The Operation Was A Success, But the Patient Died

Joseph Gill, S.J., a “high” papalist who is, accordingly, not always quite fair in his criticisms of the Conciliar Movement, offers this excellent summary of what went wrong at the Council of Basel as it increasingly sought to curtail the activities of the papacy rather than working for reform of the Church:

If the Fathers, in respect of the annates, the indulgence, and the multifarious curial functions that they had arrogated to themselves, had shown some spirit of Christian peace and sweet reasonableness instead of an implacable hostility, and had applied their reforming spirit to themselves as well as to the papal Curia, they would not have frightened the princes and the more pacific of the ecclesiastics with the spectre of a new schism in the Church. This for the non-fanatically minded of those days was the worst evil that could be imagined, especially after the all too recent experience. The fanaticism of the Fathers and their fear that the old papacy would revive made them determined, once they had, as they thought, reduced it to submission, to keep it subordinate, and they spent time which should have been devoted to more general problems of the Church on their feud against the Pope, with the result that, as Eugenius himself and many a prince declared to them, little was enacted for the reform of the Church. A consequence was that the cardinals and others drifted back piecemeal to the papal court and that the princes lost some of their sympathy for the council, which by 1436 was entering on the sixth year of its existence.:”(Gill, Eugenius IV: Pope of Christian Union [Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1961], pp. 84-85)”:

Fanatical popes had caused the Schism that the Council of Constance had only recently healed, but unfortunately, the heirs of Constance, though appealing to its moderate principles to support their anti-papal actions, surrendered to their own form of fanaticism. Consequently, the Conciliar Movement lost many valuable supporters, and the restoration of the old-style absolute Papal Monarchy, in which the pope was the totally unaccountable vicar of God on earth, became virtually inevitable.

Less than 70 years later, the Reformation began. It seems that fanaticism is not necessarily the best weapon to fight fanaticism. Sometimes, as seems to be the case with the later phases of the Council of Basel, it might be a cure worse than the disease. Interestingly, even Pope Eugenius (no true friend of conciliarism!) accused the “rump council” at Basel of twisting Constance’s decrees to support radicalism.:”(Ibid., pp. 140-141.)”: Radicals fighting radicals. Maybe “it takes one to know one,” but still, one has to feel sorrow over a successful operation (Constance-style conciliarism in the 15th century) which concludes with the death of the patient (Christendom in the 16th century).

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