Friday, March 26, 2010

The Church, Authority, And Infallibility (Part 6): Conciliarism

In an earlier response to Dave Armstrong, I cited a recent book by the Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Kelly, in which he presents a view of church history significantly different than Dave's. What I want to do here is quote some of Kelly's comments on an issue related to medieval Western ecclesiology. People often think of post-patristic and Western ecclesiology as more unified and consistent than it actually was. Even as late as the post-patristic medieval era, and even in the West, such a foundational element of Roman Catholic ecclesiology as the papacy was widely questioned and sometimes rejected.

Kelly writes:

Codes of law always allow for all sorts of possibilities, no matter how seemingly minute or absurd or unlikely. In the early thirteenth century canon lawyers had speculated about what to do if a pope fell into heresy. Slowly but surely some canon lawyers constructed the view that the pope does not have absolute rule over the church because the power of the church is greater than his. They speculated that the ultimate power in the church resided in the ecumenical council. These few sentences summarize decades of very complex developments. The superiority of the council to the pope is the conciliar theory; its practical application is conciliarism. (The Ecumenical Councils Of The Catholic Church [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009], p. 107)

Conciliarism sometimes had popular support in the West:

Pushed by the rulers and the nobility [during the Great Schism], in 1409 the cardinals of both popes largely deserted them and met in the Italian city of Pisa, where they proclaimed the need to go above the popes' heads to a general council, citing the consequences of the schism for this clear violation of canon law. With some major exceptions (Germany, the Spanish kingdoms) Catholic Europe supported them....

Many in Catholic Europe, both clerical and lay, believed that the papacy would never reform itself and that only a council could truly reform the church....

The belief in the curative powers of a reforming council never died out until the Reformation....

Conciliarist traditions ran strong in northern Europe. (pp. 107, 121, 123)

There were multiple medieval councils that claimed authority over the papacy, which is a contradiction of modern Catholic ecclesiology. Kelly writes:

This [the teaching of the ecumenical Council of Constance] is conciliarism at its most basic. The council asserts that it meets under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that it represents the Catholic Church and thus has the supreme authority in the church, and that its authority derives from Christ and even the popes must obey the council....

But no scholar doubts that Constance meant what it said because in 1417, before choosing a new pope, the council passed a second monumental decree, Frequens, which asserted that the new pope must call another council five years after Constance closes, then another one seven years after that, and then a council every ten years so that there would be, in effect, a council in every pontificate. The leaders of Constance truly wished to change the governmental structure of the church....

Many Catholics, including rulers and bishops, favored conciliarism, and so Martin [Pope Martin V] obliged and obeyed the decree. (pp. 111, 114)

He also discusses the conciliarism of the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome (pp. 114-119). He notes that the cardinal chosen by Pope Eugenius IV to open the council and preside over it was himself a conciliarist (p. 114). Even as late as the Council of Trent, the "specter of conciliarism" was still on the minds of the Catholic leadership, and a revival of conciliarism at Trent was feared when Pope Pius IV seemed to be nearing death (p. 145).

What's the significance of medieval conciliarism?

For one thing, it undermines the popular Catholic appeal to pre-Reformation unity. The sort of diversity of belief I've outlined in this post and in this series is much different than the picture that's often painted by modern Catholics.

Secondly, the conciliar and papal support for conciliarism is problematic for Catholic authority claims.

Third, the widespread doubt about something as simple and foundational as papal authority, as late as the post-patristic medieval era and even in the West, illustrates a point I made when responding to Dave Armstrong earlier this year. Scripture has better evidence supporting it, and has been more widely accepted, than Roman Catholic ecclesiology.


  1. The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia celebrated the defeat of Conciliarism as the best fruit of the 1870 Vatican I council.

    It was so happy about it that it even celebrated a person who later quitted the Roman church to become a major heretic (Lamennais):

    "He was the first who dared to attack Gallicanism publicly in France, and prepared the way for its defeat, the crowning work of the Vatican Council."

    (The Gallican French church was the most powerful promoter of Conciliarism. The same Louis XIV who banished the Huguenots from France asserted most decisively his independence from the Vatican.)

  2. George Salmon pointed out the utter irony of how once so celebrated late 17th century RC apologist Bossuet went out of fashion because of his Conciliar-Gallican beliefs:

    pp. 87-88

    "Bossuet was, in his time, 'the Eagle of Meaux': the terror of Protestant sectaries, the most trusted champion of his Church. But he fought for her not only against the Protestants, but against the theory of Infallibility, then called Ultramontane, because held on the other side of the mountains, but rejected by the Gallican Church. In another lecture I shall speak more at length of the principles of Gallicanism and of its history. Suffice it here to mention that one of its fundamental doctrines was, that the doctrinal decisions of the Pope were not to be regarded as final; that they might be reviewed and corrected, or even rejected, by a General Council or by the Church at large. A formal treatise of Bossuet in proof of this principle was a storehouse of arguments, largely drawn on in the controversies of the years 1869-70. But this principle of his was condemned with an anathema at the Vatican Council of the latter year.


    And so, though on a number of questions Bossuet might side against the Protestants and with the Pope of his day, it is plain that he was not, on principle, following the Pope's guidance: consequently, Bossuet is treated by the predominant Roman Catholic school of the present day as no better than a Protestant. Just as he himself had argued that outside the Roman Church there was no truth or consistency, and that Protestantism was but an inconsistent compromise with infidelity, so Cardinal Manning says nearly the same things of that theory of Gallicanism of which Bossuet was the ablest defender. 'It was exactly the same heresy,' Manning declares, 'which in England took the form of the Reformation, and in France that of Gallicanism'. Dr. Brownson's Review, the chief organ of American Romanism, treated Bossuet's opinions with even less ceremony. It said, 'Gallicanism was always a heresy. The Gallicans are as much alien from the Church or Commonwealth of Christ as are Arians, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Spiritists, or Devil-worshippers.'

    Could the irony of events give a more singular refutation than this? A man writes a book to prove that Protestantism is false because Protestants disagree among themselves, and Romanism is true because its doctrines are always the same, and its children never disagree; and in a few years he is himself classed with Devil-worshippers by the most accredited authorities of the religion which he defends, and whose doctrines he supposes himself, and is supposed by everyone else at the time most thoroughly to understand. For all we can tell, the Romanist champions of the present day may be in no better case. Can Cardinal Manning be secure that, as the development of Roman doctrine proceeds, he may not be left stranded outside the limits of orthodoxy, and be classed with Devil-worshippers by the Romanist champions of the next century?"

    Salmon's prophecy has pretty much come true - many post-Vatican II RCs are now embarrassed by the bigotry of Vatican I era Ultramontanists like Manning.

    We might actually argue that Conciliarism has made a big "de facto" comeback within the RCC as the American church (for example) is anything but perfectly obedient to the pope.

  3. Here is a full treatise on Gallicanism by Salmon, for those wishing to further educate themselves:

    (see zip file of "The Gallican Theory of Infallibility.")

    "The French bishops naturally took the side of their King, whose influence in his own country was overpowering; and it was while the relations between France and Rome were thus strained that what are called the Four Gallican Propositions of 1682, drawn up by the celebrated Bossuet, were formulated.

    These are as follows:—

    I. The first declared that the power possessed by Peter and his successors was in things spiritual, not in things temporal; in accordance with the texts, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’; ‘Render unto Caesar,’ &c.; ‘Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.’ Consequently, kings are not, by the law of God, subject to any ecclesiastical power with respect to their temporal government, nor can their subjects be released from the duty of obeying them, nor absolved from their oath of allegiance.

    2. The second defined the power of the Pope in things spiritual, viz. as such that the decrees of the Council of Constance, approved as they are by the Holy See and the practice of the whole Church, remain in full force and perpetual obligation; and it declared that these decrees must not be depreciated as insufficiently approved or as restricted to a time of schism. —I may remind you that these decrees declared that a general Council, legitimately assembled, derives its authority immediately from Christ [and therefore not from the Pope], and that every person of what dignity soever, even papal, is bound to obey it in what relates to the faith, or to the extirpation of schism, or to the reformation of the Church in its head and members. If you remember the circumstances of the Church at the time of the Council of Constance, you will see that these decrees were absolutely necessary at the time. The object was to heal the schism, there being then three claimants for the Popedom; and although the whole Christian world longed for an end to the schism, all the claimants had shown great reluctance to a voluntary resignation. The Council deposed all three, and elected a new Pope; but since each of the candidates had some who believed him to be the real Pope, it is evident the act of the Council could not meet with universal recognition unless it was maintained that the Council had an authority higher than the papal, and was able even to depose a real Pope if the good of the Church required it.

    3. The third Gallican decree declared that the exercise of the Apostolic authority must be regulated by the canons enacted by the Spirit of God and consecrated by the reverence of the whole world; in particular that the ancient rules, customs, and institutions of the realm and Church of France must remain inviolable.

    4. The fourth, that though the Pope has the principal power in deciding questions of faith, and though his decrees extend to all Churches, nevertheless his judgment is not irreversible until confirmed by the consent of the Church.

    — Thus you see that these decrees took away altogether the Pope’s temporal power over countries of which he was not the civil sovereign; that in spiritual things they limited his disciplinary power by general and local canons that, even in matters of faith, they held that his decisions needed to be ratified by universal consent."

    Thus we can see that Conciliarism actually did NOT come to an end even with the advent of Reformation, but continued on powerfully (in France at least) until withering away the 19th century.

    The French Revolution gave a fatal blow to Gallicanism, as it removed the main motivation for asserting the independence of French church - such a system had presupposed the rule by a Christian monarch. Gallican church had no place to stand in secularized France.