It may come as no surprise to hear that Thomas Cardinal Cajetan, Luther’s chief antagonist in 1518 at the meeting in Augsburg, was a high papalist who took a decidedly anti-conciliar position with his 1511 work, De comparatione auctoritatis papae et concilii. As Francis Oakley explains, this book by Cajetan disrupted the council, then meeting in Pisa, and the bishops (from exile) sent Cajetan’s treatise to the leading theological faculty of Europe, Paris, for evaluation. There Jacques Almain responded with a vindication of the conciliarist position. It involved three grounds, as Oakley summarizes:
First, just as coercive civil power is present in a political body as a whole before it is wielded by any of its members, so, too, is it with the Church. The supreme ecclesiastical power, which Christ admittedly conferred directly upon Peter, he had earlier conferred ‘in its plentitude’ on the Church. So true is this, indeed, that had he failed after the Resurrection to institute anyone as his supreme pontiff or vicar general, the Church being possessed already of the ‘supreme coercive power’, could itself have done so. . . . .
secondly, the ecclesiastical power residing in the Church is ‘greater in extension’ than is that residing in the pope. When Christ conferred upon Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he gave them to him not as a private person but ‘as a sign and figure’ or representative of the universal Church. Hence it is by the authority of the Church and in its place that Peter and his successors have wielded the power of the keys — ‘just as kings exercise the power of jurisdiction in place of the community.’ But the general council immediately represents the universal Church and it has the power of the keys ‘more directly than does Peter’. . . .
Third, the eccleiastical power which resided in the Church is not only ‘greater in extension’ than that residing in the pope, it is also ‘greater in perfection’ too. For it resides in the Church with constancy . . . so that the Church ‘is unable to err in those things that pertain to the faith and to good morals, nor can it err in passing sentence [on such matters . . . since it is assisted always by the Holy Spirit, doctor of truth and infallible director’. . . . For popes can err, and manifestly have erred in matters of faith, and have done so in their official public capacity as well as in their private personal beliefs, whereas from that danger the Holy Spirit protects the general council, representing truly as it does that council of apostles and disciples which was the recipient of Christ’s promise that he would be with us always even to the consummation of the world. (125-26)
So strong was this disagreement between Cajetan and Almain, and so strong was the conciliarist movement, that the Council of Trent represented one of the diciest moments in Roman Catholic history. According to Oakley:
. . . concern about the danger to the papacy which [conciliar views] still posed helped, accordingly, to bolster reluctance at Rome to respond to the Protestant challenge in Germany by summoning the general council for which so many Catholics pleaded. When the Council of Trent did finally meet in 1545, it was not only suspicious representatives of the evangelicals who turned out to want the matter of the superiority of pope to council placed on the agenda. Apprehension about the potential recrudescence of conciliarism, very much on the minds of the papal legates, was also, as Paulo Sarpi was to note later on in his ascerbic history of Trent, widespread among the council fathers themselves. And not, it turned out, without good cause. Given the way in which events were to unfold, one is forced to concur in the judgement that ‘there was . . . scarcely any set problems that was so controversial at Trent or that brought the council so close to collapse as the question of primacy and the relationship between the primate and episcopate’. Disagreement about the respective powers of pope and council, though partially downplayed in response to the threat posed by Protestant dissent, rumbled on through the council’s first two periods in the 1540s and 1550s, rising to the level of something more than a subdominant whenever the issue of reform in head and members came to be discussed. And in 1562-3, during the council’s last phase when a French delegation of some significance had finally joined the ranks of the participants, the issue helped precipitate what was clearly Trent’s greatest crisis.
Aside from the ecclesiological debates over a bishop’s power (whether it came through the pope or directly from Christ), and whether bishops were bound to reside in their dioceses, was the question of papal primacy.
Here the level of disagreement was such as to preclude not only that papally sponsored redefinition but also any decree at all on the controverted nature of the Christian Church. So menacing, indeed, was the atmosphere at the council, and so rancorous the dissent, that it was something of a triumph for the diplomacy of the papal legates to have succeeded finally in sidestepping the pursuit of that issue in a compromising context in which appeals were being made to the superiority decrees of Constance and Basel . . . and in which the celebrated Charles de Guise, cardinal of Lorraine, proudly proclaimed himself to be a Frenchman, one nourished at the University of Paris where, he noted, the Councils of Constance and Basel (but certainly not that of Florence) were held to be fully legitimate and ecumenical in status, and where those rash enough to deny the superiority of council to pope could expect to be censured as heretics. (130-31)
Why Jason and the Callers decided to go all in on a theory of papal primacy and chose to ignore the theory of conciliarism (which no less depends on apostolic succession) is not just a mystery but audacious.