Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
The need for a new General council. From 'Papal Power' by Paul Collins

The need for a new General council

Chapter 7
From Papal Power by Paul Collins
published by Harper Collins 1997, pp 197-218

Published with the necessary permissions on our website

The need for a council

This book has focused on the problems and distortions that papalism poses for the Church, and it has suggested some ways of dealing with these. But the best way for the Church to come to grips with high papalism is through a general council. Rome has usually been very wary of councils. For. as Vatican II showed, they have a way of getting out of control. It is in the interest of those who want to maintain papalism not to have a council. Certainly, a council would be a most unlikely eventuality during the papacy of John Paul II. It is clear that the pope is the best person to call a council, and in subsequent papacies there is no reason why this should not be a possibility. We never know when another pope in the style of John XXIII will be elected; the serendipity of the Spirit is a characteristic of Church history. While the modern separation of Church and state is most desirable it does mean that there is no powerful secular authority ready to assume the responsibility of summoning a council on behalf of the Church. Nowadays there is no emperor, like Sigismund at Constance in 1414, to summon., organize, and protect the gathering. Nor would one place much hope in the Synod of Bishops as it is presently constituted.

However, there are other possible groups that might bring pressure to bear: a combination of national episcopal conferences could have a potentially powerful influence, especially if supported by a groundswell from the grassroots. Bishops and people acting in concert might well be the most desirable way to put pressure on Rome for the pope to call a council. This concerted support from a widespread and influential group in the Church would certainly be a more representative way than a mere summons from a pope acting alone. The time has come for grassroots pressure to begin to influence important movements in the Church, in preference to arbitrary decisions from the top. A council is the only place where different voices can be heard on the international level, different views articulated, different priorities debated. Genuine collegialitv, which now ought to be extended beyond bishops to include priests and people, needs a genuine opportunity to work, and it is above all when the Church gathers in council that this can happen. An important way of breaking down over-centralization is to have regular general councils. The Church needs to take seriously the decree Frequens of the Council of Constance (1414-1418).'

What we need first is a general rather than an ecumenical council. This distinction is very useful here. A general council (like the councils of this millennium) represents the Western Roman Catholic Church; an ecumenical council is much broader, and includes representatives of all Christians. If there were regular decennial general councils these could gradually move toward a universal and truly ecumenical council. This would happen with the increasingly full participation of the Orthodox, Protestants, and Anglicans. In fact, a genuine reform of the papacy could open the way to the ecumenical Christian Church of the future.

A series of councils, with increasing participation by the other churches, would seem to be the best way to heal the divisions of Christianity. The role of the papacy would have to be one of the key issues resolved in the movement toward inter-Christian reconciliation. Agreed statements between Catholics and other Christians have generally shown that many churches would be willing to recognize a strictly limited model of papal primacy and the notion of the pope as the president of charity at the heart of the communion of churches. Thus the traditional function of the papacy in the early Church would be revived. No one is happy with the present dictatorial approach of the papacy, except those who derive power or comfort from it: curalists, assorted hierarchs, and fear-filled reactionary Catholics. This is why the Catholic Church has to deal with the problematic notions of primacy, infallibility, and magisterium before the ground for negotiations with the other Christian churches can be laid out. In fact, the goal of mutual acceptance of the Christian churches and eventual full intercommunion could provide the primary spur for Catholics to reform the distortions of power and authority operative in the contemporary papacy.

Clearly the aim will be the reunion of Christendom, but not in the sense of one church entering into corporate union with another. To move in this direction would be to run the risk of the largest church (Western Roman Catholicism) swallowing up many of the others. We need to maintain the richness and diversity of the Christian traditions. What is really called for is a mutual recognition of each others traditions, ministries, and structures, and, on the basis of that, an entry into full intercommunion. In this scenario all the churches would remain corporate entities—the Orthodox in their several varieties, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the United Methodists, Presbyterians. Baptists, and so on would retain their integrity, but there would be full recognition of each other as legitimate Christian churches. Many Protestants, especially members of the non-episcopal, congregationally based churches, might well have difficulties with episcopal forms of governance. But this does not mean that the negotiation should not be attempted. However, it will only make sense if Catholics are willing to tackle the distortions involved in high papalism.

But this is jumping ahead. The Roman Catholic Church already has enough crises to keep any council busy for many sessions. Most of the problems would be practical and disciplinary, such as the crisis in the priesthood and ministry, and the increasingly complex ethical issues facing contemporary society. There are also deep-seated theological issues to be confronted as Western society rethinks at a very profound level its underpinning meaning structures and a whole new. post-communist world order emerges. So, added to the problem of the governance of the Catholic Church itself, there is much to challenge a conciliar gathering.

But the last thing we need is Vatican Council III. The next council should be held as far away from Rome as possible. It should not be in Italy and not even in Europe. Europe is no longer the pivot of the world, which now focuses on regions like the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Among these peoples there has been a strong call for the 'inculturation' of faith and theology; that is. that Christianity express itself in and through the various indigenous cultures. This approach received papal encouragement in the 1975 papal letter of Paul VI Evangelii nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World).

Recently among a number of European theologians there has considerable concern about the translation of faith and theology into local cultural expressions and forms. Despite the fact that the large majority of Catholics now live outside Europe, some remain convinced that the theology of Catholicism is still best expressed in terms of European culture and philosophy. Apparently some Europeans think that having made the transition from its original Judeo-Christian matrix, Christianity found its perfect and only possible expression in and through the culture of Europe. Here again we encounter the ahistorical ideology that so characterizes the approach of many conservative theologians and Catholics. Such people seem to lack any historical sense or knowledge of a wider world. The Eurocentric model of the Church was bluntly expressed by the eccentric English writer Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), who maintained that 'Europe is the Church, and the Church is Europe.'(1) If this is the case, God help the rest of us, given the state of the Church in most European countries!

But there is one practical issue that is important to note in this: the different political-cultural backgrounds of continental' Europeans and those of us from the Anglo-American tradition. As the ecumenically experienced Anglican Bishop Mark Santer comments, 'English and American ideas about how to do business are not the same as those of Italians or Germans or Poles.'(2) This is important to remember, and, as Santer also points out, these contrasts will become exacerbated as the churches become more embedded in the different cultures of the world. This is already a major problem for Catholicism. It is not just the Anglo-American and European world that the Church has to deal with; it is also the cultures of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. As Santer says; 'Sorting out what is of theology and what is of culture is a most delicate task.' What is acceptable ethical and social behaviorin some cultures is not in others.

This, of course, reinforces the need for a much more diversified cultural approach to canonical and legal structures, as well as to worship and catechetics. This is where the proposal to establish regional patriarchates makes a lot of sense. These differences of approach are already important in intra-church negotiations. They need to be kept in mind as the Church tackles the difficult issue of becoming a truly world Church.

Moreover, to tie the Catholic tradition to European culture, rich as it is, is to distort the essence of Catholicism. The very word catholic implies universality, and is derived from the Greek kath' holu, which means 'universal,' 'according to the whole,' or 'on the whole.' So in order to assert symbolically the universalism of Catholicism the time has come for a decisive step: the next general council should be held outside Europe.

There is another good reason for this. Just as both the councils of Constance and Trent were specifically held outside the Papal States to avoid the influence of the papal government, so it is important for the next council to be held well away from the Vatican to avoid the activities of the curia. The people who act as hosts always have a big influence on any agenda. The outer limits of Roman centralism were reached when the synods of the Dutch and African churches were recently held in Rome. There was only one reason for this: so that the Vatican could control the agenda, the process, and the outcome. A general council for which there was worldwide preparation and which was held outside of Europe would have a chance of setting its own agenda. It would not have to spend so much of its energy dealing with the agenda of the papacy. The organization of any forthcoming council would need to be in the hands of a separate and independent body, elected and funded by the world's bishops and a broad cross-section of Catholics. There is no justification in tradition for the Vatican bureaucrats to be involved in organizing councils. They exist to serve the papal government, not. as they seemingly imagine, to control the universal Church.

What norms can be developed to work out where the general council should be held? The place should have a significant Catholic presence. It should represent the shift of the center of the majority of the Catholic population to the New World. Yet a feeling of the wide religious diversity of the contemporary world would also need to be present. This means that an exclusively Catholic atmosphere would probably be counterproductive. With the ready availability of simultaneous translation, the language of the council should not be Latin; the council should include all of the major contemporary languages. The most numerically predominant and widely spoken languages of the Church are Spanish and English. A shift away from Latin would be seen as symptomatic of the transition of the Church from the old world to the new. Documents should be published in at least Spanish and English.

Within this context there are several geographical possibilities. We have already eliminated Europe from the potential places for the council. If Africa were chosen, Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), Lagos (Nigeria), and Harare (Zimbabwe) would all be possible locations. Equatorial Africa has the big advantage of being the crossroads between Christianity and Islam, and of being the newest growth area of Catholicism. Its difficulty may well be its political instability, although in terms of Church history this would be nothing new in the background to councils. In North America, Toronto should be considered. The United States would be eliminated by its solo superpower status. If Central America were chosen, Mexico City, Puebla, or Guadalajara would be possibilities, and in South America the choice would seem to be between Lima (Peru), Sao Paulo (Brazil), or Quito (Ecuador). One of the difficulties with the whole of Latin America is that, despite the inroads of North American fundamentalist Protestantism, it is still a strongly traditional Catholic region. Its advantage is that it has the largest concentration of Catholic populations in the world. In Asia, Manila would clearly be the best choice. The Philippines would suit because it is a Catholic country that is struggling with all the issues of poverty, environmental degradation, and development, and it is surrounded by neighbors representing the other great religions of Asia. It is on the Pacific rim, which is expected to be the center of the world by early in the twenty-first century.

The council should be representative of the whole Church. As well as pope and bishops, there should also be present representative laypeople. religious women and men, and priests. There are ample precedents for their attendance. As already noted, most of the early ecumenical councils were actually called by the emperors, as were several medieval councils. Constance and Basel set a model for a more widespread presence of laity, religious, and clergy. If they were in attendance there is no reason why they should not have an active voice and vote. As I have already argued, reception by the whole Church is part of the process of establishing the veracity of Church teaching. A more broadly based conciliar vote would symbolize this. As Newrnan argued, the belief of the laity must to be taken into account in the development of doctrine. The presence of a broad cross-section of people would vividly illustrate the willingness of the Church to embrace a more communal approach to ecclesiology. There would also need to be other Christian churches present from the start, with some form of deliberative as well as consultative voice. If the council was ultimately directed toward reunion this would be essential.

Am I recommending conciliarism?

From what I have written there will certainly be some Catholics who accuse me of conciliarism. What is conciliarism? It can have several meanings. Fundamentally, it is an opinion enunciated by a group of medieval canonists who argued that a general council is the highest authority in the Church and is ultimately superior to a pope. At the heart of conciliarism is the attempt to limit papal power and demand greater accountability from the pope. There are variations on the conciliar theme: sometimes the council was seen as representing the whole Church and called together in Christ. There were strong 'democratic' and communal elements in the evolution of conciliarist themes. Conciliarism of the late medieval period needs to be seen within its historical setting. It evolved within the context of fears of the possibility of a heretical, schismatic, or even mad pope, such as Urban VI (1378-1389). The context of the great Western schism—at one stage there were three claimants to the papacy—gave conciliarism its greatest impetus.

In the technical sense, the word conciliarism refers to the idea that a council is the highest authority in the Church and is superior to a pope. This tradition lasted until the nineteenth century and many Catholics still held to a conciliar position at the time of the Reformation. Saint Thomas More, for instance, is often put forward by ultramontane Catholics as an apologist for the papacy against the schism of Henry VIII. This is incorrect. He was in fact a champion of the unity of the Church, and he held that a general council could decide about the role and function of the pope in the Church. In his polemical works, More had steadily maintained that a general council could not err—a claim he never once made for the papacy'(3) For More., a general council was the only way to solve the divisions that were growing ever-wider in the Church of the sixteenth century. The conciliar tradition survived in a compromised form in the Gallican theory, and was probably held in a pure form at Vatican I by several of the bishops.

Am I advocating conciliarism? I would certainly admit that I lean strongly in that direction in the light of the present papalist dominance of the Church. My position would be viewed by some Catholics as doctrinally untenable. However, a more careful look at the historical development of conciliarism shows not only that it is a complex movement capable of several interpretations, but also that the doctrinal status of the decrees of the Council of Constance (1414-1418) are far more legitimate than papalist apologists or Vatican I suggested. In fact, Vatican I completely failed to deal with the key decrees of Constance. It is important to see this council in its historical context. It is from this context that I argue that there is a legitimate form of conciliarism.

The historical context of conciliarism

Conciliarism's historical roots lie in the late-medieval attempt to limit papal power and the desire for greater accountability from the papacy. Also inherent in the theory was the notion that a general council represented the whole Church, and that it was not merely a gathering of autonomous local bishops. The churchmen facing the constitutional crisis of the Western schism drew on the canonical tradition that assisted them most in dealing with the crisis. It is ironic that it does not seem to have been noticed at Constance, but the idea that the council represented the whole Church also implicitly questioned the notion of a local, petty episcopal dictator as much as it clearly challenged the idea of a papal monarch. Conciliarism is rooted not only in the communal traditions of the Italian city-states and the universities, but also in the other late-medieval expressions of a broader franchise, the parliament in England, the cortes in Spain, and the parlement in France. These were to be swept away in the sixteenth century in France under Francis I (1494-1547). and Spain under Ferdinand V (1474-1516) and Isabella (1474-1504), and sidelined in England by absolute monarchs like Henry VIII (1509-1547).

The great Western schism (which effectively lasted from 1378 until 1415) began immediately after the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome. In April 1378, Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) was elected in riotous and controversial circumstances in Rome. Serious questions were soon being asked about his justifiable attempts to reform the college of cardinals, his violent temper, and his sanity. By September the cardinals had decamped from Rome and declared that they were not free in Urban's election, and, having declared the papacy vacant, proceeded to elect Clement VII (1378-1394), who retreated to Avignon. Europe was almost equally split between the two popes.

What are we to make of the election of Urban? There is a fair consensus among modern historians that the predominantly French college of cardinals elected Urban 'under duress.'(4) Further doubts are raised by his obvious mental instability, which became worse throughout his papacy. According to canon law the election of a person of unsound mind was illegal. The historian K. A. Finke, who has looked closely at the issues, thinks that 'the election of Urban VI was neither absolutely valid nor absolutely invalid, and that most contemporaries, including those most intimately concerned in the events, were in a state of invincible ignorance.'(5) Therefore, after 1378 there were two doubtful popes.

In one sense the cardinals had staged a coup d'etat. To see their revolt against Urban in broader perspective it is necessary to backtrack a little, to Avignon. Here the cardinals had come to see themselves as a corporation, and even a kind of senate around the pope. The notion gained ground that if the cardinals elected the pope, he was bound by their advice and assent in granting privileges. Some thought that his relationship to them was the same as a bishop to his cathedral chapter. Most of the French cardinals of Avignon were secular aristocrats whose accomplishments were modest and whose interests and expectations were those of their class. They were the princes of the Church, and the pope was responsible to them.

Any attempt to reform the cardinals met with resistance. One of them told Urban VI to his face that if he diminished their honor they would do their best to diminish his.(6) Some canonists. argued that the ecclesia Romana, was constituted by pope and cardinals, and one could not act without the other. The pope's plenitudo potestatis was increasingly limited by the need to consult with the cardinals. They also shared in the wealth of the papacy, and this, together with the electoral influence that came from their remaining a small group, made them anxious to limit the number who could be appointed to the college. With the election of Urban VI they were faced with the problem of a possibly insane pope. They responded by asserting that if they elected an unsuitable pope they had the power to annul that election. What they could not have foreseen was how intractable and extended the schism was to become. To try to deal with the impasse that resulted from the schism, theologians and canonists developed the theory of conciliarism.

The canonical background to concilarism

Concilarism is the term used to cover the variety of theories put forward to solve the problem of the schism. All of them involved the holding of a general council and they asserted in some form or other the superiority of a council over the pope.(7) The concilarist position was different from that of the oligarchic cardinals. They simply sought a dominant role for themselves in the government of the Church. They did not favor the doctrine of conciliar authority, which was more 'democratic' in tendency. However, both positions were actually:

offshoots of the same canonistic tradition and that is why when the conflicting interests of both parties were submerged in a common desire for unity, they could be blended without incongruity into a coherent system of church government.(8)

A key element in the conciliar theory was the concept of an ecclesiastical corporation.(9) This notion is rooted in canonical discussion of the relationship between local bishops and their cathedral chapters, A chapter was made up of senior priests (canons) of the diocese, and local bishops in the Middle Ages were usually elected by the chapter. However, the ongoing centralizing tendencies of the medieval popes, especially the Avignon popes, tended to limit this right. In the thirteenth century, chapters increasingly formed themselves into corporations for protection, and by the beginning of the fourteenth century the canons had acquired considerable power, especially during an episcopal vacancy. The notion gained ground that bishops acted as agents of the chapter with a derivative, limited authority. Tierney perceptively comments that in the theological background to this, there is a broad Catholic notion that the Church is more than the hierarchy.(10)

The next step was the application of the concept of an ecclesial corporation to the universal Church. The key person in making this transition was Cardinal Hostiensis, who applied the notion of corporation law to the papacy. As a cardinal he promoted the theory of the intimate relationship between pope and cardinals—tanquam sibi inviscerati (literally 'as though they [the cardinals] were "intergutted" to him).(11) In this view, the cardinals shared in the plenitudo potestatis of the papacy. But Hostiensis went further. He applied corporation law to the Roman clergy and people. He argued that if the entire group of cardinals was wiped out during a papal vacancy, then the Roman clergy and people could convoke a council to elect a pope and guide the Church. So in the broadest sense the whole Church could be considered as an ecclesiastical corporation in which all members shared in its authority. These ideas were picked up and developed by the conciliarists.

There are a couple of other theorists whose ideas formed part of the conciliarist background. Guillaume Durand (d. 1330). the Bishop of Mende. was certainly compromised by his attachment to Philip IV of France, his opposition to Boniface VIII. and his participation in the trial of the Templars. But at the Council of Vienne (1311). he strongly condemned the power of the papal chancery to dominate the Church and to overrule even archbishops. He was concerned to defend the traditional rights of bishops against pope and curia; he called for a definition of the primacy. The French Dominican, John of Paris, was another writer from the anti-Boniface VIII camp, but his De potestate regia et papale (Concerning Papal and Regal Power) was probably the most balanced study written at the time of the dispute between Philip and Boniface. He held that the Church could own property, but that ownership of Church goods was vested in the whole Christian community, and that the pope, far from being an overlord, administered the Church's property on behalf of the community. John was a follower of Thomas Aquinas, in that he believed that civil government originated in the social nature of humanity and that regal power ought to be limited by constitutional means. He applied the same norm to the Church: the pope is the servant of the community, and if he is deficient in his service he would be liable to rebuke and ultimately dismissal, preferably by a council, or, in extremis, by the cardinals. The council acts for the whole Church and no pope is immune from its judgment.

The greatest conciliar theorist and canonist was the Italian Cardinal Francesco Zabarella (1360-1417).(12) In his Tractatus de Schismate (1402-1408), he held that the whole of the mystical Body of Christ was a corporation and that a corporation can exercise jurisdiction even when there is no effective head. Schism, Zabarella argued, creates a quasi-vacancy in. the papacy since neither claimant can govern the whole Church. In these circumstances the authority of the Church could and should be exercised by the congregatio fidelium. This was exercised through a general council. In a schismatic situation a council should be called forthwith—either by the popes themselves, by the cardinals, by the emperor or by other civil powers. Zabarella held that the convocation was actually secondary, for the council's authority came not from its convocation but from the whole congregatio fidelium. In fact, the extraordinary situation of a schism only reinforced the fact that ultimately the pope held the plenitudo potestatis only 'as a limited and derivative authority.'(13) In 1545, Zabarella's De schismate was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books because it asserted the supremacy of a council over the pope. Zabarella brings us to the conciliar period itself.

All of these ideas are extraordinarily suggestive for our own time. The medieval notion of the corporation found primary expression in the communes of the city-states of northern and central Italy, and in the quasi-democratic structures of the medieval universities. It is precisely because these late medieval thinkers were working from an ecclesiological notion of the Church as a whole, and were not purely focused on papal power, that they were able to see the pope as an integral part of the Church and not someone who stood above it as a kind of exempt monarch, not bound by its laws and its constitutive nature. Thus their view of the Church was more comprehensive and more inclusive of its constitutive parts. They had a lot in common with the inspiration of Vatican II.

The overture to the Council of Constance ,

The Roman pope Urban VI showed no interest in healing the schism and seemingly descended further into monomania and madness. The Papal States fell into anarchy. His cardinals were confronted with the problem of what to do with a pope who was clearly deranged. Some of them plotted to place him under a guardian, but he forestalled this, and in 1384 imprisoned and brutally tortured six of them. Shortly afterwards five others mysteriously disappeared. He died in Rome in 1389, possibly the victim of poisoning. The alternative pope, Clement VII (1378-1394) organized a curia in Avignon and appointed a genuinely international group of cardinals. He hoped that with the death of Urban he would be recognized by the Roman cardinals. But Urban's successor, Boniface IX (1389-1404). showed no willingness to compromise. He gradually regained control of the Papal States and he refused to negotiate with the newly elected Avignon pope, Benedict XIII (1394-1417).

Boniface was totally unscrupulous in his attempts to raise money. He sold church benefices and offices to the highest bidder, and he exploited the commercial possibility of the sale of indulgences. His successor, Innocent VII (1404-1406). was ineffective and continued the policy of refusing to negotiate with Benedict XIII. Innocent's successor, Gregory XII (1406-1415), was initially anxious to heal the schism. The Roman cardinals had taken an oath in the conclave that if elected they would abdicate if Benedict XIII of Avignon also did so. In May 1408, nine of Gregory XII's cardinals, convinced that their pope would never resign, abandoned him and made their way to Livorno to enter into negotiations with Benedict XIII. He proved as obdurate as Gregory and eventually the cardinals of both camps decided to bypass their popes and to call a Council at Pisa. It began on 25 March 1409. Eventually there were four patriarchs and twenty-four cardinals from both jurisdictions present, together with one hundred bishops, one hundred and seven abbots, the generals of the mendicant and other religious orders, plus canonists, theologians, and representatives of universities, cathedral chapters, and princes.

The Council of Pisa cited the two rival popes to appear, and when they failed to do so it deposed them after a careful legal process and declared them contumacious schismatics, perjurers, and obdurate heretics. The Council had applied the long-accepted norm that a pope could be deposed if he deviated from the faith. Today historians generally accept that the Council of Pisa was a legitimate council.(14) Thus the Council had the power to declare that the Holy See was vacant. This position, however, has never been accepted by papalist historians who have maintained the legitimacy of the Roman line. Interestingly, the recent collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils does not include Pisa, but does include the whole of Constance.(15)

The Council of Pisa then proceeded to elect Peter of Candia, a Franciscan, as Alexander V (1409-1410). The Council had probably already fatally weakened the positions of both Gregory and Benedict, but now there were three popes. Tragically, Pope Alexander died in Bologna the following year. He was succeeded by Baldassare Gossa, a completely worldly adventurer and libertine. He took the style John XXIII (1410-1415, d. 1419). He was elected quickly because the Pisan cardinals felt that his military experience would assist in the recapture of Rome and because he already had threatening military forces at his disposal. No doubt generous bribes also helped. It was a disastrous mistake. By his scandalous life he destroyed the efforts of Pisa to heal the schism.

The Council of Constance (1414-1418)

Between 1411 and 1413, John established himself in Rome, but he eventually had toflee and to appeal to the German King Sigismund. who placed him under enormous pressure to call a council at Constance. The Council began on imperial territory on 5 November 1414 in the local cathedral. Franzen says that the Council was 'ecumenical from the start.'(16) Tanner's Decrees also accepts its ecumenicity from the beginning.(17) Older historians, such as Cuthbert Butler, argue that the Council only became 'ecumenical' from 4 July 1415, when the legate of Gregory XII staged a rereading of the bull of convocation.(18) Franzen comments that 'apart from Gregory and his supporters, no one in Constance took this [second convocation] seriously.'(19) The Council also made the same offer to the Avignon pope. This is important today because pro-papalists have continued to maintain the figment that this 'second convocation(1) somehow constituted the ecumenicity of Constance. Given that, the all-important decree Haec sancta, declaring that the council was superior to the pope, had already been passed, the pro-Roman view tries to maintain that this decree was not part of the Councils acta and was thus not binding. However, Franzen shows that the doubtful election of 1378, the three-decade schism, and the fact that; both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII had already been deposed at Pisa in 1409. made it clear that the Council considered that there was no legitimate pope.

The decree Haec sancta is the most important decision of Constance. Its language is direct and it is a clear expression of the communal ecclesial tradition that lies behind it.

It was prepared by Zabarella,

This holy synod legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.'(20)

It is important to note that the decree does not directly assert the superiority of the council over the pope, but it needed to imply it in order to claim the power to dismiss all three papal claimants. The clear assertion of the superiority of council over pope comes slightly later at the Council of Basel. Haec sancta simply says the pope is bound to obey the Council. It makes three primary points: (a) the Council is 'legitimately assembled'; (b) that it 'represents the Catholic church' and; (c) that the Council has 'immediate power from Christ.' It is clear about its purpose: 'the eradication of the present schism' and the 'reform of God's church [in] head and members.'(21) As a result, 'everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism, and the general reform of the ... church.'(22) The very directness of the language of Haec sancta conveyed the feeling of the need for direct action in a time of crisis.

Haec sancta also guaranteed the freedom of the Council, quashed the decrees and decisions of John XXIII, and commanded his curia to remain in Constance. The Council went on to declare on 9 October 1417, in the decree Frequens., that 'the frequent holding of general councils is a pre-eminent means of cultivating the Lord's patrimony.'(23) The time span is clearly nominated:

The first shall follow in five years immediately after the end of this council, the second in seven years immediately after the end of the next council, and thereafter they are to be held every ten years forever. They are to be held in places which the supreme pontiff is bound to nominate and assign within a month before the end of each preceding council.(24)

Meanwhile on 4 July 1415, after 'convoking' the Council, Gregory XII authorized his envoy, Carlo Malatesta. to abdicate in his name. Benedict XIII refused to abdicate and he was tried and deposed on 26 July 1417. The Christian world was now united under a single authority—the Council of Constance.

The theological significance of Constance

What is the theological status of these assertions? The general consensus of modern historians would be that Haec sancta is a legitimate conciliar decree. As part of the canonical tradition it is juridical in emphasis, but it is rooted in ecclesiology and has 'permanent value' because it is the statement of a general council.(25) The decree was not a mere emergency measure. It can be compared to Lumen Gentium of Vatican II. As Luis Bermejo correctly comments, 'Both Haec sancta and Lumen Gentium are fundamental doctrinal decrees affecting the constitution of the Church, both proceed from a general council, but neither is a dogma of faith.(26) There is a sense in which Haec sancta is far closer to the teaching of Vatican II than are the decrees of Vatican I. Constance reflected a communitarian and even more democratic model of the Church, was more collegial, and gave representation to a broad cross-section of the people of God. Vatican I's focus was narrowly hierarchical and simply did not take the evidence of Church history seriously. As the Church moves away from an emphasis on hierarchy and papalism toward a broader sense of itself as a universal communion of communities, Constance becomes more relevant than does Vatican I.

The claim that a council represents the Catholic Church and has immediate power from Christ is very significant for the modern Church. This shifts the emphasis away from the notion that somehow the papacy 'owns' the Church, that it is the sole source of all power and authority in the community. The medieval notion, originating in the period between Innocent III and Boniface VTII, that the pope is the source of all power in the Church and even in society itself, is a gross distortion of the much more traditional notion that authority finds its source in Christ, is diffused throughout the community, and that it finds its best representation in a more synodal approach to Church government and ecclesiology. Haec sancta correctly shifts the source of power away from the papacy to Christ, and asserts that this power is granted, especially in times of crisis or change, primarily to the Church meeting in council. In this context the pope can exercise his authority only as a member of the Church.

The pope in the Church

This focuses the essence of the issue for us today. The pope has authority only as a member of the Church and as an office-holder in it. The way in which papalist theories have placed the pope over and above the Church has led to doctrinal distortions and even heresy.(27)

Just as the model of the absolute monarch or dictator places the ruler not only above the state and its laws but above society itself, so the papalist interpretations of primacy and infallibility at Vatican I make the pope into some type of solo guru and intermediary between God and the Church, with the Catholic community as a passive recipient of papal oracles that are to be received with 'full submission of mind and will.'

This view cannot be sustained any longer. The papalist location of the pope as over and above the Church is a distortion that is not in keeping with the mainstream tradition. Christ gives authority to the whole Church, and just as the pope cannot teach what is not held by the Church nor propose what is contrary to the tradition, so he cannot exercise authority divorced from the Church. Regular councils would be a way of restoring authority to the Church community. Tillard says that even before a more conciliar approach is realized at the macro level, it needs to become a reality at the local level of the diocese and the parish. This is beginning to happen in some places. But the problem is that most Catholics have entirely lost a sense of themselves as having any authority at all in the Church. Even those who took on board renewal after Vatican II, and committed themselves to the Church's ministry, have found that they had absolutely no power and authority. They are entirely dependent on the whim of various hierarchs. They usually experience this at the level of the local priest, but the arbitrary nature of Church authority reaches right up the line. This applies to religious and priests, as much as it does to the laity. Almost all of those who have tried to achieve change have had their fingers burned.

The central contemporary problem is the awkward and unresolved corrosive disjunction between a vision of the Church as a participative community and the reality of the Church as a hierarchical power structure. As I pointed out a decade ago in Mixed Blessings, the Church's most profound structural and theological problem is the product of the ambivalence and compromises built into Vatican IIs Lumen Gentium itself.(28) Th tension that this creates for Catholics is considerable, as there is a real dichotomy between what their internal vision of what the Church should be comes to confront what they actually experience at the level of the institution. The advent of the high papalism of John Paul II has only exacerbated this tension. It is now driving people out of the Church in droves.

This disjunction is not the only thing driving people out of the Church. Here we should not blind ourselves to the sheer corruption of power within the hierarchical institution. We have already seen something of this in the financial scandals of the Vatican. A. W. Richard Sipe quotes a recent conversation with an American bishop who said, 'The thing that pains me about the organization to which I belong is that it is rotten from the top down.(29) One is tempted to respond: 'Welcome to the real world, bishop!' The context of the remark was clerical sexual abuse. Sipe has correctly related the Church's sexual problems to the issue of power. Power and authority, not sex, is the nub of the Church's contemporary problems. Abusive sexuality is a symptom. The abuse of power occurs most where it is most centralized—at the top of the hierarchy. It is far too large a problem for an individual to confront. It requires the attention of the whole Church.

That is why I have repeatedly said in this book that the Church has to move decisively away from an emphasis on the hierarchy and power, toward a more communal, even democratic model of the Church. It is basically a question of a shift of emphasis. The need for the development of a representative, democratic, conciliar, and synodal approach to Church government is urgent. It will need to begin to develop at the base level, but the urgency of the problem facing the Catholic Church cannot be exaggerated. While I am not confident that anything will happen as long as the papacy of John Paul II continues, that does not mean that Catholics should not prepare for the future. Tradition—tradere,—as I said, means to hand on to the coming generation. The failure of Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II to grasp the real issues facing the Church will be compounded if the present generation of mature and committed Catholics do not act to hand on the faith. Even if most of our episcopal leaders have failed us badly, this does not absolve us from our responsibility as ordinary Catholics. We need to pass on the tradition, to give to those who come after us the gift that we have received.

The main place where this can be done is in a council which represents the whole Church and which marshals the power and authority given to the Church by Christ. It is clear that renewal of the Church will not come from the hierarchy. Generally speaking, they are fear-filled and self-engrossed. That leaves the wider Church community. The time has come for us to seize the initiative.

But there is still a major theological question lurking behind all of this: Is it possible to reconcile the conciliarist teaching of Constance and the ultramontane teaching of Vatican 1? While it is true that a healthy tension can exist between a conciliar and a papal view of the Church, the simple fact is that the two probably cannot be reconciled. The Church needs to face this disjunction. As Bermejo points out with his typical truthfulness: 'If two general councils cannot in all honesty be reconciled, which of the two prevails, the earlier or the later council?'(30) Bermejo says that we are not in a position to resolve this issue, but he does quote the Spanish Dominican Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468),(31) a strongly pro-papal theologian who held that if councils cannot be reconciled the later one is to be rejected 'since the doctrine of the earlier one had already been adopted and received by the universal Church.'(32) Bermejo also says that the final criterion will be 'the supreme criterion of Scripture and that of the early apostolic tradition' as taught by the first seven ecumenical councils.(33) Within this context it is quite clear from our historical studies that Constance is far closer in its ecclesiology to the early Church than is Vatican I. So the contemporary Church is clearly faced with the possibility that the teachings of Vatican 1 might not be in accord with tradition. If that were the case serious questions would have to be asked about them.

Hope for the future

The most profoundly and uniquely Christian characteristic is not faith or love, but hope. And hope, as I said, is intimately linked with the creative imagination. Both contemporary Catholics and other modern Christians are challenged by their commitment to bope to imagine the shape of the ecumenical Church of the future. There is no doubt that the Christian Church has little future outside this ecumenical context. Clearly, the papacy will have a leadership role in this Church of the future. But for the papacy to be ecumenically acceptable the present papalist power structures will have to be largely jettisoned. So there is a sense in which we are probably at the end of the model of papacy as absolute monarch. One hopes there will be no more John Paul IIs.

In the short term, Catholics need to cultivate the virtue of hope, although certainly not the type promoted by the old-style Roman triumphalism. They need to have a sense that their community has an important future in helping people to attain a sense of meaning and to develop appropriate ethical. spiritual, and liturgical approaches to human existence. Part of the core of that hope is that, despite the vagaries of its history, the Church has survived for so long. The Church is a major component in the building of the culture to which all people of European origin belong. At the same time, the modern Church has come a long way already in integrating peoples of widely differing cultures into its ranks. For the first time it is now a universal Church in the full geographical sense. In the third world, the growth of Catholicism throughout this century has been extraordinary. It is clearly not dying, even if it faces quite serious problems, especially in the developed world.

I have placed considerable emphasis on history in this book. This is not only because history gives us a sense of cultural and religious continuity, and a feeling of being able to build on deep foundations., but also because it frees us. And freedom to shape the future is what is most needed in today's Church. This freedom will come primarily from the grassroots, from ordinary Catholic Christians. The higher one goes in the Church, the less liberty there is. Paradoxically the institution makes slaves of those to whom it seemingly grants most power. The future of the Church is not really in the hands of the pope or the bishops but in ours.

In this book, I have stressed that the first millennium of papal history was characterized by diaconia. (service), and the second by potestas (power). What will be the key sustaining notion of the third? I would suggest that it will be participation. The popes of the third millennium will have to encourage Catholics from all levels of the Church to be a real part of the Church's ministry, to participate in its work. This will mean that the words of Jesus quoted at the beginning of this work (Matthew 20:25-28} will have to become a reality in the life of the Church: an opportunity will have to be provided for all Catholics to serve. For popes to do this they will have to learn something of the humility that was typified by Jesus himself.

1 Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith. London: Constable. 1921, p. 32.

2 Mark Santer, 'Bishop's Moves, Times Literary Supplement. 21 March 1986. p. 313.

3 Richard Marius, Thomas More: A Biography. London: Collins, 1986. p. 458.

4 August Fransen, 'The Council of Constance: Present State of the Problem.' Concilium. 7, p. 19.

5 K. A. Fink quoted in ibid.

6 Quoted in Geoffrey Barraclough. The. Medieval Papacy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968, p. 158.

7 Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory: The Contribution of the Medieval Canonists from Gratian to the Great Schism., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955, p. 5.

8 Ibid., p. 239.

9 Ibid., pp. 96-153.

10 Ibid., pp. 130-1.

11 Hostiensis quoted in ibid., p. 149. My own (inelegant) translation.

12 Ibid., pp. 220-37.

13 Ibid., p. 225.

14 Franzen, p. 22.

15 See Tanner, vol. 1. pp. 401—3. where the text jumps from Vienne to Constance.

16 Franzen. p. 23.

17 Tanner, vol. 1, p. 403,

18 Butler. Vatican Council, pp. 28-9.

19 Franzen. p. 23.

20 Haec sancta., in Tanner, vol 1. p. 409.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid- p. 438.

24 Ibid., p. 439.

25 Bermejo, p. 278.

26 Ibid.

27 J. M. R. Tillard, The Primacy-Conciliarity Tension. Theology Digest. 41:1 (Spring 1994), p. 41.

28 Collins, Mixed Blessings, pp. 53-6.

29 Sipe, Sex, Priests, and Power, p. 3.

30 Bermejo, p. 287.

31 Not to be confused with Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498), the Spanish Grand Inquisitor.

32 Quoted by Bermejo. p. 288.

33 Bermejo, p. 289.

Contents page of Papal Power Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.