Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


These are letters of the popes which regulate points of doctrine and discipline and which have the force of law in the Latin church.

Besides the genuine ones collected by Denis le Petit, there is a collection of false ones, the author of which, as well as the date, is unknown. It was an archbishop of Mentz called Riculphus who circulated it in France about the end of the eighth century; he had also brought to Worms an epistle of Pope Gregory, which had never before been heard of, but no vestige of the latter is at present remaining, while the false decretals, as we shall see, have met with the greatest success for eight centuries.

This collection bears the name of Isidore Mercator, and comprehends an infinite number of decrees falsely ascribed to the popes, from Clement I. down to Siricius. The false donation of Constantine; the Council of Rome under Sylvester; the letter of Athanasius to Mark; that of Anastasius to the bishops of Germany and Burgundy; that of Sixtus III. to the Orientals; that of Leo. I. relating to the privileges of the rural bishops; that of John I. to the archbishop Zachariah; one of Boniface II. to Eulalia of Alexandria; one of John III. to the bishops of France and Burgundy; one of Gregory, containing a privilege of the monastery of St. Médard; one from the same to Felix, bishop of Messina, and many others.

The object of the author was to extend the authority of the pope and the bishops. With this view, he lays it down as a principle that they can be definitely judged only by the pope, and he often repeats this maxim that not only every bishop but every priest, and, generally, every oppressed individual may, in any stage of a cause, appeal directly to the pope. He likewise considers it as an incontestable principle that no council, not even a provincial one, may be held without the permission of the pope.

These decretals, favoring the impunity of bishops, and still more the ambitious pretensions of the popes, were eagerly adopted by them both. In 861, Rotade, bishop of Soissons, being deprived of episcopal communion in a provincial council on account of disobedience, appeals to the pope. Hincmar of Rheims, his metropolitan, notwithstanding his appeal, deposes him in another council under the pretext that he had afterwards renounced it, and submitted himself to the judgment of the bishops.

Pope Nicholas I. being informed of this affair, wrote to Hincmar, and blamed his proceedings. “You ought,” says he, “to honor the memory of St. Peter, and await our judgment, even although Rotade had not appealed.” And in another letter on the same matter, he threatens Hincmar with excommunication, if he does not restore Rotade. That pope did more. Rotade having arrived at Rome, he declared him acquitted in a council held on Christmas eve, 864; and dismissed him to his see with letters. That which he addressed to all the bishops is worthy of notice, and is as follows:

“What you say is absurd, that Rotade, after having appealed to the holy see, changed his language and submitted himself anew to your judgment. Even although he had done so, it would have been your duty to set him right, and teach him that an appeal never lies from a superior judge to an inferior one. But even although he had not appealed to the holy see, you ought by no means to depose a bishop without our participation, in prejudice of so many decretals of our predecessors; for, if it be by their judgment that the writings of other doctors are approved or rejected, how much more should that be respected which they have themselves written, to decide on points of doctrine and discipline. Some tell you that these decretals are not in the book of canons; yet those same persons, when they find them favorable to their designs, use both without distinction, and reject them only to lessen the power of the holy see. If the decretals of the ancient popes are to be rejected because they are not contained in the book of canons, the writings of St. Gregory, and the rest of the fathers, must, on the same principle, be rejected also, and even the Holy Scriptures themselves.”

“You say,” the pope continues, “that judgments upon bishops are not among the higher causes; we maintain that they are high in proportion as bishops hold a high rank in the church. Will you assert that it is only metropolitan affairs which constitute the higher causes? But metropolitans are not of a different order from bishops, and we do not demand different witnesses or judges in the one case, from what are usual in the other; we therefore require that causes which involve either should be reserved for us. And, finally, can anyone be found so utterly unreasonable as to say that all other churches ought to preserve their privileges, and that the Roman Church alone should lose hers?” He concludes with ordering them to receive and replace Rotade.

Pope Adrian, the successor of Nicholas I., seems to have been no less zealous in a similar case relating to Hincmar of Laon. That prelate had rendered himself hateful both to the clergy and people of his diocese, by various acts of injustice and violence. Having been accused before the Council of Verberie — at which Hincmar of Rheims, his uncle and metropolitan, presided — he appealed to the pope, and demanded permission to go to Rome. This was refused him. The process against him was merely suspended, and the affair went no farther. But upon new matters of complaint brought against him by Charles the Bald and Hincmar of Rheims, he was cited at first before the Council of Attigny, where he appeared, and soon afterwards fled; and then before the Council of Douzy, where he renewed his appeal, and was deposed. The council wrote to the pope a synodal letter, on Sept. 6, 871, to request of him a confirmation of the acts which they sent him; but Adrian, far from acquiescing in the judgment of the council, expressed in the strongest terms his disapprobation of the condemnation of Hincmar; maintaining that, since Hincmar declared before the council that he appealed to the holy see, they ought not to have pronounced any sentence of condemnation upon him. Such were the terms used by that pope, in his letter to the bishops of the council, as also in that which he wrote to the king.

The following is the vigorous answer sent by Charles to Adrian: “Your letters say, ‘We will and ordain, by apostolical authority, that Hincmar of Laon shall come to Rome and present himself before us, resting upon your supremacy.’

“We wonder where the writer of this letter discovered that a king, whose duty it is to chastise the guilty and be the avenger of crimes, should send to Rome a criminal convicted according to legal forms, and more especially one who, before his deposition, was found guilty, in three councils, of enterprises against the public peace; and who, after his deposition, persisted in his disobedience.

“We are compelled further to tell you, that we, kings of France, born of a royal race, have never yet passed for the deputies of bishops, but for sovereigns of the earth. And, as St. Léon and the Roman council have said, kings and emperors, whom God has appointed to govern the world, have permitted bishops to regulate their affairs according to their ordinances, but they have never been the stewards of bishops; and if you search the records of your predecessors, you will not find that they have ever written to persons in our exalted situation as you have done in the present instance.”

He then adduces two letters of St. Gregory, to show with what modesty he wrote, not only to the kings of France, but to the exarchs of Italy. “Finally,” he concludes, “I beg that you will never more send to me, or to the bishops of my kingdom, similar letters, if you wish that we should give to what you write that honor and respect which we would willingly grant it.” The bishops of the Council of Douzy answered the pope nearly in the same strain; and, although we have not the entire letter, it appears that their object in it was to prove that Hincmar’s appeal ought not to be decided at Rome, but in France, by judges delegated conformably to the canons of the Council of Sardis.

These examples are sufficient to show how the popes extended their jurisdiction by the instrumentality of these false decretals; and although Hincmar of Rheims objected to Adrian, that, not being included in the book of canons, they could not subvert the discipline established by the canons — which occasioned his being accused, before Pope John VIII., of not admitting the decretals of the popes — he constantly cited these decretals as authorities, in his letters and other writings, and his example was followed by many bishops. At first, those only were admitted which were not contrary to the more recent canons, and afterwards there was less and less scruple.

The councils themselves made use of them. Thus, in that of Rheims, held in 992, the bishops availed themselves of the decretals of Anacletus, of Julius, of Damasus, and other popes, in the cause of Arnoul. Succeeding councils imitated that of Rheims. The popes Gregory VII., Urban II., Pascal II., Urban III., and Alexander III. supported the maxims they found in them, persuaded that they constituted the discipline of the flourishing age of the church. Finally, the compilers of the canons — Bouchard of Worms, Yves of Chartres, and Gratian — introduced them into their collection. After they became publicly taught in the schools, and commented upon, all the polemical and scholastic divines, and all the expositors of the canon law, eagerly laid hold of these false decretals to confirm the Catholic dogmas, or to establish points of discipline, and scattered them profusely through their works.

It was not till the sixteenth century that the first suspicions of their authenticity were excited. Erasmus, and many others with him, called them in question upon the following grounds:

1. The decretals contained in the collection of Isidore are not in that of Denis le Petit, who cited none of the decretals of the popes before the time of Siricius. Yet he informs us that he took extreme care in collecting them. They could not, therefore, have escaped him, if they had existed in the archives of the see of Rome, where he resided. If they were unknown to the holy see, to which they were favorable, they were so to the whole church. The fathers and councils of the first eight centuries have made no mention of them. But how can this universal silence be reconciled with their authenticity?

2. These decretals do not all correspond with the state of things existing at the time in which they are supposed to have been written. Not a word is said of the heresies of the three first centuries, nor of other ecclesiastical affairs with which the genuine works of the same period are filled. This proves that they were fabricated afterwards.

3. Their dates are almost always false. Their author generally follows the chronology of the pontifical book, which, by Baronius’s own confession, is very incorrect. This is a presumptive evidence that the collection was not composed till after the pontifical book.

4. These decretals, in all the citations of Scripture passages which they contain, use the version known by the name of “Vulgate,” made, or at least revised, by St. Jerome. They are, therefore, of later date than St. Jerome.

Finally, they are all written in the same style, which is very barbarous; and, in that respect, corresponding to the ignorance of the eighth century: but it is not by any means probable that all the different popes, whose names they bear, affected that uniformity of style. It may be concluded with confidence, that all the decretals are from the same hand.

Besides these general reasons, each of the documents which form Isidore’s collection carries with it marks of forgery peculiar to itself, and none of which have escaped the keen criticism of David Blondel, to whom we are principally indebted for the light thrown at the present day on this compilation, now no longer known but as “The False Decretals”; but the usages introduced in consequence of it exist not the less through a considerable portion of Europe.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01