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In Cœna Domini

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A papal Bull, so called from the feast on which it was annually published in Rome, viz, the feast of the Lord's Supper, or Maundy Thursday. The ceremony took place in the loggia of St. Peter's in the presence of the pope, the College of Cardinals, and the Roman Court. The Bull was read first in Latin by an auditor of the Sacred Roman Rota, and then in Italian by a cardinal-deacon. When the reading was over the pope flung a lighted waxen torch into the piazza beneath. The Bull contained a collection of censures of excommunication against the perpetrators of various offences, absolution from which was reserved to the pope. The custom of periodical publication of censures is an old one. The tenth canon of the Council of York (1195) orders all priests to publish censures of excommunication against perjurers with bell and lighted candle thrice in the year. The Council of London (1200) commands the yearly publication of excommunication against sorcerers, perjurers, incendiaries, thieves, and those guilty of rape. The first list of censures of the "Bulla Cœnæ" appeared in the fourteenth century, and was added to and modified as time went on, until its final revision under Urban VIII in the year 1627, after which it remained practically unchanged till its formal abrogation in the last century. Under Urban V (1363) the list contained seven cases; under Gregory XI (1372) nine; under Martin V (1420) ten; under Julius II (1511) twelve: under Paul III (1536) seventeen; under Gregory XIII (1577) twenty, and under the same pontiff in the year 1583 twenty-one; under Paul V (1606 and 1619) twenty; and the same number in the final shape given to it by Urban VIII. The main heads of the offences struck with excommunication in the Bull are as follows:

There was a clause in the older editions of the Bull, ordering all patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops to see to its regular publication in their spheres of jurisdiction, but this was not carried out, as we learn from a letter of Pius V to the King of Naples. The efforts of this pope to bring about its solemn publication in every part of the Church were foiled by the opposition of the reigning powers. Philip II, in the year 1582, expelled the papal nuncio from his kingdom for attempting to publish the Bull. Its publication was forbidden in France and Portugal. Rudolf II (1576-1612) likewise opposed it. In spite of the opposition of princes it was known to the faithful through diocesan rituals, provincial chapters of monks, and the promulgation of jubilees. Confessors were often ordered to have a copy of it in their possession; St. Charles Borromeo had a copy of it posted up in every confessional in his diocese. In Rome its solemn publication took place year after year, on Holy Thursday, until 1770, when it was omitted by Clement XIV and never again resumed.

A widespread and growing opposition to papal prerogatives in the eighteenth century, the works of Febronius and Pereira, favouring the omnipotence of the State, eventually resulted in a general attack on the Bull. A very few of its provisions were rooted in the old medieval relations between Church and State, when the pope could effectually champion the cause of the oppressed, and by his spiritual power remedy evils, with which temporal rulers were powerless or unwilling to deal. They had outlived their time. The excommunication of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma, by Clement XIII on 30 January, 1768, proved the signal for a storm of opposition against the Holy Thursday Bull in almost all the European states. Joseph I of Portugal issued an edict on 2 April, 1768, declaring it treason to print, or sell, or distribute, or make any judicial reference to the Bull. Similar edicts followed in the same year from Ferdinand IV of Naples, the Duke of Parma, the Prince of Monaco, the free states of Genoa and Venice, and Maria Teresa, Empress of Austria, to her subjects in Lombardy. Joseph II followed the lead of his mother, and on 14 April, 1781, he, pope-like, informed his subjects that "the power of absolving from the cases reserved in the 'Bulla Cœnæ', which the pope had hitherto given in the so-called quinquennial faculties, was now and henceforth entirely withdrawn". On 4 May of the same year he ordered the Bull to be struck out of the rituals, and no more use to be made of it. In 1769 appeared Le Bret's well-known attack on the Bull in four volumes, under the title "Pragmatische Geschichte der so berufenen Bulle in Coena Domini, und ihrer fürchterlichen Folgen für Staat und Kirche" (Frankfort, 1769). Towards the end of the work he appeals to the humanity, wisdom, and magnanimity of the newly-elected pontiff, Clement XIV, to suppress it. Clement, who already as cardinal had expressed his view as to the necessity of living in peace and harmony with the heads of Christian states, omitted its publication, but did not formally abrogate it. St. Pius V had inserted a clause in it, which stated that it would continue to have the force of law until the Holy See should substitute another in its place. In the quinquennial faculties delivered to bishops the pope continued to grant power to absolve from its cases. This was done so late as 1855 by Pius IX. For these reasons theologians and canonists commonly held that the main provisions of the Bull were still in force. Nevertheless, there was good ground for supposing that the few obnoxious clauses that had outlived their purpose, and in the changed times were no longer applicable to the Christian community, had ceased to have any binding force. The Bull was formally abrogated by Pius IX through the issue of the new Constitution "Apostolicæ Sedis", in which the censures against piracy, against appropriating shipwrecked goods, against supplying infidels with war-material, and against the levying of new tolls and taxes find no place. In the preamble to the Constitution the pope remarks that, with altered times and customs, certain ecclesiastical censures no longer fulfilled their original purpose, and had ceased to be useful or opportune.

In the controversies that arose at the time of the Vatican Council about papal infallibility, the Bull "In Cœna Domini" was dragged to the front, and Janus said of it that if any Bull bears the stamp of an ex cathedra decision it must surely be this one, which was confirmed again and again by so many popes. Hergenröther, afterwards made cardinal at the same time as Newman, had no difficulty in showing in his "Catholic Church and Christian State" the absurdity of this assertion.


LE BRET, op. cit.; HAUSMANN, Geschichte der papstlichen Reservatfälle (Ratisbon, 1868), pp. 89-209 and 357-88; DIENDORFER in Kirchenlex., s.v. Bulla in Cæna Domini; HINSCHIUS, Das Kirchenrecht der Katholiken und Protestanten in Deutschland, V (Berlin. 1895); HERGENRÖTHER, Catholic Church and Christian State (London, 1876).

About this page

APA citation. Prior, J. (1910). In Cœna Domini. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Prior, John. "In Cœna Domini." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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