Haec Sancta

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Also called Sacrosancta, a decree of the Council of constance asserting the authority of ecumenical councils over popes. It was issued April 6, 1415, as a part of the council's effort to end the western schism. Finding their authority to deal with the schism at issue, the council fathers included language in the decree that has made it the historical high-water mark of conciliarism.

The standard view within the Catholic Church has been that the decree was not valid or universally binding, and after definition of papal authority reached the explicit terms of Vatican I, Haec sancta became little more than a matter for academic analysis. In the aftermath of Vatican II, the decree received fresh consideration from some historians who contended that Haec sancta was not an aberration but the logical outgrowth of a development in orthodox ecclesiology going back several centuries.

Constance was called to reestablish unity in a church whose members were divided by the simultaneous claims of three men to the papal throne. The Council of pisa (1409) sought to deal with the scandal of two men claiming to be pope, but succeeded only in adding one more to the number. At the instigation of Emperor Sigismund, Constance was called by John XXIII (now considered an antipope) of the Pisan line. But when John saw the council would not support his claims, he sought to force its dissolution by leavingon the assumption that it could not function without a pope. To meet this challenge, the council fathers issued Haec sancta, declaring:

This holy synod of Constance declares in the first place that legitimately convened in the Holy Spirit, forming a general council and representing the militant Catholic Church, it has its powers immediately from Christ, and that each and every one of whatever state or dignity, even if it be papal, is bound to obey it in those things which pertain to faith, the rooting out of the schism and the general reform of the Church of God in head and members.

It made the same claim for any other council legitimately convened.

On July 4, 1415, Gregory XII (now considered to have been the true pope) of the Roman line resigned (through a legate) after having a bull read in which he convened the council. It has subsequently been argued that Haec sancta was not valid because it was issued before the council was convened by true papal authority.

John XXIII was deposed by the council on May 29, 1415, and it deposed the third claimant, Benedict XIII of the Avignon line, on July 26, 1417, though Benedict never accepted the action. The council then elected Oddo Colonna as pope, and he served as Martin V, bringing the schism to an end. According to a report of the council, Martin stated that he endorsed its actions, but it has been questioned whether his words applied to Haec sancta or whether his verbal statement was in the proper form to give legal standing. However, he did not repudiate the decree, and the validity of his own election and the overall accomplishment of ending the schism depended upon the legitimacy of the council. The condemnation of Hus was also a part of the council's work, and Martin ordered in the bull Inter cunctas (Feb. 22, 1418) that anyone suspected of holding Hussite doctrines should be made to swear acceptance of Constance, no exception being made for Haec sancta. However, a disputed question is whether Haec sancta should be considered a dogma of faith, which if validly defined would be irreformable, or a constitutional enactment, which even if valid at the time would not necessarily be applicable outside the historically unique situation for which it was issued.

In the decades following Constance, the popes reasserted their authority against the conciliarists, and in 1460 Pius II issued the bull Execrabilis, forbidding appeals from a pope to a council. The last remnants of conciliarism were thought to have been eliminated by Vatican I. But while contemporary Catholic scholars have not questioned papal primacy, they have begun to give greater attention to collegiality and the role of councils as a balance to papal power. From this standpoint some scholars see Haec sancta as support for the position that in extraordinary situationsa pope mentally ill, under the control of a political power, or for some other reason unable to function normallycouncils can act independently of papal authority.

Bibliography: r. e. mcnally, SJ, "Conciliarism and the Papacy," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society (1970) 1330. a. franzen, "The Council of Constance: Present State of the Problem," Concilium 7 (1965) 2968. h. kung, Structures of the Church (New York 1964). b. tierney, "Hermeneutics and History: The Problem of Haec Sancta," Essays in Medieval History, ed. t. a. sandquist and m. r. powicke (Toronto 1969). r. e. mcnally, "Conciliarism and the papacy," CTSA Proceedings (1971) 1330. t. e. morrissey, "After Six Hundred Years: The Great Western Schism, Conciliarism, and Constance," Theological Studies 40 (1979) 495509. p. h. stump, The Reforms of the Council of Constance, 1414-1418 (Leiden, 1994). For the Latin text see j. alberigo et al., Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta (Freiburg 1962) 38586. For an account of the Council see e. iserloh, Handbook of Church History, ed. h. jedin and j. dolan, IV (1970) 448473.

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