Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464)

Nicolaus Cusanus was born in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1401, in the German city of Kues, to a “middle-class” boatman and vineyard owner. As a young man Nicholas was influenced by the “Modern Piety” (<em>devotio moderna</em>), a reform movement that had begun in the late fourteenth century and spread throughout Germany and parts of France and Italy. Stressing such things as the “simple” Christian life which it thought had been lost after an ancient “Golden Age” of the primitive Church (<em>ecclesia primitiva</em>), the importance of not merely relying upon external aids to salvation (such as the Church and her sacramental system) but of focusing more on an “interior” spiritual life, a conviction that the mysteries of Christianity were available not merely to intellectuals but to common people as well, and intense emotions regarding the suffering of Christ and one’s relationship with him, the <em>devotio moderna</em> had significant connections to the outlook of St. Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas a Kempis, and was a major impulse in the founding of the influential Brethren of the Common Life.

From the age of 16, Nicholas studied at the University of Heidelberg, and took his doctorate in canon law (<em>doctor decretorum</em>) in 1423. Subsequently he studied philosophy and theology at the University of Cologne. These studies amply prepared him for the great work he was destined to perform in the service of Christ’s Church, still at that time mired in the destructive results of the Western Schism. The Schism, which had consumed the resources and strength of European Christianity for four decades had only recently been nominally healed by the actions of the Council of Constance (1414-1418). However, even as Nicholas of Cusa was completing his education a renewed and furious battle between two major visions of ecclesiastical government, papalism and conciliarism, was shaping up. This battle had been in the makings for centuries. Some of the major principles of debate hearkened back to the ninth century with the disputes of Hincmar of Rheims with Pope Nicholas I, while others had been slowly, almost unwittingly, been hammered out in the centuries-long debates of the Decretists and Decretalists, particularly with their construct of Corporation Theory.

The Council of Constance, led by such catholic-minded luminaries as Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson, had issued two major decrees, <em>Haec Sancta</em> (April 6, 1415) and <em>Frequens</em> (October 9, 1417), both of which significantly limited the power of the Papal Monarchy–heretofore nearly illimitable and, as the Schism had showed, a very serious danger to the peace and stability of Christendom. Although Constance had healed the Schism, it had failed, for various reasons, to implement its other major purpose: that of reforming the Church “in head and members” (<em>in capite et membris</em>). This failure had been capitalized upon by a succession of popes, starting with the one elected by Constance itself, Martin V (r. 1417-1431). <em>Frequens</em> had specified that General Councils should be held on a specific timetable (five years after Constance, again seven years after that, and then at an interval of every ten years). Despite their continuing pretensions to be absolute rulers, the popes for the rest of the fifteenth century and into the middle of the sixteenth had thus been under substantial pressure to adhere to <em>Frequens</em>.

Martin V felt this pressure acutely, especially because it cut deeply into the presumed political and ecclesiastical sovereignty of the papacy and created a serious risk of an “outside” power possessing the ability to regulate the feudal-financial affairs of the pope. Included in this package of fedual corruption of the papacy was the increasingly grievous interference of the ecclesiastical judicial system into the business of the civil judicial system–a manifest violation of Gelasian dualism, the central principle (on paper, at least) of the Medieval societal order. As well the issue of the papal “privilege” of dispensing with benefices and indulgences (for purposes of filling the coffers of the Papal States, depleted by the papacy’s rampant interference with the temporal powers of Europe) was at stake. Accordingly, Martin V spent the next fourteen years carefully, but deviously, politicking against conciliarism. Unfortunately for the cause of reforming the Church, he was successful in manipulating affairs so that the papacy remained largely unchallenged until the Council of Basel, which was convened, per <em>Frequens</em>, in July of 1431.

Nicholas of Cusa, who had been elevated in 1430 to the position of chancellor for a local noble, Ulrich von Manderscheid, went to the Council of Basel in February of 1432 for the purpose of defending his lord’s claim on the archbishopric of Trier (one of the seven electorates of the Holy Roman Empire). Shortly after his arrival, he was incorporated into the council’s administrative body, specifically into the Committee on Faith. From this position he would become embroiled in the council’s bitter dispute with Martin V’s successor, Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431-1447) over issues of the council’s authority relative to the pope’s. For Eugene had tried peremptorily to dissolve the Basel assembly and transfer it to an Italian site, partly so that he could more easily attend it himself and partly because representatives of the embattled Greek Church had contacted the West and asked for a more convenient location for a council to discuss reunification of the two bodies, sundered since 1054. But because Basel had already formally organized itself and renewed Frequens, it rejected the papal bull of dissolution when it arrived (two months after Eugenius issued it). In its next session Basel renewed <em>Haec sancta</em>, adding further insult to the pope’s pretensions. In the midst of this controversy, Cusa arrived at Basel. A subcommittee of the Committee on Faith in which he participated in August of 1433 specifically judged Eugenius’s bull of dissolution to be insufficient, and raised the pressure on the papacy, causing Eugenius to formally declare conciliarism a heretical ecclesiology.

A brief respite from the conflict was introduced in October of 1433 when the Emperor Sigismund arrived at the Council and successfully arbitrated the dispute so that Eugenius appeared to give in to the conciliarist program. Though he formally declared the council legitimate from the time of its inception and formally revoked his earlier bulls against it, informally, as is shown by his private letters, he did not recant his position that conciliarism was heresy. At about this time, Nicholas of Cusa wrote his masterpiece <em>De concordantia catholica</em> (<em>The Catholic Concordance</em>), which brilliantly and elaborately argued from the very nature of the universe itself that General Councils are superior to the Roman Pontiff. Echoing d’Ailly and Gerson (along with other earlier conciliarists, including John of Paris and William Durandus the Younger), Cusa agreed that the power of the General Council is directly from Christ, not indirectly through the pope, that in times of emergency the Council may conduct itself without the consent of the pope, and that it may even remove the pope from office for heresy and incompetent governorship.

His theory of conciliarism is everywhere marked by moderation. For instance, he affirms that the papacy is part of the divinely-willed scheme of ecclesiastical government and that it possesses significant power and primacy in its own right and is not merely the creature of the council. The basic theory is “triadic,” meaning it is organized according to “threes.” For instance, Cusa argues that there are nine choirs of angels, nine heavenly spheres above. Below, the world is divided into rational, sensate, and vegetative. Just as man is body, soul, and spirit, so too is the church made up of sacraments, priethood, and the faithful. Nicholas’s whole work aimed at restoring harmony in the <em>societas Christiana</em>. This leads him, through many historical records and canon law, to argue that (1) the See of Peter is the head of the Church because of the “consent of the Church” (<em>consensus ecclesiae</em>), (2) that when the pope wants to make a law he must consult the Church represented in a council, (3) that corporate realities are more important than individual ones, (4) that following from that the “greater and sounder part” (<em>maior et sanior pars</em>) of a council cannot err in its decisions about doctrine, (5) that “positive law” (law on the books) is not absolute, and (6) that a General Council may be distinguished from a pseudo-council (<em>conciliabulum</em>) by means of an intricate theory of “representation.” For Cusa, representation includes a graded hierarchy of presiding officials (<em>praesides</em>) and other representatives (<em>legati</em>) of various groups, including ordinary laymen. This last was an astounding claim at this point in history, so it is noteworthy that Cusa takes steps to deliberately distance himself from the similar-sounding, but more democratically-revolutionary, theory of Marsilius of Padua (1270-1343).

Cusa’s arguments for conciliarism in the Church are, as it turns out, also arguments for the proper ordering of temporal society. Like most theologians of the Middle Ages Nicholas was aware of and tried to uphold the principle mentioned above, governmental dualism in the <em>societas Christiana</em>. This leads him to write, against the pretensions of the papacy for the last two centuries to have the power to control the temporal sphere as well as the spiritual, that the Holy Roman Emperor is in his sphere of government the equivalent of the pope in his sphere of government. In Cusa’s day the construct of “universal empire” generally, speaking, and of the “universal empire of the Romans” particularly, was losing ground to rising forces of nationalism and constitutionalism. Nevertheless, Nicholas argues that the emperor is both the protector of the Church (<em>advocatus ecclesiae</em>) and that even nations of Christendom (such as France and England) which do not recognize imperial authority should submit to the emperor’s administration of conciliar decrees. This is because the emperor is, in the temporal sphere, the “minister of God” and the “vicar of Jesus Christ on earth.” As Nicholas saw it, the <em>societas Christiana</em> was being rent by two forces: excessive centralization in the papacy, and excessive decentralization in the empire. Sadly, his cogent type of thinking about how to reform these matters was not to be followed, and the problems he saw would, by the next century, become excerbated beyond anyone’s ability to fix.

Returning to an earlier theme, Nicholas’s moderation, designed to threat a path through many conflicting claims, is in keeping with the methodology he learned in his training as a canon lawyer. That method, following the father of Medieval canon law, Gratian of Bologna, tried to resolve contradictory texts by harmonizing them into a middle position (<em>medium concordantiae</em>). Cusa’s moderation provides the biggest clue to the dramatic reversal of his loyalty which took place in May of 1437. Although he propounded the theory that conciliar business should proceed through disagreements toward a goal of reconciliation through a “coincidence of opposites,” he found himself unable to continue following the conciliarist program when a more radical faction at Basel took control of the council. This faction, which became the majority, rejected Nicholas’ idea of “divided sovereignty” in which the pope and the Council shared power and added mutually to each other’s credibility. As pressure mounted on the West to meet the Greek representatives for serious talks about reunification, and as Basel came to be virtually controlled by groups which wanted not merely to reform the papacy but to reduce it to a creature of a perpetual series of councils, Nicholas abandoned the assembly and became a champion of Pope Eugenius’s cause. When Eugenius transferred the council to Ferrara in 1437, Cusa and several other moderates left Basel to its own devices and threw their weight into the reforming and reunification efforts in Ferrara. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II (r. 1458-1464), would call Cusa “the Hercules of the Eugenians.” Interestingly, however, Cusa continued over the years to support some of the general ideas behind conciliar theory, especially the principles of the <em>consensus ecclesiae</em> and the ability of the Church to “withdraw” from the pope if he begins to threaten the health of the <em>maior et sanior pars</em>.

The Council of Ferrara soon became the Council of Florence due to a hasty move to protect the assembly from brigands. It’s overly-triumphant reunification decree, <em>Laetentur Coeli</em>, issued in 1439, was almost instantly rejected by the Greek authorities in Constantinople because it conceded too much to that which the Greek Church had so resolutely opposed for centuries: unfettered papal primacy. Four years later, Constantinople was sacked by the Muslim armies, putting an end to a thousand years of Eastern Christian civilization. Nicholas was made a cardinal in 1449 by Eugenius IV’s successor, Pope Nicholas V (r. 1447-1455), and it is perhaps ironic that as a cardinal (and therefore, presumably an unapologetic papalist), he found himself the recipient of a written call for a new General Council, nailed to his door by conciliarists in 1451. In 1450 he became the Bishop of Brixen in Tyrol, which because of the feudalization of the Church at this time brought him into some unfortunate territorial conflicts with the Duke of Tyrol, Sigismund. As late as 1460 he can still be found advocating a “representative” form of government for the Church, putting the lie to simplistic caricatures of the reasons for and implications of his “papalist reversal” two decades earlier.

Other than the <em>De concordantia catholica</em>, Nicholas of Cusa is known for his brilliant work <em>De docta ignorantia</em> (“<em>On Learned Ignorance</em>”), published in 1439, and an oddly ecumenical (for the times) book called <em>De pace fidei</em> (“<em>On Peace in Faith</em>”), published in 1453. Nicholas’s contributions to conciliar theory also pre-saged some developments in what we now think of as Modern “constitutionalism”. This is particularly seen in his theory that “representation” is not, as had often previously been the case, a case of one party autonomously impersonating another, but instead a case of one party being consciously chosen by another to stand in its place. Cusa is largely responsible for moving Christian political discourse at this time more solidly away from monarchichal absolutism and further along towards a “separation of powers” doctrine. Given that so much is made of the so-called “death of conciliarism” in the fifteenth century, it is ironic to find Nicholas of Cusa’s conciliarist work quoted approvingly by the sixteenth century papalist Cardinal Bellarmine.

Nicholas of Cusa died in Rome in 1464. It is fitting that such a brilliant Christian scholar should be physically remembered in his own home town of Kues by a library (many of whose books bear annotations in his own hand) and a home for the aged, which still stand today as possibly the oldest private foundations in Europe.

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  1. Pingback: Reformation And The Two Kingdoms of Christendom « Basilica

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