The Primacy of the Pope As Viewed in Dissident Byzantium by Symeon of Thessalonica (1416/7-1429)

Christ’s Charge to Peter, by Raphael (1515).

Acknowledging that the primacy of the pope is the greatest dogmatic obstacle to the reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the Greek Orthodox scholar Demetrios Bathrellos has attracted attention to the view held by the dissident 14th-century Byzantine Greek archbishop of Thessalonica, who held that see for some 20 years. This he does in an article, “St. Symeon of Thessalonica and the Question of the Primacy of the Pope,” which appeared in Sobornost, vol. 30 (2008), and which is worthy of being brought to the attention of Catholic ecumenists. Noting that Symeon was canonized by the Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1981, and received fame for some impressive works on the Byzantine Liturgy, Symeon also wrote a valuable doctrinal work, “Dialogue in Christ against All Heresies” (see Migne in Patrologia Graeca, 155-176). It is in that work that he treats the question of the primacy of the pope.

Observing that two Catholic scholars, the Assumptionist Martin Jugie and the Czech Byzantinist Francis Dvornik, had previously treated Symeon’s view of the Roman Primacy, noting a certain convergence with Catholic doctrine. In candidly admittting Symeon’s “strong understanding of the primacy of the pope” he seeks to put it “properly within the context of both Orthodox Byzantine theology, in general, and the saint’s other writings.” The problem with this approach is that the context of “Orthodox Byzantine theology” to which he appeals is that of post-1054 deviations in doctrine, occurring among the Byzantines, which led to the formal schism with the Apostolic See of Rome, “head of all the Churches of God” (profession of faith by the Emperor Justinian I sent to Pope John II in 533 A.D).

Mr. Bathrellos relates six points which he says “support the claim that St. Symeon had a strong understanding of the primacy of the pope.” Symeon (1) “recognizes the primacy of Peter among the Apostles … Peter was shown to be the head of the apostles and was ordained pastor of Christ’s flock”; (2) “argues that Peter was a pope of Rome”; (3) “the pope is the (exclusive) successor of Peter … e.g., Clement was the successor of Peter in Rome”; (4) “takes it for granted that Rome has precedence over Constantinople. Rome ranks first, Constantinople second … with reference to the relevant canons of  Constantinople and Chalcedon”; (5) “makes little use of the legend according to which the apostle Andrew ordained the first bishop of Constantinople … a story used by some Byzantines to argue that Constantinople has precedence over Rome”; and (6) “the pope is the first and head of all bishops.”

Then follows this fascinating quotation, which had been previously noted by Catholic scholars:

When the Latins say that the bishop of Rome is first, there is no need to contradict them, since this can do no harm to the Church. They must only show that he has the same faith as Peter and his successors … and that he possesses all that came from Peter, then he will be the first, the chief and head of all, the supreme high priest. … All these qualities have been attributed to the patriarchs of Rome in the past. We will say that his see is apostolic, and he who occupies it is said to be the successor of Peter, as long as he professes the true faith. No one who thinks and speaks truth would dare deny this. That the Bishop of Rome profess only the faith of Sulvester, Agatho, Leo, Liberius, Martin, and Gregory, we would proclaim him  first among all other high priests, and we will submit to him not simply as to Peter but as to the Savior himself. But if he is not successor in the faith of these saints, nor is he successor of the throne. Not only is he not apostolic, neither is he first, nor Father, but he is an adversary and devastator and enemy of the apostles. (The highlighted words are left out in our author’s quotation).

It is interesting that our Greek Orthodox scholar is constrained to admit Symeon’s “wholehearted acceptance of the primacy of the pope. This fact is, itself, quite remarkable.” It is doubly so, given Symeon’s fierce opposition to Latin doctrinal and liturgical “heresies,” especially the filioque and use of azyme (unleavened) bread for the Eucharist. Bathrellos significantly notes that

what St. Symeon says is by no means shared by all Byzantine theologians. Some disputed that Peter enjoyed any kind of primacy among the apostles. Others distinguished between apostle and bishop, and argued that Peter, being an apostle, could not have been at the same time a bishop of Rome. Others denied that the pope is the exclusive successor of Peter. Yet others argued that Constantinople is superior to Rome, because Andrew, its alleged founder, was the first-called disciple. It has been further argued that Canon 28 of Chalcedon could be interpreted as giving Constantinople, the New Rome, exactly the same privileges as the Old. St. Symeon accepts none of these claims. … In my view, there is no doubt, whatsoever, that St. Symeon wholeheartedly accepts a certain type of primacy of the pope, being more positive towards Rome than many Byzantine theologians and churchmen in the second millenium.

That is quite an understatement given the innumerable vitriolic polemics written against the papacy since Symeon wrote in the 15th century (before the Reunion Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439 and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks). Catholics may recall that the 1895 Encyclical of the Patriarch Anthimus and 12 of his Synod in Constantinople responded to the noble appeal of Pope Leo XIII for reunion with a host of puerile grievances and the allegation that “Peter’s apostolic action at Rome is totally unknown to history.” Bathrellos comments that Symeon was willing to “concede as much as any Orthodox possibly could to the Latin idea of papal primacy. This most humble saint considered the obstacle of the primacy as by no means insuperable.” He adds that “many Byzantines of his time took it for granted that the filioque was a far greater problem than papal primacy.” He noted further that 10 years after his death, the discussions at the Florentine Council made clear that the filioque was considered to be a more important dogmatic obstacle than the question of papal primacy.

It is interesting that Symeon’s views on papal primacy appear to be substantially that of the more ecumenical minded Orthodox theologians today who express willingness to accept a form of papal primacy. Such primacy would not be one of universal authority and jurisdiction ex jure diuino, but, rather, that of a pope restored in his ancient primacy of honor. He would function as the Church’s primate, serving a coordinating role and as a court of last appeal, regulated by canons expressive of a Conciliar consent of Eastern and Western Churches. This also seems to be the thrust of the Ravenna document produced in October 2007, by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Ravenna document, however, was rejected by the Russian Orthodox Church, whose spokesman (Metropolitan Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations) noted that the Orthodox “remain internally divided on the issue of primacy and what should be the role of the ‘first hierarch’ in the Church.” For their part, Vatican officials observed that there remain “differences of understanding with regard to the manner in which primacy is to be exercised, and also with regard to its scriptural and theological foundations.”

It is clear that Orthodox ecclesiology as represented by Symeon of Thessalonica in the 15th century (or by leading Orthodox prelates and theologians in our day) lacks clarity, precision, and coherence regarding authority in the Church. Symeon is found in obvious contradiction to the views of other Orthodox, past and present, about the Roman primacy. More seriously, he is found to contradict the import of Scripture and Tradition regarding the Petrine primacy established for his Church by Christ. For example, in asserting that the Rock in Matthew 16:18 was the confession of Peter in the divinity of Christ, and not the person of Peter, Symeon contradicts ancient Fathers, saints, and popes. Incidentally, his major thesis (derived from the writings of his predecessor on the see of Thessalonica, Neilos Cabasilas), that Old Rome had lost whatever primacy it had when it became heretical because of such innovations as azymes and filioque, flies in the face of the testimony of the “undivided Church” of the first millennium, namely, that Christ had established the Petrine primacy precisely to preserve the Church’s visible unity. Graced by the Holy Spirit with the gifts of indefectibility and infallibility, the Roman see of Peter cannot fail to profess the orthodox faith of the one Catholic Church. The “Gates of Hell” cannot prevail against that apostolic see, for it is the Rock-man’s see. That is, moreover, the indisputable testimony concerning the scope of their primacy by the very popes Symeon invoked. That scope exceeded, by far, “a certain primacy of the pope” that was wholeheartedly accepted by a Byzantine Greek archbishop of Thessalonica in the 15th century.

Another Byzantine Greek theologian, a prominent unionist of the 15th century, the Dominican Manuel Calecas (+1410), may be said to have put the cause for the reunion of the Churches best: “There have always been among us, men of superior learning, who condemned our separation from the Church of Rome as extremely foolish and at variance with the faith and teaching of our ancestors.”

James Likoudis About James Likoudis

James Likoudis, recent recipient of an honorary doctoral degree from the Sacred Heart Major Seminary (2020) is a Catholic writer and apologist. He is author of 4 books dealing with Eastern Orthodoxy: Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism, The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Rome, and Heralds of a Catholic Russia. His The Pope, the Council, and the Mass (coauthored with the late Kenneth Whitehead) remains a classic study of the doctrinal integrity of the Novus Ordo.


  1. Avatar Michael Welshman says:

    What level-headed Orthodox wouldn’t agree with St. Symeon’s statements? Of course, Rome had the primacy among the patriarchs, but that primacy was contingent upon orthodoxy. That was the opinion of St. Maximos the Confessor, who said very glowing things about the See of Peter; nevertheless, one was not bound to communion with Rome if it erred, which the Orthodox believe it has, e.g. in matters of papal primacy, papal infallibility, indulgences, the filioque, etc. Peter remains the Rock as long as his rock-like faith remains; the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail was to the Church, not to Peter.

    Interestingly, point two of Prof. Bathrellos’s six (i.e. Symeon “argues that Peter was a pope of Rome”) is not one shared by Joseph Ratzinger, who said, the apostles “were not bishops of particular local Churches but simply ‘apostles’ and were commissioned as such for work in the whole world and in the whole of the Church to be built up in the world” (Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, Ignatius: 2005, p. 187).

    • Certainly, the Apostles were not originally placed as Bishops of local communities by Christ, but later with the actual spread of the Church after Pentecost, Peter was acknowledged as the Bishop of Rome (and heralded as such in Byzantine liturgical texts) and some Easterners were to regard James the Lesser as the Bishop of Jerusalem. If one read on in Ratzinger’s work, the papacy as the Petrine office in the Church is termed “the essential anchor in the structure of the Church, its ecclesial support. The deepest significance and the true nature of the Petrine office as such becomes visible here: the Bishop of Rome is not just bishop of a local Church’ his office always relates to the universal Church.” (p. 195)
      There is, moreover, no indication in Matt. 16: 18 that Peter the Rock would ever fail in confessing the faith, for it is both Peter the Rock and the Church built on that Rock which are assured of prevailing against the Gates of Hell (heretics and heresies so the Fathers of the Church held). Then too, there is Luke 22:31-32 concerning Christ’s commissioning Peter, to strengthen his fellow Apostles, the task dutifully undertaken by his successors, the Popes with regard to Bishops and Patriarchs.

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Fortunately, all of the priests and bishops of the Greek and Russian orthodox are true sacramentally ordained . This is only a schism regarding primacy of the pope. Yet as a Latin rite catholic I can attend mass and receive Communion at a Greek or Russian orthodox parish .

    • Unfortunately, both the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches adhere to the stated position that Catholics are not to receive Holy Communion in their Churches. If this, in fact, occurs, Orthodox priests are not abiding by the discipline of their Churches.

  3. Avatar Fr Robert Pearson says:

    St. Bonaventure in the 2nd reading of Monday, 5th Ordo says, “From Him (God), through Jesus Christ his Son, the Holy Spirit enters into us.”

  4. This is another excellent article by James Likoudis, offering even more reasons for ending the Byzantine Greek schism. As a philosopher, I do not see how it is possible to have a single divinely-established religion whose orthodoxy is assured only by some kind of consensus. Papal primacy, which assures to the pope the supreme power of jurisdiction over matters of faith, morals, and ecclesiastical discipline, is the sole logical way in which matters of dispute can ultimately be resolved. Without the single Vicar of Christ on earth to enunciate the voice of the Church, divisions of doctrine and discipline would inherently pose a constant source of division destructive of Christian unity.

  5. Avatar Deacon Robert Behrens says:

    Martin B. Drew,
    If you are a Catholic, you may not receive Holy Communion from Russian or Greek Orthodox clergy, even though they have true sacraments, unless it is an emergency situation (i.e., you are near death, and the Orthodox priest is the only one available-assuming that he is willing to communicate you). There is a state of schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. We are only to receive the sacraments from clergy who are in communion with Rome. This includes some 21 Eastern Churches which ARE in communion with Rome-including my own, the Byzantine Catholic Metropolia of Pittsburgh. If you did try to receive the Holy Eucharist at an Orthodox Church, you would most likely be denied, because their discipline allows them only to communicate Eastern Orthodox faithful.

  6. Avatar Vasillios says:

    “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon”
    Chancellor Gorkon
    “I love to hear the “Traditional Mass” in the Original Latin”

    “Primacy of the Pope and Roman Catholic Church” ???

    They walked away from any consideration for that position long ago..


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