By Daniel Malakowsky
When most think of the seat of power of the Catholic church in Rome, what immediately comes to mind is the Vatican and the incredible physical presence of St. Peter's Basilica. This was true for us from A2J who had gathered as a part of the Wittenberg 2017 initiative meetings just outside of Rome proper in the comune of Ariccia. On Monday, October 26th, we would be afforded an opportunity to put into practice the very messages we had been receiving from during this time through services of repentance at the aforementioned basilica, the Arch of Titus, and also, at what we would discover is the true seat of power of the Roman church, St. John's Lateran Basilica.
St. John's Lateran, also known as the Lateran Basilica, is the most significant of the papal basilicas and the actual ecclesiastical seat of the Roman pontiff, the pope. Officially known in Latin as Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sanctorum Iohannes Baptista et Evangelist in Laterno, meaning Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran. It alone is reserved the title archbasilica and ranks officially over St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, being the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome.
Alongside having this unique designation as the formal symbol of ecclesial power, St. John's Lateran is also the location of five ecumenical councils, known as the Lateran Councils. While the Church of the East, and the Church of the West acknowledge 7 ecumenical councils that are shared, the Western tradition of what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church, continued to meet under the title of being ecumenical. The 8th, and controversial in terms of East/West relationships in the church, would be the 4th Council of Constantinople in which the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photios I, was deposed and his predecessor reinstated. Following the excommunication of one another by the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Constantinople in what is popularly known as the Great Schism in 1054, these ecumenical councils in the West would be predominantly focused on issues related to the Western Church and its role in the Holy Roman Empire.
The first four of these more isolated councils, being the 9th-12th of the Western tradition, would take place in the 12th and 13th centuries within the confines of St. John's Lateran. Several hundred years later, and at the dawn of the Reformation, a 5th Lateran Council would be held from 1512-1517. While these five Lateran Councils would be an opportunity for the church to embrace reform, they were often rooted in issues of political and temporal power, as well as horrific schisms that would often plague the church in the West during the latter Middle Ages.
The First Lateran Council was called in 1123 by Pope Callistus II over issues of lay investiture, predominantly dealing with the role of the emperor, being a laymen, in the naming of bishops and clergy. This council affirmed an agreement made the year before by the Pope and then Emperor, Henry V, called the Concordant of Worms that would limit to the emperor to giving political power alone to bishops, while their choosing and ordination would remain the duty of the church.
This was followed shortly after by a schism after the death of Pope Honorius in 1130 and led to Pope Innocent II calling forth the Second Lateran Council in 1139 to deal with the issues that arose during this brief period and to affirm the decisions of the First Lateran Council. Only 40 years later the Third Lateran Council would be enacted in 1179 following another schism between the papal powers and the emperor. The emperor, Frederick I, attempted to ordain his own pope and rejected the then elected pope, Alexander III. This continued struggle for power would lead to the eventual decree that the election of the pope would be limited through the cardinals, and thus restrict lay and temporal roles in the process.
The most notable Lateran Council would be the fourth, called at the height of papal power and influence during the medieval period by Pope Innocent III in the year 1215. Despite having the broadest and most influential attendance of all Lateran Councils, the 70 canons decreed would only take 3 sessions and affirmed the dictates given by the pope. It is within the canons of this council that the doctrine of transubstantiation would be formalized and the fifth Crusade would be launched into the Holy Land. Jews and Muslims were required to wear special dress that would designate them and limit issues of 'blasphemy' and the controversial apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore, largely adopted by the spiritual wing of the new Franciscan order, were also condemned as they challenged the temporal and political power of the church.
While a number of concilliar movements would occur in the next centuries, it was not until 1512 that another ecumenical council would take place in St. John's Lateran. It is debated as to whether this council could have fully anticipated the undercurrents that would erupt in 1517 in the Reformation, but its timing and opportunity to deal with issues of reform make it a remarkable opportunity for the Western Church. Instead of focusing on the larger issues that were plaguing the church, it was mired in an embittered battle between the papacy and the papal states with the king of France.
Simultaneously there was another battle taking place over how authority would be held within the Western Church itself, with some advocates touting the role of the papacy, and others the role of concilliar authority in the councils. For the past century this debate had been unfolding as councils had been deemed, when they were occurring, to be the highest ecclesial authority. No council could be called with the pope who, when councils were called, would be subject to them, but when they were not, would himself be the highest ecclesial power.
As the Fifth Lateran Council concluded, the predominant motif in the canons it declared were focused on these issues of power and authority. This council would only be followed by only three more over the next five centuries. The first being the Council of Trent in response to the Protestant movement in the Reformation in middle part of the 16th century, but then not again until the First Vatican Council in 1870. This latter council would be called during the same century that the Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved and the Church would once more find itself wrestling with the issue of authority, only now in the context of the rising secular nation state, and no longer in the bridging of temporal and spiritual powers through the Sacrum Imperium. It would be in this First Vatican Council that the issue of authority and power would once more be promulgated through the formal declaration and canon of papal infallibility.
On Monday, October 26th, 2015, we would gather now being led by the Catholic priest and scholar, Fr. Peter Hocken, with the support and participation of the emeritus auxiliary bishop of Mainz to embrace this long legacy of the councils in a service of repentance. Fr. Peter would speak to the issue of arrogance and pride that had been manifested and reinforced through the decrees that came forth from the very building and church we stood within at St. John's Lateran.
His confession led to prayers for healing and an honoring of one another, especially those who were members and clergy of Protestant churches. There was even a moment to honor and pray for those who were a part of the Anabaptists churches, whose traditions were forcefully opposed by not only Catholics, but by mainline Protestant traditions also. These movements of honoring allowed Fr. Peter and the Catholics among us to then acknowledge the arrogance of the see of Rome in relationship to the Messianic Jews among us. The in-grafted branch symbolically acknowledged it was such, and through prayer and repentance, the natural branches were lifted up and honored. Fr. Peter would go even as far as to say that the greatest arrogance of all within the see of Rome was to claim for itself something that belonged to Christ alone, that being the head of the body.
The next day Fr. Peter would lead us in a teaching on the nature of reform. He stated that a lack of reform reveals a lack of confession and that without confession one is attempting to deal with sin detached from repentance. The power of reform then lies in the ability to confess. The five councils that took place in this basilica came together missing the spirit and reality of this truth. Fr. Peter would state that this defensive nature within the church led to a view that critique was an expression of disloyalty, thus hindering any honest introspection.
In would not be until Vatican II in the 1960's that the Catholic Church would give a real listening to the voice of the Reformers. This has translated to a slow formation from the council to the local parish as the major symbol of the church moves from the Holy Roman Empire, to the body of Christ. In John Paul II the sons and daughters of the church were given permission and blessing to acknowledge their sin and confess. In Pope Francis a further step is being taken as he sheds the symbols of the Sacrum Imperium, refusing all privilege, and thus embracing the Christ of the Gospels and the present role of the Spirit. While not doing away with the roles of bishops and cardinals, he is redefining them by removing the idea of arrogance in hierarchy. In this he is opening the door to confession and through that door is the way of reform.
There is a battle for the church of Rome that Paul spoke of in scriptures as being not of flesh and blood. It is a battle we waged in this time at St. John's Lateran and one that requires our continued prayers and intercession, but also our continued willingness to confess to one another. In this we too will continue to find our own healing and reformation in Christ, and the only path to a reconciled church.
"The true authority of the church of Rome is the charity of Christ...[it] is the heart of its truth, which does not build walls of division and exclusion, but makes bridges that build communion and recall the whole human race to unity; that is its secret power, which nourishes its unshakable hope, invincible despite momentary defeats." ~ Pope Francis