Nilus Cabasilas and a Modern Greek Theologian on “the Heresy of Anti-Papism”

Icon of St.Nicholas Cabasilas, nephew of Nilus Cabasilas, St. Peter Holding the Keys to the Kingdom, and the Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis

Nilus Cabasilas (c. 1295-1363) succeeded Gregory Palamas on the archepiscopal throne of Thessalonika, and was one of the most distinguished Byzantine intellectuals and theologians of the 14th century. He was heavily involved in the hesychastic quarrels of the period, over the theology of Gregory Palamas, which rocked the Byzantine Church, and helped write the Synodal Tome of the Council of 1351, which approved Palamas’ teachings. Interestingly, Cabasilas was at first a fervent admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose works had spread among the Byzantines, thanks to the translations of his former student, the eminent Demetrios Kydones, who regarded Cabasilas as his mentor and spiritual father. Later, Kydones became a Roman Catholic, and would controvert Cabasilas’ major work, “On the Procession of the Holy Spirit,” which became a classic polemic for Byzantine dissidents writing against the Catholic doctrine of the Procession of the Holy Spirit. At the famous Reunion Council of Ferrara-Florence, it was “the Blessed Nilus” whose views concerning the Procession of the Holy Spirit, and the role of the Pope in the Church, clearly dominated the thought of the Byzantines engaged in the debates. Before leaving Constantinople to attend the Council of Florence, and to prepare for the dogmatic discussions with the Latins, Mark of Ephesus, and others, studied in-depth “the book of saint Cabasilas” in order to refute St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on the Filioque, as set forth in his “Contra Gentiles.”

Cabasilas wrote two works against papal primacy, essentially accusing the Pope of refusing to permit the calling of an Ecumenical Council which alone had the authority to decide the controversies between Greeks and Latins. The Pope was also censured for regarding himself as ultimate judge of dogmatic controversies, and to whom all must submit. In his work on the Holy Spirit’s procession, Cabasilas specifically attempted to refute Aquinas’ arguments for the Filioque, and for Papal primacy and infallibility. Cabasilas took St. Thomas to task, declaring that the Latins had incurred the anathema for violating the prohibition of Ecumenical Councils to add anything to the Symbol of Nicene (325)-Constantinople (381).

As in his former works against Papal Primacy, he denied the Pope’s infallibility. Like any man, Cabasilas wrote, the Bishop of Rome can “commit various absurdities” and can err, “witness of this is Honorius and Liberius … The Pope has no authority to act, except simultaneously in communion with all the other {patriarchs and bishops} … We are ready to submit to him (who is Primate) provided, namely, that the apostolic ordinances are observed, such that neither he, over our opposition, should dare to act, nor we, similarly, over his opposition.” The Bishop of Rome is the “first of bishops” but he has no right to modify the Symbol of faith by himself, and without the previous consent of others … In acting as sole judge, it is the Pope who has “introduced division, and has destroyed the harmony of souls … In so far as can be shown in an analysis of the words to which Thomas, or anyone else, confidently appeals to defend the Latins, they do not appear to be freed from the reproach of having incurred the anathema.” To show how this must be so, Cabasilas did not hesitate to put in evidence a forged Letter of Pope John VIII denouncing the Latin innovators as “prevaricators of divine revelation” and to be “classed with Judas.”

For Cabasilas, and later Byzantine dissidents, the criterion of orthodoxy is agreement with the Fathers and Councils (as interpreted parochially by Greek theologians themselves) and not the Pope as the indefectible Rock, and visible Head of the Church, and Bearer of the Keys of Heaven. His student, Demetrios Kydones, has perhaps best judged the merits of Cabasilas’ arguments. In his refutation of Cabasilas’ major work on the Holy Spirit, Kydones showed how his teacher’s arguments were “feeble,” and manifested only a superficial understanding of the richness of St. Thomas. Moreover, Cabasilas’ views on the Papacy, would find their faithful echo in his successor, Symeon of Thessalonika (1416/7-1429), as well as with Mark of Ephesus, and his fellow anti-unionists at the Council of Florence.

These Churchmen all similarly held that obedience to the Pope was no longer due, if he were to no longer profess the true faith, and somehow blatantly embrace heresy. The same position is maintained to this day among those Orthodox resistant to the pleas of Rome to acknowledge the true scope and divine origin of the Roman Pontiff’s authority. It is illuminating to contrast the anti-papal views of the 14th century Greek polemicist with that of a modern Greek Orthodox theologian, John Panteleimon Manoussakis. Manoussakis’ major monograph, “For the Unity of All” (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2015) is remarkable for its irenic and sincere effort to overcome the centuries of “futile and hateful debate” regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit. For Manoussakis, drawing on the Trinitarian teaching of St. Augustine, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father principaliter and, therefore, “the two views, Greek and Latin, could become harmonized.” Here, one finds him in agreement with Aquinas, and not with the intransigent Cabasilas.

In treating of Primacy in the Church, Manoussakis agrees with Cabasilas that the Church had a Primate in the person of the Pope, but rejects the radical position of those Orthodox theologians who, in their ferocity against Rome, have been led to deny the need for any primus (“first bishop”) in the Church. He excoriates in modern Orthodoxy “the phenomen of anti-papism, understood as a denial of a primus for the universal church, and the elevation of such denial to a trait that allegedly identifies the whole Orthodox Church as, properly speaking, heretical.” As an “Orthodox clergyman,” he distinguishes himself “from that party that has constructed for itself a new identity exclusively based on hatred for the office of Peter.” He notes that “the denial of the pope’s primacy has created a lacuna of authority in the Orthodox Church that has resulted, on the one hand, in the endless divisions of autocephalies, and autonomies, with multiple canonical jurisdictions over one region and, on the other, in the rogue fanaticism of para-ecclesial groups.” Lamenting the lack of a universal primus with authority “who can speak on behalf of the Orthodox Church” for its internal affairs, or ecumenical dialogue with Rome, Manoussakis urges the solution of investing the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople with the ministry of universal primacy (a function that Constantinople, in fact, took upon itself in the heyday of the Byzantine Empire, and captivity under the Ottoman Turks. He candidly admits that “the history of the first millennium leaves no room for doubting that the pope’s primacy in terms of such Petrine ministry was universally acknowledged, and accepted by the Greek-speaking Church.” He adds, “Theologically, there is no reason why the Orthodox Church should not do the same presently.”

However, traditional Orthodox resistance to the very idea of a universal primacy in the Church (whether that of the Pope in the past, or the Patriarch of Constantinople in the future), has to be met. Manoussakis believes primacy is as necessary at the universal level as at the diocesan and eparchial levels, and is “a prerequisite necessitated by the Church’s theology … by the very structure of the Church’s ecclesiology.” A Petrine office for the Patriarch of Constantinople is grounded in Peter’s primacy, wherein the Church is founded on his person, as well as on his confession. That primacy is invested in a person, and cannot be a mere “primacy of honor.” To use “episcopal equality” to deny a universal primacy for the Church is a “sophism.” Moreover, there can be no Ecumenical Council without its primus; that very primacy manifests an authority unequal to other bishops. Nor does belief in Christ as the Head of the Church prevent the universal church from having a visible primate as her living, and authoritative head.

What is remarkable in Manousskis’ rationale for the Patriarch of Constantinople being acknowledged as the Orthodox Churches’ universal primate, is the refutation of the major arguments used by dissenting Orthodox against the Pope as Peter’s successor, possessing a primacy of universal authority in the Church. His rationale for a universal primacy for Constantinople suffers the fatal flaw that it would not be of divine institution, but of useful ecclesiastical arrangement. But as the binding Councils of Florence, Vatican I and II, have taught, the Petrine office of the Pope, involving a headship and universal authority and jurisdiction over all the faithful, is one established by Christ himself, and intended to last as long as the Church itself.

Both the 14th century Byzantine, and modern Greek Orthodox theologian, agree that the Church of Rome once exercised a real, universal primacy in the ancient Church. It was one of authority granted by Councils, and emperors, and lost by adherence to heresy, giving rise to the fierce anti-papalism characterizing Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology. Fr. Manoussakis believes that the anti-papalism, so evident since the Schism, does not, in principle, preclude a universal primacy in and for the Church. Universal primacy is not contradictory to collegiality; moreover, it properly belongs, by right, to Constantinople, and its exercise would contribute to the strengthening of an increasingly fragmented Eastern Orthodoxy. Contrary to the anti-papal Nilus Cabasilas (who expended his great energies to combat the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas), Fr. Manoussskis does not believe the Filioque doctrine to be heretical. Catholic theologians would do well to study the various chapters in his book which represent some genuine ecumenical progress. It is to be noted that it carries the approval of the Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople.

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. Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    Dear Dr. LIkoudis: I read with keen interest your very thoughtful discussion of the sad divisions
    that still obtain between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. For you see, I am a long-devoted
    student of medieval culture, art, history, and religion, having earned my doctorate in Old and
    Middle English Language and Literature. My publications.include articles on medieval women
    who served the Church as saints and mystics.

    Dr. Likoudis, it is my considered opinion (for which I invite your comments) that the fatal separation
    of the Eastern and Western Churches is arguably the most tragic event of the past thousand
    years. I hasten to say this because I think that it brought about the loss of Russia to the West,
    a set of events with doleful results that continue to unsettle the peace of the world to the present time.
    I call to mind in that regard the immortal fictions of Dostoevsky, whose indelible insights into the cosmic drama raging in the souls of men are so often shadowed by his deep contempt for the West, and the wild heresies he discovers in its faith and philosophy.

    In sum, I believe that the deeply troubling contentions between Orthodox Russia and the nations
    of the West make a reconciliation between our ancient Faiths one of the urgent tasks of our age.

    I’d be pleased to have your thoughts.

    Sincerely, Dr. William c. Zeinger

  2. The icon above the article is actually that of Nilus’ nephew, St Nicholas Cabasilas.

  3. John M. McDermott, S.J. John M. McDermott, S.J. says:

    I wonder if some steps toward unity might be made if all realize that the unity of the Church does not depend upon jurisdiction, but upon the divine life of charity bestowed upon believers through the sacraments. Certainly finite ecclesial order demands a unity and source of jurisdiction, but the Church is more than an institution. She is Christ’s Bride and Body. Love is what creates her unity. So jurisdictional primacy is not primary. The pope is not God. There is a long tradition in the Western Church that the pope may become a heretic, and once he is publicly acknowledged as such, he is deprived of his office. Even the strongest papal Thomistic theologians acknowledge that possibility but they tend to follow Bellarmine in supposing that God will never permit that eventuality. Surely Jesus did not chose Peter, and then ask him to find eleven others to help him. He chose twelve, and made Peter the rock of His Church who is to strengthen His brethren and feed His flock. But his authority is for service. And there are some things which the pope should not touch. A Church claiming an apostolic origin has a duty to remain faithful to the preaching and institutions of their founding Apostle. They may in conscience be forced to stand up to Peter, as did Paul. Certainly everything should be done to preserve unity. As Dr. Zeinger points out, the split between East and West has been a catastrophe for Christianity. The Church should breathe with two lungs, each complementing the other, and letting the Spirit breathe His full life into Christ’s bride. There is no simple answer, much less a purely juridical answer, to the mystery of unity in diversity. As in the Trinity and in Jesus’ Incarnation, love alone explains the unity and the diversity. As the great Maximus Confessor, a bridge-builder (pontifex in his own way) between East and West, argued: the stronger the unity, the greater the diversity. Love does not destroy diversity, but welcomes it as long as charity and doctrinal fidelity are maintained. Let us pray for reunion so that the Church may more readily bring salvation to a humanity starving for self-sacrificial love in the culture of secular hedonism.