Revisiting Dictatus Papae

During the Investiture Conflict over the rights and prerogatives of the spiritual and temporal powers, many claims were made by the Gregorian reformers regarding the authority of the papacy. For decades the Holy Roman Emperors, following in the footsteps of Otto I, had kept the papacy under their thumb. During the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085), the popes began to push back against imperial domination by stressing the spiritual and secular independence of the popes. These defenses of papal authority were summed up and compiled in a document called Dictatus Papae, which has gone down in history as one of the most important papal documents of the Middle Ages. The Dictatus Papae are a collection of precedents regarding papal authority that the Gregorian reformers insisted on being recognized by temporal rulers and the other bishops of the Church. The document is very short, only twenty-seven articles, most of them brief statements:

The Text of Dictatus Papae

1. That the Roman church was founded by God alone.
2. That the Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.
3. That he alone can depose or reinstate bishops.
4. That, in a council his legate, even if a lower grade, is above all bishops, and can pass sentence of deposition against them.
5. That the pope may depose the absent.
6. That, among other things, we ought not to remain in the same house with those excommunicated by him.
7. That for him alone is it lawful, according to the needs of the time, to make new laws, to assemble together new congregations, to make an abbey of a canonry; and, on the other hand, to divide a rich bishopric and unite the poor ones.
8. That he alone may use the imperial insignia.
9. That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.
10. That his name alone shall be spoken in the churches.
11. That this is the only name in the world.
12. That it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
13. That he may be permitted to transfer bishops if need be.
14. That he has power to ordain a clerk of any church he may wish.
15. That he who is ordained by him may preside over another church, but may not hold a subordinate position; and that such a one may not receive a higher grade from any bishop.
16. That no synod shall be called a general one without his order.
17. That no chapter and no book shall be considered canonical without his authority.
18. That a sentence passed by him may be retracted by no one; and that he himself, alone of all, may retract it.
19. That he himself may be judged by no one.
20. That no one shall dare to condemn one who appeals to the apostolic chair.
21. That to the latter should be referred the more important cases of every church.
22. That the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness.
23. That the Roman pontiff, if he have been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter; St. Ennodius, bishop of Pavia, bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As is contained in the decrees of St. Symmachus the pope.
24. That, by his command and consent, it may be lawful for subordinates to bring accusations.
25. That he may depose and reinstate bishops without assembling a synod.
26. That he who is not at peace with the Roman church shall not be considered catholic.
27. That he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.

The Content of Dictatus Papae

Most of these statements are pretty straight forward, but some require closer examination. For example, Article 8, which states that “[The pope] alone may use the imperial insignia.” This is a fascinating claim, given that the Church in later ages was accustomed to making a sharp distinction between the powers proper to the spiritual arm and the secular arm. Later the canonist popes, especially Innocent III, would distinguish between the roles of these two arms, while maintaining that the spiritual arm had authority over the secular. But in Dictatus Papae, we see that the secular and the spiritual are more intertwined. The Bishop of Rome not only has authority over the secular arm, but the papacy itself was conceived almost as a divinized secular arm.

This concept of the imperial papacy was a clear imitation of the ancient Roman ideal. For example, Cardinals in the later 11th century were referred to as “spiritual senators.” During the pontificate of Urban II (1088-1099), the papal government developed three new departments that were common in secular governments—the camera (a kind of exchequer), the chancery, and the chapel, which was the papal entourage. The papal curia strongly resembled the curia regis of France, and the pope had his own steward, cupbearer, cellarers, constable and marshalls (senescalcus, pincerna, buticularii, comestabulus, marescalci). A contemporary ecclesiastical writer calls the pope “a royal priest and imperial bishop”

The imperial insignia were used by the popes in their coronations beginning in the mid 11th century. It is best known from the biography of Paschal II, successor to Urban II. Upon his accession, the pope was clothed in imperial purple (called “immantation”). From there he proceeded into the Lateran Basilica, where he sat alternatively in two chairs and received a girdle with seven keys and a scepter, which symbolized his lordship over the Lateran palace and the papal lands. The imperial purple became a symbol of the papacy. The papal coronations date from this period, as well.

These signs were very intentional. St. Bruno of Segni, a theologian for both Urban II and Paschal II, stated that, “All the insignia of the Roman Empire belong to the pope; whence, in great processions, the Pontiff appears in all that magnificence which used to formerly belong to the emperors” (Bruno of Segni, Tractatus de sacramentis ecclesiae).

Two interesting statements are found in Articles 10 and 11. Article 10 states “[The pope’s] name alone shall be spoken in the churches.” This clearly refers to the practice of including the name of the reigning pontiff during the Roman Canon. This decree perhaps means that the pope’s name alone shall be mentioned universally (versus bishops or secular rulers, who are only mentioned within their respective territories). Eleven is of more interest, for after establishing that only the pope’s name shall be used universally, it goes on to say of the pope “that this is the only name in the world.”

This phrase sounds a little awkward in English and makes no sense on the literal level. The Latin says Quod hoc unicum est nomen in mundo, which can also be rendered “there is only one such pope” or “the title pope is only to be used of the Roman pontiff”, which would be a declaration against both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, both of whom had tried to usurp the title “Universal” in one way or another. This was already stated in article two, but perhaps it builds on Article 10, which stated that the pope’s name alone shall be spoken in the churches, and that in article eleven this is to be understood as applying universally and exclusively.

Article 19 reminds us that pope is judged by no one—not even Sedvacantists.

Article 22 states that “the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness”, a striking testimony to the fact that the concept of papal infallibility was clearly worked out long before Vatican I.

Article 23 says:

That the Roman pontiff, if he have been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter; St. Ennodius, bishop of Pavia, bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As is contained in the decrees of St. Symmachus the pope.

The phrase “undoubtedly made a saint” is curious and awkward. The Latin reads:

Quod Romanus pontifex, si canonicae [sic] fuerit ordinatus, meritis beati Petri indubitanter efficitur sanctus testante sancto Ennodio Papiensi episcopo ei multis sanctis patribus faventibus, sicut in decretis beati Symachi pape continetur.

Translated literally, this says:

[It is decreed] that the Roman pontiff, if he has been canonically ordained, by the merits of blessed Peter is indubitably made holy [or: made a saint; it’s ambiguous!]; testified to by the holy [or: saint] Ennodius, bishop of Pavia, many holy fathers agreeing with him; as contained in the decrees of blessed Pope Symmachus.

This concept of the pope being “made a saint” or “made holy” by the merits of Peter is very interesting. The precise meaning of this statement is contested, but it seems that there are only three possibilities:

Personal Sanctity: The pope was under the mistaken belief that the merits of Peter confer personal sanctity on the Bishop of Rome. Thus, the word sanctus was used in the strict sense. This prerogative has never been claimed by any of the other successors of Peter, nor included any discussion of infallibility. If Dictatus Papae does mean this, it would be a bizarre and unprecedented overreach of papal claims demonstrated nowhere else in Church history.

Papal Authority: Whereas Article 22 speaks of the inerrancy of the Roman Church, perhaps 23 is a statement about the authority of the Roman Church. In this interpretation, “made holy by the merits of Peter” is a stumbling, sort of clumsy way of saying that the pope’s authority in teaching and discipline comes by virtue of being Peter’s successor. If this is what it means, it is awkwardly worded, but then again, the theological vocabulary of papal infallibility was hardly systematic in the 11th century.

Sacrosanctity: A third possible interpretation has to do with an older concept associated with the term sanctus in connection to its Roman roots. To be sanctus meant to be holy or saintly, but the word has always also denoted the idea of being set apart or consecrated. Thus, “holy vessels” or “holy water” are called so because they are set apart from mundane use and reserved exclusively for sacred use—they are to be immune from vulgar usages. Given that Gregory VII had been proclaimed deposed by Emperor Henry IV and that the emperor subsequently sent some thugs to physically run Gregory out of Rome, this could be a statement on the sacrosanctity of the pope’s office. In other words, the emperor behaved towards the pope as he would any other troublesome secular ruler. Perhaps, keeping in mind this treatment by Henry and his predecessors, the document could be a reminder that the pope, by virtue of being the Successor of Peter, has immunity from such treatment—or as the ancient Romans would have understood it, his person is sacrosanct—untouchable, precisely because it is “set aside” for sacred use. If this interpretation if correct, the statement in Article 23 is a protest against secular rulers acting as though they can mistreat the pope’s person and calumniate him publicly. Given the broader context of the Investiture Controversy—and the tendency of the papal court of this era to adopt Roman imagery and terminology—this would not be too much of a stretch, and it does preserve an appropriate interpretation of the word sanctus.

The Magisterial Authority of Dictatus Papae

Though Dictatus Papae is one of the most well-known papal documents of the Middle Ages (perhaps on par with Unam Sanctam and Clericos Laicos). Its magisterial weight has never been considered significant. it is not infallible and was seldom quoted by successive popes. Given its extremely bold affirmations of papal power, why was it not utilized by later popes in their struggles to assert the primacy of Rome?

For one thing, its authorship is completely unknown. It was promulgated under Paschal II in 1090, but he did not author it. It was composed sometime during the pontificate of Gregory VII and first shows up in the register for the year 1075. Some say Gregory himself authored it, others that it was written by some curial theologian. It is hard to invoke papal infallibility or even papal authority when it is unknown who composed it or even what decade. It is not necessary for a pope to personally author an papal declaration; sometimes secretary’s compose papal statements that are signed off on by the pope. But in this case, we don’t even know in what context it was written. It appears in a register for one year and later appears in a letter sent to Bishop Opizo of Lodi.

Second, beside the authorship problem, we have the issue of the format in which this document if found. Dictatus Papae does not mean “Dictates of the Popes” but means something like “dictation of the pope” and is simply a summary of canonical precedents compiled into a single list, something like a list of decretals. It is not meant to set forth doctrinal truth but canonical norms. We know this because, among other things, the list shows up in the canonical decretals published by Cardinal Deusdedit in 1087 in a letter. The list always shows up in private letters: in 1075, in a series of letters sent to Bishop Opizo of Lodi that comprised a report of the papal deeds for the year; in 1087 in a letter dedicated to Pope Victor III.

Third, we are not certain where these dictates were taken from. Where these notes copied down from verbatim sermons of a pontiff? Are they extracts from lost papal bulls? Are they a summary of the opinions of some contemporary theologians on the powers of the papacy? Are simply summations of canonical precedents? Nobody knows where the source material is taken from.

Ambiguously authored documents on canonical procedure sent in private letters whose sources are unknown carry little magisterial weight. The document has grown in importance over the years, however, not due to its authority, but as a useful summary of the claims of the Gregorian Reformers, especially Pope St. Gregory VII. In that sense, it is a kind of syllabus of the Gregorian Reform as a whole. It is noteworthy that no contemporary letters between the popes, Holy Roman Emperors, or any others engaged in the Investiture Controversy mention Dictatus Papae. The document itself was not that important; the ideas it stood for and crystallized were. Some of the ideas in Dictatus Papae undoubtedly belong to Divine Revelation are were declared as such (the inerrancy of the See of Rome); others were customs, like the kissing of the feet.

Still, even if the document is non-binding, especially a thousand years on, it is indispensable reading material for anyone interested in getting a full knowledge of the ideals of the Gregorian Reformers and the ideology behind the Investiture Controversy.

Phillip Campbell, “Revisiting Dictatus Papae,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, August 24, 2012. Available online at: