The Conciliar Form of Church Governance

According to most historians, papal dominance reached its apex during the papacy of Innocent III (1198-1216). At this time Rome became the center of the legal and religious machinery of the church, excising dominion over clergy and (often) dictating the policies of lay rulers.20 The nadir of papal influence came about one hundred years later. Pressing his power, Innocent III's Fourth Lateran Council (1215) denied the authority of monarchs and other lay rulers to tax the clergy. But the economic strains of war were too much for most monarchs. By 1296 France and England were at war, both taxing church properties for war finance. Pope Boniface VIII issued a bull or official papal document (Clericis Laicos) that denied lay rulers absolute authority in their own kingdoms and cut off their access to church funds by taxation. When King Phillip IV of France resisted, Boniface planned to issue a decree of excommunication against him, but French mercenaries led a small army against the Pope, causing him to capitulate. (Boniface died a few weeks after, and two later popes renounced their authority over Phillip and France.21)

After the thirteenth century, the monopoly structure of the papacy faced repeated challenges. In the Middle Ages the Holy See was an important city-state in world politics as well as a dominant-firm, global supplier of religious services. On the religious front, as we have seen, the Catholic Church confronted an ongoing spirit of religious reform throughout the medieval period. On the political front, it was wracked by the Great Schism of 1378, which led to competing claims on the papacy by French and Italian prelates, and the relocation of the papacy to Avignon for most of the fourteenth century. According to medieval historian Denys Hay, "The effects of the Schism were directly proportional to the structure of government and in Italy government in many areas was exceedingly divided, thus encouraging the popes to try to exercise their jurisdiction in ways that would be an embarrassment to their rivals.''22 Papal actions in France or Spain, for example, were intertwined with Italian interests, "as when Calixtus III [1455-1458] bargained Italian against Spanish bishropics and abbeys in an effort to cope with the hungry members of the Aragonese house and the appetites, only slightly less ravenous, of his own Borgia relatives.''23 Only when the rift was healed did the papacy return to Rome. The Great Schism had two prominent effects on the medieval Catholic Church. On the one hand it reawakened sentiment for the conciliar form of governance and, on the other, it ushered in a system of bribes and side payments by popes intent on maintaining power.

Re-establishment of the conciliar form of church governance—which had been the hallmark of the first millenium of church history—therefore received added impetus from internal strife within the medieval church. Before the looming threat of Protestantism appeared, religious reform movements emanated, in the main, from church councils. Indeed, the 1414 Council of Constance ended the Great Schism by reasserting the doctrine of conciliar supremacy. Denys Hay remarked, "The crisis of 1378 was a striking instance of the condition for which conciliar-ism...was a drastic remedy. The senior clergy who in 1414 faced the scandal of three popes accepted the notion that Christ's purposes were reflected in the whole church as represented in council.''24 However, sitting popes were not likely to give up their authority so easily and, in the end, the doctrine that popes were subject to properly convoked general church councils received little more than lip service. Despite a decree by the Council of Constance that church councils be called at regular intervals, Pope Martin V (1417-1431), as well as his successors, did everything they could to discourage them.25 A conciliar form of church governance would have distributed ecclesiastic authority more evenly geographically and the power of the council would have been anterior to that of the pope, a prospect no papal monopolist or aspiring papal monopolist could be expected to embrace.

Catholic historian Brian Tierney identified two major problems relating to the limits and character of ecclesiastical authority over the period: one pertains to the nature of authority between the papacy and national governments and another deals with the internal governance of the church. These problems were interrelated: "The partisans of successive princes—of Frederick II, Philip the Fair, Lewis the Vabarian—all found it expedient to couple their claims on behalf of the secular power with appeals to the College of Cardinals or the General Council as embodying an authority superior to that of any individual Pope within the Church.''26

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