Fourth Lateran Council - 1215 A.D.
part two

For document sources noted, see Abbreviations


  1. The correction of offences and the reform of morals
  2. On inquests
  3. On different rites within the same faith
  4. On appointing preachers
  5. On schoolmasters for the poor
  6. On general chapters of monks
  7. A prohibition against new religious orders
  8. Clerical incontinence
  9. Clerical gluttony and drunkeness
  10. Decorum in the dress and behaviour of clerics
  11. Dissolute prelates
  12. Clerics to dissociate from shedding-blood
  13. That profane objects may not be stored in churches
  14. Chrism and the Eucharist to be kept under lock and key
  15. On yearly confession to one's own priest, yearly communion, the confessional seal
  16. Physicians of the body to advise patients to call physicians of the soul


7. The correction of offences and the reform of morals

By this inviolable constitution we decree that prelates of churches should prudently and diligently attend to the correction of their subjects' offences especially of clerics, and to the reform of morals. Otherwise the blood of such persons will be required at their hands. In order that they may be able to exercise freely this office of correction and reform, we decree that no custom or appeal can impede the execution of their decisions, unless they go beyond the form which is to be observed in such matters. The offences of canons of a cathedral church, however, which have customarily been corrected by the chapter, are to be corrected by the chapter in those churches which until now have had this custom, at the instance and on the orders of the bishop and within a suitable time-limit which the bishop will decide. If this is not done, then the bishop, mindful of God and putting an end to all opposition, is to go ahead with correcting the persons by ecclesiastical censure according as the care of souls requires, and he shall not omit to correct their other faults according as the good of souls requires, with due order however being observed in all things {3} . For the rest, if the canons stop celebrating divine services without manifest and reasonable cause, especially if this is in contempt of the bishop, then the bishop himself may celebrate in the cathedral church if he wishes, and on complaint from him, the metropolitan, as our delegate in the matter, may, when he has learned the truth, punish the persons concerned in such fashion that for fear of punishment they shall not venture such action in the future. Let prelates of churches therefore carefully see that they do not turn this salutary statute into a form of financial gain or other exaction, but rather let them carry it out assiduously and faithfully, if they wish to avoid canonical punishment, since in these matters the apostolic see, directed by the Lord, will be very vigilant.

8. On inquests

"How and in what way a prelate ought to proceed to inquire into and punish the offences of his subjects may be clearly ascertained from the authorities of the new and old Testament, from which subsequent sanctions in canon law derive", as we said distinctly some time ago and now confirm with the approval of this holy council.

"For we read in the gospel that the steward who was denounced to his lord for wasting his goods heard him say : What is this that I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be my steward. And in Genesis the Lord says : I will go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me. From these authorities it is clearly shown that not only when a subject has committed some excess but also when a prelate has done so, and the matter reaches the ears of the superior through an outcry or rumour which has come not from the malevolent and slanderous but from prudent and honest persons, and has come not only once but frequently (as the outcry suggests and the rumour proves) , then the superior ought diligently to seek out the truth before senior persons of the church. If the seriousness of the matter demands, then the fault of the offender should be subjected to canonical punishment. However, the superior should carry out the duty of his office not as if he were the accuser and the judge but rather with the rumour providing the accusation and the outcry making the denunciation. While this should be observed in the case of subjects, all the more carefully should it be observed in the case of prelates, who are set as a mark for the arrow. Prelates cannot please everyone since they are bound by their office not only to convince but also to rebuke and sometimes even to suspend and to bind. Thus they frequently incur the hatred of many people and risk ambushes. Therefore the holy fathers have wisely decreed that accusations against prelates should not be admitted readily, without careful provision being taken to shut the door not only to false but also to malicious accusations, lest with the columns being shaken the building itself collapses. They thus wished to ensure that prelates are not accused unjustly, and yet that at the same time they take care not to sin in an arrogant manner, finding a suitable medicine for each disease : namely, a criminal accusation which entails loss of status, that is to say degradation, shall in no wise be allowed unless it is preceded by a charge in lawful form. But when someone is so notorious for his offences that an outcry goes up which can no longer be ignored without scandal or be tolerated without danger, then without the slightest hesitation let action be taken to inquire into and punish his offences, not out of hate but rather out of charity. If the offence is grave, even though not involving his degradation, let him be removed from all administration, in accordance with the saying of the gospel that the steward is to be removed from his stewardship if he cannot give a proper account of it".

The person about whom the inquiry is being made ought to be present, unless he absents himself out of contumacy. The articles of the inquiry should be shown to him so that he may be able to defend himself. The names of witnesses as well as their depositions are to be made known to him so that both what has been said and by whom will be apparent; and legitimate exceptions and responses are to be admitted, lest the suppression of names leads to the bold bringing false charges and the exclusion of exceptions leads to false depositions being made. A prelate should therefore act the more diligently in correcting the offences of his subjects in proportion as he would be worthy of condemnation were he to leave them uncorrected. Notorious cases aside, he may proceed against them in three ways : namely, by accusation, denunciation and inquest. Let careful precaution nevertheless be taken in all cases lest serious loss is incurred for the sake of a small gain. Thus, just as a charge in lawful form ought to precede the accusation, so a charitable warning ought to precede the denunciation, and the publication of the charge ought to precede the inquest, with the principle always being observed that the form of the sentence shall accord with the rules of legal procedure. We do not think, however, that this order needs to be observed in all respects as regards regulars, who can be more easily and freely removed from their offices by their own superiors, when the case requires it.

9. On different rites within the same faith

Since in many places peoples of different languages live within the same city or diocese, having one faith but different rites and customs, we therefore strictly order bishops of such cities and dioceses to provide suitable men who will do the following in the various rites and languages : celebrate the divine services for them, administer the church's sacraments, and instruct them by word and example. We altogether forbid one and the same city or diocese to have more than one bishop, as if it were a body with several heads like a monster. But if for the aforesaid reasons urgent necessity demands it, the bishop of the place may appoint, after careful deliberation, a catholic bishop who is appropriate for the nations in question and who will be his vicar in the aforesaid matters and will be obedient and subject to him in all things. If any such person behaves otherwise, let him know that he has been struck by the sword of excommunication and if he does not return to his senses let him be deposed from every ministry in the church, with the secular arm being called in if necessary to quell such great insolence.

10. On appointing preachers

Among the various things that are conducive to the salvation of the christian people, the nourishment of God's word is recognized to be especially necessary, since just as the body is fed with material food so the soul is fed with spiritual food, according to the words, man lives not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It often happens that bishops by themselves are not sufficient to minister the word of God to the people, especially in large and scattered dioceses, whether this is because of their many occupations or bodily infirmities or because of incursions of the enemy or for other reasons-let us not say for lack of knowledge, which in bishops is to be altogether condemned and is not to be tolerated in the future. We therefore decree by this general constitution that bishops are to appoint suitable men to carry out with profit this duty of sacred preaching, men who are powerful in word and deed and who will visit with care the peoples entrusted to them in place of the bishops, since these by themselves are unable to do it, and will build them up by word and example. The bishops shall suitably furnish them with what is necessary, when they are in need of it, lest for want of necessities they are forced to abandon what they have begun. We therefore order that there be appointed in both cathedral and other conventual churches suitable men whom the bishops can have as coadjutors and cooperators not only in the office of preaching but also in hearing confessions and enjoining penances and in other matters which are conducive to the salvation of souls. If anyone neglects to do this, let him be subject to severe punishment.

11. On schoolmasters for the poor

Zeal for learning and the opportunity to make progress is denied to some through lack of means. The Lateran council therefore dutifully decreed that "in each cathedral church there should be provided a suitable benefice for a master who shall instruct without charge the clerics of the cathedral church and other poor scholars, thus at once satisfying the teacher's needs and opening up the way of knowledge to learners". This decree, however, is very little observed in many churches. We therefore confirm it and add that not only in every cathedral church but also in other churches with sufficient resources, a suitable master elected by the chapter or by the greater and sounder part of it, shall be appointed by the prelate to teach grammar and other branches of study, as far as is possible, to the clerics of those and other churches. The metropolitan church shall have a theologian to teach scripture to priests and others and especially to instruct them in matters which are recognized as pertaining to the cure of souls. The income of one prebend shall be assigned by the chapter to each master, and as much shall be assigned by the metropolitan to the theologian. The incumbent does not by this become a canon but he receives the income of one as long as he continues to teach. If the metropolitan church finds providing for two masters a burden, let it provide for the theologian in the aforesaid way but get adequate provision made for the grammarian in another church of the city or diocese.

12. On general chapters of monks

In every kingdom or province let there be held every three years, saving the right of diocesan bishops, a general chapter of those abbots, and priors who do not have abbots over them, who have not been accustomed to hold one. All should attend, unless they have a canonical impediment, at one of the monasteries which is suitable for the purpose; with this limitation, that none of them brings with him more than six mounts and eight persons. Let them invite in charity, at the start of this innovation, two neighbouring Cistercian abbots to give them appropriate advice and help, since from long practice the Cistercians are well informed about holding such chapters. The two abbots shall then coopt without opposition two suitable persons from among them. The four of them shall then preside over the whole chapter, in such a way however that none of them assumes the leadership; so that they can if necessary be changed after careful deliberation. This kind of chapter shall be held continuously over a certain number of days, according to Cistercian custom. They shall treat carefully of the reform of the order and the observance of the rule. What has been decided, with the approval of the four presiding, is to be observed inviolably by all without any excuse or contradiction or appeal. They shall also decide where the next chapter is to be held. Those attending shall lead a common life and divide out proportionately all the common expenses. If they cannot all live in the same house, let them at least live in groups in various houses.

Let religious and circumspect persons be appointed at the chapter who will make it their business to visit on our behalf all the abbeys of the kingdom or province, of both monks and nuns, according to the manner prescribed for them. Let them correct and reform what seems to need correction and reform. Thus if they know of the superior of a place who should certainly be removed from office, let them denounce the person to the bishop concerned so that he may see to his or her removal. If the bishop will not do this, let the visitors themselves refer the matter to the apostolic see for examination. We wish and command canons regular to observe this according to their order. If there emerges out of this innovation any difficulty that cannot be resolved by the aforesaid persons, let it be referred, without offence being given, to the judgment of the apostolic see; but let the other matters, about which after careful deliberation they were in agreement, be observed without breach. Diocesan bishops, moreover, should take care to reform the monasteries under their jurisdiction, so that when the aforesaid visitors arrive they will find in them more to commend than to correct. Let them be very careful lest the said monasteries are weighed down by them with unjust burdens, for just as we wish the rights of superiors to be upheld so we do not wish to support wrongs done to subjects. Furthermore, we strictly command both diocesan bishops and those who preside at chapters to restrain by ecclesiastical censure, without appeal, advocates, patrons, lords' deputies, governors, officials, magnates, knights, and any other people, from daring to cause harm to monasteries in respect of their persons and their goods. Let them not fail to compel such persons, if by chance they do cause harm, to make satisfaction, so that almighty God may be served more freely and more peacefully.

13. A prohibition against new religious orders

Lest too great a variety of religious orders leads to grave confusion in God's church, we strictly forbid anyone henceforth to found a new religious order. Whoever wants to become a religious should enter one of the already approved orders. Likewise, whoever wishes to found a new religious house should take the rule and institutes from already approved religious orders. We forbid, moreover, anyone to attempt to have a place as a monk in more than one monastery or an abbot to preside over more than one monastery.

14. Clerical incontinence

In order that the morals and conduct of clerics may be reformed for the better, let all of them strive to live in a continent and chaste way, especially those in holy orders. Let them beware of every vice involving lust, especially that on account of which the wrath of God came down from heaven upon the sons of disobedience, so that they may be worthy to minister in the sight of almighty God with a pure heart and an unsullied body. Lest the ease of receiving pardon prove an incentive to sin, we decree that those who are caught giving way to the vice of incontinence are to be punished according to canonical sanctions, in proportion to the seriousness of their sins. We order such sanctions to be effectively and strictly observed, in order that those whom the fear of God does not hold back from evil may at least be restrained from sin by temporal punishment. Therefore anyone who has been suspended for this reason and presumes to celebrate divine services, shall not only be deprived of his ecclesiastical benefices but shall also, on account of his twofold fault, be deposed in perpetuity. Prelates who dare to support such persons in their wickedness, especially if they do it for money or for some other temporal advantage, are to be subject to like punishment. Those clerics who have not renounced the marriage bond, following the custom of their region, shall be punished even more severely if they fall into sin, since for them it is possible to make lawful use of matrimony.

15. Clerical gluttony and drunkeness

All clerics should carefully abstain from gluttony and drunkenness. They should temper the wine to themselves and themselves to the wine. Let no one be urged to drink, since drunkenness obscures the intellect and stirs up lust. Accordingly we decree that that abuse is to be entirely abolished whereby in some places drinkers bind themselves to drink equal amounts, and that man is most praised who makes the most people drunk and himself drains the deepest cups. If anyone shows himself worthy of blame in these matters, let him be suspended from his benefice or office, unless after being warned by his superior he makes suitable satisfaction. We forbid all clerics to hunt or to fowl, so let them not presume to have dogs or birds for fowling {4} .

16. Decorum in the dress and behaviour of clerics

Clerics should not practice callings or business of a secular nature, especially those that are dishonourable. They should not watch mimes, entertainers and actors. Let them avoid taverns altogether, unless by chance they are obliged by necessity on a journey. They should not play at games of chance or of dice, nor be present at such games. They should have a suitable crown and tonsure, and let them diligently apply themselves to the divine services and other good pursuits. Their outer garments should be closed and neither too short nor too long. Let them not indulge in red or green cloths, long sleeves or shoes with embroidery or pointed toes, or in bridles, saddles, breast-plates and spurs that are gilded or have other superfluous ornamentation. Let them not wear cloaks with sleeves at divine services in a church, nor even elsewhere, if they are priests or parsons, unless a justifiable fear requires a change of dress. They are not to wear buckles or belts ornamented with gold or silver, or even rings except for those whose dignity it befits to have them. All bishops should wear outer garments of linen in public and in church, unless they have been monks, in which case they should wear the monastic habit; and let them not wear their cloaks loose in public but rather fastened together behind the neck or across the chest.

17. Dissolute prelates

We regretfully relate that not only certain lesser clerics but also some prelates of churches pass almost half the night in unnecessary feasting and forbidden conversation, not to mention other things, and leaving what is left of the night for sleep, they are barely roused at the dawn chorus of the birds and pass away the entire morning in a continuous state of stupor. There are others who celebrate mass barely four times a year and, what is worse, do not bother to attend; if they happen to be present when it is being celebrated, they flee the silence of the choir and pay attention to conversations of the laity outside and so while they attend to talk that is unnecessary for them, they do not give an attentive ear to the things of God. We altogether forbid these and similar things on pain of suspension. We strictly command such persons, in virtue of obedience, to celebrate the divine office, day and night alike, as far as God allows them, with both zeal and devotion.

18. Clerics to dissociate from shedding-blood

No cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, or carry out a punishment involving the same, or be present when such punishment is carried out. If anyone, however, under cover of this statute, dares to inflict injury on churches or ecclesiastical persons, let him be restrained by ecclesiastical censure. A cleric may not write or dictate letters which require punishments involving the shedding of blood, in the courts of princes this responsibility should be entrusted to laymen and not to clerics. Moreover no cleric may be put in command of mercenaries or crossbowmen or suchlike men of blood; nor may a subdeacon, deacon or priest practise the art of surgery, which involves cauterizing and making incisions; nor may anyone confer a rite of blessing or consecration on a purgation by ordeal of boiling or cold water or of the red-hot iron, saving nevertheless the previously promulgated prohibitions regarding single combats and duels.

19. That profane objects may not be stored in churches

We are unwilling to tolerate the fact that certain clerics deposit in churches their own and even others' furniture, so that the churches look like lay houses rather than basilicas of God, regardless of the fact that the Lord would not allow a vessel to be carried through the temple. There are others who not only leave their churches uncared for but also leave the service vessels and ministers' vestments and altar cloths and even corporals so dirty that they at times horrify some people. Because zeal for God's house consumes us, we strictly forbid objects of this kind to be allowed into churches, unless they have to be taken in on account of enemy incursions or sudden fires or other urgent necessities, and then in such a way that when the emergency is over the objects are taken back to where they came from. We also order the aforesaid churches, vessels, corporals and vestments to be kept neat and clean. For it seems too absurd to take no notice of squalor in sacred things when it is unbecoming even in profane things.

20. Chrism and the Eucharist to be kept under lock and key

We decree that the chrism and the eucharist are to be kept locked away in a safe place in all churches, so that no audacious hand can reach them to do anything horrible or impious. If he who is responsible for their safe-keeping leaves them around carelessly, let him be suspended from office for three months; if anything unspeakable happens on account of his carelessness, let him be subject to graver punishment.

21. On yearly confession to one's own priest, yearly communion, the confessional seal

All the faithful of either sex, after they have reached the age of discernment, should individually confess all their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest at least once a year, and let them take care to do what they can to perform the penance imposed on them. Let them reverently receive the sacrament of the eucharist at least at Easter unless they think, for a good reason and on the advice of their own priest, that they should abstain from receiving it for a time. Otherwise they shall be barred from entering a church during their lifetime and they shall be denied a christian burial at death. Let this salutary decree be frequently published in churches, so that nobody may find the pretence of an excuse in the blindness of ignorance. If any persons wish, for good reasons, to confess their sins to another priest let them first ask and obtain the permission of their own priest; for otherwise the other priest will not have the power to absolve or to bind them. The priest shall be discerning and prudent, so that like a skilled doctor he may pour wine and oil over the wounds of the injured one. Let him carefully inquire about the circumstances of both the sinner and the sin, so that he may prudently discern what sort of advice he ought to give and what remedy to apply, using various means to heal the sick person. Let him take the utmost care, however, not to betray the sinner at all by word or sign or in any other way. If the priest needs wise advice, let him seek it cautiously without any mention of the person concerned. For if anyone presumes to reveal a sin disclosed to him in confession, we decree that he is not only to be deposed from his priestly office but also to be confined to a strict monastery to do perpetual penance.

22. Physicians of the body to advise patients to call physicians of the soul

As sickness of the body may sometimes be the result of sin -- as the Lord said to the sick man whom he had cured, Go and sin no more, lest something worse befall you -- so we by this present decree order and strictly command physicians of the body, when they are called to the sick, to warn and persuade them first of all to call in physicians of the soul so that after their spiritual health has been seen to they may respond better to medicine for their bodies, for when the cause ceases so does the effect. This among other things has occasioned this decree, namely that some people on their sickbed, when they are advised by physicians to arrange for the health of their souls, fall into despair and so the more readily incur the danger of death. If any physician transgresses this our constitution, after it has been published by the local prelates, he shall be barred from entering a church until he has made suitable satisfaction for a transgression of this kind. Moreover, since the soul is much more precious than the body, we forbid any physician, under pain of anathema, to prescribe anything for the bodily health of a sick person that may endanger his soul.

See Part Three of the Fourth Lateran Council

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