Conciliarism (Theological Aspect)

views updated


Conciliarism is essentially a false theory about the possessor of supreme authority in the Church. Also called the conciliar theory, it attributes the highest power of jurisdiction to a general assembly of the bishops acting independently of the pope and denies it to the pope and to a genuine ecumenical council.

Sometimes conciliarism is defined as a theory that asserts the superiority of an ecumenical council over the pope. Although this definition has been used for centuries and is still currently found in theological and canonical texts, it is better avoided, since the term ecumenical council is used in it in a loose sense. There cannot be an ecumenical council without the active participation of the pope, at least by way of approving the council's decisions. An assembly of the bishops without the pope is not an ecumenical council.

Another definition, found mainly in legal texts, says that conciliarism is the theory that admits an appeal from the judgment of the pope to that of an ecumenical council. The same objection against the incorrect use of this term is also valid here, and it is to be noted that the definition states a practical consequence of the conciliar theory rather than describing its substance.

Theological Analysis. In subjecting conciliarism to a critical analysis this article sets its essential elements against the background of present-day knowledge of the structure of the Church in order to better understand the defects of this theory. The conclusions are valid for every form of conciliarism, since there is a sufficient unity of thought in all its historical manifestations to justify a common approach to its various schools.

A classical formulation of the conciliar theory can be found in the decree Sacrosancta of the fifth session of the Council of constance in 1415:

This Holy Synod of Constance declares that, being gathered together according to the law and in the Holy Spirit, and being a general council representing the Catholic and militant Church, it has its power directly from Christ; [therefore] every person of whatever status or dignity, be it even papal, has to obey [this synod] in all that concerns the faith, the rooting out of the present schism, and the general reform of this Church of God in its head and members. [j. d. mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio (Graz 1960) 27:590.]

The next paragraph in the Council's declaration says that all persons of whatever condition, status, or dignity, the pope included, are subject to penance and punishment if they are found disobedient (see H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 1151, introd. note).

This and similar texts that could be quoted (e.g., from the 39th session of the same Council) show that the fundamental error of conciliarism is that it attributes the supreme power of jurisdiction to a general assembly of bishops who are acting independently of the pope. Theologically, the error springs from a mistaken concept of the episcopal college: it assumes that this college can be fully in existence and be the subject of rights and duties when it is deprived of its head. This is not so: the collective power given to the Catholic episcopate is present in their midst only when the hierarchical communion between the head and the members, the pope and the bishops, is intact. When this communion is absent, the corporate power of the episcopate cannot be present. Therefore, a general assembly of bishops acting independently of the pope cannot be a genuine ecumenical council.

The other fundamental error of conciliarism is the misrepresentation of the office of the pope. By the will of Christ, he is the keeper of the keys to the use of all power of jurisdiction in the Church, even to that of an ecumenical council. It follows that he cannot be subject to any assembly of the bishops, and that, rather, they are subject to him in the use of the power given to them by their consecration and the hierarchical Church. This is why the pope has the power to convoke a universal council, to direct its work, and to confirm its decisions.

The right to appeal from a sentence of the pope to a general assembly of bishops is the practical consequence of conciliarism. Since this theory clothes the general assembly of bishops with the supreme power of jurisdiction and denies it to the successor of Peter, it is logical that it should advocate the possibility of appeal from the pope to his fellow bishops, who would be sitting as the supreme court of the Church.

In some of its more radical forms the conciliar theory is based on the idea of representation. The owner of power would be God's people, the congregation of the faithful, who would entrust this power to the bishops, and the bishops in their turn to the popewith the right of revocation all along the line should there be abuses on the part of the trustees. Thus the bishops are considered the representatives of the faithful, and the pope the representative of both the faithful and the bishops. Naturally enough the bishops would be entitled to sit in judgment over the pope and deprive him of his office should they think it necessary for the good of the Church.

The error of the theory of representation is to conceive of the structure of the Church as if it were a political community. Although it is true to say that in a state the citizens are the source of political power and they entrust it to their government, it is wrong to conceive of the Church as a democratic institution. Christ has given all power of jurisdiction to the bishops, and made one of them, the successor of Peter, the universal bishop of the whole Church with power over all the others.

Pronouncements of the Church. The error of conciliarism has been condemned several times, but its doctrinal deficiency in explaining the structure of the Church can be best seen not through the condemnations of it but through consideration of the positive pronouncements on the power of the Church made by the ecclesiastical teaching authority.

vatican council i defined, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Pastor aeternus (Enchiridion symbolorum 305075), the full and supreme power of jurisdiction of the pope over the universal Church, both in defining the faith and in practical legislation. This power was declared by the Council to be ordinary and immediate, reaching all Churches, their shepherds and faithful. Since this definition is incompatible with any conciliar theory that would admit the superiority of an episcopal assembly over the pope and the possibility of an appeal from the pope's sentence to the bishops, conciliarism has to be excluded as incompatible with the Catholic faith.

vatican council ii, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, describes the internal structure of the Church and asserts that there is a permanent unity between the members and the head of the episcopal body. It states clearly and emphasizes that the members participate in the corporate power of the episcopate, but only if and when they are in hierarchical communion with its head. It follows that an assembly of bishops without the pope would be powerless.

Finally, both Vatican Councils exclude any theory of representation in the government of the Church. The power of jurisdiction, the right and duty to feed and to govern the flock, is not possessed by the faithful, but was given to the bishops personally, to the episcopal college as a corporate unity, and to the vicar of Christ, the pope. They have their power from God without any mediation on the part of the faithful. In having their power, they are the trustees of God, not of the congregation. However, their power should be used for the benefit of God's people. If sometimes they are called representatives of the Church, the term should be applied to them in a loose sense only; it should not imply that they receive their power from their subjects.

Among the explicit condemnations of conciliarism perhaps the most important document is the bull Exsecrabilis, promulgated by Pius II in 1460. In his earlier life, before he was ordained a priest, Enea Silvio de' Piccolomini (Pius II) was an ardent advocate of conciliarism. As pope he condemned it, calling erroneous and detestable the doctrine that admits the legitimacy of an appeal from the pope's sentence to a universal council (Enchiridion symbolorum 1375).

The attitude of the Church toward conciliarism has not changed since the time of Pius II. Today it is reflected in several canons of the Code of Canon Law. "There is no appeal from the Roman pontiff's sentence to an ecumenical council" (c.228.2). Those who attempt such an appeal are excommunicated and under suspicion of heresy (c.2332), and the chapter on ecclesiastical courts begins with c.1556: "The First See is not subject to any judge." Those practical provisions are the manifestations of a deep doctrinal conviction.

It would be false to conclude, however, that the theologians who embraced the conciliar theory in one of its historical forms were all formal heretics. Some of them were persons of great spiritual stature and intellectual integrity, seeking anxiously a solution to the problems of their time. They failed to find the right solution, and they embraced a theory alien to the Catholic faith, but one should remember that they did not have the same theological armory that exists today, and that to some extent they were pioneers in the study of the mysterious nature of the Church.

See Also: conciliarism (history of); councils, general (ecumenical), history of; councils, general (ecumenical), theology of; primacy of the pope.

Bibliography: Vatican Council II, Lumen gentium, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 571. h. jedin, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 6:532534. g. alberigo, Lo sviluppo della dottrina sui poteri nella chiesa universale (Rome 1964). b. tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (Cambridge, Eng. 1955). v. martin, "Comment s'est formée la doctrine de la supériorité du concile sur le pape," Revue des sciences religieuses 17 (1937) 121143, 261289, 405427.

[l. m. Örsy]