January 29, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Debate over the powers of councils

John F. Fink(Twenty-third in a series of columns)

When the Council of Constance ended the Great Western Schism, as I wrote about last week, it solved one problem, but it intensified another—conciliarism. In 1460, Pope Pius II condemned conciliarism.

Conciliarism was the belief that a general council of the Church possessed greater authority than the pope, and thus could depose him. That’s what the Council of Pisa tried to do when it attempted to solve the problem of two competing papal claimants, and it’s what the Council of Constance did when it finally solved the problem of three men claiming to be the pope in 1417.

That was the high point of the conciliar movement, but it was not its beginning. The idea began in the 12th and 13th centuries when scholars, especially at the University of Paris, were trying to systematize the powers of the papacy. John of Paris argued that the pope was the steward of God in both spiritual and temporal matters, but that those who elected him could also remove him.

In its full or advanced form, conciliarism stated that the entire Christian community was responsible for preventing errors of faith and no one person, even the pope, should be allowed to make decisions regarding the doctrines of the Church.

When the Council of Constance solved the Western Schism, it also passed what were called the five articles. The first two of these affirmed that a general council possessed its authority directly from God and that every Christian, even the pope, was bound to obey it in all that pertains to faith; and that all, even the pope, who refused to obey any legitimate council was subject to ecclesiastical and civil penalties.

It also required future popes to call general councils at regular intervals. Pope Martin V, who was elected at the Council of Constance, dutifully called a council to be held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1431. He died, though, before the council could meet, and was succeeded by Pope Eugene IV.

He dissolved the council, but the council members refused to disperse and tried to depose Pope Eugene, electing the antipope Felix V. Pope Eugene ignored the actions of the dissolved council, and reconvened it first in Ferrara and then in Florence. That council is noted for its attempt at reunion with the Orthodox Churches, but it also affirmed the primacy of the pope against the claims of the conciliarists.

After that, the conciliar movement lost its steam. It became obvious that there was a danger to religious unity in the method of governing the Church by means of frequent general councils. Finally, Pope Pius II published the bull “Exsecrabilis” on Jan. 18, 1460, condemning all appeals from the pope to a general council.

The First Vatican Council (1869-70) further condemned the idea of conciliarism. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) taught the collegial nature of bishops, but stressed that collegiality was in no way superior to the authority of the pope.

The Code of Canon Law published in 1983 makes punishable by censure any attempt to appeal an act or declaration by the pope to a general council. †

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