Of Councils & Popes

Francis Oakley’s article (“Authoritative & Ignored,” October 24, 2014) is provocative and interesting, but some of the claims made are in need of qualification. The following can be noted:

First, Oakley claims that the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique “simply omitted Constance from its listing of the church’s general councils.” He fails to mention, however, that the DTC (Volume 3, Part 1, 1911) goes on to note that “many authors count twenty ecumenical councils, because they include the Council of Constance in this number.” The DTC then states that Constance can be considered ecumenical in its final part following the election of Martin V, consisting of sessions XLII to XLV, but there is no agreement about its status prior to session XLII. So Oakley’s claim that the DTC tries to render Constance into “oblivion” is not accurate because the DTC recognizes that many authors consider Constance to be a true ecumenical or general council.

Second, Oakley is correct that Martin V needed to accept Constance as a general council because he owed his election as pope to that council. Oakley fails to mention that there is no clear evidence that Martin V ever confirmed Haec sancta synodus (April 6, 1415) as an authentic conciliar decree. Whether all of the proceedings of Constance can be considered truly conciliar is a matter of scholarly debate. Because the decree Haec sancta synodus endorsed a form of conciliarism later rejected at Florence, many Catholic theologians question whether it ever received actual confirmation by Pope Martin V (1417–31). The decree also refers to the anti-pope, John XXIII, as “Lord Pope.” With regard to Constance, Robert Bellarmine argued that a council is unable to define any matters of faith when the identity of the pope is uncertain, as was the case at Constance prior to the 1417 election of Martin V (cf. De Conciliis, Book II, Chapter XIX). Many Catholic scholars (including Bellarmine) likewise note that Martin V confirmed only that which was decreed by Constance in a conciliar manner (conciliariter), thereby suggesting that not all the pronouncements of the council (such as Haec sancta) were truly conciliar.

Third, Oakley is correct that Bellarmine believed general councils cannot contradict each other. This, though, is why Bellarmine placed Constance under the category of general councils partially approved and partially rejected (because of the conciliarism endorsed in Constance’s early sessions). Bellarmine’s enumeration of the eighteen fully approved general councils matches that of the Catholic Church today, with the exceptions of Vatican I and II (which had yet to be held) and Constance (1414–18), which he regarded as partially approved and partially rejected. Bellarmine was well aware of the problems with the conciliarism present in Haec sancta. This is why he did not include it in his list of fully approved general councils. Later church tradition would come to regard Constance as ecumenical—at least with regard to those sessions approved by Martin V. Catholics need to accept Constance as an ecumenical council today because John XXIII, in solemnly opening Vatican II on October 11, 1962, identified Vatican II as “the twenty-first ecumenical council.” Likewise, in the solemn ceremony of December 8, 1965, marking the end of Vatican II, the council fathers, in addressing the rulers of the world, referred to themselves as “We, the fathers of the twenty-first ecumenical council.” If Constance was not an ecumenical council then Vatican II would be the twentieth ecumenical council (following Bellarmine’s numbering). Clearly, St. John XXIII considered Constance to be an ecumenical council with respect to its decrees that were confirmed as conciliar. He could not, however, have considered Haec sancta to be a confirmed conciliar decree because it refers to the other John XXIII (the anti-pope) as “Lord Pope” (dominus…papa).

Finally, Oakley seems to have an antipathy toward what he calls “the current, absolutist understanding of papal monarchical power.” He fails to appreciate the beautiful way Vatican II was able to achieve precisely the synthesis of episcopal collegiality and papal primacy that Cardinal Franz König and others sought. Contrary to Oakley, Constance has not been forgotten by Catholic scholars who support what Vatican I and II teach about papal primacy and infallibility. Such scholars, however, understand Constance in way other than Oakely’s.

Robert Fastiggi
Detroit, Mich.
The writer is professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.


The author replies

Let me begin by thanking Robert Fastiggi for taking my little article seriously enough to write a response. I am, of course, well aware of the fact that there have been and are Catholic scholars who take a different view of Constance than do I. How could I not be? The points Fastiggi makes come straight out of the old, standard interpretation of Constance and the conciliar episode that came to full bloom in the wake of the nineteenth-century triumph of the Roman theological school over its long-standing Gallican rival. And those points I have dealt with in my Council Over Pope? (1969) and The Conciliarist Tradition (2003). For detailed commentary on them, then, I take the liberty of referring him and any interested reader to those two books.

Here, my comments on Fastiggi’s four points must necessarily be brief. As follows:

First, the article in the DTC to which I referred is that on “Conciles,” which does indeed consign to oblivion not only Constance but also (and oddly) Pavia-Siena and Basel, both councils convoked by popes viewed as legitimate by everyone. The article in DTC to which Fastiggi refers is a different one, titled “Constance (Condie de),” which takes a different view. This is far from the only instance in which articles dealing with such issues in the same, modern Catholic encyclopedia contradict one another. Such contradictory articles are also to be found in the (old) Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, and the second edition of the Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche. The disarray on these neuralgic issues in those publications is really quite striking.

In Fastiggi’s second point, two issues are intermingled. First, the matter of papal approbation. But why the big fuss? Formal papal approbation was no more called for in relation to the great councils of the ancient church than was papal convocation. In any case, had Haec sancta been invalid, so, too, would have been the actions Constance had taken in its name to end the schism, and Martin V himself, therefore, would not have been a true pope. He was well aware of that fact and was in no position to do anything but accept the validity of that crucial decree even if he did not issue any formal approbation. Second, John XXIII as “anti-pope.” But who says so? The fathers at Constance certainly did not view him as such. Nor did Martin V, who, after becoming pope, referred to him simply as “my predecessor” or “pope,” while being careful to refer to John’s rival Roman and Avignonese claimants as “popes so-called in their obediences.” Moreover, the lists published in the Annuario Pontifico are the closest thing we have to an “official” listing of popes, and from 1913 to ’46 the Annuario designated John XXIII as a legitimate pope. But, of course, that could have been taken to suggest that all the decrees of Constance, including Haec sancta, were legitimate. Clearly it was time to do some rewriting of history. In 1947, then, in his new listing of popes (now the standard one), Mercati, while giving no reason for so doing, simply labeled John XXIII as “anti-pope.” Problem solved!

The truly important issue pertaining to the status of Constance as a council is not whether people count it in some partial way as legitimate but whether or not it is to be viewed in its entirety as legitimate and, with it, the decree Haec sancta. That, for centuries, had been the Gallican view. The Roman theological school, however, to avoid recognizing Haec sancta, and by invoking anachronistic criteria, insisted that only the last few sessions could be viewed as legitimate.

Finally, I don’t for a minute believe that Vatican II achieved a stable, let alone a “beautiful” synthesis of episcopal collegiality and papal primacy (it simply placed those two notions side by side). Neither did the members of the traditionalist minority; instead, they feared that the notion of collegiality might open the door to conciliarism. Nor, it may be, did Paul VI himself. If he did, why during the council’s “black week” did he feel the need to attach to Lumen gentium the qualifying and distinctly high-papalist Nita explicativa praevia?

In my article I noted that in the matters under discussion the devil tended to lie, alas, in the details. If it does nothing else, this exchange of views should serve to illustrate the accuracy of that rueful acknowledgement.

Francis Oakley


An eerie echo

I recently witnessed firsthand the high stakes the poor experience, outlined in Daniel K. Finn’s “Understanding Scarcity” (December 5, 2014).

Just before Thanksgiving I went to the grocery store, loading up my cart for the feast. As I stood in the check-out line I noticed a woman ahead of me. She carefully studied the total on the display while slowly unloading her cart. As more and more items went through the cashier’s hands, I noticed the woman becoming anxious. She stopped unloading and got out her wallet, looking inside as if to check how much money lay within. Then she returned to her cart. She picked up two of the remaining items, weighing one in each hand. Hesitantly she put one item on the belt and returned the other to the cart. She repeated this with the rest of the items, glancing back and forth between her hands and the display. Her shoulders slumped as this went on, but eventually she made her choices, paid, and left the store.

I watched her go, a sense of guilt hovering over me as I placed my items on the belt. I had chosen all of them without a thought to how much money I was spending, although I knew it would be a lot. The experience provided a vivid, real-life example of someone who needs to make difficult choices every day, but especially at holiday time—choices that I cannot imagine, given my comfortable, middle-class life.

Finn’s piece eerily echoed my recent experience, and I appreciate his review of a book that seems to grasp the devastation poverty can produce, but also offers concrete solutions.

Holly Wiegman
Niskayuna, N.Y.

Published in the January 23, 2015 issue: View Contents
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