Friday, October 28, 2016

500: Fifth Lateran Council


In the early 1500s, the papal states were facing political opposition from Italian and French states. Venice was filling episcopal seats without Church approval and subjecting clergy to state tribunals. Pope Julius II sent in armies to get Venice back in line. Meanwhile, King Louis XII of France demanded Florence give allegiance to France, which would almost certainly start a war between the papal states and France. (Florence sent Niccolo Machiavelli to France as their diplomatic representative during this.) Pope Julius II wanted Italian states free from foreign influence. France tried to convene a general council in Pisa, intending to restrict the pope’s poltiical power, but the German princes refused to get involved and Maximillian I, who had at first supported the council, withdrew his support when the Germans refused. Without popular support in Pisa, the council moved to Milan, then Lyon, before disbanding the same year.

In response to the French council, Pope Julius II convened the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512. He deposed four cardinals of their offices and excommunicated participants of the conciliabulum council in Pisa. Ambassadors of Maximillian I and Louis XII announced that their leaders rejected any decisions made in Pisa. The council closed under Pope Leo X in March 1517.

While political in much of its proceedings, the council addressed ecclesiastical business as well. There was a bull to sanction the monti di pieta (Mount of Piety). These financial institutions had been set up about a century earlier as a charitable alternative to money lending. Designed to benefit the borrower, they operated similar to a pawn shop and offered low-interest loans (in theory). Through the council, they were put under stricter ecclesiastical supervision with the aim to aid the poor in favorable terms (not falling into usury, like banks).

Another result of the council was that a local bishop had to give permission before the printing of a new book in his see. Since the movable type press in 1439, literacy and the production and spread of books had boomed. There was also a requirement for documented competence in preaching. Clergy had to complete a regulated course of studies in philosophy. Both these things addressed the Church’s need to keep foreign political and religious ideas from the pamphlet and the pulpit. Finally, the council affirmed “the truth of the enlightened Christian faith.”

Only a few months later, Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Several historians believe that the Fifth Lateran Council never had a chance to be properly implemented, because the Church had to focus on the watershed of Protestantism. Some also believe that if Martin Luther had seen the implementation of the council, his criticisms would have been lessened. However, it didn’t work out that way. But I think it’s clear that the Fifth Lateran Council shows that political struggles, rising Protestant thought, and Church efforts for reform were already well-established in Europe before Luther.

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