Conciliarism on the Eve of Reformation

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.

41 thoughts on “Conciliarism on the Eve of Reformation

  1. Interesting. CtC says, Such Protestants recognize, quite rightly, that a human being cannot claim infallibility for his own interpretive tradition – still less for himself. So they attempt, through these rhetorical devices, to simply bypass the human element altogether, by speaking as though their beliefs are sort of just “downloaded” straight from the Bible

    I suppose what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Check out the popish use of “rhetorical devices” used to “bypass” this problem earlier in the article:

    For the Catholic position, paradoxically, was that it is precisely because mere men can claim no genuine spiritual authority that the successors of the apostles could claim it; and, in particular, it is precisely because no man can possibly be infallible that the bishop of Rome had to be.

    If those aren’t “rhetorical devices” by the same standard he represents protestants as using, I don’t know what the term means.

    Mr. Hart said, “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.”

    I say, “Why Jason and the Callers decided to go all in on popery is a mystery to me.”

    Maybe they liked the popish “rhetorical devices” better.


  2. “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,”

    Even the Audacious One sometimes gets off his game, apparently.


  3. I’ve often wondered about this: there seems to be key points in RC history where they have a choice (concilarism vs. papism), choose one, and then stick with it as authoritative. Is there ever an option to revisit a fork in the road?


  4. Bryan – We’ve explained the coherence of Unam Sanctum with VII under the following ten posts:

    (1) The Papacy and the Catholic Act of Faith
    (2) Habemus Papam
    (3) The “Catholics are Divided Too” Objection
    (4) Reflections: Graduating Catholic from a Reformed Seminary
    (5) Church and State: Some Impromptu Reflections
    (6) Keith Mathison’s Reply
    (7) Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority
    (8) Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture
    (9) Reaching Out to the SSPX
    (10) Podcast Episode 1

    If you think the explanation we’ve given is inadequate, please explain.

    Erik – Obviously it was a simple task…

    10 posts?

    Where are the ten posts reconciling the Syllabus of Errors with Vatican II?


    “In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” (No. 77)

    Gotta’ love squaring those pre-modern Popes with Pope “Who Am I to Judge” Francis.



    Bryan – On the one hand I had no good reasons remaining not to be Catholic, and on the other hand I had the Church of all the ages with all her martyrs and saints, beckoning me to come as Christ bade St. Peter come to Him on the water. I pushed back from my desk, walked to the nearest Catholic church, and said the following to the first person I met there: “I’ve decided to become Catholic. What must I do to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church?”

    Erik – To which the guy in brown replied, “I’m just the UPS man”.


  6. Don’t the Roman Catholics have an “out” with Unam Sanctum because they could say, “well, the pope wasn’t speaking infallibly then”?

    Of course, it seems that Unam Sanctum is a proclamation of Roman Catholic teaching by the pope on faith and morals, so one wonders why it wouldn’t carry the charism of infallibility. Which is why the doctrine of ecclesiastical infallibility is meaningless. The church is infallible, except when it’s not.


  7. Erik, BC’s experience sounds a little like evangelical/fundy decisionism to me.

    I surrender all / I surrender all / All to Peter and the Church Christ Founded / I surrender all…


  8. The Council of Constance is fascinating in that the Papacy has virtually ignored the requirement of the Council that it regularly call for further councils. Note that “Frequens” (year: 1417) was authoritatively decreed by the Council and includes language such as the following:

    “The neglect to summon councils fosters and develops all these evils, as may be plainly seen from a recollection of the past and a consideration of existing conditions. Therefore, by a perpetual edict, we sanction, decree, establish and ordain that general councils shall be celebrated in the following manner, so that the next one shall follow the close of this present council at the end of five years. The second shall follow the close of that, at the end of seven years, and councils shall thereafter be celebrated every ten years in such places as the Pope shall be required to designate and assign, with the consent and approbation of the council, one month before the close of the council in question, or which, in his absence, the council itself shall designate. Thus, with a certain continuity, a council will always be either in session, or be expected at the expiration of a definite time. This term may, however, be shortened on account of emergencies, by the Supreme Pontiff, with the counsel of his brothers, the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, but it may not be hereafter lengthened.”

    When was the last time you heard converts to Roman Catholicism calling on the Pope to repent and follow this infallible teaching of the church?


  9. C-dubs, ding ding ding. As a result, the convert coming over via a CtC apologetic, is set up for a rude awakening. RC practice consists of the mass, some use of the sacrament of confession, and various mediatorial practices centered around dead saints and Mary. Mass is available daily and virtually on the hour so you can get immersed pretty quickly.


  10. Sean, you mean they’re not going to get a regular diet of good preaching and real community? Horrors! Sounds like they’ll have to sit in their little cubicle-shells and toil at their private interpretation apologetic(s) for something that doesn’t exist or never was. I pity them.


  11. C-dubs, community happens at KoC(Knights of Columbus). Another place, where if you get too pointyheaded, you’re looking at masons not KoC. Irony of Ironies.


  12. C-dubs, they only have commission to beat up Jack Chick baptists or folks who root against ND. If you’re going to be pointyheaded you better have a collar, and be willing to absolve them.


  13. The name C-Dubs is that of a burger joint in town that provides a simple combo so big that you have to get served in a 12″ x 15″ box, let alone what you get for triple-stacking.

    These inadvertent stumbling blocks are the most painful…


  14. Robert – Don’t the Roman Catholics have an “out” with Unam Sanctum because they could say, “well, the pope wasn’t speaking infallibly then”?

    Erik – Yes, but it’s the callers MO to first try to fit square pegs into round holes for awhile before crying uncle and evoking that line.

    Also note Jason frequently attempting to establish the biblical justification for Catholic doctrines. Rookie…


  15. Sorry, Kent. I could best be described as three items from the dollar menu (including unsweetened tea).


  16. Ray (#431), Michael (#436),

    What Darryl said (#434).

    Can I assume that Jason was 100% convinced of the truth of Reformed Protestantism when he made vows as a Presbyterian minister? And now he is 100% convinced of the truth of Catholicism?

    In reality, if we’re honest with ourselves (and not typing on a blog for public consumption) we really aren’t 100% convinced of the truth of much in this life. We don’t have to be 100% convinced, though, and we don’t need an alleged fallible interpreter to find something to stake our lives on. We only need to be convinced that what we have found is better than the available alternatives. Reformed Protestantism is clearer and better than both atheism and Catholicism. That’s why I’m a Reformed Protestant.

    As I’ve said many, many times, I think you guys have epistemological problems that you think Rome has an answer to. I disagree.


  17. Michael (#457) – But Bryan, I, and many others have repeatedly addressed just that point–as have many contemporary Catholic authors–showing that the Magisterium has not contradicted itself when teaching with its full authority about ecclesiology.

    Erik – Why would the Magisterium waste its own and everyone else’s time by teaching WITHOUT its full authority about ecclesiology (or anything else)?


  18. Michael (#457) – That is basically what the SSPX’s response to Pope Benedict was, which is why that organization is not reconciled with Rome, and still considers itself more Catholic than the Pope. I can assure you that they won’t fare any better with Pope Francis.

    Erik – How do you know what Francis will or will not do without being able to predict the future? Bryan touches on the subject of the unpredictability of future popes in his own conversion story. Is there truly any Papal action that could shake your guys’ faith or would you merely adjust your faith to match any future Papal action? It’s a serious question.


  19. Michael,

    Your whole discussion of HoC (Hermeneutic of Continuity) vs. HoD (Hermeneutic of Discontinuity) shows how much you presuppose that Rome is what it says it is. This is why we say that all you guys have done is substitute “Sola Ecclesia” for your prior faith commitment of “Sola Scriptura”. Nothing that is superior to the “Protestant Paradigm” is in effect. It’s just a different “Catholic Paradigm” that rests on faith. Epistemologically you are no better off than before.

    Look at this from the Motives of Credibility:

    “But if the history of the Church since New-Testament times thus wonderfully confirms the New Testament itself, and if the New Testament so marvellously completes the Old Testament, these books must really contain what they claim to contain, viz. Divine revelation. And more than all, that Person Whose life and death were so minutely foretold in the Old Testament, and Whose story, as told in the New Testament, so perfectly corresponds with its prophetic delineation in the Old Testament, must be what He claimed to be, viz. the Son of God. His work, therefore, must be Divine. . Indeed, we can truly say that for every truth of Christianity which we believe Christ Himself is our testimony, and we believe in Him because the Divinity He claimed rests upon the concurrent testimony of His miracles, His prophecies His personal character, the nature of His doctrine, the marvellous propagation of His teaching in spite of its running counter to flesh and blood, the united testimony of thousands of martyrs, the stories of countless saints who for His sake have led heroic lives, the history of the Church herself since the Crucifixion, and, perhaps more remarkable than any, the history of the papacy from St. Peter to Pius X. ”

    How many of these things are truly self-evident without PRESUPPOSING that Rome is who she says she is?

    (1) “But if the history of the Church since New-Testament times thus wonderfully confirms the New Testament itself.”

    Not self-evident. We find Roman Catholic practices and doctrines with no New Testament precedent.

    (2) “The Church which He founded must also be Divine and the repository and guardian of His teaching”

    Not self-evident.

    (3) “the marvellous propagation of His teaching in spite of its running counter to flesh and blood, the united testimony of thousands of martyrs, the stories of countless saints who for His sake have led heroic lives”

    Not self-evident. One would have to compare Christ’s teaching to that taught by the Roman Catholic Church to establish that what has been propogated is “marvellous”.

    In order to assess martyrs, saints, and those who have led heroic lives one would also need to take into account Catholics who were scoundrels who led unheroic lives. Examining actions of Catholics has to work both ways.

    (4) “the history of the Church herself since the Crucifixion, and, perhaps more remarkable than any, the history of the papacy from St. Peter to Pius X.”

    Not self-evident. If we’re doing history we need to look at the bad along with the good.

    And no fideism allowed as we undertake all this.


  20. Michael (#457) – Although, like Darryl, you’re suggesting that we at CTC are being dishonest, I would not say you’re being malicious (though, for all I know, you might be).

    Erik- I don’t think many people promote religious dogma that they know to be wrong. It’s possible you have such cynical people in your midst, but I have no reason to think that you do. I think you guys have bought into something that you have a deep need to be true and you do what you can to put things in the best light to convince yourselves and others that what the Roman Catholic Church teaches is true. What is the next stop for many of you if it’s not true? Back to Protestantism? Atheism? The public nature of your conversion stories makes these options difficult and quite humbling.


  21. Michael – (#457) – 157 Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.”31 “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”32

    Erik – Ironic that Rome would ground faith in “the very word of God” when she promotes things that are not found in the Word of God. Why should that not shake my faith in Rome?


  22. I surrender all / I surrender all / All to Peter and the Church Christ Founded / I surrender all…

    While CW’s startling insight was unbeknownst to me, great minds can at time, resemble performative copycats.
    That is, the truth finally dawned on me listening to “Christian” radio at work this week.
    While the music is tolerable – earplugs certainly help – it’s the gushing testimonials from all the novices of what “praise music”/ Station XYZ has done for them that is revolting to both one’s stomach and soul . . as well as reminds one of all the CtC testimonials about how they once were protestant, but now have found their true joy and glory in all things holy, motherly and Roman.

    IOW, no, you shouldn’t let others say this about you or your magisterium church.

    And then there’s Michael’s latest over at CtC, #463:

    The first sentence in the above paragraph is an assertion for which you offer no argument.
    (Ahem, ditto for yours.)

    The second does not apply to me–the person whom you are, after all, primarily addressing.
    (Again another assertion.)

    I have never held any “faith commitment of Sola Scriptura” because, even when I did not consider myself Catholic, I did not find that doctrine credible in the slightest.
    (BTQ. The substantive question is the doctrine credible?)

    Nor is my present faith commitment “Sola Ecclesia.” The claims of the Catholic Church herself are intelligible only in the context of Scripture and Tradition, whose joint content, by her own confession, is “the word of God” that she did not invent but serves, as their bearer and interpreter (see, again, Dei Verbum, which I quoted at length in #396).
    (BTQ, in that ‘the assertion claims of the RCC that she is only intelligible in the context of Scripture and Tradition whose joint content, by her own confession, is “the word of God” that she did not suck out of her collective thumb invent but serves, as their ahem, truly humble bearer and infallible interpreter . . . .’ is precisely what is at issue and which is not proven by self serving/circular assertions however authoritatively delivered with the imprimatur of the un-ordained, irregular innurnet mouthpiece of the magisterium/believed by the faithful.

    Hence, your last three sentences are assertions which are not warranted by what precedes them. Your tu quoque argument fails.
    (Touche quoque.)



  23. In the conciliarism vein, a review by Blair Smith of O’Malley’s Trent: What Happened at the Councilover at Ref21.

    Perhaps a informative review will be forthcoming from the CtC – after they take care of their moral obligation to address King and Webster’s trilogy on Holy Scripture and the ECFs.
    Smith says O’M does well giving us Trent, but not so well reformed protestantism’s objections.

    But maybe yours truly performatively inhabits never never land.


  24. There you go again DG, succumbing to the Hermeneutic of Suspicion and demonstrating uh, a lack of uhm, you know, Charity to say things like that of your Nominal Brethren Superior in all things Roman. Of course it goes without saying that you also preveniently BTQ when it comes to historicism, papal or otherwise. IOW this is getting old and your motives of credibility are stale.

    On another note, Michael in 496 closes by telling us:

    I do not know whom you are quoting under the title “Motives of Credibility.” Whomever you’re quoting in that passage, my reaction to it is that it’s not the sort of argument that would convince anybody who isn’t already convinced on other grounds. But perhaps you might try a little thought experiment. Remove any distinctively Catholic ideas and references from that passage, and ask yourself whether you would then believe it. I’d be interested in reading about the result. Perhaps then we could start having a useful discussion.

    We repeats ourself, but with apologies to the Assembly on their ineffable WCF Chapt. 1, a little thought expirimunt of our own private judgmental alchemy re. paragraphs 4&5:

    IV. The authority of the Magick-sterium, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any paradigm, or Churchman; but wholly upon the Magick-sterium (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received because it’s all about the Word of the Magick-sterium.

    V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Pope and Tradition to a high and reverent esteem of the Magick-sterium. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of its doktrine, the majesty of its overbearing style, the unanimous consent of all the parts of its papal bulls, the kaleido-scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to the Magick-sterium), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation from purgatory, the many other incomparable, but fully compatible excellencies according to the development of doctrine, and the entire perfection thereof, are ad hoc arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be The Magick-sterium: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Most Holy Tradition bearing witness by and with the Sacrament in our hearts/peeking out of the monstrance.

    IOW the schtick never ends over at some sites.
    And “it never happens here,either”.
    So there.


  25. “Borrowing liberally from Catholic tradition and terminology, (Mussolini) presented himself as a mix between a man of the people and Italy’s predestined savior. Though incompatible with key teachings of Christianity – say, notions like forgiveness, tolerance and humility – Fascism, with its stress on obedience and sacrifice and its rejection of materialism, earned the pope’s blessing. Going a bit over the top, Don Guido Palagi, a Dominican monk, sent Mussolini a 100-verse poem titled ‘The Lash and the Club’.”


    “After the war, of course, there were suddenly no Fascists in Italy, and with the onset of the Cold War the country couldn’t afford to tear itself apart in recriminations. The church proclaimed Catholicism’s incompatibility with Fascism but urged reconciliation. The Italian Communists were the ones pressing for a reckoning, but they had their own agenda.”

    Henrik Bering’s review of “Fascist Voices” by Christopher Duggan in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal.


  26. Bob S, for all our w-w differences you and Old Bob still have to be related. Or at least had the same English teacher.


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