Were letters of Papal Authority from the Church Fathers Forgeries? The Psuedo-Isidore Decretals

There was a group of forged documents in the 800's, which have come to be called the Pseudo-Isidore Decretals. There is an extensive article about them in the Catholic Encyclopedia. The Collection of Isidore falls under three headings:

  1. A list of sixty apocryphal letters or decrees attributed to the popes from St. Clement (88-97) to Melchiades (311-314) inclusive. Of these sixty letters fifty-eight are forgeries; they begin with a letter from Aurelius of Carthage requesting Pope Damasus (366-384) to send him the letters of his predecessors in the chair of the Apostles; and this is followed by a reply in which Damasus assures Aurelius that the desired letters were being sent. This correspondence was meant to give an air of truth to the false decretals, and was the work of Isidore.
  2. A treatise on the Primitive Church and on the Council of Nicæa, written by Isidore, and followed by the authentic canons of fifty-four councils.
  3. The letters mainly of thirty-three popes, from Silvester (314-335) to Gregory II(715-731). Of these about thirty letters are forgeries, while all the others are authentic.

Every church in every age, and since the Reformation, every denomination has had it's Judas. However, some apologists from the 1990's, got pretty shrill about how this proves that the entire Catholic Church worldwide, and across the ages, is corrupt. We think, condemning the rest of the apostles for Judas' betrayal would be as ridiculous and uncharitable as projecting the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals to 2000 years of Church history, millions of documents, and 1600 years of monasteries.

We have been all over the Internet and have not found an English translation of these letters. If someone knows of an academic translation, please provide it. We think the Catholic Encyclopedia has an even-handed description of their mistaken acceptance and their detractors before Blondel wrote his book in 1628. He was a Protestant, just after the Reformation who had great motivation to get to the bottom of it. Two Catholic Priests finished off the research to expose the remaining letters.

The primary source for this expansion of the Pseudo-Isidore letters upon the entire Church is William (Bill) Webster, an ex-Catholic apologist. He came from a generation when apologists were hostile, both on the Catholic side and Protestant side. It does not appear that he has been active for at least 7 years. We're not sure what he's doing these days but he seems to have given up on apologetics.

One particularly shrill reader said ALL statements about popes are forgeries. But so far nothing they have shown us proves any errors in the primacy statements, only that there are some forged documents whose contents do not appear to be available online in English. Our invitation is to show us those forgeries translated to English by a reputable source. We doubt that will happen.

Were entire monasteries working on forging documents for Popes in the 8th Century?

This is a very sensational assertion by Bill Webster. We have to remember that the Bible that we read today was preserved by monasteries. Generation after generation of monks in monasteries took pride in the scribing. This oldest intact Bible that exists in the world was created by monks. In 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were found which are from 200BC. They exactly match the Monks' writing which were copies of copies of copies. They had remarkable accuracy. Monasteries protected civilization through the Dark Ages.  Our article on the Catholic Church and the Bible is here. An internet search on monastic forgeries showed two academic books about the subject. The only accusations against forgeries in monasteries that we can find originate in England. In ancient times, England was months of travel away from the Holy See, in Rome, and they spoke different languages.

One of the shrillest sites that proposes the theory that Popes had pet monasteries that wrote them fake historical documents, is ironically, a site that has posted fictitious anti-Catholic testimonies from non-existent "ex-nun" Mary Ann Collins. Should we assume because an Evangelical apparently forged this nun, that every Protestant apologist has ill will and lies? This would be an uncharitable and weak position. Most apologists have good will, whether they are Protestant or Catholic.  We should never project the dishonesty of an individual or group of small individuals on a whole organization. The word for this is "prejudice". Here is an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia article. It is also important to note that often Isadore was plagiarizing, rather than forging.

The Authority of the Pope

In the many texts where the pope is in question Isidore is true to his task of plagiarizing. Very often he copies passages borrowed from ancient sources. This fact alone helps in a great measure to explain his insistence on the rights of the papacy. In many cases Isidore is but the mouthpiece repeating the sayings of the earlier popes, and we know how clear and uncompromising those early popes were on the question of their prerogatives. For example, call to mind the popes between Innocent I (401-417) and Hormisdas (514-523) and the series of their declarations. All that was well known in the ninth century, at least in theory. And it was all embodied by Isidore. But on the relations between pope and bishops he shows a certain inconsistency. Following the traditional teaching, he declares that the Apostolate and the episcopate were directly instituted by Jesus Christ. Yet at times he seems to be on the point of denying the potestas ordinaria of the bishops. He makes Pope Vigilius (p. 712) say: "Ipsa namque ecclesia quæ prima est ita reliquis ecclesiis vices suas credidit largiendas ut in partem sint vocatæ sollicitudinis non in plenitudinem potestatis."

Taking this passage strictly and by itself, it would seem to deny the potestas ordinaria of the bishops. But nevertheless the sentence is not an intentional forgery; it is merely another case where Isidore is a plagiarist. He had got hold of a famous text by St. Leo (Migne, P.L., LIV, 671), addressed to the Bishop of Thessalonica. From the end of the fourth century this bishop had been named by the popes as their representative in the province of Illyricum. Hence the Bishop of Thessalonica exercised by delegation certain rights belonging to the popes in these countries by reason of their title of Patriarch of the West. About 446, St. Leo had to find fault with the Bishop of Thessalonica, not in his character of bishop, but as legate, or vicar, of the Holy See. And on that occasion the pope pointed out to his vicar in Illyricum that he had received merely a partial delegation, not a plenitude of power. It is clear, then, that the text in question referred to a peculiar relation between the pope and a special bishop. Addressed to the vicar of Illyricum, St. Leo's words are quite accurate; but, applied to all bishops, they cease to be so, and might easily create much confusion. Isidore further demands that provincial councils be held at regular intervals. He asserts for the pope the right to authorize the calling of all councils and to approve their decisions. Laid down in this general and imperative manner, these claims were something new. Nothing like it had been of obligation for the holding of provincial councils; as for approving of the decrees of councils, it was a common occurrence in antiquity. When matters of serious importance were in question the popes claimed the right of approval, but there was no formal or general precept asserting such right. And in any case Isidore's legislation thereon never became the practice.

The letters appear to deal mostly with Papal authority as it transmits to temporal and political affairs, rather than spiritual authority in the Church. Isidore appears not to be too interested in doctrinal authority which is what we are talking about. The Church claims no temporal authority for the Pope currently, except over 4000 citizens of the Vatican, which he delegates, and he's not involved in the governance over there. Here are some links to some old school apologetics between Catholics and Bill Webster. Get out the popcorn because it is pretty entertaining.

These are all old school apologetics debates that have long since past. We don't see much of this from Evangelicals any more except the most strident fundamentalists. The public is well aware of messy medieval politics and understands that the primacy of Rome predates any forgeries by 800 years, and 100 letters in the middle of millions of documents had little effect good or bad on the papacy.


The List of Popes and Years Served

St. Peter (32-67)

St. Linus (67-76)

St. Anacletus (Cletus) (76-88)

St. Clement I (88-97)

St. Evaristus (97-105)

St. Alexander I (105-115)

St. Sixtus I (115-125)
-- also called Xystus I

St. Telesphorus (125-136)

St. Hyginus (136-140)

St. Pius I (140-155)

St. Anicetus (155-166)

St. Soter (166-175)

St. Eleutherius (175-189)

St. Victor I (189-199)

St. Zephyrinus (199-217)

St. Callistus I (217-22)

St. Urban I (222-30)

St. Pontain (230-35)

St. Anterus (235-36)

St. Fabian (236-50)

St. Cornelius (251-53)

St. Lucius I (253-54)

St. Stephen I (254-257)

St. Sixtus II (257-258)

St. Dionysius (260-268)

St. Felix I (269-274)

St. Eutychian (275-283)

St. Caius (283-296) -- also called Gaius

St. Marcellinus (296-304)
St. Marcellus I (308-309)
St. Eusebius (309 or 310)
St. Miltiades (311-14)

St. Sylvester I (314-35)

St. Marcus (336)

St. Julius I (337-52)

Liberius (352-66)

St. Damasus I (366-83)

St. Siricius (384-99)

St. Anastasius I (399-401)

St. Innocent I (401-17)

St. Zosimus (417-18)

St. Boniface I (418-22)

St. Celestine I (422-32)

St. Sixtus III (432-40)

St. Leo I (the Great) (440-61)

St. Hilarius (461-68)

St. Simplicius (468-83)

St. Felix III (II) (483-92)

St. Gelasius I (492-96)

Anastasius II (496-98)

St. Symmachus (498-514)

St. Hormisdas (514-23)

St. John I (523-26)

St. Felix IV (III) (526-30)

Boniface II (530-32)

John II (533-35)

St. Agapetus I (535-36) -- also called Agapitus I

St. Silverius (536-37)

Vigilius (537-55)

Pelagius I (556-61)

John III (561-74)

Benedict I (575-79)

Pelagius II (579-90)

St. Gregory I (the Great) (590-604)

Sabinian (604-606)

Boniface III (607)

St. Boniface IV (608-15)

St. Deusdedit (Adeodatus I) (615-18)

Boniface V (619-25)

Honorius I (625-38)

Severinus (640)

John IV (640-42)

Theodore I (642-49)

St. Martin I (649-55)

St. Eugene I (655-57)

St. Vitalian (657-72)

Adeodatus (II) (672-76)

Donus (676-78)

St. Agatho (678-81)

St. Leo II (682-83)

St. Benedict II (684-85)

John V (685-86)

Conon (686-87)

St. Sergius I (687-701)

John VI (701-05)

John VII (705-07)

Sisinnius (708)

Constantine (708-15)


St. Gregory II (715-31)

St. Gregory III (731-41)
St. Zachary (741-52)

Stephen II (752)

Stephen III (752-57)

St. Paul I (757-67)

Stephen IV (767-72)

Adrian I (772-95)

St. Leo III (795-816)

Stephen V (816-17)

St. Paschal I (817-24)

Eugene II (824-27)

Valentine (827)

Gregory IV (827-44)

Sergius II (844-47)

St. Leo IV (847-55)

Benedict III (855-58)

St. Nicholas I (the Great) (858-67)

Adrian II (867-72)

John VIII (872-82)

Marinus I (882-84)

St. Adrian III (884-85)

Stephen VI (885-91)

Formosus (891-96)

Boniface VI (896)

Stephen VII (896-97)

Romanus (897)

Theodore II (897)

John IX (898-900)

Benedict IV (900-03)

Leo V (903)

Sergius III (904-11)

Anastasius III (911-13)

Lando (913-14)

John X (914-28)

Leo VI (928)

Stephen VIII (929-31)

John XI (931-35)

Leo VII (936-39)

Stephen IX (939-42)

Marinus II (942-46)

Agapetus II (946-55)

John XII (955-63)

Leo VIII (963-64)

Benedict V (964)

John XIII (965-72)

Benedict VI (973-74)

Benedict VII (974-83)

John XIV (983-84)

John XV (985-96)

Gregory V (996-99)

Sylvester II (999-1003)

John XVII (1003)

John XVIII (1003-09)

Sergius IV (1009-12)

Benedict VIII (1012-24)

John XIX (1024-32)

Benedict IX (1032-45)

Sylvester III (1045)

Benedict IX (1045)

Gregory VI (1045-46)

Clement II (1046-47)

Benedict IX (1047-48)

Damasus II (1048)

St. Leo IX (1049-54)

Victor II (1055-57)

Stephen X (1057-58)

Nicholas II (1058-61)

Alexander II (1061-73)

St. Gregory VII (1073-85)

Blessed Victor III (1086-87)

Blessed Urban II (1088-99)

Paschal II (1099-1118)

Gelasius II (1118-19)

Callistus II (1119-24)

Honorius II (1124-30)

Innocent II (1130-43)

Celestine II (1143-44)

Lucius II (1144-45)

Blessed Eugene III (1145-53)

Anastasius IV (1153-54)

Adrian IV (1154-59)

Alexander III (1159-81)

Lucius III (1181-85)

Urban III (1185-87)

Gregory VIII (1187)

Clement III (1187-91)

Celestine III (1191-98)

Innocent III (1198-1216)

Honorius III (1216-27)


Gregory IX (1227-41)

Celestine IV (1241)

Innocent IV (1243-54)

Alexander IV (1254-61)
Urban IV (1261-64)

Clement IV (1265-68)

Blessed Gregory X (1271-76)

Blessed Innocent V (1276)

Adrian V (1276)

John XXI (1276-77)

Nicholas III (1277-80)

Martin IV (1281-85)

Honorius IV (1285-87)

Nicholas IV (1288-92)

St. Celestine V (1294)

Boniface VIII (1294-1303)

Blessed Benedict XI (1303-04)

Clement V (1305-14)

John XXII (1316-34)

Benedict XII (1334-42)

Clement VI (1342-52)

Innocent VI (1352-62)

Blessed Urban V (1362-70)

Gregory XI (1370-78)

Urban VI (1378-89)

Boniface IX (1389-1404)

Innocent VII (1404-06)

Gregory XII (1406-15)

Martin V (1417-31)

Eugene IV (1431-47)

Nicholas V (1447-55)

Callistus III (1455-58)

Pius II (1458-64)

Paul II (1464-71)

Sixtus IV (1471-84)

Innocent VIII (1484-92)

Alexander VI (1492-1503)

Pius III (1503)

Julius II (1503-13)

Leo X (1513-21)

Adrian VI (1522-23)

Clement VII (1523-34)

Paul III (1534-49)

Julius III (1550-55)

Marcellus II (1555)

Paul IV (1555-59)

Pius IV (1559-65)

St. Pius V (1566-72)

Gregory XIII (1572-85)

Sixtus V (1585-90)

Urban VII (1590)

Gregory XIV (1590-91)

Innocent IX (1591)

Clement VIII (1592-1605)

Leo XI (1605)

Paul V (1605-21)

Gregory XV (1621-23)

Urban VIII (1623-44)

Innocent X (1644-55)

Alexander VII (1655-67)

Clement IX (1667-69)

Clement X (1670-76)

Blessed Innocent XI (1676-89)

Alexander VIII (1689-91)

Innocent XII (1691-1700)

Clement XI (1700-21)

Innocent XIII (1721-24)

Benedict XIII (1724-30)

Clement XII (1730-40)

Benedict XIV (1740-58)

Clement XIII (1758-69)

Clement XIV (1769-74)

Pius VI (1775-99)

Pius VII (1800-23)

Leo XII (1823-29)

Pius VIII (1829-30)

Gregory XVI (1831-46)

Blessed Pius IX (1846-78)

Leo XIII (1878-1903)

St. Pius X (1903-14)

Benedict XV (1914-22)

Pius XI (1922-39)

Pius XII (1939-58)

Blessed John XXIII (1958-63)

Paul VI (1963-78)

John Paul I (1978)

John Paul II (1978-2005)

Benedict XVI (2005-2013)

From www.newadvent.org/cathen/12272a.htm


(1) Scott Hahn, A Closer Look at Christ's Church, Answering Common Objections

Show related articles
  1. The Pope
  2. Extended examination of Peter as "the Rock"
  3. Why did Popes have kingdoms?
  4. Is the Church Rich?
  5. Priests
  6. Pope Benedict's opening Mass
  7. Eastern Orthodox Relations with the Catholic Church regarding the Bishop of Rome
  8. Flowchart of Catholic Doctrine