Conciliarism was a reform movement in the 14th-, 15th- and 16th-century Catholic Church which held that supreme authority in the Church resided with an Ecumenical council, apart from, or even against, the pope. The movement emerged in response to the Western Schism between rival popes in Rome and Avignon. The schism inspired the summoning of the Council of Pisa (1409), which failed to end the schism, and the Council of Constance (1414–1418), which succeeded and proclaimed its own superiority over the Pope. Conciliarism reached its apex with the Council of Basel (1431–1449), which ultimately fell apart. The eventual victor in the conflict was the institution of the Papacy, confirmed by the condemnation of conciliarism at the Fifth Lateran Council, 1512–17.[1] The final gesture however, the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, was not promulgated until the First Vatican Council of 1870.


The 13th and 14th centuries were a period of challenges to papal authority in Catholic Europe. These new challenges were marked by disputes between the Papacy and the secular kings of Europe. In particular the quarrel between Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII over the right to tax the clergy in France was especially heated. Philip was excommunicated and Boniface was accused of corruption, sorcery, and sodomy. In his "Unam Sanctam" (1302), Boniface asserted that the papacy held power over both the spiritual and temporal worlds and that only God could judge the pope. Philip responded by sending knights to Italy to arrest Boniface. Though the mission eventually failed, the Pope died just three weeks after his release because of the trauma of the experience and a high fever.

This was followed by the move of the Roman papacy to Avignon, France in 1309, where it would remain until 1377. Although the move had precedent, the Avignon Papacy's image was damaged by accusations of corruption, favoritism toward the French, and even heresy. Indeed, Pope Clement VI who was criticized for his apparent extravagant lifestyle asserted that his "predecessors did not know how to be Pope." During the span of the Avignon Papacy all the popes and most Cardinals and curial officials were French. The reputation of the Avignon Papacy led many to question the absolute authority of the pope in governing the universal Catholic Church.

The Western Schism (1378–1417), was a dispute between the legal elections of Pope Urban VI in Rome and Pope Clement VII in Avignon. The schism became highly politicized as the kings of Europe chose to support whichever pope served their best interests. Both popes chose successors and thus the schism continued even after Urban and Clement's deaths. In this crisis, conciliarism took center stage as the best option for deciding which pope would step down. The cardinals decided to convene the Council of Pisa (1409) to decide who would be the one pope of the Catholic Church. The council was a failure and even led to the election of a third pope. The Council of Constance (1414–1418) successfully ended the Schism by deposing two Popes (John XXIII and Benedict XIII) – the third Pope abdicated – and electing a successor in Martin V. The Council also decreed to maintain the council as the primary church body from then on, though Martin did not ratify this decision.

The papal curia's apparent inability to implement church reform resulted in the radicalisation of conciliarism at the Council of Basel (1431–1449), which at first found great support in Europe but in the end fell apart. Parts sided with the Pope to form the Council of Florence, whereas the conciliar party in Basel elected another antipope before eventually losing its support among European governments.

At the convening of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517), Pope Julius II reasserted the supremacy of papal authority over that of the councils. Populated by cardinals opposed to conciliarism, the Lateran Council condemned the authority of conciliary bodies. In fact, the council was an essential copy of the pre-Conciliar councils such as Lateran IV (1215), Lyon (1274),

Conciliar theory

William of Ockham (d. 1349) wrote some of the earliest documents outlining the basic understanding of conciliarism. His goal in these writings was removal of Pope John XXII, who had revoked a decree favoring ideas of the Spiritual Franciscans about Christ and the apostles owning nothing individually or in common. Some of his arguments include that the election by the faithful, or their representatives, confers the position of pope and further limits the papal authority. The universal church is a congregation of the faithful, not the Catholic Church, which was promised to the Apostles by Jesus. While the universal Church cannot fall into heresy, it is known that the Pope has fallen into heresy in the past.[2] Should the pope fall into heresy a council can be convened without his permission to judge him. William even stated that because it is a "universal" church, that the councils should include the participation of lay men and even women.

In his Defensor Pacis (1324), Marsilius of Padua agreed with William of Ockham that the universal Church is a church of the faithful, not the priests. Marsilius focused on the idea that the inequality of the priesthood has no divine basis and that Jesus, not the pope, is the only head of the Catholic Church.[3] Contradicting the idea of Papal infallibility, Marsilius claimed that only the universal church is infallible, not the pope. Marsilius differed from Ockham in his denial to the clergy of coercive power. Later conciliar theorists like Jacques Almain rejected Marsilius's argument to that effect, preferring more traditional clericalism modified to be more constitutional and democratic in emphasis.

Conciliar theory has its roots and foundations in both history and theology, arguing that many of the most important decisions of the Catholic Church have been made through conciliar means, beginning with the First Council of Nicaea (325). Conciliarism also drew on corporate theories of the church, which allowed the head to be restrained or judged by the members when his actions threatened the welfare of the whole ecclesial body.[2] The canonists and theologians who advocated conciliar superiority drew on the same sources used by Marsilius and Ockham, but they used them in a more conservative way. They wanted to unify, defend and reform the institution under clerical control, not advance a Franciscan or a lay agenda. Among the theorists of this more clerical conciliarism were Jean Gerson, Pierre d'Ailly and Francesco Zabarella. Nicholas of Cusa synthesized this strain of conciliarism, balancing hierarchy with consent and representation of the faithful.[2]

John Kilcullen wrote, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that "in France conciliarism was one of the sources of Gallicanism."[4]

Opposition to conciliarism

Many members of the Church however, continued to believe that the pope, as the successor of Saint Peter, retained the supreme governing authority in the Church. Juan de Torquemada defended papal supremacy in his Summa de ecclesia, completed ca. 1453. A generation later, Thomas Cajetan vigorously defended Papal authority in his "On the comparison of the authority of pope and council". He wrote that "Peter alone had the vicariate of Jesus Christ and only he received the power of jurisdiction immediately from Christ in an ordinary way, so that the others (the Apostles) were to receive it from him in the ordinary course of the law and were subject to him," and that "it must be demonstrated that Christ gave the plenitude of ecclesiastical power not to the community of the Church but to a single person in it."[5] Both writers represent the many cardinals, canon lawyers and theologians who opposed the conciliar movement and supported the supremacy of Peter's successors. Conciliarism did not disappear in the face of these polemics. It survived to endorse the Council of Trent which launched the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 1540s and later appeared in the anti-curial polemics of Gallicanism, Josephinism and Febronianism.

Modern conciliarism

Although conciliarist strains of thought remain within the Church, particularly in the United States, Rome and the teaching of the Catholic Church maintains that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, and has the authority to issue infallible statements.[6] This Papal Infallibility was invoked in Pope Pius IX's 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII's 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the College of Bishops contained within the decree Lumen gentium has sometimes been interpreted as conciliarism, or at least conducive to it, by liberal and conservative Catholics alike; however, the text of the document as well as an explanatory note (Nota Praevia) by Paul VI makes the distinction clear. There are Christians, especially of the Anglo-Catholic, Old Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions, who maintain the absolute supremacy of an ecumenical council. See conciliarity; however, this belief, from the Orthodox view, has no historical connection with the above events in the history of the Western Church.

A new interest in conciliarism was awakened in Catholic Church circles with the convocation of the Second Vatican Council.[2] The theologian, Hans Küng, and the historian, Francis Christopher Oakley, have argued that the decrees of the Council of Constance remain valid, limiting papal power.


  1. ^ Oakley 1972
  2. ^ a b c d Tierney 1998
  3. ^ Marsilius of Padua 2005
  4. ^ Kilcullen 2012
  5. ^ Burns & Izbicki 1997
  6. ^ Breidenbach 2016


  • Breidenbach, Michael D. (2016-01-01). "Conciliarism and the American Founding". The William and Mary Quarterly. 73 (3): 467–500. doi:10.5309/willmaryquar.73.3.0467. JSTOR 10.5309/willmaryquar.73.3.0467.
  • Burns, J.H.; Izbicki, Thomas, eds. (1997). Conciliarism and papalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521470896.
  • Crowder, C. M. D. (1977). Unity, Heresy and Reform, 1378-1460: The Conciliar Response to the Great Schism. Edward Arnold.
  • Kilcullen, John (2012) [First published 14 July 2006]. "Medieval Political Philosophy". In Zalta, Edward N (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 ed.). Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab at Stanford University. ISSN 1095-5054. LCCN 2004615159. Archived from the original on 2013-04-30. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
  • Marsilius of Padua (2005). Brett, Annabel (ed.). Marsilius of Padua: The Defender of the Peace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139447300.
  • Cardinal Nicholas (of Cusa) (1995). Nicholas of Cusa: The Catholic Concordance. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521567732.
  • Oakley, Francis (1969). Council Over Pope?: Towards a Provisional Ecclesiology. Herder and Herder.
  • Oakley, Francis (1972). "Conciliarism at the Fifth Lateran Council?". Church History. 41 (4): 452–463. doi:10.2307/3163876. ISSN 1755-2613. JSTOR 3163876.
  • Oakley, Francis (2008). The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199541249.
  • Tierney, Brian (1998). Foundations of the conciliar theory : the contribution of the medieval canonists from Gratian to the Great Schism (Enl. new ed.). Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9789004109247.
  • Tierney, Brian (2008). Religion, Law and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521088084.
Benedictus Deus (Pius IV)

Benedictus Deus is a papal bull written by Pius IV in 1564 which ratified all decrees and definitions of the Council of Trent. It maintains that the decrees of the Council of Trent can be interpreted solely by the Papal office itself; and enjoins strict obedience upon all Catholics, forbidding, under pain of excommunication, all unauthorized interpretation. This was seen by Church contemporaries of Pius IV as an attempt to strengthen the influence of the Papacy against the rise of Conciliarism exemplified by the Council of Trent itself.

There is a more minor bull of the same title written by Benedict XII in 1336.

Catholic ecumenical councils

Catholic ecumenical councils include 21 councils over a period of some 1900 years. While definitions changed throughout history, in today's Roman Catholic understanding ecumenical councils are assemblies of Patriarchs, Cardinals, residing Bishops, Abbots, male heads of religious orders and other juridical persons, nominated by the Pope. The purpose of an ecumenical council is to define doctrine, reaffirm truths of the Faith, and extirpate heresy. Council decisions, to be valid, are approved by the popes. Participation is limited to these persons, who cannot delegate their voting rights.

Ecumenical councils are different from provincial councils, where bishops of a Church province or region meet. Episcopal conferences and plenary councils are other bodies, meetings of bishops of one country, nation, or region, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This article does not include councils of a lower order or regional councils. Ecumenical in the Catholic view does not mean that all bishops attended the councils, which was not even the case in Vatican II. Nor does ecumenical imply the participation of or acceptance by all Christian communities and Churches. Ecumenical refers to "a solemn congregations of the Catholic bishops of the world at the invitation of the Pope to decide on matters of the Church with him". The ecumenical character of the councils of the first millennium was not determined by the intention of those who issued the invitations. The papal approval of the early councils did not have a formal character, which was characteristic in later councils. The Catholic Church did not officially declare these councils to be ecumenical. This became theological practice. Different evaluations existed between and within Christian communities. Today 21 councils are accepted in the Catholic church as ecumenical councils.Not all of the twenty-one councils were always accepted as ecumenical within the Catholic Church. For example, the inclusion of the First Lateran Council and the Council of Basel were disputed. A 1539 book on ecumenical councils by Cardinal Dominicus Jacobazzi excluded them as did other scholars. The first few centuries did not know large-scale ecumenical meetings; they were only feasible after the Church had gained freedom from persecution through Emperor Constantine.


Conciliarity is the adherence of various Christian communities to the authority of ecumenical councils and to synodal church government. It is not to be confused with conciliarism, which is a particular historical movement within the Catholic Church. Different churches interpret conciliarity different ways.

Council of Constance

The Council of Constance is the 15th-century ecumenical council recognized by the Catholic Church, held from 1414 to 1418 in the Bishopric of Constance. The council ended the Western Schism by deposing or accepting the resignation of the remaining papal claimants and by electing Pope Martin V.

The council also condemned Jan Hus as a heretic and facilitated his execution by the civil authority. It also ruled on issues of national sovereignty, the rights of pagans and just war, in response to a conflict between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Kingdom of Poland and the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The council is important for its relationship to ecclesial conciliarism and Papal supremacy.

Council of Siena

In the Catholic Church, the Council of Siena (1423–1424) marked a somewhat inconclusive stage in the Conciliar movement that was attempting reforms in the Church. If it had continued, it would have qualified as an ecumenical council. In the official List of ecumenical councils, the Council of Siena is no longer listed, as the conciliarism expressed there was later branded as a heresy.

Cum ex apostolatus officio

Cum ex apostolatus officio is the name of a papal bull issued by Pope Paul IV on 15 February 1559 as a codification or explicitation of the ancient Catholic law that only Catholics can be elected Popes, to the exclusion of non-Catholics, including former Catholics who have become public and manifest heretics.

The immediate provocation was Pope Paul's suspicion that Cardinal Giovanni Morone, who was popular and expected to succeed him, was secretly a Protestant. Pope Paul IV believed that it was necessary to prevent or negate Morone's possible election as his successor. He wanted to set it in Church law that no manifest heretic can lawfully hold the Office of St. Peter.

Development of doctrine

Development of doctrine is a term used by John Henry Newman and other theologians influenced by him to describe the way Catholic teaching has become more detailed and explicit over the centuries, while later statements of doctrine remain consistent with earlier statements.

Du Pape

On the Pope (Du Pape) is an 1819 book written by Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre, which many consider to be his literary masterpiece.

Episcopal see

An episcopal see is, in the usual meaning of the phrase, the area of a bishop's ecclesiastical jurisdiction.Phrases concerning actions occurring within or outside an episcopal see are indicative of the geographical significance of the term, making it synonymous with diocese.The word see is derived from Latin sedes, which in its original or proper sense denotes the seat or chair that, in the case of a bishop, is the earliest symbol of the bishop's authority. This symbolic chair is also known as the bishop's cathedra, and is placed in the diocese principal church, which for that reason is called the bishop's cathedral, from Latin ecclesia cathedralis, meaning the church of the cathedra. The word throne is also used, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church, both for the seat and for the area of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.The term "see" is also used of the town where the cathedral or the bishop's residence is located.


Execrabilis is a papal bull issued by Pope Pius II on 18 January 1460 condemning conciliarism. The bull received its name from the opening word of its Latin text, which labelled as "execrable" all efforts to appeal an authoritative ruling of a Pope to a council.

Gregory II Youssef

Patriarch Gregory II Youssef, also known as Gregory II Hanna Youssef-Sayour (October 17, 1823 – July 13, 1897), was Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church from 1864 to 1897. Gregory expanded and modernized the church and its institutions and participated in the First Vatican Council, where he championed the rights of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Gregory is remembered as a particularly dynamic patriarch of the Melkite Church. He is recognized as one of the forerunners of interconfessional dialogue and as an advocate for preserving the traditions and autonomy of the Melkites.

Jacob of Juterbogk

Jacob of Juterbogk (c. 1381 – 30 April 1465) was a German monk and theologian. Benedict Stolzenhagen, known in religion as Jacob, was born at Jüterbog in Brandenburg of poor peasant stock. He became a Cistercian at the monastery of Paradiz in Poland, and was, sent by the abbot to the university of Kraków, where he became master in philosophy and doctor of theology. He returned to his monastery, of which he became abbot. In 1441, however, discontented with the absence of strict discipline ingdcry of Salvatorberg near Erfurt, of which he became prior. He lectured on theology at the University of Erfurt, of which he was rector in 1456, and wrote around eighty treatises. Like many men of his time, he promoted Conciliarism, the idea that a general council should be above the pope.

Jacques Almain

Jacques Almain (died 1515) was a prominent professor of theology at the University of Paris who died at an early age. Born in the diocese of Sens, he studied Arts at the Collège de Montaigu of the University of Paris. He served as Rector of the University from December 1507 to March 1508.

Pascendi Dominici gregis

Pascendi Dominici gregis (English: Feeding the Lord's Flock) is a papal encyclical letter promulgated by Pope Pius X on 8 September 1907.

The pope condemned modernism and a whole range of other principles described as "evolutionary", which allowed change to Roman Catholic dogma. Pius X instituted commissions to cleanse the clergy of theologians promoting modernism and some of its (liturgical) consequences.

Traditionalist Catholics point to this document as evidence that pre-Vatican II popes were highly concerned about enemies of Christendom infiltrating the human element of the Catholic Church.

The encyclical was drafted by Joseph Lemius, Procurator General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Pascendi Dominici gregis enjoined a compulsory anti-modernist oath, introduced on 1 September 1910, which obliged all Catholic bishops, priests and teachers to come to clear terms with what they believed; this oath remained in force until Pope Paul VI abolished it in 1967. When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the authority of Pope John Paul II, mandated the use of a new Oath of Fidelity in 1989, some theologians labeled it as a new kind of anti-modernist oath.

Ravenna Document

The Declaration of Ravenna is a Roman Catholic–Eastern Orthodox document issued on 13 October 2007, re-asserting that the bishop of Rome is indeed the Protos, although future discussions are to be held on the concrete ecclesiological exercise of papal primacy. The document was issued at the tenth plenary session of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church held from 8 to 14 October 2007 in Ravenna, Italy.The signing of the declaration highlighted the internal tensions between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate, on account of whether the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church had a right to be represented in Ravenna, which eventually led the Moscow delegation to walk out of the talks. It was an internal dispute within Orthodoxy, however, and had no relation to the issues actually addressed at Ravenna.

The Ratzinger Report

The Ratzinger Report (Italian: Rapporto Sulla Fede) is a 1985 book consisting of a series of interviews collected over several days given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. The book focuses on the state of the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. The book is very critical of the "hermeneutic of rupture" associated with the liberal "spirit of Vatican II" within the Church. It has often been reread in the context of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI in order to better understand the mind and the thinking of the former pontiff.

Thomas Livingston

Thomas Livingston (alternatively, Thomas de Levinstone or Thomas Livingstone) was a fifteenth-century Scottish cleric, diplomat, and delegate at the Council of Basel and advisor to Kings James I and James II of Scotland. He was additionally Abbot-elect of Newbattle, Abbot of Dundrennan, nominal Bishop of Dunkeld, and also held the Abbey of Coupar Angus in commendam.

Thomas was an illegitimate son of a Scottish lord, probably Sir John Livingston, baron of Callendar. He was born either in the year 1390 or in 1391. In his early twenties he became a student of the new University of St Andrews, graduating with an MA in 1415. Thomas remained there for a few years teaching in the Faculty of Arts before embarking on a career as a Cistercian monk. In 1422 he was elected Abbot of Newbattle, but failed to hold the position because the Pope had already chosen another man, David Croyse. While remaining a Newbattle monk, the following year Thomas entered the University of Cologne in order to become a Master of Theology, which he attained in 1425. Thomas also became a priest, in addition to remaining a monk.

By 1429 at least Thomas was holding the position of Abbot of Dundrennan, but was suffering from severe sight problems. He appears to have obtained from the Pope a dispensation for his "defect of birth", being an illegitimate son, allowing him to remain in office. At this point in time Thomas joined the Council of Basel convoked by Pope Martin V. Thomas was able to advise King James I of Scotland on the issues and helped convince him to send a full delegation. Thomas became one of the most important men at the council and in 1439 it was Thomas, helped by the archdeacon of Metz, who delivered the council report in June which led to the deposition of Pope Eugene IV. In the following August, Thomas travelled to Mainz to attend the Imperial Diet, where he defended the council's decision to depose Eugene, and later became one of the men selected to choose a new Pope, Pope Felix IV/V (previously Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy). Thomas became one of the main supporters of the new pope, and was rewarded with a provision to the Bishopric of Dunkeld in November 1440. Although conciliarism looked doomed by the early 1440s, Thomas nevertheless remained an ardent conciliarist, and helped shape Scottish politics as an adviser during the minority of King James II of Scotland. In 1447 Pope Eugene died, and Livingston was one of the two Basel delegates who went to Vienna to attempt to persuade Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor to convoke a new council of the church.

After the schism caused by the election of Antipope Felix V was finally healed in 1447, the blind Livingston turned his attention to promoting monastic reform, working alongside Cardinal Nikolaus von Kues (a friend of his from university) in the latter's mission in Germany (1451-2). He later returned to Scotland and resumed his role as an advisor to James II. Thomas was never bishop of Dunkeld in anything but name, so had no revenue, although King James did make him Abbot of Coupar Angus in commendam. Thomas died some time before 10 July 1460, at the age of seventy.

Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope

The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537) (Latin, Tractatus de Potestate et Primatu Papae), The Tractate for short, is the seventh Lutheran credal document of the Book of Concord. Philip Melanchthon, its author, completed it on February 17, 1537 during the assembly of princes and theologians in Smalcald.

The Tractate was ratified and subscribed by this assembly as an appendix to the Augsburg Confession, which did not have a specific article dealing with the office of the papacy. Defining their stance on the papacy was deemed important by the Lutherans as they faced the impending church council that would ultimately meet as the Council of Trent. The Tractate historically was considered part of Luther's Smalcald Articles because both documents came out of the Smalcald assembly and the Tractate was placed after the Smalcald Articles in the Book of Concord.


Ultramontanism is a clerical political conception within the Catholic Church that places strong emphasis on the prerogatives and powers of the Pope.

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