The Conciliar Theory of Church Government

The Conciliar Theory of Church Government. In the century that followed William of Occam’s writings, the controversy over absolute papal authority in the church was spread far and wide through Europe, so that it became the subject of a vast and popular debate.


The pope’s absolute power in the church was no academic question, touching merely the abstract rights of his ecclesiastical subjects. It meant the tightening up of the whole government process, including papal control over the giving of benefices, the drawing of ecclesiastical cases into the papal courts, the diversion of great sums of money into the papal revenues, and the systematic exercise of irritating forms of papal taxation.

Thus, the papal court’s luxury and the papal government’s venality became the ground of bitter criticism, as they continued to be down to the Reformation. The Great Schism, which lasted from 1378 to 1417, made matters worse; it would be hard to exaggerate its effects on popular thought everywhere in Europe.

The spectacle of two and sometimes three rival popes, often no more than appendages to dynastic and national ambitions, using all the arts of theological invective and political chicanery against each other, must have gone far destroy the respect in which the papal office had traditionally been held.

Moreover, the whole ecclesiastical organization became infected with corruptions and abuses, partly due to the Schism itself, which tended to bring the clergy generally into disrepute. Chaucer’s Pardoner and Summoner are examples of the church’s disreputable hangers-on as they appeared to a fourteenth-century literary man.

The Reform of the Church:-

Here then was a problem of government-in the church rather than the state, to be sure-which was certain to be debited from one end of Europe to the other, and by men of all social classes and all degrees of learning. The reform of the church in head and members was a popular question. The discussion of it may not unreasonably be called the first great movement of popular political education. Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384) in England and John Hus (c. 1373-1415) in Bohemia attracted great popular followings. Their teaching was by no means confined to those who could read their crabbed scholastic philosophy.

Yet there was a direct transference of ideas from the polemical writings pf the days of Lewis the Bavarian to Wycliffe and through him to Hus, the papal Bull of 1377, which condemned Wycliffe’s conclusions, traced his opinions to Marsilio of damned memory, and he himself acknowledged indebtedness to William of Occam and the spiritual Franciscans.

National questions, peculiar to England or Bohemia, traversed each reformer’s purposes. Still, behind these lay common problems, such as the ownership and taxation of church property and papal taxation’s exactions. And with both reformers, the animus of their thought opposed ceremonialism, the monopoly of spiritual authority by the hierarchy, and the absolute power of the ope.

Without any definite theory of church government, both Wycliffe and Hus united in identifying the church with the whole body of Christians, lay, and clerical. It is the church and not the hierarchy that is the recipient of divine law and spiritual power.

The spiritual bond of this society, the direct relation of the believer to God, expressed in faith and good works, is all that gives weight to religious observance, not the ceremonial or the sacrament. Crown and cloth make no priest but the power that Christ giveth. The church as a perfect society must include the powers needed for its own regeneration, and for this reason, it must be right for laypeople to reform evil manners in the clergy.

The independence and self-sufficiency of the church in spiritual matters was, therefore, a ground for anti-clericalism. By an even stranger paradox, it was made a ground for strengthening secular power. The mechanics of this result was simply the reformer discovered that he was dependent on royal support to coerce the pope and the hierarchy, even in the interest of reform.

Thus, Martin Luther was thrown into the arms of the German princes, and that the divine right of the king became almost an official philosophy for Lutherans and Anglicans. Even in the fourteenth century, Wycliffe was pressed in the same direction, though men would still pin their hope of reform to a General Council within the church for more than a century.

The king, he argued, is the vicar of God and to resist him is wicked. Even bishops derive their power from him, and so far as this world is concerned, the royal power is of greater dignity than that of priests, for a spiritual power requires neither earthly power nor property. Hence it is the right and the duty of the king to remedy abuses in the church’s government.

This language is reminiscent of the York Tracts and Suggestive of the argument which ultimately made the king the temporal head of a national church. In the long run, the political beneficiary of a spiritualized religion was the secular power itself. The first result of freeing the church from the control of the hierarchy was to place it more completely in the king’s power.

The reform movements led by Wycliffe and Hus thus had the effect of transferring the question of papal power, and all its innumerable ramifications to the popular discussion. For this reason, it is not irrelevant to mention in this connection the appearance, below the level of respectable political philosophy, of a sort of proletarian doctrine of equality, connected with the religious issue but going far beyond it in the direction of an attack upon social and economic distinctions. Such ideas appeared in the peasant revolts of the fourteenth century, in France in 1351 and England in 1381. These revolts, the result of bitter economic pressure and unjust taxation and labour legislation, always had their obscure sense of the opposition between class-interests:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

Even earlier in date, the moralist continuator of the Romance of the Rose could assert:

Naked and impotent are all,

High-born or peasant, great and small. That human nature is throughout

The whole world equal, none can doubt.?

But in the mass, such ideas always had a strong religious colouring; they were the thoughts of simple-minded folk who believed with pathetic literalness in the Christian ideals of brotherhood and equality. In the submerged classes, the more obscure heretical sects flourished, the Lollard’s in England and the extremists among Hus’s followers in Bohemia.

In the Bohemian sects, the idea is found that the Gospel’s law is a kind of communism. Christians dwell together in freedom and equality, with no distinctions of rank or privilege imposed by human law and institutions.

The belief that the ideas of Wycliffe and Hus implied these extremes caused their opinions to be condemned by many who sincerely desired reform in the church. Such obscure ideas of social equality were of no practical importance in the fourteenth century. Still, they show how the reform movement was becoming-what it had not previously been a mass-movement among men who had little knowledge of scholastic philosophy.

The Self-Sufficing Community:-

The party which stood for a conciliar reform of church government at the Councils of Constance (1414-1418) and Basel (1431-1449) pad no sympathy with popular agitation, even in the more moderate form represented by Wycliffe and Hus. Its leaders were among the most active in the condemnation of Hus at Constance.

The conciliar theory was in the main the creation of a group of scholars connected with the University of Paris, men thoroughly conversant with predecessors’ scholarly writings like John of Paris and William of Occam. Its deficiency as a popular movement is proved by the rapidity of its subsidence, once the Council of Constance had succeeded in removing the Schism scandal.

The general sentiment of Christendom was agreed about the need for restoring unity in the church; it was not equally determined to change the whole principle of church government by abolishing the supremacy of the pope. Indeed, it was quite enabled to do this, for Christendom was no longer sufficiently a unit to produce a representative government system on a European scale.

The Councils of Constance and Basel’s effort to draw up a workable plan of constitutional government failed. From the point of view of practical politics, the movement seems, at least after the event, to be somewhat academic.

The conciliarists could pass resolutions, but they could not make a government. After the Schism curing, the project of reforming the church by a General Council, though it could still be talked about even as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was definitely not within the region of practical politics. The importance of the conciliar movement in political thought lay in the fact that it was the first great debate of constitutionalism against absolutism. It prepared and spread ideas used in the later struggles.

The principle which the conciliarists developed had already been clearly stated by the opponents of the papacy from John of Paris to William of Occam. Being a complete and self-sufficing society, the church must possess all the powers needed to ensure its continuance, Its orderly government, and the removal of abuses as they occur. Consequently, the spiritual power with which it is endowed is vested in the church itself, in the faithful’s whole body as a corporate body. The clergy, including the pope, are merely the ministers or organs by which the society acts.

Therefore when it is said that the pope has sovereign power, this should be understood not of the pope by himself but as he is in the whole body, so that the power is in the whole body as its foundation and in the pope as its chief minister, by whom the power is exercised.

In this conception, several ideas were combined. Most explicit, at least in Zabarella, is the legal analogy of the corporation which acts through its authorized agents but which itself provides the authority that its agents exercise; it is the whole body which speaks and acts through its organs, There is also, of course, obliquely a reference to Aristotle’s theory of the self-sufficing community which is capable of doing all that its life requires and whose well-being is the justification for what is done in its name.

But perhaps more important than either of these is the rooted belief, already very ancient in the fifteenth century, that a people or a community has an inherent power to make its own law and set up its own rulers, and that it is by this consent or acceptance that lawful government differs from tyranny. The right of a council or other representative body depends upon the fact that it stands in the community’s place and speaks for it, witnessing that a rule really has the consent that gives it binding force.

At the start, this had been the guiding idea of the inquest or jury competent representatives declared what the valid practice was. Unlike modern ideas of legislation, it looked to the past rather than to the future; not the will but the community’s custom was binding.

Harmony and Consent:-

The General Council’s defence was very carefully developed by Nicholas of Cusa in his De concordant Catholica, which was presented to the Council of Basel in 1433. The keynote of the work in harmony rather than authority, and it leaves the question in doubt whether ultimately power is vested in the pope or the council. The council’s superiority lies in the fact that it represents, better than any individual can, the agreement or consent of the whole church.

Nicholas argues, evidently on the canonists’ authority, that the community’s approval or acceptance is an essential ingredient of law. Such approval is shown by usage or custom and the council, which stands for the whole body, speaks with more authority on this point than an individual.

Papal decretals have often failed to attain the force of law because they have not been accepted, and similarly a law which drops out of use loses its force. Acceptance even by a province is necessary to make a rule locally binding, because all law ought to fit the country, place, and time. In this general sense: therefore, all government depends upon consent:

Accordingly, since by nature all men are free, any authority by which subjects are prevented from doing evil and their freedom is restrained to doing good through fear of penalties, comes solely from harmony and from the consent of the subjects whether the authority reside in written law or in the living law which is in the ruler. For if by nature men are equally strong and equally free, the true and settled power of one over the others, the ruler having equal natural power, could be set up only by the choice and consent of the others, just as a law also is set up by consent.

Kings are therefore to be regulated by the general pact of human society, for it is to this that kings owe their existence. The thought is obviously the same as that quoted in an earlier chapter from Bracton, that the king ought to obey the law because the law makes the king.

This quotation from Nicholas’s verbal identity with the revolutionary arguments of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries is sufficiently obvious. Still, unless taken with proper qualifications, it is also somewhat misleading. That the conceptions of natural law and the rights of subjects expressed by Nicholas were the later revolutionary theories’ direct ancestors is not open to question.

These ideas had long been part of the heritage of European society. The important point is that the conciliarists, along with the earlier anti-papal controversialists, turned them against constituted authority, making the custom itself a defence of what they chose to believe ancient liberty, against a power they regarded as arbitrary.

This element remained, more or less, in the later revolutionary argument, as may be seen from the facile way in which seventeenth-century radicals confounded man’s natural rights with the traditional rights of Englishmen. But there is still a fundamental difference between the context, at least, of Nicholas’s argument and the revolutionary era.

By consent, the later argument meant or tended to mean, individual acceptance by every human being acting as a unit. In the fifteenth century, Such meaning was hardly possible, for the right of private conscience and inward conviction had not the force that it had after the church’s unity was broken.

Nor had the breaking-up of traditional social and economic institutions produced the ‘‘masterless man” who can be Conceived to act only from his own internal motive-power. With Nicholas, the emphasis was all on the community’s natural freedom, the society that by its Own spontaneous approval generates binding practices for its members, that makes law half-consciously and gives its ascent through the voice of its natural magnates.

The substance of the conciliar theory, then, was that the church’s whole body, the congregation of the faithful, is the source of its own law and that the pope and the hierarchy are its organs or servants. It exists by divine and natural law; its rulers are subject-to natural law and also to the law of the church’s own organization: or being. It is right and proper that they should be restrained within the limits of this law and that they should be checked and limited by the other organs of the ecclesiastical body.

The pope ought to submit his decretals to consultation and approval by a representative body so that they may be ‘‘accepted” by the church. If he does not do so, and especially if he tries to usurp an authority beyond that which is proper to his office, he may be justly deposed. The precise grounds for deposition were vague.

The strongest ground and the conciliarists were most likely to try to fasten upon a contumacious pope, was heresy. Some writers held, however, that other offences would suffice. There was common agreement that a General Council could depose, though some held, following John of Paris, that the College of Cardinals also was competent to do this.

The government model that guided the conciliarists was the medieval constitutional monarchy with its assembly of estates, or perhaps more definitely, the organization of the monastic orders, in which lesser corporations were combined through their representatives in a synod representing the whole body.

If the conciliar theory had become a workable form of government, it would have had to create the General Council as a regularly functioning body or transform the College of Cardinals into something like a medieval parliament. Neither plan was, in fact, feasible.

Looking at a controversy such as this after the event, it is easy to say that the issue was whether the ultimate right of decision lay in the pope or the council. Still, this way of putting the point is not accurately historical, for the issue developed only in the controversy.

In the case of the conciliarist controversy, it never clearly evolved, as it did later in England’s similar issue between the king and parliament. Everyone should be remembered, entered controversies of this kind with the presumption that they were dealing with a temporary emergency, which could be removed without altering the existing form of government fundamentally.

So far as the conciliarist movement was concerned, its popular power grew out of the admitted need to abolish the Schism scandal, and it subsided when this was accomplished, with no result except to confirm by its failure the sovereign power of the pope.

The issue was not clearly drawn between the authority of the pope and that of the council. In contemporary opinion, ultimate power did not reside In either the one or the other or fact In any organ of ecclesiastical government. Like that of the medieval monarchy, the essential principle of the conciliar theory was that the church or the community or the people was self-governing and that its power was resident in the whole body.

Obviously, however, the whole body had no political existence and could become vocal-only through someone or more of its organs. Moreover, the conciliar theory is opposed to the idea that some single organ must be chosen as having the last word. Precisely because ultimate power lay in the whole church, each of its organs-pope, council, or college-was less than final; they were in a sense coordinate as the creatures of the whole church, or if they were not strictly coordinate, each had at least an underived right to perform its own function. In no case was the power of one clearly delegated by another.

All had an inherent power compared with the others, though all derived their power from the whole community. Therefore, the government was properly a cooperative enterprise, a harmony or concordant, as Nicholas called it, and not a delegation of power from a sovereign head.

Evidently, however, the whole trouble was that harmony among the church’s governing organs had ceased to exist. Consequently, the conciliarists faced a difficulty which could hardly be settled in terms of existing law. A council might be, in an emergency, a better organ for determining the consensus of the whole church than the pope. But legally a council could hardly exist and certainly could not function without the pope’s cooperation, and if there were two or three popes, the problem was insoluble.

The argument so often used in defence of the council, that necessity overrides all law and that in an emergency the emperor might call a council and secure the election of a canonical pope, was logically an evasion and practically a makeshift.

The only practicable outcome of the conciliarist position would have been for the council to establish itself as the source of papal authority by reducing the pope to its own executive position, and this solution equally would have been extra-legal. Such a result would have entailed a thorough-going alteration in the idea that government is a Cooperation of a self-governing community’s organs. The whole Situation prefigures surprisingly that in which the English Parliament found itself in its struggle with Charles.

Here, too, the crown and parliament’s inherent power was, at the start, and accepted Proposition, Parliament could exist only at the king’s call and legislate Only with the king’s approval. However, parliament itself had an inherent right to be consulted. King and parliament together formed what

Nicholas of Cusa would have called the concordant of the realm. In the end, of course, parliament asserted a power over the crown, which violated the initial conception of harmony quite as much as the absolute power of the king would have done.

The Power of the Council:-

In general, the conciliarists aimed to erect the council into an integral part of church government, correct abuses, and check what they believed to be the pope’s arbitrary power. Their practical purpose was to remedy and prevent disasters such as the Schism in which unrestrained papal power had resulted. Possibly a few extremists really faced the idea that papal authority might be made merely derivative from that of the council. Still, as a rule, they conceived the church’s power as jointly shared between the pope and the council, with no serious intention of destroying, for ordinary purposes, the monarchical power inherent in the papal office.

In short, they stood on much the same ground as the feudal lawyers. Strictly speaking, a writ would not run against the pope and yet, in extraordinary cases, he might be cited to appear before a council and might be condemned for contumacy if he did not do so. Abuse due to papal usurpation might be corrected by a council, as Bracton had said a king might be called to account by the realm’s baronage.

The council, as most truly representing the whole church, was first among its organs of government. But the council’s functions were primarily regulatory, and it was hardly intended that it should either supersede the other organs or reduce them to the status of its agents. The idea was a monarchy tempered by the aristocracy in which the authority conceived to lie in the whole church was shared concurrently among its representative organs. Each organ had the right and the duty to keep the other organs in their places, while all were subject to the whole body’s organic law.

The measures which the Councils of Constance and Basel enacted illustrate this theory. Early in its proceedings, the Council of Constance stated the principle in a famous decree:

This synod, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, and forming a general council representing the Catholic Church, has its power directly from Christ, and everyone, of whatever rank and office, even the Pope, is obliged to obey it in matters touching the faith, in the removal of the Schism, and in the reformation of the church in head and members.

This decree was re-enacted at Basel in 1432, an action far more radical since by that time there was only a single pope, who was generally recognized as canonical. The Council of Basel further declared the principle to be an article of faith whose denial was heresy. Like the Long Parliament after them, both councils enacted that they were not to be dissolved without their own consent. The Council of Basel cited Eugenius IV to appear and declared him contumacious for failing to do so and finally deposed him, though without practical effect.

Both councils tried to secure the convocation of future councils at regular intervals. The Council of Basel tried to revive diocesan and provincial synods throughout the church and to regulate papal elections in such a way as to ensure obedience to conciliar decrees.

There was, moreover, an effort to place the College of Cardinals on a footing more representative of the church and more independent of the pope, perhaps with the idea that it might become a third, or aristocratic, element in the government of the church, between the pope and the General Council, or a standing council to act as a permanent check on the monarchical power of the pope. In this, the conception of a mixed constitution was clearly the guiding idea.

Since Nicholas of Cusa has already been quoted to illustrate a rather strong statement of the doctrine of government by consent, it will perhaps be well to refer briefly to his theory as a whole, to show that the conciliarist theory, in combating the absolute power of the pope, had no intention of substituting for it the sovereign power of the council. It is true that Nicholas wrote after the healing of the Schism, and that a few years after the Council of Basel he left the conciliar party and became the most important of the ecclesiastical statesmen who tried to foster reform as the servants of an absolute pope.

Perhaps, he was more truly a diplomat than a political theorist, but at least, in 1433, he had: the advantage of having the conciliar theory completely before him. If the De concordant Catholica be judged as a coordinated legal authority theory, it is conspicuous for its logical difficulties.

The author holds at once that the pope must call a general council to be ecumenical and yet that, once it is in existence, it may for good reasons depose the pope that called it. He treats the papal power as at once administrative and yet as derived from Christ and St. Peter.

The pope represents the unity of the church, but the council represents it better. The pope’s adhesion is necessary to make a council, yet the council is superior to the pope. The pope is a member of the church and subject to its law; his election presumes his utility to the church, and his failure in this duty absolves churchmen from their obedience. But no legal process, strictly understood, will reach him. The purpose of citing those can’t show that Nicholas was confused but to illustrate that it is an anachronism to regard his concordant as a theory of powers delegated by a supreme authority.

His, point is that the church itself is a unity and that it alone is supreme and infallible, but neither the pope nor a council is the sole spokesman of this infallibility. With good reason, he distrusted them both. However, he unquestionably believed in reform and hoped that a representative system would tend in that direction by bringing the hierarchy more closely into relation with the various parts of the church. But the problem as he saw it was one of cooperation rather than of legal subordination.

The importance of the Conciliar Theory:-

The conciliar movement neither reformed the church nor changed its form of government. A council which was itself prey to every form of national jealousy was ill-qualified to attack the stupendous mass of vested interests that made up ecclesiastical patronage.

Everyone believed in reform but preferred to have it begin somewhere else, with the result that reform had to be postponed until rulers of the stripe of Henry VIII were prepared to reform most of the church’s perquisites out of existence. In picturing a general representative form of government for the church, the conciliarists were imagining the impossible.

They failed to realize that even the feudal constitutional monarchy depended upon a political cohesiveness which, in realms like France and England, provided something for an assemblage of estates to represent. Whatever unity the church had in the fifteenth century was not of this kind.

Unity of belief there still was, at least to a degree, and some unity of moral and religious ideas, but not a sense of political oneness which could cope with divergences of local or national interest and make the council a functioning organ of government.

However, the fate which the conciliarist theory met in the church was not far different from that which befell the medieval parliaments before the advancing power of the king. Everywhere in the sixteenth-century, medieval constitutional institutions fell under the sway of royal absolutism.

In states, unlike the church, national unity provided a force of coherence that permitted representative institutions to revive in the long run. However, it was only in England that the continuity with medieval constitutionalism was preserved.

The Council of Basel had not yet dissolved when the reaction began in the church, which established the pope’s sovereign power, to remain unquestioned until the Reformation, and indeed until the present time in the Roman Church. This conception was a reversion to the papal power theory developed in the canon law in the days of Innocent III, now fixed and defined by the failure of a definite effort to displace it.

Conciliarism might occasionally reappear for controversial purposes even in writers whose orthodoxy was not open to attack. Still, both as a movement for ecclesiastical reform and an amendment to ecclesiastical law, it was a dead issue. The leader of this reaction was John of Torquemada, whom John Neville Figgis has called the first modern exponent of kings’ divine right.

Though John still regarded the power of secular rulers as limited by law. In the present-day Catholic theory of the papacy, the pope is indubitably sovereign. His power is conceived to be limited only by divine and natural law; a council cannot exist without him; the council’s decrees require papal confirmation, and the pope is competent to revise decrees that a council has passed.

Thus the pope in the fifteenth century established himself as the first of the absolute monarchs. The theory of papal absolutism became the archetype of the theory of monarchical absolutism. The main argument for the papal divine right was that it is impossible to invest the community itself, rather than its head, with the supreme authority by which it is governed.

Then, the conciliar theory was not important for any practical results that it brought about, but it was none the less important. The church’s controversy first drew the lines upon which the issue between absolute and constitutional government was drawn, and it spread the type of political philosophy by which in the main absolutism was to be contested.

Both the divine right of the sovereign and the community’s sovereign power was transferred to the field of secular government. This transfer was easy, and in the fifteenth century, it was easier than it would be today. The distinction between the church and secular government was still pictured as a distinction not between two societies but between two organizations of the same society. Any argument about the nature of authority in either church of state must go back to society’s fundamental nature.

The conciliarist argument depended on the premise that any complete community must govern itself and that its consent is vital to any lawful authority. The argument might apply indifferently to a church or a state when the two came to be thought of as two societies.

Under God, both secular and spiritual powers must equally be latent in the people or community. In itself, this belief was in, no way contrary to the accepted belief that all power is of God. But when the theory of divine right became definitely a theory of royal supremacy, the theory that power inheres ultimately in the people became the normal way to contradict It. The conciliar controversy in the church Was the first occasion on which the Issue between the two theories was drawn in this form, and in this form, it continued to be drawn when the controversy lay between a king and his subjects.

In the fifteenth century, the conciliar theory, like the theory of representative or constitutional government, stood curiously balanced between past and present. It was born partly of the ancient belief: in the eternal validity of natural law, part of the conception that any community consists of necessary services and interests in a condition of mutual dependence.

Hence it conceived of government as an exchange a give-and-take, a balance between powers, all of which are in their own nature indefeasible. The unity of government was thus a reflection of the unity of the community. If the word sovereign could be appropriately used at all, it would be of the whole community and not of any political institution. Still, the ancient word res public, commonwealth, was far more descriptive. Thus the conciliarists opposed the papal argument that authority must somewhere come to a head as a dangerous and subversive innovation, set against the idea of harmony of powers cooperating by free and mutual consent.

In a sense, this constitutional ideal, which was typical of medieval theory and practice, fought a losing battle in the state. The forces that made for the centralization of power were generally on the increase. With this tendency toward a more rigid type of political organization, in which the parts were related by the delegation of authority from a single head, the idea of government by consent must make its peace as best it could. But in the end, centralized power also must make its peace with the consent of the governed.

There is a direct-developing line of thought to the liberal and constitutional movements from the fifteenth century’s conciliar theory. Running through this development and connecting it with the Middle Ages was the conviction that lawful authority is a moral force while despotism is not. Society itself embodies a force of moral criticism to which even legally constituted power is rightly subject.

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