Fourth Lateran Council

The Fourth Lateran Council laid the cornerstone for medieval Christian devotion and reflected the authority of the Papacy throughout Europe.

Summary of Event

Innocent III’ Innocent III time as pope is known as the “high noon” of the Papacy. He once likened the Papacy to the Sun and lessened the state to the satellite position of the Moon. These concepts seemed to filter through the air at the Fourth Lateran Council, in which Innocent III made his expectations known despite opposition from laity and clergy alike. [kw]Fourth Lateran Council (November 11-30, 1215)
[kw]Lateran Council, Fourth (November 11-30, 1215)
Lateran Council, Fourth (1215)[Lateran Council 04]
Italy;Nov. 11-30, 1215: Fourth Lateran Council[2270]
Religion;Nov. 11-30, 1215: Fourth Lateran Council[2270]
Innocent III
Dominic, Saint
Francis of Assisi, Saint
John, King
Simon de Montfort (1165?-1218)

Innocent III fit the mold of many twelfth and thirteenth century popes. He was more of a jurist and an administrator than a saintly individual. Educated at Bologna, he was elected pope at the rather early age of about thirty-seven. Following in the tradition of popes Innocent II, who called the Second Lateran Council Lateran Council, Second (1139)[Lateran Council 02] in 1139, and Alexander III, who called the Third Lateran Council in 1179 Lateran Council, Third (1179)[Lateran Council 03] , Innocent convoked a truly ecumenical council that rivaled even the earlier Eastern ecumenical councils. The number of participants (2,280) was imposing, in part because members of laity and clergy both were well represented. It was the first instance in which both estates were participants in a church council. Among the more than four hundred bishops were prelates from Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Livonia, and Estonia, countries never before represented at a council. Innocent failed to persuade the Greeks to attend, but the Latin patriarchs of the East were present. Besides abbots, eight hundred legates of monastic chapters attended. Envoys on behalf of Frederick II Frederick II of Sicily, the emperor of Constantinople, and the kings of France, Hungary, Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Aragon arrived. King John John (king of England) of England was not invited, since he was under the ban of excommunication, but he was represented by five proctors (three clerics and two laity).

Little is known about the council’s organization. The only extant documents are Innocent’s inaugural address, the record of one public session, the text of seventy approved canons, and the decree authorizing a new crusade. In addition, there are two eyewitness accounts. One describes the ceremonial splendors of the council’s opening session. The council first met on November 11, following a papal mass celebrated at dawn. The ensuing papal address had such a vast audience that there were reports of several fatalities resulting from the crowded conditions, and the bishop of Amalfi was suffocated during the melee. There were two other public sessions held on November 20 and 30.

The first public session on November 11 addressed one of the major issues at hand. Innocent was eager to call a crusade, perhaps to eradicate the memory of the devastation and damage committed during the Fourth Crusade Crusades;Fourth[04] (1202-1204), when the Crusaders attacked Constantinople and succeeded in carrying off countless religious and secular treasures with reckless abandon. He ordered that all Crusaders should be ready by June to embark at Brindisi for the recovery of the Holy Land. To attract participants, the property of potential crusaders was protected. Crusaders would pay no taxes, nor would they need to address their debts during their absence. Indulgences were liberal. Despite all the careful preparation, the Crusade was doomed to failure. Frederick II was expected to participate but did not fulfill this expectation. Because of the resulting lack of leadership and the death of Innocent III in the meantime, the Fifth Crusade Crusades;Fifth[05] (1217-1221) ended in disaster in Egypt.

The Fourth Lateran Council established the number of sacraments at seven and stressed the necessity for believers to receive the sacraments in order to attain salvation. This copy of the left panel from a fifteenth century triptych by Rogier van der Weyden displays the sacraments of Baptism (administered at birth), Confirmation (youth), and Penance (maturity).

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

In enacting internal Church reform, the Fourth Lateran Council was especially successful. It has been said that Innocent made more laws than fifty of his predecessors, laws that were practical and workable and entitled him to be considered virtually a cofounder of the canon law of the Church, which had been begun by Gratian in his Decretum (c. 1140). These laws laid the groundwork for medieval canon law through the process of assimilation of Roman law and the introduction of new church laws. Laws and law codes;Church

Heresy was a major concern of the council. Innocent III continued his vehement opposition to the troublesome Albigensian heresy. The council’s canon 1 carefully defined the Trinity and condemned Joachim of Fiore’ Joachim of Fiore views against the trinity. Canon 1 also made significant use of the Aristotelian word “transubstantiation,” Transubstantiation stating that bread and wine were “transubstantiated” into the body and blood of Christ. This statement was the most significant theological definition issued by the council. It was repeated at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and continued as a doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church. Another decree required the priest to elevate the Host with his back to the congregation. The laity subsequently became observers rather than participants in the Mass when this decree was put in place. (Following Vatican II in 1965, priests once again were able to face the congregation as they had before the Fourth Lateran Council.) Canon 21 commanded every Roman Catholic to make a yearly confession and to receive Communion at Easter.

The Fourth Lateran Council established the number of sacraments at seven and stressed the necessity for believers to receive the sacraments in order to attain salvation. Canon 50 liberally restricted marriage to the fourth degree of consanguinity. Other regulations were aimed at clerical discipline. Clergy were not to hold secular offices and were not to act in an unbecoming or exhibitionist manner. Likewise, clergy were to refrain from wearing decorous or inappropriate clothing.

The right-hand portion of the triptych by Rogier van der Weyden displays the sacraments of Marriage (undertaken at maturity), Orders (at old age), and Extreme Unction (at death). Not shown here is the third sacrament, the Eucharist, or communion.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Canon 2 elaborated on the pursuit of heretics. All who professed heresies contrary to the faith expressed in the first canon defining transubstantiation were condemned and left to be suitably punished by the state. To detect doctrinal deviations, bishops were ordered to visit suspected centers of heresy every year. Heresy;prosecution of Canon 8 marked the beginning of an episcopal Court of Inquisitions, although the Inquisition at this point in time was procedural; it was not fully developed until later in the thirteenth century. Innocent’s intention at the council was to bring peace after seven years of bloody crusading against the Albigensians Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) . The council developed these antiheresy measures into canon law, thus regularizing the legal process and making use of documentary evidence.

Canon 13 forbade the founding of new religious orders. There were new spiritual forces at work in the thirteenth century. No doubt there was fear about the radical nature of some of the new congregations compounded with a certain sense of rivalry from the older, established orders. The older orders—the Benedictines, the Augustines, the Cistercians—tried to prevail on the pope not to recognize these new orders. Innocent seems to have countermanded the council. He had already permitted the radical Francis of Assisi to preach; according to some sources, Innocent recognized the Franciscans Franciscans at the council. This acceptance did not find its way into the documents but it is assumed that Innocent interceded on behalf of the Franciscans. The Franciscan rule would be recognized by Innocent III’s successor, Honorius III Honorius III , in 1223. Dominic Dominic, Saint Guzmán (later Saint Dominic) from Spain, lacking previous recognition, was allowed by Innocent to establish his new order after initial hesitation and against the vote of the council. After Innocent’s death, the Dominican Dominicans order was sanctioned by Honorius III in 1216. With good diplomatic sense, Innocent was able to reconcile dissidents within the church while simultaneously accommodating the wave of new spiritual reform orders.

The council issued decrees against Muslims and Jews. Anti-Semitism had been on the rise since the period of the First Crusade, and the nature of the crusading movement itself directed hostility toward the Muslims. With the growing self-assurance of Christians about themselves, both Jews and Muslims became “outsiders” even though they had coexisted, sometimes quite peacefully, with Christians for centuries. Canon 68 stated that Jews Jews;Christians and and Muslims Islam;Christians and should wear distinctive clothing in Christian lands so that they would not be mistaken for Christians. In the three days before Easter, particularly on Good Friday, Jews and Muslims were not to be seen in public. Innocent III did not want Jews to suffer physical persecution, and he ordered Crusaders not to harass Jews. Nevertheless, the requirement of distinctive dress paved an easier path toward the possibility of future persecution.

Other specific matters were then laid before the council for approval. These items included Innocent’s choice of Frederick for German king; his suspension of Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury; his condemnation of the Magna Carta in favor of King John; and his advocacy of the claims of the Albigensian persecutor Simon de Montfort Montfort, Simon de to the territory of Toulouse in southern France. Although violent opposition to the claims of de Montfort erupted among the delegates, Innocent was able to save a large part of the Toulouse inheritance for de Montfort’s heir. Apart from his limited success in the Toulouse settlement, Innocent and his momentous Fourth Lateran Council failed only in launching vast crusading plans in the Holy Land.


The Fourth Lateran Council, by virtue of its size and inclusiveness, brought about major Church reforms in many areas and was the primary force behind the unsuccessful Fifth Crusade Crusades;Fifth[05] . It demonstrated the power of the Papacy and, through its many canons, had far-reaching effects on the clergy and laypeople alike.

Further Reading

  • Bellitto, Christopher M. The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-one General Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II. New York: Paulist Press, 2002. The Fourth Lateran Council is among the twenty-one councils covered in this work. Bibliography and index.
  • Moore, John C. Pope Innocent III: To Root Up and to Plant. Boston: Brill, 2003. A biography of Pope Innocent III by a noted scholar. Bibliography and index.
  • Moore, John C., Brenda Bolton, et al., eds. Pope Innocent and His World. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1999. A collection of papers presented at a conference on Pope Innocent III at Hofstra University. Bibliography and index.
  • Pixton, Paul B. The German Episcopacy and the Implementation of the Decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1216-1245: Watchmen on the Tower. New York: E. J. Brill, 1995. An examination of the Fourth Lateran Council and its effects in Germany. Bibliography and index.
  • Powell, James M. Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. A succinct collection of essays that outline the problems and interpretations of Innocent’s reign.
  • Sayers, Jane. Innocent III, Leader of Europe, 1198-1216. New York: Longmans, 1994. A fresh and clear perspective of Innocent, his papacy, and the way in which his authority was viewed throughout Europe.