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Letter from Pope Gregory II to Emperor Leo III (c.

727)
Source: Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar Holmes McNeal, eds., Source Book for
Medival History (New York: Scribners, 1905; reprint AMS Press, 1971).
Transcribed by Sean Faith.
We have received your letter which you sent us by your ambassador Ruffinus. We
are deeply grieved that you should persist in your error, that you should refuse to recognize
the things which are Christs, and to accept the teaching and follow the example of the holy
fathers, the saintly miracle-workers and learned doctors. I refer not only to foreign doctors,
but also to those of your own country. For what men are more learned than Gregory the
worker of miracles, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the theologian, Basil of Cappadocia, or
John Chrysotom-not to mention thousands of others of our holy fathers and doctors, who,
like these, were filled with the spirit of God? But you have followed the guidance of your
own wayward spirit and have allowed the exigencies of the political situation at your own
court to lead you astray. You say: I am both emperor and bishop. But the emperors who
were before you, Constantine the Great, Theodosius the Great, Valentinian the Great, and
Constantine the father of Justinian, who attended the sixth synod proved themselves to be
both emperors and bishops by following the true faith, by founding and fostering churches,
and by displaying the same zeal for the faith as the popes. These emperors ruled righteously;
they held synods in harmony with the popes, they tried to establish true doctrines, they
founded and adorned churches. Those who claim to be both emperors and priests should
demonstrate it by their works; you, since the beginning of your rule, have constantly failed
to observe the decrees of the fathers. Wherever you found churches adorned and enriched
with hangings you despoiled them. For what are our churches? Are they not made by hand
of stones, timbers, straw, plaster, and lime? But they are also adorned with pictures and
representations of the miracles of the saints, of the sufferings of Christ, of the holy mother
herself, and of the saints and apostles; and men expend their wealth on such images.
Moreover, men and women make use of these pictures to instruct in the faith their little
children and young men and maidens in bloom of youth and those from heathen nations; by
means of these pictures the hearts and minds of men are directed to God. But you have
ordered the people to abstain from the pictures, and have attempted to satisfy them with idle
sermons, trivialities, music of pipe and zither, rattles and toys, turning them from the giving
of thanks to the hearing of idle tales. You shall have your part with them, and with those
who invent useless fables and babble of their ignorance. Hearken to us, emperor: abandon
your present course and accept the holy church as you found her, for matters of faith and
practice concern not the emperor, but the pope, since we have the mind of Christ [1 Cor.
2:16]. The making of laws for the church is one thing and the governing of the empire
another; the ordinary intelligence which is used in administering worldly affairs is not
adequate to the settlement of spiritual matters. Behold, I will show you now the difference
between the palace and the church, between the emperor and the pope; learn and be saved;
be no longer contentious. If anyone should take from you the adornments of royalty, your
purple robes, diadem, scepter, and your ranks of servants, you would be regarded by men as
base, hateful and abject; but to this condition you have reduced the churches, for you have
deprived them of their ornaments and made them unsightly. Just as the pope has not the
right to interfere in the palace or to infringe upon the royal prerogatives, so the emperor has
not the right to interfere in the churches, or to conduct elections among the clergy, or to
consecrate, or to administer the sacraments or even to participate in the sacraments without
the aid of a priest; let each one of us abide in the same calling wherein he is called of God
[1 Cor. 7:20]. Do you see, emperor, the difference between popes and emperors? If anyone
has offended you, you confiscate his house and take everything from him but his life, or
you hang him or cut off his head, or you banish him, sending him far from his children and
from all his relatives and friends. But popes do not so; when anyone has sinned and has
confessed, in place of hanging him or cutting off his head, they put the gospel and cross
around his neck, and imprison him, as it were, in the sacristy or treasure chamber of the
sacred vessels; they put him into the part of the church reserved for the deacons and the
catechumens; they prescribe for him fasting, vigils, and praise. And after they have
chastened him and punished him with fasting, then they give him of the precious body of
the Lord and of the holy blood. And when they have restored him as a chosen vessel, free
from sin, they hand him over to the Lord pure and unspotted. Do you see now, emperor, the
difference between the church and the empire? Those emperors who have lived piously in
Christ have obeyed the popes, and not vexed them. But you, emperor, since you have
transgressed and gone astray, and since you have written with your own hand and
confessed that he who attacks the father is to be execrated, have hereby condemned
yourself by your own sentence and have driven from you the Holy Spirit. You persecute us
and vex us tyrannically with violent and carnal hand. We, unarmed and defenseless,
possessing no earthly armies, call now upon the prince of all the armies of creation, Christ
seated in the heavens, commanding all the hosts of celestial beings, to send a demon upon
you; as the apostle says: to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh,
that the spirit may be saved [1 Cor. 5:5]. Do you see now, emperor, to what a pitch of
impudence and inhumanity you have gone? You have driven your soul headlong into the
abyss, because you would not humble yourself and bend your stubborn neck. When a pope
is able by his teaching and admonition to bring the emperor of his time before God,
guiltless and cleansed from all sin, he gains great glory from Him on the holy day of
resurrection, when all our secrets and all our works are brought to light to our confusion in
the presence of his angels. But we shall blush for shame, because you will have lost your
soul by your disobedience, while the popes that proceeded us have won over to God the
emperors of their life times. How ashamed we will be on that day, that the emperor of our
time is false and ignominious, instead of great and glorious. Now, therefore, we exhort you
to do penance; be converted and turn to the truth; obey the truth as you found and received
it. Honor and glorify our holy and glorious fathers and doctors who dispelled the blindness
from our eyes and restored us to sight. You ask: How was it that was said about images in
six councils? What then? Nothing was said about bread and water, whether that should be
eaten or not; yet these things have been accepted from the beginning for the presence of
human life. So also have images been accepted; the popes themselves brought them to
councils, and no Christian would set out on a journey without images, because they were
possessed of virtue and approved of God. We exhort you to be both emperor and bishop, as
you have called yourself in your letter. But if you are ashamed to take this upon yourself as
emperor, then write to all the regions to which you have given offence, that Gregory the
pope and Germanus the patriarch of Constantinople are at fault in the matter of the images
[that is, are responsible for the destruction of the images], and we will take upon ourselves
the responsibility for the sin, as we have authority from God to loose and to bind all things,
earthly and celestial; and we will free you from responsibility in this matter. But no, you
will not do this! Knowing that we would have to render account to Christ the Lord for our
office, we have done our best to convert you from your error, by admonition and warning,
but you have drawn back, you have refused to obey us or Germanus or our fathers, the holy
and glorious miracle-workers and doctors, and you have followed the teaching of perverse
and wicked men who wander from the truth. You shall have your lot with them. As we
have already informed you, we shall proceed on our way to the extreme western regions,
where those who are earnestly seeking to be baptized are waiting for us. For although we
have then bishops and clergymen from our church, their princes have not yet been induced
to bow their heads and be baptized, because they hope to be received into the church by us
in person. Therefore we gird ourselves for the journey in the goodness of God, lest
perchance we should have to render account for their condemnation and for our faithfulness.
May God give you prudence and patience, that you may be turned to the truth from which
you have departed; may he again restore the people to their one shepherd, Christ, and to the
one fold of the orthodox churches and prelates, and may the Lord our God give peace to all
the earth now and forever to all generations. Amen.
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