Letter of Pope Siricius to Bishop Himerius of Tarragona, 385. Ed. Pierre Coustant, Epistolae Romanorum pontificum (Paris, 1721; reprint Farnborough, 1967), 623-638.
1. The account which you, brother, directed to our predecessor of holy memory Damasus, found me now installed in his see because the Lord thus ordained. When we read that [account] more carefully in an assembly of brethren, we found to the degree we had hoped to recognize things which ought to be praised and much which was worthy of reprimand and correction. And since it is necessary for us to succeed to the labors and responsibilities of him whom, through the grace of God, we succeeded in honor, having first given notice, as was necessary, of my promotion, we do not refuse, as the Lord deigns to inspire, a proper response to your inquiry in every point. For in view of our office there is no freedom for us, on whom a zeal for the Christian religion is incumbent greater than on all others, to dissimulate or to be silent. We bear the burdens of all who are oppressed, or rather the blessed apostle Peter, who in all things protects and preserves us, the heirs, as we trust, of his administration, bears them in us.
On the first page of your letter (Latin), therefore, you indicated that multitudes who were baptized by the impious Arians were hastening to the Catholic faith, and that certain of our brothers wished to baptize these same people again. This is not allowed, since both the Apostle forbids and the canons oppose doing it; and after the Council of Rimini was annulled, the general decrees sent to the provinces by my predecessor of venerable memory Liberius prohibit it. We unite these people, and the Novatianists and other heretics, to the assembly of Catholics, just as it was constituted in the synod, solely through invocation of the sevenfold Spirit by imposition of the bishop's hand. Indeed all the East and the West preserves this practice, and it is also inappropriate henceforth for you to deviate from that path, if you do not wish to be separated from our company by synodal sentence.
II. Baptism may only be bestowed on Pentecost and Easter
Then follows objectionable confusion (MS), in need of correction, about those who are about to be baptized just as it pleases each and every one of them. Our fellow priests--we speak in indignation--not by reason of any authority but by temerity alone presume this, so that throngs of people, as you report, attain the mystery of baptism randomly and freely at Christmas, or Epiphany, and also on the feasts of the apostles or martyrs, although both with us and in all churches the Lord's Resurrection and Pentecost claim this privilege specially for themselves. On these days alone through the year is it proper for the complete rites of baptism to be bestowed on those coming to the faith, but only on those select people who applied forty or more days earlier, and were cleansed by exorcisms, daily prayers, and fasts, so that the precept of the Apostle is fulfilled that with old leaven having been driven out, new dough comes into being. But just as we say that sacred Paschal reverence in no way ought to be diminished, so we wish for the waters of sacred baptism to be of assistance with all speed to infants, who because of age are not yet able to speak, and to those for whom in any emergency it is needed, lest the destruction of our souls be at stake if, the salutary font being denied to those seeking it, someone departing from the world loses both the kingdom and life. Whoever, indeed, suffers the peril of shipwreck, the assault of an enemy, the uncertainty of a siege, or the despair of any bodily illness and demands to be supported by the singular help of belief, at the very same moment when they demand, the advantages of the sought for regeneration should follow. Enough error on this matter (Latin)! All priests who do not wish to be torn from the solidity of the apostolic rock, upon which Christ built the universal Church, should now hold the aforementioned rule.
It was also added that certain Christians(MS), crossing over into apostasy (Latin)--which is abominable to be uttered--have been profaned by the worship of idols and the pollution of sacrifices. We order that they be cut off from the body and blood of Christ, by which formerly they were redeemed in new birth. And if coming to their senses at some point perhaps they turn to grieving, they should do penance as long as they live, and in their final moments the grace of reconciliation ought to be given, because, as the Lord teaches, we do not wish the death of a sinner, only that he be converted and live.
You also asked about marriage (MS), whether someone can marry a girl who was betrothed to another. We forbid by all means that this be done because that blessing which a priest imposes to a girl who is to be married is, if it is violated by any transgression, a kind of sacrilege among the faithful.
Concerning those who do not respect penance
Not improperly, beloved (MS), you believed that the apostolic see should be consulted about those who, having performed penance, again hungered, just as dogs and swine returning to old vomit and wallowing ponds, for the military belt, pleasures of the theater, new marriages, and forbidden liaisons whose manifest incontinence was shown by children born after absolution. Concerning them, because now they do not have the option of doing penance, we decided that this ought to be decreed. Inside church they can be united with the faithful only in prayer; they can be present for the sacred celebration of the mysteries, although they are unworthy, but should be excluded from the banquet of the Lord's table, so that reproached at least by this stricture they can castigate their faults within themselves and give an example to others that they may be drawn back from obscene desires. But since they fell by weakness of the flesh, we wish them to be supported by the gift of a viaticum through the grace of communion when they are about to depart to the Lord. We are of the opinion that this procedure should be observed also for women who, after penance, devoted themselves to such pollutions.
You indicate, furthermore (MS), that certain monks and nuns, having thrown off the life of sanctity, plunged into so much wantonness that they tangled themselves up in illicit and sacrilegious intercourse, first in secret, as it were under cover of the monasteries, but afterward, led on precipitously by abandonment of conscience they freely produced children with illicit partners, which both civil laws and ecclesiastical regulations condemn. We command, therefore, that these shameless and detestable persons should be banished from the community of monasteries and the congregations of churches, so that having been thrust away in personal imprisonment, bewailing with constant lamentation so great an outrage, they can roast in the purifying fire of repentance so that at least at death, out of consideration of mercy alone, forgiveness through the grace of communion can assist even them.
Let us come now to the most sacred orders (MS) of clerics, which we learn from your report (Latin), beloved, are thus so scorned and disordered throughout your provinces, to the injury of religion which should be venerated, that we should be speaking with the voice of Jeremiah, "Who will give water to my head, or a fountain of tears to my eyes? And I shall weep for this people day and night." If, therefore, the blessed prophet says that tears are insufficient for him in lamenting the sins of the people, by how much grief can we be smitten when compelled to deplore the iniquities of those who are in our body, [we] to whom especially, according to blessed Paul, ceaselessly falls the daily concern and solicitude of all churches? "For who is weak and I am not weak? Who is offended and I do not burn?" For we learned that many priests and deacons of Christ, long after their ordination, have produced offspring both from their own wives and even through filthy liaisons, and defend their sin with this excuse, that it is read in the Old Testament that the opportunity to procreate was given to priests and ministers.
Let him speak to me now (Latin), whoever is an addict of obscenities and a teacher of vices. If he thinks that here and there in the law of Moses the restraints of indulgence are relaxed by the Lord for sacred orders, why does He admonish those to whom the Holy of Holies was committed saying: "Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy"? Why indeed were priests ordered to live in the temple, far from their homes, in the year of their service? Just for this reason: so that they could not engage in physical contact even with wives, and that shining in integrity of conscience they might offer acceptable service to God. The period of service having been completed, use of wives was permitted to them for reason of succession alone, because no one from a tribe other than of Levi was directed to be admitted to the ministry of God.
Whence the Lord Jesus, when he enlightened us by his advent, testified in the Gospel that he had come to fulfill the law not to destroy it. And he wished thus that the figure of the Church, whose bridegroom he is, radiate with the splendor of chastity, so that on the day of judgment when he comes again he can find her without stain and blemish, just as he taught through his Apostle. All we priests and deacons are bound by the unbreakable law of those sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination we subject our hearts and bodies to moderation and modesty in order that in every respect we might please our God in these sacrifices which daily we offer. "They who are in the flesh," says the chosen vessel, "are unable to please God. But you are not now in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you." And where can the Spirit of God dwell except, as we read, in holy bodies?
And because a considerable number of those of whom we speak, as your holiness reported, lament that they lapsed in ignorance, we declare that mercy should not be denied to them, with this condition: if henceforth they strive to conduct themselves continently, they should continue as long as they live in that office which they held when they were caught, without any advancement in rank. But those who lean on the excuse of an illicit privilege by asserting that this was conceded to them in the old law(Latin), let them know that they have been expelled by the authority of the apostolic see from every ecclesiastical office, which they used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the mysteries which ought to be venerated, of which they deprived themselves when they were obsessed with obscene desires. And because present examples forewarn us to be vigilant in the future, any bishop, priest, and deacon henceforth found in this situation--which we hope will not happen--should understand right now that every avenue of forgiveness from us for himself is blocked, because it is necessary that wounds which do not respond to the medication of a soothing compress should be excised with a knife.
We learned, furthermore (MS), that men of unexamined life, who even had many wives, boldly and freely aspire just as they please to the aforementioned ranks. We place blame for this not so much on those who reach for these things with immoderate ambition as on the metropolitan bishops specifically, who, when they close their eyes to forbidden strivings, disdain as far as is possible the precepts of our God. Let us be silent about what we suspect more deeply; but what of that which our God constituted in the law given through Moses, saying, "Let my priests marry once (Latin)," and in another place, "Let a priest take a virgin as a wife, not a widow, not a divorced woman, not a prostitute"? Guided by this the Apostle, a persecutor turned preacher, commanded that both a priest and a deacon should be made "the husband of one wife." All of these things are thus despised by the bishops of your regions, as if they were decreed more in the opposite sense. And because we should not ignore presumptions of this sort, lest the just voice of an indignant Lord reproach us when he says, "You saw a thief and you ran with him, and you cast your lot with adulterers," what henceforth should be followed by all churches, what should be avoided, we decree by general pronouncement.
Whoever, therefore, vows himself to the services of the Church from his infancy ought to be baptized before the years of puberty and attached to the ministry of readers. From the beginning of adolescence up to thirty years of age he ought to be an acolyte and subdeacon, if he lives properly, content with only one wife whom he received as a virgin with a public benediction by a priest. Subsequently he should advance to the grade of deacon, if first, with continence leading the way, he proves himself worthy. If he performs this ministry laudably for more than five years he should attain the priesthood. From there, after a decade, he is able to reach the episcopal office, provided that during these times the integrity of his life and faith was demonstrated.
But he who, having been called to the conversion of a better way of life already advanced in years, is in a hurry to move from the laity to the sacred militia, will not otherwise obtain the fruit of his desire unless when baptized he is attached at once to the rank of readers or exorcists, if, that is, it is clear that he had or has one wife and that he received her as a virgin. Two years after his initiation having elapsed, he can be made an acolyte and subdeacon for five more, and thus can be advanced to the diaconate, if during these times he was judged worthy. Then subsequently, with the passage of time, if election of the clergy and people designates him, he justly can obtain the priesthood and the episcopate.
Any cleric indeed who marries a widow or a second wife should thereupon be stripped of all privilege of ecclesiastical rank, with communion as only a layman conceded to him, which he can then have provided that he does nothing henceforth for which he should lose it.
We certainly do not allow women in the houses of clerics, other than those alone whom the synod of Nicaea (Latin), for reasons only of necessity, permitted to live with them.
We also desire and wish that monks who are commended by depth of character and a holy pattern of life and faith be added to the ranks of clerics in this way. Those under thirty years of age should be promoted in minor orders over time through the individual ranks and thus reach the honors of the diaconate and the priesthood with the dedication of maturity. They should not ascend in a jump to the height of the episcopate, but only after having served the same periods of time which we established above for the individual ranks.
It is proper also for us to ensure that just as it is not conceded to any member of the clergy to do penance, thus after repentance and reconciliation it is not permitted to any layman to attain the honor of clerical office. For although they have been cleansed of the contamination of all sins, nevertheless those who formerly were vessels of iniquities ought not to take up any of the instruments of the sacraments.
And because for all these things which come under censure the singular excuse of ignorance is pleaded, for the moment, out of consideration of piety alone, it is necessary that we indulgently make allowances for it. Any penitent, any twice married man, any husband of a widow who improperly and unsuitably slipped into the sacred militia should understand that pardon has been bestowed on them by us with this condition, that it should be counted as a great benefit if, having removed from himself all hope of promotion, he remains with perpetual steadfastness in that order where he is. Hereafter the bishops of all provinces will know that if they believe that anyone of this sort should in the future be taken into sacred orders, an appropriate judgment is to be given by the apostolic see concerning both their own status and that of those whom they promoted contrary to the canons and to our prohibitions.
We explicated, I believe, dearest brother, all the things which were set forth as being at issue, and we provided adequate replies, in my opinion, to the individual cases which you referred to the Roman Church, just as to the head of your body, through our son the priest Bassianus. Now we encourage your fraternal spirit to observe the canons and to hold firm to the established decretals steadfastly, so that you make known to all our fellow bishops, and not only those situated in your region, what we wrote back in response to your questions. But these things which were set forth by us in salubrious fashion should even be sent by escort of your letter to all the Carthaginians, Baeticians, Lusitanians, and Gallicians (Latin), and those who border you in neighboring provinces on either side. And although there is freedom for no priest of the Lord to be ignorant of the statutes (statuta) of the apostolic see and the venerable definitions and decisions of the canons (canones), it can, nevertheless, be helpful, and because of the antiquity of your see, beloved, exceedingly glorious for you, if those things of a general sort which were written to you by name are brought to the attention of all our brothers through your cooperative solicitude, so that the things which were salubriously established by us, not haphazardly, but prudently, with very great care and deliberation, might remain inviolate, and that in the future access to all excuses should be blocked, which according to us cannot be available now to anyone. Issued on February 11, in the consulship of those most distinguished men Arcadius and Bauto.
English Text (with a few changes) from Robert Somerville and Bruce Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) 36-39 Return to A Short History of Canon Law Return to Rise of Papacy TRS 220 Return to Medieval Papacy Manuscript of Siricius' Decretal