[Update, 4/13/05: A commenter in the box below this post, pensans, pointed out some very helpful clarifications / qualifications on my points about benefices. I had hoped to rewrite my post to take into account what he said, but I do not have the time to do so. Readers who are interested in a fuller picture of benefices than what I present in the very rough sketch below should read pensans' comments.]
After the issue of ignorant and evil priests, the Consilium takes up the issue of the horrible abuses surrounding benefices:
Another abuse of the greatest consequence is the bestowing of ecclesiastical benefices, especially parishes and above all bishoprics, in the matter of which the practice has become entrenched that provision is made for the person on whom the benefices are bestowed, but not for the flock and Church of Christ. (Ibid., pg. 188)
A rough sketch of benefices may be helpful here. A benefice is a benefit specifically designed to meet the biblical notation of the need for temporal support of bishops and other clerics while they carry out their spiritual duties (cf. Matt. 10:10, 1 Tim. 5:18, 2 Tim. 2:4). In Medieval times, because of the prevailing idea of “Gelasian dualism”, namely that the spiritual and temporal Powers of Christendom were distinct entities not allowed to mesh their characteristics, the growth of the Church and its acquisition over time of significant temporal goods and properties required the development of a theory to account for these temporal benefits and the limitations of their use in spiritual contexts.
This theory became known as dominium (a difficult word to translate into English, but roughly “ownership / dominion”). It was expressly derived from the convergence of Latin thought forms with the authority language of the Bible in its Latin translation (i.e., Dominus=Lord, dominationes=masters, dominum=owner–and the necessary characteristic of the power of these offices, dominium=ownership). Originally the concept of dominium meant simply “right of ownership”, but as the Middle Ages wore on and the dominant strain of ecclesiology, papalism, subordinated everything to an explicitly “hierocratic” viewpoint, dominium mutated into a theory which supported the operative confusion of the Two Powers.
Specifically, with the boosts given to the hierocratic position by such worthies as Giles of Rome and Thomas Aquinas, the authority of the pope over benefices was progressively made nearly absolute. Particularly, the theory which described the pope’s power in terms of plenitudo potestatis (“fullness of power”) collapsed in daily practice the distinction between the Two Powers and afforded to the pope mastery over not merely the spiritual Power, but over the temporal Power as well. In time, following this trajectory, the pope as the ultimate reference point of the spiritual Power became the master of benefices in the temporal Power.
As the papal office became entangled in the affairs of temporal politics, particularly throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the popes came to depend upon benefices for their very temporal survival and that of their “ecclesiastical domains.” This led to abusive behaviors such as popes filling benefices with their own creatures (nepotism), transferring benefices at will merely for financial gain (simony), leaving benefices empty for long periods of time so as to draw the monies accruing to them directly to the papal treasury (reservation), making benefices able to be “regained” by the one who originally gave them, and selling multiple benefices (plurality) to clerics so distant they rarely if ever exercised the spiritual functions which the benefices had been designed to support.
Obviously, the laws of the Church did not support, but rather condemned, such practices. But in papal hierocraticism at its worst, as we see in the final decades of the fifteenth and first few decades of the sixteenth, the ancient legal maxim princeps legibus solutus (“the prince is free from the laws”) became radicalized to the point where no one was allowed to say to the pope “Cur ita facis?” (“Why have you done this?”). To even ask the question was to presume the impossible ability to judge the very vicar of God himself, who could in theological and legal actuality be accountable to no one but God. Fortunately, a contrary scheme of theology and law had been under formation for quite some time, making it possible for abuses to be dealt with in the here and now and by other authorities outside of the abusive ones.
In terms of the abusive system of authority, cloaked as it was in the hoary mantle of “Apostolic Tradition”, these abuses, particularly the charge of simony, again reminds us not to forget the terrible irony of the papal system created in the eleventh century to destroy simony being itself charged with simony four and a half centuries later. In fact, nearly a century before the outbreak (with Luther) of the Protesting Catholic reform movement, a Spanish theologian had written a work called “A Mass for Simony” to Pope Martin V (the pope elected by the Council of Constance), in which he said: “the fumes of simony have ascended to heaven: and divine justice is so provoked that if the self-same Pope [Martin V] does not put into place a remedy for this, let him know that he himself ought to be beaten with great blows and in a short time he will fall.”
The impending fall of the papacy because of its simoniacal (and thus heretical on the terms of Medieval theological debate) character became the focal point of nearly every anti-papalist polemic for the rest of the fifteenth century, and reforming forces became increasingly frustrated with what they perceived as papal intransigence to very reasonable, very biblical, and very tradition-concerned reform proposals. Thus, the authors of the Consilium merely re-echo much of what had already been said before by such conservative reforming forces:
…care must be taken that payments can be reserved for no other reason and with no other justification than for alms which ought to be given for pious uses and for the needy. For income is joined to the benefice as the body to the soul. By its very nature then it belongs to him who holds the benefice so that he can live from it respectably according to his station and can at the same time support the expenses for divine worship and for the upkeep of the church and other religious buildings, and so that he may expend what remains for pious uses. (Ibid., pg. 189)
The Consilium recommends that the pope do all in his power to eliminate these egregious abuses as quickly as possible, noting the biblical examples of hypocritical leadership and men who try to serve two masters:
…For how can this Holy See set straight and correct the abuses of others, if abuses are tolerated in its own principal members?…the life of these men [cardinals and bishops] ought to be a law for others, nor should they imitate the Pharisees who speak and do not act, but Christ our Savior who began to act and afterwards to teach…We believe that this can easily be done, if we wish to abandon the servitude to Mammon and serve only Christ. (Ibid., pg. 191)
The next set of issues taken up by the Consilium pertain to church government.