This is an intensely interesting explanation of the role of the Councils of Pisa and Constance in the healing of the Great Western Schism. It is by the same author, and is extracted from the same volume, as the text on the possibility of a long-term vacancy of the Holy See (Here: http://strobertbellarmine.net/oreilly.html
Fr. Edmund James O'Reilly S.J, The Relations of the Church to Society - Theological Essays
, John Hodges, London, 1892, pp. 290-298. Emphasis in the original.
First of all, the Council describes itself as congregated and existing for the extirpation of the present schism, and the union . . . of the Church of God
. This is the first object, marking as a distinctive character of that Council, that it was emphatically ordained to the extinction of the schism, and the union of the different sections into which the Church had been divided by the schism. The Council had likewise for its object the reformation of the Church of God in its Head
. This was to be effected by giving to the Church an undoubted Head, and a fit one. John XXIII was neither undoubted nor fit. He was unhappily not a man distinguished virtue. This alone would not have been ground enough for deposing him, unless so far as it included the guilt of heresy. As a matter of fact he was accused of heresy, though in what this was supposed to consist was not clear; and the absence of sufficient proof of it appears to have been a reason with the Council for being anxious to obtain from John an acceptation of their sentence of deposition; and this they took care to secure before pronouncing the sentence.
There is question here of personal external
heresy on the part of a true Pope, not of heretical teaching ex cathedra, which is impossible. The Canon Law, in the chapter Si Papa
, contemplates the case hypothetically, and theologians commonly treat it as possible; many of them, however, of whom Bellarmine is one, holding that God would not permit it, though there is no promise. If the case occurred, the delinquent would have to be set aside. Bellarmine – rightly or wrongly – believes that Pope Liberius, though not in his mind a heretic, still in consequence of his external assent to a heretical proceeding, did
actually fall from the Papal dignity, was succeeded by Felix II (who had been previously an anti-pope), and, on the death of Felix, was again raised to the Pontifical throne, so that he was twice Pope. (De Romano Pontifice
, lib. iv., cap. o.)
Assuredly the setting aside of a doubtful Head, especially with a prohibition to re-elect him (which prohibition the Council imposed), or the setting aside of a heretic, would be a reformation of the Church in its Head. Then, as to the reformation of the Church in its members
, there is not much difficulty. The members were subject to the Council, and what was done in their regard could not be rightly resisted by the Head, nor validly resisted by a Head who was under the control of the Council as doubtful. It is further said in the first Decree, that the same Synod … has power immediately from Christ
, which was true of that
Synod assembled for the termination of a schism between contending claimants to the Papacy, and also so far as there might be question of pronouncing a Pope to be a heretic. It is further again declared that everyone, of whatever state and dignity he may be, even Papal, is obliged to obey
the Council. A person may be of Papal dignity in different ways; namely, either an undoubted Pope, or a doubtful Pope, or even one who is pretty well known not to be really Pope, but yet pretends to be such, and is acknowledged by many through perversity or mistake. At the time when the decree was passed there were two claimants less probably entitled to the dignity than not, and of these one less probably still than the other; but neither without some colour of right, and both, too, having many Catholic adherents; and there was one, namely, John, with a better title, whom the Council itself was disposed to regard as really Pope, yet not quite certainly so, and who was impeached of heresy. Such holders of Papal dignity might be obliged to obey the Council. It is to be sedulously noted that in this Decree the Council speaks of itself
only, and with relation to existing circumstances. There is not a title of generalization. The Council says it
is to be obeyed by all such parties as now exist, that is by the faithful generally, by individual bishops, &c., and even by those who now
hold even the Papal dignity, as they now hold it.
And in what are they bound to obey? In those things which belong to Faith and the extirpation of the said schism, and the general Reformation of the Church of God in (its) Head and members
. It is to be observed that the mention of Faith
does not occur in the earlier extant copies of this decree. But its mention causes no serious difficulty. There need be no question of final definitions
of Faith by the Council, but only of causes
regarding Faith – trials of persons even of Papal dignity, on charges appertaining to Faith – the enforcement of former definitions, &c. The other words concern disciplinary matters.
The whole, then, of the first Decree, comes to this: that this particular Council, under existing circumstances, is Divinely authorized to settle all that now requires to be settled, including very specially the termination of the schism and all steps needed for this object, and among the rest the setting aside of doubtful Popes, or of a Pope convicted of heresy; and that, with relation to this object, all, even of Papal dignity, are obliged to obey the Council, that is, all those persons who are at present in any way invested with Papal dignity are so bound.
The second Decree (passed in the fifth session) extends to any other Council the right to be obeyed by all. But here there is question of another Council legitimately assembled
and, of course, legitimately sitting; there is question too of mandates and precepts concerning the premisses or other things thereunto belonging
. Now this may be well understood of another Council called to put an end to this schism
, or at most, a similar schism. The Council of Constance was the second General Council which had been convoked for the purpose of extinguishing this particular schism
, and it was far from clear that one or more additional Councils might not still be required for the same purpose. John had, at this time, fled from the Council, called, as it was, and opened, by himself, and there might be reason to apprehend that he would try to put an end to it.
The words of the decrees admit of the explanation I have given of them, and therefore they may
at least be so taken. Add to this that the Council, circumstanced as it was, can hardly be presumed to have set about defining a doctrine which neither concerned the actual state of things nor belonged to any controversy with the heretics of the period, a doctrine, too, that had much appearance of novelty and was never dominant in the Church before or since. It was not unnatural, on the other hand, that the Council should lay down what regarded its own authority for the time being, and in as strong and comprehensive terms as could well be employed. The statement contained in the decree is, no doubt, emphatic and full and impressive in the variety and legal formality of its terms, and no wonder, if we consider its bearing with reference to the Council’s action. I will say more later on of the precise character and nature of this statement; I do not mean as to its truth nor as to its sense though the sense is thence illustrated but as to its object in the mind of the Council, and its dogmatic position.
Now, turning for a moment to the Vatican definition; this definition treats of the Roman Pontiff in what may be called his normal state; that is to say, where he is the undoubtedly genuine Vicar of Christ, whether good or bad as to his conduct, provided he be not personally an external heretic. The sense of the Vatican definition regarding the Pope’s Infallibility and his superiority over the Church and its other pastors, distributively and collectively, and over Councils, is unmistakable. The Decrees of Constance ought
, or at the very least can
, be understood of doubtful Popes. The Vatican definition, as a matter of course, regards certain and not doubtful Popes, and must be understood of the infallibility of such Popes and their
superiority over Councils, &c. In all this there is no mutually destructive opposition between decrees and decrees.
Were the Decrees we have been considering confirmed by Martin V? As a help towards solving this question, I will answer another, which is, besides, worthy of own sake. What was the original character of the Decrees themselves? To what class or category did they belong? Were they dogmatic definitions?
Reverting to the circumstances of the time, we must remember that the then actual state of things in the Church was anomalous and without example in preceding centuries. The position of the Council and the work it had to do were likewise out of the common course. No General Council before that of Pisa was ever called on to determine who was – or was to be – Head of the Church. No previous legitimate Council assembled and deliberated , as it
did, not only without the approbation, but against the will, of the Roman Pontiff. Other Councils had been presided over by the Pope, either personally or through his legates. This Council took, within certain limits, the place of the Pope as well as its own. It undertook to exclude from all ecclesiastical power the two claimants to the Papacy, one of whom – whichever it may have been – was till then the rightful
claimant. Having displaced both, it substituted another, with the hope that he would be universally recognised. But in this hope it was disappointed: there came to be three claimants instead of only two. The Council of Constance had to accomplish the task which that of Pisa failed to accomplish. This latter Council had, I will assume, validly dethroned Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, and validly seated Alexander V in the Chair of St. Peter. But it had not silenced the deposed parties nor their adherents, whose number continued considerable. The Council of Constance, which was in some sort a continuation of that of Pisa, and, at any rate, heir to its incomplete work, had reason to fear a similar failure for itself, and might look forward to the danger of setting up a fourth rival, as Pisa had set up a third.
Under this pressure the Fathers, or many among them, considered it expedient to proclaim their rights and powers, to themselves or to each other for their own encouragement, to the fugitive Pontiff, who was increasing their difficulties, and to the rest of the Church. This they did in the Decrees we are discussing, and which were an assertion of the Council’s position and prerogatives, and of those of other possible future Councils. But, we may ask, did they intend to define
the doctrine involved in this assertion, whatever was the extent of its meaning; whether that meaning was confined to present and other similar circumstances or not; whether, again, it regarded certain or only doubtful Popes? It is quite plain that the chief object and end of these Decrees was to strengthen the hands of the Council, and not to settle a doctrine for its own sake, and for the sake of the integrity of the Faith, as this very Council did later with regard to other matters. Besides, whatever weight the Fathers wished these Decrees to have, they wished them to have it there and then, and not dependently on a future confirmation of an undoubted Pope, when all the troubles that made the Decrees so peculiarly important at the time should have passed away. The Fathers knew that the supreme, independent right to define could be as readily questioned as the right to command, and even more readily, because there might be, and there was, an urgent necessity of commanding, but not of defining. For commanding there was a necessity such as would justify the inference that God had given the right, since He could not be wanting to His Church in what was strictly needful. I do not mean that they imagined, or that we are to imagine, any fresh communication of power made at that time, but that God must have so constituted the Church from the beginning that it would be able to meet any emergency which He would allow to arise; and an emergency had arisen, which demanded an unusual kind of action on the part of a Council. This was understood by those who convoked the Council of Pisa and by that Council itself; this was understood, too, quite clearly by the Fathers of Constance. The Council of Pisa had acted on the doctrine; the Council of Constance was about to act on it, but conceived there was occasion for stating it, for laying it down.
We may observe here, by the way, that the Council of Constance laboured under a difficulty superadded to those whereby that of Pisa was embarrassed, inasmuch as there was now actually a person with clearer claims to the Pontifical throne than either Gregory or Benedict, and who had alone called the Council as it then stood, and the Council was beginning to be in collision with him.
I said the Council conceived there was occasion for stating the doctrine concerning its own power. It may
this doctrine, but it cannot be blamed for simply stating
it. I may be asked, if this was not a definition, what was it
? I say, if it was not a definition, it was a declaration
, such as assemblies, and committees, and courts make as to their own completeness and authority and jurisdiction. Such declarations neither give
power nor heal substantial
defects – though they may heal minor formal defects – nor oust a higher jurisdiction. They express a prudential judgment; they raise a respectable presumption, which, however, may be afterwards overruled; they allege a ground for proceeding to action; they afford a confidence proportioned to the dignity and intelligence of those who make the declaration. It stands to reason that no number of persons can by their own word make themselves more than they are already. If a tribunal be acknowledged as simply supreme without any superior on earth, its own claim to do certain acts must be recognised as involving a sort of practical infallibility; and if it be acknowledged as actually infallible in doctrine, its doctrinal teaching
as to its own sphere both of doctrine and action must be accepted. Nay more, its solemn exercise
of authority to teach on a particular subject would irrefragably imply that the subject was within its competence. But a Council without the Pope never had been universally acknowledged as simply supreme, nor as infallible. I have said that the Decrees, if not a definition, were a declaration in the sense explained.