Fourth Lateran Council - 1215 A.D.
part four

For document sources noted, see Abbreviations

C O N S T I T U T I O N S {These headings are provided by the Hypertext Editor}

  1. Only clerics may dispose of church property
  2. Penalties for patrons who steal church goods or physically harm their clerics
  3. Taxes cannot be levied on the Church, but the Church can volunteer contributions for the common good
  4. On unjust excommunication
  5. Challenging an ecclesiastical judge
  6. Penalties for excommunication out of avarice
  7. Prohibition of marriage is now perpetually restricted to the fourth degree
  8. Clandestine marriages forbidden
  9. On rejecting evidence from hearsay at a matrimonial suit
  10. On those who give their fields to others to be cultivated so as to avoid tithes
  11. Tithes should be paid before taxes
  12. Tithes are to be paid on lands acquired, notwithstanding privileges
  13. A parish priest shall not lose a tithe on account of some people making a pact
  14. Interpreting the words of privileges
  15. On the same in favour of bishops

C O N S T I T U T I O N S

44. Only clerics may dispose of church property

Lay people, however devout, have no power to dispose of church property. Their lot is to obey, not to be in command. We therefore grieve that charity is growing cold in some of them so that they are not afraid to attack through their ordinances, or rather their fabrications, the immunity of ecclesiastical freedom, which has in the past been protected with many privileges not only by holy fathers but also by secular princes. They do this not only by alienating fiefs and other possessions of the church and by usurping jurisdictions but also by illegally laying hands on mortuaries and other things which are seen to belong to spiritual justice. We wish to ensure the immunity of churches in these matters and to provide against such great injuries. We therefore decree, with the approval of this sacred council, that ordinances of this kind and claims to fiefs or other goods of the church, made by way of a decree of the lay power, without the proper consent of ecclesiastical persons, are invalid since they can be said to be not laws but rather acts of destitution or destruction and usurpations of jurisdiction. Those who dare to do these things are to be restrained by ecclesiastical censure.

45. Penalties for patrons who steal church goods or physically harm their clerics

Patrons of churches, lords' deputies and advocates have displayed such arrogance in some provinces that they not only introduce difficulties and evil designs when vacant churches ought to be provided with suitable pastors, but they also presume to dispose of the possessions and other goods of the church as they like and, what is dreadful to relate, they are not afraid to set about killing prelates. What was devised for protection should not be twisted into a means of repression. We therefore expressly forbid patrons, advocates and lords' deputies henceforth to appropriate more in the aforesaid matters than is permitted in law. If they dare to do the contrary, let them be curbed with the most severe canonical penalties. We decree, moreover, with the approval of this sacred council, that if patrons or advocates or feudatories or lords' deputies or other persons with benefices venture with unspeakable daring to kill or to mutilate, personally or through others, the rector of any church or other cleric of that church, then the patron shall lose completely his right of patronage, the advocate his advocation, the feudatory his fief, the lord's deputy his deputyship and the beneficed person his benefice. And lest the punishment be remembered for less time than the crime, nothing of the aforesaid shall descend to their heirs, and their posterity to the fourth generation shall in nowise be admitted into a college of clerics or to hold the honour of any prelacy in a religious house, except when out of mercy they are dispensed to do so.

46. Taxes cannot be levied on the Church, but the Church can volunteer contributions for the common good

The Lateran council, wishing to provide for the immunity of the church against officials and governors of cities and other persons who seek to oppress churches and churchmen with tallages and taxes and other exactions, forbade such presumption under pain of anathema. It ordered transgressors and their supporters to be excommunicated until they made adequate satisfaction. If at some time, however, a bishop together with his clergy foresee so great a need or advantage that they consider, without any compulsion, that subsidies should be given by the churches, for the common good or the common need, when the resources of the laity are not sufficient, then the above-mentioned laymen may receive them humbly and devoutly and with thanks. On account of the imprudence of some, however, the Roman pontiff, whose business it is to provide for the common good, should be consulted beforehand. We add, moreover, since the malice of some against God's church has not abated, that the ordinances and sentences promulgated by such excommunicated persons, or on their orders, are to be deemed null and void and shall never be valid. Since fraud and deceit should not protect anyone, let nobody be deceived by false error to endure an anathema during his term of government as though he is not obliged to make satisfaction afterwards. For we decree that both he who has refused to make satisfaction and his successor, if he does not make satisfaction within a month, is to remain bound by ecclesiastical censure until he makes suitable satisfaction, since he who succeeds to a post also succeeds to its responsibilities.

47. On unjust excommunication

With the approval of this sacred council, we forbid anyone to promulgate a sentence of excommunication on anyone, unless an adequate warning has been given beforehand in the presence of suitable persons, who can if necessary testify to the warning. If anyone dares to do the contrary, even if the sentence of excommunication is just, let him know that he is forbidden to enter a church for one month and he is to be punished with another penalty if this seems expedient. Let him carefully avoid proceeding to excommunicate anyone without manifest and reasonable cause. If he does so proceed and, on being humbly requested, does not take care to revoke the process without imposing punishment, then the injured person may lodge a complaint of unjust excommunication with a superior judge. The latter shall then send the person back to the judge who excommunicated him, if this can be done without the danger of a delay, with orders that he is to be absolved within a suitable period of time. If the danger of delay cannot be avoided, the task of absolving him shall be carried out by the superior judge, either in person or through someone else, as seems expedient, after he has obtained adequate guarantees. Whenever it is established that the judge pronounced an unjust excommunication, he shall be condemned to make compensation for damages to the one excommunicated, and be nonetheless punished in another way at the discretion of the superior judge if the nature of the fault calls for it, since it is not a trivial fault to inflict so great a punishment on an innocent person -- unless by chance he erred for reasons that are credible -- especially if the person is of praiseworthy repute. But if nothing reasonable is proved against the sentence of excommunication by the one making the complaint, then the complainant shall be condemned in punishment, for the unreasonable trouble caused by his complaint, to make compensation or in some other way according to the discretion of the superior judge, unless by chance his error was based on something that is credible and so excuses him; and he shall moreover be compelled upon a pledge to make satisfaction in the matter for which he was justly excommunicated, or else he shall be subject again to the former sentence which is to be inviolably observed until full satisfaction has been made. If the judge, however, recognizes his error and is prepared to revoke the sentence, but the person on whom it was passed appeals, for fear that the judge might revoke it without making satisfaction, then the appeal shall not be admitted unless the error is such that it may deserve to be questioned. Then the judge, after he has given sufficient security that he will appear in court before the person to whom the appeal had been made or one delegated by him, shall absolve the excommunicated person and thus shall not be subject to the prescribed punishment. Let the judge altogether beware, if he wishes to avoid strict canonical punishment, lest out of a perverse intention to harm someone he pretends to have made an error.

48. Challenging an ecclesiastical judge

Since a special prohibition has been made against anyone presuming to promulgate a sentence of excommunication against someone without adequate warning being given beforehand, we therefore wish to provide against the person warned being able, by means of a fraudulent objection or appeal, to escape examination by the one issuing the warning. We therefore decree that if the person alleges he holds the judge suspect, let him bring before the same judge an action of just suspicion; and he himself in agreement with his adversary (or with the judge, if he happens not to have an adversary) shall together choose arbiters or, if by chance they are unable to reach agreement together, he shall choose one arbiter and the other another, to take cognisance of the action of suspicion. If these cannot agree on a judgment they shall call in a third person so that what two of them decide upon shall have binding force. Let them know that they are bound to carry this out faithfully, in accordance with the command strictly enjoined by us in virtue of obedience and under the attestation of the divine judgment. If the action of suspicion is not proved in law before them within a suitable time, the judge shall exercise his jurisdiction; if the action is proved, then with the consent of the objector the challenged judge shall commit the matter to a suitable person or shall refer it to a superior judge so that he may conduct the matter as it should be conducted. As for the person who has been warned but then hastens to make an appeal, if his offence is made manifest in law by the evidence of the case or by his own confession or in some other way, then provocation of this kind is not to be tolerated, since the remedy of an appeal was not established to defend wickedness but to protect innocence. If there is some doubt about his offence, then the appellant shall, lest he impedes the judge's action by the subterfuge of a frivolous appeal, set before the same judge the credible reason for his appeal, such namely that if it was proved it would be considered legitimate. Then if he has an adversary, let him proceed with his appeal within the time laid down by the same judge according to the distances, times and nature of the business involved. If he does not prosecute his appeal, the judge himself shall proceed notwithstanding the appeal. If the adversary does not appear when the judge is proceeding in virtue of his office, then once the reason for the appeal has been verified before the superior judge the latter shall exercise his jurisdiction. If the appellant fails to get the reason for his appeal verified, he shall be sent back to the judge from whom it has been established that he appealed maliciously. We do not wish the above two constitutions to be extended to regulars, who have their own special observances. '

49. Penalties for excommunication out of avarice

We absolutely forbid, under threat of the divine judgment, anyone to dare to bind anyone with the bond of excommunication, or to absolve anyone so bound, out of avarice. We forbid this especially in those regions where by custom an excommunicated person is punished by a money penalty when he is absolved. We decree that when it has been established that a sentence of excommunication was unjust, the excommunicator shall be compelled by ecclesiastical censure to restore the money thus extorted, and shall pay as much again to his victim for the injury unless he was deceived by an understandable error. If perchance he is unable to pay, he shall be punished in some other way.

50. Prohibition of marriage is now perpetually restricted to the fourth degree

It should not be judged reprehensible if human decrees are sometimes changed according to changing circumstances, especially when urgent necessity or evident advantage demands it, since God himself changed in the new Testament some of the things which he had commanded in the old Testament. Since the prohibitions against contracting marriage in the second and third degree of affinity, and against uniting the offspring of a second marriage with the kindred of the first husband, often lead to difficulty and sometimes endanger souls, we therefore, in order that when the prohibition ceases the effect may also cease, revoke with the approval of this sacred council the constitutions published on this subject and we decree, by this present constitution, that henceforth contracting parties connected in these ways may freely be joined together. Moreover the prohibition against marriage shall not in future go beyond the fourth degree of consanguinity and of affinity, since the prohibition cannot now generally be observed to further degrees without grave harm. The number four agrees well with the prohibition concerning bodily union about which the Apostle says, that the husband does not rule over his body, but the wife does; and the wife does not rule over her body, but the husband does; for there are four humours in the body, which is composed of the four elements. Although the prohibition of marriage is now restricted to the fourth degree, we wish the prohibition to be perpetual, notwithstanding earlier decrees on this subject issued either by others or by us. If any persons dare to marry contrary to this prohibition, they shall not be protected by length of years, since the passage of time does not diminish sin but increases it, and the longer that faults hold the unfortunate soul in bondage the graver they are.

51. Clandestine marriages forbidden

Since the prohibition against marriage in the three remotest degrees has been revoked, we wish it to be strictly observed in the other degrees. Following in the footsteps of our predecessors, we altogether forbid clandestine marriages and we forbid any priest to presume to be present at such a marriage. Extending the special custom of certain regions to other regions generally, we decree that when marriages are to be contracted they shall be publicly announced in the churches by priests, with a suitable time being fixed beforehand within which whoever wishes and is able to may adduce a lawful impediment. The priests themselves shall also investigate whether there is any impediment. When there appears a credible reason why the marriage should not be contracted, the contract shall be expressly forbidden until there has been established from clear documents what ought to be done in the matter. If any persons presume to enter into clandestine marriages of this kind, or forbidden marriages within a prohibited degree, even if done in ignorance, the offspring of the union shall be deemed illegitimate and shall have no help from their parents' ignorance, since the parents in contracting the marriage could be considered as not devoid of knowledge, or even as affecters of ignorance. Likewise the offspring shall be deemed illegitimate if both parents know of a legitimate impediment and yet dare to contract a marriage in the presence of the church, contrary to every prohibition. Moreover the parish priest who refuses to forbid such unions, or even any member of the regular clergy who dares to attend them, shall be suspended from office for three years and shall be punished even more severely if the nature of the fault requires it. Those who presume to be united in this way, even if it is within a permitted degree, are to be given a suitable penance. Anybody who maliciously proposes an impediment, to prevent a legitimate marriage, will not escape the church's vengeance.

52. On rejecting evidence from hearsay at a matrimonial suit

It was at one time decided out of a certain necessity, but contrary to the normal practice, that hearsay evidence should be valid in reckoning the degrees of consanguinity and affinity, because on account of the shortness of human life witnesses would not be able to testify from first-hand knowledge in a reckoning as far as the seventh degree. However, because we have learned from many examples and definite proofs that many dangers to lawful marriages have arisen from this, we have decided that in future witnesses from hearsay shall not be accepted in this matter, since the prohibition does not now exceed the fourth degree, unless there are persons of weight who are trustworthy and who learnt from their elders, before the case was begun, the things that they testify : not indeed from one such person since one would not suffice even if he or she were alive, but from two at least, and not from persons who are of bad repute and suspect but from those who are trustworthy and above every objection, since it would appear rather absurd to admit in evidence those whose actions would be rejected. Nor should there be admitted in evidence one person who has learnt what he testifies from several, or persons of bad repute who have learnt what they testify from persons of good repute, as though they were more than one and suitable witnesses, since even according to the normal practice of courts the assertion of one witness does not suffice, even if he is a person resplendent with authority, and since legal actions are forbidden to persons of bad repute. The witnesses shall affirm on oath that in bearing witness in the case they are not acting from hatred or fear or love or for advantage; they shall designate the persons by their exact names or by pointing out or by sufficient description, and shall distinguish by a clear reckoning every degree of relationship on either side; and they shall include in their oath the statement that it was from their ancestors that they received what they are testifying and that they believe it to be true. They shall still not suffice unless they declare on oath that they have known that the persons who stand in at least one of the aforesaid degrees of relationship, regard each other as blood-relations. For it is preferable to leave alone some people who have been united contrary to human decrees than to separate, contrary to the Lord's decrees, persons who have been joined together legitimately.

53. On those who give their fields to others to be cultivated so as to avoid tithes

In some regions there are intermingled certain peoples who by custom, in accordance with their own rites, do not pay tithes, even though they are counted as christians. Some landlords assign their lands to them so that these lords may obtain greater revenues, by cheating the churches of the tithes. Wishing therefore to provide for the security of churches in these matters, we decree that when lords make over their lands to such persons in this way for cultivation, the lords must pay the tithes to the churches in full and without objection, and if necessary they shall be compelled to do so by ecclesiastical censure. Such tithes are indeed to be paid of necessity, inasmuch as they are owed in virtue of divine law or of approved local custom.

54. Tithes should be paid before taxes

It is not within human power that the seed should answer to the sower since, according to the saying of the Apostle, Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but rather he who gives the growth, namely God, who himself brings forth much fruit from the dead seed. Now, some people from excess of greed strive to cheat over tithes, deducting from crops and first-fruits the rents and dues, which meanwhile escape the payment of tithes. Since the Lord has reserved tithes unto himself as a sign of his universal lordship, by a certain special title as it were, we decree, wishing to prevent injury to churches and danger to souls, that in virtue of this general lordship the payment of tithes shall precede the exaction of dues and rents, or at least those who receive untithed rents and dues shall be forced by ecclesiastical censure, seeing that a thing carries with it its burden, to tithe them for the churches to which by right they are due.

55. Tithes are to be paid on lands acquired, notwithstanding privileges

Recently abbots of the Cistercian order, assembled in a general chapter, wisely decreed at our instance that the brethren of the order shall not in future buy possessions from which tithes are due to churches, unless by chance it is for founding new monasteries; and that if such possessions were given to them by the pious devotion of the faithful, or were bought for founding new monasteries, they would assign them for cultivation to other people, who would pay the tithes to the churches, lest the churches be further burdened on account of the Cistercians' privileges. We therefore decree that on lands assigned to others and on future acquisitions, even if they cultivate them with their own hands or at their own expense, they shall pay tithes to the churches which previously received the tithes from the lands, unless they decide to compound in another way with the churches. Since we consider this decree to be acceptable and right, we wish it to be extended to other regulars who enjoy similar privileges, and we order prelates of churches to be readier and more effectual in affording them full justice with regard to those who wrong them and to take pains to maintain their privileges more carefully and completely.

56. A parish priest shall not lose a tithe on account of some people making a pact

Many regulars, as we have learnt, and sometimes secular clerics, when letting houses or granting fiefs, add a pact, to the prejudice of the parish churches, to the effect that the tenants and vassals shall pay tithes to them and shall choose to be buried in their ground. We utterly reject pacts of this kind, since they are rooted in avarice, and we declare that whatever is received through them shall be returned to the parish churches.

57. Interpreting the words of privileges

In order that privileges which the Roman church has granted to certain religious may remain unimpaired, we have decided that certain things in them must be clarified lest through their not being well understood they lead to abuse, on account of which they could deservedly be revoked. For, a person deserves to lose a privilege if he abuses the power entrusted to him. The apostolic see has rightly granted an indult to certain regulars to the effect that ecclesiastical burial should not be refused to deceased members of their fraternity if the churches to which they belong happen to be under an interdict as regards divine services, unless the persons were excommunicated or interdicted by name, and that they may carry off for burial to their own churches their confraters whom prelates of churches will not allow to be buried in their own churches, unless the confraters have been excommunicated or interdicted by name. However, we understand this to refer to confraters who have changed their secular dress and have been consecrated to the order while still alive, or who in their lifetime have given their property to them while retaining for themselves as long as they live the usufruct of it. Only such persons may be buried at the non-interdicted churches of these regulars and of others in which they have chosen to be buried. For if it were understood of any persons joining their fraternity for the annual payment of two or three pennies, ecclesiastical discipline would be loosened and brought into contempt. Even the latter may, however, obtain a certain remission granted to them by the apostolic see. It has also been granted to such regulars that if any of their brethren, whom they have sent to establish fraternities or to receive taxes, comes to a city or a castle or a village which is under an interdict as regards divine services, then churches may be opened once in the year at their "joyous entry" so that the divine services may be celebrated there, after excommunicated persons have been excluded. We wish this to be understood as meaning that in a given city, castle or town one church only shall be opened for the brethren of a particular order, as mentioned above, once in the year. For although it was said in the plural that churches may be opened at their "joyous entry", this on a true understanding refers not to each individual church of a given place but rather to the churches of the aforesaid places taken together. Otherwise if they visited all the churches of a given place in this way, the sentence of interdict would be brought into too much contempt. Those who dare to usurp anything for themselves contrary to the above declarations shall be subjected to severe punishment.

58. On the same in favour of bishops

We wish to extend to bishops, in favour of the episcopal office, the indult which has already been given to certain religious. We therefore grant that when a country is under a general interdict, the bishops may sometimes celebrate the divine services, behind closed doors and in a lowered voice, without the ringing of bells, after excommunicated and interdicted persons have been excluded, unless this has been expressly forbidden to them. We grant this, however, to those bishops who have not given any cause for the interdict, lest they use guile or fraud of any sort and so turn a good thing into a damaging loss.


See Part Five of the Fourth Lateran Council

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