Conciliarism: “Orthodox” Option in Medieval Catholicism?

Conciliarism: “Orthodox” Option in Medieval Catholicism? August 22, 2018


I. Introduction

II. Pope Gregory VII’s (Hildebrand’s) Papacy (1073-1085): Radical Novelty or Development?


III. The Relative Importance and Levels of Authority of the Papacy and Councils in the Western Church


IV. Conciliarism as Predominantly a Desperate Heterodox Response to a Cultural Crisis



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I. Introduction

Some students of Church history and the history of ecclesiology (the doctrine and theology of the Church) claim that conciliarism (the notion that ecumenical councils were superior to the pope) was, in fact, entirely within the realm of “orthodoxy” — in terms of the self-understood ecclesiological paradigm of medieval Catholicism, and that there were several competing ecclesiologies within Catholic Tradition throughout the Middle Ages: all more or less equally valid. But one must recognize the distinction between a multiplicity of theories from individuals (which no one denies) and “orthodoxy” as declared dogmatically by the Church (in ecumenical councils, and by popes). Strong advocates of a supposedly “orthodox” conciliarism often blur, overlook, or completely misunderstand this.
The conciliarist position depends on the truthfulness of the premise that it was supposedly orthodox. If this can be shown to be factually erroneous, then the theory of an “orthodox Catholic conciliarism” will collapse. Conciliarism “makes sense” and appear plausible prima facie (all things being equal) if one grants its usual assumptions about the nature of Catholic orthodoxy, dogma, the history of the papacy, and so forth. I contend that conciliarism didn’t, and (insofar as it has modern advocates) doesn’t properly comprehend those things, as Catholics themselves understand and believe them to be (as substantiated by historical fact). The great Catholic historian and writer Hilaire Belloc wrote:

For the matter with which any story of the Reformation deals is the Catholic Church . . . therefore is full knowledge of the institution essential to knowledge of the conflict . . . It is not a point of sympathy or dislike. A man may truly relate a battle whether he applaud or deplore its issue. But he cannot relate it truly if he does not know the ground. (Belloc, 10)

I shall contend (primarily by copious citation of both Protestant and Catholic Church historians) that conciliarism was neither an equally valid ecclesiological view, nor orthodox, within the paradigm of historic Catholicism in the West (I will not be dealing with Eastern Christianity).

II. Pope Gregory VII’s (Hildebrand’s) Papacy (1073-1085): Radical Novelty or Development? 


Many conciliarists and other critics of the historic papacy (as construed by Catholics) contend that Gregory VII’s papacy was a radical change from what went before, and that his policies and method of governance started down a new path which did incalculable harm. The policies of this papacy are described as “arrogant” and “triumphalistic”.
Our task, therefore, will be to show how Gregory VII’s reign was not fundamentally different from what came before, but merely a consistent development of it. It is not the purpose of this paper to delve into biblical or patristic support for the papacy as Catholics understand it, but it will be most helpful and educational to digress a bit in order to illustrate that the eleventh century did not suddenly usher in some radical new scenario in ecclesiology.
To do so we will briefly examine some fairly well-known earlier precedents of papal primacy or papal supremacy, such as Popes Victor, Innocent I, Gelasius, and especially two widely- and greatly-revered popes: St. Leo the Great and St. Gregory the Great. These not only contained key elements of the later, more highly developed Gregorian papacy, but also even the essential components of the definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
As throughout this paper, reputable Church historians will be cited — many of them Protestant –, since my own judgments and conclusions on these matters carry no weight, as a non-expert and non-academic.

We might expect John Calvin to have an attitude of hostility towards what many regard as the “high water mark” of papal power and influence: the reign of Gregory VII, from 1073 to 1085). Thus, John Calvin wrote, in his usual subtle, tentative fashion:

. . . Hildebrand, who called himself Gregory VII, as he was an unclean and wicked man, betrayed his malicious intention. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 11, 13, in McNeill, II, 1225)

Later estimations of the character of Gregory VII are a bit brighter. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church summarizes modern historical opinion:

Though Gregory was once regarded as an ambitious tyrant, most modern historians have revised this judgement and are agreed on his purity of intention and his desire for ‘justice’. In his own lifetime the Church suffered division, and he himself incurred much criticism; but Gregory’s example, and the activities of his successors (esp. Urban II) did much to regenerate the Church. (Cross, 596)

Was papal supremacy and jurisdictional control (though undoubtedly expanded by Gregory VII) such a radically new concept, such that it can be regarded as a break with, or corruption of, precedent? Hardly. Reputable historians (none of the following men are Catholic, that I am aware of) point out that the eleventh century was a development of what came before:

. . . the papacy . . . had not yet assumed the central position to be conferred on it by Gregory VII in the eleventh century, but it already enjoyed a reputation in strong contrast to the mediocrity of some of its incumbents, appointed at the whim of the turbulent Roman nobility . . . But for all his weaknesses the pope remained the successor of the apostles Peter and Paul and their representative on earth. Bodies of canon law compiled from the ninth century onwards maintain his supremacy in matters of dogma and discipline. Monasteries and churches placed themselves under the protection of St Peter and hence of the Roman pontiff. Secular rulers journeyed to Rome to settle ecclesiastical disputes involving their domains.

Gregory and his supporters were also out to prove that the reforms the proposed were by no means innovations but merely a return to normal practice. (Wolff, 146-147, 235)

Richard William Southern was President of St. John’s College, Oxford, and also of the Royal Historical Society. This is how he regarded the Gregorian reform period, even despite his “anti-papal” bias indicated by his use of the term “papal pretensions” (p. 100), shortly before the following observations:

The minds of these men [post-1050] turned back to a happier period of papal enterprise. They dedicated themselves to the task of restoring the papacy to the position which it had held in a remote past and ought to hold again. Above all they wished to restore the papacy to the controlling and directing role in the church that (as they thought) it had once had . . .

We have already noticed the extent to which the popes of the earlier period were, so to speak, swallowed up in the personality of St Peter and were regarded simply as the mouthpiece of the Apostle. Gregory VII, a child of the Roman church from infancy, shared this point of view. (Southern, 100-101, 103)

Another important factor to be considered is the fact that the Gregorian reform and the relative advance in the papal position vis-a-vis secular rulers or the “state,” represented — at least in part — a reaction against the secular rulers appointing popes and having too much control of the Church (see, e.g., Wolff’s reference above to popes “appointed at the whim of the turbulent Roman nobility”). Thus, it could be viewed as a welcome renunciation of, and movement beyond the sort of characteristic caesaro-papism that had been (and continued to be) a huge problem in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (and later in such strains of Protestantism as Lutheranism or Cromwellian Puritanism; not to mention Anglicanism).
In the West for a time, and in the East almost perpetually, emperors and kings controlled the Church or had too much influence in it. Now (in the 11th century) the Church would control and administer itself. Surely, this as a step up, not down: a positive development rather than a negative corruption. One may quibble about the relative degree and proper boundaries of papal power, but it seems clear that Church control of itself is preferable to state control. Historians have noted this as well:

In the late fifth century Pope Gelasius I had tried to provide a working formula to explain the relationship between the spiritual and secular powers. He had argued that each authority had its own sphere of action, allotted to it by God, that neither ought to interfere in the work of the other, but that in the last resort the spiritual power should have the supreme voice, because it was concerned with the salvation of the souls of all the community, including that of the secular ruler himself . . .

The sacrosanct character which Christianity conferred on the King reached its highest theoretical extension with the creation of a Christian Western Roman Empire under Charlemagne and his successors . . . The Emperor, crowned by the Pope and invested with a majestic though vague authority over the whole Christian community as a whole, could easily assume the mantle of Constantine and his Caesaro-Papist successors. The comparative powerlessness of the Church in the centuries after Charlemagne assisted the trend.

. . . the full implications of the Gelasian theory was taken up by the Papacy during the Investiture Contest between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV. This conflict arose over the issue of the control of appointments to high ecclesiastical offices, but became a general struggle for supreme authority over the Church. The Papacy’s venerable claims, established in early Christian centuries but obscured by infiltration of the secular authority, had been reasserted by the so-called Election Decree of 1059, which reserved the choice of Pope to the College of Cardinals, his immediate entourage, and expressly ruled out any secular participation in the election. The fight between the two authorities was waged on the common ground of acceptance of the premise of a single Christian society with both spiritual and political aspects. (Morrall, 156-158)

But this question of lay investiture was as vitally important for the church as for the state. Not merely was the bishop a great ecclesiastical as well as political officer, but manifestly also that close centralization of the church, which was to be the result of this movement, could not be secured if temporal princes should have the right of determining what sort of men should occupy places of such influence in the government of the church. It was as necessary to the centralization and independence of the church that it should choose these officers as that it should elect the head of all — the pope.

. . . It was an act of rebellion on the part of the papacy against the sovereign, who had controlled it with almost absolute power for a century, and it was the rising into an equal, or even superior, place beside the emperor of what was practically a new power, a rival for his imperial position.

For this was what the movement taken as a whole really meant . . . The full power which so many men in the past had been laboring to secure, though only imperfectly understanding it, the position toward which through so many centuries she had been steadily though unconsciously tending, the church now began clearly to see, and to realize that it was almost attained, and, seeing this, to set about the last steps necessary to reach the goal with definite and vigorous purpose.

This cannot be doubted by anyone who looks over the acts and claims of the papacy during the time of Hildebrand . . . (Adams, 244-245)

Following up on the contention that Gregory VII drew on the definite outlines or precedent of the much earlier papacy of the patristic period, we shall examine how historians regard several important popes of that era, including Innocent I, Gelasius, Nicholas I, Agatho, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great. The well-known Protestant historian Philip Schaff reveals (typically) his definite Protestant bias, yet simultaneous fairness to the facts of history and to the history of the Catholic Church in particular:

The idea of the papacy, and its claims to the universal dominion of the church, were distinctly put forward, it is true, so early as the period before us [this volume covers the years 311-600], but could not make themselves good beyond the limits of the West. Consequently the papacy, as a historical fact, or so far as it has been acknowledged, is properly nothing more than the Latin patriarchate run to absolute monarchy. (Schaff, Vol. III, Chapter V, “The Hierarchy and Polity of the Church,” § 60. “The Papacy,” p. 300)

In most of the earlier bishops of Rome the person is eclipsed by the office. The spirit of the age and public opinion rule the bishops, not the bishops them. In the preceding period, Victor in the controversy on Easter, Callistus in that on the restoration of the lapsed, and Stephen in that on heretical baptism, were the first to come out with hierarchical arrogance; but they were somewhat premature, and found vigorous resistance in Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Cyprian, though on all three questions the Roman view at last carried the day.

In the period before us, Damasus, who subjected Illyria to the Roman jurisdiction, and established the authority of the Vulgate, and Siricius, who issued the first genuine decretal letter, trod in the steps of those predecessors. Innocent I. (402–417) took a step beyond, and in the Pelagian controversy ventured the bold assertion, that in the whole Christian world nothing should be decided without the cognizance of the Roman see, and that, especially in matters of faith, all bishops must turn to St. Peter.

[Footnote: Ep. ad Conc. Cartha. and Ep. ad Concil. Milev., both in 416. In reference to this decision, which went against Pelagius, Augustine uttered the word so often quoted by Roman divines: “Causa finita est; utinam aliquando finiatur error.” But when Zosimus, the successor of Innocent, took the part of Pelagius, Augustine and the African church boldly opposed him, and made use of the Cyprianic right of protest.”Circumstances alter cases.”]

But the first pope, in the proper sense of the word, is Leo I., who justly bears the title of “the Great” in the history of the Latin hierarchy. In him the idea of the Papacy, as it were, became flesh and blood. He conceived it in great energy and clearness, and carried it out with the Roman spirit of dominion, so far as the circumstances of the time at all allowed. He marks the same relative epoch in the development of the papacy, as Cyprian in the history of the episcopate. He had even a higher idea of the prerogatives of the see of Rome than Gregory the Great, . . .

He was animated with the unwavering conviction that the Lord himself had committed to him, as the successor of Peter, the care of the whole church.

[Footnote: Ep. v. ad Episcopos Metrop. per Illyricum constitutos, c. 2 (ed. Ball. i. 617, in Migne’s Patristic Libr. vol. liv. p. 515): “Quia per omnes ecclesias cura nostra distenditur, exigente hoc a nobis Domino, qui apostolicae dignitatis beatissimo apostolo Petro primatum fidei suae remuneratione commisituniversalem ecclesiam in fundamenti ipsius [Quesnel proposes istius for ipsius] soliditate constituens, necessitatem sollicitudinis quam habemus, cum his qui nobis collegii caritate juncti sunt, sociamus.”]

He anticipated all the dogmatical arguments by which the power of the papacy was subsequently established. He refers the petra, on which the church is built, to Peter and his confession. Though Christ himself—to sum up his views on the subject—is in the highest sense the rock and foundation, besides which no other can be laid, yet, by transfer of his authority, the Lord made Peter the rock in virtue of his great confession, and built on him the indestructible temple of his church. In Peter the fundamental relation of Christ to his church comes, as it were, to concrete form and reality in history. To him specially and individually the Lord intrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven; to the other apostles only in their general and corporate capacity. For the faith of Peter the Lord specially prayed in the hour of his passion, as if the standing of the other apostles would be the firmer, if the mind of their leader remained unconquered. On Peter rests the steadfastness of the whole apostolic college in the faith. To him the Lord, after his resurrection, committed the care of his sheep and lambs. Peter is therefore the pastor and prince of the whole church, through whom Christ exercises his universal dominion on earth. This primacy, however, is not limited to the apostolic age, but, like the faith of Peter, and like the church herself, it perpetuates itself; and it perpetuates itself through the bishops of Rome, who are related to Peter as Peter was related to Christ. As Christ in Peter, so Peter in his successors lives and speaks and perpetually executes the commission: “Feed my sheep.” It was by special direction of divine providence, that Peter labored and died in Rome, and sleeps with thousands of blessed martyrs in holy ground. The centre of worldly empire alone can be the centre of the kingdom of God. Yet the political position of Rome would be of no importance without the religious considerations. By Peter was Rome, which had been the centre of all error and superstition, transformed into the metropolis of the Christian world, and invested with a spiritual dominion far wider than her former earthly empire. Hence the bishopric of Constantinople, not being a sedes apostolica, but resting its dignity on a political basis alone, can never rival the Roman, whose primacy is rooted both in divine and human right. Antioch also, where Peter only transiently resided, and Alexandria, where he planted the church through his disciple Mark, stand only in a secondary relation to Rome, where his bones repose, and where that was completed, which in the East was only laid out. The Roman bishop is, therefore, the primus omnium episcoporum, and on him devolves the plenitudo potestatis, the solicitudo omnium pastorum, and communis cura universalis ecclesiae.

[Footnote: These views Leo repeatedly expresses in his sermons on the festival of St. Peter and on the anniversary of his own elevation, as well as in his official letters to the African, Illyrian, and South Gallic bishops, to Dioscurus of Alexandria, to the patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople, to the emperor Marcian and the empress Pulcheria. Particular proof passages are unnecessary. Comp. especially Ep. x., xi., xii., xiv., civ.-cvi. (ed. Baller.), and Perthel, l.c. p. 226-241, where the chief passages are given in full.]

. . . Whosoever, says he, is not with the apostolic see, that is, with the head of the body, whence all gifts of grace descend throughout the body, is not in the body of the church, and has no part in her grace . . . (Schaff, III, Chapter V, “The Hierarchy and Polity of the Church,” § 63. “Leo the Great. A.D. 440-461,” pp. 314-315, 317-319)

The first Leo and the first Gregory are the two greatest bishops of Rome in the first six centuries. Between them no important personage appears on the chair of Peter; and in the course of that intervening century the idea and the power of the papacy make no material advance. In truth, they went farther in Leo’s mind than they did in Gregory’s. Leo thought and acted as an absolute monarch; Gregory as first among the patriarchs; but both under the full conviction that they were the successors of Peter.

. . . Simplicius (468–483), saw the final dissolution of the empire under Romulus Augustulus (476), but, as he takes not the slightest notice of it in his epistles, he seems to have ascribed to it but little importance. The papal power had been rather favored than hindered in its growth by the imbecility of the latest emperors. Now, to a certain extent, it stepped into the imperial vacancy, and the successor of Peter became, in the mind of the Western nations, sole heir of the old Roman imperial succession.

. . . Gelasius I. (492–496) clearly announced the principle, that the priestly power is above the kingly and the imperial, and that from the decisions of the chair of Peter there is no appeal. (Schaff, III, Chapter V, “The Hierarchy and Polity of the Church,” § 64. “The Papacy from Leo I to Gregory I. a.d. 461–590,” pp. 323-324)

. . . it cannot be denied that Gregory [the Great; r. 590-604], while he protested in the strongest terms against the assumption by the Eastern patriarchs of the antichristian and blasphemous title of universal bishop, claimed and exercised, as far as he had the opportunity and power, the authority and oversight over the whole church of Christ, even in the East. “With respect to the church of Constantinople,” he asks in one of his letters, “who doubts that it is subject to the apostolic see?” And in another letter: “I know not what bishop is not subject to it, if fault is found in him.” “To all who know the Gospels,” he writes to emperor Maurice, “it is plain that to Peter, as the prince of all the apostles, was committed by our Lord the care of the whole church (totius ecclesiae cura) …. But although the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and to loose, were intrusted to him, and the care and principality of the whole church (totius ecclesiae cura et principatus), he is not called universal bishop; while my most holy fellow-priest (vir sanctissimus consacerdos meus) John dares to call himself universal bishop. I am compelled to exclaim: O tempora, O mores!

[Footnote: Epist. V. 20 (III. 745). He quotes in proof the pet-texts of popery, John xxi. 17; Luke xxii. 31; Matt. xvi. 18.]

We have no right to impeach Gregory’s sincerity. But he was clearly inconsistent in disclaiming the name, and yet claiming the thing itself. The real objection is to the pretension of a universal episcopate, not to the title. If we concede the former, the latter is perfectly legitimate. And such universal power had already been claimed by Roman pontiffs before Gregory, such as Leo I., Felix, Gelasius, Hormisdas, in language and acts more haughty and self-sufficient than his.

(Schaff, IV, Chapter 4, “The Papal Hierarchy and the Holy Roman Empire,” § 51.“Gregory and the Universal Episcopate,” pp. 224-225)

. . . Agatho (678–681). After sufficient preparations, he called, in concert with Agatho, a General Council . . .

The epistle of Agatho is a worthy sequel of Leo’s Epistle to the Chalcedonian Council, and equally clear and precise in stating the orthodox view. It is also remarkable for the confidence with which it claims infallibility for the Roman church, in spite of the monotheletic heresy of Pope Honorius (who is prudently ignored). Agatho quotes the words of Christ to Peter, Luke 22:31, 32, in favor of papal infallibility, anticipating, as it were, the Vatican decision of 1870. (Schaff, IV, Chapter XI, “Doctrinal Controversies,” § 112. “The Sixth Oecumenical Council. a.d. 680,” pp. 499-500)

Nicolas I. is the greatest pope, we may say the only great pope between Gregory I. and Gregory VII. He stands between them as one of three peaks of a lofty mountain, separated from the lower peak by a plane, and from the higher peak by a deep valley. He appeared to his younger contemporaries as a “new Elijah,” who ruled the world like a sovereign of divine appointment, terrible to the evil-doer whether prince or priest, yet mild to the good and obedient. He was elected less by the influence of the clergy than of the emperor Louis II., and consecrated in his presence; he lived with him on terms of friendship, and was treated in turn with great deference to his papal dignity. He anticipated Hildebrand in the lofty conception of his office; and his energy and boldness of character corresponded with it. The pope was in his view the divinely appointed superintendent of the whole church for the maintenance of order, discipline and righteousness, and the punishment of wrong and vice, with the aid of the bishops as his executive organs. He assumed an imperious tone towards the Carolingians. He regarded the imperial crown a grant of the vicar of St. Peter for the protection of Christians against infidels. The empire descended to Louis by hereditary right, but was confirmed by the authority of the apostolic see. (Schaff, IV, Chapter 4, “The Papal Hierarchy and the Holy Roman Empire,” § 61. “Nicolas I., April, 858-Nov. 13, 867,” p. 274)

Philip Schaff, the great Protestant Church historian, whom no one would accuse of having a “Catholic bias” in matters of either history or dogma, thus (rather decisively) substantiates my point of view on the development of the papacy. I shall cite some of his most striking words again, so the crucial point will not be lost in the multitude of words in these quite-necessary and important citations:

The idea of the papacy, and its claims to the universal dominion of the church, were distinctly put forward, it is true, so early as the period before us. [311-600]

Innocent I. (402–417) . . . ventured the bold assertion, that in the whole Christian world nothing should be decided without the cognizance of the Roman see.

[Leo the Great; r. 440-461] was animated with the unwavering conviction that the Lord himself had committed to him, as the successor of Peter, the care of the whole church. He anticipated all the dogmatical arguments by which the power of the papacy was subsequently established.

[Leo the Great thought that] the bishopric of Constantinople, not being a sedes apostolica, but resting its dignity on a political basis alone, can never rival the Roman, whose primacy is rooted both in divine and human right.

Whosoever, says he [Leo the Great], is not with . . . the head of the body, whence all gifts of grace descend throughout the body, is not in the body of the church, and has no part in her grace.

Gelasius I. (492–496) clearly announced the principle, that the priestly power is above the kingly and the imperial, and that from the decisions of the chair of Peter there is no appeal.

. . . it cannot be denied that Gregory [the Great; r. 590-604] . . . claimed and exercised, . . . the authority and oversight over the whole church of Christ, even in the East.

. . . such universal power had already been claimed by Roman pontiffs before Gregory, such as Leo I., Felix, Gelasius, Hormisdas, in language and acts more haughty and self-sufficient than his.

Agatho [r. 678-681] quotes the words of Christ to Peter, Luke 22:31, 32, in favor of papal infallibility, anticipating, as it were, the Vatican decision of 1870.

[Nicolas I; r. 858-867] anticipated Hildebrand in the lofty conception of his office; . . . The pope was in his view the divinely appointed superintendent of the whole church for the maintenance of order, discipline and righteousness, and the punishment of wrong and vice, with the aid of the bishops as his executive organs.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church agrees with Schaff’s overall appraisal, starting with Pope Victor I [r. 189-198], and summarizing the accomplishments of many significant popes. Victor I set the date for Easter for the whole of Christianity:

The whole incident is an important step in the history of the Papal supremacy. (Cross, 1437)

Damasus (r. 366-384):

Damasus did much to strengthen the position of the see of Rome (Decree of Gratian, 378). (Cross, 374)

Siricius (r. 384-399):

His pontificate is of importance as marking a new stage in the development of Papal authority. (Cross, 1280)

Innocent I (r. 402-417):

He insisted that major cases of dispute should be brought to the judgement of the Apostolic See. His determination to exercise authority in the East as well as the West is reflected in his support of St. John Chrysostom against his adversaries . . . (Cross, 703)

Leo the Great (r. 440-461):

His Papacy is remarkable chiefly through the enormous extent to which he advanced and consolidated the influence of the Roman see. At a time of general disorder he sought to strengthen the Church by energetic central government, based on a firm belief that the supremacy of his see was of Divine and Scriptural authority, and he pressed his claims to jurisdiction in Africa, Spain, and Gaul. He also secured from Valentinian III a rescript which recognized his jurisdiction over all the Western provinces.  (Cross, 811)

Simplicius (r. 468-483):

. . . he considerably advanced the jurisdictional claims and prestige of the Holy See. In the East he successfully intervened in defence of the Chalcedonian formula against its Monophysite critics.  (Cross, 1278)

Gelasius (r. 492-496):

On his accession to the Papacy he continued the policy of his predecessor, Felix III, in tenaciously upholding the primacy of the Roman See against Constantinople during the Acacian Schism. (Cross, 552)

Hormisdas (r. 514-523):

Hormisdas secured in 519 . . . the signature of John, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and afterwards of some 250 Eastern bishops, to a dogmatic formula (the ‘Formula Hormisdae’) in which . . . Acacius and other heretics were expressly condemned, and the authority of the Roman see (on the basis of Mt. 16.18) was strongly emphasized. (Cross, 666)

Gregory the Great (r. 590-604):

In his frequently strained relations with the East he upheld the supremacy of the Roman see and refused to recognize the title of ‘Oecumenical Patriarch’, adopted by the Patriarch of Constantinople . . . His pontificate and personality did much to establish the idea in men’s minds that the Papacy was the supreme authority in the Church. (Cross, 594-595)

Nicholas I (r. 858-867):

He successfully asserted the supremacy of the see of Rome against Archbishop John of Ravenna . . . Similarly, Hincmar of Reims was obliged to acknowledge the right of the Papacy to intervene in disputes. (Cross, 970)

We see not a word of alleged multiple ecclesiologies, or of councils as equally or more authoritative and influential (let alone “orthodox”) as the papacy in any of this (for example, councils attempting to curb the growing exercise and claims of papal power and jurisdiction). The chief claims to authority were popes and emperors, not “popes vs. councils,” as conciliarists imply was the scenario throughout the late patristic period and Middle Ages.

Instead, historical fact (as summarized above) demonstrates a steady procession of popes, one after another (ten are listed above, from the years 189-867, but mostly from 366-604) who consistently view the papacy as the supreme office in the Church. Their views are entirely consistent with those of the later Gregory VII, whose policies were but a development of the earlier papacy, not a “revolution” or “radical” change. The popes could and did appeal to both Holy Scripture and the prominence of Rome as the final destination of the Apostles Paul and Peter. Other rival sees could claim little or nothing of the sort, except for raw power based on historical expedience or royal favor.
Gregory VII’s policies were not radically different from the previous papacy (especially from the patristic period some 300-700 years earlier), and were a consistent development. Moreover, I have demonstrated this mostly by citing Protestant historians and plenty of historical “substance.”
III. The Relative Importance and Levels of Authority of the Papacy and Councils in the Western Church


Some Protestant apologists contend that later “Protestant conciliarism” (a curious concept in and of itself) or the Protestant ecclesiology in general of the so-called “magisterial reformers”, can legitimately appeal to a supposedly “orthodox” tradition of conciliarism and be regarded as a consistent continuation or development of it. In so doing, They hope to demonstrate that Protestantism (every bit as much as Catholicism) is equally “historical” and “organically connected” to the thought and theology of Middle Ages which preceded its genesis (at least with regard to ecclesiology). It is an attempt to be “deep in history,” yet to remain proudly Protestant.
But is this scenario consistent with the facts and the ecclesiology of the medieval Catholic Church as self-understood? I shall argue below that the answer is definitely “no.” Oftentimes, these apologists are merely anachronistically applying Protestant modes of thinking to Catholic thinking. This is, of course, improper and fundamentally in error. To analyze the Catholic tradition and attempt to derive one’s own tradition from it, it is necessary to understand that tradition as it was understood by its own adherents and practitioners. This is particularly true concerning the criteria of orthodoxy, which every community determines for itself. With this introductory background, let us turn again to the historians.

Philip Schaff dates the practice of papal approval of councils to the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

The papal confirmation, on the contrary, was not considered necessary, until after the fourth general council, in 451. And notwithstanding this, Justinian broke through the decrees of the fifth council of 553, without the consent, and in fact, despite the intimated refusal of Pope Vigilius. In the middle ages, however, the case was reversed. The influence of the pope on the councils increased, and that of the emperor declined. (Schaff, Vol. III, Chapter V, “The Hierarchy and Polity of the Church,” § 65. “The Synodical System. The Ecumenical Councils,” p. 338)

Latourette and Pelikan also offer similar observations:

We have noted how Leo’s Tome set forth the doctrinal position which was approved by the Council of Chalcedon. Leo declined to recognize as valid the canon enacted by that body which elevated the see of Constantinople to a position substantially equal with that of Rome, thus seeming to assert the right of his office to dissent from decrees of a general or ecumenical council but basing his opposition in part on the finality of what had been done earlier at Nicaea. (Latourette, 186)

. . . the theory which had prevailed in the West for the past several centuries . . which insisted that the Pope alone could call a general council, that either he or his representative must preside, and that none of its actions was valid without his approval. (Latourette, 628)

. . . his definition of what constituted an ecumenical and orthodox council had at its center the stipulation that the pope must validate such an assembly for it to have universal authority over the church. (Pelikan, 231, referring to the views of Anselm of Havelberg [12th century]; drawing from his Dialogues in Constantinople with Nicetas of Nicomedia, 3, 12; Patrologia Latina [PL] 188:1226-1228)

In an effort to find a “conciliarist” in the late first millennium, some modern-day conciliarists propose Hincmar of Rheims (c. 806-882). But is it accurate to describe this great bishop and canonist as a “conciliarist,” if by that we mean a denial of papal supremacy? No, it is not. Historian Warren Carroll, founder of Christendom College, and author of a six-volume history of Christianity (four completed as of this writing), fills in the record a bit:

. . . the Pope [Nicholas] had made it unmistakably clear to all Christendom that kings as well as other Christians were under the law of Christ and that His Vicar would enforce His law . . . Pope Nicholas received an appeal against Hincmar from Bishop Rothad of Soissons, whom Hincmar had deposed and confined in a monastery. The Pope required Hincmar, very much against his will, to allow Rothad to come to Rome. Hincmar, though a proud prelate who responded with detailed arguments justifying his actions regarding Rothad, nevertheless wrote to Pope Nicholas:

I know that we as bishops are subject to the Pope of Rome . . . If it shall be your pleasure to restore Rothad, I will submit quietly to your will.

. . . Later, Hincmar’s own right to be Archbishop of Reims was challenged before Pope Nicholas. In July 867 Hincmar sent this letter to the great Pope, by some pilgrims travelling to Rome:

I am sure that my Creator must see rust of evil deeply ingrained upon my soul, or He would not expose it so often to this purgatorial fire from the seat of Apostolic authority. I know that in other ways I am a sinner; but I have ever been a faithful and a devoted subject of the Holy See and its rulers. With all contrition and with all the humility within me, I beg you not to believe any man who shall tell you that in this I lie. Ever since I received your letter, I have not had a thought of withstanding in any way the decision made at Soissons in 866 and confirmed by you. (Carroll, 351-352, citing Eleanor S. Duckett, Carolingian Portraits, a Study in the Ninth Century [Ann Arbor, Michigan: 1962, 1969, 244, 253-254] )

Non-Catholic historian Jaroslav Pelikan, of Yale University: a highly-revered scholar and expert on the development of doctrine throughout Church history, concurs with Carroll’s judgment:

. . . Western doctrine had already moved unmistakably in the direction of papal monarchy, which was to reach its climax in the thirteenth century. In Isidore’s formula, the pope, as supreme pontiff, was “the chief of priests . . . the highest priest”; it was he who appointed all other priests in the church and who had all ecclesiastical offices at his disposal. Therefore even so vigorous a proponent of the special claims and administrative autonomy of metropolitans as Hincmar, the archbishop of Reims in the ninth century, pointed out, in his very defense of these claims, that “solicitude for all the churches has been committed to the holy Roman church, in Peter, the prince of the apostles.” His quarrels were with individual incumbents of the papacy over particular matters of policy and ecclesiastical administration, never with the status of Rome as the principal see of Christendom. The church of Rome was “the mother and the teacher {mater et magistra},” whose authority was to be consulted on all questions of faith and morals, and her instructions were to be obeyed.  (Pelikan, 48; citing or drawing from Hincmar and Isidore:

On the Rights of Metropolitans, 18 and 4; Patrologia Latina (PL) 126:199 and 126:190
Epistles, 169; Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH); Epistolae8:154
On the Divorce of Lothair and Tetberga, pr.; PL 125:623
Isidore of Seville [c. 560-636]: Origins, 7,12,13; PL 82:291 )

Contrary to some conciliarist claims, the see of Rome and the popes were indeed the standards of orthodoxy throughout these years, according to historians:

Elaborating on the metaphor of the church as mother, he [Hincmar] characterized “the catholic, apostolic, and holy Roman church” as the one who had “given birth to us in faith, fed us with catholic milk,’ nourished us with breasts full of heaven until we were ready for solid food, and led us by her orthodox discipline to perfect manhood.” To those who were faithful and pious members of the catholic church, the validity of a doctrine could be established simply by showing what this church taught. Not only did the church decide which books belonged in the Catholic canon of Scripture; it was also the attestation of “the holy see of Rome” that provided credentials for the church fathers, so that “if there are some who are called doctors {of the church}, we do not accept or cite their statements in proof of the purity of the faith unless that same catholic mother church has decreed that their statements are sound.” (Pelikan, 48; citing Hincmar of Rheims:

On Predestination, 4 and 24; Patrologia Latina (PL) 125:88 and 125:214
Epistles, 99; Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH); Epistolae8:48 )

Kenneth Scott Latourette, the renowned Baptist Church historian from Yale, agrees, concerning the patristic period:

As we have seen, the Popes usually took an active part in the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries over the relation of the divine and human in Jesus Christ and between Augustinianism and Pelagianism and, with two possible and brief exceptions, were on the side which the majority eventually regarded as orthodox. Rome was more and more esteemed in the Catholic Church as the representative and champion of true Christianity. (Latourette, 186)

Before receiving his pallium a new archbishop was required to make a written statement of his orthodox faith, and this requirement established the pope as the judge of orthodoxy at the highest provincial level of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. (Southern, 97-98)

The entire authority of the Gospels proclaimed what all the statements of the apostles affirmed, and this was also what the great broad world believed and what the Roman church declared. Hincmar of Rheims lined up “the authority of the Holy Scriptures” with that of “the orthodox teachers” and that of the Roman see as witnesses to the truth of Christ and of his church. This also implied that it was up to the church to decide which books belonged to the canon of Scripture. (Pelikan, 43-44, citing Hincmar and drawing from three other notable figures:

Alcuin [c. 735-804], Epistles, 23; Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH): Epistolae 4:62.
Hincmar, On Predestination, pr.; Patrologia Latina (PL): 125:65.
Isidore of Seville, Prefaces to the Books of the Old and New Testaments (In libros veteris ac novi testamenti proema), 8; PL 83:158.
Ambrose Autpert [d. 779], Commentary on the Apocalypse, 10; from Corpus christianorum. Continuatio mediaevalis (Turnhout, Belgium, 1966 -): 27:868.)

The subject of such ecclesiological predicates as “one” or “catholic” was the institutional, hierarchical church, more specifically, the body of those who acknowledged the authority of the see of Rome. To be a catholic rather than a schismatic, one had to follow the well-established authority of the Roman church. Those who had separated themselves from this authority were accused of supposing that Christ had a church no broader than their own sect, and hence of believing that power in the church had been taken away from its legitimate incumbents and transferred to the few who belonged to this “new church.” Outside the borders of the true church it was useless to make a boast oof one’s orthodoxy or of adherence ot the catholic faith. Authentic orthodoxy and legitimate church membership were inseparable. “For our part,” Alcuin announced, “we take our stand firmly within the borders of the apostolic doctrine and of the holy Roman church, following their established authority and clinging to their sacred doctrine, introducing nothing new and accepting nothing apart from what we find in their catholic writings.” This was the only reliable guarantee of believing correctly and thereby of attaining salvation in the kingdom of heaven.

Standing behind the guarantee was the apostle Peter, to whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven had been entrusted. He was, in a title originally applied to the Roman god Janus, “the heavenly wielder of the keys, who throws open the gate of heaven.”

. . . Aldhelm, used the words of Christ to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 to argue that “if the keys of the kingdom of heaven have been conferred on Peter by Christ . . . , who can triumphantly enter into the gates of the heavenly Paradise if he scorns the chief statutes of {Peter’s} church and despises the commandments of its doctrine” about the date of Easter? It was a violation of “the rule of the catholic faith on the basis of the commandments of Scripture” for English monks not to conform to “the tonsure of Saint Peter, the prince of the apostles.” century or so later, another scion of the English church objected to the use of salt in the celebration of the Eucharist on the grounds that “this custom is neither observed by the universal church nor validated by the authority of Rome.” (Pelikan, 45-47, drawing from or citing:

Alcuin, Epistles, 137 and 23; Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH): Epistolae 4:215 and 4:61-62.
Aldhelm [d. 709], Epistles, 4; MGH: Auctores Antiquissimi, 15:486.
Alcuin, Against Felix, 1,4; Patrologia Latina (PL): 101:131.
Matthew 16:19
Ovid.Fasti 1:228.
Aldhelm, Hymns (Carmina ecclesiastica), 1,6; 4, 1, 2; MGH: Auctores Antiquissimi, 15,11; 19.
Aldhelm, Epistles, 4; MGH: Auctores Antiquissimi, 15:485 and 15:482.
Alcuin, Epistles, 137; Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH): Epistolae 4:211. )

But in opposition to such local usage there stood the universal rule of prayer as set down by the church of Rome. Its liturgical tradition went back to Peter and Paul themselves, and therefore its usage was authoritative. Hence it was appropriate to quote from the Roman liturgy in establishing the orthodoxy of the anti-adoptionist position.  (Pelikan, 68; drawing from:

Bishops of Francia, Epistle to Elipandus, 7; Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH): Concilia 2: 1:145.
Hincmar of Rheims, On the Deity as One and Not Three, 13; Patrologia Latina (PL): 125:573.
Alcuin, Against Felix, 7, 13; PL 101:227. )

Latourette comments on the period roughly between 500 and 1000, and on Gregory the Great’s papacy in particular (590-604):

These many tribal, embryonic national Christian communities possessed a common tie in the Church of Rome. The popes were increasingly acknowledged as the visible head of the Church and to a greater or less extent exercised supervision. (Latourette, 352)

In the general disorder, the Papacy, under some very able men, markedly increased its power and extended the geographical range of its authority. In principle, as we have seen, even before the year 500 its claims were sweeping . . .

[Gregory the Great] insisted on the primacy of Rome, especially against the claims of the Patriarch of Constantinople . . . Gregory was not just another consul: he was a consul of God and the empire which he sought to strengthen was, as he saw it, the kingdom of God in which Christ was ruler and the Pope, as Peter’s successor, Christ’s viceregent . . . More than any other one man, Gregory laid the foundations for the power which the Church of Rome was to exercise in the Western Europe of the next nine centuries . . .

This trend towards regarding the popes as the successors of the Caesars and the Papacy as the exponent and protector of Romanitas . . . gave to the Church of the West a structural unity, helped to hold Europe together, and made for civilization. (Latourette, 337, 339-340)

. . . the Christianity of the West was dominated by Rome. In spite of its weakness in the last half of the ninth and the first half of the tenth century, the Bishopric of Rome, the Papacy, exerted an influence over almost all Western Christendom. Only over the far periphery, especially Ireland, and Spain under the Arabs did it have little control . . . a degree of unity to Western Christendom which was in striking contrast with the increasing and enduring schisms in the East. (Latourette, 368)

R. W. Southern makes many fascinating comments about the period:

The fall of the Roman Empire . . . was complete by the end of the seventh century. It was then that the work of rebuilding began. The dominating ideal in the rebuilding was that the unitary authority of the Empire should be replaced by the unitary authority of the papacy . . . An imperial papacy was the main articulate principle behind the medieval reconstruction of society . . .

It was this attempt at imperial reconstruction under papal auspices that gives a measure of unity to the Middle Ages — not as the coiners of the phrase imagined, by abandoning the ideals of the ancient world, but by attempting to give them new life . . . the attempt to keep the Roman Empire alive was not entirely chimerical. Looked on in this perspective it is not absurd to say that the Roman Empire achieved its fullest development in the thirteenth century with Innocent IV playing Caesar to Frederick II’s Pompey. The unity of the period from the seventh to the sixteenth century comes from the more or less effective preservation of a unity that draws its strength from the ancient world . . .

During the whole medieval period there was in Rome a single spiritual and temporal authority exercising powers which in the end exceeded those that had ever lain within the grasp of a Roman Emperor. Of course the papacy changed greatly in the course of these centuries. Its pretensions were never the same as its practice, and even its strongest advocates differed about the legitimate limits of the papal primacy. Nor did it lack open enemies. The Greek Church in its slow decline, the majority of secular rulers at one time or another, and a wide variety of anti-hierarchical critics throughout the Middle Ages opposed a steady resistance to the most cherished claims of the papacy. It is an illusion to think of the Middle Ages as a time of unanimity. The nature of the papal monarchy and the medieval objection to it will need careful consideration. But it would be foolish to make too many qualifications at the outset. For the whole of this period — from the age of Bede to that of Luther, from the effective replacement of imperial by papal authority in the West in the eighth century to the fragmentation of that authority in the sixteenth . . . the papacy is the dominant institution in western Europe.

. . . In 1453 the papal view of Christendom had triumphed. More than any other force it had been responsible for giving western Christendom an independent existence in the eighth century, and for providing a doctrinal basis for western supremacy from the eleventh century onwards. The movement towards Conciliar government in the church, which might have offered a new path to unity, had in the end collapsed, not least because of the strength of the papacy. So, from the point of view of Christendom as a whole, the papacy was the great divisive force throughout the Middle Ages. But, from the point of view of the West, it was the source of unity and the symptom of strength. (Southern, 24-26, 89-90)

To write briefly about the medieval papacy without being superficial requires a strict limitation of the questions to be discussed. Even then it will not be easy. The splendour and overwhelming authority of the papal position during most of our period, the wealth of documents, and the ramifications of papal activity into every corner of Europe and into every branch of European life make limitation difficult. The thirteenth-century formula Papa qui et ecclesia dici potest: ‘the Pope who also can be called the Church’ has sufficient truth in it to make it hazardous to treat the papacy as an institution apart from the body which it animated.  (Southern, 91)

. . . no one in the West denied that the pope possessed all the authority of St Peter over the church. The derivation of the pope’s authority seemed one of the clearest facts of history. The descent of this authority could be traced step by step from the earliest days without any of the shadows of ambiguity or ignorance that trouble a modern observer . . . From the beginning St Peter and his successors could be seen at work directing the church, instituting ceremonies, defining discipline, founding bishoprics. This scheme of things had the same unambiguous clarity as the generations of mankind from Adam.

. . . It was possible to say in a quite practical way, without any thought of metaphor, that men met in Rome ‘in the presence of St Peter’. This presence was the source of western unity during these centuries. It was a unity compatible with the very slightest exercise of administrative authority.

. . . It seems to have been in England in the seventh century that the idea first took root that no archbishop could exercise his metropolitan functions until he had received a pallium from Rome. But whatever the origins of the practice, it soon became universal in the provinces of the western church . . . there was established a single chain of profession and obedience throughout the western church. (Southern, 94, 96-98)

Referring even to the period of the Great Schism, prominent Church historian Alister E. McGrath states:

It was widely accepted that the final arbiter in all doctrinal disputes within the church was the pope.  (McGrath, 35)

This authority and state of affairs dates from the 4th century, as J. N. D. Kelly, the great Anglican patristic scholar observes:

By the middle of the fifth century the Roman church had established, de jure as well as de facto, a position of primacy in the West, and the papal claims to supremacy over all bishops in Christendom had been formulated in precise terms . . . The student tracing the history of the times . . . cannot fail to be impressed by the skill and persistence with which the Holy See was continually advancing and consolidating its claims . . . it was easy to draw the inference that the unique authority which Rome in fact enjoyed, and which the popes saw concentrated in their persons and their office, was no more than the fulfillment of the divine plan. (Kelly, 417)


In his descriptions of Peter, Bede likewise made use of traditional prerogatives. He called Peter “the patron of the entire church” and “the first pastor of the church,” as well as “the prince of the apostles” . . . Bede could take the commission to Peter to mean that “the Lord commanded St. Peter to take care of his entire flock, that is, of the church,” . . .

. . . He customarily referred to Rome as “the holy and apostolic see,” and he supported the authority of Roman doctrine and practice as catholic against local deviations from it. (Pelikan, 46-47; citing the Venerable Bede (c. 673-735):

History of the Abbots, I; 2, in Charles Plummer, Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, Volume I: Text, Oxford: 1896.
Exposition of I Peter, 5; PL 93: 64-65.
Ecclesiastical History, 1, 29; 2, 1; 3, 25; in Plummer, 63; 73; 188)

We have determined in our synod: that we shall maintain the catholic faith and unity and our subjection to the Roman Church as long as we live; that we shall be the willing subjects of St. Peter and of his Vicar; that we shall hold a synod every year; that our metropolitan bishops shall ask for their palliums from that See; and that in all things we shall obey the orders of St. Peter according to the canons, so that we may be counted among the sheep entrusted to his care. To these declarations we have all agreed and subscribed, and we have forwarded them to the shrine of St. Peter, prince of the Apostles. The Roman clergy and the pontiff have gratefully accepted them.

. . . And every bishop finding himself unable to reform or correct some fault in his own diocese shall lay the case openly in the synod before the archbishop for correction, just as the Roman Church, at my ordination, bound me by an oath that if I should find priests or people wandering from the law of God and could not correct them, I would always faithfully report the case to the Apostolic See and the Vicar of St. Peter for settlement. Thus, if I am not mistaken, should every bishop do to his metropolitan, and he to the Roman pontiff, if the case cannot be settled among themselves. So shall they be guiltless of the blood of lost souls. (St. Boniface [680-754], in Downs, 57-58; citing Ephraim Emerton, translator, The Letters of St. Boniface [Records of Civilization, 31, Columbia University Press, New York, 1940], 136-141)


Luther tends to defend the sola scriptura principle by emphasizing the confusion and incoherence of medieval theology, whereas Calvin and Melanchthon argue that the best catholic theology (such as that of Augustine) supports their views on the priority of Scripture. (McGrath, 142)

In other words, rather than being a continuation of medieval theology and ecclesiology, early Protestantism, according to McGrath, either rejected medieval theology as confused and corrupt (Luther, whose disdain for Scholasticism is well-known) or hearkened back to St. Augustine 1100 years earlier, skipping the entire Middle Ages. Thus, speaking of the so-called “Reformers”‘ outlook, and after citing John Calvin, McGrath writes:

Historical continuity is of little importance in relation to the faithful proclamation of the Word of God . . . Where catholics stressed the importance of historical continuity, the reformers emphasized equally the importance of doctrinal continuity. While Protestant churches could not generally provide historical continuity with the episcopacy . . . they could supply the necessary fidelity to Scripture — thus, in their view, legitimating the Protestant ecclesiastical offices. There might not be an unbroken historical link between the leaders of the Reformation and the bishops of the early church, but, the reformers argued, since they believed and taught the same faith as those early church bishops (rather than the distorted gospel of the medieval church), the necessary continuity was there none the less.

. . . The opponents of the Reformation, however, were able to draw on a dictum of Augustine: ‘I should not have believed the gospel, unless I was moved by the authority of the catholic church.’ (McGrath, 143)

This analysis is quite at odds with some Protestant apologists’ failed attempt to make Protestantism consistent with the period which came before it. This is as true of ecclesiology (closely related to the issue of sola Scriptura, which involves the nature of authority) as it is of the theology of salvation, or soteriology (primarily, justification), and other areas where Protestantism introduced previously-unknown or scarcely-known beliefs. They were radicals and revolutionaries in these respects, just as the conciliarists had been.

It makes sense to draw that comparison in that respect, but not to claim that conciliarism was every bit as orthodox as papal supremacy; therefore, Protestantism continued one valid Catholic tradition and can thus claim historical continuity and consistent development from one form of Catholic “orthodoxy.” Such a mythical and non-factual scenario has been, I think, systematically dismantled by the observations of the historians compiled here.

McGrath provides a fascinating commentary on the relationship of Scripture and Tradition in early Protestant thought, and shows how the founders of Protestantism struggled with this issue (in trying very hard to be equally “historical” as Catholics and Orthodox, as Protestants):

The only wing of the Reformation to apply the scriptura sola principle consistently was the radical Reformation, or ‘Anabaptism’ . . .

The magisterial Reformation was painfully aware of the threat of individualism, and attempted to avoid this threat by stressing the church’s traditional interpretation of Scripture where this traditional interpretation was regarded as correct. Doctrinal criticism was directed against those areas in which catholic theology or practice had gone far beyond, or to have contradicted, Scripture. As most of these developments had taken place in the Middle Ages, it is not surprising that the reformers spoke of the period 1200-1500 as an ‘era of decay’ or a ‘period of corruption’ which they had a mission to reform. Equally, it is hardly surprising that we find the reformers appealing to the Fathers as generally reliable interpreters of Scripture.

. . . This understanding of the sola scriptura principle allowed the reformers to criticize their opponents on both sides — on the one side the radicals, on the other the catholics. The catholics argued that the reformers elevated private judgement above the corporate judgement of the church. The reformers replied that they were doing nothing of the sort: they were simply restoring that corporate judgement to what it once was, by combating the doctrinal degeneration of the Middle Ages by an appeal to the corporate judgement of the patristic era. (McGrath, 144-146)

The early reformers were convinced that the medieval church had become corrupted and its doctrine distorted through a departure from Scripture on the one hand and through human additions to Scripture on the other.

. . . this understanding of the church is functional, rather than historical: what legitimates a church or its office-bearers is not historical continuity with the apostolic church, but theological continuity.

. . . most of the radicals . . . were equally consistent in their views of the institutional church. The true church was in heaven, and its institutional parodies were on earth.

Luther was thus forced to deal with two difficulties. If the church was not defined institutionally, but was defined by the preaching of the gospel, how could he distinguish his views from those of the radicals? He himself had conceded that ‘the church is holy even where the fanatics (Luther’s term for the radicals) are dominant, so long as they do not deny the word and the sacraments’. Alert to the political realities of the situation, he countered by asserting the need for an institutional church. Just as he tempered the radical implications of the scriptura sola principle by an appeal to tradition . . . , so he tempered his potentially radical views on the nature of the true church by insisting that it had to be viewed as an historical institution . . .

Luther is thus obliged to assert that ‘the false church has only the appearance, although it also possesses the Christian offices’. In other words, the medieval church may have looked like the real thing, but it was really something rather different. The logic of the situation became impossible . . .

Luther accepted Augustine’s view of the church as a ‘mixed’ body, whereas the radicals developed a Donatist view of the church as a body of the just, and the just alone . . .

But what basis did Luther then have for breaking away from the Catholic church? Does not this aspect of his theory of the church necessarily imply that there will always be corruption in the true church? On the basis of Augustine’s theory, corruption in the Catholic church does not necessarily mean that it is a ‘false church’. (McGrath, 190-194)

McGrath (one of the premier experts today on late medieval theology and doctrinal development) argues that the early Protestants were opposed to the historical developments of the Middle Ages almost on principle. They virtually “ditched” the entire period and went straight back to the Church Fathers, whom they mistakenly regarded as some sort of proto-Protestants and advocates of sola Scriptura (neither opinion is true, of course, as can easily be demonstrated).

This is what I have often called “the Protestant myth” (I used to strongly believe in it myself): the romantic, wistful longing to return to a supposed Golden Age of the Church before all the alleged corruptions of Rome and the papacy; where the holy Church Fathers (people like Augustine and Athanasius: perhaps the two Father most beloved of Protestants, inasmuch as they consider the period at all) en masse, followed Bible Alone and Faith Alone, and so forth. I have dealt with these topics at length elsewhere.

The case for the “Protestant Myth of Origins” (i.e., that Protestantism is a direct derivation of patristic theology) is difficult enough to make; in fact (I would argue) literally impossible (and this becomes abundantly clear, in proportion to how familiar one becomes with patristic theology). The early Protestants — and Protestants characteristically ever since (though not necessarily, by their own initial principles, correctly understood) — were “anti-Middle Ages.” They didn’t seem to think that the period could be “co-opted” for Protestantism, and generally regarded the Middle Ages as a thoroughly Catholic period: thereby corrupt, and not in accord with Protestant theology and thought, which was a reaction against it.

McGrath admits that there is a difficulty in the Protestant view, such that it produces a certain inconsistency (excepting the Anabaptist tradition, which, according to McGrath, is “the only wing of the Reformation” which is “utterly consistent” in its a-historicism, or application of “the scriptura sola principle” and which “had no place whatsoever for the ‘testimony of the Fathers’ ” [p. 146]). He takes great pains to show that the mainstream Reformation (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) was not “anti-historical,” yet he sees that they are not entirely consistent in this regard. I completely agree with this analysis. McGrath refers to the “new evangelical churches” and then describes Calvin’s view:

For Calvin, the marks of the true church were that the Word of God should be preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Since the Roman Catholic church did not conform even to this minimalist definition of the church, the evangelicals were perfectly justified in leaving it. And as the evangelical churches conformed to this definition of a church, there was no justification for further division within them. (McGrath, 194)

Note how he distinguishes between the Reformed and Catholic churches and compares Calvin to Lenin, as a revolutionary:

By the time of Calvin’s death (1564), the Reformed church was as institutionalized as its Catholic counterpart and had become its most formidable opponent . . .

The establishment of an ecclesiastical apparatus appropriate to Calvin’s goals must be regarded as one of the most significant aspects of his ministry, and lends added weight to the case for comparing Calvin to Lenin; both were admirably aware of the importance of institutions for the propagation of their respective revolutions, and lost no time in organizing what was required. (McGrath, 195-196)

This analysis runs contrary to a certain sophisticated, historically-minded Protestant self-perception which holds that Protestantism is part of the “catholic church” in some sense, not “separate” from it, and that the movement and its founders never intended to separate. The very term “reformer” implies an internal reform of an existing institution, without overthrowing or leaving it. This is why I don’t think “reformer” is an accurate term for the Protestant Founders, viewed in relation to the Catholic Church that existed before them. I have always thought of the so-called “Reformation” as, rather, a “revolt.”

McGrath broadly supports my sociological opinion on this matter by speaking of separate institutions, self-consciously set up as “opponents” to the institutional Catholic Church. He refers to Calvin’s work as a “revolution” and compares him to Lenin (a most apt comparison, in my opinion, in the precisely limited sense in which McGrath intends). This is refreshing to observe (especially coming from such a respected Protestant historian).
Though granting an extreme minimalist Christian legitimacy to the Catholic Church (e.g., valid baptism), Calvin nevertheless is more or less absolutely opposed to the institutional Catholic Church:

. . . nothing could be less like the Church than the Pope and his gang; that a hotch-potch of corrupt inventions infected with so many superstitious fictions is far from the genuine faith. But with all their furious impudence they will never stop the truth, which we have so often and firmly maintained, from prevailing in the end. (Balke, 229-230; from Calvin’s commentary on John 9:15)

Lastly, Calvin “held that a definite pattern of church government was prescribed by Scripture” (McGrath, 200). But McGrath notes how he contradicts himself:

Curiously, the lists of ecclesiastical offices (IV. iii. 3; IV. iii.4; IV. iv. 1) which Calvin presents within the Institutes do not harmonize, and leave both the status of elders (or presbyters) and the number of ministries in some doubt. (McGrath, 200)

IV. Conciliarism as Predominantly a Desperate Heterodox Response to a Cultural Crisis


Just as the residence of the popes at Avignon exacerbated the situation so did the Great Schism in the Church which occurred in 1378 . . . It lasted till 1417, but its consequences lasted long after that. These consequences were: a forced administrative division of the Church into regions largely corresponding with kingdoms; a sharp decline in the standing of the pope vis-a-vis princes; a doctrine that councils of the Church were in the last resort superior to popes . . .

In the course of these years a doctrine had grown up, embodied in a decree or canon of the Council, which said that a General Council was in the last resort superior to a pope . . . (Denys Hay, “The Background to the Reformation,” in Hurstfield, 12)

If conciliar doctrine arose as a “consequence” of, and had “grown up” because of the Great Schism, how can anyone contend (as some do) that it was a standard option in ecclesiology all the way back to the 4th century?

Conciliar Theory. The doctrine that the supreme authority in the Church lies with a General Council. The movement associated with this theory culminated in the 15th century, but the foundations of it were laid in the early years of the 13th . . . The outbreak of the Great Schism in 1378 raised the question of the supremacy of authority in an acute form.  (Cross, 326)

Again, if the “foundations” of conciliarism arose in the early 13th century (the above source traces it to Hugh of Pisa, who died in 1210), then someone must be right and someone wrong.

Conciliarism, in the Roman Catholic Church, a theory that a general council of the church has greater authority than the pope and may, if necessary, depose him. Conciliarism had its roots in discussions of 12th- and 13th-century canonists who were attempting to set juridical limitations on the power of the papacy. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985, III, 515)

In truth, that Church [the “Gallican” / French church], during the Merovingian period, testifies the same deference to the Holy See as do all the others. Ordinary questions of discipline are in the ordinary course settled in councils, often held with the assent of the kings, but on great occasions — at the Councils of Epaone (517), of Vaison (529), of Valence (529), of Orleans (538), of Tours (567) — the bishops do not fail to declare that they are acting under the impulse of the Holy See, or defer to its admonitions; they take pride in the approbation of the pope; they cause his name to be read aloud in the churches, just as is done in Italy and in Africa they cite his decretals as a source of ecclesiastical law; they show indignation at the mere idea that anyone should fail in consideration for them. Bishops condemned in councils — like Salonius of Embrun Sagitarius of Gap, Contumeliosus of Riez — have no difficulty in appealing to the pope, who, after examination, either confirms or rectifies the sentence pronounced against them. The accession of the Carlovingian dynasty is marked by a splendid act of homage paid in France to the power of the papacy: before assuming the title of king, Pepin makes a point of securing the assent of Pope Zachary.

. . . Under Gregory VII the pope’s legates traversed France from north to south, they convoked and presided over numerous councils, and, in spite of sporadic and incoherent acts of resistance, they deposed bishops and excommunicated princes just as in Germany and Spain.

In the following two centuries Gallicanism is even yet unborn; the pontifical power attains its apogee in France as elsewhere, St. Bernard, then the standard bearer of the University of Paris, and St. Thomas outline the theory of that power, and their opinion is that of the school in accepting the attitude of Gregory VII and his successors in regard to delinquent princes, St. Louis, of whom it has been sought to make a patron of the Gallican system, is still ignorant of it — for the fact is now established that the Pragmatic Sanction, long attributed to him was a wholesale fabrication put together (about 1445) in the purlieus of the Royal Chancellery of Charles VII to lend countenance to the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges.

At the opening of the fourteenth century, however, the conflict between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII brings out the first glimmerings of the Gallican ideas. That king does not confine himself to maintaining that, as sovereign he is sole and independent master of his temporalities; he haughtily proclaims that, in virtue of the concession made by the pope, with the assent of a general council to Charlemagne and his successors, he has the right to dispose of vacant ecclesiastical benefices. With the consent of the nobility, the Third Estate, and a great part of the clergy, he appeals in the matter from Boniface VIII to a future general council — the implication being that the council is superior to the pope. The same ideas and others still more hostile to the Holy See reappear in the struggle of Fratricelles and Louis of Bavaria against John XXII; they are expressed by the pens of William Occam, of John of Jandun, and of Marsilius of Padua, professors in the University of Paris. Among other things, they deny the Divine origin of the papal primacy, and subject the exercise of it to the good pleasure of the temporal ruler. Following the pope, the University of Paris condemned these views; but for all that they did not entirely disappear from the memory, or from the disputations, of the schools, for the principal work of Marsilius, “Defensor Pacis”, wax translated into French in 1375, probably by a professor of the University of Paris The Great Schism reawakened them suddenly. The idea of a council naturally suggested itself as a means of terminating that melancholy rending asunder of Christendom. Upon that idea was soon grafted the “conciliary theory”, which sets the council above the pope, making it the sole representative of the Church, the sole organ of infallibility. Timidly sketched by two professors of the University of Paris, Conrad of Gelnhausen and Henry of Langenstein, this theory was completed and noisily interpreted to the public by Pierre d’Ailly and Gerson.

. . . The principal force of Gallicanism always was that which it drew from the external circumstances in which it arose and grew up: the difficulties of the Church, torn by schism; the encroachments of the civil authorities; political turmoil; the interested support of the kings of France.  (Herbermann, The Catholic Encyclopedia“Gallicanism,” VI, 353-355)

Liberal Catholic historian Francis Oakley spectacularly confirms my point about the late-breaking nature of conciliarism over against papal supremacy, in the very title of his new book: The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (Oxford University Press, 2004). Why in the world would he date the movement proper or “tradition” from the year 1300 if, in fact, the tradition was fully in evidence as a rival ecclesiology, as far back as the 4th century? Certainly (it seems quite reasonable to suppose) if there were earlier prominent movements, they would have been included in such a book (unless it was strictly confining itself to one particular period). The first two chapters are entitled:

1. “Christendom’s Crisis: The Great Schism, the Conciliar Movement, and the Era of Councils from Pisa to Trent”
2. “Gerson’s Hope: Fifteenth-Century Conciliarism and its Roots”

The synopsis for the book on reads in part:

. . . the council [of Constance] gave historic expression to a tradition of conciliarist constitutionalism which long competed for the allegiance of Catholics worldwide with the high papalist monarchical vision that was destined to triumph in 1870 at Vatican I and to become identified with Roman Catholic orthodoxy itself. This book sets out to reconstruct the half-millennial history of that vanquished rival tradition.

“Half-millennial” = 500 years, dating the movement (counting back to 1870) to approximately 1370, not 370. Philip Hughes comments upon the “desperate” confusion of the period of the Great Schism. But note how these opinions were not held by bishops and popes and councils, but merely byindividual theologians:

And in all these years there was a continuous discussion in the world of theologians and lawyers and royal councillors, not only as to ways and means, practical plans to end the schism, but as to rights and duties: the rights of subjects to take control when rulers show themselves incapable or unwilling, and the Church seems to be drifting to its ruin; the rights of bishops vis-a-vis their chief, the pope; the rights of the learned, expert in the theology of the Church and its law; the rights of the clergy in general; the rights of the laity . . . All manner of theories, and interpretations of law, and of past events, came in these desperate years into men’s minds. The new ideas, the suggested solutions, passed from one university to another, and were passionately discussed at all levels of society. (Hughes, 262)

To argue that every opinion on ecclesiology was “orthodox” would be as silly as saying that Bishop Spong’s views within Anglicanism represent traditional Anglican orthodoxy. Some advocates of traditional conciliarism want to declare all these theories orthodox. But how is (and was) that determined within the Catholic Church itself, according to its self-perception? According to historians of the Catholic Church, Rome and the popes decide that, as seen in Section V. Hughes also calls them “new ideas.” That does not sound like these notions of conciliarism derived from some 1000 years before and developed continuously within the Western Tradition concerning authority and ecclesiology, as a “live option,” as some would have us believe.

Barbara W. Tuchman, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian, confirms that the period of confusion (brought on by the Great Schism) was led by the “circumference” of the Church, not the “center,” and that these ideas were innovations, not prior traditions (let alone “orthodox” ones), in her popular work, A Distant Mirror:

All this time the dominant intellectual effort of Europe was engaged in continuous, contentious, and intense activity to end the papal schism and bring about reform within the Church. Both aims depended on establishing the supremacy of a Council over the papacy. As long as both popes persistently refused to abdicate, an agreed-upon ending of the schism was impossible, leaving a Council the only alternative . . . only by establishing the authority of a Council could an instrument of reform be obtained. Serious theologians struggled seriously with these problems in a genuine effort to effect change and find a way to limit and constitutionalize the powers of the papacy . . . Summoned not from the center of the Church but from the circumference, by universities, sovereigns, and states, the Councils met at Pisa, Constance, and Basle. (Tuchman, 589-590)

A. G. Dickens believes that such upheavals were not the norm in medieval times:

Millions of orthodox men and women lived out their short life-spans in a seemingly immutable setting. Only here and there in the long story of medieval Europe did circumstances threaten to destroy public regard for papal and priestly authority. (Dickens, 10)

After citing the radical ideas of Marsiglio of Padua (d. 1342), including the placement of “the authority of a General Council of the Church above that of the pope,” Dickens calls such views “heterodox”:

. . . one of his colleagues was another famous figure, the Nominalist philosopher William of Ockham (d. 1349), who maintained similarly heterodox views concerning the nature and functions of the priesthood. (Dickens [2], 40)

Two pages later, Dickens described the conciliarist declarations concerning the papacy of the Council of Constance (1414-1418) as “revolutionary work,” and the ideas of the Council of Basle (1431-1439) “even more radical.” This does not sound like “multiple traditions.” It is more like the historian’s description of an attempt to supplant one tradition with another (as “revolutions” and “heterodoxies” attempt to do, by nature).

Renowned Catholic historian Joseph Lortz (generally considered “fair” to Protestantism, conciliatory, and the very opposite of a so-called “triumphalist” historian, while remaining an orthodox Catholic) paints the same general picture. Note his descriptions of conciliarism as a new innovation:

The council [of Constance] enumerated the doctrine of the supremacy of the universal council (conciliar theory) over the pope. It is true that the most influential leaders of the movement at the time were not extremists. They realized that the theory was novel but felt that the present exigency called for this new way. In fact they could find no other solution to the crisis. But even though viewed as a temporary expedient, the theory is false and contravenes the order established by Christ for the government of His Church. It was never approved by the pope — in confirming the canons of the council Martin V rejected it. (Lortz [2], 268)

. . . there was at that time a progressive liberalism and even recklessness of theological speculation and discussion which not infrequently was carried beyond the point of reasonable restraint. (Lortz, 53)

Lortz makes an extremely relevant statement (for our purposes) concerning the rampant speculation of the time, which did not necessarily preclude the loss of any notion of “orthodox” Catholic teaching:

. . . we can now sum up: There existed in the late Middle Ages a dangerous theological uncertainty of such a degree that it was relatively easy for a theologically independent man to become a heretic.

This does not mean that it was impossible at that time to determine accurately what the correct teaching of the Church was and to hold fast to it in its totality. But it was possible only under certain conditions. It required the presence of what, since Ignatius of Loyola, has been commonly called Sentire cum ecclesia — a being in tune with the Church. (Lortz, 63)

Thus, modern-day conciliarists and theological liberals, not being “in tune” with Catholic thinking and often misunderstanding it (and not even grasping the nature of Catholic orthodoxy, and how it is determined within that milieu), look at the period and accept the false notion that all theories were equally orthodox and acceptable within a Catholic framework, simply because they existed and were adopted by some prominent and pious men.

Protestants too often apply their distinctively Protestant thinking to the period and anachronistically assume that it was a precursor to later Protestant ecclesiological thought (because — in the final analysis — they impose the later thought onto earlier Catholic intellectual turmoil and confusion). This is, of course, circular reasoning. As we have seen, both Protestant and Catholic historians inform us that conciliarism was new and novel, and was not in line with traditional Catholic orthodoxy.
Noted cultural historian Christopher Dawson also believes that the fourteenth century was a reversal of what came before, not a culmination of some ten centuries of development of “multiple traditions of authority”:

From the tenth to the thirteenth century the movement of European culture under the urge of a powerful religious impulse had been centripetal, towards unity and towards the ideals of Catholic universalism. From the beginning of the fourteenth century this tendency is reversed and a centrifugal movement sets in which ultimately culminates in the Reformation and the complete destruction of the religious unity of Christendom. The territorial element in the Church once more reasserted itself as opposed to the tradition of Catholic universalism, whose claims now seemed irreconcilable with the prerogatives of the new national monarchies. The causes of this change are complex and obscure, since they involve a number of both sociological and religious factors.

. . . the reformers themselves began to abandon the cause of the Papacy [due to the Great Schism] and to look for help either to the secular power, as did Dante and William of Ockham and the Spiritual Franciscans, or, like Gerson and d’Ailly and Langenstein, to the territorial Church and to the ecclesiastical parliamentarism of the Council of Constance, which in Dr. Figgis’s phrase, “attempted to turn into a tepid constitutionalism the divine authority of a thousand years.” (Dawson, 101-102; citing John Neville Figgis, From Gerson to Grotius 1414-1625, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1916, 35)

From this impasse [the Great Schism] there was no outlet by the accepted principles of canon law, and the time had come when William of Ockham’s revolutionary ideas could bear fruit. The leadership of Christendom now passed to the University of Paris, which was the last stronghold of medieval unity and also the great center of Ockhamist thought.

For the next thirty or forty years the doctors of Paris championed the cause of unity against the Popes and Kings and succeeded in achieving a brief triumph through the Conciliar Movement.

. . . The General Councils which were convoked to end the Schism under the influence of the University of Paris and the French monarchy were unlike the General Councils of the past. They were parliaments of Christendom, which were attended by the whole body of Christian princes with two or three exceptions, and in which the representatives of the universities played a larger part than the bishops. (Dawson [2], 27)

The famous historian Will Durant gives the same general analysis, consistent with all of the above accounts:

Rebellious philosophers, almost a century before [early 14th century], had laid the theoretical foundations of the “conciliar movement” . . . Heinrich von Langenstein, a German theologian at the University of Paris, applied (1381) these ideas to the Papal Schism. Whatever logic there might be, he argued, in the claims of the popes to supremacy, a crisis had arisen from which logic offered no escape but one: only a power outside the papacy, and superior to the cardinals, could rescue the Church from the chaos that was destroying her; and that authority could only be a general council. (Durant, 9)

Baptist Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette agrees, as well:

. . . conciliar theory . . . Obviously it was entirely counter to the theory which had prevailed in the West for the past several centuries. (Latourette, 628)

Noted Catholic historian, Henri Daniel-Rops, author of the massive seven-volume History of the Church of Christ, elaborates, with a strong and insightful analysis:

The Council of Pisa was the work of a group of avant-garde intellectuals, who regarded it as an opportunity to legislate for all Christendom in the name of doctrines which they themselves had evolved. These doctrines were nothing less than revolutionary, intended to impose a new concept of the Church. But they derived additional force from the whole tendency of the age, were intimately linked with the nationalist theories which the emergence of the modern states was bringing into fashion, and were also contaminated to some extent by completely heretical theses, such as would soon be advanced by Wyclif and John Huss.

What was the constitution of the Church, according to traditional doctrine as expressed by the greatest of thirteenth-century scholars? All of them, from Alexander of Hales to St Bonaventure, from St Albert the Great to St Thomas, were agreed upon four principles: the Church was a monarchy, governed by one leader, the Pope; the primacy of the Pope derived only from Christ through Peter, and not, in any sense whatsoever, from delegation by the faithful; the advice of the leaders of the Church meeting in council, should one be convened, could be effective only if accepted by the Pope, and conciliar decisions were valid only if confirmed by him; and finally, since the Pope was sovereign judge in all matters of faith and discipline, no one might appeal against his edicts to another tribunal, to wit, a council. It was against these four principles, which are still regarded as fundamental, that the revolutionaries rebelled.

The revolutionary movement had sprung into being during the last years of the thirteenth century and the first of the fourteenth, in the persons of Marsilio of Padua and Ockham . . .

These rash theories had not become widely known when they were countered by a tradition of a thousand years and more, which viewed any schismatic tendency with horror. The Church attacked them as soon as she became aware of their existence, and in the University of Paris teachers were for some time obliged to swear an oath that they would not read The Defender of the Peace. The Great Schism, however, provided these subversive doctrines with an opportunity to spread, and in some cases to triumph. After all, since the Papacy was obviously disintegrating, were the conciliar theorists not correct in their conclusions? ‘Who wants to found the stability of the Church upon Peter’s infirmity?’ inquired one Parisian schoolman, Pierre d’Ailly; and no one could gainsay him. Tragic though it was to hear it formulated, the whole question arose from the scandal.

. . . As can be seen, these were completely new ideas; had they been adopted, they would have undermined the Church’s order and overthrown her most basic institutions. But in the impassioned atmosphere into which the Schism had plunged the whole of Christendom, few paused to consider where such doctrines might lead, or to ask themselves whether anarchy would not be their logical conclusion. (Daniel-Rops, 53-57)


Hay: “a doctrine had grown up” [during the time of the Great Schism].
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: “foundations . . . laid in the early years of the 13th [century].”
Encyclopaedia Britannica: “roots in discussions of 12th- and 13th-century canonists.”
Francis Oakley: title of his book:The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 .
Philip Hughes: “new ideas.”
A. G. Dickens: “heterodox views” and “revolutionary work.”
Joseph Lortz: “a temporary expedient” and “false” theory. “Progressive liberalism” and “recklessness of theological speculation.”
John Neville Figgis (cited approvingly by Christopher Dawson): “tepid constitutionalism” as opposed to the previous “divine authority of a thousand years.”
Christopher Dawson: “revolutionary ideas.”
Will Durant: “Rebellious philosophers, almost a century before [early 14th century], had laid the theoretical foundations.”
Kenneth Scott Latourette: “Obviously it was entirely counter to the theory which had prevailed in the West for the past several centuries.”
Henri Daniel-Rops: “nothing less than revolutionary” . . . “a new concept of the Church” . . . “intimately linked with the nationalist theories” . . . “contaminated to some extent by completely heretical theses” . . . “the revolutionaries rebelled” . . .
“The revolutionary movement had sprung into being during the last years of the thirteenth century” . . . “rash theories . . . countered by a tradition of a thousand years and more” . . . “subversive doctrines” . . . “completely new ideas.”

Secular political power was also an important factor in the rise of conciliarism, just as it was in the Gregorian reform era. Secular (or non-ecclesiastical) rulers regarded the papacy as their main rival for power, so they sought to limit its power by support of councils over against them. This is hardly a “Christian” or “theological” rationale for conciliarism:

. . . the secular rulers of Europe, including the Holy Roman emperor and the kings of England and France, looked on the council as a means of limiting papal power . . .

In 1460 Pope Pius II, himself a former conciliarist, declared an appeal from a pope to a council to be heretical, but by then few remained to mourn the demise of the conciliar movement. (Wilcox, 228)

Beyond that the Schism weakened the Church as a unit by putting it in the power of princes to choose which pope they would obey . . . the allegiance of kings was determined not by their views as to the spiritual claims of Avignon or Rome but of political advantage. It was a happy period for kings and the memory of it lived on among princes: as late as 1477 Lorenzo de Medici wrote to a friend in Rome that ‘three or four popes would be better than a single one.’

. . . machinery was laid down for regular meetings of Councils in the future. This meant that any political opponent of the popes would be able to appeal from papal decisions to a future Council — and many did so, from little brigands in the Papal States to great kings like Louis XI of France.

. . . As in England so in France the basic rights over the clergy exercised by the secular government were recognized. There is no doubt that the Avignon papacy, the Great Schism and the Councils all contributed to making churches more regional in spirit and more secular in control. (Denys Hay, “The Background to the Reformation,” in Hurstfield, 13-14; citation from L. Pastor, History of the Popes, translated by Antrobus, 1894, IV, 300)

The increasing accumulation of power in the hands of the ruler also meant increased authority over the external affairs of the church. The trend toward national churches whose external affairs were largely controlled by the political authorities was one of the characteristic features of the fifteenth century. As early as 1324 Marsiglio of Padua had sketched in his Defensor Pacis the picture of a national church independent of Rome. In France the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438) entrusted the French king with considerable power over the French church . . . A similar situation prevailed in England and Spain where appointments to positions of ecclesiastical eminence and matters of church finance were virtually controlled by the king. (Hillerbrand, 16)

Of course, national and class egoism in all parts and ranks of the Church played an important role in the diminishing of papal authority since the fourteenth century. (Lortz, 59)

. . . the peoples of the West were full of the pride of youth and the consciousness of their latent powers. The State was no longer a confused tangle of feudal and regional units engaged in perpetual war. It had achieved political order, and, in the Western kingdoms at least, national unity. And consequently, when they had overcome the anarchy and separation of feudalism, they felt that the Church, with its international system of jurisdiction and finance and its vast territorial endowments, was a rival that interfered with the full realization of their ideals of sovereignty and autonomy.

. . . in the Hussite movement we see the reforming spirit separating itself altogether from the Catholic tradition and coalescing with the spirit of nationalism to produce a great explosion of revolutionary feeling, which already betokens the end of the medieval order.
(Dawson, 102-103)

An erastian tradition with some almost modern overtones originated with Dubois and other French nationalists who witnessed the clash between Philip IV and Boniface VIII. It grew to maturity a few decades later in a parallel context: that of the struggle between Emperor Louis of Bavaria and the French-controlled Papacy. The notorious Defensor Pacis (1324) by the Emperor’s champion Marsiglio of Padua lived on not merely as a forerunner but as an active participant in the victories of sixteenth-century rulers over the Church. In England, for example, a printed translation of the Defensor Pacis was personally financed by the executive of the political Reformation, Thomas Cromwell . . . Practical politicians like Cromwell . . . found in the Paduan a rich fund of ideas . . . The episcopal hierarchy is of human and not divine institution, while the primacy of Rome arises merely from the Donation of Constantine, a document still accepted as genuine in Marsiglio’s day . . .

The antipapal and erastian tradition inherited by the sixteenth century did not lie in th realm of theory alone. Especially in France, with its Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438), and in England, with its Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire (1351-93), large powers over the national churches were conveyed from the Papacy to the monarchies . . . Similarly the Catholic Kings became the effective masters of the Spanish Church. (Dickens, 20-22)

. . . many began to look for means of imposing reform upon the church, perhaps through an appeal to secular authorities . . . The second major factor concerns the rise in the power of the secular rulers of Europe, who increasingly came to regard the pope’s propblems as of somewhat limited relevance . . .

Nationalism became an increasingly important factor in reducing papal authority north of the Alps, as the situation in France demonstrates . . .

A further illustration of the severe restrictions placed upon papal authority by secular rulers can be seen in the case of Henry VIII’s attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon. (McGrath, 35-36)

In any event, the practical outworking of conciliarism was that it did not work, because it didn’t provide the proper unity and centrality that the papacy provided:

The reform of the Church at Constance was confined to a few broad resolutions, condemning non-residence of clergy and corruption. Beyond that the prelates could not agree . . . each of the ‘nations’ — the English, French, German, Italian and Spanish — had its own particular grievances and solutions. (Denys Hay, “The Background to the Reformation,” in Hurstfield, 14)

. . . by ending the Great Schism in the West . . . it had dug its own grave. When once the Church in Western Europe was reunited under one Pope, the Pontiffs, asserting the traditional claims of their predecessors, made their power effective against the councils, divided as these were and without adequate leadership. Moreover, like the Papacy, members of the councils were too deeply involved in the abuses against which much of Europe was complaining to work the sweeping reforms which the situation demanded. (Latourette, 635)


In England the schism brought Wyclif to the turning point that led to protestantism. At first he welcomed Urban as a reformer, but as the financial abuses of both Popes grew more flagrant, he came to regard both as Anti-Christs and the schism as the natural end of a corrupted papacy . . . Despairing of reform from within after the schism, he came in 1379 to a radical conclusion: since the Church was incapable of reforming itself, it must be brought under secular supervision. He now saw the King as God’s Vicar on earth from whom bishops derived their authority and through whom the state, as guardian of the Church, could compel reform. Going beyond the abuses of the Church to attack the theory, Wyclif was now prepared to sweep away the entire ecclesiastical superstructure — papacy, hierarchy, orders. Having rejected the divine authority of the Church, it was now that he came to his rejection of its essence — the power of the sacraments, specifically of the Eucharist. (Tuchman, 338)


(P = Protestant / C = Catholic; others are of unknown religious affiliation — probably non-Catholic)
George Burton Adams (P?), Civilization During the Middle Ages, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.
Willem Balke (P), Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, translated by William Heynen, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981, from the 1973 Dutch version.
Hilaire Belloc (C), How the Reformation Happened, New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1928.
Warren H. Carroll (C), A History of Christendom (six volumes), Volume 2: The Building of Christendom, Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom College Press, 1987.
F. L. Cross, & E. A. Livingstone, editors (P), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1983.
Henri Daniel-Rops (C), The Protestant Reformation, volume 1, translated Audrey Butler, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1961, from the 1958 French edition.
Christopher Dawson (C), Medieval Essays, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1959.
Christopher Dawson (C) [2], The Dividing of Christendom, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1965.
A. G. Dickens (P), Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe, London: Thames and Hudson, 1966.
A. G. Dickens (P) [2], The Age of Humanism and Reformation, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.
Norton Downs (?), editor, The Medieval Pageant: Readings in Medieval History, Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., 1964.
Will Durant (secularist), The Reformation, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957 (volume 6 of the ten-volume work, The Story of Civilization, 1967).
Charles G. Herbermann, (C), editor, The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913; sixteen volumes. Available online.
Hans J. Hillerbrand (P), Men and Ideas in the Sixteenth Century, Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1969.
Philip Hughes (C), The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870, Garden City, New York: Hanover House, 1961.
Joel Hurstfield (P), editor, The Reformation Crisis, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.
J. N. D. Kelly (P), Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: HarperCollins, revised edition, 1978.
Kenneth Scott Latourette (P), A History of Christianity (two volumes), Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1953; reprinted in 1975.
Joseph Lortz (C), How the Reformation Came, translated by Otto M. Knab (from the German Wie kam es zur Reformation?), New York: Herder and Herder, 1964.
Joseph Lortz (C) [2], History of the Church, translated and adapted from the 5th and 6th German edition by Edwin G. Kaiser, Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1939.
Alister E. McGrath (P), Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2nd edition, 1993.
John T. McNeill (P), editor and Ford Lewis Battles (P), translator, John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 (from 1559 edition).
John B. Morrall (?), The Medieval Imprint, Baltimore; Penguin Books, 1970.
Jaroslav Pelikan (P), The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (five volumes), Volume 3: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Philip Schaff (P), History of the Christian Church, New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1910, eight volumes; available online.
R. W. Southern (P?), Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (The Pelican History of the Church, volume 2), Baltimore; Penguin Books, 1970.
Barbara W. Tuchman (?), A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.
Donald J. Wilcox (?), In Search of God and Self: Renaissance and Reformation Thought, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975.
Philippe Wolff (?), The Awakening of Europe (The Pelican History of European Thought, volume 1), translated by Anne Carter, Baltimore; Penguin Books, 1968.



(originally 1-20-04)

Photo credit: Reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem. From William of Tyre, Histoire d’Outremer. Burgundian miniature (c. 1460) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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