The Ecumenical Councils

Francis Dvornik

 

CHAPTER III. THE SHADOW OF THE CONCILIAR THEORY

 

1. Western Schism, Origins of the Conciliar Theory  67

2. The Council of Constance (1414-18)  71

3. The Councils of Basle-Ferrara-Florence (14317), Union and Its Failure  74

4. Survivals of the Conciliar Theory, the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17)  80

 

1. WESTERN SCHISM: ORIGINS OF THE CONCILIAR THEORY

 

The alarming consequences on Church life of the growing curial policy of centralization were vividly described by a keen observer, Durandus, Bishop of Mende, in his Treatise on the General Councils. He proposed radical reforms consisting mainly of restrictions on papal centralization, respect of the rights of the bishops, revival of the old synodal practices and better education of the clergy. None of his proposals were seriously considered at Vienne, although he had written his treatise for that Council.

 

During the reign of Clement V’s successor John XXII (1316— 34), the harmful effects of the curial practice on Church life became even more evident. He completed the centralizing system, and extended to all Western lands the curial practice of conferring ecclesiastical benefices. Thus he created a kind of absolutist state, to which all Christians were subject, through the government of a hierarchy completely subordinate to the judicial power and fiscal rights of its head. Fie is to be credited with having been among the first to realize the importance of sound finances for any political power in a world rapidly changing over to a money economy.

 

All this, however, resulted in the debasement of the spiritual forces which the papacy was bound to protect and provoked fanatical opposition, particularly in the ranks of the Spirituals,

 

 

68

 

who, in spite of the decision of the Council of Vienne, continued to demand the absolute poverty of monastic institutions. William of Occam, a famous English Franciscan philosopher, was one of the fiercest opponents of John XXII.

 

The pope’s plans in Italy where, with the help of the Angevin kings of Naples, he hoped to restore papal political authority in Lombardy and Central Italy, and thus make possible his return to Rome, brought him into violent conflict with the German king Louis IV. When threatened with excommunication, Louis accused the pontiff of usurping the rights of German Prince Electors, launched against him the charge of heresy, because he had rejected the doctrine of the Spirituals and finally appealed to a future General Council.

 

The change in the political and ideological atmosphere of Western Christianity is illustrated in Rome by the elevation of Louis to the imperial dignity, not by the representative of the pope, but in the name of the rebellious people of Rome. All this echoed the revolutionary ideas which Marsilius of Padua had expressed in his Defensor Pacis, a most daring treatise of medieval political thought. He stressed the sovereignty of the people against papal theocratic principles as the foundation on which the State is built. The authority of the hierarchy was limited, according to him, to providing for spiritual needs under the surveillance of the State, and the pope’s actions should be controlled by General Councils in which laymen and States would be represented.

 

These were dangerous ideas, hitherto unheard of, but if Marsilius and his associate John of Jandun hoped that the excommunicated Emperor would accept them, they were mistaken. With the help of France, the papacy once more won the struggle against the emperors. It was John’s second successor Clement VI, who chose Charles IV, future king of Bohemia, to supplant the rebellious Emperor, Louis IV.

 

It was the Emperor Charles IV who prepared the way for Urban V to return to Rome, at least temporarily. However, the Emperor died that same year (1378), when the Great Schism of the West had begun. Some of the cardinals, offended by the

 

 

69

 

haughty attitude of Urban VI, declared invalid his election, made under pressure from the people of Rome, and elected a new pope, Clement VII, who established himself in Avignon.

 

It was during this period of the Western Schism which lasted until 1415, that the so-called conciliar theory, proclaiming the superiority of the council over the pope, was formulated. Although similar ideas had been put forward by William of Occam and Marsilius of Padua, the canonists of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, who had developed this theory, do not seem to have been inspired by these radical writings. The canonical basis of the conciliar theory was the medieval concept of a corporation, according to which the head of a corporation is the executive of a power residing in all members of the corporation and which has been delegated to him by them. Should the head of the corporation cease to exist or when it failed to promote the interest of the body corporate, the delegated power reverted to its members.

 

It should be stressed that even the staunchest defenders of the superiority of spiritual power over the temporal, which is embodied in the pope, accepted the medieval principles governing a corporation and did not hesitate to apply them to the Church. For example, Hugaccio, teacher of Innocent III, in the spirit of these ideas, taught that a pope can personally fall into error, but the Church cannot, meaning not only the Roman Church, but also the universal Church. The Church, thus represented in a council, is empowered to state the error of a pope who, at that same moment, ceases to be pope. From these premises also originated the thesis that a council with a pope is superior to the pope alone.

 

From such reasoning it was not difficult to conceive the principle—this was done by John of Paris who died in 1306—that the plenitude of power is given by God to the Church composed of all the faithful. The community of the faithful transferred this power to the pope through his election by the cardinals. The community can, however, take back this transfer should the pope fall into error, or if he uses his power to the detriment of the Church. Once this principle had been accepted,

 

 

70

 

there remained only the controversial question as to whether this recall of the power given to the pope should be effected by the cardinals alone, or by a council representing all the faithful.

 

The first denials of the plenitude of power invested in the pope, the appeals to a council made by the cardinals of the House of Colonna, and by King Philip the Fair against Boniface VIII, and by Louis IV against John XXII, were based on this reasoning of the canonists. The idea of the superiority of the council would, however, hardly have been fully formulated and so widely accepted had the schism not occurred in 1378. The situation appeared more serious as the schism was not caused by a secular ruler, but by the cardinals themselves. In the opinion of many, schism was tantamount to heresy.

 

The fact that the schism originated from a double election deprived the cardinals of their judicial role over the pope, and the responsibility for the removal of the scandal returned to the faithful, as represented by a General Council. This was propounded in 1379 by two German theologians from the University of Paris, Henry of Langenstein and Conrad of Gelnhausen. However, such a thesis was still too new. It was only when all hope of any other solution had vanished and when the disorders created by two rival curias, in Rome and in Avignon, became too glaring, that the conciliar idea was accepted generally as the only possible remedy. So it happened that in 1409 thirteen cardinals withdrew their obedience to both Benedict XIII of Avignon and Gregory XII of Rome, and convoked a Council in Pisa.

 

Although the convocation was based on very slender authority, the general desire for an ending of the schism was so great that the Council promised to be a success. Nearly 100 bishops and abbots were present. Moreover, following the practice introduced at the Council of Vienne, 100 bishops, 200 abbots, many chapters and thirteen universities sent their procurators or representatives.

 

The two popes, having refused to appear, answered the challenge by convoking their own councils. They were deposed and the council empowered the cardinals to elect a new pontiff.

 

 

71

 

The new pope, Alexander V, died the following year and the unscrupulous and ambitious Baldassare Cossa was elected and took the name of John XXIII. Since the two previous popes refused to resign, Western Christianity thus became even further divided. The new pope, elected in Pisa, had the largest following, although Benedict XIII was recognized in Spain and Scotland, Gregory XII by Germany, Naples, Venice and the Duke of Rimini.

 

 

2. THE COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE (1414-18)

 

Thus, the first attempt to suppress the schism, through the application of the conciliar theory by the cardinals, miscarried. There remained one last possibility, the intervention of the Emperor-Elect, King Sigismund (1410-37), Protector of the Church. The times when an Emperor could intervene with armed forces to pacify the Church had gone long ago, and Sigismund could attempt pacification only by resorting to the conciliar idea. He offered obedience to John XXIII on the condition that the latter would agree to the convocation of a Council of Union at Constance. Sigismund announced the convocation in 1413 and was followed in this by John XXIII.

 

The latter regarded the new Council as the continuation of that of Pisa, expecting to be reconfirmed by the Italian bishops who held a majority at the Council. The Council was opened on November 5th, 1414. The non-Italian prelates demanded that the voting should be carried out not according to the number of prelates present, but according to the system adopted by medieval universities. All present were divided into four nations—the Germans, comprising prelates from the whole of central and eastern Europe together with Scandinavia; the French and English with the Irish and Scots; and the Italians. Later, when Spain had joined the Council, she obtained the fifth vote.

 

Seeing that his hopes for reconfirmation had vanished (his private life was not without blame) John XXIII escaped to his friend, the Duke of Tyrol. But again, the expectation that his disappearance would wreck the Council was frustrated by the energetic intervention of King Sigismund, who forbade the members of the Council to leave Constance. This treacherous

 

 

72

 

action of Pope John’s resulted in the conciliar theory being officially accepted and applied by the members of the Council in its fullest sense. Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, took the initiative in his speech on March 23rd and the Council made it a law in the famous decree Sacrosancta, voted on April 6th. In this decree, the Council declared itself an ecumenical assembly with full jurisdiction given it by Christ. Therefore, all Christians, even the pope, must obey its decisions in matters of faith, of union, and of Church reform.

 

The cardinals saw in this decree a curtailment of their own rights, but they protested in vain against its acceptance. In execution of the powers which the Council gave itself, an order was issued to arrest the fugitive pope. He was taken prisoner, incarcerated and deposed.

 

It was during this period when the Council, now without a pope, pretended to function as the supreme authority in all ecclesiastical matters, that the assembled Fathers, anxious to show their solicitude for the pure Catholic faith, hastened their condemnation of the heretical doctrines of the English reformer Wyclif and of his Czech follower John Huss. In his zeal for Church reform, Wyclif overstepped himself, demanding the absolute poverty of the Church, whose wealth should be taken over by the State. He regarded the Church as an invisible society, composed of souls predestined for salvation. Its head was Christ and the papacy was instituted by Antichrist. He rejected all those religious practices which gave occasion to the abuses he criticized, declaring the Bible to be the sole source of faith.

 

These doctrines were condemned by the Council (on May 4th, 1415) which then devoted all its attention to the doctrine and person of John Huss. The latter, a pious and virtuous man, was a zealous reformer in Bohemia, but he incurred the displeasure of the Archbishop of Prague by criticizing abuses too sharply. It is the irony of fate that it was the least legitimate pope, John XXIII, who provoked Huss’ most violent criticism. When John promised indulgences to all who would contribute to his Crusade against the King of Naples, who refused to accept his obedience, Huss protested against the preaching and “sale” of indulgences.

 

 

73

 

It was after this incident that he put into writing his teaching on the Church inspired by Wyclif’s ideas.

 

Huss had a large following among the Czech people and the nobility. Excommunicated and suspended, he was willing to appear at Constance after Sigismund promised to provide him with a letter of safe conduct. Although still under suspension, he began preaching in Constance and was imprisoned. It is questionable how far Huss believed all the thirty theses extracted from his works, often regardless of the context, in face of his frequent protests that he was unjustly accused of heretical teaching. He stubbornly refused to recant the heretical doctrines of which he was accused, and was condemned as an obstinate heretic. Sigismund made no attempt to save him from extradition by the Council and from burning at the stake on July 6th, 1415. A similar fate befell Huss’ friend, Jerome of Prague, in 1416. By condemning heretical teachings, the Council gained respect, but the execution of John Huss provoked a new storm in Central Europe which disturbed the peace in the Church for many years to come.

 

After the deposition of John XXIII, the way for the liquidation of the schism was made easier by the voluntary abdication of Gregory XII (July, 1415), after he had published a Bull formally legitimizing the Council. Benedict XIII of Avignon, although abandoned by France, refused to abdicate and took refuge in Peniscola in Spain. Even though both Spain and Portugal abandoned his obedience, he refused to resign and was deposed by the Council on July 26th, 1417.

 

The German and English nations insisted on postponing the election of the new pope until after the vote of all the decrees on Church reform. After protracted negotiations, a compromise was reached. The most important of the five decrees, called Frequens, promulgated on October 9th, 1417, transformed the conciliar organization into a permanent institution, which would exercise a certain control over the papacy. The next council was to be convoked in five years, to be followed by another after seven years. Thereafter, a council should convene every ten years. Then, the collegium of fifty-six voters, cardinals and six

 

 

74

 

representatives of each nation, assembled in conclave and elected Pope Martin V on November 11th, 1417. [1]

 

Unfortunately, the much desired reform of the Church was not seriously attempted. The seven decrees voted at the forty-third session in March, 1418, only tried to remedy certain consequences of the schism and curtailed certain fiscal prerogatives of the curia. The pope himself concluded individual concordats with each nation, giving them certain concessions as to the choice of cardinals and also in fiscal and administrative matters. Martin V, whose authority had grown considerably in spite of the anti-papal atmosphere created by the conciliar theory, closed the Council on April 22nd, 1418, after its last and forty-fifth session. He did not officially approve the decisions made and in forbidding appeals from the pope to a council he indirectly condemned the conciliar idea. Only in 1446 did his successor Eugenius IV declare that he accepted the decrees of Constance in so far as they did not curtail the authority and primacy of the papacy.

 

 

3. THE COUNCIL OF BASLE-FERRARAFLORENCE (1431-45)

 

Although the papacy continued to recover its rightful position in the Church, the conciliar theory did not die without a struggle. Martin V, respecting the decisions of the Council of Constance, after five years convoked a new council in Pavia. The assembly was transferred to Siena, but, as only a few bishops had arrived, he dissolved it. In spite of this failure, the bishops insisted on the convocation of a new synod after seven years, as had been decreed at Constance. Martin V was therefore forced to summon a new synod at Basle (1431), appointing Cardinal Julian Cesarini as director of its debates.

 

It seemed likely that the Council of Basle would end in the same way as had the synod of Pavia-Siena. Cesarini, confirmed

 

 

1. The Council prescribed a special profession of faith for the newlyelected pope. In the formula of the profession only one Lateran Council— probably the Fourth—and the Councils of Lyons and Vienne were added to the eight Ecumenical Councils enumerated in Gratian’s collection of canon law. The practice was soon abandoned.

 

 

75

 

in his presidential function by Martin’s successor Eugenius IV, thought that it was more important as papal legate to direct the Crusade against the Hussites, and so sent only his representatives to Basle, who opened the Council on July 23rd, though not one bishop had yet appeared. The Crusade against the Hussites ended in disaster, and Cesarini, who had barely escaped being taken prisoner, appeared in Basle in September. Because the number of delegates increased very slowly and because Martin V had already reached agreement with the Greeks to hold a Council of union in Italy, the pope, discouraged by exaggerated reports of the situation in Basle, dissolved the Council.

 

Before the papal decision had reached Basle Cesarini, after his sad experience with the last Crusade against the Hussites, had invited their representatives to appear in Basle for peaceful negotiations. The papal Bull of dissolution was greeted with dismay. The Fathers refused to obey and renewed the decree Sacrosancla of Constance, defining the superiority of the Council over the pope.

 

Because Sigismund was interested in pacifying the Hussites, who refused to recognize him as King of Bohemia, the Council continued its negotiations with the moderate party of the Hussites and induced them to accept, on November 30th, 1433, the socalled Compacts of Prague, which gave them the privilege of Communion under both species and other concessions concerning free preaching, punishment of public sinners and limitation of Church property.

 

This was a great success for the Council of Basle and it was greeted with relief, especially in Germany, whose crusading expeditions had all ended in defeat and whose lands, bordering on Bohemia, had been plundered by the victorious Hussites. The pope, already in a difficult position in Rome, was himself forced to revoke the Bull of dissolution and to legitimize the Council of Basle.

 

The pope’s decision came too late, for in the meantime the Council had put into practice the conciliar principles. The Council was divided into four nations—French, Italian, German and Spanish—and any procurator or doctor, accepted as a member,

 

 

76

 

had full voting rights on a par with the cardinals and bishops who were in a hopeless minority. In spite of this, the Council endeavoured to act as the supreme authority in the Church.

 

Apart from the reconciliation with the Hussites, Church reform was the main preoccupation. Many useful decrees were voted, especially in matters of clerical life, organization of local synods, and the celebration of the liturgy. In other decrees, however, the anti-papal tendency predominated. Right of appeal to the pope was curtailed and all taxes demanded by the curia suppressed. This would have deprived the popes of most of their incomes, thus putting the papacy at the mercy of a Council whose composition did not correspond with Church tradition. Eugenius IV protested against such decrees, but without success.

 

The Council of Basle was also interested in promoting union with the Greeks. This was in the interest of Sigismund, who was wearied of the progress of the Turks against Byzantium, in Serbia and Bulgaria, in the vicinity of Hungary. The defeat which he suffered at Nicopolis (1396) showed him the magnitude of the Turkish danger. He therefore encouraged negotiations with the Greeks, which had been begun already by Martin V and which Eugenius IV had successfully concluded. The Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, menaced on all sides by the Ottoman Turks, saw clearly that without the help of the West he could not save the remnants of his empire or even the city itself. From past experience it was evident that the Greeks could be led to union only by a decision made in an Ecumenical Council. If the council could not be held in Constantinople, a possibility which was discussed, the Greeks favoured an Italian city more accessible to them.

 

It was over this question about the location of such a council that Basle made a definite break with Eugenius IV. The majority of the conciliar members—Basle had sent her own delegates to Constantinople—favoured Avignon or Basle. Cesarini and the minority sided with Eugenius IV who, according to the wishes of the Greeks, preferred an Italian city. Encouraged by the split at Basle, Eugenius IV dispatched a hired fleet to Constantinople to transport the Emperor, the patriarch and the delegation of

 

 

77

 

700 Greeks to Italy. Although Basle also sent boats to Constantinople for the same purpose, the Emperor sided with the pope who had proposed Ferrara as the seat of the Council. On September 18th, 1437, the pope transferred the Council from Basle to Ferrara, but the majority of the members revolted, refusing to obey the papal order.

 

The Council for the union with the Greeks was opened at Ferrara on January 8th and is regarded as the legitimate continuation of the Council of Basle. The Greek delegation, headed by the Emperor John VIII Palaeologus (1425-48) and the ecumenical patriarch Joseph, with delegates from the three other Eastern patriarchates arrived in March. The Emperor asked for postponement of the debates hoping in the meantime that the envoys of European princes, from whom he expected military help, would appear. Only few princes sent representatives. Others still favoured the Council of Basle or declared their neutrality in the controversy between the pope and Basle.

 

The discussions on purgatory began in June, but were fruitless, and they revealed that the Greek theologians had no clear ideas on this subject. After the arrival of Isidor, Metropolitan of Kiev, the addition of the Filioque to the Creed was debated, but no agreement was reached.

 

The pope, finding himself unable to entertain the large Greek delegation and the many Latin theologians, was obliged to accept the offer of the city of Florence which was willing to bear the financial burden. Because the plague was raging in Ferrara, he transferred the Council to Florence on January 10th, 1439. The dogmatic discussions on the procession of the Holy Ghost —the main obstacle to union—began in February and lasted till June. Bishop Mark Eugenicus of Ephesus stubbornly refused to accept the Latin explanation, but owing to the intervention of the learned Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, and other Greek prelates, the Greeks finally accepted the formula that the Holy Ghost derives in essence and in being at the same time from the Father and the Son and that he proceeds eternally from both, as from one principle and through a single spiration.

 

This accord was reached two days before the death of the

 

 

78

 

patriarch (June 10th). The discussions on purgatory, the Eucharist and the Roman primacy were long and interspersed with dangerous crises, but at last common agreement on the teaching of purgatory and the Eucharist—with leavened or unleavened bread—was reached. Finally it was defined that “the holy apostolic See of Rome had (spiritual) primacy over the whole world. The Roman Pontiff himself, as the successor of St Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, is the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church and the Father and teacher of all Christians. To him—in the person of Peter—has been given by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule and govern the Church universal, as it is also expressed in the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils and in the holy canons.” The decree of union was signed by all the Greeks present with two exceptions, and by the pope and the Latin prelates on July 6th, 1439. [2]

 

The conclusion of union with the Greeks was a great success for Eugenius IV and helped him, not only to vanquish the Council of Basle, but also to stop any further development of the conciliar movement which was trying to introduce radical changes into the constitution of the Church. In vain had the rebellious members of Basle declared the superiority of the Council over the pope as dogma. Not even the deposition of Eugenius IV and the election of the Duke of Savoy (Felix V) as anti-pope made the desired impression. Eugenius IV answered by an excommunication of the rebels and continued his work for union with the other Churches. On November 22nd, 1439, the Armenian Church concluded a union and the Copts from Egypt followed on February 4th, 1442. After the transfer of the Council to Rome, in September 1443, union with the Syriac Church was concluded, and in August, 1445, some Chaldaeans and Mar onites from Cyprus joined the Church of Rome. The date of the final closing of the Council is not known.

 

 

2. The translator of the Greek Acts of the Council, the Uniate Bishop Abraham of Crete, with the permission of the Curia called the Council of Florence the Eighth Ecumenical, following the Greek tradition. His contemporaries Cardinals Reginald Pole and Contarini, also regarded this Council as the Eighth Ecumenical. This “error” was “corrected”, in the collections of councils in the seventeenth century.

 

 

79

 

In the meantime, Eugenius IV continued to win over to his obedience those princes still hesitating between the papacy and the rebels in Basle. Through the conclusion of concordats he won over Aragon, Scotland, the German princes and the Emperor Frederick III. Frederick evicted the conciliar members from Basle in 1448. They moved to Lausanne, and after their pope had resigned in 1449, the Council met its inglorious end. The victory of the papacy over the dangerous and erroneous doctrine was achieved finally with the help of the Greeks.

 

The disunity among the European princes was one of the many reasons why the union with the Greeks and other Churches concluded at Florence and Rome did not last. Eugenius IV did not forget his promise to bring military help to the Greeks for the defence of their city. He himself entertained a small contingent of bowmen in Constantinople during the absence of the Emperor and, in 1442, he sent Cesarini to Central Europe to help Ladislas, King of Poland and Hungary, to organize a Crusade against the Turks, with the help of John Hunyadi of Transylvania, Serbia, Venice and Genoa. The crusaders had some success, and penetrated into Bulgaria. The battle of Varna, however, on November 10th, 1444, in which the Christian army was defeated, King Ladislas and the legate Cesarini killed, sealed the fate of Constantinople and the Union in Greece.

 

The Greek Uniats had a dangerous antagonist in Mark Eugenicus who arrived in Constantinople before the Emperor and began to spread his anti-unionist ideas among the monks and the common people. But the Emperor did not intervene, and this encouraged Mark and his friends. Distrust of the men who had concluded the union grew. As no substantial help was forthcoming from the West, the cause of the union was weakened. The pope sent Isidore, now a cardinal, who had been expelled from Moscow, and who had failed to enforce the union in the Russian lands under Poland-Lithuania—the leading Polish bishops favoured the rebel Council of Basle—to the Greek islands and to Constantinople to help the Uniats. His reports contain interesting details showing that the union had some chance of survival. Yet, although John VIII’s successor Constantine XI remained

 

 

80

 

faithful to the union and encouraged the Uniats, dislike of the Latins was so deeply rooted in the Greek populace that his efforts were vain. Almost no help came from the West and the last Emperor of Constantinople died heroically on May 29th, 1453, defending his city which became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. A new patriarch, Gernadius Scholarius, once in favour of the union, later its fiercest enemy, was installed in Constantinople by the victorious Mohammed, and in 1484 the union of the Council of Florence was officially repudiated in a synod held in Constantinople.

 

 

4. SURVIVALS OF THE CONCILIAR THEORY: THE FIFTH LATERAN COUNCIL (1512-17)

 

There was, however, one enduring result of the Union Council from which the Western Church profited immensely, namely the growth of the prestige of the papacy. The Greeks had kept the traditional concept of a council opposed to the Western conciliar idea. According to this concept, a council was ecumenical only when all five patriarchs were represented. The Roman patriarch, the first, was not represented at Basle. Moreover, the composition of this Council did not correspond to the old orthodox teaching that only bishops had the right to vote. These considerations, among others, influenced the decision of the Greeks, although Basle offered important concessions.

 

The role of the papacy in the Church, further enhanced by its victory at Basle, was stressed by many canonists, in particular by Cardinal Torquemada. Unfortunately, the popes neglected the clamour for reform of the Church in her head and members. The ideas of the Renaissance had penetrated the college of cardinals and the papal court. The discovery of classical treasures stimulated enormously the cultural development of Europe, but the re-emphasis on the rights of individual thought and action, expressed in literary and artistic classical works, created a wave of hedonism which led to acute moral decadence, especially in Church fife. Serious reform could not be expected from the Renaissance popes, cardinals and bishops, and because

 

 

81

 

of this, claims for the convocation of a new council of reform were repeated.

 

The attempts to revive the Council of Basle in 1482 ended in fiasco, but many princes used the conciliar idea as a weapon with which to threaten the popes. On the other hand, the popes whose authority had increased, were reluctant to convoke a council which might degenerate into another schism. In opposition to this possible danger, Julius II was forced to convoke the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17). Its main goal was to defeat the revolutionary attempts made by Louis XII, the French king, to convoke an antipapal synod at Pisa in 1511, transferred in 1512 to Milan. The renewed threat of the theoretical superiority of a Council over the pope was, however, quickly dispelled by Julius’ successor Leo X who, in 1516, concluded a concordat with Louis XII's successor, Francis I, advantageous to both, and approved by the Council of the Lateran.

 

Although many suggestions on how to reform the Church were presented to the pope by zealous reformers, the Council of the Lateran failed to attack the most crying abuses, namely, pluralism (the accumulation of benefices in the hands of one person), non-residence of incumbents of benefices and others. The decrees, voted in the four sessions before the twelfth and final meeting (March 5th, 1517), and published in pontifical Bulls, were well-meant attempts to amend the taxation practice of the curia, to recommend the choice of worthy bishops, to insist on religious instruction and preaching, to approve the pawnshops (montes pietatis) and the censorship of religious works. They were, however, not enforced. Leo X, with his worldly curia, was far from becoming a reforming pope. The splendour of the papal court, with its many great artists and newly-acquired cultural treasures, gave the impression that the old days of superiority of the spiritual power had returned.

 

So it happened that the warnings given by the radical teachings of Wyclif and John Huss, followed by social and religious strife in England and Bohemia, stayed unheeded, although all this was provoked by decadence in Church life and by a misguided desire for reform. Victory over these revolutionary

 

 

82

 

attempts appeared so decisive that the popes refused to confirm the concessions called Compacts, given by the Fathers of the Council of Basle to the moderate Hussites. The latter, although fundamentally Catholic, were refused the consecration of their elected archbishop. King George Podebrad was excommunicated by Paul II and threatened with new Crusades. These failed to attain their religious aim and increased the bitterness against the papacy in Central Europe.

 

[Previous] [Next]

[Back to Index]