"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Conciliarism and the Catholic Crisis of Authority

The papacy is of course at the top of the agenda of the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, which recently finished meeting in Vienna. The debate turns, in significant part, on conceiving of a balanced exercise of papal authority ("the one") vis-à-vis synodical ("the many"). These are not new debates. I treat them at some length, in the modern period, in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy. In the West alone, there has been a long-standing debate about how synodical/conciliar authority is to be exercised, and whether it can ever "trump" papal authority. The scholar who has most helped us understand this 600-year-old debate is Francis Oakley in The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (Oxford University Press, 2008, 312pp).

This is a paperback version of a disturbing book first published in 2003. Oakley, one of the most distinguished and prolific of medieval historians, has, for more than forty years, been investigating the diverse set of beliefs called “conciliarism.” This latest work makes invaluable contributions in lucid and taut prose that brilliantly condenses sources in many languages. Oakley begins by asking how it is that the Latin Church has been so successful in engaging in “a quite startling instance of institutional (and institutionally sponsored) forgetting” (2) about the teachings of the Council of Constance (1414–18).

What was forgotten, and why? Constance was called to try to bring an end to the great Western Schism, which, at one point, had successive rival claimants to the papacy in three concomitant lines: Roman, Pisan, and Avigonese. It was assembled legally under Pope John XXIII, a product of the Council of Pisa (1409), which had tried to heal the schism and only succeeded in deepening it by introducing this third papal contender, who is today counted by Rome as an “anti-pope.” John fled the scene when the political winds shifted against him. The fathers of Constance, who recognized John as legitimate pope, were unsure how to proceed in his absence, and the council came close to falling apart (which puts the lie to one of many misconceptions about this council, viz., that the bishops were “episcopalists” engaged in some kind of proto-Protestant power grab). But seeing the Church’s ever deepening disarray, the bishops screwed up their courage and went on to issue their famous decree, Haec Sancta:
this holy synod of Constance, which is a general council, for the eradication of the present schism and for bringing unity and reform to God’s church in head and members, legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit to the praise of almighty God, ordains, defines, decrees, discerns and declares … that … it has power immediately from Christ; and that 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.

To Catholic ears of the last 150 years, this decree sounds radical and wholly sui generis – because of the aforementioned institutional forgetting – but Oakley shows how deeply it was grounded in the relevant and widespread canonical theory and practice of the day, and how it had even deeper, more ancient roots in the communio ecclesiology of the early Church, in the light of which Haec Sancta, he insists, is “impeccably orthodox." Misconceptions abound about this decree. One after another they wither under Oakley’s scrupulous scholarship, until we are left finally, nearly 600 years after the fact, to face the question: what should be made of this decree that is deeply unsettling to the claims of the modern papacy? What, in other words are we to make of the fact that “a divided Christendom had indeed been reunited but only because a general council, acting in the absence of its papal head, had formally claimed on certain crucial issues to be the legitimate repository of supreme power in the Church” (42)? How can this be reconciled with modern (i.e., post-Vatican I) notions of papal authority? Yet without some attempt at synthesis if not reconciliation, there are massive caesura in modern papal historiography and theology, and papal treatment of Constance ends up looking capricious and self-serving.

In examining these questions, Oakley allows no escapes here through the usual dodges about Constance’s early sessions, which produced Haec Sancta, being ultra vires. Other evasions about “emergency” situations, “development of doctrine,” or lack of “ecumenical” status (conveniently given only to select decrees from Constance, the rest, as with the above passage, being retroactively rubbished by timorous popes) all collapse in the face of the relevant evidence he has relentlessly amassed. Oakley not merely closes off all such escapes, but seals the doors, leaving nowhere to turn but to face squarely the question: what is the proper relation between council and pope, and why has one modern notion (i.e., that which culminated in Pastor Aeternus) been the only one allowed to exist with official sanction, all others in earlier councils having been bundled off into an ecclesio-historical gulag?

This question acquires even greater prominence when one realizes that Orthodox-Catholic unity will not be possible absent a renewed understanding of the role of councils and synods vis-à-vis the pope. Bringing Constance in from the outer darkness might prove helpful here. Thus one can only echo Oakley’s epilogue, where he challenges ecclesiologists (and, one presumes, ecumenists) to “steel their resolve and bring themselves to attend to the particular instance of unfinished business” (262). Until that is done, he asks plaintively, “can one hope to erect a future capable of enduring, if one persists in trying to do so on the foundation of a past that never truly was?”

These are questions to which, presumably, Oakley is returning in a forthcoming book, co-authored with Michael Lacey, to be published also by Oxford early next year: The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. I greatly look forward to reading it.

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