Nine Hundred Years Since the First Lateran Council – What if a Pope From the 12th Century Were to Make a Speech Today?

What would Callistus II proclaim if, instead of convening the Lateran Council in 1123, he had done so in 2023?

It would not be surprising if the reader – precisely on account of being someone in the habit of reading – has already carried out the following mental exercise: imagining what the reactions of a certain personage from the past would be if he were to suddenly appear in our century. It is a healthy pastime in which, using a little imagination, we place “today” as the defendant or the judge of history.

Well, as the First Ecumenical Council of the Lateran celebrates a respectable 900 years this March, it seemed opportune to apply the above method to this event.

After all, ecumenical councils are always a milestone in Church history. Convoked exclusively by a Pontiff, impelled by the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit and endowed with infallibility in dogmatic declarations on faith and morals,1 they touch in a certain way on eternity. On the other hand, since their participants, at least the visible ones, are comprised of human beings, they also end up influencing the psychological makeup of those who, in each epoch, carry them out.

For us, accustomed to the mild manners and dialogue characteristic of our time, it seems very instructive to know that ecclesiastics have not always thought or expressed themselves in this way.

Pope Callistus II

What would a Pope like Callistus II proclaim if, instead of convoking a Council in 1123, did so in 2023? What errors would he see fit to address and correct? If we look at the main resolutions of the Lateran Council, perhaps we will find an answer.

The question of investitures

It all began with a problem of jurisdiction. Due to the donations of the faithful, bishops and abbots found themselves with large tracts of land in their hands. Many of these properties fell within the territory of temporal lords, who had the right of vassalage over the holders of fiefs in their domains, even if the latter were Churchmen.

Over time, however, the prerogative degenerated into an abuse: laymen began to choose those who would occupy ecclesiastical posts. From this and other confusions arose the infamous “investiture controversy”, which was resolved – at least in theory – with the Concordat of Worms, in September 1122.

In this agreement, Emperor Henry V recognized the Holy Father’s exclusive right to confer ecclesiastical offices, while the Pontiff accepted the sovereignty of the monarch over the clerics who owed him vassalage.2 Seizing the moment, the Pope also summoned a Council to put a solemn end to the question.

In fact, from Augustus, Herod and Pilate until today, relations between the Church and temporal government have never been simple. Perhaps with this in mind, Christ himself set a model of concord: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25). Wise terms the Saviour chose: if the Most High rules the whole universe, everything belongs to Him. Little should remain to Caesar except what He himself delegates to him…

In obedience to Jesus’ command, Callistus II had the merit of appeasing the emperor’s greed, without depriving God of what was His.

It is true that, at that time, the moral stature of a Pope still gave him great authority over rulers, which facilitated this kind of arrangement. Those were other times, other men, other circumstances.

No doubt, today, if we wanted to conjecture how a pontiff of the twelfth century would maintain diplomatic relations with certain states, we would need a lively imagination…

Under the Lateran vaults

March 18, 1123 had arrived. The West and the Basilica of St. John Lateran host an Ecumenical Council for the first time. The bells peal. The crowd jostles to see the procession of more than three hundred bishops followed by the Successor of Peter. Under the vaults of the historic church, the sessions begin and continue until April 6.3

Two main objectives can be identified in the canons presented to the Council Fathers: the first was to consolidate the recent results of the Worms negotiations; the second was to halt a new wave of decadence in the clergy, by recalling the ecclesiastical norms on simony and priestly celibacy.4

Simony and the law of gravity

Just as in the physical world, there is a kind of “law of gravity” for institutions: if there is no continuous effort to keep them in ascension, they plummet. And one of the oldest, most universal and effective ballasts is money.

At the time of the Lateran Council, the Church’s prestige was growing, and with it that of ecclesiastics. The devotion of the faithful made this prestige profitable. Consequently, it was only natural that a type of commerce came into effect, whereby gold was used to obtain ecclesiastical appointments – note that natural is not synonymous with legitimate…

The Council expressed itself with great clarity on this matter. It is worthwhile, here, to recall the words of the canon, because certain laws – unlike those of gravity – tend to be easily forgotten: “We forbid in every way […] that anyone by means of money be ordained or promoted in the Church of God. But if anyone shall have acquired ordination or promotion in the Church in this way, let him be entirely deprived of his dignity.”5

Further regarding pecuniary matters, the Council forbade the laity to meddle in the administration of ecclesiastical goods. At that time, the pastoral care of the laity was tinged with other hues…

A centuries-old problem

The subject of celibacy, so exhaustively debated, requires no introduction.6

Suffice it to say that once again, the Lateran recalls the already centuries-old doctrine of the Church, proclaiming it for all ages: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons the intimacy of concubines and of wives, and cohabitation with other women, except […] a mother, sister, paternal or maternal aunt, or others of this kind concerning whom no suspicion may justly arise.”7

A question answered with a question

Concluding this diversion of the imagination, and respectfully bidding farewell to Callistus II as he returns to his own historical era, we might venture to ask him: why is it necessary for us Catholics of the 21st century to know the norms dictated by Holy Church to the clergy of just under a millennium ago?

The reader might be rather disconcerted to hear the medieval Pope answer with another question: why insist that the Church has a retrogressive morality, if man is always essentially the same, with the same problems and the same solutions? 



1 Cf. CIC, can. 749 § 2.

2 Cf. ROHRBACHER, René François. Histoire Universelle de l’Église Catholique. 5.ed. Paris: Gaume Frères et J. Duprey, 1868, t.VIII, p.113.

3 Cf. HEFELE, Charles-Joseph. Histoire des conciles. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1912, t.V, p.630-631.

4 Cf. DH 710-712.

5 DH 710.

6 On this subject, see the article: MORAIS, Victor Hugo. The Value of a Chaste Soul. In: Heralds of the Gospel. Nobleton. Vol. 16. No. 176 (June, 2022); p.16-19.

7 DH 711.



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