In 1075, Pope Gregory the Seventh decreed the Dictatus Papae, also called the Papal Dictats. One part of the document makes the claim that:

  1. The Roman Church has never erred. Nor will it err, to all eternity--Scripture being witness.

It also says:

  1. The Roman Pontiff, if he has been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made holy by the merits of St. Peter, St. Ennodius Bishop of Pavia bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As it is contained in the decrees of Pope St. Symmachus.

(The second statement claims that all dully ordained Popes become a saint)

Were these two claims made Ex Cathedra? If so, isn't that incompatible with infallibility as the Church has admitted it has erred in the past (in its actions, not doctrine), and there have been horrible Popes who couldn't possibly be saints (Pope John XII as an example)?

  • It doesn't appear in Denzinger. What are proofs of its authenticity? Did it meet the 4 conditions for infallibility: Did he (1) speak for the whole Church, (2) invoke all his authority, (3) intend to definitively define dogma, and (4) speak regarding the faith and/or morals?
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 4:16
  • Also, why couldn't John XII be canonized?
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 4:19
  • @Geremia gross immorality throughout his entire life. He died when he was caught in the mortal sin of adultery.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 4:30
  • The Dictatus papae seems to apply to the office of the papacy and not the individual person of the pope.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 23:21

1 Answer 1


Were the Dictatus Papae considered to be spoke "ex cathedra"?

I do not believe so, as the English translations from the Latin are unclear as to reveal the intended meaning and the authority of document itself is in question, as well as the author itself.

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.

  1. That, by his command and consent, it may be lawful for subordinates to bring accusations.

  2. That he may depose and reinstate bishops without assembling a synod.

  3. That he who is not at peace with the Roman church shall not be considered catholic.

  4. That he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.

As to your your point on the 23rd point, following gives three possible outcomes:

Twenty-three states:

"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 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.

Literal translation:

"[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 is under the mistaken belief that the merits of Peter confer personal sanctity on the Bishop of Rome. Thus, the word sanctus is 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.

Papal Authority: Whereas article twenty-two speaks of the inerrancy of the Roman Church, perhaps twenty-three 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 twenty-three 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, this would not be too much of a stretch, and it does preserve an appropriate interpretation of the word sanctus.

Personally, when I first read and then reread the text I took it to imply to papal authority. But then that’s me.

As to the question of whether the document is infallible, the answer is clearly no!

The Authority of Dictatus Papae

Though Dictatus Papae is one of the most well-known papal documents of the Middle Ages (perhaps only on par with Unam Sanctam and Clericos Laicos), it is not infallible and is not of extremely high authority.

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. At any rate, it is hard to invoke papal infallibility when it is unknown who composed it or even what decade. It is not necessary for a pope to personally author an infallible 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 entirely.

Ambiguously authored documents on canonical procedure sent in private letters whose sources are unknown are hardly the most authoritative promulgations of the Magisterium. The document has grown in importance over the years not from its level of authority but from the fact that is summarizes the claims of the Gregorian Reform regarding the papacy; it is a kind of syllabus of the Gregorian Reform. 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 since, 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.

  • Thanks Ken. This came up in my world history class at school (from my very reformed baptist teacher) and I felt right away that she was skewing the document to look worse. I was right :)
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 4:27

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