Some Changes In And Influences Of 15th Century Conciliarist Thought

A.J. Black, one of the foremost scholars in recent years on the conciliarism of the Council of Basel, writes that the terms “conciliar movement” and “conciliarism” are misleading “if we take them to imply that developments of ecclesiastical theory and policy between 1378 and 1512–or, if one likes, between the mid-thirteenth century and the Reformation–were strange and new, eccentric to the mainstream of Catholic Christianity, and wholly determined by the needs of the time and a particular Zeitgeist.” Why? “The conciliarists saw themselves as traditionalists, not revolutionaries; and, as with Protestantism, a study of earlier periods in ecclesiastical history gives some credibility to this self-image.”:”(“What Was Conciliarism? Conciliar Theory in Historical Perspective,” in Authority and Power: Studies on Medieval Law and Government Presented to Walter Ullmann on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Brian Tierney and Peter Linehan [Cambridge University Press, 1980], pp. 213-224. These citations are from pg. 213.)”:

Modern scholarship on “conciliarism” has tended to come from two directions: (1) historians interested in the age before the Reformation, and (2) historians interested in the development of secular constitutionalism. The former category in turn has often divided into: (1) those sympathetic to the Reformation who think that the conciliarists were good insofar as they went, but not quite good enough, and (2) Catholics who see the conciliarists as well-meaning, but seriously erroneous, representatives of an era “best forgotten and not likely to be repeated.” Constitutional historians, on the other hand, have done their best to emphasize ideological connections between conciliarist ideas and Modern secular political ones. For this reason most of their work has focused on Marsilius of Padua (1270-1342), William of Ockham (1287-1347), and Nicholas of Cusa (1403-1464), all of whom made significant allowances for the operation of the secular government in Church affairs.:”(Ibid., 214.)”:

A third Modern approach has been taken by Catholics such as Paul de Vooght and Hans Kung, who “see the Council of Constance and its apologists as upholding in a dark time certain central principles of Catholic ecclesiology, which are only now gaining hard-won acceptance among Catholic theologians.”:”(Ibid.)”: Black says that this approach “does less violence to the ideas of the conciliarists” than the other approaches because it is much closer to how the conciliarists thought of themselves. Indeed, as the “movement” progressed, certain connections with earlier Medieval canon law and other features of Medieval life (ideas of “natural right” and “consent,” appeals to “corporation theory,” and so forth) were less and less stressed, and were replaced by full-blown theological calls for a return to Scripture and the patristic tradition.:”(Ibid., 215-217.)”:

The older Catholic polemical notion that conciliar ideas were largely due to the radical and heretical innovations of Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham was destroyed by Tierney’s demonstration of conciliar reliance upon a much older tradition of canon law which was quite in tune with accepted, orthodox Catholic doctrine.:”(Foundations of Conciliar Theory: The Contribution of the Medieval Canonists From Gratian to the Great Schism [Cambridge University Press, 1955.)”: Likewise, it is coming to be recognized that viewing the conciliarists largely as precursors to Modern constitutionalism is to reduce their program unacceptably, and so to distort it.:”(Ibid., 214.)”:

This leads Black to his thesis about conciliar theory as a whole: it was neither juristic nor political nor revolutionary ideology, but rather, firstly and foremostly a theology of the Church. From Jean Gerson at Constance to Juan de Segovia at Basle, one theme that resounds is that “the canonists have misunderstood the structure of ecclesiastical authority by introducing notions derived from secular, Roman law; we hear the call to return to scrpiture and patristic tradition.” Segovia’s arguments from Scripture focus on the “norm of the gospel,” which is “fraternal decision-making, with ‘authority’ meaning ‘service.’”:”(Ibid., 217.)”: The conciliarist notion that final power belongs to the whole body, not just to its de jure head (the pope), is derived not mainly from canon law and corporation theory. Rather, it comes from Scripture:

St Paul’s analogy between the Christian community and the human body (1 Cor. 12.12-14, 18-21; Eph. 4.12, 16; Col. 2.9),” as well as from “the bestowal of power upon all the apostles together (Matt. 18.18; John 20.23); upon the dominical precept to ‘tell the community (dic ecclesie)’ if a brother errs persistently (Matt. 18.15-20); and…on St. Paul’s statements that teachers, pastors, prophets and others, as well as the apostles, make up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12.28; Eph. 4.11), from which it is deduced that theologians and other clergy may have a share, beside the bishops, in conciliar decision-making.:”(Ibid., 216-217.)”:

In other words, “as the conciliar movement went on, it gained an intellectual, and we may say a moral and spiritual, momentum of its own. This both separated it from the Marsilian-secularist heritage, and made it independent of canonist doctrine…This momentum further separated the ideal interests of the conciliar reformers from the territorial interests of the major secular powers.”:”(Ibid., 217.)”:

The spiritual and moral momentum of the conciliar movement is best seen, Black believes, in the proceedings of the Council of Basel (1431-1445). Called by one of its leading lights, Juan de Segovia, “the great constitutional invention of the day,” the Council of Basel completed the move away from the “electoral-parliamentary” notion of General Councils that had been held by Ockham and Marsilius but challenged by Gerson and others at the earlier Council of Constance.

At Basel, ecclesiastical sovereignty was sought in the episcopate-in-council, and the arguments advanced for this were, as noted above, primarily from Scripture and the Church Fathers. Basel’s big problem, however, was that it could only justify its claim to represent the Church “by appeal to hazy ‘realist’ concepts of the body assembled as a whole, its potency activated, its matter given form, by the council.”:”(Ibid., 220.)”: This deficiency, combined with the insurmountable ideological differences between the Council leaders and Pope Eugene IV and the lack of interest of the major European powers in supporting a “democratic” Council whose precedent might be used to undermine their own monarchical claims, contributed heavily to Basel’s failure.

It is the last trouble, the resistance of the secular powers to Basel’s authority scheme, which define Basel’s contribution to the Protestant reformation. Black notes that it was the movement of the princes away from Basel’s claims to universal representation that strengthened the already existing trend toward “ecclesiastical regionalism”–a trend so strong that by 1450 even the papacy had to acknowledge it to no small degree. Regionalism combined with the increasingly evident fact that reform of the Church could not proceed from within the entrenched power structures contributed significant theoretical and practical impulses to the Reformation some seventy years later.:”(Ibid.)”:

Most interestingly, despite the fact that conciliar theory more or less ceased to develop after Basel’s failure, “it nevertheless left a distinct imprint on subsequent Catholic ecclesiology” in the form of the doctrine that a General Council had the right, from Christ Himself, to depose a heretical or schismatical pope. It was not just the remaining conciliarists who held this, either–papalists of no less stature than Torquemada, Biel, Cajetan, More, Suarez, and Bellarmine did as well.:”(Ibid., 220-221.)”:

Concluding his article with a discussion of the political influences of conciliarism downstream, Black observes that the conciliarists “affirmed the principle of ‘conciliarity’, itself as old as the Christian Church, at a time when the juridical theory of papal absolutism was at its zenith.” In so doing, the conciliarists reaffirmed “ecclesial values and organisational principles which flourished in the early and patristic Church, but which had been partially eclipsed by the combined juridicisation (by the canonists) and mystification (by theologians such as Bonaventure and Aquinas) of ecclesiology.”:”(Ibid., 223.)”:

Appealing to such texts as Matthew 20:25-28, Luke 22:26-27, and 1 Peter 5:3, the conciliarists “began to see the Church less as a juridical and more as a caritative structure.” For the Basel conciliarists especially, the “authority” of the Church existed within the moral authority of brotherly charity, not external and rigid juridical principles. At the same time, they were not naive about the need for visible organizational structures–they had no naive ideas about a “merely spiritual communion of souls.” Ecclesiastical authority for them existed “collegially” (similar to Vatican II’s discussions of the subject) and refused to separate the “power of jurisdiction” from the “power of order” as absolute monarchical papalists did.:”(Ibid.)”:

Black concludes with this provocative remark: “Looking beyond the confines of this particular period in European history, we may say that the conciliarists were right in asserting that the principle of absolute monarchy was incompatible with the gospel. But they also had this advantage over Protestantism, that their ecclesiology embodied and made room for the postulate of ecclesiastical unity.”:”(Ibid., 224.)”:

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