Conciliarism, or the conciliar movement, was a reform movement in the 14th, 15th and 16th century Roman Catholic Church which held that final authority in spiritual matters resided with the Roman Church as a corporation of Christians, embodied by a general church council, not with the pope. The movement emerged in response to the Avignon papacy[citation needed]; the popes were removed from Rome and subjected to pressures from the kings of France— and the ensuing schism that inspired the summoning of the Council of Pisa (1409), the Council of Constance (1414–1418) and the Council of Basel (1431–1449). The eventual victor in the conflict was the institution of the Papacy, confirmed by the condemnation of conciliarism at the Fifth Lateran Council, 1512–17. The final gesture however, the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, was not promulgated until the First Vatican Council of 1870.



The 13th and 14th centuries were a period of new challenges to Papal authority in Catholic Europe. These new challenges were marked by disputes between the Papacy and the secular kings of Europe. In particular the quarrel between Philip the Fair of France and Pope Boniface VIII over the right to tax the clergy in France was especially heated. Philip was excommunicated and Boniface was accused of corruption, sorcery, and sodomy. In his "Unam Sanctam", Boniface asserted that the papacy held power over both the spiritual and temporal worlds and that only God could judge the pope. Philip responded by sending knights to Italy to arrest Boniface. He died just three weeks after his release because of the trauma of the experience and a high fever.

Conciliarist thought was largely sparked by the move of the Roman papacy to Avignon, France in 1305. Although the move had precedent, the Avignon Papacy's (1305–1377) image was damaged by accusations of corruption, favoritism toward the French, and even heresy. Indeed Pope Clement VI who was criticized for his apparent extravagant lifestyle asserted that his "predecessors did not know how to be Pope." During the span of the Avignon Papacy all the popes were French as with 80% of the cardinals and 70% of the lower officers. The reputation of the Avignon Papacy led many to question the absolute authority of the pope in governing the universal Catholic Church.

The Western Schism (1378–1417), was a dispute between the legal elections of Pope Urban VI in Rome and Pope Clement VII in Avignon. The schism became highly politicized as the kings of Europe chose to support whichever pope served their best interests. Both popes chose successors and thus the schism continued even after Urban and Clement's deaths. In this crisis, conciliarism took center stage as the best option for deciding which pope would step down. The cardinals decided to convene the Council of Pisa (1409) to decide who would be the one pope of the Catholic Church. The council was a failure and even led to the election of a third pope, antipope John XXIII. The Council of Constance (1414–1418) successfully solved the Schism by deposing both John XXIII and the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII. It also decreed to maintain the council as the primary church body from then on. The Council of Basel (1431–1449) attempted to solidify conciliarism in the Catholic Church, but failed to take a lasting effect on the Church.

The conciliar gains that were accepted at Constance and Basel were short lived. At the convening of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517), Pope Julius II reasserted the supremacy of papal authority over that of the councils. Populated by cardinals opposed to conciliarism, the Lateran Council condemned the authority of conciliary bodies. In fact, the council was an essential copy of the pre-Conciliar councils such as Lateran IV (1215), Lyon (1274), and Vienna (1311).

Conciliar theory

William of Ockham (d. 1349) wrote some of the earliest documents outlining the basic understanding of conciliarism. His goal in these writing was removal of Pope John XXII, who had revoked a decree favoring Franciscan ideas about Christ and the apostles owning nothing individually or in common. Some of his arguments include that the election by the faithful, or their representatives, confers the position of pope and further limits the papal authority. The universal church is a congregation of the faithful, not the Roman Church, which was promised to the Apostles by Jesus. While the universal Church cannot fall into heresy, it is known that the Pope has fallen into heresy in the past. Should the pope fall into heresy a council can be convened without his permission to judge him. William even stated that because it is a "universal" church, that the councils should include the participation of lay men and even women.

In his Defensor Pacis (1324), Marsilius of Padua agreed with William of Ockham that the universal Church is a church of the faithful, not the priests. Marsilius focused on the idea that the inequality of the priesthood has no divine basis and that Jesus, not the pope, is the only head of the Catholic Church. Contradicting the idea of Papal infallibility, Marsilius claimed that only the universal church is infallible, not the pope. Marsilius differed from Ockham in his denial to the clergy of coercive power. Later conciliar theorists like Jacques Almain rejected Marsilius argument to that effect, preferring more traditional clericalism modified to be more constitutional and democratic in emphasis.

Conciliar theory has its roots and foundations in both history and theology. The precedent had been set by such important councils as the First Council of Nicaea (325) that had incredible importance to the foundation of the Catholic Church. Indeed, many of the most important decisions of the Catholic Church have been made through conciliar means. The basis for conciliarism can be rooted in the Apostles that acted as the first council that decided on the future of the Christian Church. Conciliarism also drew on corporate theories of the church, which allowed the head to be restrained or judged by the members when his actions threatened the welfare of the whole ecclesial body. The canonists and theologians who advocated conciliar superiority drew on the same sources used by Marsilius and Ockham, but they used them in a more conservative way. They wanted to unify, defend and reform the institution under clerical control, not advance a Franciscan or a lay agenda. Among the theorists of this more clerical conciliarism were Jean Gerson, Pierre d'Ailly and Francesco Zabarella. Nicholas of Cusa synthesized this strain of conciliarism, balancing hierarchy with consent and representation of the faithful.

Opposition to conciliarism

Many members of the Church however, continued to believe that the pope, as the successor of Saint Peter, retained the sole governing authority in the Church. Juan de Torquemada defended papal supremacy in his Summa de ecclesia, completed ca. 1453. A generation later, Thomas Cajetan vigorously defended Papal authority in his "On the comparison of the authority of pope and council". He wrote that "Peter alone had the vicariate of Jesus Christ and only he received the power of jurisdiction immediately from Christ in an ordinary way, so that the others (the Apostles) were to receive it from him in the ordinary course of the law and were subject to him." and that "it must be demonstrated that Christ gave the plenitude of ecclesiastical power not to the community of the Church but to a single person in it." Both writers represent the many cardinals, canon lawyers and theologians who opposed the conciliar movement and supported the supremacy of Peter's successors. Conciliarism did not disappear in the face of these polemics. It survived to endorse the Council of Trent which launched the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 1540s and later appeared in the anti-curial polemics of Gallicanism, Josephinism and Febronianism.

Modern conciliarism

Although Conciliarist strains of thought remain within the Church, particularly in the United States, Rome and the teaching of the Roman Church maintains that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, and has the authority to issue infallible statements. This Papal Infallibility was invoked in Pope Pius IX's 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII's 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the College of Bishops contained within the decree Lumen Gentium has sometimes been interpreted as conciliarism, or a least conducive to it, by liberal and conservative Catholics alike. However, the text of the document as well as an explanatory note (Nota Praevia) by Paul VI makes the distinction clear. There are Christians, especially of the Anglo-Catholic, Old Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions, who maintain the absolute supremacy of an ecumenical council. See conciliarity. However, this belief, from the Orthodox view, has no historical connection with the above events in the history of the Western Church.

A new interest in conciliarism was awakened in Roman Catholic circles with the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. Writers like Hans Küng and Francis Christopher Oakley have argued that the decrees of the Council of Constance remain valid, limiting papal power. The label "Conciliar Church" is used by many traditionalist Catholics as a derogatory description of the Roman Church since the changes of the Second Vatican Council.


  • Burns, J.H. and Thomas M. Izbicki. Conciliarism and Papalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997
  • C. M. D. Crowder, Unity, Heresy, and Reform, 1378–1460: the Conciliar Response to the Great Schism, New York : St. Martin's Press, 1977.
  • Nicholas of Cusa. "The Catholic Concordance". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Oakley, Francis. "Conciliarism at the Fifth Lateran Council?". Church History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Dec., 1972)
  • Oakley, Francis. Council over Pope?. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.
  • Oakley, Francis. The Conciliarist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Tierney, Brian. Foundations of the Conciliar Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

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