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The Church, the Councils, and Reform

the legacy of the fifteenth century

Gerald Christianson

Publication Year: 2011

The Church, the Councils, and Reform brings together leading authorities in the field of church history to reflect on the importance of the late medieval councils. This is the first book in English to consider the lasting significance of the period from Constance to Trent (1414-1563) when several councils met to heal the Great Schism (1378) and reform the church.

Published by: The Catholic University of America Press

Title page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

One could say that this book is a Festschrift, but not for a person. Rather, it is a celebration of a book—a special book on a special occasion, the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking and highly influential Foundations of the Conciliar Theory by Brian Tierney (1955). Thus, while the topic of our volume has exceptional relevance to...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction / The Conciliar Tradition and Ecumenical Dialogue

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pp. 1-24

A recent and intriguing proposal for the advance of ecumenical relations in the twenty-first century suggests that worldwide communions should embark on a comparative study of their ways of decision making. In church history, the term reception is usually applied to acceptance by the faithful of dogmatic or disciplinary decisions of church...

Part I. Historical Perspectives

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pp. 25-26

Until the Second Vatican Council met in 1962, the councils of the fifteenth century, First Pisa (1409), Constance (1414–18), and Basel-Ferrara-Florence (1431–49), seemed like historical footnotes. The convocation of Second Vatican, with its efforts at aggiornamento (updating) and its emphasis on collegiality among bishops, made the claims to synodal power put...

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1. Councils of the Catholic Reformation: A Historical Survey

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pp. 27-59

The general councils of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have attracted the attention of scholars interested in questions of ultimate authority and the cause of reform in the church. Those concerned with limiting papal power (e.g., conciliarists, episcopalists, Gallicans, Febronianists, and Protestants) have found support for their ideas in the...

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2. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini and the Histories of the Council of Basel

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pp. 60-81

"It is a misfortune of mine and a fate by which I am plagued that I cannot steal away from history and use my time more profitably.”1 Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini puts forward this resigned and rhetorical lament in the preface to the Two Books on the Proceedings of the Council of Basel (De gestis concilii Basiliensis commentariorum libri II, 1439–40), one...

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3. The Conciliar Heritage and the Politics of Oblivion

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pp. 82-97

Murmur; risus; dissensus; Non! Non! Minime!; Hora tarda est!; Haereticus est ..... taceat ..... nolumus audire amplius! et cetera, et cetera. In other words (loosely rendered): sounds of grumbling; rumblings of discontent and disagreement among the serried ranks of bishops seated in the great hall and trying, within the limits imposed by the dismal...

Part II. Sources

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pp. 99-100

The writers of the conciliar age presupposed that the church was a divinely founded institution rooted in scripture and tradition. The polemics of the age employed arguments from reason (frequently buttressed with references to texts) and arguments from authority (often expressed in syllogisms). Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris and the...

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4. God’s Divine Law: The Scriptural Founts of Conciliar Theory in Jean Gerson

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pp. 101-121

One of the issues central to understanding the conciliarist heritage is the question of origins and sources: where, exactly, did the conciliar theory come from? In what could perhaps be called the “traditional view,” the answer was clear. Conciliarism was a heresy that, like all heresies, sprang from a depraved will and a corruption of the central tenets of the Christian faith—in this case, that central tenet was absolute papal monarchy, which...

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5. Three Ways to Read the Constance Decree Haec sancta (1415): Francis Zabarella, Jean Gerson, and the Traditional Papal View of General Councils

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pp. 122-139

The conciliar epoch produced a multitude of important and innovative texts that, ever since the end of the Middle Ages, have been the subject of intense and often intellectually compelling discussion. One of these often-discussed texts is a decree of the fifth session of the Council of Constance (April 6, 1415), namely, the decree Haec sancta. The first two...

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6. The Councils and the Holy Spirit: Liturgical Perspectives

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pp. 140-154

An anonymous bishop asserted some time ago that a council is “a celebration of believers who put themselves into an attitude of faith, attempting to be open to God’s Spirit.”1 Can one find a more appropriate setting in which to be open to the Spirit than a community assembled in prayer? The whole tradition demonstrates that a council’s progress...

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7. From Conciliar Unity to Mystical Union: The Relationship between Nicholas of Cusa’s Catholic Concordance and On Learned Ignorance

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pp. 155-173

Delineating the relationship between the two major early works of Nicholas of Cusa, the Catholic Concordance (De concordantia catholica, 1433; hereafter DCC)1 and On Learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia, 1439; hereafter DDI),2 is crucial in the writing of the cardinal’s early biography. Joachim Stieber has taken pains to demonstrate the less than altruistic reasons for Cusanus’s change of political alliance in 1437.3...

Part III. Challenges

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pp. 175-176

The conciliar movement inspired a strong response. The Great Schism (1378–1417) had put the papacy and its apologists on the defensive. Even at the Council of Constance little was said on behalf of papal primacy, except to defend Rome’s place in the larger scheme of things against the Lollards and the Hussites. The Council of Basel, however, inspired...

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8. Pope Eugenius IV, the Conciliar Movement, and the Primacy of Rome

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pp. 177-193

John B. Toews, a young historian at the time of his writing on Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431–47) and the Concordat of Vienna (1448), noted in his able study: “In his struggle with the Council of Basel he [Eugenius IV] had achieved a precise insight into the suicidal nature of conciliarism and its ineptitude for definitive action. . . . For Eugenius a Church without papal primacy was inconceivable.”2 ...

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9. Angelo da Vallombrosa and the Pisan Schism

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pp. 194-211

The Council of Pisa and Milan (1511–12)—small in membership and devoid of significant results—has had what may seem disproportionate scholarly attention. For many at the time it was a mere conciliabulum; for the subject of this essay, it was, still more contemptuously, a conventiculum. Yet eighty years ago Augustin Renaudet published...

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10. A Conciliarist’s Opposition to a Popular Marian Devotion

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pp. 212-225

Few ideas are as closely associated with the fourteenth-century English Franciscan William of Ockham (d. 1347) as the notion that “the faith did not remain solely with the Virgin” (Non in sola Virgine tunc remansit fides) or that the true church could subsist in a single person.1 This view, sometimes referred to as “remnant ecclesiology”2 and occasionally seen...

Part IV. Applications

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pp. 227-228

Conciliar activity did not occur in a vacuum. Local synods met, and cathedral chapters transacted business as corporate bodies. Several kingdoms held assemblies of notables or their representatives. One need only think of the French Estates-General and the English Parliament. The empire was a complex environment, with the election of the...

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11. The Electoral Systems of Nicholas of Cusa in the Catholic Concordance and Beyond

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pp. 229-249

Electoral systems form a recurrent theme throughout the writings of Nicholas of Cusa. They are admittedly just a side theme within his broad scope of interests, yet they appear in his first major work, the Catholic Concordance (De concordantia catholica), as well as in later publications written when he was traveling in Germany as a papal legate in 1451–52...

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12. Conciliarism at the Local Level: Florence’s Clerical Corporation in the Early Fifteenth Century

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pp. 250-270

Early-fifteenth-century Florence was brimming with creative energy. The innovations of artists like Masaccio, Donatello, Ghiberti, and the architect Brunelleschi, whose cupola crowned the Florentine cathedral, put the city and its churches at the forefront of the early Italian Renaissance. After Florence’s victory over its rival, despotic Milan, in 1402...

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13. The Conciliar Church

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pp. 271-290

The sharp tension between the Council of Basel and Eugenius IV, the legitimate successor of Martin V, imposed a marked check on the reception of the decisions of the Council of Constance. It is quite true that these were the banner of the new council, or at least of its majority; but, in the meantime, a crystallization of a difference that threatened to...

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14. Councils and Reform: Challenging Misconceptions

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pp. 291-312

This excerpt has it all: a somewhat simplistic description of Trent, but one with an element of important truth; an overly enthusiastic assessment of the ecumenical steps, but an understanding of the long road to unity still ahead; a recognition of what can and cannot be changed in Roman Catholicism (and that there is indeed a difference); and a sense of history. ...

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Afterword / Reflections on a Half Century of Conciliar Studies

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pp. 313-327

The introduction to this rich collection of essays includes a generous appraisal of my old work Foundations of the Conciliar Theory.1 The editors suggested that, to provide a sort of coda or epilogue, I might explain how I came to write the book fifty years ago and reflect a little on the later development of conciliar scholarship. So I will first describe...


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pp. 329-332


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pp. 333-336

E-ISBN-13: 9780813218441
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813215273

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2011