The Second Conciliarist Crisis

Vaclav Brozik, “The Trial of Jan Hus”

Tolerance at its best and worst

A friend tells a funny anecdote about a Permanent Deacon who used to give very popular marriage prep classes. He sat down specifically with the Grooms, to whom he directed the question: “Guys, do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?” This usually elicited laughs from them, because they knew something very true about relationships in general, and marriage in particular: sometimes it may be better to give up ground in the name of keeping the conversation and relationship going, than to dig in one’s heels.

This approach is not without its merits in life, living as we do as imperfect people with other imperfect people. A certain degree of tolerance toward someone who does wrong, even when one is completely right and legitimately aggrieved, can be a true manifestation of charity. Catholic teaching reminds us that bearing wrongs patiently is a Spiritual Work of Mercy, because it imitates both the patience of God toward our own sins, and helps create the conditions and environment in which an erring person may be able to come to his senses. It is easier to draw people with honey than vinegar, says St. Francis de Sales.

On the other hand, there is a dark side to this approach, a vulnerability which can be exploited to destructive effect. Let’s say a relationship exists where one person is, in fact, consistently wrong, in the sense of being in the wrong. Going further, let’s say that person is manipulative, using strategies like projection and gaslighting to beat down the other party. Over time, a pattern of psychological abuse occurs which may threaten to destroy completely the relationship. Forbearance and tolerance in this case are not a good thing, but an attitude which leads to destruction.

The better part, or the saner part?

In preparation for several upcoming essays on the subject of Church Reform, I have had a lot of recourse to research on the era surrounding the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which was arguably the apogee of anti-Papal feeling within the Church. The times were similar to today: worldly and scandalous behavior by the Roman Pontiffs and other clergy provoked a crisis of trust. Secular potentates were eager to seize the initiative in denying the Apostolic See its traditional prerogatives which are consonant with its claim to be the premier see of Christendom. They used the venality and luxury of the Papacy as a pretext to deprive it of its income.  They used its claims to power as evidence of the need to curtail it.The Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (7 July 1438), for instance, was decreed by King Charles VII of France as a direct rebuke to Papal authority in French domains. Included among its proscriptions were the prohibition of annates, or the annual “tax” as it were, of the Gallican Church to the Pope from its first month’s annual revenue. It severely curtailed the Pope’s freedom to bestow benefices (and thus, financial security) upon his own partisans. Perhaps most importantly, it demanded the convening of a General Council every 10 years, an idea that was first promulgated in the Decree Frequens of 1417, which was not approved by the Pope. By advocating these measures, the King of France and the Gallican Church attempted to place a distance between themselves and Papal Governance.

Heated discussions ensued at the University of Paris at the time of the Great Western Schism, with considerable attention drawn to the French Crown’s acceptance of the Antipope Clement VII as the true Pontiff. The doctors of the University of Paris knew that there were serious problems about having two claimants to the Papal Throne, and even more problems with having the Pope claiming to be the Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter, which is the basis of his authority, and yet reside in a foreign city, in this case Avignon. Invoked in this case was the old canonical dictum maior vel sanior pars (the greater and saner part) whereby the choice of Clement VII was justified, not because the electors were numerically superior to that of the Roman Pontiff Urban VI, but because of the supposed superior cause of the French people and her electoral representatives, the Cardinals. The French nation was even, in more hyperbolic moments, considered a directrix veritatis (director of truth), a sort of authority which was able to determine who was right or wrong in the Great Western Schism, simply because they were French, and the French, they said, simply were the maior vel sanior pars. They were the better and saner part of the Church.

It is no surprise that it is precisely at this time that there was an explosion of debate on matters of Church governance, especially in relation to the state. However, no question perhaps was debated as fervently as the subject of the Pope’s unique governance. John of Paris (Quidort) famously tackled these questions in his De potestate regia et papali (1302) where he reasoned that the election of the Pope, being a canonical process overseen by men and ecclesiastical law, could also be undone by similar canonical processes. There were other voices who argued similarly. It is helpful to note that this was only three centuries after such Pro-Papal Pontiffs as Gregory VII and his Dictatus Papae, or Innocent III and his reformist Fourth Lateran Council.

The First Vatican Council

The Rise of the ‘Corporate- Monarchical Episcopate’

Vatican I, with its decree on Papal Infallibility and its reassertion of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, represented probably the historical high-water mark of a ‘papalist’ or ‘ultramontane’ ecclesiology. This was generally accepted, although by the middle of the twentieth century, the emphasis on the leadership of the Church was broadened to include the episcopal ‘college’ which governs in union with, and under, the Successor of Peter.

The Second Vatican Council, which solemnly promulgated those teachings in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, continued that trend, in that the Bishops hitched their own authority corporately to the headship of the Pope. In this approach, there was a theological marriage of the monarchical episcopate, such as Ignatius of Antioch would advocate, and ultramontanism, which Popes like Innocent III or Gregory VII would advocate. ‘Hitching’ the power of the Bishops to the Pope and vice versa, coupled with the dissolution of temporal Christendom, has created a situation in which only Bishops (of which the Pope is one) rule in the Church, without any sort of practical checks and balances which marked earlier eras in Christendom.

Curiously, this was also something noticed during the Council of Constance. Cardinals Fillastre and D’Ailly of France not only wanted doctors of law and theology to have voting power, but also parish Priests, precisely because of their role as men in charge of the care of souls. To show how prevalent this sentiment was in the ecclesial air, the election of Antipope Felix V took place in November 1439 as the Council of Basel, when he was elected by eleven prelates, five masters of theology, eight doctors of Canon Law, and even a mere Licentiate. Moreover, earlier recordings of the attendees at Basel in June 1439 indicate that there were roughly three hundred clerics, of whom only thirty-nine were Bishops. Advocacy for voting for lesser clergy and even theological experts was not just a 20th century anomaly.

Analogies and Similarities

Malcolm Muggeridge once said that there is no new news, just old news happening to new people. We are living at a time in the Church when, for better or worse, Bishops, including the Pope, enjoy an unprecedented amount of practical control over the Universal Church and their Local Churches. Doubtlessly, there is a degree of legitimate (and authoritative) doctrinal development on this front. However, as important and as valid as episcopal authority may be, it has limits. Episcopal authority, much like Papal authority, does not substitute for conscience, as Blessed (soon to be saint) John Henry Newman repeatedly insisted. A rightly formed conscience reveres revealed truth and divine commandment over human will and caprice. The first and necessary ‘antibody’ to what is in essence episcopal aristocracy is well formed minds, hearts and consciences. We recognize with respect the role of Bishops, and there is a place for deference. Yet deference does not mean subservience.

Returning to the story from the beginning of this article, we are seeing a return to a centuries-old drama.  Certain Bishops have been making some serious errors over the past few decades in regard to Church Governance.  To make matters worse, they have their own ways of ‘gaslighting’ the rest of the Church, in order to refuse to take responsibility for their own failures.  It is a miserable defense mechanism.

‘Lesser clergy’ and lay faithful are increasingly realizing, much like in the crisis surrounding the Council of Constance, that they have a valid and necessary voice which can and must be raised if the current climate of no accountability is to be surmounted finally.  How far are we until this body reaches a critical mass, and a practical schism is created?  In this case, perhaps the lay faithful may invoke maior vel sanior pars.  Or perhaps the Priests may.  Whatever happens, may not be a net positive without good foundations.

I admit that I do not know what form a legitimate enfranchisement of Priests and lay faithful would necessary take. Obviously, whatever form it would take should be in accord with an authentic ecclesiology. At the same time, it is rare in the Church that true change starts within the hierarchy. It typically starts with people ‘doing their own thing’, acting around the system. The institution inevitably reacts to these mavericks with suspicion, but the institution relies upon them, because the moral authority of the Church in the minds of the typical man or woman comes from the goodness of her members, not from the theological (yet true) abstraction that the Church is made holy because of Christ.

I would call this current time a second conciliarist crisis, not so much because people are calling for another General Council (yet, anyway), but because we are so very much in need of concilium,(1) a word which is derived from the Latin verb for “causing unification”. All the living ‘estates’ of the Church have a role to play in this process. We can no longer rely on the illusion that is the ‘corporate-monarchical episcopacy’; that is, the concept of monarchical episcopacy grown to dimensions far beyond their theological underpinnings, subverting even the demands of conscience and common sense.

One thing I do not support in this process, however: neither lay people nor Priests can afford to adopt Alinskyite or Marxist methods of creating change. These are methods which are explicitly anti-theological and hostile to Christian faith and morals. Sensationalistic and polarizing Catholic journalism, agitation and scandal-mongering create far more heat than light. Movements which support prayer and penance, accountability, Gospel Joy and evangelistic zeal are critical. Yet we also need some real critical thought about just how we as the Church together can right this ship.

I am going to explore more in my research how different figures throughout the Conciliarist Crisis dealt with the question of Church Reform and governance. It is here that simplistic notions must give way to stark, lived reality. Some may say that holiness is the sine qua non of Church Reform. I heartily agree. But we also cannot forget, if history is any example, that sanctity is no guarantee of effective reform. Everyone remembers St. Catherine of Siena’s pivotal role in the ending of the Great Western Schism. Whom people tend to forget is the arguably more miraculous St. Vincent Ferrer, who claimed that he himself was an “Angel of the Apocalypse.” He was gifted with prophecy, visions, and other supernatural gifts. Yet none of these apparently resolved his mistaken choice for the Papal Throne. He once vigorously supported, and then bitterly repudiated, the Antipope Benedict XIII. Sanctity is necessary, but it is not the only thing that will help us move out of the darkness. Perhaps in our prayers we should not only ask God for a Pastor Angelicus, as our ancestors did in the Middle Ages, but also a Magnus Legifer, a great Lawgiver, whom the Holy Spirit will enlighten to guide the Church to greater purity, justice, and fidelity to her Divine Lord.


(1) I am not advocating the ideas found in the famous journal Concilium. I merely utilize the word.