Let’s look at the next four canons of this summary of the decisions of the council of Hippo in 393, that was prepared for the council of Carthage in 397. Something of this material found its way into the canons of the council of 419, often somewhat revised. Since the NPNF translation exists of these, I have freely made use of it!
5. Ut propter causas ecclesiasticas, quae ad perniciem plebium saepe veterescunt, singulis quibusque annis concilium convocetur, ad quod omnes provinciae quae primas sedes habent de conciliis suis ternos legatos mittant, ut minus invidiosi minusque hospitibus sumptuosi conventus plena possit auctoritas esse. De Tripoli vero, propter inopiam episcoporum, unus episcopus veniat.
That, on account of ecclesiastical disputes, which are often drawn-out, to the ruin of the people, a council shall be called every year, to which all who hold the first sees of the provinces shall send three delegates, from their own (local) councils/synods, so that with less jealousy, and less expense to their hosts, after coming together,** it can be fully authoritative. But from Tripoli, on account of the lack of bishops, let (only) one bishop come.
(Cf. Carthage 419, Canon 18)
“plebs” seems to have the meaning of “the people”, “the local church”.
“plena possit auctoritas esse” seems literally to be “shall be able to be a full authority”. I’m not entirely convinced by what I have here. The same phrase in NPNF: “ut conuentu plena possit esse auctoritas.” is given as “so that when the synod meets it may have full power to act.”
6. Ut quisquis episcoporum accusatur, ad primatem provinciae ipsius causam deferat accusator, nec a communione suspendatur cui crimen intenditur, nisi ad causam suam dicendam, primatis litteris evocatus, minime occurrerit, hoc est intra spatium mensis ex die qua eum litteras accepisse constiterit. Quod si aliquas veras necessitatis causas probaverit, quibus eum occurrere non potuisse manifestum sit, causae suae dicendae intra alterum mensem integram habeat facultatem. Verum, post mensem secundum, tamdiu non communicet, donec purgetur.
That if any of the bishops is accused, the accuser shall refer the case to the primate of his [the bishop’s] own province, nor shall he to whom the crime is attributed be suspended from communion, unless, having been summoned by primatial letters, in order to discuss his case, he does not present himself; that is, within the space of a month from the day on which it is found that he received the letters. But if he shall show some genuine causes of necessity, by which it is clear that he was not able to present himself, he shall have the opportunity of stating his case within another month. However after the second month, then he shall not communicate/take communion until he is acquitted.
(Cf. Carthage 419, Canon 19)
7. Si autem nec ad concilium universale anniversarium occurrere voluerit, ut vel ibi causa eius terminetur, ipse in se damnationis sententiam dixisse judicetur. Tempore sane quo non communicat, nec in sua plebe communicet.
Accusator autem eius, si numquam diebus causae dicendae defuerit, a communione non removeatur; si vero aliquando defuerit, restituto communioni episcopo, ipse removeatur; ita tamen ut nec ipsi adimatur facultas causae peragendae, si se ad diem occurrere non noluisse, sed non potuisse probaverit.
Sane placuit et illud: Ut cum agere coeperit in episcoporum iudicio, si fuerit accusatoris persona culpabilis, ad accusandum vel agendum non admittatur, nisi proprias causas, non tamen si ecclesiasticas, dicere voluerit.
However if he is not willing to come to the annual general council, so that at least there his case may be terminated, it shall be judged that he has pronounced sentence of condemnation on himself. Obviously during the time in which he does not communicate, he shall not communicate in his (own) parish/diocese/congregation.
But his accuser shall not be removed from communion, if he has missed none of the days for pleading the case; but if he has missed some, the bishop shall be restored to communion, and himself shall be removed; so, however, that the opportunity of completing his case is not taken away from him, if he shall prove that he on the day was not unwilling to come, but not able.
Obviously it was agreed also this: that when (the case) begins to be discussed in the judgement of the bishops, if the accuser is not a respectable character, he shall not be allowed to accuse or discuss, unless he is willing to state that the case is his own rather than ecclesiastical.
(Cf. Carthage 419, Canon 19)
In the first sentence, the bishop excommunicated by the general council may not do so in his own “plebe” either. The canons of 419 have “in sua ecclesia vel parrochia” instead, in his diocesan church or parish. It’s interesting to see this evolution of terminology. I’d never seen the Latin for “parish” before! Earlier in the sentence we have “vel”, which the NPNF ignores, but I find Lewis and Short (D2) allow can mean “saltem”, i.e. “at least”.
The middle sentence has an oddity – the two halves are connected only by a “ita”, “so”. The meaning is clear enough, but something looks wrong to me with the Latin. The sense is that absences from the court will be allowed if the accuser can show that he had no choice, rather than just not bothering to turn up.
Accusations against clergy are not new. What perhaps lies behind this, however, is politics, and malicious accusations.
It is a very old political trick to undermine the authority of a religious body by producing and widely publicising lurid accusations. Any church, indeed any caring profession will have clergy who abuse their office. Diocletian deployed this tactic, as a preliminary to the Great Persecution. The same method was used with success in Ireland recently to deprive the Catholic church of its moral authority just before the secularised rulers made a power-grab. The truth or falsity of the accusations matters nothing to those making them – the accusation is just a tool. Nor do they care anything about any victims of genuine wrongdoing, as their complaints later often testify.
In Africa it looks as if malefactors had learned to hire low-grade individuals to make such accusations, and then, by failing to turn up, keep the show going as long as possible. This also is a classic trick. In Evagrius Scholasticus we read of a group of depraved youths, “making accusations against him and themselves”, who were hired to smear the patriarch Macedonius as abusing youths. (Unknown to his accusers, Macedonius was a eunuch and incapable of the crime!) Samuel Pepys was kept in the court system on a charge of Catholic sympathies during the reign of Charles II, by just such delays – his political enemies boasted of how they “had him by the heels” for another term. Indeed I read of one extraordinary case in the US recently where a libel accusation has been strung out for nine years so far. In such cases “the process is the punishment”.
Such things are distasteful, but law by its very nature must deal with such things.
8. Si autem presbyteri vel diaconi fuerint accusati, adjuncto sibi ex vicinis locis legitimo numero collegarum; id est: in presbyteri nomine quinque; et in diaconi, duobus: episcopi ipsorum causam, discutiant, eadem dierum et dilationum et a communione remotionum, et discussione personarum inter accusatores, et (eos) qui accusantur, forma servata. Reliquorum autem causas etiam solus episcopus loci cognoscat, et finiat.
But if presbyters or deacons have been accused, and a legitimate number of colleagues from nearby places have been joined with them – i.e. five for a presbyter, two for a deacon – the bishops shall discuss their case, and the same form, of days, and delays, and removals from communion, and in the discussion of persons, shall be preserved between accusers and those who are accused.
The divisions of the material into canons vary between manuscripts and in the material reused in Carthage in 419. Clearly much of this is all the same problem. Munier in his edition divides yet further, but I have ignored this here.