FOLLOW UP to “Of Leo XIII, Caruso, and Chess”

From a reader reacted to THIS post…

I see from your recent post that you are a denier of the Fifth Lateran Council. You resist its Canons on the playing of chess and association with actors.

After 800 years, we are still working to implement the decrees of the Fifth Lateran Council. Do you deny that is a legitimate ecumenical council??? No? Well, then its decrees most be obeyed!!!

I hope the Holy See takes further action to root out other resisters of the spirit of the Fifth Lateran Council. Basta!!!

Oh, to be so lambasted.  Oh, to be so misunderstood!

“Basta!!!”, you cry, in defense of the Spirit of the Fifth Lateran Council.

“Basta!!!”, I respond, for I did not write anything about the Fifth Lateran Council of 1517, but rather the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

You were only off by 300 years!

I see in your response a spirit of discontinuity and rupture, perhaps inspired by … Protestant leanings?   After all… 5th Lateran… 1517…. Luther and his Theses.  There are those who think that if Lateran V had done its work better, there might have been a new springtime in the Church and the Protestant Revolt would not have taken place.

Back to Lateran FOUR.

I do not resist the Canons of Council, nor its authentic spirit, that is the spirit of its canons as they are written, not necessarily as reported and wrongly interpreted.  For example, I think that Can. 16 of L4 errs in that Chess is not a game of chance.  Perpend…

16. Clerics should not practice callings or business of a secular nature, especially those that are dishonorable. They should not watch mimes, entertainers and actors. Let them avoid taverns altogether, unless by chance they are obliged by necessity on a journey. They should not play at games of chance or of dice, nor be present at such games. [Ad aleas vel taxillos non ludant nec huiusmodi ludis intersint.] They should have a suitable crown and tonsure, and let them diligently apply themselves to the divine services and other good pursuits. Their outer garments should be closed and neither too short nor too long. Let them not indulge in red or green cloths, long sleeves or shoes with embroidery or pointed toes,…

I do NOT wear shoes with pointed toes.   I detest mimes, as one does.  Nature and age have provided my tonsure.  I don’t loiter in taverns and I don’t indulge in red or green cloths or long sleeves.

Well, I do do that, I guess.  But I do NOT wear pointed shoes.

A taxillus is a small die.  An alea is also a die, as in Caesar’s phrase, “Alea iacta esto!” (Suetonius, Caes. 32).   The ancients had tesserae – sixed sidedand tali – rounded on two sides but only marked on four.   There is a fascinating description how they played at dice in Lewis & Short under the voice alea.  I digress.

Chess is not a game of chance.  That canon was clearly penned by someone who had not made the effort to get to know clerical chess players.   I’m not going to make that mistake.  Chess playing priests could wind up being the most marginalized group in the Church if this canon is poorly implemented.  All so unfair.

Since you have decided to challenge me on the Spirit of Lateran V… let’s suppose you meant Lateran IV… let’s see another Canon of that venerable Ecumenical Council.  So you think that the canons of these past Councils must be obeyed?

9. De diversis ritibus in eadem fide

Quoniam in plerisque partibus intra eandem civitatem atque dioecesim permixti sunt populi diversarum linguarum habentes sub una fide varios ritus et mores districte præcipimus ut pontifices huiusmodi civitatum sive dioecesum provideant viros idoneos qui secundum diversitates rituum et linguarum divina officia illis celebrent et ecclesiastica sacramenta ministrent instruendo eos verbo pariter et exemplo.

Concerning diverse rites in the same faith

Since in many places peoples of different languages live mixed together, having one faith but different rites and customs, we strictly order bishops of such cities and dioceses to provide suitable men who will do the following in the various rites and languages : celebrate the divine services for them, administer the church’s sacraments, and instruct them by word and example.

Hmmmm…. provide priests for those who want different rites.

No.  This can’t be authentic.  It doesn’t have an vituperative phrases and how they “cause division”… blah blah blah.

And I remind the readership that Vatican II – a real, authentic Ecumenical Council – did not issue any canons.  It was “pastoral” Council, whatever that is.

If there are any clerics out there who play chess, drop me a line – HERE – with the noticeable subject line: I’M A CLERIC AND I PLAY CHESS!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. ThePapalCount says:

    LOL Simply brilliant. Loved this piece.

  2. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I am not sure whom “actors” (histrionibus) would describe in 1215, but I wonder if all those splendid sung Latin ‘ludi’ – of St. Nicholas, St.Daniel, and St. Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘Ordo Virtutum’, and so on – would fall under the “other good pursuits” to which clerics should also “diligently apply themselves”?

  3. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Tantum Ergo,

    What a fascinating and often – especially in some of its earlier entries – tnatlaizing list!

    Browsing a couple readily accessible chess histories off- and online, I find Yuri Averbakh referring to the survival of four chess pieces belonging to St. Genadio, Bishop of Astorga, and reporting that “It is well known that, as founder of the monastery, he often played chess with the monks.” He also notes 8 surviving pieces from those given to the monastery of Celanova in 938, two years after St. Rosendo had founded it. He further reports the defence of chess in a Latin poem in the late 10th-c. Einsiedeln Manuscript. He has an interesting discussion of Jacobus de Cessolis adapting John of Salisbury’s Policraticus in a sermon using chess instead of the body to show how, “In life, as on the chessboard, each piece has its own rights, but also its own obligations.” Going to look for him and his sermons in the Internet Archive, I encountered, among many interesting-looking things, a scan of Caxton’s English translation as The Game of the Chesse!

    I have not had much success, so far, in finding text or translation of St. Peter Damian’s letter to Pope Alexander II and Archdeacon Hildebrand of his troubles with his travelling companion, the Bishop of Florence, but Jacob Silbermann and Wolgang Unzicker’s account gives the impression that the Bishop was playing chess as a gambling game. They also note two Spanish wills from 1010 and 1058 respectively leaving valuable chess pieces to the Church. [If you find St. Peter Damian’s letter, please let me know.]

    James F. Magee, in his 1910 edition of Good Companion (Bonus Socius): XIIIth century manuscript of chess problems (handsomely scanned in the Internet Archive), clearly notes its origin in a context of gambling.

    I have found a couple scans of H.J. Murray’s massive 1913 History of Chess there, too, but have not tackled it, yet.

  4. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Proofread before posting!: tantalizing!

  5. Tantum Ergo says:

    I simply can’t imagine a TLM cleric using the cold algebraic notation.
    Which better expresses the beauty of the game, The Chess Novus Ordo “G1-F3” (Brrrrr!)
    or “N-KB3” (Knight to King’s Bishop 3) Chess Usus Antiquior (Hmmm..)

    I have a wonderful collection of older Chess books in descriptive notation, and I’m just sad that Chess has devolved into computer format and the chilliness of algebraic notation.
    Baaah! Humbug!

  6. Tantum: I know. I am still trying to make the change in my head. I learned with the descriptive, but everything today is algebraic.

    However, algebraic has been around for a while. I have a 50’s vintage Soviet era tournament chess set with letters and numbers. The clock, btw, is a hoot: a bakelite monster which was featured in the recent video series The Queen’s Gambit (and its from a book – HERE).


    Those pieces… well.. okay.  Very Russian.  I am partial to Staunton.  Although… how I wish I could put this set on my wishlist!  HERE  The knights are awesome.

    That chess series has caused, so I’ve read, a massive discovery of chess by young people.

    My clock has a few dings, but it is fully functional.

    And speaking of Bill Wall and his list of prohibitions of chess through history, I have a couple of his books of rapid games. HERE

    As far as this board is concerned, I didn’t even remember that I had it until I opened a box with old games and chess items.  It is soon going to be unhinged and either shellacked, which I hope will be field upon which my opponents will be the same.

    I have some new hinges coming and a couple of decorative latches, which it lacks.  I may line the inside with fabric, felt or maybe thin carpet to keep the pieces from lunging about when moved.  I found with it an unweighted set of pieces (without spare queens – heck we have enough of them in the Church right now anyway).  Some evening perhaps I’ll load them up with shot and glue.

    I would not use this board, even refurbished, with those exquisite pieces I linked.  Nosiree.

    I might have to make a table.

  7. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    To my shame, I am more the plodding ‘decoder’ than fluent Latinist, but… it looks like I may be on the trail of something relevant in the works of St. Peter Damian in Patrologia Latina 145, Opuscula XX ‘Apologeticus de Dismissum Episcopatum’, Caput VII, column 454, as, in the paragraph beginning two lines before B, I see “alearum insuper furiae, vel sccachorum” with various references following to “ludo […] sccachorum” (one line after C), “aliud sccachorum esse, aliud aleam” (four lines after D), “sccachos” one line, and “Sccachum” two lines further, and “de sccacho” in the second line of the following pargraph. (I arrived at a clear Google books scan of PL 145 via the Weblink to the German Wikipedia article, “Patrologia Latina”, re. “Digitalisate”.)

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