Forgeries and the Papacy

The Historical Influence and Use of Forgeries in Promotion of the Doctrine of the Papacy

By William Webster


In the middle of the ninth century, a radical change began in the Western Church, which dramatically altered the Constitution of the Church, and laid the ground work for the full development of the papacy. The papacy could never have emerged without a fundamental restructuring of the Constitution of the Church and of men’s perceptions of the history of that Constitution. As long as the true facts of Church history were well known, it would serve as a buffer against any unlawful ambitions. However, in the 9th century, a literary forgery occurred which completely revolutionized the ancient government of the Church in the West. It provided a legal foundation for the ascendancy of the papacy in Western Christendom. This forgery is known as the Pseudo–Isidorian Decretals, written around 845 A.D. The Decretals are a complete fabrication of Church history. They set forth precedents for the exercise of sovereign authority of the popes over the universal Church prior to the fourth century and make it appear that the popes had always exercised sovereign dominion and had ultimate authority even over Church Councils. Nicholas I (858–867) was the first to use them as the basis for advancing his claims of authority. But it was not until the 11th century with Pope Gregory VII that the these decretals were used in a significant way to alter the government of the Western Church. It was at this time that the Decretals were combined with two other major forgeries, The Donation of Constantine and the Liber Pontificalis, along with other falsified writings, and codified into a system of Church law which elevated Gregory and all his successors as absolute monarchs over the Church in the West. These writings were then utilized by Gratian in composing his Decretum. The Decretum, which was first published in 1151 A.D., was intended as a collection of everything that Gratian could find which could give historical precedent to the teaching of papal primacy, and therefore the authority of tradition, which could then carry the force of law in the Church. It had such success that it became the standard work of the law of the Roman Church and thus the basis of all canon law and Scholastic theology. Some Roman Catholic apologists claim that though there were forgeries in the Church, these really had very little impact upon the advancement and development of the papacy, since it was already an established reality by the time the forgeries appeared. Karl Keating, for example, states that practically all the commentators, with the exception of fundamentalists, agree with this assessment. But this is completely false. The historical facts reveal that the papacy was never a reality as far as the universal Church is concerned. There are many eminent Roman Catholic historians who have testified to that fact as well as to the importance of the forgeries, especially those of Pseudo-Isidore. One such historian is Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger. He was the most renowned Roman Catholic historian of the last century, who taught Church history for 47 years as a Roman Catholic. He makes these important comments:

In the middle of the ninth century—about 845—there arose the huge fabrication of the Isidorian decretals...About a hundred pretended decrees of the earliest Popes, together with certain spurious writings of other Church dignitaries and acts of Synods, were then fabricated in the west of Gaul, and eagerly seized upon Pope Nicholas I at Rome, to be used as genuine documents in support of the new claims put forward by himself and his successors.
That the pseudo–Isidorian principles eventually revolutionized the whole constitution of the Church, and introduced a new system in place of the old—on that point there can be no controversy among candid historians.
The most potent instrument of the new Papal system was Gratian’s Decretum, which issued about the middle of the twelfth century from the first school of Law in Europe, the juristic teacher of the whole of Western Christendom, Bologna. In this work the Isidorian forgeries were combined with those of the other Gregorian (Gregory VII) writers...and with Gratia’s own additions. His work displaced all the older collections of canon law, and became the manual and repertory, not for canonists only, but for the scholastic theologians, who, for the most part, derived all their knowledge of Fathers and Councils from it. No book has ever come near it in its influence in the Church, although there is scarcely another so chokeful of gross errors, both intentional and unintentional
(Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1870), pp. 76-77, 79, 115-116).

The Protestant historian, George Salmon, explains the importance and influence of Pseudo–Isidore:

In the ninth century another collection of papal letters...was published under the name of Isidore, by whom, no doubt, a celebrated Spanish bishop of much learning was intended. In these are to be found precedents for all manner of instances of the exercise of sovereign dominion by the pope over other Churches. You must take notice of this, that it was by furnishing precedents that these letters helped the growth of papal power. Thenceforth the popes could hardly claim any privilege but they would find in these letters supposed proofs that the privilege in question was no more than had been always claimed by their predecessors, and always exercised without any objection...On these spurious decretals is built the whole fabric of Canon Law. The great schoolman, Thomas Aquinas, was taken in by them, and he was induced by them to set the example of making a chapter on the prerogatives of the pope an essential part of the treatises on the Church...Yet completely successful as was this forgery, I suppose there never was a more clumsy one. These decretal epistles had undisputed authority for some seven hundred years, that is to say, down to the time of the Reformation.
If we want to know what share these letters had in the building of the Roman fabric we have only to look at the Canon Law. The ‘Decretum’ of Gratia quotes three hundred and twenty-four times the epistles of the popes of the first four centuries; and of these three hundred and twenty–four quotations, three hundred and thirteen are from the letters which are now universally known to be spurious
(George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church (London: John Murray, 1914), pp. 449, 451, 453).

In addition to the Pseudo Isidorian Decretals there were other forgeries which were successfully used for the promotion of the doctrine of papal primacy. One famous instance is that of Thomas Aquinas. In 1264 A.D. Thomas authored a work entitled Against the Errors of the Greeks. This work deals with the issues of theological debate between the Greek and Roman Churches in that day on such subjects as the Trinity, the Procession of the Holy Spirit, Purgatory and the Papacy. In his defense of the papacy Thomas bases practically his entire argument on forged quotations of Church fathers. Under the names of the eminent Greek fathers such as Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and Maximus the Abbott, a Latin forger had compiled a catena of quotations interspersing a number that were genuine with many that were forged which was subsequently submitted to Pope Urban IV. This work became known as the Thesaurus of Greek Fathers or Thesaurus Graecorum Patrum. In addition the Latin author also included spurious canons from early Ecumenical Councils. Pope Urban in turn submitted the work to Thomas Aquinas who used many of the forged passages in his work Against the Errors of the Greeks mistakenly thinking they were genuine. These spurious quotations had enormous influence on many Western theologians in succeeding centuries. The following is a sample of Thomas’ argumentation for the papacy using the spurious quotations from the Thesaurus:

Chapter thirty-four

That the same (the Roman Pontiff) possesses in the Church a fullness of power.

It is also established from the texts of the aforesaid Doctors that the Roman Pontiff possesses a fullness of power in the Church. For Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, says in his Thesaurus: “As Christ coming forth from Israel as leader and sceptre of the Church of the Gentiles was granted by the Father the fullest power over every principality and power and whatever is that all might bend the knee to him, so he entrusted most fully the fullest power to Peter and his successors.” And again: “To no one else but Peter and to him alone Christ gave what is his fully.” And further on: “The feet of Christ are his humanity, that is, the man himself, to whom the whole Trinity gave the fullest power, whom one of the Three assumed in the unity of his person and lifted up on high to the Father above every principality and power, so that all the angels of God might adore him (Hebr. 1:6); which whole and entire he has left in sacrament and power to Peter and to his Church.
And Chrysostom says to the Bulgarian delegation speaking in the person of Christ: “Three times I ask you whether you love me, because you denied me three times out of fear and trepidation. Now restored, however, lest the brethren believe you to have lost the grace and authority of the keys, I now confirm in you that which is fully mine, because you love me in their presence.”
This is also taught on the authority of Scripture. For in Matthew 16:19 the Lord said to Peter without restriction: Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven.

Chapter thirty-five

That he enjoys the same power conferred on Peter by Christ.
It is also shown that Peter is the Vicar of Christ and the Roman Pontiff is Peter’s successor enjoying the same power conferred on Peter by Christ. For the canon of the Council of Chalcedon says: “If any bishop is sentenced as guilty of infamy, he is free to appeal the sentence to the blessed bishop of old Rome, whom we have as Peter the rock of refuge, and to him alone, in the place of God, with unlimited power, is granted the authority to hear the appeal of a bishop accused of infamy in virtue of the keys given him by the Lord.” And further on: “And whatever has been decreed by him is to be held as from the vicar of the apostolic throne.”
Likewise, Cyril, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, says, speaking in the person of Christ: “You for a while, but I without end will be fully and perfectly in sacrament and authority with all those whom I shall put in your place, just as I am also with you.” And Cyril of Alexandria in his Thesaurus says that the Apostles “in the Gospels and Epistles have affirmed in all their teaching that Peter and his Church are in the place of the Lord, granting him participation in every chapter and assembly, in every election and proclamation of doctrine.” And further on: “To him, that is, to Peter, all by divine ordinancebow the head, and the rulers of the world obey him as the Lord Jesus himself.” And Chrysostom, speaking in the person of Christ, says: “Feed my sheep (John 21:17), that is, in my place be in charge of your brethren"
(St. Thomas Aquinas, Against the Errors of the Greeks. Found in James Likoudis, Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism (New Rochelle: Catholics United for the Faith, 1992), pp. 182-184).

With the exception of the last reference to Chrysostom all of Thomas’ references cited to Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom and the Council of Chalcedon are forgeries. The remainder of Aquinas’ treatise in defense of the papacy is similar in nature. Edward Denny gives the following historical summary of these forgeries and their use by Thomas Aquinas:

As the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals were by no means the first, so they were not the last forgeries in the interests of the advancement of the Papal system. Gratian himself, in addition to using the forged Decretals and the fabrications of others who preceded him, had incorporated also into the Decretum fresh corruptions of his own with that object, but amongst such forgeries a catena of spurious passages from the Greek Fathers and Councils, put forth in the thirteenth century, had probably, next to the Pseudo-lsidorian Decretals, the widest influence in this direction.
The object of this forgery was as follows: The East had been separated from the West since the excommunication by Pope Leo IX of Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and that of the former by the latter in July 1054, in which the other Eastern Patriarchs concurred. The Latins, especially the Dominicans, who had established themselves in the East, made strenuous efforts to induce the Easterns to submit to the Papacy. The great obstacle in the way of their success was the fact that the Orientals knew nothing of such claims as those which were advanced by the Roman Bishops. In their belief the highest rank in the Hierarchy of the Church was that of Patriarch. This was clearly expressed by the Patrician Babanes at the Council of Constantinople, 869. ‘God,’ he said, ‘hath placed His Church in the five patriarchates, and declared in His Gospel that they should never utterly fail, because they are the heads of the Church. For that saying, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” meaneth this, when two fall they run to three; when three fall they run to two; but when four perchance have fallen, one, which remains in Christ our God, the Head of all, calls back again the remaining body of the Church.”
They were ignorant of any autocratic power residing jure divino in the Bishop of Rome. They regarded Latin authors with suspicions as the fautors of the unprimitive claims of the Bishop of Old Rome; hence if they were to be persuaded that the Papalist pretensions were Catholic, and thus induced to recognise them, the only way would be to produce evidence provided ostensibly from Greek sources. Accordingly a Latin theologian drew up a sort of Thesaurus Graecorum Patrum, in which, amongst genuine extracts from Greek Fathers, lie mingled spurious passages purporting to be taken from various Councils and writings of Fathers, notably St. Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Abbot.
This work was laid before Urban IV, who was deceived by it. He was thus able to use it in his correspondence with the Emperor, Michael Palaeologus, to prove that from ‘the Apostolic throne of the Roman Pontiffs it was to be sought what was to be held, or what was to be believed, since it is his right to lay down, to ordain, to disprove, to command, to loose and to bind in the place of Him who appointed him, and delivered and granted to no one else but him alone what is supreme. To this throne also all Catholics bend the head by divine law, and the primates of the world confessing the true faith are obedient and turn their thoughts as if to Jesus Christ Himself, and regard him as the Sun, and from Him receive the light of truth to the salvation of souls according as the genuine writers of some of the Holy Fathers, both Greek and others, firmly assert.”
Urban, moreover, sent this work to St. Thomas Aquinas...The testimony of these extracts was to him of great value, as he believed that he had in them irrefragable proof that the great Eastern theologians, such as St. Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and the Fathers of the Councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon, recognised the monarchical position of the Pope as ruling the whole Church with absolute power. Consequently he made use of these fraudulent documents in all honesty in setting forth the prerogatives of the Papacy. The grave result followed that, through his authority, the errors which he taught on the subject of the Papacy were introduced into the schools, fortified by the testimony of these fabrications, and thus were received as undoubted truth, whence resulted consequences which can hardly be fully estimated.
It was improbable that the Greeks, who had ample means of discovering the real character of these forgeries, should finally accept them and the teaching based on them; but in the West itself there were no theologians competent to expose the fraud, so that these forgeries were naturally held to be of weighty authority. The high esteem attached to the writings of St. Thomas was an additional reason why this should be the case
(Edward Denny, Papalism (London: Rivingtons, 1912), pp. 114-117).

Von Döllinger elaborates on the far reaching influence of these forgeries, especially in their association with the authority of Aquinas, on succeeding generations of theologians and their extensive use as a defense of the papacy:

In theology, from the beginning of the fourteenth century, the spurious passages of St. Cyril and forged canons of Councils maintained their ground, being guaranteed against all suspicion by the authority of St. Thomas. Since the work of Trionfo in 1320, up to 1450, it is remarkable that no single new work appeared in the interests of the Papal system. But then the contest between the Council of Basle and Pope Eugenius IV evoked the work of Cardinal Torquemada, besides some others of less importance. Torquemada’s argument, which was held up to the time of Bellarmine to be the most conslusive apology of the Papal system, rests entirely on fabrications later than the pseudo-Isidore, and chiefly on the spurious passages of St. Cyril. To ignore the authority of St. Thomas is, according to the Cardinal, bad enough, but to slight the testimony of St. Cyril is intolerable. The Pope is infallible; all authority of other bishops is borrowed or derived frorn his. Decisions of Councils without his assent are null and void. These fundamental principles of Torquemada are proved by spurious passages of Anacletus, Clement, the Council of Chalcedon, St. Cyril, and a mass of forged or adulterated testimonies. In the times of Leo X and Clement III, the Cardinals Thomas of Vio, or Cajetan, and Jacobazzi, followed closely in his footsteps. Melchior Canus built firmly on the authority of Cyril, attested by St. Thomas, and so did Bellarmine and the Jesuits who followed him. Those who wish to get a bird’s–eye view of the extent to which the genuine tradition of Church authority was still overlaid and obliterated by the rubbish of later inventions and forgeries about 1563, when the Loci of Canus appeared, must read the fifth book of his work. It is indeed still worse fifty years later in this part of Bellarmine’s work. The difference is that Canus was honest in his belief, which cannot be said of Bellarmine.
The Dominicans, Nicolai, Le Quien, Quetif, and Echard, were the first to avow openly that their master St. Thomas, had been deceived by an imposter, and had in turn misled the whole tribe of theologians and canonists who followed him. On the one hand, the Jesuits, including even such a scholar as Labbe, while giving up the pseudo–Isidorian decretals, manifested their resolve to still cling to St. Cyril. In Italy, as late as 1713, Professor Andruzzi of Bologna cited the most important of the interpolations of St. Cyril as a conclusive argument in his controversial treatise against the patriarch Dositheus
(Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1870), pp. 233-234).

The authority claims of Roman Catholicism ultimately devolve upon the institution of the papacy. The papacy is the center and source from which all authority flows for Roman Catholicism. Rome has long claimed that this institution was established by Christ and has been in force in the Church from the very beginning. But the historical record gives a very different picture. This institution was promoted primarily through the falsification of historical fact through the extensive use of forgeries as Thomas Aquinas' apologetic for the papacy demonstrates. Forgery is its foundation. As an institution it was a much later development in Church history, beginning with the Gregorian reforms of pope Gregory VII in the 11th century and was restricted completely to the West. The Eastern Chruch never accepted the false claims of the Roman Church and refused to submit to its insistence that the Bishop of Rome was supreme ruler of the Church. This they knew was not true to the historical record and was a perversion of the true teaching of Scripture, the papal exegesis of which was not taught by the Church fathers (For an analysis of the church father's interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16:18 please refer to the article on that subject on this web page)

Dr. Aristeides Papadakis is an Orthodox historian and Professor of Byzantine history at the University of Maryland. He gives the following analysis of the Eastern Church’s attitude towards the claims of the bishops of Rome especially as they were formulated in the 11th century Gregorian reforms. He points out that on the basis of the exegesis of scripture and the facts of history, the Eastern Church has consistently rejected the papal claims of Rome:

What was in fact being implied in the western development was the destruction of the Church’s pluralistic structure of government. Papal claims to supreme spiritual and doctrinal authority quite simply, were threatening to transform the entire Church into a vast centralized diocese...Such innovations were the result of a radical reading of the Church’s conciliar structure of government as revealed in the life of the historic Church. No see, regardless of its spiritual seniority, had ever been placed outside of this structure as if it were a power over or above the Church and its government...Mutual consultation among Churches—episcopal collegiality and conciliarity, in short—had been the quintessential character of Church government from the outset. It was here that the locus of supreme authority in the Church could be found. Christendom indeed was both a diversity and a unity, a family of basically equal sister-Churches, whose unity rested not on any visible juridical authority, but on conciliarity, and on a common declaration of faith and the sacramental life.
The ecclesiology of communion and fraternity of the Orthodox, which was preventing them from following Rome blindly and submissively like slaves, was based on Scripture and not merely on history or tradition. Quite simply, the power to bind and loose mentioned in the New Testament had been granted during Christ’s ministry to every disciple and not just to Peter alone...In sum, no one particular Church could limit the fulness of God’s redeeming grace to itself, at the expense of the others. Insofar as all were essentially identical, the fulness of catholicity was present in all equally. In the event, the Petrine biblical texts, cherished by the Latins, were beside the point as arguments for Roman ecclesiology and superiority. The close logical relationship between the papal monarchy and the New Testament texts, assumed by Rome, was quite simply undocumented. For all bishops, as successors of the apostles, claim the privilege and power granted to Peter. Differently put, the Savior’s words could not be interpreted institutionally, legalistically or territorially, as the foundation of the Roman Church, as if the Roman pontiffs were alone the exclusive heirs to Christ’s commission. It is important to note parenthetically that a similar or at least kindred exegesis of the triad of Matt. 16:18, Luke 22:32 and John 21:15f. was also common in the West before the reformers of the eleventh century chose to invest it with a peculiar ‘Roman’ significance. Until then, the three proof–texts were viewed primarily ‘as the foundation of the Church, in the sense that the power of the keys was conferred on a sacerdotalis ordo in the person of Peter: the power granted to Peter was symbolically granted to the whole episcopate.’ In sum, biblical Latin exegetes before the Gregorian reform did not view the New Testament texts unambiguously as a blueprint for papal sovereignty; their understanding overall was non–primatial.
The Byzantine indictment against Rome also had a strong historical component. A major reason why Orthodox writers were unsympathetic to the Roman restatement of primacy was precisely because it was so totally lacking in historical precedent. Granted that by the twelfth century papal theorists had become experts in their ability to circumvent the inconvenient facts of history. And yet, the Byzantines were ever ready to hammer home the theme that the historical evidence was quite different. Although the Orthodox may not have known that Gregorian teaching was in part drawn from the forged decretals of pseudo–Isidore (850’s), they were quite certain that it was not based on catholic tradition in either its historical or canonical form. On this score, significantly, modern scholarship agrees with the Byzantine analysis. As it happens, contemporary historians have repeatedly argued that the universal episcopacy claimed by the eleventh–century reformers would have been rejected by earlier papal incumbents as obscenely blasphemous (to borrow the phrase of a recent scholar). The title ‘universal’ which was advanced formally at the time was actually explicitly rejected by earlier papal giants such as Gregory I. To be brief, modern impartial scholarship is reasonably certain that the conventional conclusion which views the Gregorians as defenders of a consistently uniform tradition is largely fiction. ‘The emergence of a papal monarchy from the eleventh century onwards cannot be represented as the realization of a homogenous development, even within the relatively closed circle of the western, Latin, Church’
(R.A. Marcus, From Augustine to Gregory the Great (London: Variorum Reprints, 1983), p. 355). It has been suggested that the conviction that papatus (a new term constructed on the analogy of episcopatus in the eleventh century) actually represented a rank or an order higher than that of bishop, was a radical revision of Church structure and government. The discontinuity was there and to dismiss it would be a serious oversight (Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1994), pp. 158-160, 166-167).