Part IV - The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 26 - Papal Reform and Decline

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I. The Reformatory Councils

A. Council of Pisa (1409). In 1378 the Roman Catholic cardinals yielded to strong popular pressure by electing an Italian, Urban VI (1378-1389), to the papacy, but they soon found him intolerably offensive. Therefore, four months later, claiming that their choice of Urban had been made under duress and was consequently invalid, the cardinals sought to replace him with another pope, Clement VII (1378-1394). Thus began the "Great Schism" (1378-1418), with two rival popes, one in Avignon and the other in Rome, vying with each other for supreme control of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church had experienced competing claimants to the papal throne before, but this situation was aggravated and prolonged by the fact that each claimant had been duly elected by the body of cardinals and each had the support of national powers. Hence, the original popes in the Great Schism were both succeeded by popes who carried on their respective claims.

The Great Schism was an immense embarrassment to the Catholic Church which claimed to be the one true Church united under one earthly head. The situation also impugned the motives and methods by which the popes were elected. Yet, scandalous as it was, the Great Schism was not an easy problem to resolve. The ones who had supreme authority in the Church and would ordinarily be expected to address and correct problems of such magnitude were the problem. Any resolution, therefore, would have to come from some other source. Consequently, various scholars began to suggest that the practical necessities of the situation demanded that a general council of the Church convene and intervene to put a stop to the Great Schism.

Eventually, a general church council did convene for this very purpose in Pisa in 1409 without the approval of either pope. The council deposed both popes and replaced them with Alexander V (1409-1410). The actions of the council amounted to a practical assertion of conciliary superiority over the papacy. This became known as the conciliary theory. However, the council made a politically unwise move in electing Alexander without seeing if their resolution to the Great Schism would be acceptable to the European community of nations. It was not. Consequently, the Council of Pisa only succeeded in worsening the situation. The Roman Catholic Church now had three popes, with various national powers aligned behind each.

B. Council of Constance (1414-1418). This council, called by the Holy Roman Emperor and John XXIII (1410-1415), the successor to Alexander, was the greatest church council of the Middle Ages, having been largely attended by a brilliant array of church leaders. It forthrightly declared the supremacy of such councils, even over the pope, thus depriving the papacy of its absolute power and making it a constitutional monarchy subject to regulation by church councils. In resolving the Great Schism the Council of Constance acted more cautiously. It deposed John XXIII and Benedict XIII, although the latter pathetically claimed to be the only legitimate pope until he died in 1424, despite abandonment by his supporters. The third pope, Gregory XII, resigned. Thus, the way was opened for the Council's election of Martin V (1417-1431) and the closing of the Great Schism.

C. Council of Basel (1431-1449). This council met in accordance with a decree of the Council of Constance, though the popes were not really pleased to have councils undercutting their authority. The Council of Basel was to address moral and administrative reforms but it ended up as something of a fiasco which hurt the cause of conciliary supremacy.

From the beginning the Council displayed a rebellious and vindictive spirit toward Eugene IV (1431-1447), but this pope seized an opportunity to regain much of the power the papacy had lost in the Great Schism. In hopes of obtaining political and military support against the Turks who were threatening his empire, the Byzantine Emperor, as well as Greek Church leaders, indicated a willingness to enter into negotiations toward a reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. When the Council of Basel insisted upon Avignon instead of an Italian city as a site for the negotiations, Eugene transferred the Council to Ferrara and a minority of the Council withdrew to that city. In Florence, where the Council had once more been moved, the Latin and Greek Churches, after agreeing to various compromises and concessions, achieved reunion (which was not long thereafter rejected by other Greek Church leaders). The majority continued to meet in Basel but had lost its influence. A pope chosen by it eventually resigned, and the Council of Basel could only save face by confirming as pope, Nicholas V (1447-1455), Eugene's successor. Supremacy was practically returned to the papacy.

II. The Renaissance Papacy

A. The Renaissance. This threshold to the modern era, beginning in the Fourteenth Century and lasting about two hundred years, is popularly thought of as a cultural or artistic revival. However, it was also a philosophical change. It brought an essentially new outlook on the world - a humanistic outlook. Emphasis was placed upon the pleasures and satisfaction of this life, as opposed to the next. There was a breaking away from the view of man as an object of salvation or damnation. Man's status in relation to earthly life became increasingly important. Man was the measure of all things. The spirit of classical antiquity and paganism were revived, and society moved toward greater secularization.

B. Worldly popes. This transformation of society deeply affected the papacy. During the last half of the Fifteenth Century it plunged into its darkest period since the Tenth Century. Popes were politically ambitious and, it seems sought for nothing more than the advancement of themselves and their relatives. Some were grossly immoral, flagrantly maintaining mistresses and displaying their illegitimate children. The papacy was procured by bribery. The papal court could rival that of any temporal ruler in its extravagance and luxury. In order to maintain such a court the popes taxed heavily and even sold ecclesiastical offices. One pope, Julius II (1503-1513), is especially remembered for warmongering. He rode to battle in armor. Sixtus IV (1471-1484), after whom the Sistine Chapel is named, is remembered for making indulgences for souls in purgatory an article of faith.

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) What is the conciliary theory? Is it Scriptural (cp. Acts 15)?

(2) What was wrong with the methods and motives with which popes were elected and deposed (cp. Lk. 6:12,13; Acts 1:15-26)?

(3) What was wrong with the philosophy of the Renaissance?

(4) What were some wrongdoings of the Renaissance popes?

(5) What was wrong with the methods and motives with which the Greek and Latin Churches were reunited?

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