From Schism to Reform

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From Schism to Reform

Reforming Councils.

The need to resolve the Schism brought about new kinds of efforts to unify and reform the church. Dietrich von Neiheim, a bishop from Verden in Germany, who had spent much of his life in the service of the papacy, proposed a reforming union that might be brought forth by an authoritative council superseding the voice of the popes, with the power to determine the general direction the church should take. In 1409, the first council, the Council of Pisa, met and began a series of general reforms. The council tried to deal with the problem of the schism by deposing the two rival popes and electing a new one, hoping this action would cause a merger of the two Cardinal Colleges. Unfortunately, the plan did not work, and now all three continued in power. A second council was then called at Constance in the southern part of Germany in 1414 by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to continue the reforms started at the Council of Pisa. Of the three schismatic popes, John the XXIII (supported by the Pisan group) presided as the dominant papal figure. The council took three and a half years to finish its work, holding some 45 sessions. Representatives from all of Christendom were present: bishops, university representatives, leaders of religious communities, and secular rulers (observers even came from the Eastern churches). Among the matters addressed were the ideas of reform through regularly scheduled councils, the superiority of a council over the pope, and certain heresies that were gaining ground among the common people.

The End of the Schism.

The theologian Pierre d'Ailly played a significant role in the direction of the council. He suggested that in addition to completing the reforming work of Pisa, they might attempt again to heal the schism. He asked John XXIII, by far the strongest


introduction: At the time of the Great Schism, when rival popes held power in Avignon and Rome, Dietrich von Nieheim, the bishop of Verden in northern Germany, strongly advocated the convocation of a council to heal the disorder within the Western Christian Church. He suggested that the council should be called by the collective authority of churchmen representing the interests of Christendom. But he also suggested that an emperor, in time of need, had the authority to convene a general council.

Now take the pope. He is a man of the earth, clay of clay, a sinner liable to sin, a mere two days ago the son of a poor peasant. Then he is raised to the papacy. Does such a man, without any repentance of sin, without confession, without inner contrition, become a pure angel, become a saint? Who has made him a saint? Not the Holy Spirit, because it is not as a rule the office which confers the Holy Spirit but only the grace and love of God; nor his place of authority which may come to both the good and the wicked. Therefore, since the pope can be no angel, the pope as a pope is a man, and being a man he thus is pope: and as pope, and as a man, he can err. For a good many of them, as you may read in the chronicles, were not very spiritual. … It is absurd to say that one mortal man should claim the power to bind and to loose from sin in heaven and earth, even though he may be a son of perdition, a simoniac, miser, liar, oppressor, fornicator, a proud man and arrogant, one worse than the devil. Therefore human judgment neither can nor ought to assume one to be a saint who in that Seat, by his evil deeds, proclaims the contrary. …

These various members [of the Church], however, stand diversely—higher and lower—in its mystical body. They must all be brought back to the unity of the Church in a double manner: by obedience as well as by withdrawal. That is to say, they must obey the one universal and undoubted vicar of Christ, and they must by common consent and with a single will withdraw their obedience from these two or three contenders for the papacy who are a scandal to the whole Church. This withdrawal, as I have said, is binding uniformly on all Christians under the pain of mortal sin. For supposing the Universal Church, whose head is Christ, have no pope, the faithful dying in charity shall yet be saved. For when two or more compete for the papacy and when the truth of the matter is not known to the Universal Church, it is neither an article of faith, nor a deduction from one, that this man or that must be accepted as pope, nor can any faithful Christian be obliged to believe so. …

Now, since the General Council represents the Universal Church, I shall speak my mind about the assembling of this Council. I have said elsewhere that when the issue is the reconstruction of the Church and the matter of the pope—whether to get him to resign, or whether he should be deposed for his evil living and the scandal in the Church—it by no means belongs to the pope, however sole, universal and undoubted he be, to call a General Council. Nor is it his place to preside as a judge, or to lay down anything concerning the state of the Church; but the duty belongs in the first place to the bishops, cardinals, patriarchs, secular princes, communities and the rest of the faithful. In equity no man of ill-fame can or may be a judge, particularly in his own cause. … I tell you, the prelates and princes of the world must, under pain of mortal sin, call and summon [a Council] as quickly as they can; they must cite to it this pope and those who strive with him for the papacy, and, if they will not obey, must depose and deprive them. … But is then such a Council, in which the pope does not preside, above the pope? Indeed it is: superior in authority, superior in dignity, superior in competence. For even the pope must obey such a Council in all things. Such a Council can limit the pope's power because to it, representing the Universal Church, are granted the keys to bind and to loose. Such a Council can abrogate the papal decrees. From such a Council there is no appeal. Such a Council can elect, deprive and depose the pope. Such a Council can make new laws and repeal old and existing ones. The constitutions, statutes and regulations of such a Council are immutable and cannot be dispensed from by anyone inferior to the Council. The pope cannot, nor ever could, issue dispensations contrary to canons made in General Councils, unless the Council, for good reason, specifically empowered him to do so. Nor can the pope alter the decisions of the Council, or even interpret them or dispense from them, for they are like Christ's gospels from which there is no dispensing and over which the pope has no jurisdiction. Thus there will come to the members the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace; thus we shall live in the Spirit and shall walk in the Spirit. …

Therefore, if a General Council, representing the Universal Church, is anxious to see an entire union and to repress schism, and if it wants to put an end to schism and exalt the Church, it must before all else, following the example of the holy fathers our predecessors, limit and terminate the coercive and usurped power of the pope.

source: Dietrich von Nieheim, The Union and Reform of the Church by a General Council, 1410, in Renaissance and Reformation 1300–1648. 3rd ed. Ed. G. R. Elton (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1976): 16–18.

of the three schismatic popes, to step down and allow for the election of one pope. The voting blocks were divided into regions since it was feared that the Italian cardinals and bishops would easily dominate the election. John stepped down after considerable posturing on the part of his opponents and proponents. John's absence gave the council the opportunity to broach the issue of conciliarism, a supreme church authority which rested with the general council, not the pope. The decree Haec Sancta supported the authority of the council and all future general councils, demanding that all Christians (even the pope) adhere to its decisions. The council, in the name of the church, representing the interests of the church, would draw its authority from Christ. The council went on to depose the other two papal claimants, Gregory XII (almost ninety, who resigned) and Benedict XIII (who refused and died in exile). In November of 1417 the electorate, represented by 23 cardinals and delegates from the European nations, elected Martin V, to whom all would claim obedience. He presided over the remaining concordats and reform. Significant among the actions of the Council of Constance were the reforms on papal taxation, the ability as a body to call future councils with their own authority, and the resolution of the issue of transfer of bishops by Rome. There was also a condemnation of the heresies that had been propagated by the Englishman John Wyclif (who had died in 1384) and the Czech reformer Jan Hus.

John Wyclif.

Although the Council of Constance resolved issues having to do with political power and the papacy, the concern over the preaching of John Wyclif was an indication that the public perception of church corruption ran much deeper. Wyclif had been a teacher at Oxford whose controversial theological views were condemned by the Blackfriars Council of 1382. Despite the fact that he himself held several absentee benefices (positions from which he received income by delegating the work to a curate), he had railed vehemently against clerical abuse. He felt that unrighteous church leaders had no religious authority whatsoever. In his work On the Truth of the Holy Scriptures, he wrote that scripture was the church's highest and truest authority. Wyclif had rejected the church's teaching on transubstantiation, calling it unscriptural, illogical, and unfaithful to the teaching of the early church. In 1380 he wrote his treatise On the Eucharist, which advanced a literal interpretation of the substances of bread and wine after consecration. He intimated that Christ was not corporeally present after the blessing, that the bread and wine remained physically unchanged. Wyclif also insisted that preaching was more important than the encounter of the sacraments. On the Power of the Pope claimed that the office of the papacy was completely of human origin. Wyclif also did not believe in the existence of purgatory. Toward the end of his life he began producing a vernacular translation of the Bible so that individuals who did not have an opportunity to learn Latin could read the Bible in English, without the need for a clerical intermediary.


After Wyclif's death in 1384, his followers, often called the Lollards (literally the mumblers), continued his attempts to reform the church. Most of the early Lollards were Wyclif's students from Oxford, but soon the movement began attracting individuals from the lower and middle classes. The term Lollard also was applied to the Béguines and Beghards in the Netherlands. In England, Lollard preachers, based upon their reading of the Bible, went about the countryside protesting the corruption, abuse, and excesses of the clergy. During the reign of Richard II (1377–1399) a number of Lollard preachers were imprisoned, but the movement continued to grow. Not only did they have disdain for clerical wealth and power, but their indictments extended to members of the lay nobility as well. They also opposed clerical celibacy and use of the Latin Bible, and some even espoused free love and pacifism. In 1401, under Henry IV, a statute was passed making heresy a crime punishable by death. Lollards were quickly branded as heretical and many were executed, some being burned at the stake. While the movement was eventually driven underground, it took root in northern England, where it was embraced in certain circles through the sixteenth century. Wyclif's ideas proved to provide a fertile base for the eventual success of Protestant reformers. So powerful was the fear of Wyclif's reforms that in 1428 the bishop of Lincoln had his body exhumed and burned, and his ashes thrown into the river.

Jan Hus.

In 1382 Wyclif's teachings had found their way from England to Bohemia by way of a member of the household of the English queen Anne, who was the sister of the Bohemian king Wenceslas IV. It was at the University of Prague that Wyclif's ideas gained popularity among Czechs, and it was there that Jan Hus came under its influence. In 1407, some 23 years after Wyclif's death, his theology was being discussed at Prague's university. Soon after, the teaching was condemned by the archbishop of that city. Hus, who was rector of the University of Prague, embraced many of Wyclif's ideas, however. He especially appreciated Wyclif's arguments concerning church authority and the fact that it should be limited only to those who were righteous enough to treat it responsibly. Hus began to preach aggressively against simony (the buying and selling of clerical offices) and the greed of the clergy. He also openly criticized the sale of indulgences and believed that the church should always accommodate itself to be at the disposal of the faithful. In 1410, while the works of Wyclif were being burned, Hus's theological viewpoints were being scrutinized by the church. Although attempts were made to silence him, Hus continued to preach and even succeeded in rousing an angry mob to storm the archbishop's residence, which led to the burning of Hus's theological writings and his eventual excommunication in 1411. Throughout the next year, Hus continued to stir up revolt and was forced to leave Prague. Further condemnation of Wyclif's teachings was launched by the Council of Pisa in 1413; but this did not stop Hus, who all along wished for a reform of the church, never a break with it. To make his point, he even appeared at the Council of Constance in 1414, arguing that the church was founded on Christ and that the church hierarchy was a creation of mankind. While the conciliarists were in agreement with some of Hus's ideas, they found the majority of his teachings far too radical. Some thirty errors were pointed out in Hus's De Ecclesia ("Concerning the Church"). Hus denied teaching these heretical ideas but never formally denounced them. He was condemned and burned by a group of secular officials. It was said that a paper hat with the word "heretic" was placed upon his head during the fiery execution.

The Hussite Wars.

Upon news of Hus's death, riots broke out in Prague, and his followers, who became known as the Hussites, continued to preach throughout Germany and the Czech territories with both a religious agenda and one that supported Czech nationalism. A persecution of the Hussites, sometimes referred to as the Hussite Wars, took place between 1419 and 1436. According to the provisions created at the Council of Constance, Pope Martin was obliged to call subsequent councils to steer the direction of the late medieval church, and at the one in Basel, in 1433, a group of 300 Hussites came to debate the issue of the church's condemnation of their beliefs. The council at Basel turned into more of an academic debate, but like the previous council at Siena, suffered poor attendance. It was not until 1437 that a compromise was reached which brought an end to the religious revolts in the Czech region.


Margaret Aston, Faith and Fire: Popular and Unpopular Religion, 1350–1600 (Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press, 1993).

Anthony Black, Council and Commune (London: Burns and Oates, 1979).

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).

Anne Hudson and Peter Biller, eds., Heresy and Literacy, 1000–1530 (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Howard Kaminsky, A History of the Hussite Revolution (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1967).

Anthony Kenny, Wyclif (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

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From Schism to Reform

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From Schism to Reform