- Constance, Council of
- (1414-1418)General council of the Roman Catholic Church, assembled in order to end the Western Schism that had divided Latin Christendom since 1378. The disputed papal election of 1378 had produced two rival popes whose successors competed for the loyalty of a divided Christendom. Many attempts had been made to settle the division by negotiation or compromise, but all had failed. A growing number of leading clerics and rulers eventually concluded that only a general council representing the whole church would have the authority needed to depose the rival popes and restore unity.Since there was no generally recognized pope to summon a council, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, the highest-ranking secular ruler in Christendom, brought the council together, with the reluctant cooperation of a third pope, John XXIII, who traced his title to the abortive Council of Pisa. Sigismund's council was dominated by university-trained doctors of theology and canon law, who attended in great numbers and established their right to vote. Most of these academic intellectuals supported the theory of Conciliarism. This group intended to depose all three rival popes and reunify the church, but they also had additional goals. They intended to enact legislation mandating a sweeping reform of church abuses. The more radical of them were determined to use the council to make the teachings of Conciliarism a permanent part of the church's constitution.In 1415 the council enacted the decree Haec sancta (sometimes called Sacrosancta), which declared that a general council received its authority directly from Christ and that "all men, of every rank and condition, including the pope himself, are bound to obey it." In 1417, realizing that future popes would resist calling such a powerful institutional rival into session, the council enacted a second decree, Frequens, that required future popes to summon a general council at least every 10 years. The council also was eager to suppress the new Hussite heresy in Bohemia, and its first major achievement was to arrest and execute the Bohemian reformer John Huss. The council succeeded in deposing Pope John XXIII when he attempted to dissolve it. Legislation to enact significant reform of the church proved far more difficult to enact, for each interest group present wanted reform to begin at the expense of somebody else. The struggle over reform was so sharp that in 1417, fearing that the council might split apart before it had ended the Schism, the members accepted the voluntary abdication of the Roman pope and acted to depose the Avignonese pope; then it elected a new pope, Martin V, who gained general acceptance. This election meant that the Schism was finally at an end.The council's successes consisted of its execution of Huss, the removal of all three rival popes and the election of a new one, and the two constitutional decrees Haec sancta and Frequens. The success of the decrees was illusory since Martin V, despite his pledge to uphold Haec sancta, never truly accepted it as valid. Although he and his successor did summon additional councils as required by Frequens, they did so with great reluctance. Once the crisis of the Schism was past, most moderate Catholics abandoned any serious commitment to conciliar ideas. The only unqualified success of the council was the end of the Schism. As for the issue of church reform, the council had been unable to agree on a workable program, and the new pope informed the council that he would take charge of reform, a promise that he did little or nothing to fulfill after the council adjourned.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.