« Balthazar of Dernbach and the Counterreformation In Fulda Baltimore Councils Baltus, Jean Francois »

Baltimore Councils

BALTIMORE COUNCILS: A name given to ten assemblies of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States held during the nineteenth century. The first independent episcopal see of the Church created in the American Republic was that of Baltimore (erected in 1790), and the same diocese was made the first metropolitan see of the United Staten in 1808. On account of this priority in point of time the archdiocese of Baltimore enjoys a quasiprimatial dignity conferred upon it by the pope, and hence that city has been the place of meeting of the various assemblies of the American hierarchy. The first of these assemblies was held under the presidency of Most Rev. James Whitfield, fourth archbishop of Baltimore, in Oct., 1829. This council and the six following ones, held respectively in 1833, 1837, 1840, 1843, 1846, and 1849, belong to the category designated canonically as provincial councils; i.e., assemblies of all the bishops of a territory known as an ecclesiastical province, and presided over by the metropolitan or archbishop. Three other Baltimore Councils (held in 1852, 1866, and 1884) are called plenary or national, by which is meant an assembly of all the bishops of a country, convoked and presided over by the primate or some other dignitary commissioned thereto by the pope. At the time of the first council, the province of Baltimore was the only one in the United States, comprising, besides its own see, the sees of Boston, New York, Bardstown (Kentucky), Charleston, and Cincinnati, and only the incumbents of these dioceses with their coadjutors constituted the voting members of the council. The decrees drafted were thirty-seven in number, and they were confirmed by a papal rescript of Oct. 16, 1830. They embody the earliest attempt at a uniform legislation in church matters in the United States, and they deal with the most urgent needs of a time when church forces were scattered and without organization. Thus, among other things, means are taken to regularize the credentials and the ministrations of the small number of available clergy, and to obviate the abuses arising from lay interference in ecclesiastical matters, particularly that known as “trusteeism.” The Douai version of the English Bible was recommended, and various regulations were formulated with reference to the administration of the sacraments, because in the generally prevailing circumatances, it was impossible to carry out in full the prescriptions of the Roman ritual. The six succeeding councils, which continued to frame, as circumstances required, the local canonical legislation of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, were similar in purpose, form of procedure, and general results.

The First Plenary Council of Baltimore was held in May 1852, and was presided over by Archbishop Kenrick, who had been appointed to that 432 function by Pope Pius IX. There were present six archbishops and twenty-four bishops with a large number of theologians and canonists, who acted as consultors. The decrees of the former councils of Baltimore were confirmed and extended to all parts of the country; certain enactments were made concerning the canonical administration of dioceses, the publication of marriage banns, the establishment of ecclesiastical seminaries, etc. The council suggested to the Roman authorities the erection of a metropolitan see in San Francisco and the establishment of ten new dioceses in various parts of the country. The suggestion was acted upon by Pius IX who confirmed the decrees of the council by a rescript dated Sept. 26, 1852.

The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore was held in Oct., 1866, under the presidency of the Most Rev. M. J. Spalding, archbishop of Baltimore; there were present seven archbishops, thirty-eight bishops, three mitered abbots, and 120 theologians. The motives for calling the council and the topics discussed were in the main the same as those pertaining to the previous assemblies, but in particular it was deemed useful, “at the close of the great national crisis which had acted as a dissolvent upon all sectarian ecclesiastical organizations, to reaffirm solemnly the bond of union existing between the Catholics of all parts of the republic, and to deliberate on the measures to be adopted in order to meet the new phase of national life which the result of the war had just inaugurated.” Besides, it was felt to be an urgent duty on the part of the heads of the Church to discuss the future status of the newly emancipated yet very dependent negro. Among the results of the council may be mentioned the erection of ten new dioceses and the drafting of a scheme for the selection of bishops, which, having been approved in Rome, remained in force until amended in the Third Plenary Council.

This last and most important of the Baltimore Councils was held Nov. 9-Dec. 7, 1884, under the presidency of the Most Rev. James Gibbons, who had been appointed to that office by Pope Leo XIII. The number of prelates who took part in the council was fourteen archbishops, sixty bishops, five visiting bishops from Canada and Japan, seven mitered abbots, one prefect apostolic, eleven monsignors, eighteen vicars-general, twenty-three superiors of religious orders, twelve rectors of ecclesiastical seminaries, and ninety theologians. The object of the council was to provide efficient means of organization for the needs of the rapidly growing Church of the United States, and to prepare the way for the gradual introduction of the more useful elements of canon law into the administration of religious affairs in this country. The decrees of the council, which were approved by Pope Leo, Sept. 10, 1885, comprise eleven tituli or sections, and each one of these is divided into several chapters. This body of legislation touches successively upon the prerogatives and duties of bishops and the inferior members of the clergy, on divine worship, the administration of the sacraments, the training of the clergy, Catholic schools, ecclesiastical courts, church property, etc. Since the promulgation of these decrees in 1885 they constitute the norm of ecclesiastical law as applied within the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

James F. Driscoll.

Bibliography: Concilia provincialia Baltimori habita ab anno 1829 usque ad annum 1840, Baltimore, 1842; Concilium plenarium totius Americæ septentrionalis fœderatæ habitum anno 1852, ib. 1853; Concilii plenarii Baltimorensis II. acta et decreta, ib.1868, 2d ed.,1877; Third Plenary Council of Baltimore 1884, New York, 1885; Memorial Volume of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Baltimore, 1885; Acta et decreta concilii plenarii Baltamorensis, ib. 1886; J. G. Shea, Hist. Of the Catholic Church in the United States, vols. iii-iv, New York, 1892; T. O’Gorman, American Church History Series, ix, 340 sqq., New York, 1895.

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