Those Were the Days (again)

When considering the development of doctrine, do not discount that winners make the final decision. Even legitimate councils that rescue the papacy can be found to be in discontinuity:

Once again, Christendom found itself split, but if the concilarist theologians had prevailed at the time of the Great Schism, in this phase the Pope was sustained by a great theologian: the Spanish Dominican, Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468) (not to be confused with the Inquisitor of the same name). Torquemada decorated by Eugene IV with the title Defensor fidei, is author of a Summa de Ecclesia, wherein he affirms with vigour the primacy of the Pope and his infallibilitas. In this work, he dissipates with great precision the ambiguities that had been created in the 14th century starting with the hypothesis of a heretic Pope. This case, according to the Spanish theologian, is concretely possible, but the solution to the problem should not be sought in any way in concilarism, which negates pontifical supremacy. The possibility of heresy in the Pope, does not compromise the dogma of infallibility, as even if he wanted to define a heresy ex cathedra, his office would be lost at that very same moment. (Pacifico Massi, Magistero infallibile del Papa nella teologia di Giovanni de Torquemada, Marietti, Torino 1957, pp. 117-122). Torquemada’s theses were developed the following century by one of his Italian confreres, Cardinal Cajetan.

The Council of Florence was very important as, on July 6th 1439, it promulgated the decree Laetentur Coeli et exultet terra, which brought the Eastern Schism to an end, but principally because it condemned concilarism definitively, by confirming the doctrine of the Pope’s supreme authority over the Church. On September 4th 1439, Eugene IV, defined solemnly: “We likewise define that the holy Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff, hold the primacy throughout the entire world; and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the entire Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him in blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal Church, as is attested also in the acts of ecumenical councils and the holy canons.” (Denz-H, n. 1307).

In the letter, Etsi dubitemus, of April 21st 1441, Eugene IV condemned the heretics of Basel and the “diabolical founders” of the ‘conciliarism’ doctrine: Marsilius of Padua, Jean of Jandun and William of Ockham (Epistolae pontificiae ad Concilium Florentinum spectantes, Pontificio Istituto Orientale, Roma 1946, p. 28, 24-35), but towards Haec Sancta he held a hesitant stance, proposing what in modern terms might be defined as a “hermeneutic of continuity”. In the decree of September 4th 1439, Eugene IV states that the superiority of Councils over the Pope, asserted by the Basel Fathers on the basis of Haec Sancta, is “a bad interpretation given by the Basel Fathers themselves, which de facto is revealed as contrary to the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures, of the Holy Fathers, and of the Council of Constance itself.” (Decreto del 4 settembre 1439, in Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, EDB, Bologna 2002. p. 533). Eugenio IV himself, ratified the Council of Constance as a whole and in its decrees, excluded: “any prejudice to the rights, dignity and pre-eminence of the Apostolic See” as he writes to his legate on July 22nd 1446.

The hermeneutic of “continuity” thesis between Haec Sancta and the Tradition of the Church was soon abandoned. Haec Sancta is certainly the authentic act of a legitimate ecumenical Council, ratified by three Popes, but this is not enough to render binding on the doctrinal level a Magisterial document which is posed in contrast with the perennial teaching of the Church. Today we regard that only those documents, which do not damage the rights of the Papacy and do not contrast with the Tradition of the Church can be accepted from the Council of Constance. These documents do not include Haec Sancta, which is a formally heretical conciliar act.

Instead of scripture, tradition and magisterium, it should be beware the fine print.

The Answer

James Fitzpatrick has doubts and James Martin’s advice about discernment are not resolving them. The source of these doubts and advice is the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Martin appears to be optimistic about the direction of the Roman Catholic Church:

“Discernment,” Martin continues, “is the term used by Jesuits and their colleagues to describe the way that decisions are made in a prayerful way. St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, lays out many of these methods in his classic text The Spiritual Exercises. At heart, the process begins with the belief that God wants a person, or a group, to make good, healthy and life-giving decisions; and through the ‘discernment of spirits’ sort out what is coming from God and what is not.”

What does “discernment” look like in practice? Martin writes, “At the heart of every group discernment is the idea that everyone should be…radically free to follow God’s will wherever it may lead.” This means that the participants in the group should free themselves from “disordered attachments,” including “fealty to things, ideas and people” — including previously accepted beliefs and figures in authority — “that prevent one from thinking, speaking and acting freely. The most essential element of group discernment is this absolutely radical freedom.”

Martin acknowledges that this freedom may “create tension among those who feel that any movement away from the status quo is in opposition to fidelity to the church or that change itself would cause confusion.” This fear, Martin claims, must be rejected: “Group discernment calls for a willingness to be open with one’s thoughts and feelings, and also to be open to another person’s thoughts and feelings, no matter how threatening they may seem,” since “in group discernment it may be the least likely person or group through whom the Spirit moves most strongly.” It well may be, he continues, that the Spirit is moving in opposition to “those who feel that those with the most authority, learning, or experience naturally have the correct ‘answer’.”

It is for this reason, Martin asserts, that we should not overreact when we hear leaks about things said at the synod. Many of these early positions taken by participants will be rejected before the synod ends; they will not be part of the final report. We must have patience: “The Spirit blows where it will. It takes its time for people to offer their reflections, for questions, for discussion, for clarifications, for prayer and discernment. The Holy Spirit cannot be rushed.”

It is amazing to see a Jesuit appeal to the Holy Spirit as freely as Gilbert Tennent.

But Fitzpatrick, a conservative I suppose by virtue of his writing for The Wanderer, is not so reassured by Martin’s advice:

How can we feel confident that the participants at the synod are proceeding with a “prior commitment and fidelity” to the teachings of the Church, when recent years have given us so many examples of members of the clergy who have demonstrated their opposition to what the Church teaches?

We have seen Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee retire in 2004 after it was revealed that he had used $450,000 in archdiocesan funds to settle a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment of a male lover.

We remember how Pope John Paul II in 2003 found it necessary to remove Hans Hermann Cardinal Gröer from office because of allegations of sexual misconduct with young students in his care. In September 2005, Juan Carlos Maccarone, the bishop of Santiago del Estero in Argentina, was forced to resign after pictures were released of him engaged in sexual activity with another man.

More recently, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Keith Cardinal O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, because of allegations from three priests and one former priest that O’Brien had engaged in improper sexual conduct with them during the 1980s.

And just a few weeks ago, Fr. Krzysztof Charamsa, a Polish priest and Vatican official, came out publicly as an active homosexual with a male partner. Charamsa condemned what he called the “institutionalized homophobia in the church,” calling for a change in the Church’s teaching on homosexual sex.

And just this past week, according to, Archbishop Basil Cupich of Chicago said, concerning Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, that there are some ideas surfacing in the synod hall about “penitential paths” in order to integrate people back into the life of the Church.
“[Archbishop Cupich] pointed to the so-called Kasper Proposal, an idea floated by German Cardinal Walter Kasper that would create a pathway to Communion for the divorced and remarried, and he expressed support for the theology behind the idea, published in a book last year,” reported

LifeSiteNews reported: “When asked by LifeSiteNews if the notion of accompanying people to ‘the Sacrament’ who had a clear indication of conscience to do so also applied to gay couples in the Church, Cupich indicated an affirmative answer.

“‘I think that gay people are human beings too and they have a conscience. And my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point. It’s for everybody….”

So, I ask this question sincerely, without an axe to grind: How can we feel confident, given the above history and with some of the statements that have come from certain synod fathers?

Is the cure for such worries two multi-syllabic words — wait for it — papal infallibility?

When Dutch Calvinism was 2k — even Republican

Bruce Fronen explains why Reformed Protestants oppose absolute monarchy both in the state and the church:

Calvinism generally is identified with the Swiss city state of Geneva. But that city existed, politically, as a kind of hothouse flower, protected for years by the presence of Calvin himself (though that did not prevent significant problems) and, more important, the strength and isolation of the Swiss confederation. The Netherlands, on the other hand, was a nation born in the crucible of sustained conflict. The Dutch people over generations developed a pluralist society and a kind of federal government sufficient to win independence from the Spanish monarch while retaining local freedoms and significantly divergent, traditional ways of life.

The Dutch republic had only a relatively short time as a major power and example of good government, before descending for some time into a rather petty empire seemingly motivated only by greed. But beginning in the 16th and going into the early 18th century, the Netherlands provided examples of ordered liberty, as well as practically-grounded theories underlying good government. Here a people numerous and organized enough to constitute a nation gave perhaps the first viable alternative to the centralizing monarchies then solidifying power throughout Europe. Here an early modern people came to grips with the intrinsically plural structure of society in such a way as to win their independence as a nation without losing their religious identities or local rights of self-government.

The great theorist of this time and place was Johannes Althusius. Born in what is now Germany, Althusius identified closely with his fellow Calvinists in the Netherlands. He understood, in part from simple observation of lived examples all around him that people do not exist as individuals. We all are, in our essence, members of various communities. Where in most early modern states monarchs had set about destroying most of the communities in which people become fully human and live out their lives, the Dutch never fully succumbed to the power of any single monarch. Their “petty” republics and principalities hung on tenaciously to their particular liberties and ways of life. Split by religious differences, the Dutch developed somewhat (note the lack of emphasis, here) more toleration of religious dissent than most other countries. But where they truly showed their strength was in their recognition and practice of what Calvinists in the New World would term “federal liberty.”

This piece of Dutch Calvinist history often goes overlooked by transformers of every square inch, even though Abraham Kuyper himself capitalized on Dutch pluralism to recognize a variety of groups in Dutch life in ways that would drive American Protestants of Anglo backgrounds batty. The odd thing about Dutch Calvinism is that it was far more tolerant than those whom today it inspires. I can’t help but blame w-w, which drives a wedge between believers and unbelievers in totalizing ways and animates the bejeebies about secularization.

Our Debt to Roman Catholicism

In his last chapter, Oakley describes what happened to conciliarism after its smack down at Vatican I. Late twentieth-century Roman Catholic ecclesiologists, he writes, have paid less attention to the institutional or extrinsic aspects of church governance to the more theoretical, abstract, and theological. That is one way of saying that exploring the constitutional characteristics of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is forbidden after the triumph of high papalism. Here he quotes one fourteenth-century schoolman, who after describing “the papal power of jurisdiction,” wrote, “But this I only assert. For it is perilous to speak of this matter — more perilous, perhaps, than to speak of the Trinity, or the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.” (219)

Oakley adds:

Such late twentieth-century preoccupations, however, should not be permitted to screen from us the fact . . . that for 700 years and more arguments based on secular political analogies, or arguments simply assuming something of a constitutional overlap between political and ecclesiastical modes of governance, served as a mainstay of eccleiologicial discourse, whether high-papalist or constitutionalist. Hardly surprising, of course, given the marked degree to which in the Middles Ages secular and religious intertwined, and ecclesiology and secular constitutional thinking, whether more absolutist or constitutionalist, constantly influenced one another. So much so, indeed, that the ‘juridical culture of the twelfth century — the works of Roman and canon lawyers, especially those of the canonists where religious and secular ideas most obviously intersected — formed a kind of seedbed from which grew the whole tangled forest of early modern constitutional thought. (219)

In other words, not the Greek polis or the Roman republic but conciliarism was responsible at least indirectly for the constitutional republics of the eighteenth century that sought to place limits on rulers who were prone to appeal to their divine rights.

Oakley goes on to observe the influence of conciliarism among Calvinists:

Neither the English, French, and Scottish resistance theorists of the sixteenth century nor the English parliamentarians of the seventeenth appear to have found anything at all ambiguous about the central strand of conciliar thinking upon which they placed so much emphasis. Nor did the French Huguenots appear to have lost any sleep over their indebtedness to scholastic predecessors for their revolutionary ideas. Quite the contrary, in fact. If Skinner is correct, they may even have seen it as a distinct advantage. For it helped them in their attempt ‘to neutralize as far as possible the hostile Catholic majority by showing them the extent to which revolutionary political actions could be legitimated in terms of impeccably Catholic beliefs. That was far from being the case, of course, with their seventeenth-century English successors. ‘In Stuart England there was much political capital to be made from convicting one’s opponents of popery’, and the sensitivity of the parliamentarians to the charge of crypto-popery and even more of Jesuitry is reflected in their anxious attempts to deflect its force. In relation to the despised doctrine of popular sovereignty [John] Maxwell had charged that ‘Puritan and Jesuite in this, not only consent and concurre, but like Herod and Pilate are reconciled to crucify the Lord’s anointed’. To that [Samuel] Rutherford retorted that Maxwell, having taked ‘unlearned paines, to prove that Gerson, Occam Jac[obus] de Almaine, Parisian Doctors maintanined these same grounds anent the peples power over Kings in the case of Tyranny [as did the Jesuits]’, had by so doing given ‘himselfe the lye’ and inadvertently demonstrated that ‘we have not this Doctrine from Jesuites’. But if not from Jesuits, clearly still from papists. And that charge [William] Bridge was forced to shrug off with the rejoinder that ‘Reason is good wherever we finde it; neither would Abraham refuse the use of the Well because Abimalech’s men had used it, no more will we refuse good reason, because Papists have used it. (237)

Mother Church, Baby Bible, Grandpa Pentateuch

Peter Kreeft is writing a series of posts to defend Roman Catholicism against fundamentalism. I am not sure why fundamentalism is a threat but I am still getting up to speed on things Romish.

In his post on the Bible, he has this line:

It is a fault, of course, to ignore Mother Church. But it is a virtue to love Baby Bible, a virtue we should respect and imitate.

This is apparently a clever way of saying that the church gave birth to the canon of Scripture, a common point that Roman Catholics make against Protestants. But does this line implicitly and unintentionally contain an element of anti-Semitism?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was well in place well before Peter allegedly became bishop of Rome or before Constantine started to convene ecumenical councils (without consulting the bishop of Rome, I might add). Peter himself, Paul, Christ, and all the authors of the New Testament recognized the Old Testament sacred books.

(And one other wrinkle, parenthetically, is why would high papalists back the idea that the early church councils gave us Scripture and then deny the councils authority later when they decree that popes need regularly to convene councils?)

So why write the priests and rabbis out of the formation of the canon? Or why show disrespect to the Hebrew Scriptures, as if they were not authoritative until the Council of Hippo? (Answer: it doesn’t fit the RC paradigm which may turn out to be as authoritative as the pontiff of Rome.) And why not recognize how much longer and agenda setting the Old Testament is for what happens with Jesus and the church? If we are going to play the genealogy game, as Kreeft wants, then lets include the Hebrew saints. Does that mean King Saul is a forerunner of the papacy?

Irony: When A Council Kills Conciliarism

Oakley’s chapter on the First Vatican Council contains the following nuggets. The first is that conciliarism was alive and sort of well in ecclesiologists such as Henri Maret, the last dean of the theology faculty at the Sorbonne. Oakley describes his position this way:

In conscious opposition, then, to De Maistre, Maret sought to identify in the Church’s constitution a liberal element that could open the way to his longed-for ‘reconciliation of the Church with the modern notion of freedom’. Noting the presence in the Church’s constitution of a ‘democratic element in that any member of the faithful could be called to the episcopal state and that is was the original practice of Christian communities to elect their bishops, he insists, none the less, that democracy cannot claim sovereignty in the Church. But nor does that sovereignty reside in any form of absolute monarchy. It belongs, instead, to monarchy tempered with aristocracy (in one place he calls it ‘a monarchy essentially aristocratic and deliberative’), in effect, what is sometimes called a mixed government, one framed along the same lines as ‘constitutional and representative monarchy’ in the world of secular regimes.

That much can be said, Maret believes, even without having determined the precise relationship between pope and bishops. But as soon as one attempts to make that determination, one comes up against the fact that two long-standing schools of thought compete for one’s allegiance. The first is the Italian school, which . . . . says, ‘the pope possesses a monarchical power that is pure, indivisible, absolute and unlimited.’ . . . The competing school, that of Paris, . . . asserts to the contrary that, while the pope is indeed the monarch of the Church, that monarchy is ‘truly and efficaciously tempered by [the] aristocracy’ of bishops. . . .

One has to decide between these competing schools, and to do so (he says) one has to put them to the test of scripture and tradition. So far as the scriptures are concerned, the celebrated cluster of texts (notably Matthew 16 and 18) which together constitute what he calls (and pace De Maistre) the very ‘constitutional charter’ of the Church, certainly seem to suggest that the sovereign power was given, not to Peter alone, but to the ‘collective unity’ of Peter and the other apostles, and to exclude from the government of the Church therefore any sort of ‘pure, absolute and indivisible monarchy’. But it is to the acts of the general councils down through history that one must turn for the ‘authentic commentary’ on and ‘legitimate interpretation’ of that fundamental scriptural’constitutional charter’. . . . [O]n the conflicted issue of the pope-bishop relationship the decrees emanating from Constance and Florence are ‘the most weighty and celebrated’. (211-213)

Maret’s conclusion was that Haec Sancta and Frequens, the conciliar determinations that resolved the Western schism, were not “dogma of faith,” but “constitutional law” that regulated ecclesiastical power. These were decrees that stated more clearly and solemnly than had been before that the “Church’s constitution was to be viewed as a mixed one, a ‘monarchy . . . essentially aristocratic and deliberative’, one in which the pope, while possessing by divine authority the plenitude of power, was no pure absolute and unlimited monarch but a ruler who, in the exercise of that power, was limited by the aristocratic element constituted by the bishops themselves — ‘true princes,’ he added, possessing by divine right a share in the Church’s sovereign power.”

The second nugget is that First Vatican Council ended this tradition of conciliarism:

Maret’s position was to be doomed, thrust into the outer darkness of heterodoxy by Pastor aeternus, the First Vatican Council’s historic decrees on the primacy of jurisdiction and infallibility of the pope. Or so the pertinent curial officials clearly concluded. If Lord Acton as a layman was able to avoid any forthright endorsement of the council’s teaching on infallibility against which he had fought so vigorously, clerics like. . . Maret were permitted very little room for manoeuvre. . . . [Maret] was to find that his earnest attempts to identify some fugitive common ground between his own form of neo-Gallicanism and the ecclesiology which informed Pastor aeternus were unacceptable at Rome. In August 1871, then, though without specifying what is was, precisely, that he had in mind, he publicly disavowed ‘whatever in his book and in his Defense is opposed to the Council’s definition.’ (216)

How to Fix the Church

Two items from today’s survey of the blogs and websites that may be of interest to those who follow Jason and the Callers but want a fuller picture of Roman Catholicism.

First, comes advice on how to retain Roman Catholic youth:

First, being a Christian means being a radical. Christianity does not promise a life of comfort and ease. It’s not a religion for people who want to immerse themselves in our culture — in consumerism, selfish ambition and every other bourgeois value — and only break from that consensus at the margins. It is not a religion for people who are comfortable with the status quo. It demands more. . . .

Second, virtue and joy are deeply connected. Being a Christian does not mean being dour or aloof. The way of Christ brings meaning; it incites passion; it generates joy. Pope Francis has said “there is no holiness in sadness,” and joy has been a theme throughout his papacy. . . .

So far, Jim Wallis would not disagree.

Third, religion is 24/7 year-round. Our commitment to Christ should permeate our actions. It should define who we are. It is not an activity to be fulfilled for an hour each Sunday. Pope Francis drove home this very message last week, emphasizing that we can’t be part-time Christians and that “to live the faith is not to decorate life with a little religion, like a cake is decorated with a little frosting.” Most young teens see going to Mass each Sunday as the pre-eminent responsibility of a Catholic. . . . Mass is important. My life crumbles without the Eucharist. But following Christ means embracing joy. It means the radical embrace of countercultural values. It places demands on one’s entire existence. Religiosity and spirituality are fused together and inseparable when pursued authentically. This message is critical because we don’t want the next generation of Catholics split between those who are “spiritual but not religious” and those who are “religious but not spiritual.”

More pietism, activism over sacrament. It is a big tent, Sean tells us.

Finally, keep it real. Pope Francis has quickly become widely admired, even among non-Catholics, and perhaps his greatest appeal is his authenticity. He not only talks about setting aside the illusory and superficial, but seems to live this out in his daily life. The message is simple: Be your authentic self. You are an entirely unique person with immeasurable worth and value, not some cardboard cutout.

Wow! Isn’t my authentic self in conflict? Aren’t I a slave to Christ? Isn’t authenticity what Jean de Florette was trying to grow?

And then we have Francis’ own plans to fix the church, which I am not sure would be appealing to Roman Catholic youth, unless they are going into canon law:

Pope Francis is contemplating a major reworking of the top-level administrative machinery of the Church. Commentators sometimes describe this as “reforming the Roman Curia,” but if the Pope’s own words–together with public and private proposals intended to influence the result–are any indication, the project could extend far beyond reshuffling dicasteries and straightening out the affairs of the Institute for the Works of Religion (the Vatican bank).

In all cases, “collegiality” is said to be both the working principle and the objective of reform. The word refers to the doctrine, revived by Vatican Council II, that the bishops share in teaching and governing the universal Church in union with the pope. The question that obviously raises is how it’s to be done. . . .

In general terms, there currently are two different approaches on the table. One points to a largescale decentralization of authority, the other, as might be expected, toward dramatic centralization. Advocates of each cite the principle of collegiality as their rationale.

Under the decentralization model, diocesan bishops and, especially, national conferences of bishops would have much greater authority for decision-making than they do now.

Liberals tend to favor that. This is partly out of concern for collegiality and partly because they see it as a way to realize such long-sought goals of theirs as married priests, communion for the divorced and remarried, a more permissive approach to questions of sexual morality, and in the long run perhaps even the ordination of women.

By contrast, some conservatives favor more centralization–and, paradoxically, for the sake of the collegiality principle.

One such plan would call for the creation of a permanent, synod-like representative body in Rome, its members nominated by the world’s bishops and selected by the Pope. Acting in union with the pontiff, and never apart from him, it would have the power to make doctrinal and disciplinary decisions for the worldwide Church.

For the U.S. conservatives out there, centralization is never a conservative move. Just one more indication of the differences between European and U.S. conservatism.

But concliarism may be alive and kicking. The question is, which is the authentic Vatican to go with my authentic self?

Conciliarism and Protestantism

Francis Oakley traces the appropriation and extension of conciliarism by the Reformers (another historical development that cracks Jason and the Caller’s paradigmatic squint):

‘A general councell is a Congregation of Pastors, Doctors and Elders, or others, met in the name and authority of Jesus Christ, out of all Churches, to determine according to the word of God, all controversies in faith, Church-government or manners, no faithfull person who desireth being excluded from reasoning and speaking’. The author of this definition correctly noted that the definitions given across the two centuries and more preceding by the conciliar theorists Jean Gerson and Jacques Almain did not differ much from his own ‘save that they thinke that councells are lawfully convened, if such and such onely, as are of the Hierarchike order be members thereof . . . as also the Pope president . . . [which] we disclaime.’ . . .

These comments are drawn from The Due Right of Presbyteries which Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish Presbyterian, published in 1644. I do not believe it fanciful to suggest that they reflect in intriguing fashion the knowledge of, interest in, and sympathy with the long conciliarist tradition which had been so marked a feature of Scottish ecclesiological thinking since the first quarter of the fifteenth century, and of which, in the early sixteenth, John Mair had been the ‘outstanding representative’. . . . Significant elements of this conciliar ecclesiology are evident also in the Catechism which John Hamilton, archbishop of St. Andrews, published in 1550, and then were later reflected also in such official statements of the Reformed Scottish Kirk as the Scots Confession of 1560 and the Second Book of Discipline, this last drawn up in 1578 and recognized by James VI’s government in 1592. This Second Book of Discipline, indeed, affirmed the general Council to be an integral part of the Kirk’s organization, a capstone, as it were, to the structure of local, regional, and national or general assemblies.

But when James VI became James I, his suspicions of presbyterianism did not put him off conciliarism altogether even if his resolve for Reformed Protestantism was not as think as a Scottish accent:

Within a year of his becoming king of England, after all, and even before he told his first parliament that he acknowledged ‘the Romane Church to be our Mother Church, although defiled with some infirmities and corruptions’ and expressed, accordingly, his own heartfelt desire to help promote ‘a generall Christian union in Religion’, he had proposed to the papal curia via diplomatic back-channels that the pope should ‘summon a General Council, which, according to the ancient usage,’ would be ‘superior to all Churches, all doctrine, all Princes, secular and ecclesiastic, non excepted’. And if he believed the pope to be subject in jurisdiction to that of the general council (as the Council of Constance had demonstrated), he still insisted that he regarddd hierarchy as ‘essential’ to the Church, and the pope ‘the first Bishop in it, President and Moderator in Council, but not head or superior’. (142-144)

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.

Conciliarism Is What Christ Founded (or at least preceded high-papalism)

The crucial decree at the Council of Constance, in Francis Oakley’s story, is Haec Sancta, part of which reads (and according to the Vatican website contradicts Vatican I on “papal primacy/infallibility”):

In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, Father and Son and holy Spirit. Amen. This holy synod of Constance, which is a general council, for the eradication of the present schism and for bringing unity and reform to God’s church in head and members, legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit to the praise of almighty God, ordains, defines, decrees, discerns and declares as follows, in order that this union and reform of God’s church may be obtained the more easily, securely, fruitfully and freely.

First it declares that, legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.

Next, it declares that anyone of whatever condition, state or dignity, even papal, who contumaciously refuses to obey the past or future mandates, statutes, ordinances or precepts of this sacred council or of any other legitimately assembled general council, regarding the aforesaid things or matters pertaining to them, shall be subjected to well-deserved penance, unless he repents, and shall be duly punished, even by having recourse, if necessary, to other supports of the law. (quoted in Oakley, 83)

This affirmation of conciliarism was designed to address the unity of the church, one of the true church’s four marks:

Of the four marks of the Church designated in the Nicene Creed — one, holy, Catholic, apostolic — the mark of holiness had appeared earlier and more frequently in the various creeds than had the other three. And it was also the characteristic that had given rise to some of the earliest ecclesiological controversies. But in the great late medieval tide of debate concerning the nature of the Church that was to crest during the conciliar epoch, it was less the mark of holiness than that of unity that lay at the very heart of disagreement. If, for adherents to the more prominent high-papalist position, the key to that unity lay in the firm subordination of all the members of the Christian community to a single papal head, for others the key lay, rather, in the corporate association of those members. It was from the latter group that the conciliarists of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries took their cue. Committed to the belief that the papal headship of the Church was indeed of divine foundation, but more also it seems, by memories of what today would be called the ecclesiology of communio and by the scriptural and patristic vision of the community of Christians as forming a single body with Christ, it’s ‘primary’ or ultimate head, the proponents of conciliarist views sought to combine those two convictions. That is to say, and as J. H. Burns has rightly insisted, their argument with the high papalists was not an argument “for or against [papal] monarchy as such’, but an argument about the nature of that papal monarchy. For they sought to harmonize their twin convictions by insisting that side by side with the institution of papal monarchy it was necessary to give the Church’s communitarian or corporate dimension more prominent and routine institutional expression, most notably by the regular assembly of general councils representing the entire community of the faithful. (65)

In other words, the conciliarists were looking perhaps more for an arrangement like that of the Church of England, with an archbishop in Canterbury who presides over all the bishops but is the first among equals and meets every decade at the Lambeth Conference. Of course, this is not an argument for presbyteries, classes, synods, or assemblies as Reformed Protestants know and convene them. But Oakley’s book does show once again how deficient Jason and the Callers’ understanding of Roman Catholic history is. Papal primacy and its nature has long been a source of debate among Roman Catholics (and still is among American Roman Catholics, with the Americanists wanting the Vatican to loosen up and the conservatives wanting the papacy to instill discipline and order). Papal primacy is not a solution to Protestantism’s problems because it has not solve Roman Catholicism’s problems.

Oakley rounds out his discussion of Haec Sancta by addressing whether it was novel or reactionary in its conciliar convictions. Here he follows the path-breaking work of Brian Tierney:

Prior to 1955, scholars had long pointed out the frequency with which the earlier canon lawyers were cited in the conciliarist tracts, and the growth since the Second World War of interest in the history of medieval canon law helped focus attention on those citations. Insisting that the borrowing from Ockham and Marsiglio to be found in the consiliarist tracts usually reflected the use to which those two authors had themselves made of the canon law, Tierney argues that the strict conciliar theory, far from being a reaction against canonistic teaching or an alien importation onto ecclesial soil of secular constitutional notions, had instead deep (and impeccably orthodox) roots in the ecclesiological tradition of the pre-Marsiglian era. It unquestionably drew a great deal of inspiration from the communio ecclesiology and synodal practice of the first millennium of Christian life, and especially from the essentially concilar mode of governance that had characterized the ancient Church for long centuries after the Council of Niceaea (325). That phase of Church history had left as its enduring legacy not only the doctrinal decrees and disciplinary canons of the great ecumenical councils but also the memory of the work accomplished by a whole series of pivotal provincial councils, prominent among them those held at Toledo in Visigothic Spain. . . .

What this soluation to the problem of origins means, of course, is that conciliar theory did not represent (as Figgis and others assumed) some sort of radical intrusion — in Tierney’s words, ‘something accidental external, thrust upon the Church from the outside’. It was, instead, ‘a logical culmination of ideas that were [deeply] embedded in the law and doctrines of the Church itself. (106-107, 110)