Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Today is the anniversary of the opening of the Fourth Lateran Council (see earlier post).  It's a massively significant moment, whether one's interested in the history of law, the history of the Church, the history of persecution, of anti-semitism, and of the Crusades.

From the conference page for the Rome Concilium Lateranense IV commemoration conference (

We tend to assume that anniversaries are there to be celebrated or at least that they are about commemorating sacrifices which have protected and enabled our own liberties - this is obviously the dominant narrative about Remembrance day, and, in many ways, rightly so.  But embedded in these kinds of narratives tends to be quite a self-congratulatory sense of progress - which could, perhaps, be usefully questioned.

Lateran IV is, I think, quite useful in raising these kinds of questions.  The extent to which Innocent III was able to extend the reach of a more-or-less uniform canon law is quite incredible.  The growing systematisation of the Church as an institution amounted to an enormous set of achievements.  And the extension of the pastoral reach of the Church was surely an indication of a more intense concern for the individual spiritual lives of western Christians.  But Lateran IV was also the moment at which distinctive clothing for Jews was prescribed, more stringent and brutal responses to heresy codified, and the dogma of the Church articulated through law and brute force.  What's so striking is that these extremely unpleasant developments were not the flip-side of the more positive achievements - rather they were intertwined, and embedded within them.

When we try to tease out the more uplifting bits of history, we often do a disservice to the present by rejecting the uncomfortable and dangerous complexity of reality.

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