Five church councils have been held in the basilica known as St. John Lateran in Rome. The most significant of these was called by Pope Innocent III.
Innocent announced the council two and a half years in advance (on April 19, 1213). Its purpose was "to eradicate vices and to plant virtues, to correct faults and to reform morals, to remove heresies and to strengthen faith, to settle discords and to establish peace, to get rid of oppression and to foster liberty, to induce princes and Christian people to come to the aid and succor of the holy Land..." He invited suggestions for the council's agenda.
Because they had so much advance notice, representatives from all over the civilized world had time to make their way to Rome. Innocent greeted seventy-one patriarchs and metropolitans when the council convened. These included the patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem. In addition to those high ranking churchmen, there were four hundred bishops and hundreds of other religious leaders. Kings and patriarchs who could not come sent envoys.
Even before the sessions opened, Innocent had prepared seventy-one articles he wanted approved. All seventy-one were adopted by the time the council ended on this day, November 30, 1215. Some were of great importance.
For example, the council adopted transubstantiation as church doctrine-- the view that the body and blood of Christ are truly contained in the sacrament, the bread and wine having been changed by God's power into Christ's body and blood. The council declared that nobody could make this happen except a priest who had been properly ordained through the apostles or their successors "according to the church's keys."
The council declared war on heretics, saying to kill heretics was to gain forgiveness of sins. "Catholics who take the cross and gird themselves up for the expulsion of heretics shall enjoy the same indulgence, and be strengthened by the same holy privilege, as is granted to those who go to the aid of the holy Land." This provision led to terrible outbreaks of violence against people who disagreed on no fundamental doctrine of the Apostle's creed, but only with Roman interpretations--or the Roman hierarchy.
Although invited, much of the Greek church refused to attend. Had they been in St. John Lateran, they would have resented the ranking the pope gave the patriarchs--with Rome at the top.
Many measures to reform the church, its clergy and its taxes were introduced. Tithes should be paid before taxes, said the council. Councils should be held yearly in each province to ensure reform was taking place. Each cathedral church was told to provide a school for the poor. Every Catholic must confess his or her sins to a priest at least once a year.
In one of the council's most deplorable moves, Jews and Moslems were instructed to wear clothing that would distinguish them from their Christian neighbors. Jews were forbidden to hold public office and were put on notice that any Jew who loaned money for excessive interest could be disciplined. Jews who converted to Christianity were not allowed to keep Jewish religious rites.
The council also set a date for another crusade, but Innocent died before it could begin.
- Bellitto, Christopher M. The General Councils : a History of the Twenty-one General Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II. New York : Paulist Press, 2002.
- "General Councils." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Raab, Clement. The Twenty Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church. Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1959.
- Various internet articles.
Last updated April, 2007.