Pope and King,  Med. illum. ms

MacCulloch on Conciliarism Post-Conciliarism Strong Popes

Adapted from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

CONCILIARISM. The doctrine that supreme authority in the Church lies with a General Council. The movement associated with this theory culminated in the 15th cent., but the foundations of it were laid in the early years of the 13th, when canonists found difficulty in reconciling the increasing claims of Papal authority with the theoretical possibility of a heretical Pope. Hugh of Pisa (d. 1210), for instance, in his Summa super Decreta taught that a heretical Pope could err, and sought to maintain the inerrancy of the Church by distinguishing between the local Roman Church and the Catholic Church as a whole.

     In the following century, with the further growth of Papal power, the movement gained increasing support and its principles were invoked in the dispute between Philip IV of France and Boniface VIII in an attempt to depose the latter. John of Paris (d. 1306), the most important advocate of the theory at the time, in his treatise De Potestate Regia et Papali (1302) taught that the Pope was the steward of God in matters spiritual and temporal; as such he could be deposed for injustice by those who had elected him, who had themselves acted as representatives of the whole Christian people. Marsiglio of Padua in his Defensor Pacis (1324) maintained the supremacy of the state in all matters, spiritual as well as temporal. William of Ockham, attacking the indefectibility of both Pope and General Council, sought the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise of the inerrancy of the Church in the survival of truth in any part of it, however obscure.

The outbreak of the Great Schism in 1378 raised the question of the supremacy of authority in an acute form. In 1380 Conrad of Gelnhausen in his Epistola Concordiae advocated the summoning of a General Council, arguing that the absence of a single recognized Pope left the duty of convoking it to the cardinals. The success of the Council of Constance in ending the schism to some extent undermined the position of the conciliarists, though the Council in its 4th and 5th sessions had already declared that any Christian, including the Pope, was bound by the decisions of a General Council, which derived its authority directly from God. In 1418 Martin V prepared a prohibition of appeals from the Pope to a future General Council; Pius II, who before becoming Pope had been an exponent of the Conciliar theory, in 1460 promulgated the bull ‘Execrabilis’ formally forbidding such appeals. Although the De Concordantia Catholica of Nicholas of Cusa embodied a balanced scheme for the reform of the Church, the failure of the conciliar theory to win general acceptance after the 15th cent. may be taken as one of the factors at least indirectly leading to the Reformation, and within the RC Church to such movements as Gallicanism. It is of interest that the Second Vatican Council has again emphasized the corporate authority of the episcopate, though not over against the Papacy.


Eng. tr. of various primary docs., with introd., by C. M. D. Crowder, Unity, Heresy and Reform, 1378–1460: The Conciliar Response to the Great Schism (1977). V. Martin, ‘Comment s’est formée la doctrine de la supériorité du Concile sur le Pape’, Rev. S.R. 17 (1937), pp. 121–43, 261–89, 405–27. B. Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, NS 4, 1955). P. de Vooght, Les Pouvoirs du Concile et l’autorité du Pape au Concile de Constance (Unam Sanctam, 56; 1965). A. J. Black, Monarchy and Community: Political Ideas in the Later Conciliar Controversy 1430–1450 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 3rd ser., 2; 1970). G. Alberigo, Chiesa Conciliare: Identità e significato del conciliarismo (Brescia, 1981). H. J. Sieben, Traktate und Theorien zum Konzil von Beginn des Grossen Schismas bis zum Vorabend der Reformation, 1378–1521 (Frankfurter theologische Studien, 30; 1983). W. Brandmüller, Papst und Konzil im Grossen Schisma (1378–1431): Studien und Quellen (1990). A. Landi, Concilio e papato nel Rinascimento (1449–1516) (Turin, 1997). T. Wünsch, Konziliarismus und Polen: Personen, Politik und Programme aus Polen zur Verfassungsfrage der Kirche in der Zeit der mittelalterlichen Reformkonzilien (1998). F. Oakley, The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300–1870 (Oxford, 2003).

MacCulloch on Conciliarism


D.MacCulloch: Reformation,
Europe’s House Divided, Ch. 1.

  Council,  Med. illum. ms

THE challenge to the pillar of papal primacy arose from the widespread belief among senior churchmen that the Western Church’s unity was best served by collective authority rather than the single primacy of the Bishop of Rome. There was never a unified movement expressing this idea and there was indeed a great variety in understanding its implications, but collectively this mood can be labelled conciliarism: the proposition that ultimate authority in the Church should lie in a General Council of its bishops – or perhaps in a Council which was even more widely representative of the clergy. From the thirteenth century theologians had speculated on what should be done if a Pope turned heretic, but the situation at the end of the fourteenth century, with the scandal of rival popes and the challenge from Lollardy and Hussitism, transformed academic debates about authority into urgent reality. There was eventual agreement that the only way to end the schism was to call a Council, and at the dire moment in 1414 where there were not just two but three men calling themselves Pope, one of them, John XXIII, took action in conjunction with the Emperor Sigismund.

THE resulting Council at the city of Konstanz was that which betrayed Jan Hus, but besides that discreditable decision, the Council finally ended four decades of schism when in 1417 it recognized the election of a new Pope acknowledged by all factions, Martin V. In the midst of the prolonged and complex wrangles which produced this result, the Council produced a decree ‘Sacrosancta’ proclaiming itself to hold its authority ‘immediately from Christ; everyone, of every rank and condition, including the Pope himself, is bound to obey it in matters concerning the faith, the abolition of the schism, and the Reformation of the Church of God in its head and its members’.37 There could be no clearer statement that papal primacy was to be put firmly in its place in favour of a general Council, but Konstanz added a further idea in its decree of 1417, ordering that a Council should henceforth meet every ten years: in other words, a Council was to become an essential and permanent component of continued reform and reconstruction in the Church.

HOWEVER, the next few years saw increasing tension between those wishing to develop this conciliar mechanism and successive Popes who wished to build on the papacy’s newly restored integrity. The eighteen-year session of a Council at Basel from 14 31 helped to discredit the conciliar option because, despite much constructive work, it culminated in a fresh schism. In 1460 a former conciliarist sympathizer, now Pope Pius II, formally forbade appeals from a decision of the papacy to a general Council, in a bull (the most solemn form of papal pronouncement, customarily described by their opening phrase) entitled Execrabilis. Seven years before that, Constantinople, last remnant of the Byzantine Empire and mother of eastern Christianity, had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, its Emperor cut down, fighting to the last. For a Pope contemplating this disaster with horror, now was not the time to risk the future of the West by collective leadership that might be divided and uncertain.

PIUS II’s change of heart was understandable: there was much that was incoherent or unresolved in the bundle of ideas which carried the conciliarist label.

Conciliarists never achieved consensus as to how to define the Church or how to account for the authority of a Council.


[1] Was it a representation of all the people of God, in which case its authority rose up or ascended from the whole body of the faithful?

[2] Or was it an assembly of God’s ordained representatives, the clergy, in which case its power descended from God through the Church’s hierarchy?

[3]Who precisely among the clergy were to be represented?


Konstanz had been an assembly of bishops and cardinals; Basel widened its membership so that lower clergy were given delegates as well, even with a voting majority over the bishops. Conciliarists tended to be clergy and were naturally clericalist in their outlook; this was not a movement which viewed lay participation with much sympathy. Moreover, if conciliarists were drastically limiting the pope’s power, how did that affect the centuries-long disputes between the pope and secular rulers? It was unlikely that a major opponent of papal absolutism like the King of France was going to accept a new rival for power in an effective and permanent General Council of the Church, at least not without a good deal of careful explanation from sure-footed theologians that his own power was not affected by the special sacred status of the Council.

YET the problem which conciliarism had originally raised – how to deal with a Pope who cannot lead the Church as God wishes – would not go away. In the end Martin Luther was forced to give the drastic answer that if the Pope turned out to be the Devil masquerading as the Saviour (Antichrist), then one must walk out of the Pope’s false Church and recreate the true body of Christ. Even though in practical and political terms con-ciliarism faced eclipse from the mid-fifteenth century, plenty of leading churchmen and academics (particularly canon lawyers) continued to believe that conciliar action to solve the Church’s problems would be preferable to the rapid rebuilding of centralized papal power that was now taking place. The work of the greatest conciliarists was too fertile to ignore: it raised too many questions about how the faithful acted to fulfil the will of God.

WHEN Jean Gerson (one of the most prominent activists in the Council of Konstanz) struggled to find a way of reconciling conciliarism with the traditional claims of the French monarchy, he developed a view of the Church’s history that became of great importance to Reformation leaders seeking to make the same balance between Church and secular commonwealth against more radical Christian thinkers.

Gerson saw a threefold development in the Church:

[1] a first, primitive heroic era in which it was still unacknowledged and often persecuted by the Roman Empire;

[2] a second period after the Emperor Constantine I had allied with it, when Church leaders had justifiably and responsibly accepted power and wealth;

[3] but then a third era of decay after the time of Gregory VII, when this process had been taken to excess, so that it must now be curbed.

Gerson, like Colet, was an enthusiast for Dionysius the Areopagite, and set the highest standards possible for the clerical order; so he was not seeking to destroy Church structures, simply to recall them to purity. He was also a strong defender of parish clergy against the pretensions of monks and friars, pointing out that there had been no monastic vows in the Church in the time of Christ, Mary and the apostles. The Reformers and the princes who supported them later took note of what he had said.38



Patron of Learning and Rebuilder of Rome

Divider of the World
and Scandalous Nepotist

and Patron of Arts

MEANWHILE, the papacy consolidated its recovery. From 1446 it was once more permanently based in Rome, never again willingly to desert this symbol of its supremacy in the Church. Soon after, in 1460, came a remarkable piece of accidental good fortune for the Pope when large deposits of alum were discovered at Tolfa in the papal territories north-west of Rome: this mineral was highly valuable because of its use in dyes, and before that it could only be imported at great expense from the Middle East. The new source of income (which the Popes were careful to ensure became a monopoly supply of alum in Europe) began benefiting the papacy just when Execrabilis reasserted its central power and it began expressing this power in practical ways, such as a grant made by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 to the Portuguese monarchy of the right to rule in certain regions of Africa. Now that Popes were back in Italy, it was unsurprising that they took a particular interest in Italian politics like the other Italian princes around them, and it was no fault of theirs that suddenly in the 1490s Italy became the cockpit of war and the obsessive concern of the great dynastic powers of Europe. The process was begun by the Valois dynasty of France, when in 1494–5 Charles VIII intervened in the quarrels of Italian princes with a major military invasion; this gained France little but threw the various major states of Italy into chaos, war and misery for more than half a century.

AMID this suddenly unbalanced high politics, it was a natural protective strategy for the papacy, stranded in the middle of the situation, to redouble its self-assertion, a mood which in any case came naturally to the successive Popes Alexander VI (1492–1503) and Julius II (1503–13). Alexander followed the example of Nicholas V with an adjudication in 1493–4 between the claims of the two European powers which were now exploring and making conquests overseas, Portugal and Spain; he divided the map of the world beyond Europe between them, commissioning them to preach the Gospel to the non-Christians whom they encountered, in an action which had all the ambition of the twelfth-century papacy. Likewise, fifteenth-century Popes began trying to restore the architectural splendour of their sadly ramshackle city; display was an essential aspect of power for secular rulers, and surely it was all the more important for Christ’s representative on earth. The most important – and certainly, as we shall see, the most fateful – project was the demolition of the monumental basilica of St Peter, which the Emperor Constantine had built on the reputed site of Peter’s crucifixion, so that it could be replaced with something even more spectacular: this was a particular enthusiasm of Julius II, one of the most discriminating but also one of the most extravagant patrons of art and architecture in the papacy’s history.

YET the two Popes who between them occupied St Peter’s throne for two decades (and who deeply detested each other) had a very selective understanding of what might glorify the papacy. Alexander VI, from the Valencian noble family of Borja (Borgia), shielded his vulnerability as an outsider against his many Italian enemies by ruthlessly exploiting the Church’s most profitable offices to promote his Borja relatives, including his own children by his several mistresses – a scandalous flouting of the clerical celibacy imposed by the twelfth-century Reformation, even if the Pope’s most notorious children Lucrezia and Cesare had not provided extreme examples of aristocratic self-indulgence. Julius II relished being his own general when he plunged into the Italian wars which proliferated after the French invasion, and he was especially proud when in 1506 he recaptured Bologna, second city of the Papal States after Rome and lost to the papacy seventy years before. The contemporary Italian historian Francesco Guicciardini commented with delicate sarcasm that Julius was ‘certainly worthy of great glory, if he had been a secular prince’.39 The Popes’ ludicrously obvious failings in their pretensions as leaders of the universal Church made a mockery of their defeat of the conciliarists, and did nothing to end continuing criticism of papal primacy. That made the papal machine all the more sensitive to any new challenge to its authority, or to any attempt to resurrect language and ideas which had been used against it before, as Luther discovered in the years after 1517.



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