When four patriarchs, twenty-two cardinals, and eighty bishops gathered together in the Cathedral of Pisa under the presidency of Cardinal Gui de Malesset, Bishop of Palestrina, their goal was not just to end the Western Schism, but return the seat of the Pope to Rome. Although Council of Pisa did depose Benedict XIII of Avignon and Gregory XII of Rome and elected Alexander V, who was proclaimed Pope in Rome after Louis of Anjou captured the city in 1410 – and although Avignon also fell the following year to pro-Council of Pisa forces, this peace would not last. Alexander VI died during the night of May 3, 1410, while staying with Baldassare Cardinal Cossa, in Bologna. Following Alexander’s death, Cossa immediately succeded him as Pope; taking the name John XXIII and was forever followed by the rumor that he had poisoned his immediate predecessor.
The clear abnormality of the Council of Pisa was that it was not convoked by the Roman Pontiff, which was a general qualifier for a council to be deemed ecumenical and their decrees to have the force of binding the faithful to adhere to them. To the contrary, at the seventeenth session on June 13, 1409, three of the four patriarchs read aloud a conciliar decree that authorized the cardinals, without regard to Obedience, in the name of the Council and by virtue of Canon law to elect a new pope. Thus, the concept of Conciliarism was born; that is, in the resolution of schism, an ecumenical council apart from, or even against the pope has supreme authority.
Then there were three popes by the time the Council of Constance (present-day Baden, Germany) began its proceedings in 1414. There were three mistakes that the fathers of Constance found in the deliberations at the Council of Pisa that they resolved not to repeat. First, rather than simply elect a new pope, they called on Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to call for the voluntary abdication of the three papal claimants. Despite the hard work and travel of Sigismund to secure these abdications, only Pope Gregory XII resigned the papacy, which forced the Emperor to depose the other two. Second, Pisa was not convoked by a Pope – it relied upon strict usage of crisis conciliarism to assert its authority, but on July 4, 1415 Constance was able to secure from the absent (in hiding) Gregory XII a decree authorizing the council to be convoked and its succeeding acts authorized. Third, Pisa lacked the backing of temporal authority; therefore, its decrees were easy to be ignored, but Sigismund presided from the high altar of the cathedral of Constance throughout the council.
Yet, prior to Sigismund securing that papal decree and authorization, on April 6, 1415, the fathers of Constance promulgated Haec Sancta Synodus (the Holy Synod) which is the official birth record of conciliarism:
- Legitimately assembled in the Holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the Catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism, and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.
The weight of this proclamation is tremendously fragile and arguably fraught with dubiosity, given that it was issued prior to the decree of Gregory XII. For, if the Council of Constance did not truly begin until Gregory XII authorized it, then every transaction prior to that decree is invalid. Therefore, Haec Sancta Synodus does not belong to the official body of the Council of Constance or of the Church.
Pius II, who as a priest was an adent defender of conciliarism and of the Council of Basel, as Pope understood how weak this authority was while the conciliar theory was afloat. As a result, in his Papal Bull Exsecrabilis as well as n other documents, he expressly withdrew his earlier position. Writing against the conciliar theory in Exsecrabilis Pius II stated:
- In our period there has sprung up the execrable abuse, unheard of in primitive times, whereby some, imbued with a spirit of rebellion, not through desire of a better judgment, but to evade the sin they have committed, presume to appeal to a future council away from (a decision of) the Roman pontif, the vicar of Jesus Christ, to whom it was said in the person of blessed Peter: “Feed my sheep” [John 21:17], and “Whatever you bind on earth shall be ound in heaven” [Matthew 16:19]. … Wishing, therefore, to drive far from the Church of Christ this pestiferous poison. …, we condemn appeals of this sort and reject them as erroneous and detestable.
While the Council of Constance substantively ended the issue of competing claims on the papacy and returned the seat of Peter to Rome, it did not squash the theology of conciliarism. To the contrary, the councils of Council of Basel, Ferrara, and Florence (1431–1445), the Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512 – 1517), and finally at the First Vatican Council (1868 – 1870) by the way of dogmatically treating the primacy and infallibility of the Bishop teaching in part:
- If then, any should say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which relate to the discipline of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the churches, and over each and all the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema.
The principal problem with the conciliarism is that it does weaken the papacy and inveighs against one of the duties of the pope to be a source and sign of unity for the Apostles. This duty was imposed on him in the person of Peter by Christ Jesus Himself, who said, “. . . I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). Yet, conciliarism posits that the ecumenical council of bishops themselves are the sign and source of unity.
Inasmuch as Conciliarism is a clear heresy as an ordinary means of authority in the Catholic Church, is it still a legitimate option during schism? If there ever is again a mad pope, multiple claimants of the papacy, or a schism, can a universal body of bishops convoke a council? Is there some type of Holy Roman Emperor today who can depose a pope or press upon them to abdicate? When you have a pope like Francis who has abdicated his three duties to be a source and sign of unity, to be a shepherd – protecting his flock against the wolves, and to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit, has not the papacy become so weak that conciliarism cannot threaten it even further?
There is a sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) becoming ever-present in the Church today that informs us of a war taking place between the Francinites and the faithful, and that there is a demonic spirit of division and disunity is afoot in the Church that is trying to take hold. Pride has triumphed over humility and everything is being sacrificed so that those who have power, position, and prestige in the Church can hold onto it.
Conciliarism to resolve schism is a bad option, even if you could find enough faithful Bishops to convoke a council. Having Benedict XVI rescind his abdication and become an anti-Pope is a bad option, even if it were possible. Having the President of China depose Francis is a bad option even if now that seems to be in his power. Yet, the sensus fidelium is telling us that something has to happen and it has to happen soon. Blessed Mother Mary, Pray for Us.