Rebellious philosophers, almost a century before, had laid the foundations of the “conciliar movement.” William of Occam protested against identifying the Church with the clergy; the Church, he said, is the congregation of all the faithful; that whole has authority superior to any part; it may delegate its authority to a general council, which should have the power to elect, reprove, punish, or depose the pope.8 A general council, said Marsilius of Padua, is the gathered intelligence of Christendom; how shall any one man dare set up his own intelligence above it? Such a council should be composed not only of clergy but also of laymen elected by the people; and its deliberations should be free from domination by the pope.9 Heinrich von Langenstein, a German theologian at the University of Paris, in a tract Concilium pacis (1381), applied these ideas to the Papal Schism. Whatever logic there might be (said Heinrich) in the arguments of the popes for their supreme, God-derived authority, a crisis had arisen from which logic offered no escape; only a power outside the popes, and superior to the cardinals, could rescue the Church from the chaos that was crippling her; and that authority could only be a general council. Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, in a sermon preached at Tarascon before Benedict XIII himself, reasoned that since the exclusive power of the pope to call a general council had failed to end the Schism, that rule must be abrogated for the emergency, and a general council must be otherwise summoned, and must assume the authority to end the crisis.10
The Council of Pisa met as scheduled. In the majestic cathedral gathered twenty-six cardinals, four patriarchs, twelve archbishops, eighty bishops, eighty-seven abbots, the generals of all the great monastic orders, delegates from all major universities, three hundred doctors of canon law, ambassadors from all the governments of Europe except those of Hungary, Naples, Spain, Scandinavia, and Scotland. The Council declared itself canonical (valid in Church law) and ecumenical (representing the whole Christian world)—a claim which ignored the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church. It summoned Benedict and Gregory to appear before it; neither appearing, it declared them deposed, and named the Cardinal of Milan as Pope Alexander V (1409). It instructed the new Pope to call another general council before May, 1412, and adjourned.
It had hoped to end the Schism, but as both Benedict and Gregory refused to recognize its authority, the result was that there were now three popes instead of two. Alexander V did not help matters by dying (1410); his cardinals chose as his successor John XXIII, the most unmanageable man to occupy the papal throne since his predecessor of that name. Baldassare Cossa had been made papal vicar of Bologna by Boniface IX; he had governed the city like a condottiere, with absolute and unscrupulous power; he had taxed everything, including prostitution, gambling, and usury; according to his secretary, he had seduced two hundred virgins, matrons, widows, and nuns.11 But he was a man of precious ability in politics and war; he had accumulated great wealth, and commanded a force of troops personally loyal to him; perhaps he could conquer the Papal States from Gregory, and reduce Gregory to impecunious submission.
John XXIII delayed as long as he could to call the council decreed at Pisa. But in 1411 Sigismund became King of the Romans, and the uncrowned but generally acknowledged head of the Holy Roman Empire. He compelled John to call a council, and chose Constance for its seat as free from Italian intimidation and open to Imperial influence. Taking the initiative from the Church like another Constantine, Sigismund invited all prelates, princes, lords, and doctors in Christendom to attend. Everybody in Europe responded except the three popes and their retinues. So many dignitaries came, at their own dignified leisure, that half a year was spent in assembling them. When, finally, John XXIII consented to open the Council on November 5, 1414, only a fraction had arrived of the three patriarchs, twenty-nine cardinals, thirty-three archbishops, one hundred and fifty bishops, one hundred abbots, three hundred doctors of theology, fourteen university deputies, twenty-six princes, one hundred and forty nobles, and four thousand priests who were to make the completed Council the largest in Christian history, and the most important since the Council of Nicaea (325) had established the creed of the Church. Where normally Constance had sheltered some six thousand inhabitants, it now successfully housed and fed not only some five thousand delegates to the Council, but, to attend to their wants, a host of servants, secretaries, pedlars, physicians, quacks, minstrels, and fifteen hundred prostitutes.12
The Council had hardly formulated its procedure when it was faced with the dramatic desertion of the Pope who had convened it. John XXIII was shocked to learn that his enemies were preparing to present to the assembly a record of his life, crimes, and incontinence. A committee advised him that this ignominy could be averted if he would agree to join Gregory and Benedict in a simultaneous abdication.13 He agreed; but suddenly he fled from Constance disguised as a groom (March 20, 1415), and found refuge in a castle at Schaffhausen with Frederick, Archduke of Austria and foe to Sigismund. On March 29 he announced that all the promises made by him in Constance had been drawn from him through fear of violence, and could have no binding force. On April 6 the Council issued a decree—Sacrosancta—which one historian has called “the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world”:14
This holy synod of Constance, being a general council, and legally assembled in the Holy Spirit for the praise of God and for ending the present Schism, and for the union and reform of the Church of God in its head and its members… ordains, declares, and decrees as follows: First, it declares that this synod… represents the Church Militant, and has its authority directly from Christ; and everybody, of whatever rank or dignity, including also the pope, is bound to obey this council in those things that pertain to the faith, to the ending of this Schism, and to a general reform of the Church in its head and members. Likewise it declares that if anyone, of whatever rank, condition, or dignity, including also the pope, shall refuse to obey the commands, statutes, ordinances, or orders of this holy council, or of any other holy council properly assembled, in regard to the ending of the Schism or to the reform of the Church, he shall be subject to proper punishment… and, if necessary, recourse shall be had to other aids of justice.15
Many cardinals protested against this decree, fearing that it would end the power of the college of cardinals to elect the pope; the Council overrode their opposition, and thereafter they played but a minor role in its activities.
The Council now sent a committee to John XXIII to ask for his abdication. Receiving no definite answer, it accepted (May 25) the presentation of fifty-four charges against him as a pagan, an oppressor, a liar, a simoniac, a traitor, a lecher, and a thief;16 sixteen other accusations were suppressed as too severe.17 On May 29 the Council deposed John XXIII; and broken at last, he accepted the decree. Sigismund ordered him confined in the castle of Heidelberg for the duration of the Council. He was released in 1418, and found asylum and sustenance, as an old man, with Cosimo de’ Medici.
The Council celebrated its triumph with a parade through Constance. When it returned to business it found itself in a quandary. If it should choose another pope it would be restoring the threefold division of Christendom, for many districts still obeyed Benedict or Gregory. Gregory rescued the Council by an act at once subtle and magnanimous: he agreed to resign, but only on condition that he should be allowed to reconvene and legitimate the Council by his own papal authority. On July 4, 1415, the Council, so reconvened, accepted Gregory’s resignation, confirmed the validity of his appointments, and named him legate governor of Ancona, where he lived quietly the two remaining years of his life.
Benedict continued to resist, but his cardinals left him and made their peace with the Council. On July 26, 1417, the Council deposed him. He retired to his family stronghold near Valencia, and died there at ninety, still counting himself pope. In October the Council passed a decree—Frequens —requiring that another general council should be convened within five years. On November 17 an electoral committee of the Council chose Cardinal Oddone Colonna as Pope Martin V. All Christendom accepted him, and after thirty-nine years of chaos the Great Schism came to an end.
The Council had now accomplished its first purpose. But its victory on this point defeated its other purpose—to reform the Church. When Marrtin V found himself pope he assumed all the powers and prerogatives of the papacy. He displaced Sigismund as president of the Council, and with courteous and subtle address negotiated with each national group in the Council a separate treaty of ecclesiastical reform. By playing off each group against the others he persuaded each to accept a minimum of reform, couched in carefully obscure language which each party might interpret to save its emoluments and its face. The Council yielded to him because it was tired. It had labored for three years, it longed for home, and felt that a later synod could take up in sharper detail the problem of reform. On April 22, 1418, it declared itself dissolved.