The Conciliar Movement was a reform movement in the 14th-, 15th- and 16th-century Catholic Church which held that supreme authority in the Church resided with an ecumenical council, apart from, or even against, the pope. The movement emerged in response to the Western Schism between rival popes in Rome and Avignon.
The Conciliar Movement:-
In the controversies of the conciliar period, the church was viewed as a human society, similar in nature and organization to other human societies. Accordingly, in the effort to replace the authority of the pope by that of a representative church council, general principles were worked cut which served equally well in the later effort to replace the power of kings by that of representative parliaments.
The decree of the Council of Constance (1414-1417), asserting its superiority to the pope, has been called the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world. It marked the culmination of the medieval effort to replace the Roman ideal of authority vested in a single, divinely ordained head by that of a popularly-based representative assembly. It foreshadowed the later political contest between autocracy and constitutional principles in the state.
Taking advantage of the opportunity of the Great Schism, liberal churchmen tried to borrow from the rising states of Europe and from the doctrines of Marsilius and Ockam a theory of limited monarchy and a plan of representative government for the church. In its organization, the Council of Constance represented also the growing national spirit making provision that the votes of the clergy should be cast by “nations”
The leadership of the conciliar party centered mainly in the universities, and the new methods of the Renaissance were manifested in the critical attitude toward formerly unquestioned canons of belief. Many supported the conciliar movement because of a pious desire to heal the Schism, but when that was accomplished they lost interest, and the academic nature of the movement became a source of weakness.
Resisted by the powerful vested interests which it attacked, it was doomed to failure when it opposed the Hussite movement and thus alienated popular support. The failure of the conciliar movement marked the beginning of the modern world.
When it proved impossible to maintain democratic principles and to reorganize and reform the church from within, the way was prepared for the establishment of divine-right monarchies which adopted the doctrines of Machiavelli, for the work of Luther and his followers in establishing independent Protestant sects over a large part of Christendom, and for the ultramodern reaction and the efforts of Loyola and the Jesuits in behalf of the Catholic Church.
The chief writers of the period were John Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the University of Paris; Cardinal Nicholas of Cues? (1401-1464); and Aeneas Sylvius (1405-1464), afterward Pope Pius II. Gerson favored a system of limited monarchy in church organization, and believed that a mingling of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements was best in both church and state. He opposed the theory of papal supremacy and adopted some of the principles of Marsilius, although he refused to accept the democratic conception of the church as the entire body of believers.
He held to the more aristocratic doctrine of the church as the hierarchy of clergy, with final authority vested in the general council. Gerson viewed the pope as the administrative agent of the church, and upheld the supremacy of the church council because of the necessity of healing the Schism.
The utilitarian doctrine of necessity played a large part in his theory, and he justified resistance to pope and king when general welfare demanded it. He also held that the temporal ruler might call a church council to depose the pope if he did not fulfill his duties or if he refused to obey the laws of nature and of God, which were superior to human authority.
Gerson’s ideas, put forth in the decrees of the Council of Constance, spread the doctrine of constitutional government throughout Europe, and paved the way for later reformers. He aimed to preserve the rights of pope and king, within definite limits, and at the same time secure the liberties of the people.
Nicholas of Cues put forward, at the time of the Council of Basel (1431-1449), more radical and democratic theories. He conceived the universe as an organism or harmony of closely interrelated parts. Similarly, church and state were composed of various organs, each having definite functions; and the same principles could be applied to both ecclesiastical and political organizations.
He considered a representative council to be the central organ in both church and state, and he found the source of its authority in the consent of the whole body. Holding that all men are by nature free and equal, he found the source of law and of authority in the people.
Kings and bishops were chosen as administrators of popular rule, and they, with the people, formed the natural organization or corporation of society. Nicholas taught that rulers hold their position by the choice of their subjects, and that they, like their subjects, are bound by law. Law, based upon the consent of all, is ultimately divine, since man himself comes originally from God.
Aencas Sylvius furnished a historical survey of the rise of man from an original state of nature. Man, expelled from Paradise, lived like the beasts, but discovering the value of association, he deliberately created bodies politic. When oppressors arose and rights were infringed upon, men agreed to delegate their authority to someone of outstanding strength or virtue. Thus kingship arose.
When, however, the king became tyrannical, he might be driven out by those who had created him. Similar reasoning was used to justify the deposition of the pope. In the writings of Nicholas of Cues and of Aeneas Sylvius appeared the concepts of the state of nature, of natural rights, and of social contract that became familiar in the revolutionary theory of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
From one point of view the theory of the conciliar party was destructive. It attacked the autocracy of the pope and appealed from the theological dogmas of the church to the general considerations of natural law and popular welfare. On the other hand, the theory was constructive. It aimed to establish a definite constitution for the church, broadly based upon popular consent. As a whole, the conciliar theory was nationalistic, representative, and moderately democratic.
The union of political principles with utilitarian notions, heightened by their religious significance, considered with reference to a body which might be a model for all smaller states, and decided upon universal grounds, was the work of the conciliarparty and their opponents