Forged Documents and
Papal Power

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

June 2002

What we now call popes were originally bishops of Rome (one bishop among brother bishops from other cities). Then they became popes, with power over the entire Church. Then they became so powerful that they were able to depose kings and emperors. They became so powerful that they were able to force kings use their secular might to enforce the Inquisition, which was conducted by Catholic priests and monks. In 1870, the Pope was declared to be infallible. The process of increasing papal power was influenced by forged documents which changed people's perception of the history of the papacy and of the Church.

I'm just going to briefly summarize some information about these forgeries. At the end of this paper is a link to an on-line article which gives detailed historical information.

One of the most famous forgeries is the "Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals," which were written around 845 A.D. (They are also known as the "False Decretals".) They consist of 115 documents which were supposedly written by early popes. [Note 1]

The "Catholic Encyclopedia" admits that these are forgeries. It says that the purpose of these forged documents was to enable the Church to be independent of secular power, and to prevent the laity from ruling the Church. [Note 2 gives the address of an on-line article.] In other words, their purpose was to increase the power of the Pope and the Catholic Church.

In addition to documents which were total forgeries, genuine documents were altered. One hundred twenty-five genuine documents had forged material added to them, which increased the power of the Pope. Many early documents were changed to say the opposite of what they had originally said. [Note 3]

One of the forgeries is a letter which was falsely attributed to Saint Ambrose. It said that if a person does not agree with the Holy See, then he or she is a heretic. [Note 4] This is an example of how papal power was promoted by fraudulently claiming the authority of highly respected Early Fathers.

Another famous forgery from the nineth century was "The Donation of Constantine". It claimed that Emperor Constantine gave the western provinces of the Roman Empire to the Bishop of Rome. The Pope used it to claim authority in secular matters. [Note 5]

When Greek Christians tried to discuss issues with the Church in Rome, the popes often used forged documents to back their claims. This happened so frequently that for 700 years the Greeks referred to Rome as "the home of forgeries". [Note 6]

For three hundred years, the "Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals" and other forgeries were used by Roman Popes to claim authority over the Church in the East. The Patriarch of Constantinople rejected these false claims of primacy. This resulted in the separation of the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church. [Note 7 gives addresses of on-line articles.]

In the middle of the twelfth century, a monk named Gratian wrote the "Decretum," which became the basis for Canon Law (the legal system for running the Roman Catholic Church). It contained numerous quotations from forged documents. Gratian drew many of his conclusions from those quotations. Gratian quoted 324 passages which were supposedly written by popes of the first four centuries. Of those passages, only eleven are genuine. The other 313 quotations are forgeries. [Note 8]

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote the "Summa Theologica" and numerous other works. His writings are the foundation for scholastic theology. Aquinas used Gratian's "Decretum" for quotations from church fathers and early popes. [Note 9] Aquinas also used forged documents which he thought were genuine. [Note 10]

The importance of Thomas Aquinas' theology can be seen in the encyclical of Pope Pius X on the priesthood. In 1906, Pius said that in their study of philosophy, theology, and Scripture, men studying for the priesthood should follow the directions given by the popes and the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. [This papal encyclical is available on-line Note 11 gives addresses.]

William Webster is the author of "The Church of Rome at the Bar of History". (I recommend this book.) His web site has an article entitled "Forgeries and the Papacy: The Historical Influence and Use of Forgeries in Promotion of the Doctrine of the Papacy". The article gives detailed information about the "Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals" and other forged documents, showing their influence on the papacy and on the Catholic Church. Four quotations from his article are below. (They are used by permission.)

"In the middle of the ninth century, a radical change began in the Western Church, which dramatically altered the Constitution of the Church, and laid the ground work for the full development of the papacy. The papacy could never have emerged without a fundamental restructuring of the Constitution of the Church and of men's perceptions of the history of that Constitution. As long as the true facts of Church history were well known, it would serve as a buffer against any unlawful ambitions. However, in the 9th century, a literary forgery occurred which completely revolutionized the ancient government of the Church in the West. This forgery is known as the "Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals," written around 845 A.D. The "Decretals" are a complete fabrication of Church history. They set forth precedents for the exercise of sovereign authority of the popes over the universal Church prior to the fourth century and make it appear that the popes had always exercised sovereign dominion and had ultimate authority even over Church Councils."

"The historical facts reveal that the papacy was never a reality as far as the universal Church is concerned. There are many eminent Roman Catholic historians who have testified to that fact as well as to the importance of the forgeries, especially those of "Pseudo-Isidore". One such historian is Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger. He was the most renowned Roman Catholic historian of the last century, who taught Church history for 47 years as a Roman Catholic." [Webster quotes extensitely from Dollinger.]

"In addition to the "Pseudo Isidorian Decretals" there were other forgeries which were successfully used for the promotion of the doctrine of papal primacy. One famous instance is that of Thomas Aquinas. In 1264 A.D. Thomas authored a work entitled 'Against the Errors of the Greeks'. This work deals with the issues of theological debate between the Greek and Roman Churches in that day on such subjects as the Trinity, the Procession of the Holy Spirit, Purgatory and the Papacy. In his defense of the papacy Thomas bases practically his entire argument on forged quotations of Church fathers.... These spurious quotations had enormous influence on many Western theologians in succeeding centuries."

"The authority claims of Roman Catholicism ultimately devolve upon the institution of the papacy. The papacy is the center and source from which all authority flows for Roman Catholicism. Rome has long claimed that this institution was established by Christ and has been in force in the Church from the very beginning. But the historical record gives a very different picture. This institution was promoted primarily through the falsification of historical fact through the extensive use of forgeries as Thomas Aquinas' apologetic for the papacy demonstrates. Forgery is its foundation."

I strongly encourage you to read William Webster's article. It has an abundance of valuable historical information. The address of the article is:


I encourage you to link to this article. You have permission to quote from this article, as long as you do it fairly and accurately. You have permission to make copies of this article for friends and for use in classes.


1. William Webster, "The Church of Rome at the Bar of History" (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), pages 62-63. Webster is a former Catholic.

Peter de Rosa, "Vicars of Christ" (Dublin, Ireland: Poolbeg Press, 1988, 2000), pages 58-61, 174, 208. De Rosa is a Catholic, and a former Catholic priest. He was able to do historical research in the Vatican Archives.

Paul Johnson, "A History of Christianity" (New York: A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, 1976, 1995), page 195. Johnson is a Catholic and a prominent historian.

2. "Benedict Levita" in the "Catholic Encyclopedia". [Benedict Levita is the pseudonym of the author of the "Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals".]

3. De Rosa, page 59.

4. De Rosa, page 166.

5. Johnson, pages 170-172.

6. De Rosa, page 59.

7. Orthodox Christian Information Center, "The False Decretals of Isidore". An excerpt from "The Papacy" by Abbee Guette. The author was a devout Catholic and a historian. As a result of his historical research about the papacy, he eventually joined the Orthodox Church.

"The Great Schism of 1054". This is a sermon given at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist,in Washington, D.C.

8. Webster, pages 62-63. De Rosa, page 60.

9. Webster, page 63. De Rosa, page 60.

10. William Webster, "Forgeries and the papacy: The Historical Influence and Use of Forgeries in Promotion of the Doctrine of the Papacy". This gives detailed accounts of Aquinas' use of forged documents which he wrongly believed to be genuine.

11. Pius X, "Pieni l'animo" ("On the Clergy in Italy"), July 28, 1906. (See paragraph 6.)