The Papacy and the Early Fathers

A Response by Scott Windsor


This webpage is a response to another one located at: written by William Webster. I was pointed to Webster's website by James White (Alpha and Omega Ministries) who challenged me on a document known as "The Donation of Constantine" (Donatio Constantini) and also known as the Psuedo-Isidorian Decretals (or False Decretals). They were alleged to be given by the Emperor Constantine to Pope Sylvester I (314-35). The document is without a doubt a forgery, being written somewhere between 750 and 850 A.D.

The fact that this document is a forgery is not debated by Catholics. The point that White and Webster try to make is that the entire doctrine of the papacy hinges on and/or was created due to this forged document. This could not be further from the truth. Anyone who would hold to this belief is either grossly misinformed or just plain dishonest in their portrayal of the Catholic Church and the papacy. (See Addendum)

In order for the claims of White and Webster to be true, then the papacy and all evidence of a Petrine Primacy and succession of such must come after 750 – 850 A.D. It then becomes the challenge of Catholic apologists to show that such teachings came earlier. On this webpage we will show definite proof that such evidence does indeed exist and totally discredit anyone who would hold that the "Donation of Constantine" is the basis for the papacy.

Scriptural Foundation:

Matthew 16:18 – "And I say to thee, thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." Here we have Jesus bestowing upon Peter (whose name means "rock") the foundation of the Church. In fact, in the Aramaic, which is what Jesus was likely speaking when speaking to His Apostles, and also the likely original language that the book of Matthew was written in, there is no distinction between the name "Peter" (Kepha) and the term for "rock" (kepha). Hence, if we stuck closer to the original language (instead of transliterating it to Greek and then English), that same verse would read something like: "… thou art Kepha, and upon this kepha will I build My Church." This one verse alone is enough for one who has The Faith, but for the Protestant opposition, they require more so let us go on.

Testimony from the Early Fathers:

"In 517 the Eastern bishops assented to and signed the formula of Pope Hormisdas, which states in part: ‘The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who said, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church" [Matt. 16:18], should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied.’" (qtd in This Rock, October 1998).

A.D. 220 – Tertulian: "…that the power of binding and loosing has thereby been handed on to you, that is to every church akin to Peter? What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when He conferred this personally upon Peter? On you, He says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church; and whatever you shall have bound or you shall have loosed, not what they shall have bound or they shall have loosed. " [Modesty, qtd in Jurgens 387]

A.D. 190/210 – St. Clement of Alexandria: "Nor does the kingdom of heaven belong to the sleeping and the lazy; rather, the violent take it by force… On hearing these words, the blessed Peter, the chose, the pre-eminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with Himself the Savior paid the tribute, quickly grasped and understood their meaning." [Who is the Rich Man That is Saved? qtd in Jurgens 436]

A.D. 226 – 232 et postea - Origen: "Peter, upon whom is built the Church of Christ, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, left only one Epistle of acknowledged genuinity. Let us concede also a second which, however, is doubtful." [Commentaries on John, qtd in Jurgens 479a] (This was a comment on the epistles of St. Peter, which later were both confirmed as genuine. As a side note, this discredits those who adhere to sola scriptura as well, since here, two centuries after Christ, they are still debating which books belong to the Canon of Sacred Scripture).

A.D. 244 – Origen: (Speaking about Peter) "Look at the great foundation of the Church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church! And what does the Lord say to him? ‘O you of little faith,’ He says, ‘why did you doubt!’ (Matt. 14:31)" [Homilies on Exodus, qtd in Jurgens 489]

A.D. 251 – St. Cyprian of Carthage: "The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ He says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven: and whatever things you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven.’ | first edition | And again He says to him after His resurrection: ‘Feed my sheep.’ On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His Own Authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair.’" [The Unity of the Catholic Church, qtd in Jurgens 555-556]

A.D. 254 – St. Cyprian of Carthage: "You have written also that on my account the Church now has a portion of itself in a state of dispersion. In truth, the whole people of the Church are collected together and made one and joined to each other in an indivisible harmony. They alone have remained outside who, were they within, would have to be ejected. … And the Lord too, in the Gospel, when the disciples abandoned Him while He was speaking, turned to the twelve and said, ‘And do you too wish to go away?’ Peter answered Him saying, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life: and we believe that you are the Son of the Living God.’

There speaks Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, teaching in the name of the Church and showing that even if a stubborn and proud multitude withdraws because it does not wish to obey, yet the Church does not withdraw from Christ. The people joined to the priest and the flock clinging to their shepherd are the Church.’" [Letter of Cyprian to Florentius Pupianus, qtd in Jurgens 587]

A.D. 306 – 373 – St. Ephraim: "Simon, My follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because on you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on earth a Church for Me. If they should wish to build what is false, you the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which My teaching flows, you are the chief of My disciples. Through you will I give drink to all peoples. Yours is that life-giving sweetness which I dispense. I have chosen you to be, as it were, the first-born in My Institution, and so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of My kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all My treasures!" [Homilies, qtd in Jurgens 706]

A.D. 461 – St. Leo I: "From the whole world only one, Peter, is chosen to preside over the calling of all nations, and over all the other Apostles, and over the Fathers of the Church. Thus, although among the people of God there are many priests and many pastors, it is really Peter who rules them all, of whom, too, it is Christ who is their chief ruler. Divine condescension, dearly beloved, has granted to this man in a wonderful and marvellous manner the aggregate of its power; and if there was something that it wanted to be his in common with other leaders, it never gave whatever it did not deny to others except through him. [Sermons, qtd in Jurgens 2191]

Circa A.D. 391 – 430 – St. Augustine of Hippo: "Before His suffering the Lord Jesus Christ, as you know, chose His disciples, whom He called Apostles. Among the Apostles almost everywhere Peter alone merited to represent the whole Church. For the sake of representing the whole Church, which he alone could do, he merited to hear: ‘I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of Heaven.’" [Sermons, qtd in Jurgens 1526]

Well, there are many more but the above is plenty of proof and far more than is needed to show that the authority of Peter and the Apostolic See clearly pre-existed the Donation of Constantine forgery. Another point of fact to make here is that if the papacy was not already recognized as authoritative, this forgery would have been cast off as ludicrous. The fact that they existed for a time before Pope Nicholas I cited them indicates that there was credibility to the concept.

Why was the Donation of Constantine written in the first place? Was it to shore up the papacy? No, on the contrary, it was to "support the local bishops against their metropolitans and other authorities, so as to secure absolute impunity and the exclusion of all influence of the secular power." (Dollinger, qtd in This Rock, 22 - October 1998).


To send comments to Scott Windsor, click here!



My thanks go to Steven O’Reilly, freelance writer for This Rock, from Snellville, Georgia. O’Reilly wrote the article which appears in This Rock, in the October 1998 issue. His article helped send me in the proper direction. I also wish to thank Michael Forrest, who sent the article to me.

Source for most of my quotes: The Faith of the Early Fathers , Volumes 1 and 3, by William A. Jurgens. The Liturgical Press, 1970.

For a more in depth treatment of the Donation of Constantine, check The Catholic Encyclopedia online at:

Number of visitors to this page since May 2, 1999:


* ADDENDUM: On May 4, 1999 I was in IRC chat with James White again. James clarifies his thesis. He states that St. Thomas Aquinas based his doctrine of the papacy entirely upon the False Decretals and that the Church eventually constructs the Her entire doctrine and dogma upon St. Thomas' Summa. His claim is that the above document (mine) does nothing to refute his thesis. Well, I beg to differ.

This webpage clearly shows that the papacy, even as we know it today, is spoken of centuries before the False Decretals. Now, Webster's thesis quite clearly is that "in the 9th century, a literary forgery occurred which completely revolutionized the ancient government of the Church in the West." Webster's thesis is that the False Decretals is the starting point of this concept of the papacy. This webpage has clearly shown that Webster's premise is entirely false, and hence his argument utterly fails.

James' premise is slightly different, but the fact that he relied upon Webster's documentation weakens James' position.

James argues that this document is Aquinas' sole source for his doctrine on the papacy as found in the Summa. Clearly I have shown that the doctrine is spoken of and taught centuries before Aquinas. If Aquinas only used this one source, but there are many others out there to support him, then so what!? Is Aquinas' argument destroyed because he used a forged document that he had no way of knowing was forged? It would IF there were no other proofs available to support Aquinas' conclusions. Since I have shown here that MANY other sources are available - James' argument holds little water.

I will be looking for other citations of papal authority from within the Summa that are not from the False Decretals and will post them here when found. Keeping in mind, I would only need ONE such source to soundly put down James' argument (that Aquinas used "no" other source).
If anyone reading this has such references, please send them to me, citing your sources (preferably internet sources) to: If I use your sources, I will give proper credit.



"Further, the blessed Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, says: "That we may remain members of our apostolic head, the throne of the Roman Pontiffs, of whom it is our duty to seek what we are to believe and what we are to hold, venerating him, beseeching him above others; for his it is to reprove, to correct, to appoint, to loose, and to bind in place of Him Who set up that very throne, and Who gave the fulness of His own to no other, but to him alone, to whom by divine right all bow the head, and the primates of the world are obedient as to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself." Therefore bishops are subject to someone even by divine right." [Question 40 - Article 6: Whether in the Church there can be anyone above the bishops? - St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica]

James' argument was that St. Thomas didn't use any other sources when discussing the papacy and papal authority. Clearly it is shown here that St. Thomas cites Cyril of Alexandria. Case closed.

PS- It took me literally about 5 minutes to find this citation on NewAdvent's site. There may be others, but since I only needed one, I stopped here. If you, the reader, finds or knows of any others, I will gladly add them to this list.

A reader of this page submitted this additional information on the quote from St. Thomas:
I looked this up in the Summa, and it comes from the Supplement. Which was finished after St.Thomas' death. I believe it is taken from his "Commentary on the "Sentences"". Would it be possible to add that the quotation is on your page is from the Supplement? This is not always translated - the 60-volume "Blackfriars" translation includes only the Summa Theologiae proper.

As to the quotation - The Marietti edition of the Latin [Turin 1955] gives a reference to the Contra Errores Graecorum of St.Thomas. Which uses this text, which is apparently not St.Cyril's own. So it would be dangerous to rely on it as Cyrilline - - but, a Patristics scholar would know whether it is genuine. A number of St.Thomas' quotations are misattributed; usually the words of one Father are ascribed to another. But sometimes non-Patristic writings are ascribed to Fathers.



Return to ACTS Homepage