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Church law

Conciliar decrees: what authority do they have?

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 Contents - Apr 2008AD2000 April 2008 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: AD2000 reaches the twenty year mark - Michael Gilchrist
Christ's commandment: Church's 'primary task' is evangelisation: Benedict XVI - Michael Gilchrist
News: The Church Around the World
Human rights: Cardinal Joseph Zen: conscience of China - Peter Westmore
Progress report: AD2000's worldwide outreach via the Internet - Francis Young
WYDSYD08: World Youth Day Sydney: look for the wider trend - Joanna Bogle
Timor L'Este: Salesians continue to offer more hope in East Timor - Br Michael Lynch SDB
Church law: Conciliar decrees: what authority do they have? - Frank Mobbs
Apostolic journey: Pope's Washington visit will address key issues - Peter Westmore
Legal Year homily: Truth and the law: legal should also mean moral - Bishop Peter Elliott
Adult education: Sydney's Centre for Thomistic Studies - Donald G. Boland
Fly Away to Heaven project: responding to Christ's call to charity - Fr John Fowles CCS
Letters: Student generosity - Name and Address Supplied
Letters: Inspired life of Peter Gallagher - John Young
Letters: Binding document - On Ordinatio Sacerdotalis responsum ad dubium (1995) - George Simpson
Letters: Unwarranted changes - John McLaren
Letters: Church interiors - Marija Sestan
Books: REDEEMING GRIEF: Abortion and Its Pain, by Anne Lastman - Charles Francis (reviewer)
Books: THE ENEMY WITHIN: Radical Feminism in the Christian Churches - Catherine Sheehan (reviewer)
Books: Books available from AD2000 Books
Reflection: Original Sin, the 'madness' of the Cross and the 'foolishness' of God's love - Fr Dennis Byrnes

In a previous article I mentioned that the decisions of ecumenical councils can be classified thus: definitions of doctrine, decrees regarding matters of discipline, decisions on policies.

Let us look at some of the hundreds of disciplinary decrees prescribing ways of behaving for members of the Church. An example: the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that the faithful must receive Communion at least once a year at Easter. This is retained in the present Code of Canon Law. Note that it is not a doctrine to be believed but a rule to be obeyed, so the Church is free to abolish it and other rules.

Few decrees concern liturgy. One commands the faithful to pray standing, not kneeling, on Sundays and at Pentecost. Even Vatican II rarely decreed anything regarding liturgy. Rather, it made recommendations, many of which were implemented by popes.


Most disciplinary decrees concern clergy. In the first seven councils, all held in Greek- speaking areas (modern Greece and Turkey), the question of authority of one bishop over others comes up frequently. Rulings are common on the rights of patriarchs and of metropolitans (bishops of the most important cities) over bishops in certain areas, showing that disputes on this matter were frequent. Indeed they were. Fierce disputes led to patriarchs and other bishops being deposed and replacements appointed.

First Constantinople in 381 declared that the Patriarch of Constantinople is to be honoured next after the Bishop of Rome. However, Chalcedon in 451 decreed that the Bishop of New Rome (Constantinople) was to enjoy the same honour [rank] as the Bishop of Old Rome because the capital of the Roman Empire now was Constantinople. Much controversy has ensued about the interpretation of this decree. The overwhelming authority of popes in recent centuries has been exercised to prevent such conflicts within the Catholic Church.

In the Latin (Western) Church a great problem was the appointment of bishops and abbots by laymen, a practice called lay investiture. Emperors, princes, lords appointed clergy to benefices (e.g., parishes, canonries, monasteries). Often the lords considered they were entitled to make appointments because they or their ancestors had endowed the benefices. Avarice was the more usual motive, for those appointed could draw the revenues of the benefice, without ordination and without residing in them. So it was common for a lord to appoint a son or close relative or one of his top servants.

Decrees forbidding this practice were repeated in council after council, thus showing it was a persistent abuse. Yet the practice continued until the Council of Trent decreed it must stop and popes and bishops gradually began to enforce the decrees. However, it survived until recently in the form of the Holy See's granting to governments rights to nominate bishops and to veto appointments made by popes.

In Spain in 1974 I was surprised to read a notice on a cathedral door inviting applications from priests for a position as a canon of the cathedral. The notice said the appointment would be made by El Jefe (Head of State, Francisco Franco).

The conduct of bishops receives frequent attention in the decrees. They must know the Book of Psalms - all 150 of them - by heart. Bishops must not ordain clergy of another diocese, must not have women in their houses, not even a female slave.

Not many decrees concern laity. They must pay tithes, that is, part of their income to the Church. It is often forgotten that this tax was imposed for over 1000 years on everyone who held land. Lepers were exempted. Tithe laws were as ruthlessly enforced as are our income tax laws and did not fade out until the 19th century. Those advocating the non-payment of tithes were to be excommunicated

Usury, the charging of interest on a loan, is condemned by council after council. Penalties are laid down for usurers. Penalties are prescribed for those fighting duels and those participating in tournaments (dangerous mock fights). Counterfeiters are to be excommunicated - a serious punishment which often involved loss of rights to make a Will and give testimony in court.


One decree had important effects for laity. The Council of Trent in 1563 issued a decree which required the partners to a marriage to exchange their vows before a parish priest or his delegate and two other witnesses. The penalty for breach of this law was that the attempted marriage was rendered invalid, that is, no marriage at all.

The intent was to prevent marriages which could not be proven to have occurred. Many, perhaps most, marriages took place without involving the Church. Remember that the State did not register marriages. In this situation, disputes were very common over whether there was a marriage. Rights to property were at stake and illegitimacy could be a barrier to entering professions or holding office.

A great English historian wrote that the best way to understand an organisation is to study its laws. I have selected for report a mere handful of the hundreds of disciplinary decrees enacted by councils over 1600 years in order to convey some idea of the concerns of Church leaders at different periods.

Dr Frank Mobbs is a former university and seminary lecturer in philosophy and theology and the author of books and numerous articles on religious issues. He is based in Gosford, NSW, in the Broken Bay Diocese.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 21 No 3 (April 2008), p. 10

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