Consilium de emendanda ecclesia (1537), Part I

I’ve seen this work referenced in a number of scholarly sources I’ve used for my studies of late Medieval conciliarism, but I only recently was able to find it. Funny thing is, I wasn’t even looking for it specifically when I opened a book on non-Protestant catholic reform efforts from the end of the fifteenth century on. Quite a pleasant unexpected discovery! All portions of the document which I cite in this entry are from John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (New York, Evanston, and London: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969), pp. 186-197.

A brief bit of background: The Consilium de emendanda ecclesia was written in 1537, three years after Paul III took the papal throne. Although Paul had the typical papal monarchist attitude that nothing could be done about reforming the Church without the express approval of the Roman bishop and that anything which might detract from the glory of the Roman See was immediately suspect, he nevertheless was a far better pope than his four or five most recent predecessors (who were for the most part corrupt Renaissance princes and not godly pastors of the Church). Under Paul’s leadership, important reforms long clamored for but long put off by the papacy at last began to be seriously addressed.

The Consilium de emendanda ecclesia begins with a typical late Medieval rhetorical prequel downplaying the virtues of its authors and lavishing praise upon its intended recipient (in this case, the pope). It then moves straight to the matter at hand, reminding the pope that he himself had

acknowledged that the origin of these evils was due to the fact that some popes, your predecessors, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “having itching ears heaped up to themselves teachers according to their own lusts,” [2 Tim. 4:3] not that they might learn from them what they should do, but that they might find through the application and cleverness of these teachers a justification for what it pleased them to do. (pg. 186)

The source of so many of the ills in the Church, says the Consilium, is the papal monarchist position’s distorted emphasis upon the mere fiat will of the pope, especially with regard to the many intertwined issues orbiting the heresy of simony. Simony, named for the behavior of Simon Magus in Acts 8, was the sin of attaching spiritual gifts and privileges to the payment of money. It should be understood that stamping out simony had been the major issue of the reformation of the 11th century, and that the problems related to simony had been thought by the reformers then to be dire attacks upon the Christian Gospel.

In what we should surely see as a poignant irony, as the centuries passed and the papal monarchy system created by the 11th century reformers entrenched itself in the West, manifestations of simony–this time emanating from the papacy itself and its various agents–became more and more frequently detected by new generations of reformers (see this example), and as the corruption that often progressively enshrouds long-standing institutions enshrouded the papacy, simony in its various incarnations became the focal point of reformist literature and of growing anger at the papacy and its policies. Students of the Protestant Reformation particularly need to appreciate the terrible battles over simony that occurred throughout the fifteenth century and all the way up to the Council of Trent, for they were very much related to why the Reformation happened, and in fact, lay right at the root of the doctrines and practices of the papacy which Luther so vehemently attacked.

The Consilium then states for the record that the pope has commissioned its authors to compile a record of all the abuses so that he may be better informed as to how to begin correcting them. Showing the subtlety of the structure of Christendom at that time, the document distinguishes between Paul III’s roles as (1) “prince of those provinces which are under ecclesiastical rule”, i.e., mainly the Papal States, (2) “Pope of the universal Church”, and (3) “Bishop of Rome”. The problems with simony are surely in view in the first category, and possibly also the second, but the Consilium pledges itself to focus only “on those matters which pertain to the office of universal Pontiff and to some extent on those which have to do with the Bishop of Rome.” (pg. 187)

It is likely that the reticence to discuss the pope’s personal political domains stems from the fact that throughout the fifteenth century many opponents of the papacy chose to go directly for that issue, a sort of “jugular vein” of the papacy. Cut off the pope’s political power, and he would become totally beholden to other political forces in both the Church and the State–an eventuality which obviously no pope was going to take lying down. It is thus likely that the authors of the Consilium, being moderate and not extremist reformers, wished to very carefully avoid giving radical offense to a pope whose sympathetic ear they had. Pressing recklessly and deeply into the very vitals of the papal monarchy system had, after all, been one of the major causes of the downfall of the Council of Basel almost a century before, and that had certainly helped the papal monarchy’s recovery from the recently-healed Schism and reascension to the troublesome position of fiat dominance. If reform was to be had, the pope had to cooperate substantially, and to obtain his cooperation required a very large amount of political and rhetorical finesse.

The influence of centuries of developing conciliarism is strikingly seen in the Consilium‘s next remark:

This point, we believed, most Holy Father, must be established before everything else, as Aristotle says in the Politics, that in this ecclesiastical government of the Church of Christ just as in every body politic this rule must be held supreme, that as far as possible the laws be observed, nor do we think that it is licit for us to dispense from these laws save for a pressing and necessary reason. For no more dangerous custom can be introduced in any commonwealth than this failure to observe the laws, which our ancestors wished to be sacred and whose authority they called venerable and divine. (pg. 188)

By invoking Aristotle’s political views, the authors here implicitly invoke a complicated matrix of thought and action that had occupied the previous eight centuries: namely, discussions about the nature, meaning, and limitations of “law”, “order”, “jurisdiction”, “reform”, and many related concepts. Particularly, the concern for obeying the established laws as far as it was reasonably possible invokes the principles of Hincmar of Rheims (8th century), Gratian’s Decretum (12th century), the debates of the two subsequent groups of canon lawyers known as the Decretists and Decretalists (12th-14th centuries), the political theories of Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and the principles of the conciliarists Pierre d’Ailly, Jean Gerson, and Nicholas of Cusa (15th century). As well, the provision for departing from the established laws in emergency situations echoes Aquinas’ remark that laws on the books can never be so adequately formulated that they can a priori cover all conceivable situations, and a canon of Pope Gregory IX (13th century) which said that “Whatever is not licit by the letter of the law becomes licit in times of emergency.”

This backdrop to the Consilium‘s “simple” remark about the necessity for reform to be carried out in a lawful manner shows us that the society-shaking confrontations that were going on even as the document was written can by no means be reduced to mere black-or-white controversies over mere “doctrines” (propositional statements of theology). On the contrary, civilization itself was at stake in the 16th century troubles, and civilization is not a thing that can be reduced to “timeless” black squiggles on paper.

The above-noted backdrop also reminds us that it is implausible and unfair to portray the 16th century conflicts as being waged between people who “loved clear biblical truth” and people who “clung to traditions instead.” On the contrary, the conflicts of the 16th century in so many ways flow out of the previous four hundred years, which shaped everyone on all sides–sometimes in ways that they themselves did not understand or take adequately into account. The conflicts of the 16th century involve far more realistic figures and far more nuanced issues on all sides than the cardboard cut-outs which too often characterize Protesting Catholic-Roman Catholic debates today.

Sounding another note of previous frustrated reform attempts (see here, here, and here for examples), the Consilium then observes that the pope

takes care of the Church of Christ with the help of a great many servants throught whom he exercises this responsibility…if this government is to proceed properly, care must be taken that these servants are qualified for the office which they must discharge.

The first abuse in this respect is the ordination of clerics and especially of priests, in which no care is taken, no diligence employed, so that indiscriminately the most unskilled, men of the vilest stock and of evil morals, adolescents, are admitted to Holy Orders and to the priesthood, to the [indelible] mark, we stress, which above all denotes Christ. From this has come numerous scandals and a contempt for the ecclesiastical order, and reverence for the divine worship has not only been diminished but has almost by now been destroyed. (pg. 188)

The Consilium recommends that this gross abuse be corrected by the establishment in every diocese of “two or three prelates, learned and upright men, to preside over the ordination of clerics.” Each bishop should have at his disposal a teacher “to instruct clerics in minor orders both in letters and in morals, as the laws prescribe” (ibid.). This certainly reminds us of the trajectory of Wessel Gansfort’s thinking about reform as it pertained to the issue of ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and evil ministers in the Church. Given that Gansfort was a significant influence on Luther, and probably on other Reformers too, it is clear that there were some very significant overlaps between what we, in our sadly jaded age of institutionalized division, now call “the Catholic Reformation” as over against “the Protestant Reformation.”

The next issue which the Consilium takes up strikes directly at one of the prime culprits of Luther’s attack in the Ninety-Five Theses: the issue of ecclesiastical benefices and the black cesspool of corruption which had come to be attached to them because of the notorious collapsing of the old “Two Powers” notion of Christendom brought on by centuries of inordinate “feudalization” of the Church.

[Go To Part II]

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