During the chaotic confusion under the Carolingians (the Carolingians are known in Church History as or pertaining to the dynasty or family of Charlemagne who was emperor during the early part of the ninth century—H.V.), in the middle of the ninth century, a mysterious book made its appearance, which gave legal expression to the popular opinion of the papacy, raised and strengthened its power more than any other agency, and forms to a large extent the basis of the canon law of the church of Rome. This is a collection of ecclesiastical laws under the false name of bishop ISIDOR of Seville (died 636), hence called the “Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.” He was the reputed (though not the real) author of an earlier collection, based upon that of the Roman abbot, Dionysius Exiguus, in the sixth century, and used as the law-book of the church in Spain, hence called the “Hispana.” In these earlier collections the letters and decrees (Epistolae Decretales) of the popes from the time of Siricius (384) occupy a prominent place. A decretal in the canonical sense is an authoritative rescript of a pope in reply to some question, while a decree is a papal, ordinance enacted with the advice of the Cardinals, without a previous inquiry. A Canon is a law ordained by a general or provincial synod. A dogma is an ecclesiastical law relating to doctrine. The earliest decretals had moral rather than legislative force. But as the questions and appeals to the pope multiplied, the papal answers grew in authority. Fictitious documents, canons, and decretals were nothing new; but the Pseudo-Isidorian collection is the most colossal and effective fraud known in the history of ecclesiastical literature.
1. The contents of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. The book is divided into three parts. The first part contains fifty Apostolical Canons from the collection of Dionysius, sixty spurious decretals of the Roman bishops from Clement (died 101) to Melchiades (died 314). The second part comprehends the forged document of the donation of Constantine, some tracts concerning the Council of Nicaes, and the canons of the Greek, African, Gallic, and Spanish Councils down to 683, from the Spanish collection. The third part, after a preface copied from the Hispana, gives in chronological order the decretals of the popes from Sylvester (died 335) to Gregory II (died 731), among which thirty-five are forged, including all before Damasus; but the genuine letters also, which are taken from the Isidorian collection, contain interpolations. In many editions the Capitula Augilrammi are appended.
All these documents make up a manual of orthodox doctrine and clerical discipline. They give dogmatic decisions against heresies, especially Arianism (which lingered long in Spain), and directions on worship, the sacraments, feasts and fasts, sacred rites and costumes, the consecration of churches, church property, and especially on church polity. The work breathes throughout the spirit of churchly and priestly piety and reverence.
2. The sacerdotal system (pertaining to a priest or the priesthood—H.V.). Pseudo-Isidor advocates the papal theocracy. The clergy is a divinely instituted, consecrated, and inviolable dispensation. The priests are the “familiares Dei,” the “spirituals,” the laity the “carnales.” He who sins against them sins against God. They are subject to no earthly tribunal, and responsible to God alone, who appointed them judges of men. The privileges of the priesthood culminate in the episcopal dignity, and the episcopal dignity culminates in the papacy. The cathedra Petri is the fountain of all power. Without the consent of the pope no bishop can be deposed, no council be convened. He is the ultimate umpire of all controversy, and from him there is no appeal. He is often called “episcopus universalis,” notwithstanding the protest of Gregory I.
3. The aim of Pseudo-Isidor is, by such a collection of authoritative decisions to protect the clergy against the secular power and against moral degeneracy. The power of the metropolitans is rather lowered in order to secure to the pope the definitive sentence in the trials of bishops. But it is manifestly wrong if older writers have put the chief aim of the work in the elevation of the papacy. The papacy appears rather as a means for the protection of episcopacy in its conflict with the civil government. It is the supreme guarantee of the rights of the bishops.
4. The genuineness of Pseudo-Isidor was not doubted during the middle ages (Hincmar only denied the legal application to the French church), but is now universally given up by Roman Catholic as well as Protestant historians.
The forgery is apparent. It is inconceivable that Dionysius Exiguus, who lived in Rome, should have been ignorant of such a large number of papal letters. The collection moreover is full of anachronisms: Roman bishops of the second and third centuries write in the Frankish Latin of the ninth century on doctrinal topics in the spirit of the post-Nicene orthodoxy and on mediaeval relations in church and state; they quote the Bible after the version of Jerome as amended under Charlemagne; Victor addresses Theophilus of Alexandria, who lived two hundred years later, on the paschal controversies of the second century.
The Donation of Constantine, which is incorporated in this collection, is an older forgery, and exists also in several Greek texts. It affirms that Constantine, when he was baptized by pope Sylvester, A.D. 324 (he was not baptized till 337, by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia), presented him with the Lateran palace and all imperial insignia, together with the Roman and Italian territory. This mysterious document tells that the emperor Constantine was cured of leprosy by the prayers of Pope Sylvester. Thereupon Constantine out of gratitude to the pope decided to remove his residence from Rome to Byzantium on the Bosporus, the city later called Constantinople. His object in doing this was that the secular government of the emperor might not cramp the spiritual government of the pope. On leaving Rome Constantine, according to this document, ordered all officeholders in the Church to be subject to Pope Sylvester and to his successors upon the papal throne. Furthermore he transferred to the popes the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy and of the western regions. So, according to this document, Constantine bestowed upon the popes sovereignty over the western half of the Empire. The object of this forgery was to antedate by five centuries the temporal power of the papacy, which rests on the donations of Pepin and Charlemagne. The only foundation in fact is the donation of the Lateran palace, which was originally the palace of the Lateran family, then of the emperors, and last of the popes (concerning this Lateran Church Schaff-Herzog writes the following. The church of St. John Lateran in Rome and the councils held in the palace connected with it. The palace was the official residence of the popes for over a thousand years. It was originally the property of the rich patrician family of Plautius Lateranus, but was confiscated by Nero, and later became an imperial residence. A portion of it, bestowed by Maximian on his daughter Fausta; second wife of Constantine, became known as the Domus Faustae, and she lived there until her husband beheaded her. Constantine then gave it (312) to Pope Melchiades, confirming the donation to Sylvester, in whose pontificate the first basilica was built here and consecrated in 324. The church of St. John Lateran is properly speaking the cathedral of the Roman diocese; here the pope is bishop of Rome, while St. Peter’s is the seat of his universal jurisdiction.). So, the wife of Constantine, Fausta, resided in it, and on the transfer of the seat of empire to Constantinople, he left it to Sylvester, as the chief of the Roman clergy and nobility. There the pope takes possession of the see of Rome. But the whole history of Constantine and his successors shows conclusively that they had no idea of transferring any part of their temporal sovereignty to the Roman pontiff.
5. The authorship must be assigned to some ecclesiastic of the Frankish church; probably of the diocese of Rheims, between 847 and 565 (or 857), but scholars differ as to the writer. Pseudo-Isodor literally quotes passages from a Paris Council of 529, and agrees in part with the collection of Benedictus Levita, completed in 847; on the other hand he is first quoted by a French Synod at Chiersy in 857, and then by Hincmar of Rheims repeatedly since 859. All the manuscripts are of French origin. The complaints of ecclesiastical disorders, depositions of bishops without trial, frivolous diverces, frequent sacrilege, suit best the period of the civil wars among the grandsons of Charlemagne. In Rome the Decretals were first known and quoted in 865 by pope Nicolaus I.
From the same period and of the same spirit are several collections of Capitua or Capitularia, that is, of royal ecclesiastical ordinances which under the Carolingians took the place of synodical decisions. Among these we mention the collection of Ansegis, abbot of Fontenelles (827), of Benedictus Levita of Mayence (847), and the Capitula Angilramni, falsely ascribed to bishop Angilramnus of Metz (died 701).
6. Significance of Pseudo-Isidor. It consists not so much in the novelty of the views and claims of the mediaeval priesthood, but in tracing them back from the ninth to the third and second centuries, and stamping them with the authority of antiquity. Some of the leading principles had indeed been already asserted in the letters of Leo IX, and other documents of the fifth century, yea the papalanimus may be traced to Victor in the second century and to the Judaizing opponents of St. Paul. But in this collection the entire hierarchical and sacerdotal system, which was the growth of several centuries, appears as something complete and unchangeable from the very beginning. We have a parallel phenomenon in the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons which gather into one whole the ecclesiastical decisions of the first three centuries, and trace them directly to the apostles or their disciple, Clement of Rome.
Pseudo-Isidorus was no doubt a sincere believer in the hierarchical system; nevertheless his collection is to a large extent a conscious high church fraud, and must as such be traced to the father of lies. It belongs to the Satanic element in the history of the Christian hierarchy, which has a little escaped temptation and contamination as the Jewish hierarchy. The great purpose of this document was to show that all the rights claimed by the popes in the ninth century have been exercised by the popes from the earliest times. For hundreds of years these documents were accepted at face value and regarded as genuine. Nicholas de Cusa in 1433 was the first one to suggest that the decretals were a forgery. After that they came to be called the “Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.” In 1440 Lorenzo Valla proved that the “Donation of Constantine” was a forgery. Today Catholic scholars agree with Protestant scholars, that both documents are spurious, or false. But the harm had been done and the papacy had time to entrench itself.