Constance, Council of

views updated Jun 08 2018


An assembly, usually reckoned as the 16th general council of the Church, meeting from Nov. 5, 1414, to April 22, 1418.

Constance was once the see city of the largest diocese in Germany. The see was founded (c. 600) as a suffragan to Besançon and was transferred (c. 780) to the jurisdiction of Mainz. It was the scene of conflict between Franks and Alamanni, popes and Hohenstaufen, French and Hapsburgs; the jurisdiction of its bishops was contested by the abbots of sankt gallen and reichenau and by its cathedral chapter. In the Middle Ages it had its own Breviary and Missal and its excellent library was used by the fathers of the Council of Constance. Chronic financial insecurity and laxity of clerical discipline antedated zwingli's triumph in 1522 and in 1527 bishop and chapter moved permanently to Meersburg, where a seminary was built in 1735. Some reforms followed the Council of trent, but after the Napoleonic wars the see was suppressed in 1821, its jurisdiction passing to Freiburg im Breisgau in 1827.

[e. p. colbert]

In the course of the council's session more than 300 bishops attended together with 29 cardinals, three patriarchs, 33 archbishops, several hundred doctors of theology and canon law, more than 100 abbots and a dozen ruling princes. It was the greatest representative assembly of medieval Christendom. Three great tasks faced the fathers of the council: to end the western schism, to combat the new heresies of John Wyclif and John Hus and to reform the institutional structure of the Church. The activities of the council are considered below under these three headings. A final section deals with the authenticity of certain controversial decrees enacted at Constance.

The Council And The Western Schism

In 1414 there were three claimants to the papacy, for the schism arising out of the disputed election of 1378 (see urban vi, pope) had been complicated by the creation of a third line of popes at the Council of pisa (summoned in 1409 by dissident cardinals of both Roman and Avignonese obediences). It was the second pope of this Pisan line, styled antipope john xxiii, who summoned the Council of Constance. He did so reluctantly and under extreme pressure from King sigismund, the emperorelect, who played a leading role at the council as its official protector. Several of the leading theorists of the Conciliarism [see conciliarism (history of)] were also active in managing the affairs of the assembly, and from the outset many fathers showed themselves determined to end the schism at all costs, even if this involved an attack on the traditional doctrine of papal sovereignty and the substitution of a theory of conciliar supremacy. John XXIII hoped that the council would be content to condemn his two rivals, gregory xii and (antipope) bene dict xiii; and he relied on the support of the numerous Italian prelates at Constancenearly half the bishops present at the opening session were Italiansto prevent any attack on his own position. This hope was frustrated when the English and German representatives insisted on a system of voting by nations, each national group casting one vote in the formal sessions of the council. At first the assembly was divided into four nationsEnglish, French, German and Italianand a fifth was added after Spanish delegates joined the council in October of 1416. All debate was carried on in separate assemblies of the nations and in a steering committee composed of deputies elected from each nation. When unanimity was reached among the nations, a general session of the whole council formally promulgated the decisions arrived at without further discussion. The cardinals complained that this system excluded them from any effective voice in the deliberations of the council and in May of 1415 they were allowed to appoint six representatives to the committee of deputies of the nations. In July, the sacred college began to cast one vote in the general sessions along with the votes of the four nations.

At the beginning of 1415 the council began to attack the grievous problems of the schism. John XXIII was in an especially vulnerable position since he had led a notoriously evil life, and in February it was suggested that the council should appoint a commission to investigate his alleged crimes. Faced with the threat of a public scandal, John solemnly promised to abdicate at the second general session of the council held on March 2, but then he changed his mind and fled from the council on March 20, taking refuge with Duke Frederick of Austria. In these circumstances the prelates assembled at Constance could continue to function as a general council only if they were prepared to assert that the members of a council, separated from the pope, enjoyed direct divine guidance and possessed full authority over the Church. John XXIII intended to disrupt the council by his flight. In fact, his action had the effect of pushing the fathers into extreme statements of conciliar supremacy that many of the moderates would have preferred to avoid.

King Sigismund took the lead in organizing a third general session (March 26), which decreed that the council

retained its full authority in spite of the pope's departure and declared that it would not disband until the work of ending the schism and reforming the Church was completed. The French, English and German nations then agreed on a statement asserting in general terms the superiority of general councils over the papacy [see councils, general (ecumenical), theology of]. The cardinals protested to Sigismund against the enactment of such a decree, and at the fourth general session (March 30) a more moderate one was read by Cardinal Francesco za barella and approved. This decree asserted only that the particular council then assembled at Constance possessed authority over the pope "in matters pertaining to the faith and the ending of the present schism." That is to say, it claimed supreme authority for a council only in the quite abnormal circumstances then existing, when there was no certainty as to who was true pope. This did not satisfy the more radical conciliarists, and antipapal feeling at Constance reached a new height during the following week as it became evident that John had no intention of rejoining the council and that he might well revoke his promise to abdicate.

At the fifth general session (April 6) the council enacted the decree Sacrosancta, containing the full statement on conciliar supremacy originally approved by the nations. Seven cardinals attended the session and acquiesced in the promulgation of the decree, though Zabarella refused to read it. The controversial enactment declared:

This holy synod of Constance, constituting a General Council and lawfully assembled to root out the present schism and bring about the reform of the church in head and members declares that, being lawfully assembled in the Holy Spirit, constituting a General Council and representing the Catholic Church militant, it holds power immediately from Christ and that anyone of whatsoever state or dignity, even the papal, is bound to obey it in matters which pertain to the faith, the rooting out of the said schism and the general reform of the church in head and members. Further it declares that any person of whatsoever rank, state or dignity, even the papal, who contumaciously refuses to obey the mandates, statutes, ordinances or instructions made or to be made by this holy synod or by any other General Council lawfully assembled concerning the aforesaid matters or matters pertaining to them shall, unless he repents, be subjected to fitting penance and duly punished, recourse being had if necessary to other sanctions of the law. [H. von der Hardt, Magnum oecumenicum Constantiense concilium, 7 v. (Frankfurt-Leipzig 16971742) 4:98]

The authenticity of the decree is discussed below.

John XXIII's defiance was short-lived. Sigismund made war on Frederick of Austria, who quickly submitted and the pope was arrested in Germany on May 17 and brought back to the council as a prisoner. On May 29 he was declared guilty of perjury, simony and scandalous misconduct and was formally deposed from the papacy. John accepted the sentence meekly and relinquished all claim to the papal throne. Once he was removed from the scene, Gregory XII, the pope of the Roman line, conveyed to the council his willingness to abdicate provided that he was permitted to convoke the assembled prelates for a second time as a general council and so assert once more the legitimacy of his own line of popes. The prelates at Constance were in no mood to make difficulties and they consented to this procedure. Gregory's abdication was formally accepted by the council on July 4,1415.

There remained only Benedict XIII. Sigismund undertook a journey to Perpignan to try persuading him to abdicate too, but the aged pontiff remained obdurate to the end. At this point (December of 1415) his own cardinals and the Spanish kings and bishops at last abandoned his cause and agreed to join the Council at Constance. On July 26, 1417, Benedict was declared guilty of perjury, heresy and schism and deprived of all rights to the papacy. After complicated disputes about the manner of electing a new pope it was agreed that six deputies from each nation, as well as the cardinals of all three obediences, should participate in the conclave. For a valid election the support of two-thirds of the cardinals and two-thirds of the deputies of each nation was required. The conclave lasted only three days and on Nov. 11, 1417, the electors chose Odo Colonna, a cardinal originally of the Roman obedience who had joined the Council of Pisa and subsequently helped to elect John XXIII. He took the name martin v. With his election the Western Schism came to an end.

The Council And Hersey

The most important doctrinal issues considered at Constance were those raised by wyclif and hus concerning the nature of the Church and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Wyclif's teachings had already been condemned in England by Archbishop William courtenay (1382); they were again condemned at Constance. Meanwhile from the first years of the 15th century, Hus had begun to spread Wyclifite doctrines in Bohemia. His teaching there had an explosive effect because it became identified with a resurgence of Czech national feeling directed against the German and Catholic imperial authority; underlying all the major problems that faced the council was a growing tension between new nationalist loyalties and the old ideal of a united Christendom. Hus traveled voluntarily to Constance in order to defend his position. He received a safe-conduct from Sigismund, but this protected him only from illegal violence not from judicial proceedings before the council and Hus was in fact treated with scant courtesy. He was arrested for presuming to say Mass while under sentence of suspension and then questioned over a period of five weeks by interrogators who showed no interest in exploring the possibilities of a reconciliation but aimed only at Hus's total submission or immediate condemnation. He was finally found guilty of heresy in a general session of the council, and on the same day (July 6, 1415) he was burned at the stake by the secular power. Although Hus's teachings were certainly unorthodox, the extreme harshness of the treatment meted out to him must be explained in part by personal and national antagonisms. Above all, his refusal to accept the authority of the council in a matter of faith struck at the very heart of the conciliar claim to represent the universal Church and to hold its authority directly from Christ. The council could not acquiesce in such an attitude without abandoning its own pretensions.

The same session that condemned Hus's teachings considered also another doctrinal problem, the licitness of tyrannicide. This was a burning issue in contemporary French politics; in 1407 a partisan of the Duke of Burgundy had murdered the Duke of Orléans and a theologian of Paris, joannes parvus, had defended the act as justifiable tyrannicide. The council condemned in general terms the proposition that "any subject or vassal can and should licitly and meritoriously kill any tyrant without awaiting the sentence or mandate of any judge" (Magnum oecumenicum Constantiense concilium, 4:439). But, in spite of repeated pleas by Jean gerson, the fathers refused to condemn the writings of Joannes Parvus specifically. A somewhat similar case arose in 1417 in connection with a work of the Dominican John of falkenberg. He maintained that it was licit to assassinate the Polish king or exterminate the Polish people because they had allied themselves with pagans against the teutonic knights. His tract was denounced as heretical by a commission appointed to examine it and by the nations, but it was not formally condemned in a general session of the council.

The Council And Reform

From the beginning, the leaders of the council had regarded the reform of the Church as one of their principal objectives; and from the point of view of the bishops at Constance, the reforms most obviously needed were a reduction of papal taxation and a diminution of the papal power to make ecclesiastical appointments within their dioceses. The issue of reform became a major topic of discussion in the weeks after Benedict XIII's deposition (July of 1417). A dispute arose then as to whether the council, functioning as sovereign head of the Church, should carry through the work of reform before electing a new pope or whether the task should be undertaken after an election, by pope and council together. The dispute was complicated by a growing antagonism between the French and English nations arising out of the circumstances of the Hundred Years' War, but by early October of 1417 a compromise was reached. It was agreed that the reforms that had already been approved unanimously should be promulgated at once and a decree enacted, stating that further reforms would be undertaken immediately after the election. Accordingly, on Oct. 5, 1417, the council promulgated its first five reform measures. The most important by far was the decree Frequens, concerning the frequent summoning of general councils. It laid down that five years after the dispersal of the Council of Constance a second council was to meet, then a third one seven years after the end of the second, and that subsequently a council was to meet every ten years. The obvious intent was to limit the independent power of the papacy for the future.

On March 20, 1418, seven additional reform decrees were promulgated by Pope Martin V with the approval of the council. They dealt almost exclusively with papal taxation and abuses of papal provisions; for example, the pope relinquished his claim to the revenues of vacant sees and undertook to levy general taxation in future only in grave emergencies. Papal dispensations allowing men to hold ecclesiastical benefices for which they were not qualified by the appropriate ordination or consecration were forbidden. And it was decreed that anyone, even a pope or cardinal who participated in a simoniacal transaction, should be ipso facto excommunicated.

The reform work of the Council of Constance must be accounted a disappointing failure. The conciliarists always talked of a reform of the Church in head and members, but the only practical measures they proposed aimed solely at weakening the constitutional and financial position of the head and as it turned out, this did not produce any automatic upsurge of vitality in the members. There were indeed abuses of over-centralization to be corrected; but they were only symptoms of a more general malaise, a widespread perversion of the structure of pastoral offices in the Church that was generally tolerated because it provided sinecures for bureaucrats and others at all levels of ecclesiastical and secular government. The reformers of Constance were animated by sincerity and good will, but they did not display an adequate understanding of the kind of institutional change, especially in the members, that was needed to revitalize the whole life of the Church.

Authenticity Of The Council's Decrees

The problem of authenticity has been raised mainly in connection with the decrees Sacrosancta and Frequens described above. Frequens, however, is of relatively minor importance. Although inspired by an extreme conciliarist ideology, it was in essence an administrative reform that, like many other such measures adopted in general councils, was implemented for as long as it seemed to promote the welfare of the Church and abandoned when it apparently did not do so. Sacrosancta has more the appearance of a dogmatic definition of a fundamental doctrine of ecclesiology. Two problems are involved in the discussion of Sacrosancta 's authenticity. When did the assembly at Constance become a legitimately convoked general council? And which decrees of the assembly did Pope Martin V confirm? Very few Catholic scholars maintain that John XXIII was a legitimately elected pope or that the assembly convoked by him (November of 1414) was, from the beginning, a legitimate general council. Many hold that it became so when Gregory XII convoked it (July of 1415). Others argue that the council acquired an ecumenical character only after the Spaniards joined it (October of 1416). It seems quite certain that the last four sessions, held after the election of Martin V (November of 1417), were sessions of a lawful general council. Sacrosancta was enacted before Gregory's intervention. Hence if the majority opinion is accepted, the whole question of its authenticity depends on whether it was subsequently confirmed by Martin V.

Martin was certainly not an ardent or extreme conciliarist. Speaking in consistory on March 10, 1418, he forbade appeals from the pope to a future general council (Magnum oecumenicum Constantiense concilium, 4:1532). On the other hand, there could be no question of his repudiating the work of the council; to have done so would have been to repudiate the validity of his own election. Equally, there could be no question of the council's presenting all its earlier decrees to the pope for his solemn confirmation since the whole achievement of the fathers in ending the schism rested on the assumption that their decrees were valid of themselves, even without papal approval. The most important declaration of Martin himself on the whole question came at the closing session of the council on April 22, 1418. The Polish representatives disturbed the meeting by demanding an explicit condemnation of Falkenberg from the pope. Martin silenced the clamor that arose and then declared "that he would uphold and inviolably observe everything decided, concluded, and decreed in matters of faith by the present Council acting as a Council (conciliariter ) and not otherwise" (Magnum oecumenicum Constantiense concilium, 4:1557). The following arguments have been advanced by those who hold that these words did not constitute an endorsement of Sacrosancta. (1) The decree was not a "matter of faith"; that is, it was not intended as a dogmatic definition binding for all time. Here it seems necessary to distinguish. The assertion in Sacrosancta that a pope was bound to obey any general council in matters of faith seems clearly to have been proposed as a matter of faith itself, that is, as a permanent definition of doctrine. On the other hand, in the references to "the said Schism" and "the reform of the church," the fathers may well have had in mind only the immediate future of their own work. (2) The cardinals did not support the decree. But the cardinals present acquiesced and other decrees of general councils have been enacted with fewer cardinals present. (3) The pope intended his words to apply only to the case of Falkenberg. But the pope was clearly distinguishing between Falkenberg's condemnation, from which he withheld approval, and the other enactments of council, which he did approve. (4) The crucial fifth session of the council was not held conciliariter because it was disorderly. But there is no reason to suppose that the pope was distinguishing between a session held conciliariter and one held tumultualiter, as has been suggested. His statement, taken in context, seems clearly to refer to a distinction between decrees enacted conciliariter, that is, in a general session of the whole council, and those (such as Falkenberg's condemnation) enacted nationaliter, that is, in the preliminary sessions of the nations.

It seems most probable then that Martin V did express his approval of Sacrosancta. It seems equally probable that he did not understand it in the sense of the more radical conciliarists. The decree referred to "any other General Council lawfully assembled." Except in the peculiar circumstances prevailing in 1415, such a council would necessarily be summoned by a pope. Its lawful decrees would be those promulgated by the pope and the fathers acting in concert. And it is, of course, entirely proper to assert that a pope, like any other Christian, is bound by such conciliar canons in matters of faith. However this may be, it seems clear that a decree enacted by an assembly of ecclesiastical notables (who probably did not constitute a validly convoked council at the time of the enactment) and subsequently approved by a pope in an unpremeditated speech uttered in the heat of an angry debate cannot be regarded as a solemn dogmatic definition of a legitimate general council. It may be that the decree is susceptible of an orthodox interpretation. It may be that the pope and the prelates assembled at Constance were simply mistaken. One major result of modern scholarship on this whole question has been to emphasize how very rare are the circumstances in which doctrinal pronouncements by popes can be regarded as infallible definitions. For another discussion of the question reaching different conclusions see A. Baudrillart, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. A. Vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 3:122024.

Bibliography: Sources. Acta concilii Constanciensis, ed. h. finke, 4 v. (Münster 18961928). h. von der hardt, Magnum oecumenicum Constantiense concilium, 7 v. (Frankfurt-Leipzig 16971742). j. d. mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 31 v. (Florence-Venice 175798) v. 27. h. finke, Forschungen und Quellen zur Geschichte des Konstanzer Konzils (Paderborn 1889). The Council of Constance, ed. j. h. mundy and k. m. woody, tr. l. r. loomis (New York 1961), includes three major narrative sources, Richental's Chronicle, Fillastre's Diary and Cerretano's Journal. Literature. b. hÜbler, Die Constanzer Reformation (Leipzig 1867). m. creighton, A History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation, 5 v. (London 188294) v. 1. n. valois, La France et le grand schisme d'occident, 4 v. (Paris 18961902). e. j. kitts, In the Days of the Councils (London 1908). c. j. von hefele, Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux, tr. and continued by h. leclercq, 10 v. in 19 (Paris 190738) v. 7.1. j. hollnsteiner, "König Sigismund auf dem Konstanzer Konzil," Mitteilungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung 41 (1926) 185200. a. c. flick, The Decline of the Medieval Church, 2 v. (London 1930) v. 2. p. arendt, Die Predigten des Konstanzer Konzils (Freiburg 1933). k. zÄhringer, Das Kardinalskollegium auf dem Konstanzer Konzil bis zur Absetzung Papst Johanns XXIII (Münster 1935). h. finke, "Die Nation in den spätmittelalterlichen allgemeinen Konzilien," Historisches Jahrbuch der Görres-Gesellschaft 57 (1937) 323338. l. r. loomis, "Nationality at the Council of Constance," American Historical Review 44 (193839) 508527. e. f. jacob, Essays in the Conciliar Epoch (rev. ed. Notre Dame, Ind. 1963). p. h. stump, "The Reform of Papal Taxation at the Council of Constance (14141418)," Speculum 64 (1989): 69105. e. c. tatnall, "The Condemnation of John Wyclif at the Council of Constance," in Councils and Assemblies, ed. g. j. cuming and d. baker (Cambridge 1971) 209218.

[b. tierney]

Council of Constance

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Council of Constance

A church council that took place from 1414 until 1418 in Constance (present-day Baden, Germany), called by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to resolve the schism in the church. Since 1378, the Catholic Church had been divided in two, with separate popes supported by different factions of church leaders and the kings and princes of Europe. When the Council of Constance began, an antipope, John XXIII, was presiding over a rival court in Avignon, France, while Pope Gregory XII was head of the church in Rome and a third pope, Benedict XIII, was also claiming authority over the church.

The Council of Constance took place when the turmoil in the church was prompting an outcry for reform. With Sigismund presiding, the delegates asked all three rival popes to resign their titles, so that a single pope could be elected. In 1415, its delegates passed an important decree known as Haec Sancta. This document stated that a general church council took its authority directly from Christ, and that all members of the church, including the pope, were bound to obey its decisions. The Catholic Church has always considered this decree invalid, as the council had not yet been officially convened by the pope of Rome.

When Gregory XII made it known that he would be willing to resign, the delegates at the Council of Constance agreed to receive his representatives in Constance. After their arrival, the pope's representatives officially convened the council in Gregory's name. They then read out his resignation. The council deposed Benedict XlI, while Gregory XII also gave up his title. Two years later, the council elected Cardinal Oddone Colonna, who took the name of Martin V. Although the council resolved the papal schism, it did not address important issues that were driving a protest movement led by such men as John Wyclif of England and Jan Hus of Bohemia. Instead, the council invited Jan Hus under a promise of safe passage, then arrested him and ordered him burned at the stake. The protest movement would gather force throughout the fifteenth century and bring about the Protestant Reformation.

See Also: Catholicism; Hus, Jan; Reformation, Protestant

Constance, Council of

views updated Jun 08 2018

Constance, Council of (1414–17). Convened at the insistence of the Emperor Sigismund to end the Great Schism, to reform the Church, and combat heresy. There were three rival popes: the council asserted its superiority to the papal office, the three rivals all resigned or were deposed, and in 1417 Martin V was elected pope. Among measures to promote reform, the council enacted that there should be regular General Councils. In these ways the council was important in the history of conciliarism (see ANTIPOPE).

Constance, Council of

views updated Jun 08 2018

Constance, Council of the 16th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church (1414–18), which brought to an end the Great Schism.

Constance, Council of

views updated Jun 08 2018

Constance, Council of (1414–18) Ecumenical council that ended the Great Schism. It was convoked by the anti-pope John XXIII. Martin V was elected in 1417.

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