18 Non-Catholic Church Historians who Speak to the Papal Claims of Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461)


Pope St. Leo I

It has been common knowledge that Pope St. Leo the Great occupies a special place in the 5th century Christian Church. In particular, his special claims to hold the authority of the Apostle Peter towards the universal Church has been one of the most distinctive characteristics of his writings. Although this is not a matter of controversy in historical scholarship, in my goings back-and-forth with the Eastern Orthodox on the history of the Councils of Ephesus 449 and Chalcedon 451, there has been a habit of  downplaying what Leo thought of the Papal-office on the part of my interlocutors. But as the data of his claims becomes more revealed, I find that what is often said back comes sort of like, ‘Who cares what Leo said’? I’ve even heard that Leo was habitually making false self-aggrandizing  claims about the power of his position. There are also those who would say that Catholics have misinterpreted or misapprehended what St. Leo really meant. That is a more serious and rational discussion to have. But in any case, what may come as a bit of a surprise to some Orthodox are the liturgical hymns which have St. Leo as the subject. For instance:

“O Champion of Orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness,The enlightenment of the universe and the inspired glory of true believers.O most wise Father Leo, your teachings are as music of the Holy Spirit for us!Pray that Christ our God may save our souls!” (Troparian – Tone 8)

O glorious Leo, when you rose to the Bishop’s throne,You shut the lions’ mouths with the true doctrine of the Holy Trinity:You enlightened your flock with the knowledge of God.Therefore you are glorified, O seer of things divine!” (Kontakion – Tone 3)

St. Leo also makes it into the liturgical text of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy which was composed during the Synod of 843. There is thrice pronounced “Anathema!” to :

To them who reject the teachings which were pronounced for the establishment of the true doctrines of the Church of God by the Holy Fathers Athanasios, Cyril, Ambrose, Amphilochios the God-proclaiming, Leo the most holy Archbishop of Old Rome, and by all the others, and furthermore, who do not embrace the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils, especially those of the Fourth, I say, and of the Sixty

In the Formula of Reunion under Pope St. Hormisdas (518-19), through which the Eastern Patriarchs were reconciled to holy Orthodoxy, the following were the terms and conditions of returning to the sheepfold of Christ:

Following, as we have said before, the Apostolic See in all things and proclaiming all its decisions, we endorse and approve all the letters which Pope St Leo wrote concerning the Christian religion.”

At the 5th-Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 553, the following is said:

“in order that they who thus calumniate the holy council of Chalcedon may have no further opportunity of doing so, we ordered to be recited the decisions of the holy Synods, to wit, of first Ephesus, and of Chalcedon, with regard to the Epistles of Cyril of blessed memory and of Leo, of pious memory, sometime Pope of Old Rome.”

While the above references to St. Leo’s writings are probably in reference to those sent back and forth to the East concerning the doctrine of Christ’s two-natures, such as his famous Tome, this is still an indication that St. Leo was honored as a man worthy to be reverenced for his orthodoxy.  And yet, we will come to find that his statements on the Papal Office come a hair-width away from the full blown dogmas which were codified at the 1st Vatican Council in 1870. How can the Orthodox account for this problem? I am sure that there is some room to concede to a high Papal primacy in Orthodoxy, as has been admitted by many Orthodox scholars (see in particular the statement made by Theology Professor of the University of Thessaloniki and His Eminence Metropolitan Elpidophorus Lambriniadis of Bursa’s statement in response to the Moscow Patriarchate on the subject of primacy), but I still sense that the base rationale that St. Leo gave for the Papal Office and its extent of authority far exceeds what is readily admitted by even these sorts of primacy-friendly Orthodox. I will let the reader be the judge of that. There is a vast array of English translations of St. Leo’s corpus (Epistles/Sermons) over at the New Advent website.

But what I would like to do here is catalogue some statements  from non-Catholics scholar-historians on the Papal claims made by St. Leo. I do not agree with every single piece of the commentary these historians give, but I found it extremely illuminating how they, despite having no particular reason to be biased towards Papal power, clearly see the “essence of the papal claims at Vatican 1”, as one put it, revealed in the teaching of this great early Pope. Here is a list of the contributors:

Oxford professor Dr. Beresford J. Kidd, who has not only written on the subject of Papal primacy, but also of the Oriental Churches in general, from ancient up to present times. His The Roman Primacy is his detailed synthesis on the subject up unto the year 461 A.D. Dr. Trevor Jalland, who took up the task of giving the eight Divinity lecture Sermons of Rev. John Bampton (Canon of Salisbury) before the University of Oxford in the year 1942, gave his series of lectures on an historical study of the Papacy which deals primarily with the foundation of the Church in the gospels with Jesus Christ, and pummels through the pre-Constantine church unto the post-Constantinian situation of Byzantine Christianity. There is Anglican Professor Robert Evans, who wrote an excellent study of the Latin Patristic ecclesial tradition. J.N.D. Kelly is another apt Anglican historian and author of the famous book “Early Christian doctrines”. Jaroslav Pelikan, a prominent Lutheran historian who later in life converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Henry Chadwick, another renowned Anglican historian.. J.G. Davies, the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham. Kenneth Scott Latourette, Sterling Professor of Missions and Oriental History and Fellow of Berkeley College in Yale University. Geoffrey Barraclough, English Medievalist Historian of Oxford. Dr. A. Edward Siecienski, an Eastern Orthodox Byzantinist historian; Cyril Richardson, Anglican scholar of History and Patristics who was Professor of history at Union Theological Seminary; Dr. Bruce Shelley, Senior Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Denver Theological Seminary; H. Burn-Murdoch, Anglican historian and author of The Development of the Papacy and Church, Continuity, and Unity; Nicolas John Alexander Cheetham, a British Diplomat who entered service after winning a Classics scholarship to Eton and graduating with top honors from Christ Church, Oxford; Karl F. Morrison, Anglican Professor of History @ Rutger’s University; Dr. Charles Gore, Anglican Bishop and Historian Lecturer; and finally the excerpt in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1958, Edited by F.L. Cross); and Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin, Professor of Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who obtained a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto.


“Leo’s conception of his office is thus clear and comprehensive. (1) He took the well-known Gospel texts – the voces evangelicae of Damasus – to mean that supreme authority was bestowed by our Lord on St. Peter. (2) He held St. Peter to have been the first bishop of Rome, and (3) his authority to have been perpetuated in his successors. (4) He conceived of it as enhanced by a mystical presence of Peter in Peter’s see; and as having for its consequences, (5) that the authority of other bishops was not derived by them immediately from Christ but mediated to them through Peter, and (6) that, while their authority was limited each to his own diocese, his was a plentitudo potestatis over the whole Church, and the government of the Church rested with him” (Dr. Beresford J. Kidd, The Roman Primacy to A.D. 461 , page 122-3)


“The Petrine theory, as finally put into shape by Leo, was, no doubt, held in good feath, and as the only guarantee of unity..The theory has undergone little modification since Leo’s day….all the other elements of the Leonine theory have remained and are to be found set forth by the Vatican Council. The Council affirms (1) ‘the institution of the primacy of blessed Peter’ and ‘a primacy not of honor only but of true and proper jurisdiction’; (2) ‘the perpetuity of the primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman pontiffs’ – ‘his successors, in whom he lives and presides and judges to this day’; and (3) ‘the power and nature of the primacy of the Roman pontiff’ to be ‘the supreme power of governing the Universal Church'”. (Dr. Beresford J. Kidd, The Roman Primacy to A.D. 461 , pages 153-154)


“What is part of our Lord’s intention to form a permanent ekklesia of His disciples? Leo answers, ‘The birth of Christ is the beginning of the Christian people, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the Body’. What was the place of St. Peter in it? ‘He was appointed before the others for this reason, that we might understand by the mystical sense of his titles…when he is established as porter of the kingdom of heaven, and is set up as a judge of things to be bound and loosed, of what sort is his association with Christ’. Or again: ‘He [the Lord] originally assigned it (sc. the responsibility of the episcopate) to the most blessed Peter, the head of all the Apostles; and intends that from him, as from Head, His gifts shall be conveyed to the whole body, so that whoever dares secede from the foundation of Peter may know that he is excluded from communion with God (myterii …. divini). Did St. Peter come to Rome to teach and die there? Leo replies, ‘When the regions of the earth were apportioned among them (sc. the twelve Apostles) the most blessed Peter, chief of the Apostolic band, was sent to the citadel of the Roman Empire; that thus the light of Truth, which was being made know for the salvation of all nations, might shine forth with greater efficacy throughout the whole world from the very capital itself’. Did other churches consult the Roman see as a universal referee? He [Leo] answers : ‘Men resort to the see of the blessed Apostle Peter from the whole world, and require at our hands that general care for the Church which was entrusted to that see by the Lord’. Has the Roman see a primacy of doctrine? ‘That which the Catholic Church everywhere believes and teaches on the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation, is contained in the letter (sc. The Tome), which I am sending to my brother and fellow-bishop Flavian’. Has it also a primacy of jurisdiction? Leo reminds the bishop of Thessalonica, ‘We have entrusted you..with our legatine office, in such wise that you have been called to share our responsibility, not to possess the fulness of power’. On what scriptural basis does the claim to such authority rest? Leo’s fourth ‘anniversary’ sermon supplies the answer. Not only does the familiar Tu es Petrus text appear there (this sermon is the source from which the Vatican constitution Pastor Aeternus derives some of its more imrpessive phrases), but side by side with it are ranged the Lucan and Johannine texts, in virtue of which he belives that a peculiar privilege was conferred on St. Peter by our Lord Himself” (Dr. Trevor Gervase Jalland, The Church and the Papacy: An Historical Study, page 302-2)


“Leo brings to a culminating point a history of tactical maneuver and fragmentary theorizing that had marked the bishopric of Rome from the second century onward and which had gathered momentum in the fourth century. The recognition of Christianity under Constantine and its subsequent elevation to the status of religion of the Empire had raised acutely the problem of autonomy of the Church. The papacy emerges as a Western answer to this problem. In the East the autonomy of the Church was not seen as a problem requiring either theoretical or institutional solution. The assumption there was that the Church’s relation to the State was a relation of the same type as had normally characterized the people of antiquity and their ethnic religions. The Church was absorbed into the State, both together forming one organically united people of God. This does not mean that we are to apply uncritically the label ‘Caesaropapsim’. The history of the Church in the Byzantine Empire is generally supplied with events, individuals, and groups, all bearing testimony to a recurring willingness on the part of Eastern Christians to influence or to oppose the emperor on religious and theological grounds. In the East religious opposition to the emperor tends to take the shape of a very traditional political factionalism within a total society understood to be Christian.

“The papal theory which we see reaching a marked degree of crystallization in Leo…The plenary powers of the Pope rest upon plenary powers given in the first instance to the Apostle Peter, who received such powers for his merit in having been the first of the Apostles to confess Jesus as the Christ, in the famous incident at Caesarea Philippi. To Peter is entrusted the government of the Church. This government includes both jurisdictional and doctrinal elements. Jurisditionally, it means that Pete receives the ‘power of binding and loosing’, complete authority over all disciplinary matters regulating the holding of Church offices and the conditions upon which men either are or are not in communion with the Church. Doctrinally Peter founded the teaching of the Christian Church ‘by his uniform preaching throughout the world’. The unique role of Peter is further defined in his relation both to Christ and to the other Apostles. In bestowing upon Peter his commission, Christ takes Peter up into an ‘undivided union’ with Himself; Christ the Rock ordained that Peter also be Rock made solid by Christ’s own strength, ‘so that those things which are proper to my own power might be common to you by participation with me’. Relative to the other Apostles Peter possesses the ‘principiate’. Leo makes the crucial distinction, quite alien to Cyprian’s equally juristic view of the matter: the Apostles possess a common honor (that of the episcopal order) but not an identical potestas (jurisdictional power). A scheme of derivative government is outlines whereby the authority given by Christ to Peter is in turn bestowed upon Peter by the Apostles, but bestowed in such a way that the authority of Peter is not temporary by permanent. ‘The privilege of Peter remains’. Peter in an immediate sense rules all of the Church’s pastors, whom Christ rules in a more ultimate and prior sense.

“To have said so much is to have passed imperceptibly into Leo’s language about the papacy itself, for Peter lives and governs in each succeeding occupant of the papal chair. ‘Peter has not abandoned the government of the Church, which he undertook’. The notion of the transferal of Peter’s plenary powers to succeeding popes Leo fixes by the heavily legal concept of inheritance. The pope is the heir (haeres) of Peter…In the case of Peter’s successors they inherit the office of the prince of the Apostles while not possessing that particular merit which had been the ground of his receiving it in the first place. Thus does the pope function ‘in the place’ of Peter. The Roman Church possesses the ‘principiate over all the churches of the whole world’. Because of the peculiar relation of Peter to Christ, Leo can consistently say that whatever he as pope rightly does is done by Christ Himself. ” (Professor Robert F. Evans, One and Holy: The Church in Latin Patristic Thought, page 135-7)


Edward Denny


“Reasons have already been given to show that in a question such as that under notice, affecting as it does the claims which the Bishops of Rome make on behalf of their See, statements made by its occupants cannot in equity be allowed to be adduced as evidence in support of those claims. This applies with special force to St. Leo, who was the first to formulate the ‘Petrine Ideas’, which by the fifth century governed the minds of the authorities of the Roman Church in their efforts to aggrandize the See, of which, by that date, St. Peter had come to be regarded the sole founder and first Bishop. An essential condition to the success of these efforts was the amplification of the ‘privileges of St. Peter’, and to this end no one contributed more than St. Leo. His historical position as ‘the Father of the Papacy’ will come under consideration later; it will suffice now to say that in his works can undoubtedly be found the germ which ultimately developed in those claims to be absolute Monarch over the Church, which are embodied in the Vatican Decrees and the Satis Cognitum…..He is the first to lay down a definite theory of Papal power at any rate in the matter of jurisdiction, and the theory as it appears in him is on the highroad to justify universal absolutism. Indeed, the whole bent of Leo’s mind tended in that direction.” (Papalism, Edward Denny, Page 94 & 98)



JND Kelly

“By the middle of the fifth century the Roman church had established, de jure as well as de facto, a position of primacy in the West, and the papal claims to supremacy over all bishops of Christendom had been formulated in precise terms…The student tracing the history of times, particularly of the Arian, Donatist, Pelagian and Christological controversies, cannot fail to be impressed by the skill and persistence with which the Holy See was continually advancing and consolidating its claims. Since its occupant was accepted as the successor of St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, it was easy to draw the inference that the unique authority which Rome in fact enjoyed, and which the popes saw concentrated in their persons and their office, was no more than the fulfillment of the divine plan…The real framers and promoters of the theory of the Roman primacy were the popes themselves. Men like Damasus (366-384), Siricius (384-99), Innocent (402-417), and their successors not only strove to advance it on the practical plane, but sketched out the theology on which it was based, viz. the doctrine that the unique position and authority assigned by Christ to St. Peter belonged equally to the Popes who followed him as bishop of Rome. Leo the Great (440-461) was responsible for gathering together and giving final shape to the various elements composing this thesis. His conception of the primacy is admirably set out in the letter which he sent to Anastasius, bishop of Thessalonica, in 466, ‘Bishops indeed’, he declared, ‘have a common dignity, but they have not uniform rank, and inasmuch as even among the blessed Apostles, notwithstanding the similarity of their honorable estate, there was a certain distinction of power. While the election of all of them was equal, yet it was given to one [i.e. St. Peter] to take the lead of the rest. From this model has arisen a distinction of bishops also, and by an important ordinance it has been provided that everyone should not arrogate everything to himself, but that there should be in each province one whose opinion should have precedence among the brethren; and again that certain whose appointment is in the greater cities should undertake a fuller responsibility, and that through them the care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter’s one chair, and nothing anywhere should be separate from its Head’. His teaching, as expounded in many contexts, involves the following ideas. First, the famous Gospel texts referring to St. Peter should be taken to imply that supreme authority was conferred by our Lord upon the Apostle. Secondly, St. Peter was actually Bishop of Rome, and his magisterium was perpetuated in his successors in that see. Thirdly, St. Peter being in this way, as it were, mystically present in the Roman See, the authority of other bishops throughout Christendom does not derive immediately from Christ, but (as in the case of the Apostles) is mediated to them through St. Peter, i.e. through the Roman Pontiff who in this way represents him, or, to be more precise, is a kind of Petrus Redivivus. Fourthly, while their mandate is of course limited to their own dioceses, St. Peter’s magisterium, and with it that of his successors, the Popes of Rome, is a plenitudo potestatis extending over the entire Church, so that its government rests ultimately with them, and they are its divinely appointed mouthpiece.
” (Early Christian Doctrine, 5th-Ed, J.N.D. Kelly, 417-421)



As was discussed in the previous chapter, Pope Leo I (440-61) understood his role as Bishop of Rome primarily in terms of his unique relationship to Peter, whose mandate as ‘chief shepherd’, along with his powers of ‘binding and loosing’, Leo inherited as Peter’s successor. Leo’s position was simple – that ‘Peter was given the primacy of the Apostolic dignity as compensation (renumeratio) for his faith; the universal Church was established on the foundation of his steadfasteness (soliditas) and Leo, his successor, was responsible for its care (solicitudinis). In many ways this thinking was not ‘radically different from, or more advanced than, those of his recent predecessors’, and yet it has long been noted that Leo’s pontificate marks as significant milestone in the evolution of the Roman Primacy. The theology may not have been new, but Leo’s application of it certain was.” (The Papacy and the Orthodox, A. Edward Siecienski, Page 171)


Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan


“The Churches of the East, too, owed a special allegiance to Rome. As far as the Church of Constantinople was concerned, ‘who would doubt that it has been made subject to the apostolic see” [says, Pope St. Gregory the Great], that is, of course, to Rome? By hailing the authority of Leo, the fathers at Chalcedon gave witness to the orthodoxy of Rome. Once see after another had capitulated in this or that controversy with heresy. Constantinople had given rise to several heretics during the fourth and fifth centuries, notably Nestorius and Macedonius, and the other Sees had also been known to stray from the true faith occasionally. But Rome had as special position. The bishop of Rome had the right by his own authority to annul the acts of a Synod. In fact, when there was talk of a council to settle controversies, Gregory asserted the principle that ‘without the authority and the consent of the Apostolic See, none of the matters transacted [by a council] have any binding force” (The Christian Tradition: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, Vol 1, Jaroslav Pelikan, page 354)


In his decretals and letters Leo consolidated the essentially juridical doctrine of Petrine authority as that had been developed since Damasus sixty years earlier. The personality of Leo as a man, despite the large number of surviving documents from his pen, is curiously elusive just because he could only write in the name of the great institution with which he had emerged his identity. Leo believed himself to be the successor of Peter in more than any historical sense. When he preached or wrote a letter, he believed that St. Peter himself was speaking and writing; or at least that his hearers and readers should receive his words as such. Because the Pope is legal heir of all that St. Peter was, there was no diminution of the power of the keys, but a plenitudo potestasis [plenitude of power]” (Henry Chadwick, the Early Church)


Little is known of his early life beyond the fact that as a Roman deacon he opposed Pelagianism. His Papacy is remarkable chiefly through the enormous extent which he advanced and consolidated the influence of the Roman See. At a time of general disorder, he sought to strengthen the Church by energetic central government based on a firm belief that the supremacy of his See was of Divine and Scriptural authority, and he pressed his claims to jurisdiction in Africa, Spain, and Gaul. He also secured from Emperor Valentinian III a re-script which recognized his jurisdiction over all the Western provinces.” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1958, page 797)


Under Leo the Great (440-61) the primacy of Rome was finally established and it was he who provided it with a theory or dogmatic basis which was to be upheld for centuries. Leo’s conception is to be found in five sermons delivered to an audience of some two hundred bishops assembled to celebrate the anniversary of his consecration. He interpreted the Petrine text to mean that supreme authority was bestowed by Jesus upon Peter. Next he held Peter to have been the first bishop of Rome, and his authority to have been perpetuated in his successors. He further conceived of this authority as enhanced by a mystical presence of Peter in the Roman See. He therefore drew the consequences that the authority of all bishops, other than the Pope, is derived not immediately from Christ but mediately through Peter and that is limited to their own dioceses, whereas his was a plenitudo potestastis over the whole Church.” (The Early Christian Church: A History of its First Give Centuries, J.G. Davies, page 331)


“…Far more important was Leo I, who held the office of Pope from 440 to 461, and who with Gregory I, whom we are to meet in a later chapter, is known by the common consent as ‘The Great’. None of his predecessors had been as forceful or had exercised so great an influence. He insisted that by Christ’s decree Peter was the rock, the foundation, the doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven, set to bind and loose, whose judgments retained their validity in heaven, and that through the Pope, as his successor, Peter continued to perform the assignment which had been entrusted to him. We have noted how Leo’s Tome set forth the doctrinal position which was approved by the Council of Chalcedon. Leo declined to recognize as valid the canon enacted by that body which elevated the see of Constantinople to a position substantially equal with that of Rome, thus seeming to assert the right of his office to dissent from the decrees of a general or ecumenical council..” (A History of Christianity, Kenneth Scott Latourette, Page 186)


But by the time of Leo (440-461) circumstances had changed; and it is this radical change in circumstances which made it possible for Leo to assert the primacy of Rome with an assurance and firmness without precedent in the past. No doubt, Leo’s personality also played a part. In spirit, if not by birth, a Roman of the Romans, by training an administrator, he brought to his office the inbred sense of authority of the Roman governing class and a strong admixture of traditional Roman pride. His tone and speech are those of a born ruler, and it is significant that he is the first Pope to take over the old heathen title, Pontifex Maximus, which the emperors had discarded . But nothing is more characteristic of Leo than his emphasis on St. Peter’s princely authority. For him Peter is not only the ‘prince of the Apostles’; he is also a great prince of the Church, who ‘rightly rules all who are ruled in the first instance by Christ’. What is new in Leo’s attitude is this emphasis on ‘rule’ and ‘principality’, culminating in the conception of the Church as a monarchy ruled by the Pope acting on Peter’s behalf…. Leo was quick to grasp his opportunity, ‘impelled’ (he said) ‘by that solicitude which, by divine institution, we bestow upon the universal church’… Leo also intervened actively in the doctrinal disputes raging in the east, and it was his definition of Christian dogma that prevailed at the Council of Chalcedon ion 451….Nevertheless Leo I made a capital contribution to the doctrine of papal primacy, and it is no accident that his letters and decretals found a prominent place in later canon law. It was Leo who first formulated the idea of the Pope as the representative of Peter, ‘cuius vice fungimur’ – a phrase which succinctly summarizes the essence of Papal claims and constantly recurs through future papal history. It was Leo, again, who first laid claims to the ‘plenitude of power’ which later played so decisive a role in the development of the papal monarchy. The hierarchical conception, according to which ‘the care of the universal church should converge towards Peter’s one seat’, owes more to him than to any other individual. Leo carried the papacy as far theoretically as it could go. But it was still part of the state church of the Empire, and the ambiguous relations of the bishop of Rome and the Roman Emperor had not been resolved” (The Medieval Papacy, Geoffrey Barraclough, Page 26-27)


“In the sermon Leo preached on the day of his entrance into office he extolled the ‘glory of the blessed Apostle Peter… in whose chair his power lives on and his authority shines forth’. The city that had once enjoyed the favor as capital of the empire, the scene of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, was now granted a powerful new leader. Leo made his entrance into world history as the Supreme Head of all Christendom. Appealing to the three-fold Gospel testimony (Matt 16:13-19; Luke 22:31, 32; and John 21:15-17) the new pope laid the theoretical foundation for Papal primacy. Christ promised to build his Church on Peter, the rock for all ages, and the bishops of Rome are his successors in that authority…Leo raised the status of the bishop’s office in Rome once and for all. He carried the papacy as far theoretically as it could go. The dynasty of Peter, Prince of the Church established, solemnly, decisively….Leo’s vision of the papacy seemed to have the support not only of the emperor but of the sacred fathers meeting at Chalcedon. A year before the encounter with Attila, in October 451, the suburb of Constantinople, on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, drew 350 bishops to defend the true faith against false interpretations of the life of Jesus Christ. Even though the emperor had called the council to Chalcedon and visited it personally, the spirit of Pope Leo was dominant. His letters, decisions, and actions were quoted so frequently that sometimes am ere reference to him sufficed for the majority of the bishops to shout jubilantly: ‘That was the faith of the Fathers, that was the faith of the Apostles…Peter has spoken through Leo'”.  (Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley, 2nd Edition – Page 137-38)


“The austere and simple sermons of Pope Leo I reveal him in the office of censor, caring for the morals of his people. As praetor, the Pope declared and defined the law of the Church. Since the fourth century, churches in many parts of Europe had been known to appeal to Rome as the final arbiter and judge of ecclesiastical cases, and the shrewd and careful wisdom of the papal decisions, both in theological and practical issues, aided not a little this increasing power. Finally, a Caesar, the Pope extended an imperial jurisdiction over the Latin world, a jurisdiction based not on a civil authority but on the authority of the apostolical tradition of which he was both guardian and interpreter….Since the days of Augustine, however, the papal power had gradually increased and this practical jurisdiction of Rome was matched by highly developed claims. While they date back a century earlier [4th-century] , they reach their clearest expression in Leo I. The Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, to whom was committed the final authority of the whole Church. The Bishop of Rome is the door-keeper of heaven, the shepherd of the Universal Church and the guardian of the apostolical tradition. On him devolves, from Peter, the fullness of all power (plenitudo potestatis), and he is without equal or superior in the world. From him flows all authority and every gift of grace that the Church enjoys. To separate oneself from the Roman Church is to cut oneself off from the divine blessings which are mediated only through the Papacy. “ (The Church Through the Centuries, Cyril Richardson, Page 81-85)


“When St. Leo reached the Papal throne, he began at once to assert its authority in downright language, and he took occasion to do so frequently. In early sermons he speaks of ‘the well-ordered love of the whole Church which always recognizes Peter in Peter’s See’. ‘Blessed Peter…has not left the helm of the Church which he took. Therefore if anything is rightly done and decreed by us, it is of his work and merits whose power lives and whose authority prevails in his See…He is not only the president of this See but also the primate of all bishops, wherefore…believe that it is he speaking to you whose office we occupy in his stead’….He [Leo] teaches that the other apostles received their powers, not directly from Christ, but mediately only through St. Peter. It follows that bishops receive their powers mediately only through St. Peter’s representative….The sovereignty of Rome is of divine appointments; Rome is ‘that See which the Lord appointed to preside over all others’. These examples of St. Leo’s constant teaching show the dogmatic basis that he formulated for the sovereign supremacy of his See” (The Development of the Papacy, H. Burn-Murdoch, Page 229-230)


Nicholas Cheetham


“…But the firmest and most effective champion of Catholicism in its Roman guise proved to be Leo I (440-461). The first of only two Popes to whom history has awarded the title of Great, he towers up like a second rock of St. Peter in the midst of a century fraught with dread and disaster….What is certain is that at the time of his election he was already an outstanding figure among the Roman clergy, well educated, highly competent, fully conscious of of the majesty of his future office, and eager to assert it in the most authoritative fashion…As his 150 surviving letters show, he insistently reminded them [bishops] of their dependence on the See of Peter as the fount of all authority, of their duty of obedience to it and of its own duty of caring for them. When Hilarius, Bishop of Arles, tried to assert the independence of the Gallican church against Rome, Leo obtained from the pliant Valentinian a decree confirming the absolute primacy of the Apostolic See and forbidding the bishops of Gaul or any other imperial province, under threat of legal penalties, to contravene its ordinances. At the same time he was working out a theory of Papal monarchy. He wished to establish that the powers conferred on St Peter by Christ Himself were automatically handed down to the Apostle’s successors and all the future Bishops of Rome who were, at least in principle, elected by the city’s clergy and laity. He described himself as the ‘unworthy heir of St. Peter’, meaning that he and all other Popes, while inheriting the Apostle’s power to the fullest degree, did not presume to possess his virtues. In other words, any Pope , whatever his personal failings, was as legitimately entitled to perform his functions and govern the Church as the most morally and intellectually perfect individual. The theory imploed that in the exercise of his inherited powers a Pope could not be judged by any outside authority; he was, in effect, infallible” (A History of the Popes, Nicholas Cheetham, page 25-26)


He [Leo] was a man of spacious and receptive intellect, and of great courage; and it fell to him to give the doctrine of Petrine primacy the most refined expression it had until then received….It held that, since St. Peter was the head of the Apostolic College, his episcopal successors should have directive powers over all other bishops…The central aspect of Leo’s ecclesiology was his concept of hierarchic order. The office, not the personal attributes of its incumbent, determined a bishop’s authority. ‘No pontiff is so perfect, no prelate so unsullied, as not to offer sacrifices of reconciliation for his own sins when he offers them for the sins of the people’ (Sermo 5)….The episcopate was a comely body, held together by unanimity and concord; and yet this harmony was assured by a hierarchy of precedence and obedience. Following the distinction of power among the Apostles, headed by the See of St. Peter, bishops shared the same dignity, but not the same order. ‘Let him , therefore, who knows that he is set above some not take umbrage that someone is set above himself; let him rather give the obedience he requires’. Leo’s concept of ecclesiastical government was dominated by this hierarchic order of bishops, metropolitans, and prelates ‘in greater cities’, culminating int he successor of St. Peter. In his view, this order was both prefigured among the Apostles and, equally important, prescribed canonically….Although Leo accepted progressive development in the understanding of the faith and in disciplinary regulations through conciliar decrees, his acceptance was subject to some severe qualifications. For all its oecumenicty, the Council of Chalcedon enacted its twenty-eighth canon elevating Constantinople to the second rank among primatial sees, a regulation which Leo utterly denounced, and which nearly persuaded him to repudiate the Council itself. General councils, he wrote, were convened ‘by the precept of Christian princes with the consent of the Apostolic See’ (Ep 114). Of their decrees, the bishops of Rome were the chief executors, the principal watchmen against ‘wrongful innovation’. …It was, to Leo’s mind, a system of inferior and superior courts, corresponding with the ranks among bishops, who in their episcopal, metropolitan, or primatial synods exercised appropriate degrees of jurisdictional competence. Councils were an extraordinary, but legitimate, element in this juridical structure. But above them all was the See of St. Peter, to which appeals could go from any priest in any part of the world, to which, through Christ’s commission to St. Peter, the general government of the churches inalienably belonged. On the preservation of this order depended the proper judgment of cases of discipline and doctrine, and the preservation of the Church from heresy. The curtailment of any privileges in the scale weakened the entire system, destroyed the apostolic disposition, and endangered the liberty of the Church. The key to Leo’s synthesis was, therefore, formalism, the understanding of tradition in juridical and administrative aspects.” (Tradition and Authority in the Western Church 300-1140, Karl F. Morrison, pages 87, 91-92, 94, & 104)


This is an interpretation of our Lord’s words to St. Peter which we can all accept [i.e. Peter as representative, merely], and which is quite intelligible. It is quite distinct from the mediatorial view, according to which St. Peter is something which the other Apostles are not, and the source to them of what they are. This latter view is indeed markedly excluded by the language of the fathers generally, except indeed by those like St. Leo who constitute what can be truly called the ‘Papal school’ of writers.” (The Roman Catholic Claims, Dr. Charles Gore, Page 86)


Photo of Michael A. G. Haykin

“Remembered for his important Christological contribution to the Council of Chalcedon and his saving Rome from the ravages of Attila and the Huns, Leo also drew together the assertions of his predecessors about the bishopric of Rome and through the exegesis of a number of familiar Petrine texts created the theoretical foundations of the medieval papacy… According to Leo’s reading of Matthew 16:16-19, Peter’s faith in declaring Jesus to be the Messiah merited his being appointed the foundation of the church, the doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven and the judge whose earthly decisions are guaranteed heavenly confirmation… It is obvious that Leo had this Roman understanding of inheritance in mind when he emphasized that Peter’s ministry was still ongoing. It was such because he lived and acted through his heir, the bishop of Rome… With such far-reaching claims for papal authority, it is no surprise that Leo’s words to his fellow bishops are so frequently terms of governance and obedience to the statutes issued by the apostolic see. In essence, Leo has established that communion with Rome is a necessary condition for communion with Christ and God.” (Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin, “The Development and Consolidation of the Papacy,” in Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond, eds. Benjamin L. Merkle and Thomas R. Schreiner (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014), 133-37)



7 thoughts on “18 Non-Catholic Church Historians who Speak to the Papal Claims of Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461)

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