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Another Catholic Succumbs to Shallow Greek Polemics

In the years after 9/11, Mr. Robert Spencer skyrocketed to fame. He published a critical biography about Muhammad and many other books criticizing Islam. He started a famous website called which he used as a platform to give his opinion on current events, specifically relating to Islam and Jihad. He still uses the website to this day. Spencer was also a vocal Catholic and he even co-authored with Daniel Ali the book Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics. He often spoke publicly at Catholic venues and events. This put him at odds with several clerics of the church who wanted to engage in dialogue with Muslims.

Despite making some good criticisms on Islam, his views were at times troubling. It often sounded like he was standing up for democracy or (Liberal) Western civilization as opposed to the Christian faith. Muhammad wasn’t a false prophet because he preached Jihad. He’s a false prophet for saying incorrect things about almighty God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Still, Spencer had some decent criticisms and he deserves credit for them.

A few years ago it came to light that he had converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. So with Rod Dreher and Joseph Sciambra, he is another prominent Catholic who has left Rome for one of the Greek schisms.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly he actually converted but he often mentions a dialogue that he had on Islam with a Catholic priest named Monsignor Stuart Swetland as being one of the key points in his journey out of the Church. The debate is available on Youtube and it became clear that Msgr. Swetland was in over his head and just fell back on liberal statements by Pope Francis.

However, during the dialogue Swetland correctly stated:

I think we should be Evangelizing Islam. I think the only way we’re eventually going to deal with this kind of violence is converting Islam. We should try to convert the whole world. It’s what Catholics should be trying to do.

Despite dabbling in some modern liberal views regarding Islam, these are noble words by Msgr. Swetland. He clearly has the great commission in mind and along with Spencer, eager to see the Muslims come to Christ. When Robert Spencer talks about this dialogue he never brings up this quote. Spencer should keep in mind that the Eastern Orthodox Church let Mehmed the Conqueror appoint the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1454.[1] Because of this compromise with Muslims, the Greek Patriarch gained more power over all eastern Christians in the Ottoman Empire than the pope of his time![2]

Or consider the fact that in the 12th century the Eastern Orthodox Church of Constantinople removed anathemas against the god of Muhammad in all catechetical books beginning with the codex of the Great Church since the Emperor believed that it would scandalize the Arabs who converted.[3]

Granted that many Catholic bishops and even popes of our time compromise with Islam, does Spencer not take these historical (and long lasting!) Eastern Orthodox compromises to Islam into account?

Last year I learned that Spencer would be writing a book against the Papacy from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. This saddened me. This would mean that his former religion of Catholicism would join Islam as the only religions that he has criticized in print. I was further saddened when I saw the contents of the book.

It’s almost as if he took every bad Protestant argument against the Papacy and hurled them all at his target, hoping some would stick.

His book is called The Church and the Pope: The Case for Orthodoxy and it was published by Uncut Mountain Press in July 2022. By Orthodoxy he refers to Eastern Orthodoxy and not Oriental. As I mentioned in my article from last year, most modern Eastern Orthodox polemics against the Catholic Church tend to airbrush Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East from history, giving the false impression that Eastern Orthodoxy is the only apostolic Church in the East. After all, if the Papacy is false, don’t Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East also have to be dealt with polemically? Eastern Orthodoxy simply doesn’t win by default if the papacy falls. In fact, as Erick Ybarra points out, these churches are in fact more consistent in rejecting the Papacy than are the Eastern Orthodox.

Shallow, Protestant Polemics

In this book, Spencer brings up the classic Protestant arguments against the papacy from Pope Victor and Stephen to Honorius and many others. Spencer disputes whether Pope Victor had the authority to excommunicate the churches of Asia since some people were opposed to this. Did he have the right? He certainly did as he later excommunicated Theodotus of Byzantium and no one protested that or said he didn’t have the authority.[4]

Regarding Cyprian challenging Pope Stephen’s authority on the issue of re-baptism, St. Jerome says that all of Cyprian’s followers abandoned his cause and sided with the ancient custom which Stephen held.[5] St. Vincent of Lerins also says:

When then all men protested against the novelty, and the priesthood everywhere, each as his zeal prompted him, opposed it, Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, in conjunction indeed with his colleagues but yet himself the foremost, withstood it, thinking it right, I doubt not, that as he exceeded all others in the authority of his place, so he should also in the devotion of his faith.[6]

Pope Stephen won the controversy and the entire later Church recognized that. Spencer doesn’t point this out.

In regards to Honorius, Spencer talks about how the Council of Constantinople in 680 AD rejected the claim in Agatho’s letter where it says “established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error.” This is not true. The Council fully accepted this letter with no qualifications knowing full well that they had condemned Honorius.[7]

Obviously there is a tension in these seemingly contradictory statements, but the First Vatican Council began to resolve these tensions by restricting papal infallibility to specific conditions, which helps to explain these things. Unlike the modern Orthodox churches, the Roman Church retains the authority of the First Millennium to resolve doctrine via ecumenical councils.

It seems that with Pope Agatho and Honorius, the Church of the 7th century, like the Church today knows that not every statement of the Pope is infallible. That is why Honorius can teach heresy to another bishop in a non-definitive letter and it won’t affect the integrity of the Apostolic See. By contrast Spencer is forced, like so many Orthodox apologists are, to oversimplifying the historical data and making baseless claims without any living, ecumenical Magisterium to answer to.

Scripture Against Ecumenical Councils?

His biggest blunder however is how he handles the traditional Biblical prooftexts for the papacy. In doing so he betrays the ancient ecumenical councils and much of modern Eastern Orthodox scholarship.

For example, on page 15 he writes:

Orthodox theologians tend to see the “rock” not as the person of Peter, but his confession of faith, or Christ Himself.

This is far from true. Spencer is endorsing a Protestant, reductionist interpretation of that verse by applying it to the confession or Christ Himself. The great 20th century Eastern Orthodox scholar John Meyendorff wrote:

The personal role of Peter as the “rock” upon which the Church was built was readily recognized by Byzantine ecclesiastical writers. Only later polemicists, systemically anti-Latin, tended to diminish it; but this was not the case among the most enlightened of the Byzantine theologians. Thus, according to Photius, Peter is the “the chief of the apostolic choir, and has been established as the rock of the Church and is proclaimed by Truth to be keybearer of the Kingdom of Heaven.”[8]

Or take another Orthodox writer in this regard, Fr. Laurent Clennewerck, who admits:

The Orthodox are extremely distrustful of Roman Catholics and would almost like to forget that their calendar and theology is replete with ‘Popes of Rome’ whose teachings about their own authority is better left unmentioned. They also know that accepting a universal ministry of unity and arbitration—something called for by authentic catholic orthodoxy—would jeopardize their nationalistic and ethno-centric kingdoms. Sadly, everyone is trying to look busy doing nothing about it.[9]

Returning to Spencer, on the aforementioned page, further down, he continues:

It is noteworthy, however, that while there are many statements of the Holy Fathers about the pre-eminence of Peter, nowhere to be found is that Peter is the rock in his very flesh and bones, such that it is his presence in Rome and martyrdom that elevates the See of Rome above all others.

This again, is obscuring the whole truth. Here is an excerpt from the Acta of the Council of Ephesus, Session II, in 431 AD:

Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed Pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod, which the most human and Christian Emperors have commanded to assemble, bearing in mind and continually watching over the Catholic faith.

This was read out by the Papal legate and no one protested. This gives a very clear application of the verse to the Papal office and Celestine who occupies it. Now it should be admitted from the Catholic side that during the first millennium there were disputes over these interpretations (as Ybarra’s latest work brings out in detail). But neither should we allow the false reductionist statements of Spencer to convince anyone to leave Rome.

But Spencer also challenges the ecumenical councils on Luke 22:32 and John 21:15-17:

Likewise, Orthodox theologians understand the “feed my sheep” passage as being a threefold reversal of Peter’s threefold denial of his Lord on the night of the crucifixion; it was a manifestation of the Lord’s mercy, not a conferral of authority. This is confirmed by the fact that Peter was “grieved” by the Lord’s thrice-repeated question, “Do you love me?”, He was not, in other words, honored or overawed at being given such a great responsibility. Clearly, Peter himself did not think at the moment that this happened that he was being made the pope. Likewise, the Lord’s prayer that Peter’s faith “may not fail” was in anticipation of his denial that he knew Jesus when the Roman guards came to arrest him. It was not a conferral of authority, but an acknowledgment that Peter would be the only apostle besides Judas to deny his Master. What’s more, the most famous commentary on the meaning of John 21 is in St. John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood, in which St. John states that by asking Peter “Do you love Me?” and then saying, “Feed My sheep.” The Lord Jesus is establishing the paradigm for priests: that He will measure their love for Him by how they love His flock.

The problem with Spencer’s interpretation is that is isolates various aspects of these verses (some of which are legitimate), then uses them to deny the Papal aspects, which are confirmed by an Orthodox saint and an ecumenical council that he accepts. I refer to the third council of Constantinople which is the 6th ecumenical council for both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Pope St. Agatho’s letter was accepted at this council and it applies both Luke 22:32 and John 21:15-17 to the Papal office. Concerning Luke 22:32, Pope Agatho writes:

For this is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of Almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end, according to the divine promise of the Lord and Saviour himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, Peter, Peter, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not.  And when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.  Let your tranquil Clemency therefore consider, since it is the Lord and Saviour of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, how it is known to all that the Apostolic pontiffs, the predecessors of my littleness, have always confidently done this very thing.

Pope Agatho applies Luke 22:32 to the Papal office and his predecessors who held it. This isn’t the opinion of a self-promoting medieval Pope who was trying to inflate his ego, as the Orthodox polemicists have it. It’s a decree from an Orthodox saint which became an official document of an ecumenical council that Spencer accepts. If Spencer had gone Protestant or Oriental Orthodox he wouldn’t have to deal with this, but his new religion venerates this saint and officially accepts this council which accepts this document. This letter by Pope Agatho also applies John 21:15-17 to the Papal office. In that same letter Pope Agatho writes:

And therefore I beseech you with a contrite heart and rivers of tears, with prostrated mind, deign to stretch forth your most clement right hand to the apostolic doctrine which the co-worker of your pious labours, the blessed apostle Peter, has delivered, that it be not hidden under a bushel, but that it be preached in the whole earth more shrilly than a bugle: because the true confession thereof for which Peter was pronounced blessed by the Lord of all things, was revealed by the Father of heaven, for he received from the Redeemer of all himself, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church; under whose protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error, whose authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church, and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced.

As we can see, the early ecumenical councils don’t have a problem applying these three verses to the Papal office present in the Roman Church. Robert Spencer has rejected this teaching in favour of schism and Protestant arguments against the papacy. I know that it’s frustrating dealing with liberal trends in the Church. That’s not an excuse to start looking elsewhere because doing that will lead to rejection of the historical teachings of the Holy Scriptures as interpreted by the ancient Church.

I want to share one more document in the hopes that Robert Spencer will think twice on this.  In the 640s the Church was under the plague of Monothelitism, a Christological heresy meant to compromise with the Monophysites. A bishop in Palestine named Stephen of Dora wrote to none other than the Pope for help. Here is an excerpt from his letter:

As a result of their troubling the whole catholic church in this way – in the words of the blessed Jeremiah, ‘we have been put to shame, because we heard reproach against us; it has covered our face with reversal, because aliens have entered our sanctuary’ – for this reason we the pious, all of us, have been looking everywhere, sometimes for ‘water for the head and fountains of tears for the eyes’ for lamenting this pitiable catastrophe, and sometimes for ‘the wings of a dove’ (in the words of the divine David), so that we might ‘fly away’ and announce these things to the see that rules and presides over all others (I mean your sovereign and supreme see), in quest of healing for the wound inflicted.

It has been accustomed to perform this authoritatively from the first and from of old, on the basis of its apostolic and canonical authority, for the reason, evidently, that the truly great Peter, the head of the apostles, was deemed worthy not only to be entrusted, alone out of all, with ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ for both opening them deservedly to those who believe and shutting them justly to those who do not believe in the gospel of grace, but also because he was the first to be entrusted with shepherding the sheep of the whole catholic church. As the text runs, ‘Peter, do you love me? Shepherd my sheep.’ And again, because he possessed more than all others, in an exceptional and unique way, firm and unshakeable faith in our Lord, [he was deemed worthy] to turn and strengthen his comrades and spiritual brethren when they were wavering, since providentially he had been adorned by the God who became incarnate for our sake with power and priestly authority over them all.[10]

Thus we have an eastern bishop’s letter to the Pope which grounds papal authority in these three Petrine texts aforementioned. The same three texts that early ecumenical councils apply to the Pope. If Robert Spencer wrote to the Pope today would he do likewise? Or does he reject the practice of this early eastern bishop and the theology of the ecumenical councils? Based on what his book says, he rejects this belief. This is the belief of the early universal Church; the Church that Robert Spencer needs to return to.


[1] In fact, the Greek Orthodox chronicler is grateful for Mehmet for doing that! See Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. Charles Riggs (Princeton Univ. Press, 2019).

[2] This explains some of the Uniate movements such as the Antiochian Patriarchate, which was technically not out of Communion with Rome until the 18th century. See Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches (Ignatius, 2010).

[3] Nicetas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. Harry Magoulias (Wayne State Univ. Press, 1984). See also Antiochian Orthodox Lina Murr Nehmé, 1453 Fall of Constantinople: Muhammad II imposes the Orthodox Schism (Aleph Et Taw: 2004).

[4] Eusebius, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 28, para 6.

[5] Jerome, Dialogue with the Luciferians, para. 23.

[6] St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, para. 16

[7] There is no evidence that Agatho’s letter was rejected. The Council wrote back to Pope St. Agatho with these words: “Therefore to you, as to the bishop of the first see of the Universal Church, we leave what must be done, since you willingly take for your standing ground the firm rock of the faith, as we know from having read your true confession in the letter send by your fatherly beatitude to the most pious emperor: and we acknowledge that this letter was divinely written as by the Chief of the Apostles, and through it we have cast out the heretical sect of many errors which had recently sprung up, having been urged to making a decree by Constantine who divinely reigns, and wields a most clement sceptre.”

[8] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 2nd ed. (Fordham University Press, 1999), 97.

[9] Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck, His Broken Body (2008 ed.), 34.

[10] Text in translation found in Richard Price, trans. The Acts of the Lateran Synod of 649 (Liverpool Univ. Press, 2014), 143-144.

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