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Ecumenical Councils: Lateran I - III

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Our series on the Ecumenical councils of the Church here on Godzdogz has so far been dominated by the controversies in the Greek speaking East. The first three Lateran councils, convoked in a 60 year period between 1123 and 1179, mark a shift in focus towards the west. In these councils we see the Church wrestling in a very practical way with the question of authority. In the wake of the Western Roman Empire’s fall, the Papacy had stepped into a power vacuum at the heart of western European society. Yet as the centuries passed and European culture saw a political renewal the Church found it increasingly necessary to resist secular attempts to curtail its autonomy. Lateran I – III, then, can be seen as part of a broader project led by a number of reforming Popes in the eleventh and twelfth century to assert the independence of the Church from the crown and tighten clerical discipline. 

The catalyst to Lateran I (1123) was the Concordat of Worms, negotiated by Pope Calixtus II and Emperor Henry V in September 1122. This marked the end of the first round of a protracted power struggle between the Popes the Holy Roman Emperors. The Emperors had for some time claimed the divine right to appoint Church officials including bishops and even the Pope. At Worms it was agreed that whilst the King had the right to invest bishops with secular authority in the territories that they governed, they had no right to give sacred authority. Thus the Pope emerged as a figure that was beyond the control of the Holy Roman Emperor, and by confirming the primacy of papal authority and the new canon law governing the election of the pope, the concept of the ‘divine right of Kings’ was seriously undermined. Interestingly, for this reason many see in the Concordat of Worms the seeds of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which would confirm the concept of nation based sovereignty which still shapes our political discourse to this day. 

At Lateran I, convoked and presided over by Pope Callixtus II in person, the Concordat was read and ratified as part of a larger reform package that was very much in the tradition of Gregory VII: the importance of clerical celibacy was once again emphasized, simony was condemned, and the autonomy of the Church from secular leaders was demanded. These themes recur at Lateran II and III, councils that also were called to deal with political disputes within the Church. 

In 1130 Pope Honorius died and two rival Popes were elected in his place: Pope Innocent II and the antipope Anacletus II. The problem was eventually solved when, in 1138, Anacletus died. Pope Innocent II, now the sole claimant of the See of Rome, nevertheless decided to call the second Lateran Council (1139) to deal with the fallout from this schism. This process was repeated in 1179 when Lateran III was called to deal with yet another schism. This time it was the death of Pope Hadrian IV in 1159 that once again prompted two rival Popes to be elected elected: Alexander III and Victor IV. Victor had fewer Cardinals in his favour, but crucially had the support of the Emperor Frederick. Frederick wished to bring Italy more firmly under his control and so declared war on the Italian states and the Church. Schism was the inevitable consequence. Eventually the Papacy and its allies defeated Frederick at the battle of Legnano in 1176. This obliged Frederick to acknowledge Alexander as the true Pope at the Peace of Venice in 1177. Alexander, in return, agreed to call an ecumenical council to deal with the consequences of the schism hence the convocation of Lateran III. 

It is easy to dismiss the struggles between Emperors and Popes of the middle ages as simply power games and politicking, but at heart a fundamental question is at stake: is the Church simply an aspect of government, an aspect of civil society? Or does it instead transcend society and point us to a higher purpose than the goods of this life? The Church’s institutions can be used to preach the gospel and build up the Kingdom, or they can be used for less noble ends. Lateran I – III represents a struggle to resist those who would distort the Church’s mission, a threat that came from both outside and inside the Church.

Nicholas Crowe OP

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