Pope Lucius III’s Letter Against Heretics

Pope Lucius III’s Letter Against Heretics

In 1183, the treaty of Constance was signed where Frederick and the Lombards mended their long-time feud. This deprived the pope of a much-needed ally. Lucius responded to this agreement with a letter entitled ad abolendam calling for Frederick I and other temporal rulers to act against heretics.

In November 1184, a Synod was held at Verona where Lucius’ letter was formally presented to Frederick, who claimed to accept the challenge. No records are found that he did anything about the matter, but the letter and subsequent council are historically significant because they show the two powers (Roman Church and Roman State) realizing that they have a united cause against heresy. In fact, this letter became one historical basis for the two groups working together in later decades. It also formed the foundation for the inquisition against non-conformist groups.

We have included an English translation of Lucius’ letter below:

“In modern times in most parts of the world, the power of the church ought to be aroused ; when, in- deed, with the sanction of imperial power, both the insolence of heretics, in their attempts to promote falsehood, may be put down, and the truth of Catholic unity, shining forth in the Holy Church, may display her, free from all charge of false doctrine.

We, therefore, supported by the power, and presence, of our most dear son Frederic, the illustrious Emperor of the Romans, semper Augustus, with the common consent of our brethren, and of other Patriarchs, Archbishops, and many Princes, who have assembled from various parts of the world, have, with the general sanction of

this present decree, risen up against those heretics, to whom divers names have ascribed the profession of various errors, and, by the tenor of this constitution, with apostolical authority, we condemn all heresy, howsoever it may be named.

In the first place, therefore we lay under a perpetual anathema, the Cathari, Patarini, and those who falsely call themselves Humiliati, or poor men of Lyons, Passagini, Josepini, and Arnaldistae; and since some, having a form of godliness, but, as the apostle has said, denying- the power of it, have assumed to themselves the office of preaching—though the same Apostle says, ‘ how shall they preach, except they be sent ?’—we include, in the same perpetual anathema, all who shall have presumed to preach, either publicly, or privately, either being forbidden, or not sent, or not having the authority of the Apostolic See (IE the Roman Church), or of the Bishop of the diocese; and, also, all who presume to think, or to teach, concerning the Sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, or of Baptism, or of the Remission of Sins, or of Matrimony, or of the other Sacraments of the Church, otherwise, than as the Holy Roman Church teaches and observes ; and, generally, all persons whom the said Roman Church, or the individual Bishops in their dioceses, with the concurrence of their clergy, or the clergy themselves, if the see be vacant, with the consent, if need be, of the neighbouring Bishops, shall have adjudged to be heretics.

And we decree, that their receivers, and defenders, and, in like manner, all who shew any countenance, or favour, to the aforesaid heretics, to encourage them in their heretical pravity—whether they be consolati, or credenies, or perfecti, or by whatever superstitious names they may be called, shall be subjected to a similar sentence.

Since, however, it sometimes happens, that the severity of ecclesiastical discipline which is required by offences, may be condemned by those who do not understand its benefits, we farther decree, by this present ordinance, that, whosoever shall be manifestly convicted of the errors aforesaid, if he be a clerk, or in any pretended Holy Orders, shall be stripped of all the prerogatives of the ecclesiastical order; and being thus deprived of all ecclesiastical office, as well as privilege, he shall be left to the discretion of the secular power, to receive due punishment ; unless, immediately after the detection of his error, he shall consent, voluntarily to return to the unity of the catholic faith, and publicly to abjure his error, as the Bishop of the diocese shall direct, and shall make such satisfaction as shall be fitting. A layman, however, to whom the guilt of the aforesaid pests shall, either publicly or privately, attach, (unless, as before said, he immediately returns to the orthodox faith, abjuring his heresy, and making satisfaction) shall be left to the discretion of the secular judge, to receive due punishment, according to the nature of his offence.

Those who shall be found to be only suspected by the church, shall be subjected to a like sentence, unless they shall demonstrate their innocence by a sufficient proof, at the discretion of the Bishop, according to the nature of the suspicion, and the quality of the person. Those, however, who, after the abjuration of error, or after they have (as we have said) cleared themselves under the examination of their own Bishop, shall be convicted of having relapsed into their abjured heresy, we decree to be left to the secular judgment, without any farther hearing ; and that the goods of the condemned persons shall be applied to the service of those churches to which they belong, under proper regulations.

Moreover, we decree that the aforesaid excommunication, under which we desire that all heretics should lie, shall be renewed by all Patriarchs, Archbishops, and Bishops, on the principal festivals, and as often as public solemnities, or any other occasion, shall offer, for the Glory of God, and the rebuke of heresy; ordaining, by apostolical authority, that, if any member of the episcopal order shall be found negligent, or slothful, in this matter, he shall be considered as suspended from his episcopal dignity, and ministry, for the space of three years.

To these things we add, with the concurrence of the Bishops, and by the suggestion of the Emperor and his Princes, that every Archbishop or Bishop, by himself, or his Archdeacon, or by other trustworthy and fit persons, shall twice, or once, in the year, go round any parish in which it shall have been reported that heretics reside ; and there call upon three or more persons of good credit, or, if it seem expedient, on the whole neighbourhood, to take an oath, that if any one shall know that there are heretics in the place, or any persons holding secret conventicles, or differing in life and manners from the common conversation of the faithful, he will

make it his business to point them out to the Bishop or Archdeacon.

Moreover, the Bishop, or Archdeacon, shall cite the accused to appear before him, who, unless they shall clear themselves from the charges brought against them to their satisfaction, according to the custom of the country—or if, after such clearance, they shall relapse into their error, they shall be punished by the judgment of the Bishop. If, however, any of them, through damnable superstition, denying the lawfulness of oaths, shall refuse to swear, they are, from that very circumstance, to be adjudged heretics, and to be subjected to the punishment aforesaid.

Moreover, we ordain that Counts, Barons, Rectors, Consuls of Cities, and other places, being called upon by the Archbishops and Bishops, shall bind themselves with an oath, that, in all the matters aforesaid, they will stoutly and effectually aid the church against heretics, and their associates, when they shall be called upon so to do; and will bona fide, endeavour, according to their office and power, to put in execution the ecclesiastical, and, at the same time, imperial, statutes of which we have spoken.

If, however, they fail to observe this, let them be deprived of that honour which they possess ; and on no account be raised to any other ; their persons being bound by excommunication, and their lands subjected to an interdict. Also, let any city which shall think fit to resist these decretal ordinances, or which, when called upon by the Bishop, shall neglect to punish those who do so, be cut off from intercourse with other cities, and understand that it is deprived of its episcopal dignity.

We also decree, that all favourers of heretics, as being condemned to perpetual infamy, are not to be admitted as advocates, and witnesses, or to other public offices. If, however, there should be any who, being exempt from the control of diocesan jurisdiction, are subject only to the authority of the Apostolic See, let them, with regard to all matters hereinbefore ordained respecting heretics, submit to the judgments of the Archbishops and Bishops, and obey them on this behalf, as Legates of the Roman See, notwithstanding their privileges of exemption” (English translation from Maitland, pp 176-180; Latin found in Labbe, 10:1737-1742).

Many innocent people were put to death over the centuries because of edicts such as this one. To learn more about this subject, please download our FREE book: The Passagini: Sabbatarians of the Middle Ages (Click here to download).

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org


Maitland, S.R. Facts and Documents Illustrative of the History, Doctrine, and Rites of the Ancient Albigenses and Waldenses. London, 1832. pp 176-180.

Sacrosancta Concilia Ad Regiam Editionem. Philip Labbe and Gabr. Cossartii. Vol. 10. Paris, 1671. pp 1737-1742.