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Lateran Council IV - 1215

Turning then to Benedictines proper, that is, the Black Monks of St. Benedict, it seems that in spite of several attempts towards forming organic unions on the Cluny model, the majority of the monasteries remained in their primeval state of independent isolation. The Fourth Council of the Lateran, however, in 1215, made changes that profoundly modified subsequent Benedictine history. There it was decreed that, for purposes of mutual help and the better observance of monastic and canonical law, the abbeys of each ecclesiastical province should be united, and that Provincial Chapters should meet every three years with certain defined powers of legislating, and of conducting visitations.

The English monks, to their credit, were the first to put the Lateran decree into effect, and three years later, in 1218, the first General Chapter of Benedictines in the Province of Canterbury was held at Oxford.

Right up to the dissolution of the monasteries in King Henry VIII's reign, the chapters were held triennially with praiseworthy regularity, a fact which becomes more striking when it is remembered that little was done in this direction in other countries. At the same time, it is perfectly clear that this new Provincial system was carried out in strict conformity, with that spirit of autonomy so essential and characteristic a feature of the true Benedictine monastery. The general tone of the legislative acts of the chapters makes it evident that all this was perfectly well understood and conscientiously observed, and herein we can see why it was that these efforts were always crowned with success.

On the other hand, the very general reluctance to comply with the Lateran decrees on the part of the Continental abbeys, in spite too of the further orders embodied in the Bull Benedictina of 1336, was accompanied by widespread and often considerable abuses in the monastic life. This degeneration was also enhanced by the pernicious system of commendatory abbots, whereby those who were not only not monks, but often enough not even ecclesiastics, administered the temporalities and sometimes the spiritualities of the monasteries, to the lasting injury of religious life. Happily England was spared this abuse, Cardinal Wolsey, as Abbot of St. Albans, being the sole exception to the rule.

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