Authoritative & Ignored

The Overlooked Council of Constance
Human beings chart their collective past, like their individual ones, via anniversaries, and this year has been particularly rife with important memorializations. June saw the seventieth anniversary of D-day in 1944, a date that increasingly tests the limits of living memory. In August we observed the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. Go further back, and you enter a remoteness where anniversaries more typically engage the historian than the man on the street. Well, I’m a historian; and it is a sixth-hundredth anniversary to which, somewhat forlornly, I wish to draw attention. Forlornly, because I am guessing that we are unlikely to hear much about it, and least of all from church-connected sources. Yet the anniversary marks a truly great ecclesiastical event—one on which the fate of the universal church was directly dependent. November 16, 1414, saw the opening at Constance of a general council of the Latin Church. Both for what it was and what it did, the council was an event of great and historic significance. 
 
In size alone—and it was far better attended than the later, iconic Council of Trent—Constance was perhaps the most imposing of all medieval representative assemblies, ecclesiastical or secular. A citizen of Constance who was charged with helping find quarters for the flood of visitors listed, in addition to popes John XXIII (the first John XXIII, the one who had convoked the council) and Martin V, some five patriarchs, 33 cardinals, 47 archbishops, 249 bishops and suffragan bishops, 247 abbots and priors, 217 doctors of theology, 361 doctors of both laws, 5,300 “simple priests and scholars,” 3,000 and more merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, musicians, and players—and over 700 “harlots in brothels.” The council, moreover, attracted not only the papal but also the imperial chancery, as well as the official representatives of a host of European countries; one historian has called it the nearest medieval equivalent to the United Nations. 
 
And what did the council do? Quite a lot, in fact, not least of all the passage of a series of reforming measures, one of which—the decree Frequens (1417)—mandated the automatic assembly of frequent general councils, thereby making them a regular and continuing part of church governance. Had the popes not chosen to ignore that decree, the abuses of the late-medieval church might well have been remedied and the great “rupture” of Protestant Reformation avoided. But the council’s most important achievement was its success in bringing about what years of negotiation, diplomatic pressure, and even military action had failed to achieve—namely, the ending of the Great Schism of the West, which, after a disputed papal election and nearly forty years of debilitating deadlock, had seen Latin Christendom divided first into two and then into three rival “obediences,” each presided over by its own claimant to the papal throne.
 
The Schism was the greatest and most intractable scandal to have overtaken the Latin Church since its fateful breach, three centuries earlier, with the patriarch of Constantinople and the world of Greek Orthodoxy, and one would think that the council’s success in ending that scandal would have won it lasting acclaim. Yet over the centuries, and especially since the nineteenth-century rise of the papacy to imperial preeminence, Constance has not enjoyed a particularly good press. At times, indeed, it has enjoyed no press at all. The Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, one of the great achievements of Catholic scholarship in the first half of the last century, simply omitted Constance from its listing of the church’s general councils—a bold exercise in the ecclesiastical politics of oblivion. This omission is part of the ideological repression, historiographic self-censorship, and institutionally sponsored forgetfulness that followed in the wake of the high-papalist triumph at Vatican I in 1870, and that made the intricate disputes surrounding Constance seem hopelessly recondite—a matter of interest, perhaps, to the blinkered denizens of research libraries and rare book rooms, but of questionable relevance to the pressing challenges confronting the Catholic Church today.
 
As one of those denizens myself, I acknowledge the intricacy of some of the issues involved. And yet they remain profoundly relevant to our current ecclesiastical woes. This topic is admittedly a neuralgic one, and those of ultramontane/high-papalist conviction have struggled mightily to consign it to the dust heap of history. The reason they have done so is not, of course, that Constance succeeded in ending the Schism; all parties, presumably, would want to celebrate that. What vexed ultramontanists is the particular route the council fathers followed in fashioning that happy outcome. That route presupposed an ecclesiological stance that was anathema to the adherents of the Roman theological school later on. And that school’s position would be endorsed in Vatican I’s twin definitions of papal infallibility and papal jurisdictional primacy, while the rival, Gallican position, dominant across northern Europe for well-nigh half a millennium, would be thrust into the outer darkness of heterodoxy. During the debates at Vatican I, when some of those speaking for the anti-infallibilist minority—men like Henry Maret, dean of the Sorbonne’s theology faculty, or August Vérot, bishop of St. Augustine in Florida—sought to evoke the authority of the Council of Constance and to quote its decrees, they were met with derisive laughter from the (predominantly Italianate) bleachers in St. Peter’s Basilica, shouted down with cries of “No! No!” “Heresy!” and “Shut up!”
 
What the infallibilist majority so vehemently opposed was the continuing northern European adherence to the “conciliarist” ecclesiology: the belief that in certain critical cases the general council possessed a jurisdictional authority superior to that of the pope. However divinely instituted his office, the pope in this view was not construed as an absolute, monarchical ruler, incapable of doctrinal error, but rather as in some sense a constitutional ruler, susceptible to correction and restraint. He was seen to possess only a limited, ministerial authority delegated to him by the whole community of the faithful for the good of the entire church, which alone possessed the gift of indefectibility. That community, this view held, had not exhausted its inherent authority by the mere fact of electing its papal ruler. Instead, it retained whatever authority was necessary to preserve the truths of the Christian faith and to prevent its own subversion and ruin. It could exercise that authority through its representatives assembled in general council, and in certain critical cases could do so against the wishes of the pope—and, if need be, could proceed to judge, punish, and even depose that pope.
 
This position was by no means novel. It drew much of its inspiration from the essentially synodal or conciliar mode of governance of the ancient church, and derived much of the structural precision crucial to its implementation from elements of medieval canon law—specifically, from its teaching on the case of papal heresy and its development of a body of sophisticated corporation theory. In short, it was not something alien to the church’s immemorial tradition, but in many ways a logical deliverance of that tradition. Constance gave that tradition a solemn affirmation in the decree Haec Sancta Synodus (1415), and then acted on that decree when it tried and deposed John XXIII, the pontiff whom the council fathers deplored as a bad man even while they recognized him as the true pope. The council then wrapped up the business of ending the schism by pressuring the Roman and Avignonese claimants to resign, pragmatically dangling before both of them the opportunity personally to convoke the council before so doing. Gregory XII, the Roman claimant, took the bait and was allowed to resign. Benedict XIII, his Avignonese counterpart, obdurately refused the offer and was, accordingly, tried in absentia and deposed. All of that done, the council went on to elect Martin V, the pope to whose standard the entire church finally rallied.
 
IN A TANGLE OF issues where the devil lies even more than usually in the details, it would be easy enough to be drawn into the historical weeds. But, having put in my time thrashing about in those weeds, let me resist that temptation and limit myself to focusing on just two things: first, on what happened to Haec Sancta and the conciliarist ecclesiology during the centuries after the Council of Constance; and second, on the pressing need to come to terms with the enduring significance of that ecclesiology.
 
After the triumph of the ultramontane or high-papalist tendency at Vatican I and the defeat of those sympathetic with the Gallican theological tradition centered on Paris, the conciliarist ecclesiology came to be classified as a happily defunct heterodoxy. Its history was downgraded accordingly, until in time it came to be understood—and not only in the Catholic world—as little more than a minor perturbation on the outermost orbit of the ecclesiological consciousness. In the official listing of popes, the Roman line of claimants during the Great Schism now came to be treated as the sole legitimate line. Thus the Council of Constance could be depicted as a legitimate council only after Gregory XII went through the charade of (re)convoking it, with the result that Haec Sancta, promulgated before that event, could be dismissed as invalid. And so on.
 
In all of this, along with a degree of casual institutional forgetfulness, we see the working of an active institutional politics of oblivion. “He who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, and “he who controls the present controls the past.” And the past certainly has been controlled in the case of Constance—sucked, as it were, into an Orwellian memory hole. To rescue that ecclesiological past from the long, coercive shadow cast backward by Vatican I, is to discover that the conciliarist constitutionalism expressed in Haec Sancta in fact enjoyed a good deal of life during the centuries following Constance. As Bishop Bossuet pointed out in the late seventeenth century, this type of conciliarism was the constant teaching of the theological school of Paris from the time of Constance onward, along with schools of theology right across northern Europe, from Louvain to Krakow, Vienna to Erfurt. The appeals made to it at the Council of Trent (1545–63) were so insistent as to induce the papal legates there to abandon any attempts to promote a decree concerning the precise nature of papal primacy. This was hardly surprising, given the fact that the celebrated Charles de Guise, cardinal of Lorraine and leader of the French episcopal contingent at Trent, had proclaimed himself proudly to be a Frenchman “nurtured at the University of Paris where the authority of the council is held to be above that of the pope and where those who hold to the contrary are censured as heretics.”
 
Two centuries later, even in the beleaguered world of English recusancy, this outlook maintained a persistent following among secular clergy and learned laity alike —among people like Bishop Lingard, Fr. Joseph Berington, Charles Butler, Lord Petre, and other members of the (appropriately designated) Cisalpine Club. Like Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish “Liberator” later on, Berington could insist that he was “no papist, nor is my religion papist.” Instead, he clearly sympathized with the Cisalpine insistence that the pope was possessed of a merely “limited superintendence,” was subject to the authority of a general council, and in certain critical cases could be judged and deposed by such a council. Nor had a great deal changed by the early nineteenth century, when the English historian Henry Hallam could describe Haec Sancta as one of “the great pillars of that moderate theory with respect to papal authority which...is embraced by almost all laymen and the major part of ecclesiastics on this [i.e., the northern] side of the Alps.” And in 1869, in his Du concile général et de la paix religieuse, a two-volume work submitted as a memorandum to the upcoming Vatican Council, Henrí Maret reaffirmed yet once more—and with great specificity—the half-millennial tradition of conciliarist constitutionalism and its embodiment in Haec Sancta.
 
ALL OF THIS, I can imagine the gentle reader murmuring, may doubtless be of interest to the professional archaeologist of defunct ideologies. But amid the multiple miseries of our present ecclesiastical discontents, does it really have any practical significance for the church today? I believe it does, and for three reasons.
 
First, as Gerson reminded Pope Martin V in 1418 and as Cardinal Cesarini, papal legate at the Council of Basel, reminded Pope Eugenius IV in 1432, if the decree Haec Sancta were dismissed as invalid, so, too, would we have to dismiss the actions that the Council of Constance had based on it, including the trial and deposition of John XXIII. But if the latter’s deposition were invalid, so, too, would be the elections of Martin V, Eugenius IV, and, by any traditional understanding of papal succession, all subsequent papal elections and titles down to the present. By church law only legitimately appointed cardinals can elect popes, and only legitimately elected popes can create cardinals who can themselves lay claim to being legitimately appointed. To accept the ultramontane insistence that Haec Sancta is not the valid decree of a legitimately assembled general council is thus logically to confront a nightmare scenario, an explosion of doubt about papal legitimacy that is truly sedevacantism with a vengeance.
 
If, on the other hand, Haec Sancta and its essentially constitutionalist provisions are accepted as valid, then some modification of the current, absolutist understanding of papal monarchical power is necessarily called for. (This, presumably, was what Cardinal Koenig of Vienna had in mind when, in 1964, while Vatican II was still in session, he advocated synthesizing the disparate ecclesiological traditions informing the work of Constance and Vatican I.) If the validity of Haec Sancta is taken seriously, then we must concede that limitations on papal authority are far more extensive than those conceded by the standard modern manuals, and that the Roman Catholic ecclesiological tradition is richer and more pluralistic than commonly assumed—more polyphonic, if you wish, than the insistently high-papalist melodic line of the past century and a half. We would similarly have to come to terms with the fact that the degree of control exercised by the papacy over the convocation, composition, agenda, activity, and procedures of the general council (and, by analogy, of the Synod of Bishops) should properly be far less than that enshrined in the current provisions of canon law.
This is not an unattractive line of march, and the arguments in its favor are not lightly to be dismissed.
 
Unfortunately, however (and edging now toward my third reason), they rest on the assumption that it is somehow both possible and legitimate to stress the validity of Haec Sancta while sidestepping the provisions of Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus, with its twin definitions of papal infallibility and the papal primacy of jurisdiction—both of them reaffirmed, one should note, in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium. It would of course be disingenuous to claim this. Yet forty-five years ago, when I first addressed the question, studying both Pastor Aeternus and Haec Sancta in the light of the conciliar debates that helped produce them, taking into account both the changes they underwent in their drafting and the commentaries that followed their promulgation, I could see no way (contra Cardinal Koenig) to bridge the gap between the two decrees.
 
I concluded accordingly, and not without considerable discomfort, that Constance’s Haec Sancta and Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus confront us with an instance of two legitimate general councils of the Latin Church genuinely in contradiction, and moreover on a truly fundamental doctrinal issue concerning the locus of ultimate authority in the church. And so regarding the interpretation of conciliar pronouncements, I committed myself to what Benedict XVI would later disapprovingly label “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” rather than a “hermeneutic of reform” or continuity. Stepping impetuously across the line dividing the theological from the historical, and abandoning the anxious preoccupation with certitude that is so deeply rooted in the Catholic temperament, I was led to accept the historically conditioned, reformable, and essentially provisional nature of all doctrinal formulations, ecclesiologies, and church structures—conciliarist no less than papal.
 
In some of this (or all of it) I may, of course, have been wrong. Historians often are. And while I do not believe that to be the case, even if I were wrong, what would remain striking is how little attention our Catholic theologians have been willing to pay to the whole issue raised by Constance. It is as if they remain under the spell of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, that “great administrator of doctrine” who, crossing swords in 1606 with the acerbic Venetian theologian Paolo Sarpi, bluntly insisted as a matter of principle that legitimate general councils simply cannot contradict one another. To suggest otherwise, he said, smacks of “the reasoning of heretics.” For “that [council] alone is legitimate which asserts the authority of the pope to be superior to all councils.” QED!
 
Not so long ago, the British Dominican Fergus Kerr, writing about twentieth-century theologians, commented that “sooner or later the Roman Catholic Church will have to come to terms with what was true in the tradition of conciliarism.” Fair enough. But the time is already depressingly late and, all other things being equal, sooner, surely, would be preferable to later still.
Published in the October 24, 2014 issue: 

Francis Oakley is president emeritus of Williams College.

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