Sunday, February 28, 2016

One Way that Forgery Plays a Role in Aquinas and the Historical Development of Roman Catholic Doctrine

Forgeries, too, went into
his “synthesis”
Thomas Aquinas seems to be making a comeback, among Roman Catholics, but also, we are seeing this take place especially among a trendy group of Reformed believers. My question is, how much should we take into account (or ignore) the role that Thomas played, as it is said, when:

The monstrous forgeries of the Pseudi-Isidore Decretals of the ninth century (115 wholly forged documents of the bishops of Rome from the first centuries, from Clement of Rome onward; 125 documents with interpolations) were now employed to buttress the claim of the teaching authority of the pope.

This occurs in the greatest of all of Aquinas’s works, the Summa Theologica, II-II, q1 a10. The question is “Whether it belongs to the Roman Pontiff to Draw Up a Symbol of Faith?” Here is one analysis of this “Question” from the Summa: The author continues:

These forgeries destroyed all sense of the historical development of institutions and created the impression that the Church in the earliest times had already been ruled in detail by papal decrees: an image of the Church and the law of the Church that appears to be concentrated wholly on the Roman authority. For questions of doctrine the following claims from forgeries were of particular importance: that the holding of any council, even of a provincial council, is linked with the authority of the pope and that all more important matters in the Church are subject to the judgment of the pope. The pope appears as of himself the source of normativity for the whole Church: “Pseudo-Isidore ascribes to the teaching office and the interdisciplinary authority of the pope an autonomous character which is not bound by the norms of tradition. He ascribes to Pope Lucius, a contemporary of Cyprian, the statement that the Roman Church, ‘Mother of all the Churches of Christ,’ has never erred.”

Now, as a Roman Catholic, growing up to Roman Catholic parents (and parish priests) who were generally devout during the period of the 1940’s and 1950’s, this is the view of the papacy that I was taught in church and that I held through my early lifetime. Continuing with this account:

… in the first half of the thirteenth century Gratian, founder of the science of [Roman Catholic] canon law, produced his law book, which was basic for all later times—including the 1918 Code of Canon Law—and in which 324 passages from popes of the first four centuries are cited, 313 of them proved forgeries. From now on Matthew 16:18 is used in Rome precisely in this monarchic-absolutist sense with reference to the Roman Church and the Roman pontiff, with all the juridical consequences which the great papal legislators of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were able to deduce from this primacy and able to establish in a highly practical way with the aid of papal synods, papal legates, and the mendicant orders, who were likewise independent of the local Church leadership (bishops and parish priests). …

It was St. Thomas Aquinas, himself a member of a centrally governed mendicant order, who incorporated the new political-juridical development in the second half of the thirteenth century into the dogmatic system. For all the indisputable merits of Aquinas in regard to theology as a whole, this point must be made clear. In his opusculum, Contra Errores Graecorum, which he wrote in 1263, commissioned by the Curia, for Pope Urban IV and the negotiations for union with the Emperor, Michael VIII Palaeologus, he presents to the weak Greeks the arguments for the Roman rights in an exorbitant way, and this had its effect also on the West.

In connection with the sublime questions of Trinitarian doctrine, in several chapters toward the end of the work, which positively wallow in quotations from forgeries, it is “shown” “that the Roman Pontiff is first and greatest of all bishops,” “that the same pontiff presides over the whole Church,” “that he has the fullness of power in the Church,” “that in the same power conferred by Christ on Peter the Roman Pontiff is the successor of Peter”. In regard to papal teaching authority Aquinas demonstrates “that it is for the pope to decide what belongs to faith”.

All these chapters culminate in the statement apparently given a dogmatic formulation for the first time by Thomas and then bluntly defined by Boniface VIII in the Bull, Unam Sanctam: “that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation.” In this article too, which is fundamental for the papal teaching authority, Aquinas relies on the forged quotations from Cyril’s Liber Thesaurorum, which he took from an anonymous Libellus de processione Spiritus Sancti:
“It is explicable that Thomas quoted from the Libellus just those sentences which were suitable for the substantiation of his statements on the primacy; from what has been said however it is clear that they are mostly sentences that have either ben forged or interpolated through forgeries.”

These theses resting on forgeries Thomas then takes over in the Summa Theologiae, where they really do begin to make history. Basic for our context is the article on whether it is for the pope to ordain a profession of faith. As usual, Thomas lists a number of objections to his thesis, then in the sed contra briefly states his argument from authority in favor of the thesis. He takes as his major premise the historically correct statement: “The publication of a profession of faith takes place in a general council.” His minor premise is documented only from a text in the Decretals, which again is based on the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries already mentioned and in no way corresponds to the historical truth: “But a council of this kind can be called only by the authority of the Supreme Pontiff.” This conclusion then follows (because the publication is by a council, it is by papal authority): Therefore the publication of a profession of the faith pertains to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff.” The answer in detail runs:

An new publication of a profession of faith Is necessary to avoid errors that are arising. The publication therefore comes under the authority which has to define formally what matters are of faith, so that they may be held by all with unshakable faith. But this belongs to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, “to whom the Church’s greater and more difficult questions are referred” [here again a decretal text is quoted which is based on Pseudo-Isidore]. Hence too our Lord says to Peter (Lk 22:32), since he had appointed him Supreme Pontiff: “I have prayed for you, Simon …” And the reason for this is that there must be one faith of the whole Church according to 1 Corinthians 1:10: “All say the same thing, let there be no divisions among you.” This could not be maintained unless a question arising on faith were decide by him who presides over the whole Church, so that his judgment may be firmly held by the whole Church. Hence a new publication of a profession of faith pertains solely to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff: As also everything else that pertains to the whole Church, such as convoking a general council and other things of the same kind (ST II-II, q1 a10).

There is no doubt that Aquinas, basing himself—we may assume, in good faith—on the forgeries, in this way laid the foundations for the doctrine of infallibility of Vatican I.

I’ve written extensively about a phenomenon I’ve called “the nonexistent early papacy”. It was these forgeries by which Rome did establish the authority of an “early papacy” – We know now that the concept of an early papacy falls into the category of “historical fiction”. But here is Aquinas’s role in the development of that fiction.

This is just one “Question” from Summa Theologica. The author has the means at his disposal to track Thomas’s argument, from major premise, to minor premise, and the historical sources of those premises.

We can see how the results of this one line of thought of Aquinas has been a disaster in history. It is said that Aquinas quoted more than 6,000 times from another writer, “Pseudo-Dionysisus”. Aquinas did not know that the Pseudo-Isidore decretals were forgeries. Nor did he know that “Pseudo Dionysius” was a sixth century neo-Platonist writer. He (naively) held that this author was the Dionysius from Acts 17, a companion of Paul, and consequently (and wrongly) attributed a first-century kind of authority to him.

My question is, who among us has the wherewithal (and the time) to analyze each of the arguments where Aquinas relies on Pseudo-Dionysius for a doctrinal statement? I’m not aware of anyone who has done this.

This is apart from those times when he cites Aristotle and just dismisses Aristotle’s line of thinking because it contradicts Scriptural or Roman Catholic teaching at the time. One HUGE example is Aquinas’s flip-flopping of the Substance/Accidents paradigm to explain the Roman doctrine of Transubstantiation.

Another question is, “how ‘charitable’ should we be in our readings of Aquinas, knowing that these kinds of errors are looming in his writings?” It was Aquinas and Gratian (of canon law fame, above), who carried Rome, intellectually, through the Reformation and Tridntine periods.

It’s one thing to rely on Roman Catholic accounts of Aquinas, which would tend to play down these kinds of things. But where are the Protestant analyses of these things? It would seem as if, now that these documents are available electronically, someone ought to be able to spend the time to work toward the completion of such a study.

Meanwhile, how critical should we be in our reading of Aquinas? How “charitable”?


  1. "Another question is, “how ‘charitable’ should we be in our readings of Aquinas, knowing that these kinds of errors are looming in his writings?” It was Aquinas and Gratian (of canon law fame, above), who carried Rome, intellectually, through the Reformation and Trid[e]ntine periods."

    a) While Aquinas is notable amongst his peers now, a lot of his positions at the time were just run-of-the-mill examples of theologians basically following Peter Lombard and others. His Commentary on Lombard's Sentences (which was converted into the Summa Theologica) was one of many such commentaries. No doubt there are certain aspects of his theology that are distinctively Thomastic, but not necessary his views of the role of the papacy.

    b) Keep in mind that Aquinas wasn't born until about 1225. By that time, there was over a century of foundation justifying the break with "the Greeks." So, he as a "Latin" was educated into a view of the world that accepted a lot of errors as facts.

    c) So, I think it would be a big mistake to assume that Aquinas was aware of the fraudulent nature of a lot of the source material he used. While that may be an error of charity, I think it's more importantly an error of historiography. In other words, there doesn't seem to be any evidence (that I'm aware of) that he knew the difference between a lot of the fake patristic sources and the real patristic sources. He did seem to be aware that there were some fake patristic sources (I seem to recall him disparaging at least one of them), but he does not seem to be aware that forgery extended as far as it did.

    1. Hi T-Fan -- This post is kind of in response to a discussion that I was involved with in a "Reformed Thomism" group on Facebook. And by "charitable", I meant to answer the question, "how critically should we read Aquinas's works?" And my suggestion here is that we should not take for granted everything he said ... but rather, we should understand that some measure of criticism is required. Not all "Reformed Thomists" seem to move forward with that understanding in mind.

      So regarding a) -- his views may have been "run of the mill", but unlike others, he wrote a whole book based on these forgeries -- and writing a book in those days required no small effort. He was immersed in these errors, which filtered their way through multiple works of his. And regarding c) -- I don't assume he was aware of them -- but the point is, we are aware of these forgeries infiltrating his writing, and we should not accept what he wrote with an uncritical eye.

      The reason it matters that he didn't know the difference is because he used both indiscriminately. And that makes his writings of dubious value -- and we don't necessarily know at this point what (in his writings) is dubious, and what is not.

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