Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Thirteenth Letter (Item 19): Pope Alexander I to All Priests

At last, your blogger returns. In the months of his absence, he has read Homer, Euripides and Plato; gained a little weight after prolonged exposure to the culinary temptations of the West Village; developed the need for a hair cut; moved offices; acquired a niece; and bought a new bicycle. I had intended to resume the slog through Pseudo-Isidore a few weeks ago, but the minor chaos of a new semester has delayed things a bit. The internet, I know, has seemed a dry and boring place without continual updates on the false decretals.

I now sit in a coffeeshop with a false decretal in front of me -- namely the third and last letter in the name of Pope Alexander I. It's what I grabbed at random when I left my office on Friday, and I fear it's not the most substantial forgery in the history of mankind.

It does have an interesting address, though, cribbed from I Peter 1:2. Alexander writes to "everyone exercising the divine priesthood," and wishes for the furtherance of peace, mercy, wisdom and good will. Much of the letter that follows is pieced together from other biblical passages: snippets from 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Romans, 1 John, Tobit, the Gospel of John, Ecclesiasticus, Ephesians,  the Psalms, the Gospel of Matthew and Jude; and two longer passages from Micah (2:1-8) and Nahum (1:7-12).

The text opens with some generic remarks about divine grace, but gathers momentum as it pivots to emphasize love and harmony. Pseudo-Alexander tells his readers to judge nobody, and emerges from the scriptural quotations briefly to declare that "the height of inqiutiy is to disparage and accuse your brothers" (i.e., fellow bishops).  I John 3:15 ("Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer") helps Alexander out here: this is a favorite scriptural citation of Pseudo-Isidore, recurring in letters ascribed to Clement and Anacletus, as well as the first book of Benedictus Levita.

By the end of the letter Alexander has exhausted most of scriptural citations, and turns to the Sentences of Sextus for some pithy concluding rhetoric. It is easy to deceive man but not God; he who does harm is not wise; he who is faithful does not will evil. All of this is just a warm-up for Pseudo-Isidore's own sentiments (and the only really original passage of the whole decretal): Those who persecute priests are persecuting the Lord. He who suffers violence indeed endures great torment, but is nevertheless blessed if he endures this persecution on behalf of justice. Then a citation from Jude 14-15 ("Behold, the Lord cometh with thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all and to reprove all the ungodly for all the works of their ungodliness"), followed by Alexander's insistence that his precepts be respected and observed. The alternative is eternal damnation.


Recipient: all priests of Christendom

Date: 1 May

Sources: the Bible; the Sentences of Sextus; the acta of the Second Council of Seville

Words: 652

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