The Council of Constance (1414-1418)

In many ways one of the most important events of the later Middle Ages, the Council of Constance stands as a theoretical and experiential watershed in the history of Christian debates about the nature, functions, and limits of authority. It represents a watershed in the history of Christian debates about the doctrine and praxis of ecclesiology–the branch of theological reflection which is concerned with the nature, functions, and destiny of Christ’s body, the Church. Like its predecessor, the Council of Pisa (1409), the Council of Constance was called to do away with the Western Schism, which had been ripping the societas Christiana apart for four decades. Prior to Pisa there had been two popes, Gregory XI (r.1370-1378) and Benedict XIII (r.1394-1417) competing for the allegiance of Christians, and their contradictory claims had split the Church and European Christendom asunder. 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 (via cessionis), the way of compromise (via compromissi) and the way of the Council (via Synodis). 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 via Synodi was the only option for restoring the peace of the Church. Having been preceded by early conciliarist tracts such as John of Paris’s On Royal and Papal Power (1302) and William Durandus the Younger’s On the Mode of Observing a General Council (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 Letter Concerning A Council of Peace (1381), Pierre D’Ailly’s Epistle of the Devil to Leviathan (1381) and On the Plan of A General Council (1403), Matthew of Cracow’s On the Filth of the Roman Curia (1403), Jean Gerson’s Tract on the Unity of the Church (1408), d’Ailly’s Practical Propositions (1409), and Dietrich of Niem’s On the Ways of Uniting and Reforming the Church (1410). These efforts had given birth to the Council of Pisa in 1409, but it accomplished little more than adding a third pope, Alexander V (r. 1409-1410), to the already unstable situation. Alexander died not long after taking office, and the college of cardinals that had been constituted by Pisa elected Cardinal Baldassare Cossa to replace him as Pope John XXIII (r. 1410-1415). John, in turn, proved himself to be a reprobate scourge on the Church, adding to the already dire straits of Western Christendom awash in political turmoil (such as the final phases of the Hundred Years War between England and France, and conflict between several claimants to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire). Although at the end of the Council of Pisa another council had been set for early 1412, John’s intrigues and hostility to any force which could limit his power as pope succeeded in putting off the new council. The pope, grossly enmeshed in temporal political affairs in full violation of the commonly accepted principle of governmental dualism, was too busy to worry overmuch about the welfare of the Church committed to his care. One of the issues requiring reform was papal simony–the very issue which had, four centuries earlier, most deeply animated the papacy itself and turned the whole world upside down during the Investiture Contest. Now it was the papacy which was guilty of simony, and this theme would reverberate through the rest of the fifteenth century and on into the sixteenth. John’s obfuscations notwithstanding, late in 1413 other forces, such as Emperor Sigismund, were at work to keep the conciliar cause alive. It was the emperor, in fact, who, exercising his traditional right since the time of his great political forebear Charlemagne of “protector of the Church” (defensor ecclesiae), succeeded in getting a new council called, at Constance. Constance was ideal, the emperor argued, because it was a city in his domains, which would allow him to personally guarantee peace and order, and because it was also conveniently accessible to delegates from France, Germany, and Italy. It is perhaps bitterly ironic that one such as John XXIII, so otherwise resolutely opposed to the conciliar program, was forced to turn for help to the one person whose power and influence was at that exact time working to bring about a General Council to continue the work of Pisa. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the seriously corrupted pope would find himself at the mercy of the reforming council. The Council of Constance was formally convoked on November 5, 1414, but due to many delegates still being en route, the first session was delayed until November 16. When the day arrived, John XXIII himself mounted the pulpit and preached a thundering sermon about truth and reform, which made out that the main issue facing the Church in terms of reform was merely to condemn the “heresies” of John Wycliffe (1328-1384). His words were received ambivalently, it seems, because neither pope nor council trusted each other. The next day, however, when the Bishop of Cambrais, Pierre d’Ailly, arrived, a coalition against the pope began to be formed. Even from this early date, however, the instability of the Council was revealed in the fact that its major members could not agree as to whether restoring unity under a single papal obedience or working for reform of the Church was the most important goal. Because of this dispute, further business of the Council was delayed until the arrival of Emperor Sigismund on December 25, 1414. At this point, an immense number of participants and onlookers (estimates put them between 50,000 and 100,000–five to ten times as many as had come to the Council of Pisa eight years earlier) descended upon the tiny town of Constance (population: 7,000). The emperor backed the plan to proceed with the restoration of unity before engaging in reform, and the Council immediately proceeded to deal with the three conflicting papal claimants: Gregory XI, Benedict XIII, and John XXXIII. The Council first decided upon its own method of procedure: division into and voting by nations. This move was designed to counteract the large Italian contingent which was partial to the odious John XXIII, but later it would be used against the conciliarists themselves by a resurgent papacy. On April 6, 1415 the Council issued one of the most powerful ecclesiastical documents ever written, the decree Haec sancta, which declared that the General Council had authority directly from Christ and that all persons of any rank whatsoever, even the papal, were required to obey its reforming decrees.
After a great deal of duplicity on the part of John XXIII, and after a trial in which he was convicted of seventy charges of every crime from lying to simony, the Council formally deposed him on May 29, 1415. Just over a month later, on July 4, Gregory XI, who had previously promised to submit to the Council as long as John XXIII was not in charge, abdicated his claims to the papal dignity. Two contrary popes were now dispatched, but the third, Benedict XIII, proved harder to dislodge. After much laborious negotiation had failed and he had fled to an isolated location near Valencia, the Council’s thirty-seventh session wearily declared him deposed on July 26, 1417. Four months later, on November 11, the Council elected a single, undisputed pope, Cardinal Odo Colonna, who took the name Martin V (r. 1417-1431). Between the deposition of Benedict and the election of Martin, the Council performed a second great act which would long be remembered–the promulgation on October 5, 1417, of the decree Frequens, which declared that for the reform of the Church a series of General Councils should be regularly called. This powerful decree would bind Martin V’s hands to calling the next council of the Conciliar Movement, the Council of Basel. Frequens was so powerful a political and rhetorical statement that it would be used again and again against the increasingly corrupt popes of the remaining decades of the fifteenth century. Having ended the destructive schism and restored unity, the Council of Constance then turned to the other great matter for which it had been assembled, reforming the Church. It is at this point that the notorious incident of the trial and execution of the Bohemian reformer John Huss enters the picture. Whatever we make of this action, the Council should be applauded for another, lesser known action which would, in its own way and in its own time, help to further the reform of the Church. This action was taken in its final sessions, when Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson argued successfully in defense of the Brethren of the Common Life against the attempts of Matthew Grabow to paint the movement as a Wycliffite heresy. D’Ailly declared that if there was a heresy in this case it was Grabow’s assertion that no true pieties (verae religiones) could exist outside the monastic orders. Gerson, for his part, struck a significant blow at the entire late Medieval monastic system’s pretension to be a “state of perfection” unachievable by “the ordinary man.” This judgment by Constance of the orthodoxy of the Brethren was adhered to by Grabow, and the Brethren subsequently enjoyed relative freedom from opposition–and in some cases, even papal protection from what opposition did come. The Council of Constance was, if any council has ever been, the most representative assembly ever convened by the Western Church. It healed the Western Schism, but much difficult work of reform remained to be done in its wake. Unfortunately, most of this reforming work would, for many complicated reasons, go undone for the remainder of the fifteenth century. These frustrated expectations would flow easily into the reforming battles between Protesting Catholics and Roman Catholics in the sixteenth. Martin V, the pope elected by the Council to heal division and oversee the necessary reforms, would prove himself a dedicated foe of conciliarist ecclesiology. With his successor Eugenius IV (r. 1431-1447), who would vigorously battle the next great council, the Council of Basel, for supremacy in the Church, a very destructive pattern was set for the relationships of popes and councils.

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