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Lateran Councils

Name of several councils, including 5 general and several particular, held at the Lateran complex in Rome

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Lateran Councils, a series of five important councils held at Rome from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. From the reign of Constantine the Great until the removal of the papal Court to Avignon, the Lateran palace and basilica served the bishops of Rome as residence and cathedral. During this long period the popes had occasion to convoke a number of general councils, and for this purpose they made choice of cities so situated as to reduce as much as possible the inconveniences which the bishops called to such assemblies must necessarily experience by reason of long and costly absence from their sees. Five of these councils were held in the Lateran palace, and are known as the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Lateran Councils, held respectively in 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215, and 1512-17.

FIRST LATERAN COUNCIL (1123).—The Council of 1123 is reckoned in the series of ecumenical councils. It had been convoked in December, 1122, immediately after the Concordat of Worms, which agreement between pope and emperor had caused general satisfaction in the Church. It put a stop to the arbitrary conferring of ecclesiastical benefices by laymen, reestablished freedom of episcopal and abbatial elections, separated spiritual from temporal affairs, and ratified the principle that spiritual authority can emanate only from the Church; lastly, it tacitly abolished the exorbitant claim of the emperors to interfere in papal elections. So deep was the emotion caused by this concordat, the first ever signed, that in many documents of the time the year 1122 is mentioned as the beginning of a new era. For its more solemn confirmation, and in conformity with the earnest desire of the Archbishop of Mainz, Callistus II convoked a council to which all the archbishops and bishops of the West were invited. Three hundred bishops and more than six hundred abbots assembled at Rome in March, 1123; Callistus II presided in person. Both originals (instrumenta) of the Concordat of Worms were read and ratified, and twenty-two disciplinary canons were promulgated, most of them reinforcements of previous conciliary decrees. Canons iii and xxi forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to marry or to have concubines; it is also forbidden them to keep in their houses any women other than those sanctioned by the ancient canons. Marriages of clerics are null plena jure, and those who have contracted them are subject to penance. Canon vi: Nullity of the ordinations performed by the heresiarch Burdinus (Antipope Gregory VIII) after his condemnation. Canon xi: Safe-guard for the families and possessions of crusaders. Canon xiv: Excommunication of laymen appropriating offerings made to the Church, and those who fortify churches as strongholds. Canon xvi: Against those who molest pilgrims on their way to Rome. Canon xvii: Abbots and relgious are prohibited from admitting sinners to penance, visiting the sick, administering extreme unction, singing solemn and public Masses; they are obliged to obtain the holy chrism and holy oils from their respective bishops.

SECOND LATERAN COUNCIL (1139).—The death of Pope Honorius II (February, 1130) was followed by a schism. Petrus Leonis (Pierleoni), under the name of Anacletus II, for a long time held in check the legitimate pope, Innocent II, who was supported by St. Bernard and St. Norbert. In 1135 Innocent II celebrated a Council at Pisa, and his cause gained steadily until, in January, 1138, the death of Anacletus helped largely to solve the difficulty. Nevertheless, to efface the last vestiges of the schism, to condemn various errors and reform abuses among clergy and people, Innocent, in the month of April, 1139, convoked, at the Lateran, the tenth cecumenical council. Nearly a thousand prelates, from most of the Christian nations, assisted. The pope opened the council with a discourse, and deposed from their offices those who had been ordained and instituted by the antipope and by his chief partisans, Aegidius of Tusculum and Gerard of Angouleme. As Roger, King of Sicily, a partisan of Anacletus who had been reconciled with Innocent, persisted in maintaining in Southern Italy his schismatical attitude, he was excommunicated. The council likewise condemned the errors of the Petrobrusians and the Henricians, the followers of two active and dangerous heretics, Peter of Bruys and Arnold of Brescia. The council promulgated against these heretics its twenty-third canon, a repetition of the third canon of the Council of Toulouse (1119) against the Manichans. Finally, the council drew up measures for the amendment of ecclesiastical morals and discipline that had grown lax during the schism. Twenty-eight canons pertinent to these matters reproduced in great part the decrees of the Council of Reims, in 1131, and the Council of Clermont, in 1130, whose enactments, frequently cited since then under the name of the Lateran Council, acquired thereby increase of authority. Canon IV: Injunction to bishops and ecclesiastics not to scandalize anyone by the colors, the shape, or extravagance of their garments, but to clothe themselves in a modest and well-regulated manner. Canons vi, vii, xxi: Condemnation and repression of marriage and concubinage among priests, deacons, subdeacons, monks, and nuns. Canon x: Excommunication of laymen who fail to pay the tithes due the bishops, or who do not surrender to the latter the churches of which they retain possession, whether received from bishops, or obtained from princes or other persons. Canon xii fixes the periods and the duration of the Truce of God. Canon xiv: Prohibition, under pain of deprivation of Christian burial, of jousts and tournaments which jeopardize life. Canon xx: Kings and princes are to dispense justice in consultation with the bishops. Canon xxv: No one must accept a benefice at the hands of a layman. Canon xxvii: Nuns are prohibited from singing the Divine Office in the same choir with monks or canons. Canon xxviii: No church must be left vacant more than three years from the death of the bishop; anathema is pronounced against those (secular) canons who exclude from episcopal election persons of piety”—i.e. regular canons or monks.

THIRD LATERAN COUNCIL (1179).—The reign of Alexander III was one of the most laborious pontificates of the Middle Ages. Then, as in 1139, the object was to repair the evils caused by the schism of an anti-pope. Shortly after returning to Rome (March 12, 1178) and receiving from its inhabitants their oath of fidelity and certain indispensable guarantees, Alexander had the satisfaction of receiving the submission of the antipope Callistus III (John de Struma). The latter, besieged at Viterbo by Christian of Mainz, eventually yielded and, at Tusculum, made his submission to Pope Alexander (August 29, 1178), who received him with kindness and appointed him Governor of Beneventum. Some of his obstinate partisans sought to substitute a new antipope, and chose one Lando Sitino, under the name of Innocent III. For lack of support he soon gave up the struggle and was relegated to the monastery of La Cava. In September, 1178, the pope in agreement with an article of the Peace of Venice, convoked an cecumenical council at the Lateran for Lent of the following year and, with that object, sent legates to different countries. This was the eleventh of the cecumenical councils. It met in March, 1179. The pope presided, seated upon an elevated throne, surrounded by the cardinals, and by the prefects, senators, and consuls of Rome. The gathering numbered three hundred and two bishops, among them several Latin prelates of Eastern sees. There were in all nearly one thousand members. Nectarius, abbot of the Cabules, represented the Greeks. The East was represented by Archbishops William of Tyre and Heraclius of Caesarea, Prior Peter of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Bishop of Bethlehem. Spain sent nineteen bishops; Ireland, six; Scotland, only one; England, seven; France, fifty-nine; Germany, seventeen; Denmark and Hungary, one each. The bishops of Ireland had at their head St. Laurence, Archbishop of Dublin. The pope consecrated, in the presence of the council, two English bishops, and two Scottish, one of whom had come to Rome with only one horse, the other on foot. There was also present an Icelandic bishop who had no other revenue than the milk of three cows, and when one of these went dry his diocese furnished him with another.

Besides exterminating the remains of the schism, the council undertook the condemnation of the Waldensian heresy and the restoration of ecclesiastical discipline, which had been much relaxed. Three sessions were held, on 5, 14, and March 19, in which twenty-seven canons were promulgated, the most important of which may be summarized as follows: Canon i: To prevent schisms in future, only the cardinals should have the right to elect the pope, and two-thirds of their votes should be required for the validity of such election. If any candidate, after securing only one-third of the votes, should arrogate to himself the papal dignity, both he and his partisans should be excluded from the ecclesiastical order and excommunicated. Canon ii: Annulment of the ordinations performed by the heresiarchs Octavian and Guy of Crema, as well as those by John de Struma. Those who have received ecclesiastical dignities or benefices from these persons are deprived of the same; those who have freely sworn to adhere to the schism are declared suspended. Canon iii: It is forbidden to promote anyone to the episcopate before the age of thirty. Deaneries, archdeaconries, parochial charges, and other benefices involving the care of souls shall not be conferred upon anyone less than twenty-five years of age. Canon iv regulates the retinue of members of the higher clergy, whose canonical visits were frequently ruinous to the rural priests. Thenceforward the train of an archbishop is not to include more than forty or fifty horses; that of a bishop, not more than twenty or thirty; that of an archdeacon, five or seven at the most; the dean is to have two. Canon v forbids the ordination of clerics not provided with an ecclesiastical title, i.e. means of proper support. If a bishop ordains a priest or a deacon without assigning him a certain title on which he can subsist, the bishop shall provide such cleric with means of livelihood until he can assure him an ecclesiastical revenue, that is, if the cleric cannot subsist on his patrimony alone. Canon vi regulates the formalities of ecclesiastical sentences. Canon vii forbids the exaction of a sum of money for the burial of the dead, the marriage benediction, and, in general, for the administration of the sacraments. Canon viii: The patrons of benefices shall nominate to such benefices within six months after the occurrence of a vacancy. Canon ix recalls the military orders of the Templars and the Hospitallers to the observation of canonical regulations, from which the churches dependent on them are in no wise exempt. Canon xi forbids clerics to receive women in their houses, or to frequent, without necessity, the monasteries of nuns. Canon xiv forbids laymen to transfer to other laymen the tithes which they possess, under pain of being debarred from the communion of the faithful and deprived of Christian burial. Canon xviii provides for the establishment in every cathedral church of a school for poor clerics. Canon xix: Excommunication aimed at those who levy contributions on churches and churchmen without the consent of the bishop and clergy. Canon xx forbids tournaments. Canon xxi relates to the “Truce of God“. Canon xxiii relates to the organization of asylums for lepers. Canon xxiv consists of a prohibition against furnishing the Saracens with material for the construction of their galleys. Canon xxvii enjoins on princes the repression of heresy.

FOURTH LATERAN COUNCIL (1215) .—From the commencement of his reign Innocent III had purposed to assemble an ecumenical council, but only towards the end of his pontificate could he realize this project, by the Bull of April 19, 1213. The assembly was to take place in November, 1215. The council did in fact meet on November 11, and its sessions were prolonged until the end of the month. The long interval between the convocation and the opening of the council, as well as the prestige of the reigning pontiff, were responsible for the very large number of bishops who attended it; it is commonly cited in canon law as “the General Council of Lateran”, without further qualification, or, again, as “the Great Council”. Innocent III found himself on this occasion surrounded by seventy-one patriarchs and metropolitans, including the Patriarchs of Constantinople and of Jerusalem, four hundred and twelve bishops, and nine hundred abbots and priors. The Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria were represented by delegates. Envoys appeared from Emperor Frederick II, from Henry, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, from the Kings of France, England, Aragon, Hungary, Cyprus, and Jerusalem, and from other princes. The pope himself opened the council with an allocution the lofty views of which surpassed the orator’s power of expression. He had desired, said the pope, to celebrate this Pasch before he died. He declared himself ready to drink the chalice of the Passion for the defense of the Catholic Faith, for the succour of the Holy Land, and to establish the liberty of the Church. After this discourse, followed by moral exhortation, the pope presented to the council seventy decrees or canons, already formulated, on the most important points of dogmatic and moral theology. Dogmas were defined, points of discipline were decided, measures were drawn up against heretics, and, finally, the conditions of the next crusade were regulated.

The fathers of the council did little more than approve the seventy decrees presented to them; this approbation, nevertheless, sufficed to impart to the acts thus formulated and promulgated the value of ecumenical decrees. Most of them are somewhat lengthy and are divided into chapters. The following are the most important: Canon i: Exposition of the Catholic Faith and of the dogma of Transubstantiation. Canon ii: Condemnation of the doctrines of Joachim of Flora and of Amaury. Canon iii: Procedure and penalties against heretics and their protectors. Canon iv: Exhortation to the Greeks’ to reunite with the Roman Church and accept its maxims, to the end that, according to the Gospel, there may be only one fold and only one shepherd. Canon v: Proclamation of the papal primacy recognized by all antiquity. After the pope, primacy is attributed to the patriarchs in the following order: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem. (It is enough to remind the reader how long an opposition preceded at Rome this recognition of Constantinople as second in rank among the patriarchal sees.) Canon vi: Provincial councils must be held annually for the reform of morals, especially those of the clergy. Canon viii: Procedure in regard to accusations against ecclesiastics. Until the French Revolution, this canon was of considerable importance in criminal law, not only ecclesiastical but even civil. Canon ix: Celebration of public worship in places where the inhabitants belong to nations following different rites. Canon xi renews the ordinance of the council of 1179 on free schools for clerics in connection with every cathedral. Canon xii: Abbots and priors are to hold their general chapter every three years. Canon xiii forbids the establishment of new religious orders, lest too great diversity bring confusion into the Church. Canons xiv—xvii: Against the irregularities of the clergy—incontinence, drunkenness, the chase, attendance at farces and histrionic exhibitions. Canon xviii: Priests, deacons, and subdeacons are forbidden to perform surgical operations. Canon xix forbids the blessing of water and hot iron for judicial tests or ordeals. Canon xxi, the famous “Omnis utriusque sexus”, which commands every Christian who has reached the years of discretion to confess all his, or her, sins at least once a year to his, or her, own (i.e. parish) priest. This canon did no more than confirm earlier legislation and custom, and has been often, but wrongly, quoted as commanding for the first time the use of sacramental confession. Canon xxii: Before prescribing for the sick, physicians shall be bound, under pain of exclusion from the Church, to exhort their patients to call in a priest, and thus provide for their spiritual welfare. Canons xxiii—xxx regulate ecclesiastical elections and the collation of benefices. Canons xxvi, xliv, and xlviii: Ecclesiastical procedure. Canons 1—lii: On marriage, impediments of relationship, publication of banns. Canons lxxviii, lxxix: Jews and Mohammedans shall wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians. Christian princes must take measures to prevent blasphemies against Jesus Christ. The council, moreover, made rules for the projected crusade, imposed a four years’ peace on all Christian peoples and princes, published indulgences, and enjoined the bishops to reconcile all enemies. The council confirmed the elevation of Frederick II to the German throne and took other important measures. Its decrees were widely published in many provincial councils.

FIFTH LATERAN COUNCIL (1512-17).—When elected pope, Julius II promised under oath that he would soon convoke a general council. Time passed, however, and this promise was not fulfilled. Consequently, certain dissatisfied cardinals, urged, also, by Emperor Maximilian and Louis XII, convoked a council at Pisa and fixed September 1, 1511, for its opening. This event was delayed until October 1. Four cardinals then met at Pisa provided with proxies from three absent cardinals. Several bishops and abbots were also there, as well as ambassadors from the King of France. Seven or eight sessions were held, in the last of which Pope Julius II was suspended, whereupon the prelates withdrew to Lyons. The pope hastened to oppose to this conciliabulum a more numerously attended council, which he convoked, by the Bull of July 18, 1511, to assemble April 19, 1512, in the church of St. John Lateran. The Bull was at once a canonical and a polemical document. In it the pope refuted in detail the reasons alleged by the cardinals for their Pisa conciliabulum. He declared that his conduct before his elevation to the pontificate was a pledge of his sincere desire for the celebration of the council; that since his elevation he had always sought opportunities for assembling it; that for this reason he had sought to reestablish peace among Christian princes; that the wars which had arisen against his will had no other object than the reestablishment of pontifical authority in the States of the Church. He then reproached the rebel cardinals with the irregularity of their conduct and the unseemliness of convoking the Universal Church independently of its head. He pointed out to them that the three months accorded by them for the assembly of all bishops at Pisa was too short, and that said city presented none of the advantages requisite for an assembly of such importance. Finally, he declared that no one should attach any significance to the act of the cardinals. The Bull was signed by twenty-one cardinals. The French victory of Ravenna (April 11, 1512) hindered the opening of the council before May 3, on which day the fathers met in the Lateran Basilica. There were present fifteen cardinals, the Latin Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, ten archbishops, fifty-six bishops, some abbots and generals of religious orders, the ambassadors of King Ferdinand, and those of Venice and of Florence. Convoked by Julius II, the assembly survived him, was continued by Leo X, and held its twelfth, and last, session on March 16, 1517. In the third session Matthew Lang, who had represented Maximilian at the Council of Tours, read an act by which that emperor repudiated all that had been done at Tours and at Pisa. In the fourth session the advocate of the council demanded the revocation of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. In the eighth (December 17, 1513), an act of King Louis XII was read, disavowing the Council of Pisa and adhering to the Lateran Council. In the next session (March 5, 1514) the French bishops made their submission, and Leo X granted them absolution from the censures pronounced against them by Julius II. In the tenth session (May 4, 1515) the pope published four decrees; the first of these sanctions the institution of montes pietatis, or pawn shops, under strict ecclesiastical supervision, for the purpose of aiding the necessitous poor on the most favorable terms; the second relates to ecclesiastical liberty and the episcopal dignity, and condemns certain abusive exemptions; the third forbids, under pain of excommunication, the printing of books without the permission of the ordinary of the diocese; the fourth orders a peremptory citation against the French in regard to the Pragmatic Sanction. The latter was solemnly revoked and condemned, and the concordat with Francis I approved, in the eleventh session (December 19, 1516). Finally, the council promulgated a decree prescribing war against the Turks and ordered the levying of tithes of all the benefices in Christendom for three years.

OTHER LATERAN COUNCILS.—Other councils were held at the Lateran, among the best known being those in 649 against the Monothelite heresy, in 823, 864, 900 1102 1105, 1110 1111, 1112, and 1116. In 1725, Benedict XIII called to the Lateran the bishops directly dependent on Rome as their metropolitan see, i.e. archbishops without suffragans, bishops immediately subject to the Holy See, and abbots exercising quasi-episcopal jurisdiction. Seven sessions were held between April 15 and May 29, and divers regulations were promulgated concerning the duties of bishops and other pastors, concerning residence, ordinations, and the periods for the holding of synods. The chief objects were the suppression of Jansenism and the solemn confirmation of the Bull “Unigenitus“, which was declared a rule of faith demanding the fullest obedience.


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