Third and Fourth Lateran Councils

Fourth Lateran Councils
Fourth Lateran Councils

In the 12th, 13th, and 16th centuries in the Lateran Palace in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church held five councils. The first took place in 1123 to ratify the Concordat of Worms (1122), while the second took place in 1139 to reaffirm church unity after the schism of 1130–38.

The Third Lateran Council (1179) was called by Pope Alexander III to end the schism (1159–77) of antipope Calixtus III and his predecessors and to establish procedures for the election of popes. The Fourth Lateran Council, the most important of the five, was the culmination of the Lateran effort, with the fifth being largely unproductive.

In March 1179 about 300 church fathers met at Rome for the Third Lateran Council. The Third Lateran Council was to ratify an earlier agreement between the pope and the Holy Roman emperor. Alexander and Emperor Frederick I (1152–90) had agreed at Venice in 1177 to end the long-standing schism in the church.

Frederick had supported Victor IV over Alexander as pope and declared war against the Italian states and Roman church. The schism lasted long enough to bring into power two additional antipopes, Paschal III (1164–68) and Calixtus III (1168–78), both opposed to Alexander. Alexander finally prevailed and, as he promised at Venice, called the general council to end the schism and the dispute with the emperor.

Having resolved the schism, the council established procedures for election of the pope; electors were to be only the College of Cardinals, the Sacred Conclave, and election required a two-thirds majority of all cardinals voting. Having undone the damage done by the antipopes and settled the election of the pope, the church fathers condemned the Albigensians and Waldensians as heretics.

Also known as the Poor Men of Lyons, the Waldenses or Waldensians or Vaudois were led by Peter Waldo, a Lyonnaise merchant. Waldo gave away his property in 1176 and began a life of itinerant preaching of apostolic poverty as the route to perfection. Waldensians believed only in the Bible, and simple Bible reading, sermons, and the Lord’s Prayer constituted their services.

They rejected the papacy, indulgences, the Mass, and purgatory. They also believed that all Christians contained the Holy Spirit and could preach; lay believers could replace priests. Their doctrines are contained in the Waldensian Catechism of 1489. Similar pre-Reformation groups include the Humiliati. The Albigensians took another heretical approach.

Because the church barred lay preaching, in 1179 the Waldensians met with Alexander III, who blessed them but prohibited their preaching without approval from their local clergy. The Waldensians preached anyway. Lucius III declared them heretics in 1184, as did the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1211 at Strasbourg, more than 80 Waldensians were burned as heretics.

The Albigensians were French Cathars, probably named for the southern town of Albi, which was the center of their movement. Labeled by Innocent III as dualists, they were followers of the old Mediterranean-area Manichean belief that good and evil had their own divinities. They believed that existence is a struggle between good and evil, Jesus Christ and God against Satan.

Material objects—food, wealth, and the human body—belonged to Satan, who had imprisoned the soul in a body. A good life could free a soul, but a failed life meant that the soul was reincarnated to try again. Believing that the church was a tool of Satan, they refused to become Catholic.

The Albigensian Crusade (1208–29) was Alexander’s answer to their refusal to join the church. Simon de Montfort also crusaded against them until 1218. In 1233 the Dominican inquisition effectively ended the Albigensian heresy, although persecution of survivors persisted into the 14th century.

In Italy until 1184 local bishops were responsible for dealing with heresy. In that year Pope Lucius III and Emperor Frederick I met at Verona and issued a condemnation of various sects, including the Cathars, Humiliati, and Patarines. The pope issued the bull Ad abolendam, which set out penalties for heresy by clerics and laymen while establishing a process of inquisition by the bishops.

The legislation against French heresy applied equally to Italy. There were no missions or Crusades in Italy as there had been in France. Heresy remained a problem despite the best efforts of the church leaders at the Third Lateran Council. Innocent III would have to address it again at the Fourth Lateran Council.

Although one of the youngest popes ever elected, Innocent was perhaps the best pope of this period. He built the Papal States, reduced the power of his possible rivals in Hohenstaufen Germany, elaborated a theory of papal authority, and defined the relative limits of kingship in relation to that authority. He sponsored the Fourth Crusade, planned the Fifth Crusade, and took measures to eradicate heresy. Most of this work was part of the Fourth Lateran Council.

Innocent was the author of the position that “there is but one Universal Church, outside of which there is no salvation.” He felt the power of the papacy increasing, but he also knew that the Crusades were going badly, with the Children’s Crusade of a few years earlier being the worst.

He needed a council to reinforce the defense of the faith, aid the crusaders in Palestine, and reaffirm freedom of the church from lay interference. He sent church and secular rulers his bull of April 19, 1213. Pope Innocent III called the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

This council was the most important of the Lateran Councils. More than 1,000 churchmen attended. Some 71 patriarchs and metropolitans (including two from the Eastern church), 412 bishops, 900 abbots and priests, and many representatives of European rulers responded and met at the largest council ever.

The council issued 70 decrees that dealt with penalties for heresy and procedures against heretics and those who protected them, a proclamation of papal primacy, and order of succession through the various sees—Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The council established rules for the clergy concerning hunting, drunkenness, attendance at performances, performance of surgeries, and conduct of trials by combat or ordeal.

It also dealt with taxes, litigation within the church, matrimony, tithing, simony, and Jews. It barred the establishment of new monastic orders. It defined the Easter duty, utriusque sexus, that required confession at least annually, and it prescribed that Muslims and Jews had to dress in such a way that they were distinguishable from Christians.

The council defined the Eucharist to include transubstantiation for the first official time. It made official that transubstantiation was the mysterious change of bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The council affirmed that Frederick II, not his rival Otto, was the Holy Roman Emperor. It also promoted a new crusade in the Holy Land as well as one against the Albigensians and Waldensians. This council was the peak of the medieval papacy’s prestige. The Fourth Lateran Council was a summary and reaffirmation of existing laws regarding heresy. When Innocent died in 1216 the church had everything it needed, including the precedents for the Inquisition.

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