Fourth Lateran Council - 1215 A.D.
part one

For document sources noted, see Abbreviations


  1. Confession of Faith
  2. On the error of abbot Joachim
  3. On Heretics
  4. On the pride of the Greeks towards the Latins
  5. The dignity of the patriarchal sees
  6. On yearly provincial councils


During the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216) there appears to have occurred much growth in the reform of the church and in its freedom from subservience to the empire as well as in the primacy of the bishop of Rome and in the summoning of ecclesiastical business to the Roman curia. Innocent himself, turning his whole mind to the things of God, strove to build up the christian community. Spiritual things, and therefore the church, were to have first place in this endeavour; so that human affairs were to be dependent upon, and to draw their justification from, such considerations.

The council may therefore be regarded as a great summary of the pontiff's work and also as his greatest initiative. He was not able, however, to bring it to completion since he died shortly afterwards (1216) . Christian disasters in the holy Land probably provided the occasion for Innocent to call the council. Thus the pontiff ordered a new crusade to be proclaimed. But he also used the crusade as an instrument of ecclesiastical administration, combined with reform of the church, namely in a fierce war against heretics which he thought would restore ecclesiastical society.

The council was summoned on 19 April 1213 to meet in November 1215. All the bishops and abbots of the church as well as priors and even (which was new) chapters of churches and of religious orders -- namely Cistercians, Premonstratensians, Hospitallers and Templars -- and the kings and civil authorities throughout Europe were invited. The bishops were explicitly asked to propose topics for discussion at the council, something which does not seem to have happened at the preceding Lateran councils. This was done by the legates who had been dispatched throughout Europe to preach the crusade. In each province only one or two bishops were allowed to remain at home; all the rest were ordered to be present. The purposes of the council were clearly set forth by Innocent himself : "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 succour of the holy Land... ". It seems that when Innocent summoned the council he wished to observe the customs of the early ecumenical councils, and indeed this fourth Lateran council was regarded as an ecumenical council by all learned and religious men of the age.

When the council began in the Lateran basilica in November 1215 there were present 404 bishops from throughout the western church, and from the Latin eastern church a large number of abbots, canons and representatives of the secular power. No Greeks were present, even those invited, except the patriarch of the Maronites and a legate of the patriarch of Alexandria. The bond with the Greek church was indeed neglected, and matters became more serious through the actions of Latin bishops living in the east or through the decrees of the council.

The council began on 11 November with the pontiff's sermon. He was especially looking for a religious outcome to the council. Soon, however secular matters and power politics came to the fore. At the second session (on 20 November) the struggle for the empire between Frederick II and Otto IV was brought before the council and gave rise to a bitter and contentious debate. This affected the nature of the council in a way that had not been foreseen and revealed a certain ineffectiveness in Innocent's plans for governing the church. Finally, the third session (on 30 November) was devoted to reading and approving the constitutions, which were proposed by the pontiff himself. The last decree dealt with preparations for a crusade -- "Jesus Christ's business" -- and fixed 1 June 1217 for its start, though this was prevented by the pontiff's death.

The seventy constitutions would seem to give proof of the council's excellent results. The work of Innocent appears clearly in them even though they were probably not directly composed by him. He regarded them as universal laws and as a summary of the jurisdiction of his pontificate. Few links with earlier councils survive, those with the third Lateran council being the only relevant ones of which we know.


  • the first constitution is regarded as a new profession of faith.
  • The second and third constitutions, which deal with heretics and contain dogmatic statements, are new.
  • The remainder, which deal with the reform of the church, appear for the most part to be new either in form or in content. They deal with
    • the church's discipline (6-13) ,
    • the reform of clerical morals (14-22) ,
    • episcopal elections and the administration of benefices (23-32) ,
    • exaction of taxes (33-34) ,
    • canonical suits (35-49) ,
    • matrimony (50-52) ,
    • tithes (53-61) ,
    • simony (63-66) , and
    • Jews (67-70) .

The constitutions were first edited by Cr 2 (1538) CLXv-CLXXIIv, the text of which was used in Cr 2 (1551) 946-967, Su 3 (1567) 735-756, and Bn 3/2 (1606) 1450-1465. Roman editors produced a more accurate edition (Rm 4 [1612] 43-63) , collating the common text "with manuscript codices from the Vatican". Rm was followed by Bn 3/2 (1618) 682-696 and ER 28 (1644) 154-225. LC 11/1 (1671) 142-233 provided a text "in Greek and Latin..... from a Mazarin codex" (=M) with various readings from a d'Achery codex (=A) . The Greek translation, however, which LC had thought to be contemporary, does not provide a complete text and was taken from a later codex. LC was followed by Hrd 7 (1714) 15-78, Cl 13 (1730) 927-1018, and Msi 22 (1778) 981-1068. There are many surviving manuscripts of the constitutions, as has been shown by Garcia, who is preparing a critical edition. That is to say, twenty manuscripts containing the constitutions and twelve others containing the constitutions together with commentaries; and probably there are others which are not yet known. The constitutions were taken into Compilatio IV, except 42 and [71], and into Decretalia of Gregory IX, except 42, 49 and [71]. The present edition follows the Roman edition, but all the variant readings that have so far been brought to light by scholars have been cited with {n} referring to the endnotes.


1. Confession of Faith

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 {1} . The Father is from none, the Son from the Father alone, and the holy Spirit from both equally, eternally without beginning or end; the Father generating, the Son being born, and the holy Spirit proceeding; consubstantial and coequal, co-omnipotent and coeternal; one principle of all things, creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly, and then created human beings composed as it were of both spirit and body in common. The devil and other demons were created by God naturally good, but they became evil by their own doing. Man, however, sinned at the prompting of the devil.

This holy Trinity, which is undivided according to its common essence but distinct according to the properties of its persons, gave the teaching of salvation to the human race through Moses and the holy prophets and his other servants, according to the most appropriate disposition of the times. Finally the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who became incarnate by the action of the whole Trinity in common and was conceived from the ever virgin Mary through the cooperation of the holy Spirit, having become true man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh, one person in two natures, showed more clearly the way of life. Although he is immortal and unable to suffer according to his divinity, he was made capable of suffering and dying according to his humanity. Indeed, having suffered and died on the wood of the cross for the salvation of the human race, he descended to the underworld, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He descended in the soul, rose in the flesh, and ascended in both. He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.

There is indeed one universal church of the faithful, outside of which nobody at all is saved, in which Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice. 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, 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. Nobody can effect this sacrament except a priest who has been properly ordained according to the church's keys, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the apostles and their successors. But the sacrament of baptism is consecrated in water at the invocation of the undivided Trinity -- namely Father, Son and holy Spirit -- and brings salvation to both children and adults when it is correctly carried out by anyone in the form laid down by the church. If someone falls into sin after having received baptism, he or she can always be restored through true penitence. For not only virgins and the continent but also married persons find favour with God by right faith and good actions and deserve to attain to eternal blessedness.

2. On the error of abbot Joachim

We therefore condemn and reprove that small book or treatise which abbot Joachim published against master Peter Lombard concerning the unity or essence of the Trinity, in which he calls Peter Lombard a heretic and a madman because he said in his Sentences, "For there is a certain supreme reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, and it neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed". He asserts from this that Peter Lombard ascribes to God not so much a Trinity as a quaternity, that is to say three persons and a common essence as if this were a fourth person. Abbot Joachim clearly protests that there does not exist any reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit-neither an essence nor a substance nor a nature -- although he concedes that the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit are one essence, one substance and one nature. He professes, however, that such a unity is not true and proper but rather collective and analogous, in the way that many persons are said to be one people and many faithful one church, according to that saying : Of the multitude of believers there was one heart and one mind, and Whoever adheres to God is one spirit with him; again He who plants and he who waters are one, and all of us are one body in Christ; and again in the book of Kings, My people and your people are one. In support of this opinion he especially uses the saying which Christ uttered in the gospel concerning the faithful : I wish, Father, that they may be one in us, just as we are one, so that they may be made perfect in one. For, he says, Christ's faithful are not one in the sense of a single reality which is common to all. They are one only in this sense, that they form one church through the unity of the catholic faith, and finally one kingdom through a union of indissoluble charity. Thus we read in the canonical letter of John : For there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father and the Word and the holy Spirit, and these three are one; and he immediately adds, And the three that bear witness on earth are the spirit, water and blood, and the three are one, according to some manuscripts.

We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality -- that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person and the holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance, as he himself testifies : What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Father's substance is indivisible, inasmuch as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son, in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such a way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father's substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality.

When, therefore, the Truth prays to the Father for those faithful to him, saying I wish that they may be one in us just as we are one, this word one means for the faithful a union of love in grace, and for the divine persons a unity of identity in nature, as the Truth says elsewhere, You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect {2} , as if he were to say more plainly, You must be perfect in the perfection of grace, just as your Father is perfect in the perfection that is his by nature, each in his own way. For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them. If anyone therefore ventures to defend or approve the opinion or doctrine of the aforesaid Joachim on this matter, let him be refuted by all as a heretic. By this, however, we do not intend anything to the detriment of the monastery of Fiore, which Joachim founded, because there both the instruction is according to rule and the observance is healthy; especially since Joachim ordered all his writings to be handed over to us, to be approved or corrected according to the judgment of the apostolic see. He dictated a letter, which he signed with his own hand, in which he firmly confesses that he holds the faith held by the Roman church, which is by God's plan the mother and mistress of all the faithful.

We also reject and condemn that most perverse doctrine of the impious Amalric, whose mind the father of lies blinded to such an extent that his teaching is to be regarded as mad more than as heretical.

3. On Heretics

We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy raising itself up against this holy, orthodox and catholic faith which we have expounded above. We condemn all heretics, whatever names they may go under. They have different faces indeed but their tails are tied together inasmuch as they are alike in their pride. Let those condemned be handed over to the secular authorities present, or to their bailiffs, for due punishment. Clerics are first to be degraded from their orders. The goods of the condemned are to be confiscated, if they are lay persons, and if clerics they are to be applied to the churches from which they received their stipends. Those who are only found suspect of heresy are to be struck with the sword of anathema, unless they prove their innocence by an appropriate purgation, having regard to the reasons for suspicion and the character of the person. Let such persons be avoided by all until they have made adequate satisfaction. If they persist in the excommunication for a year, they are to be condemned as heretics. Let secular authorities, whatever offices they may be discharging, be advised and urged and if necessary be compelled by ecclesiastical censure, if they wish to be reputed and held to be faithful, to take publicly an oath for the defence of the faith to the effect that they will seek, in so far as they can, to expel from the lands subject to their jurisdiction all heretics designated by the church in good faith. Thus whenever anyone is promoted to spiritual or temporal authority, he shall be obliged to confirm this article with an oath. If however a temporal lord, required and instructed by the church, neglects to cleanse his territory of this heretical filth, he shall be bound with the bond of excommunication by the metropolitan and other bishops of the province. If he refuses to give satisfaction within a year, this shall be reported to the supreme pontiff so that he may then declare his vassals absolved from their fealty to him and make the land available for occupation by Catholics so that these may, after they have expelled the heretics, possess it unopposed and preserve it in the purity of the faith -- saving the right of the suzerain provided that he makes no difficulty in the matter and puts no impediment in the way. The same law is to be observed no less as regards those who do not have a suzerain.

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. Moreover, we determine to subject to excommunication believers who receive, defend or support heretics. We strictly ordain that if any such person, after he has been designated as excommunicated, refuses to render satisfaction within a year, then by the law itself he shall be branded as infamous and not be admitted to public offices or councils or to elect others to the same or to give testimony. He shall be intestable, that is he shall not have the freedom to make a will nor shall succeed to an inheritance. Moreover nobody shall be compelled to answer to him on any business whatever, but he may be compelled to answer to them. If he is a judge sentences pronounced by him shall have no force and cases may not be brought before him; if an advocate, he may not be allowed to defend anyone; if a notary, documents drawn up by him shall be worthless and condemned along with their condemned author; and in similar matters we order the same to be observed. If however he is a cleric, let him be deposed from every office and benefice, so that the greater the fault the greater be the punishment. If any refuse to avoid such persons after they have been pointed out by the church, let them be punished with the sentence of excommunication until they make suitable satisfaction. Clerics should not, of course, give the sacraments of the church to such pestilent people nor give them a christian burial nor accept alms or offerings from them; if they do, let them be deprived of their office and not restored to it without a special indult of the apostolic see. Similarly with regulars, let them be punished with losing their privileges in the diocese in which they presume to commit such excesses.

"There are some who holding to the form of religion but denying its power (as the Apostle says) , claim for themselves the authority to preach, whereas the same Apostle says, How shall they preach unless they are sent? Let therefore all those who have been forbidden or not sent to preach, and yet dare publicly or privately to usurp the office of preaching without having received the authority of the apostolic see or the catholic bishop of the place", be bound with the bond of excommunication and, unless they repent very quickly, be punished by another suitable penalty. We add further that each archbishop or bishop, either in person or through his archdeacon or through suitable honest persons, should visit twice or at least once in the year any parish of his in which heretics are said to live. There he should compel three or more men of good repute, or even if it seems expedient the whole neighbourhood, to swear that if anyone knows of heretics there or of any persons who hold secret conventicles or who differ in their life and habits from the normal way of living of the faithful, then he will take care to point them out to the bishop. The bishop himself should summon the accused to his presence, and they should be punished canonically if they are unable to clear themselves of the charge or if after compurgation they relapse into their former errors of faith. If however any of them with damnable obstinacy refuse to honour an oath and so will not take it, let them by this very fact be regarded as heretics. We therefore will and command and, in virtue of obedience, strictly command that bishops see carefully to the effective execution of these things throughout their dioceses, if they wish to avoid canonical penalties. If any bishop is negligent or remiss in cleansing his diocese of the ferment of heresy, then when this shows itself by unmistakeable signs he shall be deposed from his office as bishop and there shall be put in his place a suitable person who both wishes and is able to overthrow the evil of heresy.

4. On the pride of the Greeks towards the Latins

Although we would wish to cherish and honour the Greeks who in our days are returning to the obedience of the apostolic see, by preserving their customs and rites as much as we can in the Lord, nevertheless we neither want nor ought to defer to them in matters which bring danger to souls and detract from the church's honour. For, 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 so much that, among other wicked things which they committed out of contempt for them, when Latin priests celebrated on their altars they would not offer sacrifice on them until they had washed them, as if the altars had been defiled thereby. The Greeks even had the temerity to rebaptize those baptized by the Latins; and some, as we are told, still do not fear to do this. Wishing therefore to remove such a great scandal from God's church, we strictly order, on the advice of this sacred council, that henceforth they do not presume to do such things but rather conform themselves like obedient sons to the holy Roman church, their mother, so that there may be one flock and one shepherd. If anyone however does dare to do such a thing, let him be struck with the sword of excommunication and be deprived of every ecclesiastical office and benefice.

5. The dignity of the patriarchal sees

Renewing the ancient privileges of the patriarchal sees, we decree, with the approval of this sacred universal synod, that after the Roman church, which through the Lord's disposition has a primacy of ordinary power over all other churches inasmuch as it is the mother and mistress of all Christ's faithful, the church of Constantinople shall have the first place, the church of Alexandria the second place, the church of Antioch the third place, and the church of Jerusalem the fourth place, each maintaining its own rank. Thus after their pontiffs have received from the Roman pontiff the pallium, which is the sign of the fullness of the pontifical office, and have taken an oath of fidelity and obedience to him they may lawfully confer the pallium on their own suffragans, receiving from them for themselves canonical profession and for the Roman church the promise of obedience. They may have a standard of the Lord's cross carried before them anywhere except in the city of Rome or wherever there is present the supreme pontiff or his legate wearing the insignia of the apostolic dignity. In all the provinces subject to their jurisdiction let appeal be made to them, when it is necessary, except for appeals made to the apostolic see, to which all must humbly defer.

6. On yearly provincial councils

As is known to have been ordained of old by the holy fathers, metropolitans should not fail to hold provincial councils each year with their suffragans in which they consider diligently and in the fear of God the correction of excesses and the reform of morals, especially among the clergy. Let them recite the canonical rules, especially those which have been laid down by this general council, so as to secure their observance, inflicting on transgressors the punishment due. In order that this may be done more effectively, let them appoint for each diocese suitable persons, that is to say prudent and honest persons, who will simply and summarily, without any jurisdiction, throughout the whole year, carefully investigate what needs correction or reform and will then faithfully report these matters to the metropolitan and suffragans and others at the next council, so that they may proceed with careful deliberation against these and other matters according to what is profitable and decent. Let them see to the observance of the things that they decree, publishing them in episcopal synods which are to be held annually in each diocese. Whoever neglects to carry out this salutary statute is to be suspended from his benefices and from the execution of his office, until his superior decides to release him.

See Part Two of the Fourth Lateran Council

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