As always, Canon Law gives unique insights into the ancient church

Council of Nicaea

This afternoon, I read through the Canons of the Council of Nicaea (325), the Canons of the Council of Serdica (344), and the Apostolic Canons (before 347), looking for precedents for the statements in Leo’s decretals. I found a few, and I found some other interesting things along the way.

By and large, these fourth-century canonical documents show us a concern in the Church for the behaviour of ambitious bishops. Bishops are restricted from being translated to different cities. Restrictions are placed on the elevation of small towns to bishoprics. Bishops are not allowed to treat church wealth as their own; neither are their heirs allowed to inherit church property. People aren’t allowed to enlist secular authority to get their hands on a bishopric.

Alongside the bishops, the other clergy are a concern. They can’t just up and run off into another diocese whenever they feel like it, for example. And they will be deposed for a variety of issues.

What we see in the fourth century then, as councils are gathering and people are forging documents in the apostles’ names, is a church that has a bit of disorder but which, now that it is emerging from hiding, hopes now to gain more order and curtail abuses, since things can now more easily come to the light of day.

Amidst interesting observations like that, I found the Apostolic Canons good fun at times. For example:

Canon XXVII. (XXVIII.)

If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon shall strike any of the faithful who have sinned, or of the unbelievers who have done wrong, with the intention of frightening them, we command that he be deposed. For our Lord has by no means taught us to do so, but, on the contrary, when he was smitten he smote not again, when he was reviled he reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not.

My brother, when I posted this on Facebook a while ago, asked what would happen if a clergyman struck someone intending to do violence. Nothing, unless the person died, it seems:

Canon LXV.

If any clergyman shall strike anyone in a contest, and kill him with one blow, let him be deposed for his violence. If a layman do so, let him be excommunicated.

I am particularly struck by the emphasis on ‘kill him with one blow.’

Of course, violence is not the only concern. So is dining out:

Canon LIV.

If any of the clergy be found eating in a tavern, let him be excommunicated, unless he has been constrained by necessity, on a journey, to lodge in an inn.

We also get a sense of the general failings of ordinary clergy as less-than-shining beacons of good sense, sensitivity, and goodness:

Canon LVII.

If any of the clergy mock the lame, or the deaf, or the blind, or him who is infirm in his legs, let him be excommunicated.In like manner any of the laity.

Finally, the issue of passing on church property as inheritance. While celibacy for deacons, presbyters, and bishops was the norm in the Roman Church since an early date, the universal application and legislation of the rule during the Gregorian Reforms of the latter half of the 11th century was due in part to the issue of inheritance. Bishops and presbyters were acting like ‘feudal’ lords and passing on church property to their sons.

Canon LXXVI.

A bishop must not, out of favour to a brother or a son, or any other relation, ordain whom he will to the episcopal dignity; for it is not right to make heirs of the bishopric, giving the things of God to human affections. Neither is it fitting to subject the Church of God to heirs. But if anyone shall do so let the ordination be void, and the ordainer himself be punished with excommunication.

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