THE GRAND UNION PROMULGATED
The bull Licet Ecclesiae Catholicae issued by Pope Alexander IV on 9th April 1256 is the most important single document in the history of the Order of Saint Augustine. In that it promulgated the Grand Union of the Augustinian Order, it is just as important to the Order as is the Magna Carta to the history of England or the Declaration of Independence to the history of the U.S.A.
This document established the Order in its modern form, and marks the time of its official birth.
It is also a singular document in the history of Church Law because it established principles for which its authors had no precedent. For the first time, it legitimised the imposition of a certain rule of life upon different religious community groupings, bringing them over from previous rules they had variously been adopting.
It made its changes with some sensitivity, because it recognised the struggle between old and new forms of community life, and also the balancing act of the Roman Curia in clinging to the establishing forms of monasticism without quashing the new vigour evident in the more loosely-structured mendicant movement.
Licet Ecclesiae did not precede the Great Union (the first Augustinian General Chapter) of 1256, but followed it. It is the only official report of the Grand Union that is extant. It gives the reasons why the Pope wanted the Grand Union, and the ways and means that the Grand Union successfully achieved the papal intentions. Most of all, Licet Ecclesiae confirmed the decisions of the Grand Union and gave them the binding force of Church Law.
The Pope’s reasons for desiring the Grand Union form the unusually-lengthy preamble of Licet Ecclesiae. The reasons for issuing such a papal bull are not usually provided within the document. The bull justified the Grand Union as an initiative to eliminate the fear (whose fear?) of “confusion” expressed by the Fourth Lateran Council about the great proliferation of new non-monastic religious groups.
The bull states that the integrity of the body of the Church is not handicapped by the diversity of its members as long as the various parts fit harmoniously into the whole; each part, however, must be easily distinguishable from the others, and must have an orderly arrangement of its own.
It continues by noting that, somewhat contrary to the above ideal, the religious groups bearing the name of Hermits follow substantially the same way of life yet, even so, are called by many different names and wear many different religious habits. The Pope means to provide for the better adornment of Christ’s spouse (i.e., the Church – for whom each Order is like a beautiful garment), as well as for the greater spiritual power of the Hermits themselves.
The original copy of Licet Ecclesiae still exists in the possession of the Augustinian Curia of the Order in Rome. Its parchment is 480 mm by 640 mm in size. The pendant lead bull has been cut off, but its red and yellow silken threads remain attached to the parchment.