The Council of Pisa (1409)

The Western Schism was just celebrating its thirtieth year of ripping the <em>societas Christiana</em> apart when the Council of Pisa met in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1409 for the purpose of ending it and restoring unity and peace. From the moment of its outbreak the Schism had been opposed by dedicated churchmen everywhere, who had expanded vast efforts to resolve it. By 1394 these efforts had coalesced around three proposed solutions: the way of concession (<em>via cessionis</em>), the way of compromise (<em>via compromissi</em>) and the way of the Council (<em>via Synodis</em>). The first called for both of the contradictory Pontiffs, Gregory XI (r.1370-1378) and Benedict XIII (r.1394-1417), to formally resign and open the way for a new papal election. The second advocated that both pontiffs agree upon a third-party arbiter whose decision would be binding on both. The third embodied the stirrings of the conciliarist spirit which had lain largely dormant since the time of Hincmar of Rheims. The first two efforts repeatedly failed due largely to the recalcitrance of both popes, but at least partly because of the cautious theological conservatism of the conciliarists themselves. In particular, the conciliarists were mindful of the commonly accepted maxims of authority that “inferiors” could not judge “superiors,” and they felt bound by the complex web of canonistic restrictions upon judging the occupants of the papal office.

However, as the Schism continued and become an intractable fact of institutional life, the intolerability of its disruptions brought to the forefront of ecclesiastical politics other threads of the Western Tradition than the rigid, overly-feudalized one represented by the Papal Monarchy. It gradually became clear to many leaders that the <em>via Synodi</em> was the only option for restoring the peace of the Church. Having been preceded by early conciliarist tracts such as John of Paris’s <em>On Royal and Papal Power</em> (1302) and William Durandus the Younger’s <em>On the Mode of Observing a General Council</em> (1309), the leaders of the Conciliar Movement were not slack in their own reformist writings. A number of tracts on the subject of a General Council were issued throughout the closing years of the fourteenth century and the early years of the fifteenth, including Henry of Langenstein’s <em>Letter Concerning A Council of Peace</em> (1381), Pierre D’Ailly’s <em>Epistle of the Devil to Leviathan</em> (1381) and <em>On the Plan of A General Council</em> (1403), Matthew of Cracow’s <em>On the Filth of the Roman Curia</em> (1403), Jean Gerson’s <em>Tract on the Unity of the Church</em> (1408), d’Ailly’s <em>Practical Propositions</em> (1409), and Dietrich of Niem’s <em>On the Ways of Uniting and Reforming the Church</em> (1410).

Amidst this agitation for reform via a General Council, both popes remained stubbornly attached to seeking the rights and privileges of their respective, contradictory authority claims. Numerous attempts at getting one or both of them to surrender their claims for the good of the whole Church having failed, at last a group made up of the cardinals of both papal obediences proclaimed both of their lords to be in contumacious schism and called for a General Council to meet in Pisa. Despite further attempts to prevent it, including interference from two contenders for the the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, the Council successfully convened on March 25, 1409. It is estimated that about ten thousand churchmen and observers flocked to Pisa during the Council, including numerous doctors of theology, canon lawyers, archbishops and bishops, abbots, and generals of the major monastic orders. The Council itself met in one of the most grandiose buildings ever constructed by Medieval Christians, the Cathedral of Pisa.

The first three sessions of the Council were taken up with the business of convocation, such as electing the Council’s officials and establishing its agenda. As well, apparently more for rhetorical effect than anything else, in all three of these opening sessions both rival popes, nicknamed “Benefictus” (“Good Pretender”) and “Errorius” (“Deceiver”), neither of whom was there, were publicly summoned to the Council and declared contumacious for not appearing within a suitable time on each day. After this, a period of two weeks was given to the assembled delegates before the fourth session would meet, during which interim there were to be serious discussions and debates about the basis for the Council’s proceedings so as to avoid creating a conciliarist-led scandal as the “solution” to a papalist-led scandal.

During this time, the Universities of Bologna and Paris issued carefully-worded statements arguing for principles which, while not yet ever having been actively implemented, had long been a matter of uncensured discussion in the schools. These principles were based upon the nuanced discussions of the Decretists and Decretalists concerning the limits of papal power, and also upon the premises of corporation theory. D’Ailly and Gerson provided stellar justifications of the <em>via Synodi</em>. They argued at length that Christ, not the pope, was the head of the Church, that power existed in the Church first (<em>fundamentaliter</em>) and in the pope only by grant from Christ and the Church (<em>ministerialiter</em>). Further, the “positive laws” (laws on the books) could never be placed above the survival needs of the society. Third, the health and stability of the whole Church was to be preferred over the maintenance merely of papal dignity and rights. All of these opinions concluded that a pope who continuously resisted reasonable correction of his manifest errors became guilty of the sin of schism, which, according to canon law was equivalent to heresy itself. And a heretical pope, the conciliarists argued not without precedent, could be removed from power by the Church.

Accordingly, after several more sessions of work and discussion, on May 25, 1409 the Council declared the two popes guilty of contumacious adherence to heresy. Eleven days later, on June 5, they were both deposed and all Christians were declared free of their respective commands and authority. The Council turned its attention to restoring order by electing a new pope–one who would be recognized and obeyed by all of Christendom. Of no small importance to many of the leaders of the conciliar party was that the movement toward “democracy” that seemed to be implied by the Council’s actions not be allowed to propagate itself further, and wear away at other existing dignities, such as that of the cardinalate. Some, like D’Ailly, promoted a scheme in which the papacy was to be counseled and regulated by the Roman <em>curia</em> itself (an opinion which would cause him to abstain from one of the most important actions of the next great Council, Constance, less than a decade later). Over the next week and a half a great deal of debate took place among the delegates at Pisa over this and related questions. At last the Council, trying to steer a middle path between the parties, authorized the two colleges of cardinals to meet together and elect a new pope, provided that two-thirds of each college agreed on the candidate.

On June 26, 1409, ten cardinals of Benedict’s and fourteen of Gregory’s reached an accord, electing the septagenarian Cardinal of Milan, Peter Philargi, as Pope Alexander V (r. 1409-1410). The new pope was received by the asembled delegates of Christendom with much rejoicing. The Schism appeared to be over, and the Cardinal of Bologna, Baldassare Cossa, promised that regardless of how difficult the remaining questions of legality might be, the pope in the person of Alexander V would reconcile them all.

The Council of Pisa concluded on August 7, 1409, after a series of decrees had been passed to regulate the ongoing concern for reforming the Church “in head and members” (<em>in capite et membris</em>). In line with this aim, a new General Council was set for April of 1412. Unfortunately, neither of the two popes who had been deposed by the Council assented to the Council’s actions, and they continued their divisive activities. They retained enough support in their domains that it became clear that instead of eliminating two popes and creating one, Pisa had merely created a third, and thus accidentally prolonged the Schism. Moreover, Alexander V, who to many appeared to be merely a puppet of the much more powerful Cardinal Cossa, soon died (May 3, 1410) under very suspicious circumstances that, it was gossiped abroad, were favorable chiefly to Cardinal Cossa. Under great internal and external political pressure, the cardinals met in conclave and on May 17 elected Cossa as Alexander’s successor, Pope John XXIII (r. 1410-1415). This would prove to be another disaster for the Church, and the final insult to the noble aspirations of the Council of Pisa and its catholic defenders.

The Western Schism would continue for another eight years, being finally and definitively resolved only at the next great assembly of conciliarism, the Council of Constance. Given what would happen in and in the aftermath of the subsequent councils of the Conciliar Movement (Constance, Basel, and Florence), it is not at all surprising that exactly one hundred years later, in 1509, another council would be deliberately called at Pisa to deal with the even more out-of-control monarchical papacy, just prior to the outbreak of Martin Luther’s reforming work. The second Council of Pisa, like the first, would fail, and it thus highly significant that “between two Pisas,” as it were, a hundred years of unsuccessful conciliar attempts to reform the Church would at last push an exhausted society to the extremes of the sixteenth century battles between Catholics and Protestants.

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