The Lateran Councils were a series of conferences called within the Roman Catholic Church in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their name comes from the Lateran Palace of Rome, where the groups assembled. In these meetings, Catholic Church leaders produced responses to various debates and controversies within the church. At the Lateran Councils, the Catholic Church affirmed its views on topics which, by and large, were being criticized by dissenting voices within Christianity.
In general, the Lateran Councils followed a pattern of increasing power in the centralized, human leadership of Catholic Christianity. Many details specifically addressed by these meetings were points of contention for the Reformers. When the Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century, the articles drawn up in the Lateran Councils were central to the schism. Although the formal Reformation developed through a long and complex process, it is fair to say that the Lateran Councils represent a “shorthand” history of the growing divide between the Reformers and the Catholic loyalists.
The First Lateran Council was held in AD 1123. This council determined that kings and emperors had no authority to appoint a bishop, as bishops could only be properly approved by the Pope. The meetings also concluded that true spiritual authority could only come from “the” church, not from any other institution or group. Priestly celibacy was strictly affirmed.
The Second Lateran Council was held in AD 1139. This council determined that laymen could not accept confession from each other. Only Catholic-approved priests could accept confession or any other sacrament if that sacrament was to be viable. Other decisions of the Second Lateran Council included an admonition to bishops and priests to wear modest clothing rather than extravagant robes. The injunction against priestly marriage was once again upheld, and many existing marriages among the clergy were declared invalid.
The Third Lateran Council was held in AD 1179. This council declared that the only acceptable means of appointing a Pope was a 2/3 majority vote of the bishops. Any other claims to the papacy were automatically invalidated. This council also condemned the Waldensians, a pre-Protestant denomination that viewed the written Word as their primary authority, embraced poverty, and rejected saintly relics, purgatory, any special power of prayers offered in a church as opposed to other buildings, among other Catholic innovations. These decisions make the Third Lateran Council an especially important milestone in the development of Catholicism’s papal doctrines.
The Fourth Lateran Council was held in AD 1215 and was the most divisive of the meetings. It was also the most heavily attended, featuring at least 1,200 abbots and bishops, in addition to various political representatives. The decisions rendered by the Fourth Lateran Council drastically sharpened the divide between reform-minded Christians and Catholic loyalists. Interestingly, unlike most ecclesial councils, the Fourth Lateran Council was presented immediately with a list of some seventy decrees. These were constructed by Pope Innocent III, and the attendees were expected to endorse them, which they did.
The Fourth Lateran Council officially declared the Pope as the Bishop of Rome and re-emphasized a belief that only the Roman Catholic Church was the true church of God. The decrees affirmed that the seven sacraments were strictly necessary and also upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation. The other decisions mostly related to the expectations of princes and kings with respect to the clergy and separate clothing requirements for Jews and Muslims.
An additional decision of the Fourth Lateran Council was the creation of an Inquisition, which was given the authority to investigate heresy and turn guilty parties over to secular courts for prosecution.
The decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council resulted in a dramatic backlash among those who felt the Catholic Church had been drifting from the original teachings of Christ and the apostles. The fallout from this council and its decisions greatly hastened the full-blown Reformation, which began not long after.
What is now considered the Fifth Lateran Council was held several centuries later, between AD 1512 and 1517. The extended duration was due to various delays, complications, and controversies. The most meaningful aspects of this conference were political infighting among members of the clergy. However, the resulting decrees did establish church-run pawn shops, forbade the printing of books without permission of the Catholic Church, affirmed that the soul was truly immortal, and rejected the claim that any church council could wield higher authority than the Pope.
Strictly speaking, there were many other councils held at the Lateran Palace or Lateran Cathedral in Rome, from the 7th century all the way through to the 18th century. However, the five listed here are the most noteworthy and the only ones generally referred to as the “Lateran Councils.”