F. Lucii Ferraris, Bibliotheca

I recently noticed a critique of medieval papal claims that cited as a source of those claims Ferraris’ Prompta Bibliotheca. I’d seen it in footnotes before, but was never moved to look into it, but the other day I had some free time on my hand, and access to the library of a Catholic seminary, and I decided to see if I could find it.

For background on Ferraris, see the article about him in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. He was an 18th century Franciscan canonist, known best for his encyclopedia, Prompta Bibliotheca canonica, iuridica, moralis, theologica, nec non ascetica, polemica, rubricistica, historica. Quite a mouthful! It went through three editions in his lifetime, and more after his death, until the end of the 19th century. The Catholic Encyclopedia concludes by saying it “will ever remain a precious mine of information, although it is sometimes possible to reproach the author with laxism.”

Now, what would “laxism” mean to a Catholic author of the early 20th century? Certainly not academic sloppiness. The fact that this work was in publication for so long, and was revised multiple times, with the last edition published by the Vatican, is evidence enough of the academic rigor of Ferraris himself and of his later editors. No, laxism has to be viewed in historical context in terms of positions he took in debates over moral theology (e.g., et al.).

Now, with that introduction to Ferraris, and before I get into what I found, let us consider how a contemporary Catholic apologist views him. Back in the Sept/Oct 1998 issue of Envoy, Patrick Madrid wrote an article, “More Vicarious Thrills.” My initial favorable reaction to his article is documented by the letter of appreciation I sent which was published in the March/April 1999 issue. Madrid is here responding to criticism he received of his March/April 1998 article, “Pope Fiction,” from Allan Drisko and Michael Scheifler.

Madrid recites their objections, which make reference to Ferraris, and engages in some gratuitous ad hominem observations about Drisko and Scheifler.

Madrid claims it was Seventh-day Adventists who “conjured up the Vicarius Filii Dei canard in the first place to attack the Catholic Church.”

He says,

Both Mr. Drisko and Mr. Scheifler cite the Decretum of Gratian and the Corpus of Canon Law as evidence that Vicarius Filii Dei is contained in “official” Catholic documents. What they don’t seem to realize is that those sections of the Decretum and the Corpus are actually from the Donation of Constantine, a famous forgery (anyone familiar with medieval Church history could have told them that). Obviously, a forged document is not an “official Catholic document,” even though it may have been regarded by many as authentic. …My claim centered on the twin facts that Vicarius Filii Dei is not an official papal title and that it is never used as such in actual, official ecclesiastical documents — not forged documents, not civil documents, not unofficial documents. … The fact that the Donation of Constantine was, at one time, wrongly assumed to be legitimate is irrelevant.

The section of Prompta Bibliotheca Mr. Scheifler refers to is also a quote from the Donation of Constantine forgery. Naturally, Fr. Ferraris, a Franciscan ecclesiastical historian, could have been considerably more careful in his use of sources, given the fact that for fully 300 years before he compiled the Prompta Bibliotheca, it was widely known that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. But again, his injudicious inclusion of the forgery hardly constitutes evidence of Vicarius Filii Dei being used as an official title of the pope. In fact, regarding Ferraris’ scholarship, the Catholic Encyclopedia passage Scheifler and Drisko quote incompletely reads in full, “This supplement serves to keep up to date the work of Ferraris, which will ever remain a precious mine of information, although it is sometimes possible to reproach the author with laxism.” His use of the Donation of Constantine is certainly one such instance. Not surprisingly, Mr. Scheifler and Mr. Drisko both failed to include the italicized portion of this Encyclopedia quote. Why? Because it undercuts their argument, and they apparently don’t wish the unsuspecting reader to know that.

Well, Pat was certainly having a good time writing this–he can be a sort of Errol Flynn of the apologetic pen.

But let’s look at a couple of points, starting with the matter of The Donation of Constantine.

Yes, the Donation of Constantine was proved to be a forgery in the 15th century by Lorenzo Valla. Christopher Coleman tells us about the document’s history:

The Donation of Constantine (Constitutum Constantini), written probably not long after the middle of the eighth century, became widely known through its incorporation in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals (about 847-853). Parts of it were included in most of the medieval collections of canon law; Anselm’s, Deusdedit’s, and Gratian’s great work (the Decretum, or Concordia discordantium canonum). It purports to reproduce a legal document in which the Emperor Constantine the Great, reciting his baptism and the cure of his leprosy at the hands of Sylvester, Bishop of Rome 314-336, confirmed the privilege of that pontiff as head of all the clergy and supreme over the other four patriarchates; conferred upon him extensive imperial property in various parts of the world, especially the imperial Lateran palace, and the imperial diadem and tiara, and other imperial insignia; granted the Roman clergy the rank of the highest Roman orders and their privileges; gave Sylvester and his successors freedom in consecrating men for certain orders of the clergy; it tells how he, Constantine, recognized the superior dignity of the Pope by holding the bridle of his horse; grants Sylvester Rome, all of Italy, and the western provinces, to remain forever under the control of the Roman See; and states his own determination to retire to Byzantium in order that the presence of an earthly emperor may not embarrass ecclesiastical authority. This remarkable document was almost universally accepted as genuine from the ninth to the fifteenth century.

Note that last point. It was not accepted by “few” or even by “many,” but was “almost universally accepted as genuine,” and as such included in collections of canon law. It was forged, no doubt, by those wanting to strengthen the papal claim to religious and civil authority, and it was used throughout the middle ages by other supporters of papal claims as support. None of them questioned the use of the phrase, vicarius Filii Dei (“Wait! That isn’t a papal title!”). None of them questioned why a Constantinian document should be found in canon law. After all, it was Constantine (not the pope) who convened the Council of Nicea. It was Constantine (not the pope) who wrote to the bishops who couldn’t attend informing them of the decision regarding Easter. In Constantine we see the seeds of that caesaropapism that would characterize the Eastern Church. And in the West, papal advocates forged this document to show that he had granted these concessions to the Bishop of Rome in the Western Empire, and later Bishops of Rome referred back to it. Coleman notes:

It was cited by no less than ten Popes of whom we know, to mention no lesser writers, in contentions for the recognition of papal control, and contributed not a little to the prestige of the Papacy.

So, the Donation of Constantine was a document written by papal apologists and included in canon law and cited by popes who never once questioned the title it says was given to Peter (and to his successors): vicarius Filii Dei.

Here’s the phrase in context:

Utile iudicavimus una cum omnibus satrapis nostris, et universo senatu optimatibusque meis, etiam et cuncto populo Romanae gloriae imperio subiacenti, ut sicut B. Petrus in terris vicarius Filii Dei esse videtur constitutus, ita et Pontifices, qui ipsius principis apostolorum gerunt vices, principatus potestatem amplius quam terrena imperialis nostrae serenitatis mansuetudo habere videtur, concessam a nobis nostroque imperio obtineant, eligentes nobis ipsum principem apostolorum vel eius vicarios firmos apud Deum esse patronos.

We-together with all our satraps, and the whole senate and my nobles, and also all the people subject to the government of glorious Rome-considered it advisable, that as the Blessed Peter is seen to have been constituted vicar of the Son of God on the earth, so the Pontiffs who are the representatives of that same chief of the apostles, should obtain from us and our empire the power of a supremacy greater than the clemency of our earthly imperial serenity is seen to have conceded to it, choosing that same chief of the apostles and his vicars to be our constant intercessors with God.

So Constantine prefaces his own gift by referring to Peter as “vicar of the Son of God”, a title which by extension goes to those who are successors of Peter.

Now let us turn to Lorenzo Valla’s 1440 Discourse on the Forgery
of the Alleged Donation of Constantine
. It is a fierce denunciation of papal claims and prerogatives, not merely a literary exercise.

I know that for a long time now men’s ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs. It is, indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes. They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. So all these are yours, supreme pontiff? And it is your purpose to recover them all? To despoil all kings and princes of the West of their cities or compel them to pay you a yearly tribute, is that your plan?

I, on the contrary, think it fairer to let the princes despoil you of all the empire you hold. For, as I shall show, that Donation whence the supreme pontiffs will have their right derived was unknown equally to Sylvester and to Constantine.

It’s a marvelous mix of satire and diatribe. At one point he supposes what the real Pope Sylvester might have said had Constantine really offered half his kingdom to him:

“… ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God, the things that are God’s.’ Accordingly, therefore, your Majesty, you must not surrender the things that are yours, and I must not accept the things that are Caesar’s; nor will I ever accept them, though you offer them a thousand times.”

But in all his argument, does Valla ever say the pope is not vicarius Filii Dei or vicarius Christi? Never. In fact, it is because the pope is vicarius Christi that any earthly rule is absurd!

And was Valla’s work welcomed in Rome? Far from it. It became a great weapon in the hands of the Reformers, and was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books until the end of the 16th century.

Now let us turn to Ferraris. His magnificent scholarly achievement was praised in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, as noted above. The “laxism” of which the Catholic Encyclopedia writer accused him was not (pace Madrid) scholarly sloppiness, but had to do with the approach he, as a canonist, took toward moral issues. Had he made notable errors, there were ample opportunities for those to be corrected in the editions published in his lifetime and in those published well over a hundred years after his death.

The edition I found at the St. Mary’s Seminary Library is that published in the 1890s in Rome by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. What began as one scholar’s obsession became, at the end, an official publication of the Vatican.

The article in question is in volume six of this edition, and was published in 1890. Though earlier editions bore the title Prompta Bibliotheca, this one is simply, Bibliotheca (well, actually: Bibliotheca canonica iuridica moralis theologica nec non ascetica polemica rubricistica historica, editio novissima mendis expurgata et novis additamentis locupletata).

So it is a new revised edition that has been carefully reviewed and updated and now published by the Vatican. (Which would have more authority, this, or the old Catholic Encyclopedia?)

The article is that on the pope–Papa. Since this is a nearly 40 page article in very small print, and in Latin, I’m going to take a short cut here and refer to Michael Scheifler’s webpage, BibleLight.net, where he has taken the effort to scan many of the pages in question (one must compliment him for having done his homework!).

Here, under point 20, is where Ferraris cites the Donation of Constantine, including the phrase, vicarius Filii Dei (vol. 6, p. 43, in the 1890 edition). And this is in support of one of 82 earlier points made about the authority of the pope, here roughly translated (I’ve here corrected the spelling and punctuation to conform with the 1890 edition).

18. Deveniendo ad Papae auctoritatem, Papa est quasi Deus in terra unicaus Christifidelium princeps, regum omnium rex maximus, plenitudinem potestatis continens, cui terreni simul ac coelestis imperii gubernacula ab omnipotente Deo credita sunt.

19. Congruunt ulterius quoad Papae summam auctoritatem et potestatem textus juris Caesarei.

20. Non minus summam Papae auctoritatem et potestatem extollunt rescripta et dogmata virorum aliorum Imperatorum.

The real point here is to underscore the pope’s dignity, authority, power, and infallibility, and he is noting that these papal claims have been supported by secular authority.

Madrid gets distracted on the point of whether the Donation of Constantine is a forgery, and that leads him to dismiss the descriptor, vicarius Filii Dei. In “Pope Fiction,” he similarly dismissed the suggestion that it had ever appeared on a papal tiara (on that, frankly, we just don’t know, as the earliest of the half dozen or so tiaras currently in existence date only from the early 1800s, all earlier ones having been destroyed by Napoleon; some of the existing tiaras do have inscriptions of various kinds–see the pictures and copies of the inscriptions Scheifler gives (I can verify these having seen all but one of these tiaras myself)).

But Madrid has no response to the other points raised by Ferraris’ recitation of titles. What of the repeated claim that the pope is “quasi Deus“?

1. Papa tantae est dignitatis et celsitudinis, ut non sit simplex homo, sed quasi Deus, et Dei Vicarius.

12. Item divinus monarcha, ac imperator supremus et rex regum.

13. Hinc Papa triplici corona coronatur tanquam rec coeli, terre et infernoram.

14. Imo Romani Pontificis excellentia, et potestas, nedum est circa coelestia, terrestria et infernalia, set etiam super angelos, quorum ipse major est.

18. Deveniendo ad Papae auctoritatem, Papa est quasi Deus in terra unicaus Christifidelium princeps, regum omnium rex maximus, plenitudinem potestatis continens, cui terreni simul ac coelestis imperii gubernacula ab omnipotente Deo credita sunt.

30. Papa tantae est auctoritatis et potestatis, ut possit quoque leges divinas modificare, declarare, vel interpretari, ad num. (1890 ed., vol. 6, p. 41)

What do these claim for the pope? That he is quasi Deus. That he is king of heaven, earth, and hell. He has power even over the angels, for he is superior to them. He is king of kings, over earthly and heavenly kingdoms. His power is so great he can modify divine laws.

These are not the writings of an anti-Catholic. These are not obscure titles in a spurious document. These are ascriptions given to the pope in a respected Vatican publication.

Seventh-day Adventists didn’t invent these papal claims. Seventh-day Adventists didn’t discover vicarious Filii Dei. Seventh-day Adventists weren’t the first to calculate vicarius Filii Dei as 666–Andreas Helwig did so in his 1612 book, Antichristus Romanus. William Miller didn’t use this calculation–he thought 666 referred to the number of years that Pagan Rome lasted. Ellen White at first thought 666 to be the number of the Protestant sects that broke off from the Catholic Church.

So let’s step back from sloppy apologetics and ad hominem attacks, acknowledge the validity of sources and titles, and get to the real question: are these legitimate claims for the Church to be making? Or was the Catholic Church wrong for making these claims of the authority and power of the papacy?

One thought on “F. Lucii Ferraris, Bibliotheca

  1. Excellent work, Bill. Thanks so much for getting to the bottom of this.

    On the question of whether the Church’s historical claims of supreme papal authority in spiritual and temporal matters were legitimate, my opinion is of little worth, but I’ll just say I don’t have any problem with those claims, as they are logical developments and applications of the traditional and scriptural teachings about the Petrine office.

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