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Moments in Time Magna Carta: Heresy!

By Gary Macy

One of the most venerable and foundational documents of English common law, the legal tradition that underlies most of United States law, is the Magna Carta. The barons of England under the leadership of Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury and former Parisian theologian forced (bad) King John (of Robin Hood fame) to sign the famous charter in the early 13th century. This much of the history of the document is well-known. What is not often mentioned is that the Magna Carta was almost immediately condemned by Pope Innocent III in no uncertain terms: “On behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and by the authority of Ss. Peter and Paul his apostles, and by our own authority, acting on the general advice of our brethren, we utterly reject and condemn this settlement [the Magna Carta] and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it and that the barons and their associates should not require it to be observed: The charter, with all undertakings and guarantees whether confirming it or resulting from it, we declare it to be null and void of all validity forever. Wherefore, let no man deem it lawful to infringe this document of our annulment and prohibition or presume to oppose it. If anyone presume to do so, let him know that he will incur the anger of Almighty God and of Ss. Peter and Paul His apostles.”

That seems to cover it. By the way, you won’t find this pretty definitive papal statement in Denzinger.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000