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The Fourth Lateran Council itself was simply a congregation of church leaders. The list of ecclesiastical canons to which it gave rise is the subject of the following essay. The meeting itself was probably pretty boring; a lot of huffing, puffing, silly hats and all that.

Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council

On the 11th of November in 1215, Pope Innocent III assembled an ecumenical council, and presented before this council a collection of important members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy from all over Europe, as well as the Near East. The aims of this congregation included nearly all conceivable matters of church doctrine and dogma, which up until this point had remained remarkably undefined. However, the combination of increased levels of literacy and the contemporaneous spread of popular heresy among the townsfolk and peasants of Europe prompted Innocent III to mount a campaign to unify the church while simultaneously expelling the dissidents.

The motivation of Pope Innocent III is clear. The rising leaders of heresy and increased willingness of townsfolk to follow these localized leaders threatened not only church authority, but the very validity of that authority’s religious doctrine. Innocent intended for this council to provide a framework by which each sector of the church could be analyzed for “purity” and correspondingly cleansed. The power of this assertion resonates in the lines of the very first canon, declaring “there is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation.” The terms of this church, also clearly stated in the first canon, outline the core beliefs that one must hold in order to obtain this exclusive salvation. Pope Innocent’s primary concern, the organization of the council charter seems to show, is to send a message to the flock that Heaven does not lie down the path of individuality, but that of obedience.

Shortly after the major dogmatic points are decided in the opening canons, the charter proceeds to resolve the next important goal of the council: denouncement and excommunication of those that choose not to follow these divinely mandated, and newly articulated codes of worship. “We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy that raises against the holy, orthodox and Catholic faith which we have above explained; condemning all heretics under whatever names they may be known, for while they have different faces they are nevertheless bound to each other by their tails,” the charter states in the first line of Canon 3, deriding the heretics as unworthy of individualization. The canon does not stop at exiling the dissidents form the church, it also proscribes the methods and procedures for the “extermination of the heretics,” and invests the proper authority in the local bishops of the province to do so. In this way, the charter doubles as both an official mission statement and a writ of habeas corpus of sorts, instructing the local church authority to actively purify their territories of deviant practices.

The remaining Canons, numbering more than 70 Canons, represent a technical manual for completing the unification of the church (Canon 4) and restating its ultimate authority (Canon 5). As a group, the overriding theme of the canons is a condemnation of diversity. The Fourth Canon, for instance, in a command that the Greek branch of the church restructure itself according to the Roman arm, following the guide of this charter so that there be only “one fold and one shepherd." Should the Greeks continue affirming their divergent status, as they have done by re-baptizing faithful of the Roman Church, the Canon condemns them to excommunication.

The Fifth Canon clearly traces the power of the church authority, claiming that the “Roman Church…by the will of God holds over all others pre-eminence of ordinary power as the mother and mistress of all the faithful.” This places Pope Innocent III in a comfortable position of ultimate authority as leader of the Roman Church, and after that, “Constantinople shall hold first place, that of Alexandria second, that of Antioch third, and that of Jerusalem fourth.”

The remaining Canons augment and specify these themes of unification. Especially important in this regard are Canon 9, directing how services are to be performed in areas of various races, Canon 13, which restricts the foundation of new orders, Canons 14-16 which define a specific moral code for the clergy, and Canons 50-52, which finalize the church position on marriage and relationships. The thirteenth canon is notable in that it shows that Pope Innocent III recognized the dangers shared in common by new orders within the church and new heresies outside the church. Both brought diversity, and diversity means weakness. Also related to diversity, the last few canons (amounting to no less than 15) are in regard to competing faiths, especially the Jews. Here the council proscribes that the Jews be forced to wear special dress in public, pay tithes and fees to the church, and be prohibited from public office, effectively banishing the Jews from participation in the Christianized society at all.

The Fourth Lateran Council’s decrees end with an imposition of a four-year peace among Christian nations, “so that through the prelates discordant elements may be brought together in the fullness of peace.” This statement is delivered among the detailed instructions for carrying out the next Crusade, and penalties for those that impede this crusade. Both of these degrees are unifying elements, one restricting internal conflict, the other simultaneously directing this energy as a unified force against the competitive faith of the Muslim people, reaffirming that the Fourth Lateran Council was one concerned with creating and preserving unity in Christianized Europe, under the ultimate authority of a established church hierarchy, now divinely validated.

R. I. Moore, “Literacy and the Making of Heresy, c. 1000-c. 1150” in Debating the Middle Ages, Lester K Little and Barabara H. Rosenwein ed., (Malden: Blackwell, 1998), p. 163-75.
Patrick Geary ed, “The Fourth Lateran Council,” in Readings in Medieval History, (Petersborough: Broadview Press: 1997)

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