Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215

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Fourth Lateran Council of 1215

From the commencement of his reign [Pope Innocent III] had planned to assemble an ecumenical council because of the limited results of the [Third Crusade] and the bitter results of the [Fourth Crusade], which had led to the capture of Constantinople and large parts of the Byzantine Empire. Innocent III wanted to reformulate papal involvement in the Crusades as outlined in his decree [“To Free the Holy Land”], but only towards the end of his pontificate could he realize this project.

The assembly was to take place in November, 1215. The council did in fact meet on 11 November, and its sessions were prolonged until the end of the month. The council was attended by 71 patriarchs, 412 bishops, and 900 abbots. Also in attendance were representatives from Emperor Frederick II and the Kings of France, England, Aragon, Hungary, Cyprus and Jerusalem. The long interval between the convocation and the opening of the council, as well as the prestige of the reigning pontiff, were responsible for the very large number of bishops who attended it. The Fourth Lateran Council is commonly referred to as "the Great Council".


Due to the various array of religious envoys, the members of the council only approved the seventy decrees that were prepared by Innocent. Its decrees were widely published in many provincial councils.

Canon 21

Canon 21, also known as “Omnis ultriusque sexus”, mandated universal confession for every Christian at least once a year. All members also had to partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist at Easter. Before Eucharist was taken, all members must confess to their priest. Prior to the enactment of canon 21, there were no regulations or mandates on confession and Eucharist. Failure to observe this canon resulted in being barred from entering a church during a person's lifetime and the denial of a Christian burial at death. Canon 21 invested a broad social power among individual priests and increased their control over the individual conscience. If an individual has wronged another person, they are required to confess that sin directly to the priest.

Effect of Council

Penance was a complex, highly articulated system of power in which priests and parishioners perform specific roles based on the larger culture of guilt (Woods and Copeland). The social power of the system was sustained through the priest’s interrogation skills as well as his huge base of religious information that allowed him to master any situation. The council imposed a four years' peace on all Christian peoples during the Crusades and enjoined the bishops to reconcile all enemies. The council confirmed the elevation of Frederick II to the German throne.


Catholic Encyclopedia: Fourth Lateran Council The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature – “Classroom and Confession” The Fourth Lateran Council - Dr. Herb Samworth Lateran Council (Roman Catholicism) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia Medieval Fourth Lateran Council (1215) Medieval Sourcebook: Twelfth Ecumenical Council: Lateran IV 1215

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