doctrine of the Procession of the Holy Spirit. The 9th c. patriarch Photius and the patriarch Michael Cerularius of 1054 fame, had unfortunately misled the Byzantines to insist that the Holy Spirit proceeded "from the Father alone". In 31 brief Chapters of Part II of his work St. Thomas, a superb metaphysician, refuted subtle objections to Catholic doctrine, concluding that:

"The Holy Spirit proceeds [from all eternity] from the Son for reasons affirmed equally by the Latin and Greek Doctors."
(Chapter 30)

In Part II, there occur two remarkable passages regarding the intrinsic connection between two dogmas of the Catholic faith that are worth profound meditation on the part of theologians presently involved in theological discussions studying the role of the Bishop of Rome in the history of the Church during the first thousand years.

"So, also, at the present time, some are described as dissolving Christ by diminishing His dignity so far as this lies in their power. In saying that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son, they lessen His dignity, since He together with the Father is the Spirator of the Holy Spirit. In denying, moreover, that there is one [visible] head of the Church, namely, the Holy Roman church, they clearly dissolve the unity of the Mystical Body; for there cannot be one body if there is not one head, nor one congregation if there is not one congregation if there is not one ruler: hence, John 10:16: 'There will be one fold and one shepherd". (Prologue)

"...The error, however, of those who say that the Vicar of Christ, the Pontiff of the Roman church, does not have a primacy over the Universal Church is similar to the error of those who say that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son. For Christ Himself, the Son of God, consecrates and marks her as His own with the Holy Spirit, as it were with His own character and seal, as the authorities already cited make abundantly clear. And in like manner the Vicar of Christ by His primacy and foresight as a faithful servant keeps the Church Universal subject to Christ. It must then be shown from the texts of the aforesaid Greek Doctors that the Vicar of Christ holds the fullness of power over the whole Church of Christ." (Chapter 32)

The "Contra Errores Graecorum" clearly refuted the two major dogmatic errors supporting the Byzantine Greco-Slav schism. It would also see the attempt of anti-Papal critics (Protestants, Gallicans, German Old Catholics such as the 19th c. historian Ignaz von Dollinger and such contemporary dissenters as Hans Kung) to discredit St. Thomas's vigorous exposition of Papal Primacy as necessary to the visible hierarchical nature of the earthly Church. The Saint was accused of acquiescing to the Libellus' use of spurious, forged, or simply uncritically accepted texts (by Nicholas of Cotrone).

The truth is that St. Thomas' thought concerning the visible Unity of the Church was firmly and primarily grounded in the Petrine texts of Scripture. There were spurious or mistaken patristic texts in the works of the Fathers of the Church as well as in the writings of later theologians; it should be understood that such texts were often accepted in good faith because they raised little suspicion when reflecting the actual and continuous belief of the Church! Moreover, spurious texts unfortunately reproduced in the "Contra Errores Graecorum" are easily replaced by authentic ones.

Recent developments in the Catholic/Orthodox International Theological Dialogue appear to have the effect of mellowing the traditional resistance of the Orthodox to Catholic doctrine on the Procession of the Holy Spirit as embodied in the famous "Filioque" ('and from the Son'). Some Orthodox even appear to no longer regard the "Filioque" (when properly explained) as a "heresy". The 1995 Vatican document "The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit" intended to clarify Catholic teaching was welcomed by some Orthodox theologians. Interestingly, the document made good use of St. Thomas' insights into Trinitarian theology.

St. Thomas was commanded by Pope Gregory X to attend the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and to bring his "Contra Errores Graecorum" since the Council would be discussing the Procession of the Holy Spirit and other Eastern grievances preventing the restoration of full communion with the Roman church. Unfortunately, he died on March 7, 1274, while traveling to the Council. His "Contra Errores Graecorum" would influence a number of other similar polemical treatises "Against the Greeks", and with his great two Summas provided crucial argumentation for the Dominican theologians engaging in debates with their Byzantine counterparts at the Reunion Council of Florence (1439).

By the time of the latter Council some of St. Thomas' writings would be translated by the remarkable 14thc. Byzantine Greek lay theologian Demetrios Kydones who introduced Thomism to Byzantine intellectuals and would himself become reconciled with the Holy See. This Byzantine Thomist's famous "Apologia for Unity with Rome" (c. 1363 A.D.) explaining his conversion to the Catholic Church appears in my "Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism" together with the only English translation of a fascinating "Letter to the Abbot and Monks of a Monastery in Constantinople" by Kydones' contemporary, the Dominican friar John de Fontibus, O.P. This latter writing may be discussed in the next issue.

Recent Popes have all called for renewed prayer by the faithful for the reunion of the separated Eastern Churches with the See of Peter. Dominican laity who follow in the footsteps of St. Thomas Aquinas and so many of their Order distinguished for their defense of the privileges and prerogatives committed by Christ to Peter and his successors, should be foremost in multiplying their prayers for the Unity of the Church.




The above article was published in the July-August 2011, issue #17, pp.27-29 of "Truth Be Told", a newsletter of the Dominican Laity.

James Likoudis is the author of "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church", the most comprehensive work in English dealing with Eastern Orthodox objections to Catholic doctrines. It is available from the author, P.O.Box 852, Montour Falls, NY 14865, for $27.95 (covers S&H). For other articles of interest visit:    James Likoudis' Homepage