Did the Catholic Church Rely on Forged Documents for Dogmas?

Travis:  You are assuming that the Catholic Church is true and wouldn’t ever lie about their doctrines or dogmas. Yet, papal infallibility first arises in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. I will gladly take God-Breathed Scripture over a Catholic Church that has, many times, used fake documents to “prove” their teachings.

Bread From Heaven: I am providing an article written by Steven O’Reilly originally published in This Rock magazine by Catholic Answers.

The False Decretals

by Steven O’Reilly

Anti-Catholic apologists often charge that Catholic doctrines regarding the primacy and infallibility of the bishop of Rome are founded upon a set of documents forged in the ninth century, known as the “False Decretals” or the “Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals,” which purport to be written by early popes. It is alleged that Roman bishops relied on these forgeries to establish their authority and that without these forgeries popes never could have “become” infallible.

Dave Hunt devotes a whole chapter of A Woman Rides the Beast to Rome’s “Fraud and Fabricated History.” According to Hunt, the popes “labored mightily to satisfy their lust for power and pleasure and wealth.” Not being able to find justification for these powers in Scripture or the Church Fathers, rewrite history by manufacturing allegedly historical documents.” Another anti-Catholic apologist, William Webster, says in The Church of Rome and the Bar of History that Rome was the “first to use” the False Decretals and that they “completely revolutionized the primitive government of the Church.” Similar claims regarding the False Decretals are made by former Catholic and ex-priest Peter de Rosa in Vicars of Christ.

Anti-Catholic apologists argue that the False Decretals provided the scriptural and historical precedents upon which papal doctrines are founded. Examples from the False Decretals suffice to illustrate how they appear to support the anti-Catholic argument. The so-called First Epistle of Zephyrinus applies the words “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19) to Peter and to his successors in the See of Rome. Bishops are said to be judged by the pope “and by no other.” The equally fraudulent First Epistle of Pope Callistus calls the Roman Church the “mother of all Churches” and “head” of the Church and declares that anything done contrary to the Roman Church “cannot on any account be permitted to be held valid.”

J. H. Ignaz von Dollinger, the nineteenth-century historian who defected from the Church after the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, says it is “with perfect consistency that Pseudo-Isidore makes his early popes say: ‘The Roman Church remains to the end free from the stain of heresy.”‘ Dollinger claims that prior to the False Decretals “no serious attempt was made anywhere to introduce the neo-Roman theory of infallibility” and that “the popes did not dream of laying claim to such a privilege.” Upon such forged letters, or so the anti-Catholic alleges, the papacy is built.

That the False Decretals contain material that supports papal claims does not prove that the bishops of Rome played any part in their manufacture. Forgers often mix actual events, widely-known facts, and personalities into their work in order to improve a document’s credibility. One cannot presume the subject matter of a forged document easily or necessarily reveals the identity or the agenda of its true author. The spurious “Arabic Canons” of Nicaea, which call the pope the “head and prince of all patriarchs,” are more explicitly pro-primacy than are the genuine canons of the council of Nicaea. These spurious canons were written not in the West but in the East. If this fact had not been known widely, anti-Catholic apologists might have added the Arabic Canons to their list of alleged Roman forgeries.

By Webster’s reckoning, the False Decretals were written in 845. Pope Nicholas I (858-867), the first pope to quote them, did not begin his reign until thirteen years and three pontificates later. These facts suggest the False Decretals had been in circulation and had obtained credibility before Nicholas I used them. If they had been intended to advance Roman claims of authority, one would expect that they would have made their Roman debut centuries earlier than they did. Regardless, the long-held opinion of scholars, including Dollinger—who is the main source for Hunt, Webster, and De Rosa on this matter—is that the False Decretals were written in France, not Rome.

More devastating to the anti-Catholic apologist’s argument is that Dollinger admits that the goal of the forger was not the extension of papal authority. Rather, he says, “The immediate object of the compiler of this forgery was to protect bishops against their metropolitans and other authorities, so as to secure absolute impunity and the exclusion of all influence of the secular power.” Dollinger asserts this object was to be gained through “an immense extension of the papal power.”

In essence, he argues that Roman primacy and infallibility were created by the forger to be the means by which his real goal—the protection of local bishops—could be achieved. But this argument is unreasonable. The concocting of such a grand, elaborate, and “new” theory of papal powers to achieve the relatively modest end of protecting local bishops would create more difficulties for a forged document’s credibility than it could hope to solve. What seems more probable is that the forger appealed to an authority his audience already knew and accepted and by means of this acceptance hoped to advance his agenda. Such an appeal would not be the first time a forger had attempted to use the prestige and authority of the Roman see to his advantage. For example, the sixth ecumenical council, Constantinople III (680), examined heretical letters said to have been written by Pope Vigilius, but it rejected them as frauds. The more serious accusation is that the forgeries brought about a “revolution” in the government of the Church. While the anti-Catholic charge appears damning at first glance, it must be remembered the Roman claims were well-established before the False Decretals were penned in the ninth century. Roman bishops long had applied verses of Scripture to their office. For example, papal legates at the Council of Ephesus (431) refer to the pope as the successor of Peter and as having the powers to bind and loose (Matt. 16:19), while Pope Hormisdas, in 517, applies Matthew 16:18—where Peter is declared “rock”—to the Apostolic See. Although the False Decretals describe the Roman Church as “head,” numerous genuine documents that predate these forgeries explicitly declare as much. The records of the ecumenical councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon (451), Constantinople III, and Nicaea II (787) contain many references to the pope or the Apostolic See as “father,” “head of all Churches,” “archbishop of all the Churches,” “spiritual mother,” “sacred head,” and so forth.

It was no ninth-century innovation to claim that anything done against the will of the Apostolic See was invalid. Fifth-century historians Sozomen and Socrates, in separate histories of the fourth-century Church, record in similar words that “an ecclesiastical canon commands that the Churches shall not make any ordinances against the opinion of the bishop of Rome.” Peter Chrysologus, bishop of Ravenna, declares in his Letter to Eutyches (449) that cases of faith cannot be tried “without the consent of the bishop of Rome.” At the Council of Chalcedon, papal legates—without opposition—declare the holding of a council without the pope’s authority to be a “thing which had never taken place nor can take place.” The Council of Ephesus declares itself “compelled” by the canons and by the decision of Pope Celestine to depose the heretic Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. The pope was recognized in both East and West as having the authority to hear appeals from bishops, to depose them, and to restore them to their sees, as proved by the course of history and by the canons of the Council of Sardica (343).

While infallibility may be inferred from some of the genuine documents cited, more explicit affirmations of it may be found in other places. For example, in 517 the Eastern bishops assented to and signed the formula of Pope Hormisdas, which states in part: “The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who said, ‘Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ [Matt 16:18], should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied.”

In a letter from Pope Agatho, accepted by Constantinople III, the Pope says the Roman Church “has never erred,” has never yielded to “heretical innovations,” and “remains undefiled unto the end.” Agatho links this claim directly to the “divine promise” found in Luke 22:32, where the Lord prays that Peter’s faith would never fail. Declarations that the Apostolic See “has been kept unsullied” are claims of papal infallibility.

In short, there is no reason to suspect the papacy to be the forgery factory conjured up in the minds of anti-Catholic apologists. If many, including popes, presumed the veracity of the False Decretals for a time, it was because the documents in many respects corresponded to the already long-accepted reality of the primacy and infallibility of the popes. Furthermore, no doctrinal error may be inferred from the fact that False Decretals were quoted by popes, since papal infallibility applies to definitions on faith and morals, not to judgments about the authenticity of documents. The important point is that none of the forgeries served as the basis for a single doctrine regarding the papacy. The doctrines came first, the forgeries long centuries later.


• Steven O’Reilly freelances from Snellville, Georgia.

© This Rock, Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177, (619) 541-1131.

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14 Responses to Did the Catholic Church Rely on Forged Documents for Dogmas?

  1. Roman Catholicism teaches that Talmudic Judaism & Quranic Islam worship the same god as they do!

    Christians worship the God & Father of Jesus Christ, the Only Son of God & the Holy Spirit as the Triune God. The First Epistle of John chapter 4 & 5 condemns those who reject the Son of God & teaches that they are NOT of God.

    Roman Catholicism, Talmudic Judaism & Quranic Islam are enemies of Jesus Christ & are NOT of God.

  2. Isa Almisry says:

    “The spurious “Arabic Canons” of Nicaea, which call the pope the “head and prince of all patriarchs,” are more explicitly pro-primacy than are the genuine canons of the council of Nicaea. These spurious canons were written not in the West but in the East. If this fact had not been known widely, anti-Catholic apologists might have added the Arabic Canons to their list of alleged Roman forgeries.”
    They are: they date after the Crusades, when the forging West settled in the East (they are of Maronite origin, though).

  3. anastasia says:

    It’s absurd to say that there are numerous documents attesting to papal infallibility before the decretals. What hogwash. Dollinger, the greatest living Catholic historian living at the time it was made “doctrine” examined the historical question, and showed how few there truly were.

  4. bfhu says:

    Anastasia,
    Since I am not the author I do not know the actual history. But, it is actually irrational to accept the Scriptures canonized by the Catholic Church and reject that Church as false and lying. I tried to figure out how I could logically accept the Scriptures from the hand of the Catholic Church and yet reject the Church that gave me the scriptures. If I could have figured out a way I would still be a Protestant.

    • anastasia says:

      The Catholic Church readily recognizes and acknowledges that these documents are forgeries. They were found to be forgeries a couple of hundred years later. However, by the time it was learned that they were forgeries, they were read and relied upon by popes, theologians (eg. St Thomas) and others – belief in infallibility was engendered by the deception. In other words, the lie was allowed to spread and grow a long time before it was discovered to be lie. Notwithstanding, Dollinger, the leading Church historian living at that time, said that the proponents of papal infallibility (the Jesuits) were not interpreting scripture in the same way as the Fathers. The Fathers of the Church did not interpret the key passages found in the scripture as did the infallibilists. There is nothing express in scripture endowing Peter or his successors with an infallibility, there is nothing implied, and there no interpretation by the Church Fathers of these passages that would give Peter or his successors an infallibility. Further, Vatican I (or Vatican II for that matter) did not follow the traditions of the church in their procedures in regard to voting, discussion, etc.). Dollinger said that in Church tradition, nothing becomes doctrine unless it can be found in scripture, it can be found in tradtion, and it is universally believed by all Catholics. It did not pass one of those tests. Infallibility, Dollinger said, was an opinion held by some (even many), but he said it could never rise to the level of “doctrine.” As a matter of fact, he relates a story (he lived during that time), that before the Council, a theologian at his Catholic College taught “infallibility” as a doctrine of the Church. The theologian was fired because he was teaching “error.” The Catholic Church is the true Church, but those in it, including Councils, popes, bishops, etc. have committed errors. Council statements have been revised and overturned, papal statements have been revised and overturned. and none of that means that this is not the true Church. Infallibility has given the members of our Church a smugness it never had and it doesn’t need.

    • Isa Almisry says:

      “t is actually irrational to accept the Scriptures canonized by the Catholic Church and reject that Church as false and lying. I tried to figure out how I could logically accept the Scriptures from the hand of the Catholic Church and yet reject the Church that gave me the scriptures. If I could have figured out a way I would still be a Protestant.”
      Then why aren’t you Orthodox?

      • anastasia says:

        Nor am I rejecting Scripture. Vatican Council I rejected the canonized Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church, and in large part, they did it because of the forged Isidorian Decretals and other forgeries that the Jesuits used to spread the doctrine of papal infallibility and the supremacy of the pope. . Papal infallibility may be held as an opinion, but it may NEVER be forced upon Catholics to believe as doctrine.

  5. anastasia says:

    I do not reject the Catholic Church. I simply do not have the same notions about her that many do today. Today, even Ratzinger shows he does not
    accept papal infallibility, but he is dishonest enough to play along with it, rather than go about correcting it (through a Council). Councils in the past have amended what prior Councils have done. In other words, the Church have reversed itself on many issues. This does not make the Church false.

  6. bfhu says:

    Dear Anastasia,
    Why do you think that our pope does rejects papal infallibility?
    The Church changing things is not a sign of falsity. I agree with you. Because the Church does change things to adapt to changes in the world that are not moral or doctrinal issues. These the Church does not change.

    • anastasia says:

      Most of Germany rejected papal infallibility,
      Before it was declared a doctrine in 1870, it was held as an opinion, the opinion of most in the Romance countries, and theopinion of few in the Anglo countries; and the opinion of virtually none in the Gallican Church.

    • anastasia says:

      I am not saying that papal infallibility is not wrong as wrong can be. I am saying that the Vatican Council I was an illegitimate Council because it did not follow the traditions of the Church in its vote and in all other ways the Council was conducted. The tradition of the church is that doctrine is declare by “moral unanimity” or an unanimous vote, NOT majority vote. You cannot find or preserve the truth by majority vote.

  7. Isa Almisry says:

    “For example, in 517 the Eastern bishops assented to and signed the formula of Pope Hormisdas, which states in part: “The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who said, ‘Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ [Matt 16:18], should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied.”
    Not quite.
    Although Pope Hormisdas did write that, the only Eastern bishops who signed it were the ones that the Emperor (who came from Old Rome’s Patriarchate to New Rome’s) managed to strong arm to do so-the Vatican is VERY selective on what Caesaropapism it condemns. And they signed it only after EP John the II struck out the clause cited, and instead wrote “”I declare that the see of apostle Peter and the see of this imperial city [of Constantinople] are one.” And even then, most refused to sign and the Emperor could not compel them. The Metropolitan of Thessalonica, suffragan to Old Rome at the time, tore it in two and stomped on it.

    The papal legates to the void council at Constantinople in 869 demanded the bishops of the East sign it, to which they balked. The Emperor did manage to secure signatures, only to have it all voided in 879.

    • anastasia says:

      Honorius was condemned by two Councils as a heretic. In the papal oaths, a newly elected pope had to curse him. The Jesuits tried to redeem him, but in my opinion, their apology cannot hold water. He was an outright heretic, condemned by two Councils and in my opinion, so was Liberius. Other popes have uttered error, plenty of them. One pope told the entire Eastern Church you could baptize with wine, and it took 400 years at Trent to correct that error. You wonder how many people were never baptized because of that utterance, which is not considered “an infallible utterance” because he was only speaking to some of the eastern churches. As a matter of fact, when the doctrine was declared, they could only find a couple of utterances of past popes that could be deemed “infallible”. One was Boniface VIII’s utterance on the supremacy, which Phillip the Fair screamed was error and called for a Council to correct him.

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