It is the 3rd of May 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
So, today is the 509th Anniversary of the Fifth Lateran Council, which opened on this day in 1512. And for this to excite you as much as it excites me, I’ll probably need to explain a few things,
It is the fifth Lateran Council because four previous councils were held at the same building. So “Lateran” as a word isn’t important. But its location is in Rome. So that tells you that the Roman church would recognize this as an “ecumenical” council. That is, they believed that the decisions of this council would be binding for the universal church.
But if you want to see many Christians with ties to Rome, the Eastern and Oriental churches get into a big fight, you can start by saying things like “actually, it wasn’t ecumenical,” and watch the fireworks. The Roman Catholic Church sees this as the 18th Ecumenical Council. Nicea in 325 is considered I and so on. Since this 5th Lateran Council, there have only been three councils recognized by the Roman church. That’s Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II.
Pope Julius II called the council. Pope Julius didn’t want to call the council because he thought councils were part of the problem. But the councils, since the 1400s, had determined that councils were the answer to the issue of the power of the Pope, which had been curbed for reform to take place. So you see, the “Reformation” we talk about starting in 1517(ish) was part of a more significant attempt to clean up the excesses of a Medieval church that had gotten out of control.
And the Pope who called it, or was forced to hold it, was a good picture of the corruption in the church at the time. Pope Julius II did not call himself Julius II after the pious Pope Julius I. No, he picked Julius after Julius Caesar. Julius II was also known as the “Warrior Pope,” which gives you an idea about him. You might remember that Desiderius Erasmus, the wit and reformer, mocked this Pope with a fictional account of his being denied at the gates of heaven by St. Peter. But Julius did have one famous fan, Machiavelli, who thought that Julius was a jolly good by the standard of a secular prince. So Julius would die halfway through the council and be replaced by Leo X.
The council dealt with the issues of the power of the council curiously: it diverted power from the council to temporal rulers. This is seen in the Concordat of Bologna. This was the Pope’s giving the French king authority over the French Catholic Church in return for the French King saying the Pope was more powerful than the councils.
There were serious reforms discussed. The Monti di Pieta was sanctioned. This was a pawnshop for the poor to use instead of going to the usurious bankers. It was also determined that preachers needed to be held to higher standards morally and theologically. Many of the complaints that come out of the Reformation were addressed at this 5th Lateran Council. But the fractured institution was unable to enact these promised reforms. The council, which ran from the 3rd of May in 1512 to 1517, marked the last gasp attempt at internal reform before the radicals would soon come out to play.
You might hear me say, with some frequency, that the best of the Medieval church can be seen in its model of diversity without adversity. Going back to the earliest councils, this was often the goal of such meetings. It wasn’t doctrinal indifference or utopian dreaming to suppose that the church could be united. The Fifth Lateran Council was a hail mary pass for a church seeking to reform itself on the eve of the Reformation.
Let’s tag the end of today’s show with the words of Jesus, praying to His Father for Unity in the Gospel of John chapter 17, starting in verse 20.
“I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of May 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite “fifth” installments include the 5th Lateran Council, Rocky V, and the Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Island. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis whose favorite 5th installment is Fast Five. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.