During the early history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States all of the dioceses were part of one ecclesiastical province under the Archbishop of Baltimore. This being the case, governance of the American church was carried out by provincial councils held in Baltimore. As the church grew and was divided into multiple provinces, it became necessary for a national (or plenary) council of the bishops of the United States to meet to foster common discipline.
The fathers of the Seventh Provincial Council of Baltimore requested the Holy See to sanction the holding of a plenary council. The petition was granted and the pope appointed Archbishop Francis Kenrick of Baltimore as Apostolic Delegate to convene and preside over the council.
The First Plenary Council of Baltimore was solemnly opened on May 9, 1852. Its sessions were attended by six archbishops and thirty-five suffragan bishops. The Bishop of Monterey, California, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, was also present, although his diocese, lately separated from Mexico, had not yet been incorporated with any American province. Another prelate in attendance was Armand de Charbonnel, the Bishop of Toronto, Canada. The religious orders and congregations were represented by the Mitred Abbot of St. Mary of La Trappe and by the superiors of the Augustinians, Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits, Redemptorists, Vincentians, and Sulpicians. The last solemn session was held on the 20th of May.
In sending the pope's approval of these decrees, the prefect of the Propaganda congregation exhorted the bishops to add the feasts of the Circumcision of Our Lord and the Immaculate Conception B.V.M. to the festivals already observed. He added that although some diversity as to fasts and feasts is found in the American dioceses, still it is not desirable to lessen the number in those places where they are in accord with the discipline of the universal Church, because fewer feasts are observed in other American dioceses.
The bishops are not to labour for conformity among the dioceses in customs that are foreign to the discipline of the universal Church, for thus the appearance of a national Church would be introduced. The cardinal-prefect added that the Holy See tolerated relaxations of the common law of the Church for grave reasons, but such derogations were not to be confirmed and extended, but rather every effort was to be made to bring about the observance of the universal discipline. As to the method of adult baptism, the Holy See extended the dispensations to use the short formula for another five years.
A letter from Cardinal-Prefect [James] Franzoni, added to the acts of the council, treats of the question of how the bishops are to be supported by their dioceses. It likewise insists that priests ordained titulo missionis are not to enter religious orders without the consent of their ordinaries, as they are required to make oaths that they will serve perpetually in the diocese for which they were ordained.
In the acts of this council is found a statement of the Bishop of Monterey concerning the California Missions. He informed the Fathers that a large sum of money had formerly been placed in the hands of the Mexican Government to be used under the sanction of Spanish law for the support of the Californian missionaries. For years they had received none of this money and the late revolutions made any hope of reparation unlikely. However, as it is reported that the civil power in California intends to demand this money from the Mexican treasury for public purposes, he desired to know what effort the American bishops thought it desirable to make in the premises. The outcome of the whole discussion was the sending of a letter on the subject to the Archbishop of Mexico. The money was later recovered and employed for the Church in California.
The Second Plenary Council was presided over by Archbishop Spalding of Baltimore as Delegate Apostolic. It was opened on the 7th of October and closed on 21 October 1866. The acts note that, at the last solemn session, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, was among the auditors. The decrees of this council were signed by seven archbishops, thirty-nine bishops or their procurators, and two abbots. The decrees are divided into fourteen titles and subdivided into chapters. They were approved by Pope Pius IX.
Title i, Concerning the Orthodox Faith and Present Errors, declares the Catholic doctrine
Title ii, Concerning the Hierarchy and the Government of the Church, treats (cap. i) of the Roman pontiff; (ii) of the hierarchy teaching and ruling; (iii) of provincial councils, which ought to be held every three years; (iv) of diocesan synods, in which the bishop alone is legislator and judge. This chapter also treats of quarterly conferences for the discussion of theological questions by the clergy. (v) The officials of the bishop are considered in this chapter.
Besides the diocesan consultors and the vicar-general, the bishop should appoint vicars forane or rural deans who are to preside at clerical conferences, to watch over ecclesiastical property, to counsel the junior clergy and report annually to the bishop on the state of their districts. Other officials mentioned are the secretary, chancellor, notary, and procurator for temporal affairs. Synodal examiners and judges for the criminal cases of clerics are also to be constituted. The latter, by delegation of the bishops, hold courts of the first instance and they should follow a judicial method closely approximating that prescribed by the Council of Trent.
Title iii, Concerning Ecclesiastical Persons, is divided into seven chapters. (cap. i) Of metropolitans. (ii) Of bishops; they are to make a visitation of their dioceses frequently; they should provide support for aged and infirm priests; before death they should appoint an administrator sede vacante for their dioceses. If this has not been done, the metropolitan is to make the appointment, or if it be a question of the metropolitan church itself, then the senior suffragan bishop constitutes an administrator until the Holy See can provide.
The administrator cannot make innovations in the administration of the diocese. (iii) Of the election of bishops. A method for episcopal nominations to American sees is given, as also the requisite qualifications for candidates. (iv) Of priests exercising the sacred ministry. When several priests serve a church, one only must be designated as pastor. Priests should often preach to their people; they must not marry or baptize the faithful of other dioceses.
Although our missions are not canonical parishes, yet it is the desire of the bishops to conform as much as possible to the discipline of the universal church in this matter. In cities containing more than one church, accurate limits for their districts should be assigned. When in these decrees the terms "parish" or "parochial rights" are used, the bishops have no intention of thereby indicating that the rector of a church is irremovable. No priest should be appointed to a parish unless he has made an examination before the bishop and two priests, and has been five years in the diocese.
This does not apply to regulars. (v) Of preaching. While explaining the Church's doctrine, preachers should also treat fully of points denied by heretics or unbelievers. Their style, however, is not to be controversial but explanatory.
In their method they should follow the Roman Catechism and make a careful study of the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Let them accommodate themselves to the capacity of their auditors. In reprehending vices, let them never become personal; neither should they be influenced in their preaching by human motives but declare the truth fearlessly.
They are not to mingle political and civil matters with religious doctrines in their sermons or attack public magistrates. While the custom of delivering funeral orations is to be retained, yet care must be taken not to bestow undue praise. In all sermons let prolixity be avoided. (vi) Of clerical life and manners. Clerics are to avoid a dress and personal appearance not becoming their station. They should abstain from all improper spectacles and games. Let them avoid having recourse to civil tribunals when possible. They must not engage in trade forbidden by the canons. Let them not be importunate in speaking of money matters to their flocks. The custom of priests taking money on deposit, for which 'interest is to be paid, is condemned.
Let bishops as well as priests observe the prescriptions of the Council of Trent concerning their households. All clerics should avoid idleness as a pest. (vii) Of ecclesiastical seminaries. The erection of preparatory as well as greater seminaries is recommended. Theology and philosophy, Scripture and Hebrew are to be taught in the latter. No student is to pass from one seminary to another without testimonial letters. In those dioceses where Germans are found who cannot speak English, it is expedient that the seminarians learn enough German to hear confessions.
Title iv, Of Ecclesiastical Property.-The decrees of the first seven councils of Baltimore concerning the abuses of lay trustees and of the best method of securing church property by civil sanction are repeated and re-enacted. As to lay trustees, they must not be members of secret societies nor men who have not fulfilled the paschal duty. They cannot expend a sum of money above three hundred dollars without written consent of the bishop.
The pastor, not the trustees, appoints organist, singers, sacristan, school-teachers, and others employed about the parish. When difference of opinion exists between pastor and trustees, all must abide by the decision of the bishop. All misunderstanding between the ordinary and regulars concerning temporal affairs will be averted if, at the founding of a new house, a document be drawn up expressing clearly all that relates to the foundation itself, to the rights thence flowing and to the duties connected with it.
Title v, Of the Sacraments.-(i) The Roman Ritual and the Baltimore "Ceremonial" are to be followed. Pastors should keep registers of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals. All of these, except the last, should be written in Latin. (ii) Of baptism. It must always be conferred in the church except in case of imminent death.
Whether for infants or adults, all rites omitted at baptism must be afterwards supplied. As a rule converts are to be baptized; but care must be taken to inquire if they had been previously validly baptized, lest the sacrament be repeated. The same is to be said of those baptized in danger of death by laymen.
Churching after child-birth, which has been generally neglected in this country, is to be insisted upon. (iii) Of confirmation. Sponsors of the same sex as the recipient are to be employed. (iv) Of the Holy Eucharist. Frequent Communion is to be encouraged. Children should as a rule be admitted to First Communion between ten and fourteen years of age. (v) Of penance. (vi) Of indulgences. Preachers must be careful not to recommend doubtful or fictitious indulgences. Let them propose such as the faithful can gain most frequently, easily, and with greatest fruit. (vii) Of extreme unction.
Olive oil is required for this sacrament. The Fathers commend the proposition of the Bishop of Savannah to establish a community of Trappists on lands near St. Augustine, Florida who would supply genuine olive oil, wine, and beeswax candles for the use of the churches. (viii) Of Holy orders. Clerics cannot be ordained without a canonical title. By Apostolic dispensation, our priests have thus far been ordained titulo missionis for the most part. The Holy See is to be petitioned for a continuation of this privilege. (ix) Of Matrimony. Rules are laid down for determining doubts concerning the probable death of soldiers in the late civil war. Mixed marriages are to be discouraged. (x) Of the sacramentals.
Title vi, Of Divine Worship.-(i) Of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Priests are never to leave the altar to collect alms from the faithful. Our quasi-parish-priests are not obliged to apply their Mass for their flock on festival days. (ii) Of Benediction and the Forty Hours' Exposition. The latter is to be performed according to the manner sanctioned by the Holy See for the Diocese of Baltimore. (iii) Of Vespers. The rudiments of the Gregorian chant should be taught in the parish schools.
Title vii, Of Promoting Uniformity of Discipline.- (i) Of fasts and feasts. Those now in use in each province are to be retained. The Patronal Feast of the Immaculate Conception is, however, to be celebrated in every diocese as of obligation. (ii) Of uniformity in other matters. Bishops should endeavour to use a uniform method of acting in granting matrimonial dispensations. Catholics may be buried with sacred rites in non-Catholic cemeteries if they possess a lot in them, provided it was not acquired in contempt of church law. The poor must be buried gratuitously. Entrance money should not be collected at churches. Orphans are to be cared for. Faculties for blessing cemeteries and church bells may be delegated to priests.
Title viii, Of Regulars and Nuns.-(i) When a religious community has accepted a diocesan work, strictly so called, it should not relinquish it without giving the bishop notice six months beforehand. A clear distinction is to be made as to what property belongs to a religious community and what to the diocese. (ii) Nuns are not to make solemn vows until ten years after the taking of simple vows. Bishops are not to permit religious women to travel around soliciting alms.
Title ix, Of the Education of Youth.-(i) Of parish schools. Teachers belonging to religious congregations should be employed when possible in our schools. The latter should be erected in every parish. For children who attend the public schools, catechism classes should be instituted in the churches. (ii) Industrial schools or reformatories should be founded, especially in large cities. (iii) A desire is expressed to have a Catholic university in the United States.
Title x, Of Procuring the Salvation of Souls.-(i) Of zeal for souls. (ii) Missions in parishes are to be encouraged; missionaries must not, however, interfere in the administration of the parish. (iii) Various confraternities and sodalities are named and recommended and regulations are given for their institution. (iv) Priests, both secular and regular, are exhorted to endeavour to further the conversion of the negroes in our midst.
Title xi, Of Books and Newspapers.-(i) Parents should guard their children against bad books. The bishops desire that textbooks in Catholic schools and colleges should be purged of everything contrary to faith. (ii) Of the dissemination of good books. (iii) Prayer books should not be published until officially revised. (iv) Newspapers are frequently injurious to good morals. When a Catholic newspaper has a bishop's approbation, this means only that he judges that nothing will be published against faith or morals in its pages. He does not make himself responsible, however, for all that the paper contains.
Title xii, Of Secret Societies.-The Freemasons were long ago condemned by the Church. The Odd Fellows and Sons of Temperance are also forbidden societies. In general, the faithful may not enter any society which, having designs against Church or State, binds its members by an oath of secrecy.
Title xiii, Concerning the Creation of New Bishoprics.
Title xiv, Of the Execution of the Conciliar Decrees.- A number of important instructions and decrees of the Holy See are appended to the Acts of this council.
The Third Plenary Council was presided over by the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore. Its decrees were signed by fourteen archbishops, sixty-one bishops or their representatives, six abbots, and one general of a religious congregation. The first solemn session was held 9 November, and the last 7 December 1884. Its decrees are divided into twelve titles, approved by Pope Leo XIII.
Preliminary Title. All the decrees of the Second Plenary Council remain in force except such as are abrogated or changed by the present council.
Title ii, Of Ecclesiastical Persons.-(i) Of bishops. When a see becomes vacant, the archbishop will call together the consultors and irremovable rectors of the diocese and they shall choose three names which are to be forwarded to Rome and to the other bishops of the province. The latter shall meet together and discuss the candidates. If they wish, they may reject all the names proposed by the clergy and substitute others, but they must give their reasons for this action when sending their recommendation to Rome. (ii) Of diocesan consultors. They should be six or at least four in number.
If this be impossible, however, two will suffice. The bishop chooses the consultors, half at his own option, the other half after nomination by the clergy. The bishop should ask the advice of his consultors as to holding and promulgating a diocesan synod; dividing parishes; committing a parish to religious; constituting a committee for diocesan seminaries; choosing new consultors or examiners non-synodically; concerning transactions about church-property where the sum involved exceeds five thousand dollars; exacting new episcopal taxes beyond the limits designated by the canons.
Consultors hold office for three years and they may not be removed except for grave reasons. They are to vote collectively. When the episcopal see is vacant, the administrator must ask their counsel in all the above-mentioned cases. (iii) Of examiners of the diocesan clergy. They are to be six in number. Their duties are principally to examine the junior clergy, and the candidates for irremovable rectorships.
(iv) Of deans and vicars forane. The institution of these district officials is recommended to the bishops. It is advisable to bestow on them some faculties beyond what other rectors have and some honorary pre-eminence. (v) Of irremovable rectors. Parishes to have such rectors must have a proper church, a school for boys and girls, and revenues sufficiently stable for the support of the priest, church, and school.
In all dioceses every tenth rector should be irremovable if the requisite conditions are obtainable. The candidate for such rectorship must have been in the ministry ten years and shown himself a satisfactory administrator in spirituals and temporals. He must also make a prescribed examination (concursus). An irremovable rector cannot be removed from his office except for a canonical cause and according to the mode of procedure contained in the Instruction "Cum Magnopere".
(vi) Of the concursus. The examination for irremovable rectorships must take place before the bishop or vicar-general and three examiners. Candidates must reply to questions in dogmatic and moral theology, liturgy, and canon law. They are also to give a specimen of catechetical exposition and of preaching. The qualities of the candidates are also to be weighed in forming a judgment. The bishop is to give the vacant rectorship only to a candidate who has received the approving votes of the examiners.
(vii) Of the diocesan clergy. 1. Priests ordained for a diocese are bound by oath to remain in it. 2. Alien priests bringing satisfactory testimonials from former bishops may be incardinated in a diocese only after a probation of three or five years, and formal adscription by the ordinary. We may note that this council speaks of presumptive incardination also, but by a later Roman decree (20 July 1898) that form of adscription is abrogated. 3. Infirm priests should be cared for. 4. Unworthy priests have no just claims to support, yet if they wish to amend, a house governed by regulars should be provided for them. (viii) Of clerical life and manners.
Priests should make a spiritual retreat once every year, or at least every two years. They are exhorted to give themselves to solid reading and study. They are to avoid conduct that can afford even the least suspicion of evil. They are not to bring an action against another cleric before a civil tribunal about temporal matters without written permission of the bishop. As to ecclesiastical affairs, they are to remember that judgment pertains only to the church authorities. (ix) Of regulars. The provisions of the papal constitution Romanos Pontifices are extended to the United States. This constitution treats of the exemption of regulars from episcopal jurisdiction; of what concerns their ministry in a diocese; and of their temporal possessions.
All controversies on these subjects are to be referred to the prefect of the Propaganda. Bishops are to recur to him also in matters concerning institutes of simple vows that are not diocesan but have their own superior-general. Diocesan Institutes, even having a rule approved by the Holy See, are entirely subject to the jurisdiction of the ordinary. Bishops are to see that the laws of enclosure (clausura) are observed. Regulations are laid down for the ordinary and extraordinary confessors of nuns. Those who belong to religious brotherhoods, whose members are forbidden to aspire to the priesthood, may not, after leaving such congregation, be ordained for any diocese without a dispensation from Rome.
Title iii, Of Divine Worship.-(i) Of celebrating Mass twice on the same day. (ii) Of uniformity in feasts and fasts. In future in all dioceses of this country there are to be the following six feasts of obligation and no others: The Immaculate Conception, Christmas, Circumcision of Our Lord (New Year's Day), Ascension, Assumption, and All Saints' Day. No new dispositions are made as to fast days. (iii) Of the Lord's Day. The faithful are to be exhorted to observe it properly. (iv) Of sacred music. Profane melodies are forbidden. The music should accord with the sacredness of time and place. Psalms are not to be curtailed at Vespers. The Mass must not be interrupted by the length of the choir-singing.
Title iv, Of the Sacraments.-(i) Of the baptism of converts. The ritual prescribed for their reception into the Church is to be observed. (ii) Of matrimony. Catholics who marry before a sectarian minister are excommunicated. Mixed marriages are not to be contracted unless promises are given that the Catholic party is in no danger of perversion, and will strive to convert the non-Catholic party. Also that all the children born of the union are to be brought up Catholics. No dispensation from these promises can be given.
Title v, Of the Education of Clerics.-(i) Preparatory seminaries should be instituted. The pupils should be taught Christian Doctrine, English, and at least one other language according to the necessities of the diocese. They must learn to speak and write Latin. Greek is also to be taught. The usual branches of profane learning, not omitting the natural sciences, as well as music and the Gregorian chant are to be part of the curriculum.
(ii) Of the greater seminaries. Judgment must be exercised in admitting aspirants to the priesthood and they must be zealously formed to virtue and learning. Two years are to be devoted to a philosophical and four to a theological course. The faculty of theology is to embrace dogmatic and moral theology, Biblical exegesis, church history, canon law, liturgy and sacred eloquence. Great care must he taken in the selection of spiritual directors and professors for the students.
Examinations are to be held semi-annually or annually in the presence of the bishop or vicar-general and the examiners of the clergy. Students are to be warned to spend their vacations in a manner becoming the clerical profession. The temporal and spiritual administration of the seminary belongs principally to the bishop; he is to be aided by two commissions, one for spirituals and one for temporals.
(iii) Of the principal seminary or university. The Fathers consider the times ripe for creating a Catholic university, and for this purpose they appoint a commission. The university is to be entirely under the management of the episcopate. The bishops should, however, continue to send some of their subjects to Rome, Louvain, and Innsbruck, as the new university is intended for postgraduate theological studies. (iv) Of the examinations of the junior clergy. For five years after ordination, priests must make an annual examination in Scripture, dogmatic and moral theology, canon law, church history, and liturgy.
(v) Of theological conferences. All priests having cure of souls must attend ecclesiastical meetings for the discussion of questions of doctrine and discipline. These conferences are to be held four times a year in urban and twice a year in rural districts.
Title vi, Of the Education of Catholic Youth, treats of (i) Catholic schools, especially parochial, viz., of their absolute necessity and the obligation of pastors to establish them. Parents must send their children to such schools unless the bishop should judge the reason for sending them elsewhere to be sufficient. Ways and means are also considered for making the parochial schools more efficient. It is desirable that these schools be free. (ii) Every effort must be made to have suitable schools of higher education for Catholic youth.
Title vii, Of Christian Doctrine.-(i) Of the office of preaching. (ii) A commission is appointed to prepare a catechism for general use. When published it is to be obligatory. (iii) Of prayer books. (iv) Of books and newspapers. While objectionable writings are to be condemned, Catholics should oppose them also by orthodox newspapers and books.
Title viii, Of Zeal for Souls.-(i) Immigrants should be instructed by priests of their own language. (ii) A commission is appointed to aid the missions among Indians and Negroes. (iii) Censures against secret societies are to be made known to the faithful. If Rome has not condemned a particular society by name, it will belong only to a commission consisting of the archbishops of the country to decide whether it falls under the laws of forbidden organizations or not. If they cannot agree, the matter is to be referred to Rome. On the other hand, Catholic societies, especially those of temperance, are to be encouraged.
Title ix, Of Church Property.-(i) The Church's right to hold property. (ii) The bishop is the guardian and supreme administrator of all diocesan property. (iii) Priests are diligently to guard parochial property under the direction of the bishop. If they do not request their salary at the proper time, they are supposed to have renounced their right to it.
(iv) In choosing lay trustees only those members of the congregation have a voice, who, being twenty-one years of age, have fulfilled the paschal precept, have paid for a seat in the church during the past year, have sent their children to Catholic schools and belong to no prohibited society. The pastor is ex officio president of the board of trustees.
(v) In all churches some seats must be set aside for the poor. Abuses incident to picnics, excursions, and fairs are to be guarded against. Balls are not to be given for religious purposes. It is a detestable abuse to refuse the sacraments to those who will not contribute to collections. Bishops are to determine the stipend proper for ecclesiastical ministries. Foreign priests or religious cannot solicit alms in a diocese without the consent of the ordinary.
Title x, Of Ecclesiastical Trials.-(i) Every diocese is to have an episcopal tribunal. (ii) Its officials for disciplinary cases are to be a judge, fiscal procurator or diocesan attorney, attorney for the accused, and a chancellor. To those may be added an auditor, a notary, and apparitors. For matrimonial cases the officials are to be an auditor, Defender of the Bond, and a notary. The interested parties may also employ advocates. (iii) In criminal causes, the bishop, according as the law and case demand, may proceed either extrajudicially or judicially. This chapter describes the method to be employed in both instances.
Title xi, Of Ecclesiastical Sepulture.-Cemeteries should be properly cared for.
Title xii. The decrees of this council are binding as soon as they are promulgated by the Delegate Apostolic. At the request of the Fathers, the Holy See permitted the celebration in the United States of the feasts of St. Philip of Jesus, St. Turibius, and St. Francis Solano. It also granted to the bishops, under certain conditions, the power of alienating church goods without previously referring each case to Rome. The Fathers of this council signed the postulation for the introduction of the cause of beatification of Isaac Jogues and René Goupil, Jesuit martyrs, and of Catherine Tegakwitha, an Iroquois virgin. This Third Plenary Council exhibits the actual canon law of the Church in the United States.
Title iv established two excommunications latae sententiae that were applicable only to Catholics within the United States. The first (n. 124) applied to American Catholics who, after obtaining a civil divorce, attempted remarriage. This excommunication was lifted (retroactively) in 1977 by Pope Paul VI at the request of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The second excommunication (n. 127) applied to American Catholics who married (or attempted marriage) before a non-Catholic minister. This excommunication was later complemented by canon 2319 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which in turn was modified in 1953 to subsume the U.S.-only excommunication. The excommunication of canon 2319 was subsequently lifted (retroactively) by Pope Paul VI in the 1970 motu proprio Matrimonia Mixta.