Temporal over Spiritual Power in the Medieval Church? Part III: Dissent and the Call for Reform

The Great Papal Schism ultimately had devastating ramifications for both the papacy and the Catholic Church as a whole. Dissent was on the rise, as discontent with the actions and behaviour of the papacy, and the harm that it had inflicted upon the institution of the Church, began to cause wider problems. As the conflict within the papacy raged, theologians who opposed this state of affairs made themselves known, putting forward their own interpretations of the scripture, many of which laid the foundations for what would later be termed Protestantism. Men such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus argued against the extravagancies of the Church, whereas wider movements such as conciliarism sought to challenge the supremacy of the papacy over all other ecclesiastical bodies, and bring about a more democratic era for the Church. Despite its internal strife, the Church was determined to brook no challenge to the authority of the Pope, and sought to quash all hints of dissent, though its efficacy in this gave the lie to its apparent strength.

Painting of Jan Hus in the Council of Constance by Václav Brožík (1851-1901) © Wikipedia Commons https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/jan-hus-1369-1415-and-the-hussite-wars-1419-1436/

Initially gaining traction during the fourteenth century with the discontent arising from the Avignon Papacy, and later the papal schism, the movement known as conciliarism opposed the supremacy of the papacy, arguing that as the pope was not infallible, and that as the pope was chosen by a council, this council should hold power over him and be able to act if the pope was unfit for office. This stood in stark contrast to the policy of papal supremacy, which argued that as the inheritor of the mantle of the Bishop of Rome, as handed down by Saint Peter, the Pope’s decree was sacrosanct and could not be overruled by others. It cited many of the Church’s most important decisions having been made in council, such as the defining council at Nicaea in 325, and thus, there was precedent and logic behind such a move. Rising high in the early fifteenth century, conciliarism was buoyed by its success at the Council of Constance, which ended the papal schism, as this proved to them that the council of cardinals was capable of effecting change in the stead of the pope. However, the subsequent lack of reform from the papal curia convinced many of them that this that their efforts were not working, with the Council of Basel seeing a radicalisation within the movement that, although initially popular, swiftly caused it to fall from favour, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century, it was a dying movement, with its condemnation at the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512-1517 serving as its final death knell. Although the doctrine of papal infallibility would only be formally codified centuries later in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, this was merely the continuation and culmination of the centuries-long belief in papal supremacy that was already very much in effect even in this early period. Therefore, this demonstrates how this concern over the temporal power of the pope continued to occupy a place of concern in the Church’s mind long after this period.

One of the earlier figures in the wider movement for reform within the Catholic Church was Jan Hus, a Czech whose opposition to the Church in Bohemia led him to preach a creed that stood against many of the excesses of the priesthood, such as indulgences and simony. These ideas incorporated many of the criticisms previously propagated by Wycliffe in England.  Although Hus was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415, this only served to martyr him in the eyes of his followers, who continued to propagate his beliefs rapidly through the Czech population of Bohemia, despite attempts at suppression by Wenceslaus IV, the King of Bohemia at the time. Following the death of Wenceslaus in 1419, tensions escalated between the Hussites and the wider Catholic population as Wenceslaus’ brother and successor Sigismund decided to take decisive action. The Hussite Wars, as the conflict became known, raged for fifteen years from 1419 to 1434, and were not only a civil conflict, but also incorporated a series of five papal crusades that lasted from 1420-1431, each ending in defeat for the papal forces. Despite some setbacks for the Hussite forces, they consistently managed to retake lost ground, taking advantage of the disunity of the papal forces. However, in the end, the wars only reached a conclusion following a schism within the Hussites themselves that saw the radical Taborites purged by the moderate Ultraquists, who were then able to reach an accommodation with the Catholic Church. The fact that the papacy was forced to agree to terms with the moderate Hussites and permit them to practice their own rites in return for their submission, rather than continuing efforts to hunt them to extinction as had previously been done to heretical groups, emphasises the truth by this point that the Catholic Church had been weakened, and was no longer able to exert the same level of temporal power that it had previously been able to.

Dissent against the Catholic Church in the late medieval period largely revolved around the words of learned theologians, many of whom believed that the extravagant trappings that the priesthood had surrounded themselves with rendered them unfit to tend to the faithful, focussing on their own temporal power over spiritual concerns. Alongside this came the doubt cast on the pope’s capability as the leader of the Church after the actions of the cardinals in the Schism. The Church’s response to this, while heavy-handed in places, was more moderate than it would have been in preceding centuries – showing that its temporal power had been severely weakened by both internal and external conflicts. These concerns left an indelible mark on the Church that would eventually pave the way towards the Reformation, which challenged both the temporal and spiritual authority of the Church and led to a schism within Christianity itself on a scale that had not been seen since the split of Catholicism and Orthodoxy centuries prior. This shows that although the Church may have prized the temporal power that its spiritual authority afforded it, it was ironically this misguided priority and the neglect of its spiritual power that ultimately led to the diminishment of its temporal power.

Henry Miller, Summer Writer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s