Basel Council, Is Pope or Council Supreme?

Dan Graves, MSL

Basel Council, Is Pope or Council Supreme?

The Council of Constance, by making Martin V pope, ended the long-lasting Western papal schism. It claimed, with considerable justification, that a church council has authority over the pope. Martin, who attained his power through the action of the council, promptly repudiated its authority over him. The Council of Constance had called for further regular councils. Martin V went along with the idea and called a council which was held in Pavia and, in 1431, another to be held at Basel. When the Basel council met, it reaffirmed its authority over popes. Eugene IV suspended the Basel council in 1438, Martin having passed on.

The idea of conciliar authority over popes would not die a quiet death, however. European attempts to create parliaments to limit kings had their parallels in the church. There was a move to restrict the power of the popes by spreading some of it among cardinals and bishops. In a movement which grew into Gallicanism, France took the lead in limiting the Pope. Basel had issued 23 decrees. King Charles of France convened a meeting at Bourges to discuss these decrees and to try to avoid reopening a schism.

On this day, July 7, 1438 Charles VII and his advisors adopted many of the decrees of Basel. The statement they promulgated became known as the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. In addition to declaring that the pope was under conciliar authority, the Pragmatic Sanction demanded a reduction in the use of excommunication and interdiction, revised the celebration of the liturgy, called for further councils to be held at regular intervals, and reduced papal income and power. If the Pragmatic Sanction had stood, the French church would have become a national church much as the Church of England later did. Many priests approved the theory behind the Sanction.

Although superseded by the Concordat of Bologna in 1516, the Sanction was accepted by the French church for almost a century. Gallicanism, which sprang out of the Sanction was alive and well three centuries later and fostered the anticlericalism of the French Revolution. Many priests suffered in that turmoil, and the church was stripped of its powers.

Within the church a bitter struggle developed between those who would limit the pope and those who felt he should remain an absolute monarch. Those who supported the pope became known as Ultramontanists (meaning"beyond the mountains," and referring to the pope's residence south of the Alps). The battle was waged until 1870, when the first Vatican Council declared that the pope was infallible when speaking ex cathedra (from the throne) on matters of faith and morals.

Bibliography:

  1. Brusher, J. Popes Through the Ages. Princeton, New Jersey: Van Nostrand, 1964.
  2. Degert, A. "Gallicanism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  3. Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. Editor Tim Dowley. Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Lion Publishing, 1977.
  4. Montor, Chevalier Artaud de. Lives and Times of the Popes. New York: Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911.
  5. Oxford encyclopedia of the Reformation. Editor in chief Hans J. Hillerbrand. New York : Oxford University Press, 1996.
  6. "Pragmatic Sanction." Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1967.

Last updated April, 2007.

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