Leo III of Rome

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Leo III of Rome was the Archbishop and Pope of the Church of Rome from 795 to 816. He is noted for insisting on the use of the original text of the Nicene Creed. While canonized in the Roman Catholic Church in 1673, he has never been formally glorified by any Orthodox patriarchate. The 1848 Encyclical Reply of the Eastern Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX favorably mentions him:

"For who doubts that had their zeal for the overthrow of Orthodoxy been employed for the overthrow of heresy and novelties, agreeable to the God-loving counsels of Leo III and John VIII, those glorious and last Orthodox Popes, not a trace of it, long ago, would have been remembered under the sun, and we should now be saying the same things, according to the Apostolic promise. But the zeal of those who succeeded them was not for the protection of the Orthodox Faith, in conformity with the zeal worthy of all remembrance which was in Leo III, now among the blessed."

Similarly, the 1895 Encyclical of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate asserts of him:

"And certainly Pope Leo XIII is not ignorant that his orthodox predecessor and namesake, the defender of orthodoxy, Leo III, in the year 809 denounced synodically this anti-evangelical and utterly lawless addition, 'and from the Son' (filioque); and engraved on two silver plates, in Greek and Latin, the holy Creed of the first and second Ecumenical Councils, entire and without any addition; having written moreover, 'These words I, Leo, have set down for love and as a safeguard of the orthodox faith' (Haec Leo posui amore et cautela fidei orthodoxa')."


Little is known of the early life of Leo including his date of birth. He was from a family of ordinary people, born in Rome to Atyuppius and Elizabeth. He was a cleric from his youth and rose to be cardinal-priest of Santa Susanna Church and a high official in the papacy. He was at Santa Susanna Church when Pope Adrian, his predecessor died. Leo was elected pope on the day Adrian was buried, December 26, 795.

Leo established cordial relations with Charlemagne early after his election when he informed the king of his unanimous election as pope and received Charlemagne's response of congratulations as well as part of the treasure captured by the him from the Avars. This wealth enabled Leo to be a benefactor to the churches and charitable institutions of Rome.

In 799, a conspiracy was formed by the primicerius Paschal, a nephew of Adrian, to render Leo unfit to hold his office. While Leo was walking in the procession of the Greater Litanies on April 25, a number of armed men scattered the procession and attacked Leo, hurriedly stabbed at his eyes and tore at his tongue. They then dragged him into St. Sylvester's Church and attempted to blind him, after which they placed him in the Monastery of St. Erasmus. Surprisingly, Leo recovered the use of eyes and tongue. His friends removed him from the monastery and placed him under the protection of Duke Winichis,of Spoleto. Recovered, Leo journeyed to see Charlemagne at Paderborn. There, Leo was received with honor and sympathy and returned by Charlemagne to Rome where he was welcomed in triumph, as the conspiracy against him was not popular.

In 800, Charlemagne came to Rome to clear Leo of the serious accusations that the conspirators had brought against him. While the bishops refused to try the Leo, he willingly mounted the ambo in St. Peter's and solemnly swore that he was innocent of the charges. Charlemagne, then, ordered the conspirators to be executed, but at Leo's request, their sentence was commuted to exile.

A few days later on Christmas Day, Leo placed a crown on Charlemagne's head and revived the Empire in the West. Pope Leo saw, in that Empress Irene was alone on the throne of the Eastern Empire, a chance to reunite the two halves of the Roman empire by her marriage to Charlemagne. His proposal of marriage between the two was not well received by the nobles of the Eastern Empire, who took action and chose Nikephoros, Irene's finance minister, as emperor.

Leo was much involved in the disputes arising in the Western Church particularly among the Anglo-Saxons that included the restoration of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the See of Canterbury. He fought the heresy of Adoptionism that had arisen in Spain. Leo also helped the monks of Constantinople who, led by St. Theodore Studites, had been exiled for opposing imperial tyranny.

While Leo has harmonist relations with Charlemagne, he opposed Charlemagne's efforts to have the Filioque inserted in the Nicene Creed, going so far as to order the original (Orthodox) Nicene Creed wording to be engraved on silver tablets that he caused to be affixed at the tombs of Ss. Peter and Paul in Rome, writing "Haec Leo posui amore et cautela Orthodoxae Fidei" (I, Leo, placed these here out of love and guardianship of the Orthodox faith).

Pope Leo III died in June 816 and was buried in St. Peter's on June 12, 816 along with the relics of Popes Leo I, Leo II and Leo IV.

Dialogue with the Frankish Delegates on the Filioque

In the year DCCCIX, certain Frankish monks on Mount Olivet at Jerusalem, having been publicly accused of heresy by a Monk of St. Sabba, named John, because they recited the Creed with the addition of the word ‘Filioque,’ and having defended themselves at the time by alleging that they followed the faith of the Roman Church, wrote a long and lamentable Letter of complaint to Pope Leo III.; in which letter, besides quoting other authorities, they mentioned that they had heard the Creed sung in the Chapel of the Emperor Charles the Great with that addition, and besought the Pope to communicate with the Emperor upon the subject, and to send them a distinct answer.

Whereupon the Pope wrote to the Emperor Charlemagne, telling him of the complaint which had been made, and adding, that he had received at the same time a letter from Thomas, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and had sent back a declaration of his own faith to serve them all as a rule: and a copy of this his declaration to the Easterns he sent together with his Letter to Charlemagne.”Charlemagne, on the receipt of Pope Leo’s Letters, caused a Council to be held at Aquisgranum, A.D. DCCCIX.: and delegates were sent in consequence to Rome,to obtain the Pope’s consent to the insertion of the clause ‘Filioque’ into the Constantinopolitan Creed. The following are some passages of the Conference of these delegates with Pope Leo, as related by Smaragdus, Abbot of St. Michael’s in Lorraine.[1]

Delegates: But since, as you say, this is most certainly to be believed, and most firmly held, and in case of necessity most constantly defended, must it not be right to teach it to all who as yet know it not, and on those that know it to impress it still more?

Pope Leo: Even so.

Delegates: If so, suppose any one be ignorant of this, or believe it not, can he be saved?

Pope Leo: Whosoever by his more subtle understanding is able to attain unto this, and being able, refuses to know it, or knowing to believe it, he cannot be saved. For there are many things, and this among others, which are of the deeper mysteries of our holy faith, to the searching out of which many have sufficiency, but many others, being hindered by defect of age or understanding, have not sufficiency. And therefore, as I have said already, he who can and will not, he cannot be saved.

Delegates: If then it is so, or rather, since it is so, and this is to be believed, and not kept back in silence, why may it not be sung, and be taught by being sung?

Pope Leo: It may, I say, it may be sung in teaching, and be taught by being sung: but neither by writing nor by singing may it be unlawfully inserted into that, which it is forbidden us to touch.

Delegates: Since then we both know that for this reason ye think or declare it unlawful to insert those words as to be sung or written in the Creed, that they who made the same Creed did not put them in like the rest, and the subsequent great Synods (i.e. the Fourth of Chalcedon,and the Fifth and Sixth of Constantinople) forbade that any man under any pretext of necessity or devotion for the salvation of men should make any new Creed, or take away, add, or change any thing from the old, we must not waste time any longer on this point. But this I inquire: this I beg you to declare: since this thing is good to be believed, if they had inserted it, would it in that case have been good to sing too, as now it is good to believe?

Pope Leo: Good assuredly, and very good, as being so great a mystery of faith, as no man may disbelieve, who can attain unto it.

Delegates: Would not those same makers of the Creed have then done well, if by adding only four syllables they had made clear to all following ages so necessary a mystery of faith?

Pope Leo: As I dare not to say that they would not have done well if they had done so, because, without doubt, they would have done with it as with the rest which they either omitted or put in, knowing what they did, and being enlightened not by human but divine wisdom, so neither do I dare to say that they understood this point less than we: on the contrary, I say that they considered why they left it out, and why, when once left out, they forbade either it or any thing else to be added afterwards. Do thou consider, what ye think or yourselves: for as for me, I say not that I will not set myself up above (those holy Councils), but God forbid that I should either equal myself to them.

Delegates: God forbid, O Father, that we either should think or say any thing of such a kind, either of pride, or through desire to be praised of men in divine things, as if we either preferred or equaled ourselves to them; but it is only from a sense of the quality of these times, and from a charitable compassion for the weakness of our brethren: ...... For if your Fatherhood know how many thousands now know it, because it is sung, who would else have never known it, perhaps ye would hold with us, and even let it be sung with your own consent.

Pope Leo: Suppose for a moment that I consented, still, I pray, answer me this: Are all such like mysteries of faith, which are not contained in the Creed, and without which whoever hath sufficiency thereto cannot be a Catholic, are all such, I say, to be put into the Creed, and added at will, for the compendious instruction of the more simple?

Delegates: By no means: for all points are not equally necessary.

Pope Leo: If not all, yet certainly there are very many of this kind, that they who are capable must believe them, or cease to be Catholics.

Delegates: Will ye mention any one, I will not say higher, but at least such as may be compared with this, which is wanting in the Creed?

Pope Leo: In truth that I will, and without any difficulty.

Delegates: Mention first one, and if need be, then add a second.

Pope Leo: Since what we now do, we do by way of friendly contention, and what we seek is for the spiritual good of both sides, (and would that in all such questions, whether lesser or greater, pertaining to the interests of the Church and Catholicism, inquiry were always carried on in this way with a mind for peace and without perverseness!) lest we should chance to say any thing rashly concerning such venerable mysteries, ye shall let us have space to consider, and then we will give you whatever the Lord shall have given us on this point.”

And the delay of a night having been allowed as sufficient, the Pope said thus: “Is it more to salvation to believe, or more dangerous not to believe, that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father, than it is to believe that the Son is Divine Wisdom begotten of Divine Wisdom, that He is Divine Truth begotten of Divine Truth, and yet that Both are but One and the same Divine Wisdom, and One and the same Divine Truth, essentially One God? while yet it is certain that this has not been put by the holy Fathers into the aforesaid Creed? If then these two truths which I have alleged are enough to satisfy you, as they should satisfy wise men, and make you agree with us, and acknowledge that all those Catholic Fathers our elders, who either put not your clause into the Creeds, or forbade the putting of it or of any thing else into them,left it not out, nor forbade its insertion, either from ignorance at the time, or from negligence in providing for the future, -if so, I say, I will very gladly omit to heap up further testimonies. Ye must know however, that not only with respect to the Divine essence, but also with respect to the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation, we have by God’s help, and from the authority of the same Fathers, so many and so signal points to instance, as are enough not only to satisfy wise men, but also to confound the unwise. ...

Delegates:.... Yet ... it is one thing by arrogant overstepping to despise what is good, another thing of good will to make what is good better.

Pope Leo: That too, though sometimes good to do, yet needs caution, and is not to be done everywhere; as might be proved by many testimonies; but it is clear of itself, how much better it is, that every one should take care that what is good be also so, as is profitable: or if ever he strive to make that which is good better, let him look first and take great heed, lest by presuming beyond his duty he make even that which was salutary in itself hurtful by corrupting it. Unless, may be, any one will pretend of this present or other similar points, which he may without any danger to himself teach and learn, that the lawful order of teaching is to be left, and they are to be then and so introduced, that never afterwards either the teacher or the learner shall be innocent, but both shall always and deservedly be judged blameable of the crime of transgression. Which, perhaps, if thou dost not disdain to listen to me, touches thee not undeservedly, who art for bringing it to pass that whereas hitherto every one who had wisdom in the Church of God might know this truth for himself and teach it to them that had not wisdom without though of any fault, now, for the future, I say not only the simple shall be unable to learn it, but even he that hath wisdom shall not be able to sing it without transgression, or teach it, as ye would have done, to any other; and while ye choose to seek to profit many by an unlawful road, ye leave none, in this point at least, whom, if he follow you, ye shall not hurt.For as for what ye said before, that he who should do any such thing of devotion, seeking edification, is not to be taken or judged of in the same way as he, who should presume to make a contumacious order of so doing; this excuse or father, if ye will let me say it, this subterfuge, make not to the point: it is not to your purpose. For the Fathers made no such distinction as this in their decree: nor did they allow the well-intentioned, and forbid only the ill-intentioned to do this; but simply and absolutely forbade, that any should do it.D.Hast thou not thyself given permission to sing that same Creed in the Church? Or is it from us that this custom of singing it hath proceeded? For it is from hence that the custom of singing it came to us; not from us hither: and so we sing it even to this day. P.I gave permission to sing it; but not in the singing to add, take away, or change any thing. And to speak somewhat more expressly, since ye compel me, as long as ye were content in this point with what the holy Roman Church holds, as to singing or celebrating in such holy mysteries as these, there was no manner of need that either we should trouble ourselves in such matters, or force upon others occasion of trouble. But as for what ye say, that ye sing it thus for this cause, that ye heard others in those parts so sing it before yourselves, what is this to us? For we do not sing that Creed at all, but read it only, and use to teach it by reading: and yet we presume not in reading or teaching to add anything by way of insertion to the same Creed. But whatever truths are understood to be wanting from the said Creeds though all but fit to be there, these we presume not, as I have repeatedly said, to insert into them; but at fit time and place we take care to minister and teach them to those who are capable.

Delegates: So then, as I see this is the judgment of your Fatherhood, that first of all these words on which our question turns, be taken out of the Creed, and then afterwards it may freely and lawfully, whether by singing or delivery, be learned and taught of all.

Pope Leo: Such doubtless is our judgement: and we by all means urge that ye for your parts adhere to the same.’[2]

Succession box:
Leo III of Rome
Preceded by:
Adrian I
Pope of Rome
795 - 816
Succeeded by:
Stephen V
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  • A Harmony of Anglican Doctrine with the Doctrine of the Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East, 1846, pp. 137 –141; Note that other English translationsof this conference are found in Richard S. Haugh, Photius and the Carolingians: The Trinitarian Controversy, Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1975; George Broadley Howard, The Schism Between the Oriental and Western Churches: With Special Reference to the Addition of the Filioque to the Creed, 58., pp. 27 –29, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892; In fairness, it should be added that the full authenticity of Pope Leo’s conference is doubted by some, see Daniel F. Callahan, The Problem ofthe ‘Filioque’and the Letter from the Pilgrim Monks of the Mount of Olives to Pope Leo III and Charlemagne. Is the Letter another Forgery by Adémar of Chabannes?, in Revue Bénédictine, Vol. CII., Issues 1 –2, pp. 75–134, Turnhout: Brepols, 1992.
  • Ibid.
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