Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VIII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Decretals.: Introductory Notice.
The learned editors of the Edinburgh series have given us only a specimen of these frauds, which, pretending to be a series of “papal edicts” from Clement and his successors during the ante-Nicene ages, are, in fact, the manufactured product of the ninth century,—the most stupendous imposture of the worlds history, the most successful and the most stubborn in its hold upon enlightened nations. Like the masons framework of lath and scantlings, on which he turns an arch of massive stone, the Decretals served their purpose, enabling Nicholas I. to found the Papacy by their insignificant aid. That swelling arch of vanity once reared, the framework might be knocked out; but the fabric stood, and has borne up every weight imposed upon it for ages. Its strong abutments have been ignorance and despotism. Nicholas produced his flimsy framework of imposture, and amazed the whole Church by the audacity of the claims he founded upon it. The age, however, was unlearned and uncritical; and, in spite of remonstrances from France under lead of Hincmar, bishop of Rheims, the West patiently submitted to the overthrow of the ancient Canons and the Nicene Constitutions, and bowed to the yoke of a new canon-law, of which these frauds were not only made an integral, but the essential, part. The East never accepted them for a moment: her great patriarchates retain the Nicene System to this day. But, as the established religion of the “Holy Roman Empire,” the national churches of Western Europe, one by one, succumbed to this revolt from historic Catholicity. The Eastern churches were the more numerous. They stood by the Constitutions confirmed by all the Œcumenical Synods; they altered not a word of the Nicene Creed; they stood up for the great Catholic law, “Let the ancient customs prevail;” and they were, and are to this day, the grand historic stem of Christendom. The Papacy created the Western schism, and contrived to call it “the schism of the Greeks.” The Decretals had created the Papacy, and they enabled the first Pope to assume that communion with himself was the test of Catholic communion: hence his excommunication of the Easterns, which, after brief intervals of relaxation, settled into the chronic schism of the Papacy, and produced the awful history of the mediæval Church in Western Europe.
In naming Nicholas I. as the founder of the Papacy, and the first Pope, I merely reach the logical consequence of admitted facts and demonstrated truths. I merely apply the recognised principles of modern thought and scientific law to the science of history, and dismiss the technology of empiricism in this science, as our age has abolished similar empiricisms in the exact sciences. For ages after Copernicus, even those who basked in the light of the true system of the universe went on in the old ruts, talking as if the Ptolemaic theory were yet a reality: and so the very historians whose lucid pages explode the whole fabric of the Papal communion, still go on, in the language of fable, giving to the early Bishops of Rome the title of “Popes;” counting St. Peter as the first Pope; bewildering the student by many confusions of fact with fable; and conceding to the modern fabric of Romanism the name of “the Catholic Church,” with all the immense advantages that accrue to falsehood by such a surrender of truth, and the consequent endowment of imposture with the raiment and the domain of Apostolic antiquity.
p. 602 The student of this series must have noted the following fundamental facts:—
1. That the name papa was common to all bishops, and signified no pre-eminence in those who bore it.
2. That the Apostolic Sees were all equally accounted matrices of unity, and the roots of other Catholic churches.
3. That, down to the Council of Nicæa, the whole system of the Church was framed on this principle, and that these were the “ancient customs” which that council ordained to be perpetual.
4. That “because it was the old capital of the empire,” and for no other reason (the Petrine idea never once mentioned), the primacy of honour was conceded to Old Rome, and equal honour to New Rome, because it was the new capital. 2681 It was to be named second on the list of patriarchates, but to be in no wise inferior to Old Rome; while the ancient and all-commanding patriarchate of Alexandria yielded this credit to the parvenu of Byzantium only on the principle of the Gospel, “in honour preferring one another,” and only because the imperial capital must be the centre of Catholic concourse.
Now, the rest of the story must be sought in post-Nicene history. The salient points are as follows:—
1. The mighty centralization about Constantinople; the three councils held within its walls; the virtual session of the other councils under its eaves; the inconsiderable figure of “Old Rome” in strictly ecclesiastical history; her barrenness of literature, and of great heroic sons, like Athanasius and Chrysostom in the East, and Cyprian and Augustine in the West; and her decadence as a capital,—had led Leo I., and others after him, to dwell much upon “St. Peter,” and to favour new ideas of his personal greatness, and of a transmitted grandeur as the inheritance of his successors. As yet, these were but “great swelling words of vanity;” but they led to the formulated fraud of the Decretals.
2. Ambition once entering the pale of Catholicity, we find a counter idea to that of the councils at the root of the first usurpation of unscriptural dignity. John “the Faster,” bishop of New Rome, conceived himself not merely equal (as the councils had decreed) to the bishop of Old Rome, but his superior, in view of the decrepitude of the latter, and its occupation by the Goths, while the imperial dignity of Constantinople was now matured. He called himself “Œcumenical Bishop.”
3. Gregory was then bishop of “Old Rome,” and that was the time to assert the principle of the Decretals, had any such idea ever been heard of. How did he meet his brothers arrogance? Not appealing to decretals, not by asserting that such was his own dignity derived from St. Peter, but by protesting against such abasement of all the other patriarchs and all other bishops (who were all equals), and by pronouncing the impious assumption of such a nefarious title to denote a “forerunner of Antichrist.” Plainly, then, there was no “Pope” known to Christendom at the close of the sixth century.
4. But hardly was Gregory in his grave when court policy led the Emperor Phocas (one of the most infamous of men) to gratify the wicked ambition of the new Bishop of Rome by giving to him the titular honour of being a “forerunner of Antichrist.” Boniface III. (607 a.d.) assumed the daring title of “Universal Bishop.” But it was a mere court-title: the Church never recognised it; and so it went down to his successors as mere “sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal” till the days of Charlemagne.
5. In his times the Petrine fable had grown upon the Western mind. All Western Europe had but one Apostolic See. As “the Apostolic See” it was known throughout the West, just as “the Post-Office” means that which is nearest to ones own dwelling. What was geographically true, had grown to be theologically false, however; and the Bishop of Rome began to consider himself the only inheritor of Apostolic precedency, if not of all Apostolic authority and power.
p. 603 6. The formation of the Western Empire favoured this assumption: but it did not take definite shape while Charlemagne lived, for he regarded himself, like Constantine, the “head of the Church;” 2682 and in his day he acted as supreme pontiff, called the Council of Frankfort, overruled the Roman bishop, and, in short, was a lay-Pope throughout his empire. That nobody refused him all he claimed, that Adrian “couched like a strong ass” under the burden of his rebukes, and that Leo paid him bodily “homage,” demonstrated that no such character as a “Pope” was yet in existence. Leo III. had personally “adored” Charlemagne with the homage afterwards rendered to the pontiffs, and Adrian had set him the example of personal submission.
7. But, Charlemagnes feeble sons and successors proving incapable of exercising his power, the West only waited for an ambitious and original genius to come to the See of Rome, to yield him all that Charlemagne had claimed, and to invest him with the more sacred character of the Apostolic head to the whole Church.
8. Such a character arose in Nicholas I. He found the Decretals made to his hand by some impostor, and he saw a benighted age ready to accept his assumptions. He therefore used them, and passed them into the organic canon-law of the West. The “Holy Roman Empire” reluctantly received the impious frauds 2683 the East contemptuously resisted. Thus the Papacy was formed on the base of the “Holy Roman Empire,” and arrogated to itself the right to cut off and anathematize the greater part of Christendom, with the old patriarchal Sees. So we have in Nicholas the first figure in history in whose person is concentrated what Rome means by the Papacy. No “Pope” ever existed previously, in the sense of her canon-law; and it was not till two centuries longer that even a “Pope” presumed to pronounce that title peculiar to the Bishop of Rome. 2684
Such, then, are the historical facts, which render vastly important some study of the Decretals. I shall give what follows exclusively from “Roman-Catholic” sources. Says the learned Dupin: 2685 —
1. All these Decretals were unknown to all the ancient Fathers, to all the Popes and all the ecclesiastical authors that wrote before the ninth century. Now, what rational man can believe that so vast a number of letters, composed by so many holy Popes, containing so many important points in relation to the discipline of the Church, could be unknown to Eusebius, to St. Jerome, to St. Augustine, to St. Basil, and, in short, to all those authors that have spoken of their writings, or who have written upon the discipline of the Church? Could it possibly happen that the Popes, to whom these epistles are so very favourable, would never have cited and alleged them to aggrandize their own reputation? Who could ever imagine that the decisions of these Decretals should be never so much as quoted in any council or in any canon? He that will seriously consider with himself, that, since these Decretals have been imposed upon the world, they have been cited in an infinite number of places by Popes, by councils, and as often by canonists, will be readily convinced that they would have acquired immense credit, and been very often quoted by antiquity, if they had been genuine and true.
Here I must direct attention to the all-important fact, that whatever may have been the authorship of these forgeries, the Roman pontiffs, and the “Roman Catholic” communion as such, have committed themselves over and over again to the fraud, as Dupin remarks above, and that, long after the imposture was demonstrated and exposed; in proof of which I cite the following, from one whose eyes were opened by his patient investigation of such facts, but who, while a member of the Roman communion, wrote to his co-religionist Cardinal Manning as follows: 2686 —
Is it credible that the Papacy should have so often appealed to these forgeries for its extended claims, had it any better authorities—distinctive authorities—to fall back upon? Every disputant on the Latin side finds in these forgeries a convincing argument against the Greeks. To prove this, the universal jurisdiction of the Pope, said Abbot Barlaam, himself converted by them from the Greek Church, to convert his countrymen, one need only look through the decretal epistles of the Roman pontiffs from St. Clement to St. Sylvester. In the p. 604 twenty-fifth session of the Council of Florence the provincial of the Dominicans is ordered to address the Greeks on the rights of the Pope, the Pope being present. Twice he argues from the pseudo-decretal of St. Anacletus, at another time from a synodical letter of St. Athanasius to Felix, at another time from a letter of Julius to the Easterns, all forgeries. Afterwards, in reply to objections taken by Bessarion, in conference, to their authority, apart from any question of their authenticity, his position in another speech is, that those decretal epistles of the Popes, being synodical epistles in each case, are entitled to the same authority as the Canons themselves. Can we need further evidence of the weight attached to them on the Latin side?
“Popes appealed to them in their official capacity, as well as private doctors; (1) Leo IX., for instance, to the pseudo-donation in the prolix epistle written by him, or in his name, to Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, on the eve of the schism. (2) Eugenius IV. to the pseudo-decretals of St. Alexander and Julius, during the negotiations for healing it, in his instructions to the Armenians. (3) But why, my lord, need I travel any further for proofs, when in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, that has been for three centuries the accredited instructor of the clergy themselves, recommended authoritatively by so many Popes, notwithstanding the real value of these miserable impostures had been for three centuries before the world, I find these words: 2687 On the primacy of the Supreme Pontiff, see the third epistle (that is, pseudo-decretal) of Anacletus! Such is, actually, the authority to which the clergy of our own days are referred, in the first instance, for sound and true views on the primacy. (4) Afterwards, when they have mastered what is said there, they may turn to three more authorities, all culled likewise from Gratian, which they will not fail to interpret in accordance with the ideas they have already imbibed. Nor can I refrain from calling attention to a much more flagrant case. On the sacrament of confirmation there had been many questions raised by the Reformers, calculated to set people thinking, and anxious to know the strict truth respecting it. On this the Catechism proceeds as follows: 2688 —
“Since it has been already shown how necessary it would be to teach generally respecting all the sacraments, by whom they were instituted, so there is need of similar instruction respecting confirmation, that the faithful may be the more attracted by the holiness of this sacrament. Pastors must therefore explain that not only was Christ our Lord the author of it, but that, on the authority of the Roman pontiff St. Fabian (i.e., the pseudo-decretal attributed to him), He instituted the rite of the chrism, and the words used by the Catholic Church in its administration.
“Strange phenomenon, indeed, that the asseverations of such authorities should be still ordered to be taught as Gospel from our pulpits in these days, when everybody that is acquainted with the merest rudiments of ecclesiastical history knows how absolutely unauthenticated they are in point of fact, and how unquestionably the authorities cited to prove them are forgeries.
“Absolutely, my lord, with such evidence before me, I am unable to resist the inference that truthfulness is not one of the strongest characteristics of the teaching of even the modern Church of Rome; for is not this a case palpably where its highest living authorities are both indifferent to having possible untruths preached from the pulpit, and something more than indifferent to having forgeries, after their detection as such, adduced from the pulpit to authenticate facts?
“This, again, strongly reminds me of a conversation I had with the excellent French priest who received me into the Roman-Catholic Church, some time subsequently to that event. I had, as an Anglican, inquired very laboriously into the genuineness of the Santa Casa: and having visited Nazareth and Loretto since, and plunged into the question anew at each place, came back more thoroughly convinced than ever of its utterly fictitious character, notwithstanding the privileges bestowed upon it by so many Popes. On stating my convictions to him, his only reply was: There are many things in the Breviary which I do not believe, myself. Oh the stumbling-blocks of a system in the construction of which forgeries have been so largely used, in which it is still thought possible for the clergy to derive edification from legends which they cannot believe, and the people instruction from works of acknowledged imposture!
Further, Dupin remarks: 2689 —
“The first man that published them, if we may believe Hincmar, was one Riculphus, bishop of Mentz, who died about the ninth century. It is commonly believed, seeing the collection bears the name of Isidore, that he brought them from Spain. But it never could have been composed by the great Archbishop of Seville; and there is great reason to believe that no Spaniard, but rather some German or Frenchman, began this imposture,
“It likewise seems probable that some of these Decretals have been foisted in since the time of Riculphus. Benedict, a deacon of the church of Mentz, who made a collection of canons for the successors of Riculphus, may have put the last hand to this collection of false Decretals attributed to one Isidore, a different person from the famous Bishop of Seville, and surnamed Peccator, or Mercator. About his time a certain Isidore did come from Spain, along with some merchants, and then withdrew to Mentz. Not improbably, therefore, this mans name was given to the collection, and it was naturally believed that it was brought from Spain.
“And since these letters first appeared in an unlearned, dark age, what wonder is it that they were received p. 605 with very little opposition? And yet Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, with other French bishops, made great difficulty in accepting them, even in that time. Soon after, however, they acquired some authority, owing to the support of the court of Rome, the pretensions of which they mightily favoured.
On the twin imposture of the “Donation of Constantine,” it may be well to cite the same learned authority. But this shall be found elsewhere. 2690
Let me now recur to the same candid Gallican doctor, Dupin, who remarks as follows:—
“2. The imposture of these letters is invincibly proved from hence: because they are made up of a contexture of passages out of Fathers, councils, papal epistles, and imperial ordinances, which have appeared after the third century, down to the middle of the ninth.
“3. The citations of Scripture in all these letters follow the Vulgate of St. Jerome, which demonstrates that they are since his time (a.d. 420), and consequently do not proceed from Popes who lived long before St. Jerome.
“4. The matter of these letters is not at all in keeping with the ages when those to whom they are attributed were living.
“5. These Decretals are full of anachronisms. The consulships and names of consuls mentioned in them are confused and out of order; and, moreover, the true dates of the writers themselves, as Bishops of Rome, do not agree with those assumed in these letters.
“6. Their style is extremely barbarous, full of solecisms; and in them we often meet with certain words never used till the later ages. Also, they are all of one style! How does it happen that so many different Popes, living in divers centuries, should all write in the same manner?”
Dupin then goes on to examine the whole series with learning and candour, showing that every single one of them “carries with it unequivocal signs of lying and imposture.” To his pages let the student recur, therefore. I follow him in the following enumeration of the frauds he calmly exposes with searching logic and demonstration:—
1. St. Clement to St. James the Lords Brother.—Plainly spurious.
2. The Second Epistle of Clement to the Same.—Equally so.
3. St. Clement to all Suffragan Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and Others of the Clergy: to all Princes Great and Small, and to all the Faithful.
Dupin remarks: “This very title suffices to prove the forgery, as, in the days of St. Clement, there were no “princes great or small” in the Church.” He adds that it speaks of “subdeacons,” an order not then existing, and that it is patched up from scraps of the apocryphal Recognitions.
4. A Fourth Letter of the Same. It is self-refuted by “the same reasons.”
5. The Fifth Letter to St. James of St. Clement, Bishop of Rome and Successor of St. Peter.
“But,” says Dupin, “as St. James died before St. Peter, it necessarily follows, that this epistle cannot have been written by St. Clement.” Further, “We have one genuine epistle of St. Clement, the style of which is wholly different from that of these Decretals.”
6. The Epistle of Anacletus.—Barbarous, full of solecisms and falsehoods.
7. A Second Epistle of Anacletus.—Filled with passages out of authors who lived long after the times of Anacletus.
8. A Third Letter, etc..—Spurious for the same reasons.
9. An Epistle of Evaristus.—Patched up out of writings of Innocent in the fifth century, dated under consuls not contemporaries of the alleged writer.
10. A Second Epistle of the Same.—Stuffed with patchwork of later centuries.
11. An Epistle of Alexander.—Contains passages from at least one author of the eighth century.
12. A Second Epistle of the Same.—Refers to the Council of Laodicea, which was held (a.d. 365) after Alexander was dead.
13. A Third Epistle, etc.—Quotes an author of the fifth century.
14. An Epistle of Xystus.—Dated under a consul that lived in another age, and quotes authors of centuries later than his own day.
15. A Second Epistle of the Same.—Subject to the same objections, anachronisms, etc.
p. 606 16. An Epistle of Telesphorus.—False dates, patched from subsequent authors, etc.
17. An Epistle of Hyginus.—Anachronisms, etc.
18. A Second of the Same.—Stuffed with anachronisms, and falsely dated by consuls not of his age.
19. An Epistle of Pius I.—Full of absurdities, and quotes “the Theodosian Code”!
20. A Second.—It is addressed to Justus, etc. Bad Latin, and wholly unknown to antiquity, though Baronius has tried to sustain it.
21. A Third Letter, etc.—Addressed to Justus, bishop of Vienna. False for the same reasons.
22. An Epistle of Anicetus.—Full of blunders as to dates, etc. Mentions names, titles, and the like, unheard of till later ages.
23. An Epistle of Soter.—Dated under consuls who lived before Soter was bishop of Rome.
24. A Second Letter, etc.—Speaks of “monks,” “palls,” and other things of later times; is patched out of writings of subsequent ages, and dated under consuls not his contemporaries.
25. An Epistle of Eleutherus.—Subject to like objections.
26. A Second Letter, etc.—Anachronisms.
27. A Third Letter, etc.—Addressed to “Desiderius, bishop of Vienna.” There was no such bishop till the sixth century.
28. A Fourth Letter, etc.—Quotes later authors, and is disproved by its style.
29. An Epistle of Zephyrinus.—Little importance to be attached to anything from such a source; but Dupin (who lived before his bad character came to light in the writings of Hippolytus) convicts it of ignorance, and shows that it is a patchwork of later ideas and writers.
30. A Second Letter.—“Yet more plainly an imposture,” says Dupin.
31. An Epistle of St. Callistus.—What sort of a “saint” he was, our readers are already informed. This epistle is like the preceding ones of Zephyrinus.
32. A Second Epistle, etc.—Quotes from writings of the eighth century.
33. An Epistle of Urban.—Quotes the Vulgate, the Theodosian Code, and Gregory the Fourth.
34. An Epistle of Pontianus.—Anachronisms.
35. A Second Epistle, etc.—Barbarous and impossible.
36. An Epistle of Anterus.—Equally impossible; stuffed with anachronisms.
37. An Epistle of Fabianus.—Contradicts the facts of history touching Cyprian, Cornelius, and Novatus.
38. A Second Epistle, etc.—Self-refuted by its monstrous details of mistake and the like.
39. A Third Epistle, etc.—Quotes authors of the sixth century.
40. An Epistle of Cornelius.—Contradicts historical facts, etc.
41. A Second Epistle, etc.—Equally full of blunders. “But nothing,” says Dupin, “shows the imposture of these two letters more palpably than the difference of style from those truly ascribed to Cornelius in Cyprians works.”
42. A Third Letter, etc.—Equally false on its face. Dupin, with his usual candour, remarks: “We find in it the word Mass, which was unknown to the contemporaries of Cornelius.”
43. An Epistle of Lucius.—It is dated six months before he became Bishop of Rome, and quotes authors who lived ages after he was dead.
44. An Epistle of Stephen.—“Filled with citations out of subsequent authors.”
45. A Second Epistle, etc.—Open to the like objection; it does not harmonize with the times to which it is referred.
Here Dupin grows weary, and winds up his review as follows:—
For like reasons, we must pass judgment, in like manner, on the two Epistles of Sixtus II.; the two of Dionysius; the three of St. Felix I; the two of Eutychianus; one of Caius; two of Marcellinus and those p. 607 of Marcellus; the three of Eusebius; those of Miltiades, and the rest of Isidores collection: they are full of passages out of Fathers, Popes, and councils, more modern than the very Popes by whom they are pretended to be written. In them are many things that clash with the known history of those times, and were purposely framed to favour the court of Rome and to sustain her pretensions against the rights of bishops and the liberties of churches. But it would take up too much time to show the gross falsehood of these monuments. They are now rejected by common consent, and even by those authors who are most favourable to the court of Rome, who are obliged to abandon the patronage of these epistles, though they have done a great deal of service in developing the greatness of the court of Rome, and ruining the ancient discipline of the Church, especially with reference to the rights of bishops and ecclesiastical decisions.
The following is the Translators Preface to these frauds:—
In regard to these Decretals, Dean Milman says: “Up to this period the Decretals, the letters or edicts of the Bishops of Rome, according to the authorized or common collection of Dionysius, commenced with Pope Siricius, towards the close of the fourth century. To the collection of Dionysius was added that of the authentic councils, which bore the name of Isidore of Seville. On a sudden was promulgated, unannounced, without preparation, not absolutely unquestioned, but apparently overawing at once all doubt, a new code, which to the former authentic documents added fifty-nine letters and decrees of the twenty oldest popes from Clement to Melchiades, 2691 and the donation of Constantine; 2692 and in the third part, among the decrees of the popes and of the councils from Sylvester to Gregory II., thirty-nine false decrees, and the acts of several unauthentic councils.” 2693
In regard to the authorship and date of the False Decretals, Dean Milman says: “The author or authors of this most audacious and elaborate of pious frauds are unknown; the date and place of its compilation are driven into such narrow limits that they may be determined within a few years, and within a very circumscribed region. The False Decretals came not from Rome; the time of their arrival at Rome, after they were known beyond the Alps, appears almost certain. In one year Nicholas I. is apparently ignorant of their existence; the next he speaks of them with full knowledge. They contain words manifestly used at the Council of Paris, a.d. 829, consequently are of later date. They were known to the Levite Benedict of Mentz, who composed a supplement to the collection of capitularies by Ansegise, between a.d. 840–847. The city of Mentz is designated with nearly equal certainty as the place in which, if not actually composed, they were first promulgated as the canon law of Christendom.” 2694
Compare these Canons: Nicæa, vi.; Constantinople, ii., iii.; Ephesus, viii.; and Chalcedon, xxviii.603:2682
Episcopus ab extra; i.e., head of temporalities.603:2683
Hincmar of Rheims opposed them as he could. See Prichards Hincmar, Oxford, 1849.603:2684
See vol. v. p. 154, Elucidation III.603:2685
See his Eccles. History, Cent. iii. p. 173, ed. London, 1693.603:2686
Ed. Hayes, London, 1868.604:2687
De Ord. Sacram., § 49.604:2688
P. 173, as above.605:2690
Elucidation II., infra.607:2691
History of Latin Christianity, vol. iii. p. 191.607:2694
History of Latin Christianity, vol. iii. p. 193. [In the marvellous confusion of vol. ix. of the Edinburgh series, these Decretals are mixed up with genuine works as “Fragments of the Third Century.”]
Next: The Epistles of Zephyrinus.
Like & share St-Takla.org
© Saint Takla Haymanout Website: Coptic Orthodox Church - Alexandria, Egypt / URL: http://St-Takla.org / Contact us at