Chapter 4


4.1. Canonical texts from the Apostolic period

Canons and rulings not having Conciliar origin but approved by name in canon II of the Synod in Trullo.

The 85 Canons of the Holy and Altogether August Apostles[1]

CANON VI: Let not a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, undertake worldly business; otherwise let him be deposed.

CANON LXVI: 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.

CANON LXXXI: We have said that a bishop or presbyter must not give himself to the management of public affairs, but devote himself to ecclesiastical business. Let him then be persuaded to do so, or let him be deposed, for no man can serve two masters, according to the Lord's declaration.

CANON LXXXIII: If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, shall serve in the army, and wish to retain both the Roman magistracy and the priestly office, let him be deposed; for the things of Caesar belong to Caesar, and those of God to God.

4.2. Canons from the Ecumenical Councils

First Ecumenical Council of Nicea

The 20 Canons of the 318 Holy and God-inspired Fathers who gathered in the city of Nicea under Constantine the Great ... in the year 325 A.D., before the 13th day of July.

CANON XII: As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military girdles, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, (so that some spent money and by means of gifts regained their military stations); let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators[2]. But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretence, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favourably concerning them. But those who take [the matter] with indifference, and who think the form of [not] entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time[3].

Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon

The 28 Canons and two more in the form of questions and answers, of the 630 Holy Fathers gathered in Chalcedon during the reign of Marcianus ... , before the 8th day of November, 451 A.D.

CANON III: It has come to [the knowledge of] the holy Synod that certain of those who are enrolled among the clergy have, through lust of gain, become hirers of other men's possessions, and make contracts pertaining to secular affairs, lightly esteeming the service of God, and slip into the houses of secular persons, whose property they undertake through covetousness to manage. Wherefore the great and holy Synod decrees that henceforth no bishop, clergyman, nor monk shall hire possessions, or engage in business, or occupy himself in worldly engagements, unless he shall be called by the law to the guardianship of minors, from which there is no escape; or unless the bishop of the city shall commit to him the care of ecclesiastical business, or of unprovided orphans or widows and of persons who stand especially in need of the Church's help, through the fear of God. And if any one shall hereafter transgress these decrees, he shall be subjected to ecclesiastical penalties[4].

CANON VII: Those who have entered the clergy or have been tonsured into the monastic state may no longer serve in the army or accept any civil charge; otherwise those who have dared do so, and who have not repented and returned to their prior occupation for the love of God, shall be anathemised.

4.3. Canons from the Local Councils

The Local Council of Ancyra

The 25 canons of the August Fathers gathered in Ancyra in 314 A.D., canons which precede the Council of Nicea but which come in second position given the authority of the Ecumenical Council.

CANON XXII: Concerning wilful murderers let them remain prostrators; but at the end of life let them be indulged with full communion[5].

CANON XXIII: Concerning involuntary homicides, a former decree directs that they be received to full communion after seven years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees; but this second one, that they fulfil a term of five years[6].

The Local Council of Sardica

The 20 canons of the Holy Fathers gathered in Sardica in 343 A.D., fathers who gathered after the fathers of Nicea.

CANON VII: Bishop Hosius said: Our importunity and great pertinacity and unjust petitions have brought it about that we do not have as much favour and confidence as we ought to enjoy. For many of the bishops do not intermit resorting to the imperial Court, especially the Africans, who, as we have learned from our beloved brother and fellow-bishop, Gratus, do not accept salutary counsels, but so despise them that one man carries to the Court petitions many and diverse and of no possible benefit to the Church, and does not (as ought to be done and as is fitting) assist and help the poor and the laity or the widows, but is intriguing to obtain worldly dignities and offices for certain persons. This evil then causes murmuring, not without some scandal and blame to us. But I account it quite proper for a bishop to give assistance to one oppressed by some one, or to a widow suffering injustice, or, again, an orphan robbed of his estate, always provided that these persons have a just cause of petition.

If, then, beloved brethren, this seems good to all, do ye decree that no bishop shall go to the imperial Court except those whom our most pious emperor may summon by his own letters. Yet since it often happens that persons condemned for their offences to deportation or banishment to an island, or who have received some sentence or other, beg for mercy and seek refuge with the Church [i.e., take sanctuary], such persons are not to be refused assistance, but pardon should be asked for them without delay and without hesitation. If this, then, is also your pleasure, do ye all vote assent.

All gave answer: Be this also decreed[7].

CANON VIII: Bishop Hosius said: This also let your sagacity determine, that -- inasmuch as this was decreed in order that a bishop might not fall under censure by going to the Court -- that if any have such petitions as we mentioned above, they should send these by one of their deacons. For the person of a subordinate does not excite jealousy, and what shall be granted [by the Emperor] can thus be reported more quickly.

All answered: Be this also decreed[8].

CANON IX: Bishop Hosius said: This also, I think, follows, that, if in any province whatever, bishops send petitions to one of their brothers and fellow-bishops, he that is in the largest city, that is, the metropolis, should himself send his deacon and the petitions, providing him also with letters commendatory, writing also of course in succession to our brethren and fellow-bishops, if any of them should be staying at that time in the places or cities in which the most pious Emperor is administering public affairs.

But if any of the bishops should have friends at the Court and should wish to make requests of them as to some proper object, let him not be forbidden to make such requests through his deacon and move these [friends] to give their kind assistance as his desire.

But those who come to Rome ought, as I said before, to deliver to our beloved brother and fellow-bishop, Julius, the petitions which they have to give, in order that he may first examine them, lest some of them should be improper, and so, giving them his own advocacy and care, shall send them to the Court.

All the Bishops made answer that such was their pleasure and that the regulation was most proper.

The Local Council of Carthage

The canons of the 217 blessed Fathers who assembled at Carthage, 419 A.D.

CANON XVI: Likewise it seemed good that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should not be "conductors" or "procurators;" nor seek their food by any base and vile business, for they should remember how it is written, "No man fighting for God cumbereth himself with worldly affairs."

CANON LXXV: On account of the afflictions of the poor by whose troubles the Church is worn out without any intermission, it seemed good to all that the Emperors be asked to allow defenders for them against the power of the rich to be chosen under the supervision of the bishops.

CANON XCVII: That there be sought from the Emperor the protection of Advocates in causes ecclesiastical.

It seemed good that the legates who were about leaving, viz., Vincent and Fortunatian, should in the name of all the provinces ask from the most glorious Emperors to give a faculty for the establishment of scholastic defensors, whose shall be the care of this very kind of business: so that as the priests of the province, they who have received the faculty as defensors of the Churches in ecclesiastical affairs, as often as necessity arises, may be able to enter the private apartments of the judges, so as to resist what is urged on the other side, or to make necessary explanations.

Local Council of Constantinople "Prime-Second"

The seventeen canons of the Fathers gathered in the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, in the year 861 A.D.

CANON XI: The divine and sacred rules submit priests or deacons to deposition, who take upon themselves worldly governing tasks or responsibilities, or who have the rank of director in the houses of worldly rulers. We then, confirming the latter for all members of the clergy, declare that if any member of the clergy enters into worldly civil office, or takes upon himself the rule of director in the houses of worldly rulers or in the cities: such will be deposed from their priestly rank. Since, according to the word spoken by Christ himself, our true God, no-one can serve two masters.

4.4. Canons from the Fathers of the Church

Canons of St. Gregory of Neocaesarea

The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Archbishop of Neocaesarea ( 270 A.D.), who is called Thaumaturgus, concerning them that, during the incursion of the Barbarians, ate of things offered to idols and committed certain other sins.

CANON VII: That they who joined the barbarians in their murder and ravages, or were guides or informers to them, be not permitted to be hearers, till holy men assembled together do agree in common upon what shall seem good, first to the Holy Ghost, then to themselves.

Canons of St. Basil the Great

The first Canonical Epistle of our Holy Father Basil ( 378 A.D.), Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia to Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium.

CANON VIII: He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of wilful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and undesignedly kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defence, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it die upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway....

CANON XI: He that is guilty of involuntary murder, shall do eleven years' penance -- that is, if the murdered person, after he had here received the wound, do again go abroad, and yet afterward die of the wound.

CANON XIII: Our fathers did not think that killing in war was murder; yet I think it advisable for such as have been guilty of it to forbear communion three years.

CANON XLIII: That he who gives a mortal wound to another is a murderer, whether he were the first, aggressor, or did it in his own defence.

CANON LIV: That it is in the bishop's power to increase or lessen penance for involuntary murder.

CANON LV: They that are not ecclesiastics setting upon highwaymen, are repelled from the communion of the Good Thing; clergymen are deposed.

CANON LVI: He that wilfully commits murder, and afterwards repents, shall for twenty years remain without communicating of the Holy Sacrament. Four years he must mourn without the door of the oratory, and beg of the communicants that go in, that prayer be offered for him; then for five years he shall be admitted among the hearers, for seven years among the prostrators; for four years he shall be a co-stander with the communicants, but shall not partake of the oblation; when these years are completed, he shall partake of the Holy Sacrament.

CANON LVII: The involuntary murderer for two years shall be a mourner, for three years a hearer, four years a prostrator, one year a co-stander, and then communicate.

Canons of St. Athanasius the Great

The Epistle of St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria ( 373 A.D.) to the Monk Ammun (extract).

... One might reasonably say no natural secretion will bring us before him for punishment. But possibly medical men (to put these people to shame even at the hands of outsiders) will support us on this point, telling us that there are certain necessary passages accorded to the animal body, to provide for the dismissal of the superfluity of what is secreted in our several parts; for example, for the superfluity of the head, the hair and the watery discharges from the head, and the purgings of the belly, and that superfluity again of the seminative channels. What sin then is there in God's name, elder most beloved of God, if the Master who made the body willed and made these parts to have such passages? But since we must grapple with the objections of evil persons, as they may say, 'If the organs have been severally fashioned by the Creator, then there is no sin in their genuine use,' let us stop them by asking this question: What do you mean by use? That lawful use which God permitted when He said, 'Increase and multiply, and replenish the earth,' and which the Apostle approves in the words, 'Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled,' or that use which is public, yet carried on stealthily and in adulterous fashion?

For in other matters also which go to make up life, we shall find differences according to circumstances. For example, it is not right to kill, yet in war it is lawful and praiseworthy to destroy the enemy; accordingly not only are they who have distinguished themselves in the field held worthy of great honours, but monuments are put up proclaiming their achievements. So that the same act is at one time and under some circumstances unlawful, while under others, and at the right time, it is lawful and permissible. The same reasoning applies to the relation of the sexes. He is blessed who, being freely yoked in his youth, naturally begets children. But if he uses nature licentiously, the punishment of which the Apostle writes shall await whoremongers and adulterers.

Canons of St. Gregory of Nyssa

The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa ( 395 A.D.), to St. Letoius, Bishop of Melitene.

CANON V: Voluntary murderers shall be nine years ejected out of the church, nine years hearers, nine years prostrators; but every one of these nine years may be reduced to seven or six, or even five, if the penitents be very diligent. Involuntary murderers to be treated as fornicators, but still with discretion, and allowing the communion on a death-bed, but on condition, that they return to penance if they survive.


1 The 85 Canons of the Holy Apostles most probably originate from Syria in the IIIrd century. They were confirmed by the Quinisexte Ecumenical Council "in Trullo" (the Church where the Council took place) in 691, which issued the canons of the fifth and sixth Ecumenical Councils. The Canons of the Holy Apostles should not be mistaken for the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hyppolyte of Rome, which has not been confirmed by the Councils.

2 Prostrators are one of the categories of penants.

3 In his last contests with Constantine, Licinius had made himself the representative of heathenism; so that the final issue of the war would not be the mere triumph of one of the two competitors, but the triumph or fall of Christianity or heathenism. Accordingly, a Christian who had in this war supported the cause of Licinius and of heathenism might be considered as a lapsus [those who fell away from the Faith, ed.], even if he did not formally fall away. With much more reason might those Christians be treated as lapsi who, having conscientiously given up military service (this is meant by the soldier's belt), afterwards retracted their resolution, and went so far as to give money and presents for the sake of readmission, on account of the numerous advantages which military service then afforded. It must not be forgotten that Licinius, as Zonaras and Eusebius relate, required from his soldiers a formal apostasy; compelled them, for example, to take part in the heathen sacrifices which were held in the camps, and dismissed from his service those who would not apostatize. Comment by the canonist Lambert.

4 Two cases excepted, the undertaking of secular business was made ecclesiastically penal. This is not to be construed as forbidding clerics to work at trades either (1) when the church-funds were insufficient to maintain them, or (2) in order to have more to bestow in alms, or (3) as an example of industry or humility. It was not the mere fact of secular employment, but secularity of motive and of tone that was condemned. Comment from the canonist Bright.

5 An ancient epitome of this canon reads: A voluntary homicide may at the last attain perfection.

Constantine Harmenopulus the Scholiast in the Epitom. Canonum., Sect. v., tit. 3, tells the following story: "In the time of the Patriarch Luke, a certain bishop gave absolution in writing to a soldier who had committed voluntary homicide, after a very short time of penace; and afterwards when he was accused before the synod of having done so, he defended himself by citing the canon which gives bishops the power of remitting or increasing the length of their penance to penitents. But he was told in answer that this was granted indeed to pontiffs but not that they should use it without examination, and with too great lenity. Wherefore the synod subjected the soldier to the canonical penance and the bishop it mulcted for a certain time, bidding him cease from the exercise of his ministry.". Comment by the canonist van Espen.

6 Of voluntary and involuntary homicides St. Basil treats at length in his Canonical Epistle ad Amphilochium, can. viii., lvi. and lvii., and fixes the time of penance at twenty years for voluntary and ten years for involuntary homicides. It is evident that the penance given for this crime varied in different churches, although it is clear from the great length of the penance, how enormous the crime was considered, no light or short penance being sufficient. Comment of the canonist van Espen.

7 Nothing is more noteworthy than how the first princes summoned bishops in counsel with regard to affairs touching either the estate of the Church or of the Realm; and called them to their presence in urgent and momentous cases, and kept them with them. Justinian, the emperor, in his Novels (Chapter II.) defines that no one of the God-beloved bishops shall dare to be absent any more from his diocese for a whole year, and adds this exception, "unless he does so on account of an imperial jussio; in this case alone he shall be held to be without blame." On this whole matter of bishops interceding for culprits, and especially for those condemned to death, see St. Augustine (Epist. 153 ad Macedonium ). Comment of the canonist van Espen.

8 This decree is threefold. First, that the bishop in going to Court should not fall under suspicion either at Court or of his own people that he was approaching the Prince to obtain some cause of his own. Second, according to the interpretation of Zonaras, "that no one should be angry with the Minister or Deacon who tarried in camp, as the bishop had departed thence." And third, that the Minister could carry away what he had asked for, that is (according to Zonaras), the letters of the Emperor pardoning the fault, or such like other matters. Comment of the canonist van Espen.


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