Sunday, August 14, 2016
A visitor to Rome who wishes to see the cathedral must go not to St. Peter’s Basilica just east of the Tiber, but west and well across the city to St. John Lateran. Next to the formal entrance is a plaque that reads Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput (Most Holy Lateran Church, mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world).
Baroque and overly ornate, it is the product of several centuries of restoration and improvement after devastating fires in 1307 and 1361, the last architectural touches completed in 1735. However, it was originally consecrated in 354 and had a notable history even then, standing on the site of the home of the Laterani family. Consul-designate Plautius Lateranus was famously accused by Nero of conspiracy against the emperor, resulting in confiscation of his properties. Emperor Constantine I donated the house and its land to the bishop of Rome. Four notable medieval church general councils took place here.
Through the end of the first millennium, almost all eight councils held from Nicaea onward were mostly about doctrine. An exception was the so-called Robber Council of Ephesus in 449, which as we have seen was hijacked by a subsequently deposed factional minority, its decrees subsequently abrogated.
The philosopher bishops of late antiquity and the early middle ages quibbled mostly about highly technical matters of what was beginning to be called theology. From that period, the only item that would later give rise to dispute was defined in 787 at the Second Council of Nicaea in a statement of belief referring to the mother of Jesus as “God-bearer without blemish, Mary the ever-virgin.”
The Anglican Communion generally accepts the first four ecumenical councils (Anglo-Catholics add three more) as a source of valid universal Christian teaching. This is because after that the councils largely ceased to be “ecumenical,” meaning inclusive of all regions. The First Lateran Council was the first such meeting to take place without representation from the patriarch of Constantinople.
The Lateran general councils are different from those that preceded. During the buildup to scholasticism, the bishops began to function more as the Church’s noblemen and princes than theologians and depended on scholars for advice on such matters, as is the case today. Moreover, doctrinal concerns were overshadowed by problems of their day, including conflicts between church and state, public clerical immorality, and a host of political and legal issues faced by the era’s central social institution, plus a series of perceived threats external to European Christendom.
The First Lateran Council was convened in 1123. Most momentous, with an effect on Catholics today, was its decision regarding celibacy for priests in the Latin rite. The language of the decree clearly lets on (and later Lateran councils confirm) that it covered more than met the eye: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons and monks to have concubines or to contract marriages.”
A second general council just 16 years later, was called because the papal election of 1130 had ended in a split result, and two popes were claiming the seat. The Council condemned the heresies of religious popular rebels of their day and heard preaching by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in favor of a new crusade against Islam.
However, the decrees that convey the tenor of life, particularly of clerics, inveigh against simony (or the purchase of blessings); ordination of men with many wives and concubines; monks charging to tutor laypeople; charging for chrism, holy oils and burials; lay Church employees pocketing donations; sons of clerics claiming right to ownership of churches, their income and associated church positions; and sons of priests insisting on participation in religious services even though they were not ordained.
The council worried about the “ferocious greed of usurers,” usury being any lending of money with interest. Lateran II also applies the penalty of excommunication for the “most dreadful, devastating and malicious crime of incendiarism,” with penance defined as a year of service in Jerusalem or Spain. The council also addresses intermarriage of the nobility in order to amass wealth and territory, which it condemns as “incestuous behavior” and “under the influence of the enemy of the human race.”
In a decree that is oddly colorful and relevant today, Lateran II warns against new war technology: “We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.” The crossbow was a horizontal bowlike assembly that shot projectiles called bolts or quarrels. They were used in Scotland by the Picts as early as the 6th century and at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. But the council was concerned about their use by the “Saracens” (medieval for Muslims), who had adapted what they called the “Frankish bow” for use against Crusaders. The new and improved Saracen crossbow proved especially deadly.
The third Lateran council was called by Pope Alexander III in 1179 to undo the damage of antipopes. Once again the council addressed increased clerical corruption (many of the decrees are reiterated), heresies and perceived external threats. Among the latter is a hardening of attitudes against non-Christians, seen in the decree forbidding Jews and Saracens to have Christian servants in their houses. Notably for ecclesiastical order, the council established three key rules: pontiffs must be elected by a two-thirds vote; a bishop must be a man at least 30 years old, “born in lawful wedlock” and “worthy by his life and learning”; and valid excommunication was defined in response to precise causes and following specified procedures.
The Fourth Lateran Council, called in 1215 by Pope Innocent III, was among such medieval gatherings the most decisive and controversial, with the longest-lasting impact. It was attended by 500 bishops, including the patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, and about 1,000 abbots and religious superiors, including Saints Dominic and Francis.
The council set the tone with its opening lengthy creed or “Confession of Faith,” whose opening sentence shows the rising influence of philosophical scholasticism: “We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature.”
More significantly, the Lateran IV confession introduced a point of controversy that would resonate through the Reformation and to this day. The council fathers declared that “His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed in substance (in Latin, transubstantiatis), by God's power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us.”
The Anglican Benedictine ecumenically known as a modern authority on the Eucharist, Dom Gregory Dix, confirmed that before the Reformation no one questioned whether what began as bread and wine ended up as Body and Blood. The medieval scholastics and clergy merely wanted to explain how this happened.
Next, in full view of the patriarchs, the council protested “the pride of the Greeks toward the Latins” in a half-hearted attempt at reunion with the East. The decree laments that “after the Greek church together with certain associates and supporters withdrew from the obedience of the apostolic see, the Greeks began to detest the Latins.” In order to heal the division, the council fathers said, “we strictly order” that the Greeks in question “conform themselves like obedient sons to the holy Roman church.”
The council did throw the East a consolation prize, a decree that reaffirmed “the ancient privileges of the patriarchal sees,” placing “after the Roman church, which through the Lord's disposition has a primacy of ordinary power over all other churches,” the church of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, in that order of primacy.
Among the many church disciplines from Lateran IV one is significantly to Catholics today: the duty of yearly confession and yearly communion. The council added the assurance of the confessional seal: “if anyone presumes to reveal a sin disclosed to him in confession, we decree that he is not only to be deposed from his priestly office but also to be confined to a strict monastery to do perpetual penance”; today the penalty is excommunication.
Lateran IV extended prohibition against marriage involving consanguinity to the fourth degree, which includes in-laws. To avoid repudiation of spouses as had been happening among kings of France and Castile, the council established rules of evidence to be accepted by priests before marriage and ordered the publication of banns, which older readers may remember, persisted until the current code of 1983.
The council established a broad range of rules concerning the participation of clerics in civil suits and the courts. These rules came to be important in Europe after the French Revolution, even in civil law.
Lamentably, Lateran IV, in its last four canons (67-70) set the stage for long-standing entrenched and institutionalized anti-Semitism in Europe, including practices the Nazis copied.
First, the council embraced the broadside against Jews as evil moneylenders, a theme taken up by Shakespeare in “The Merchant of Venice,” accusing them of “usurious practices” carried out in growing “perfidy.” The council orders Jews who “extort oppressive and excessive interest” to be banished from the presence of Christians.
Canon 68 stipulated that Jews and Muslims “are to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress,” so that no Christian will marry them unknowingly. The Nazis pointed to this as a precedent for ordering Jews to wear a yellow Star of David. The following canon disqualified Jews from holding public office.
Arguing that “it is a lesser evil not to know the Lord’s way than to go back on it after having known it” the council ordered priests to ensure that Jews who converted to Christianity did not observe their old rites and customs.
The fifth and last Lateran council to date, held from 1512 to 1517—after five councils held elsewhere—was so preoccupied with the emerging Protestant movement that it deserves treatment later.