The modern concept of an infallible papacy who has authority over the whole church was not the view of the early church fathers. In fact, the concept was abhorrent to Pope Gregory the Great. He argues in his letter to Emperor Maurice Augustus that anyone who takes upon himself the title of universal priest is the precursor of the Antichrist:
“But I beseech your imperial Piety to consider that some frivolous things are very harmless, and others exceedingly harmful. Is it not the case that, when Antichrist comes and calls himself God, it will be very frivolous, and yet exceedingly pernicious? If we regard the quantity of the language used, there are but a few syllables; but if the weight of the wrong, there is universal disaster. Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others. Nor is it by dissimilar pride that he is led into error; for, as that perverse one wishes to appear as above all men, so whosoever this one is who covets being called sole priest, he extols himself above all other priests” (Registrum Epistolarum, Book 7, Letter 33).
He says in another letter to the emperor that the title “universal bishop” is a new and profane title which is blasphemous:
“Lo, he [Peter] received the keys of the heavenly kingdom, and power to bind and loose is given him, the care and principality of the whole Church is committed to him, and yet he is not called the universal apostle; while the most holy man, my fellow priest John, attempts to be called universal bishop. . . . And yet priests, who ought to lie weeping on the ground and in ashes, seek for themselves names of vanity, and glory in new and profane titles. . . . Who is this that, against the evangelical ordinances, against the decrees of canons, presumes to usurp to himself a new name? Would indeed that one by himself he were, if he could be without any lessening of others – he that covets to be universal. . . . If then any one in that Church takes to himself that name, whereby he makes himself the head of all the good, it follows that the Universal Church falls from its standing (which God forbid), when he who is called Universal falls. But far from Christian hearts be that name of blasphemy, in which the honour of all priests is taken away, while it is madly arrogated to himself by one” (Registrum Epistolarum, Book 5, Letter 20).
This is after he wrote a letter to John, patriarch of Constantinople, rebuking him for taking upon himself the title of universal bishop.
Another church father who rejected the concept of a universal bishop was Cyprian:
“It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there” (The Seventh Council of Carthage).
Cyprian was opposing Pope Stephen who argued that the baptism given by heretics was valid and therefore those who had been baptized by them did not need to be rebaptized when they returned to the church.
Another church father who opposed the concept of any bishop having preeminence over any another bishop was Tertullian who spoke out against Pope Callixtus I:
“In opposition to this (modesty), could I not have acted the dissembler? I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too. The Pontifex Maximus – that is, the bishop of bishops – issues an edict: ‘I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.’ O edict, on which cannot be inscribed, Good deed!” (On Modesty 1).
As Keith Thompson observes:
“Notice, Tertullian mocks Callistus calling him ‘bishop of bishops’ and ‘Pontifex Maximus,’ the latter being a pagan title belonging to the leader of the pagan cults in Rome which means ‘greatest high priest.’ It is ironic that this pagan title Tertullian used to mock the Roman bishop would actually be favourably used by later popes in history. Hence, today you will see Roman coins with the faces of popes and the words ‘Pont. Max.’ inscribed. Tertullian was in a way following in the footsteps of the church father Irenaeus who had to censure Victor the Roman bishop during the Easter controversy, Cyprian who opposed the Roman bishop Stephan the on the issue of baptism, and Augustine who opposed the Roman bishop Zosimus on the issue of Pelagianism.”
In contrast to the opinion of Gregory the Great, Cyprian, and Tertullian, the title “universal bishop,” “head of the church,” “Holy Father,” and many others have been used by the pope to describe himself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says concerning the pope:
“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’ ‘For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered’” (882).
You may have heard of the phrase, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But what you probably didn’t know is that these words uttered by Lord Acton were in reference to the papacy. Lord Acton was a Roman Catholic, but he initially opposed the definition of papal infallibility as Cardinal Newman did. But eventually, he submitted his conscience to the dictates of the pope even though he knew that papal infallibility went against the testimony of history.
The concept of a universal papacy who has jurisdiction over the whole church is also in violation of the sixth canon of the Council of Nicaea:
“Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.”
Each bishop was to have jurisdiction over the area where he ministered and the Bishop of Rome did not have authority over the area which the Bishop of Alexandria oversaw. When there was a disagreement among bishops, the majority vote would prevail rather than appealing to the authority of the Bishop of Rome.