Over the course of the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church held several councils. At these meetings, church leaders gathered together to discuss issues and resolve disputes within the church. Since the Middle Ages, some people had argued that these councils should be the supreme authority of the church, superior even to the pope. This belief, called conciliarism, rose and fell over the course of the Renaissance. Some councils held during the Renaissance challenged the authority of the pope, while others supported it.
The Question of Authority. In 1378 the election of competing popes in France and Italy caused a split within the Catholic Church. A council called in Pisa in 1409 deposed* both sitting popes but confused matters by electing a third pope. With three popes claiming power, another council was called five years later in Constance. This meeting, which lasted four years, accepted the resignation of one pope and deposed the other two. It then elected a new pope, Martin V.
To prevent a similar problem from arising again, the members of the council tried to establish councils as a permanent church institution. They demanded that the pope hold future councils at regular periods. Martin V honored the council's wishes, but he made it clear that he did not consider himself bound by them. He declared that the council had authority only during the split within the church, and that now that the split had ended, the pope once again held supreme power.
Supporters of conciliarism challenged this idea at the Council of Basel (1431–1449). In 1438 the pope attempted to move this council from Basel to the Italian city of Ferrara. Some of the council members made the move, but the majority stayed behind and took action against the pope. First the council declared that it was superior to the pope, that the pope could not dissolve or move the council, and that denying these beliefs was heresy*. Then it deposed the pope and elected a new one.
Most Catholics did not respect the council's decision. The ruling pope remained in power, and conciliarism lost much of its influence. In fact, papal* authority grew even stronger after the Council of Trent, which met three times between 1545 and 1563. This council declared the pope responsible for enacting all the reforms it ordered.
Other Issues. Papal authority was only one of many issues raised by church councils during the Renaissance. One longstanding goal of the councils was to reunite the Roman Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church, which had split off from it many centuries earlier. This issue became the focus of the Council of Florence (1438–1445). This council was the same group that had originally met in Ferrara after breaking away from the council of Basel. At Florence, Catholic and Orthodox church leaders came to agreement on certain aspects of theology* about which the churches had long disagreed. Several branches of the Orthodox Church agreed to reunite with the Catholic Church. However, many Orthodox Church leaders later rejected this decision, and the churches remained separate.
Other councils focused on responding to the threats the Catholic Church faced from Protestants and from Muslims. The Council of Constance (1414–1418), for example, condemned the teachings of the English religious reformer John Wycliffe and his followers. Two of these followers were sentenced to death and burned at the stake for their beliefs. The Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517) and the Council of Trent both called for crusades to recapture the Holy Land from Muslim forces. The Council of Florence pledged to aid the Byzantine Empire* against Turkish invaders, but the papacy proved unable to provide effective assistance.
Many councils also focused on internal church reform, especially after the Protestant Reformation*. The Council of Trent, in particular, attempted to reform church offices. For instance, the council limited bishops to holding one office at a time and required them to live in their dioceses*. The council also worked to improve the training of priests.
- * depose
to remove from high office, often by force
- * heresy
belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church
- * papal
referring to the office and authority of the pope
- * theology
study of the nature of God and of religion
- * Byzantine Empire
Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches
- * diocese
geographical area under the authority of a bishop