The 5th Lateran Council was summoned by Pope Julius II via the bull Sacrosanctae Romanae Ecclesiae, issued at Rome on 18 July 1511. Julius had promised such a reforming council at his election as pope, and after several schismatic cardinals, officially supported by Louis XII, king of France, had assembled a quasi-council at Pisa, Julius took action. Twice postponed, the council held its first session in Rome at the Lateran Basilica on 10 May 1512.
In the history of the Church the hour was late, and there were many who recognized it as such, with an urgency close to despair. Three months earlier, the Dean of St. Paul’s in London, John Colet, scholar and theologian, preaching to a convention of clergy on the need for reform, had cried, “never did the state of the Church more need your endeavors!” In all the rushing after revenues, he said, in “the breathless race from benefice to benefice,” in covetousness and corruption, the dignity of priests was dishonored, the laity scandalized, the face of the Church marred, her influence destroyed, worse than by the invasion of heresies because when worldliness absorbs the clergy, “the root of all spiritual life is extinguished.” This was indeed the problem.
Egidio of Viterbo, General of the Augustinians, who gave the opening oration at the Lateran Council in the presence of the Pope, saw Divine Providence in the very recent defeat of papal forces at Ravenna on Easter Sunday morning. He did not hesitate to use it in words of unmistakable challenge to the pope glowering from the throne. The defeat showed, said Egidio, the vanity of relying on worldly weapons and it summoned the Church to resume her true weapons, “piety, religion, probity and prayer,” the armor of faith and the sword of light. In her present condition the Church had been lying on the ground “like the dead leaves of a tree in winter. When has there been among the people a greater neglect and greater contempt for the sacred, for the sacraments and for the holy commandments? When has our religion and faith been more open to the derision even of the lowest classes? When, 0 Sorrow, has there been a more disastrous split in the Church? When has war been more dangerous, the enemy more powerful, armies more cruel? . . . Do you see the slaughter? Do you see the destruction, and the battlefield buried under piles of the slain? Do you see that in this year the earth has drunk more blood than water, more gore than rain? Do you see that as much Christian strength lies in the grave as would be enough to wage war against the enemies of the faith?” Egidio closed with calling the Council as the long-awaited harbinger of reform.
Pope Julius died and the Council was continued under the pontificate of Leo X. The Council indeed acknowledged the multitude of abuses and provided for their correction in a Bull of 1514. This covered as usual the “nefarious pest” of simony, the holding of multiple benefices, the appointment of incompetent or unsuitable abbots, bishops and vicars, neglect of the divine office, the unchaste lives of clerics and even the practice of ad commendam (collection of multiple benefices from the control of a patron, esp. the pope), which was henceforth to be granted only in exceptional circumstances. Cardinals as a special class were ordered to abstain from pomp and luxury, from serving as partisan advocates of princes, from enriching their relatives from the revenues of the Church, from plural benefices and absenteeism. They were enjoined to adopt sober living, perform divine office, visit their titular church and town at least once a year and donate to it the maintenance of at least one priest, provide suitable clerics for the offices in their charge and obey further rules for the proper ordering of their households. It is a picture of what was wrong at every level.
Yet, tor all its solemnity, five years’ labors, and many sincere and earnest speakers, the Fifth Lateran was not to achieve reform. Subsequent decrees, more concerned with silencing criticism than with reform, indicated that the scolding of preachers had begun to hurt. Henceforth preachers were forbidden to prophesy or predict the coming of Anti-Christ or the end of the world. They were to keep to the Gospels and abstain from scandalous denunciation of the faults of bishops and other prelates and the wrongdoing of their superiors, and refrain from mentioning names. Censorship of printed books –was another measure intended to stop attacks on clerics holding offices of “dignity and trust.” Few if any of the Council’s decrees ever left paper. A serious effort to put them into practice might have made an impression, but none was made.
The “march of folly” is at the door step of the long-brewing Reformations.