The post-Vatican II era has created a serious problem for Roman Catholics.  And that problem is precisely how to reconcile the claims of the church with the facts of history – and sometimes with the facts of its own history!   It is not that this is a new problem but rather that the world and how the church relates to the world has so changed as to now lay bear the glaring contradicitons that previoiusly had been covered over by structures of authority[i] which Vatican II has made more transparent.   Perhaps the most obvioius examples are the claims made by Vatican I regarding the papacy and its foundation, continuity and extent.  As it turns out none of those claims is supportable in history and modern Roman Catholic scholars are now free to plumb the depths of these errors however much they are enshrined as “de fide” pronouncements.

But what is new in all this is not the errors but the fact that they can be discussed openly.  We know from history that John Calvin himself cajoled the Roman Church for its false claims and showed in his famous letter to King Francis I that all ordinations after the Council of Basel were fraudulent.[ii]   Calvin showed how political machinations and not “apostolic succession” had made necessary the removal of some popes and the appointment of others with little regard for ecclesiastical involvement.   And that those depositions and appointments had broken whatever alleged continuity Rome claimed theretofore from the Apostles.  And yet centuries later Vatican I was able, with full force of papal authority, to claim that all popes are “successors” of Peter that it “has always been necessary for every church…to be in agreement with the Roman church….”[iii]

And so it was with great interest that I found a collection of essays by legitimate church historians dealing with exactly these matters and it is their title that I have borrowed for this post[iv].  The first essay written by the eminent scholar, Francis Oakley[v], focuses on how the Council of Constance is a roadblock to modern Roman Catholic claims to authority.

Oakley begins with a fascinating expose of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s famous, Essay on the Development of Doctrine. In what seems a tangential departure from the period of Constance, Dr. Oakley shows how Newman misunderstood “development” in the context of Catholic history.  According to medieval scholastics (Oakley names Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus) Catholic doctrines were “immutable”, never changing.  So when something appeared to be different than what the church had proclaimed to be “de fide”[vi] these scholars insisted that whatever the variation it was either “implicit” in the original teaching or could be explicated therefrom.  The point is that the teaching itself was considered eternal and unalterable – it did not develop as Newman would have it.   This was the view of the Roman church from medieval times through the period Oakley refers to as the “second scholasticism” when” Spanish theologians in the 17th century”…had been at pains to make clear that, in so doing, it (the church) was not attempting to supplement revelation that was, in fact, immutable.”  Oakley uses this to lay the foundation for what will follow:

When he (Newman) wrote that work, he appears to have known nothing about the older scholastic views on doctrinal development.[vii]



The Politics of Oblivion

 The ignorance of history displayed by Newman and decried by many of his critics unfortunately continues to this day.  I have written how the Archbishop of Philadelphia mischaracterizes his church’s history here and here in our time.   And Oakley cites the work of the distinguished Catholic theologian John Noonan who has documented “the convoluted process whereby a pattern of behavior once denounced (by Rome) as contrary to nature has modulated across time into the routinely acceptable….”[viii]    All of this is to say that there has been an odd combination of historical forgetfulness in the Church of Rome.

So how does this happen?

…it may largely be due to the empire that the present continues to exert over the past in so much of Catholic institutional thinking.  And it certainly reflects the measure of genial institutional forgetfulness that seems to attend inevitably upon that state of affairs.  Under certain circumstances, moreover, casual forgetfulness has betrayed a disagreeable tendency to mutate into a proactive politics of oblivion reflective of the Orwellian conclusion that if he who controls the past controls the future, then he who controls the present would be well advised to control the past.[ix]

It is precisely that “politics of oblivion” that makes the study of Constance so fascinating.


The Problem of Constance

 The instance of radical doctrinal discontinuity in question is the great gulf that yawns between the position the general councils of Constance (1414–1418) and Basel (1431–1449) affirmed concerning the ultimate locus of authority in the universal church and that staked out in 1870 by Vatican I.[x]

The seeds of Constance were planted more than a hundred years previously in the conflict between Boniface VIII and Philip IV, King of France.  And those seeds were watered and fertilized by the conflict between Boniface and the Colonna family in Italy.  The facts are too numerous to recount here but this conflict ended in favor of Philip and Boniface’s successors were much more amenable to the king’s wishes resulting in Clement V’s acquiescence to the King and the moving of the curia to Avignon (1309).

After a nearly seven decade hiatus at Avignon, the papacy returned to Rome haltingly in 1370 and then totally in 1378 with the election of Urban VI.  Shortly thereafter a group of French cardinals splintered from the Roman group, “disgusted by the pope’s insulting behaviour” and elected Clement VII who is known to history as the first “anti-pope”.  This is the action that set up the “Great Schism” of the church which saw competing claims to the papacy until Constance.

The intransigence of the two popes (Benedict XII and Gregory XII) coupled with a growing tension for the schism to be healed caused several of Benedict’s cardinals to defect to Gregory’s side where they called for a general council at Pisa in March 1409.  Both popes were invited to attend but refused and were summarily deposed by that Council.  The cardinals at Pisa facing a world now with no pope, elected Alexander V as their new pontiff.   And surprise of surprises, neither Benedict nor Gregory acquiesced in the Council’s decision.  Hence, the world now had three claimants to the See of St. Peter.

Alexander’s pontificate lasted less than a year until his death in May 1410.  The Pisan cardinals took less than a week to elect his successor, John XXIII, another “anti-pope”.  It was John who, under secular political pressure called the Council of Constance.

The great legacy of Constance is its decree Haec sancta, which declared that a general council of the church is the highest authority to which everyone, including the pope, is subject.  The Council thereby exercised that authority by deposing Popes John XXIII and Benedict XIII, negotiating and accepting the resignation of Gregory XII and appointing as replacement Martin V.


An Analysis

 Constance (along with Pisa and Basel) cause severe problems for Catholic historians.  Chief among these is the question of utlimate authority in the Church of Rome.  Is the council supreme ala Constance or is the pope as per Vatican I?  If the former is true then can it be said that Vatican I erred in its decrees?  And if Constance is not legitimate, then what to do with its annointing of Martin V as pope, a man who is the direct ancestor for every consecrated priest today?

Oakley traces the ultramontane reaction to Constance:

“…the Council of Constance, not having been convoked by a legitimate pope, cannot be regarded as a legitimate general council prior to its convocation by Gregory XII, just before his resignation on July 4, 1415.”[xi]

The difficulty here is that the council fathers did accord John XXIII the status of pope.  They did, after all, assemble in council at his decree.  And they forcibly brought him back to the council after his escape to prevent just that claim of illegitimacy from being made against them.

The discomfort that Rome feels about the history of Constance can also be seen in how they have selectively edited documents since then.

Thus, early in the (twentieth) century, even so learned a work as the Dictionnaire de thee’logie catholique took the extraordinary step of simply excising the Councils of Pisa, Constance, and Basel from tis list of general councils.  That list, therefore, simply jumped from the Council of Vienne in 1311–1312 to the Council of Florence in 1439–1445. A remarkably bold exercise in the politics of oblivion![xii]

Oakley continues,

In a similar but Anglophone exercise conducted around the same time, the editors of the Catholic Encyclopedia, a pretty scholarly piece of work, by simply opting to include no article on the subject, made it clear that conciliar theory was to be viewed as a dead issue, an ecclesiological fossil, something lodged deep, in the lower Carboniferous of the dogmatic theology.[xiii]

The author then goes on to note that the tradition of Rome’s historians was to label the Avignonese popes, “anti-popes” while Alexander V and John XXIII– the “Pisan” popes – were “handled in a more gingerly fashion and left in limbo.”  But Oakley notes how that mysteriously changed in 1947 when the prefect of the Vatican archives published a new list of popes wherein the “Pisan” line were now listed as anti-popes.  The reason for the change was not given but is another clear example of how the “politics of oblivion” works in Catholic history.

As you might have anticipated the situation was further aggravated when Angelo Rancalli chose the name “John” for his episcopacy in 1958.  Interestingly Rancalli refused to endorse the 1947 position when he noted that he was claiming his name “extra legitimitatis discussiones”.  Oakley explains that Rancalli thereby signaled that he was setting himself apart from “disputes about legitimacy” regarding the prior use of his chosen name.  And in another exceptional example of the “politics of oblivion” that phrase was removed from any “official version” of the papl record and the pope’s handlers took the matter so far as to say what he really meant was “to deny the legitimacy of the Pisan line.”  Oakley draws a circle around the issue thusly:

Thus, in some cases, the Council of Pisa is either passed over in silence or rejected outright; in others, the question of its ecumenicity is portrayed as having yet to be decided.  In most cases, the Avignonese claimants are treated consistently as antipopes, but in some, the matter of their legitimacy is left in limbo.   Similarly, the Pisan pontiffs are listed as legitimate popes or dismissed as antipopes sometimes even in articles appearing in the same encyclopedia. The most striking instance of disarray is in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (first ed., 1967), where Mollat insists that “the question of the legitimacy of [John XXIII’s]… claim to the Papal See is still unanswered” but does so, ironically, in an article titled (editorially?) “John XXIII, Antipope.”[xiv]


Three Issues

 Professor Oakley then gives us a brief overview of the extensive literature that has developed since Vatican I.  And in the interest of brevity focuses our attention on the three issues he deems most serious.

  1. The Great Schism itself.  Current scholarship tends to side with the French cardinals who instigated the schism in 1378 by electing Clement VII.  Ultramontane sentiments had heretofore been likely to favor the prior electon of Urban VI of the Roman line but new evidence shows that Urban was not of stable mind or temperament and was inclined to “torture dissident cardinals, despite their dignity and advanced years.”  Therefore, the cardinals acted justly in preserving the structure of the church as well as themselves.

The historical evidence, certainly, does not permit one simply to insist on the exclusive legitimacy of Urban’s title to the papacy (and, therefore, the legitimacy of his successors in the Roman line). If that claim is now enshrined in the current official listing of popes, it should be recognized that it has been advanced quite explicitly on theological or canonistic rather than historical grounds.[xv]


  1. The papalist claim that the Council of Constance “became a legitimately assembled council only after the Roman claimant, Gregory XII, as part of the deal involved in his resignation in July 1415, was permitted by the council to convoke it also falls by the wayside.”   Professor Oakley notes two things here: first, the council’s overriding concern was unity and not succession and secondly, during the previous year the Council had received ambassadors from both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII as “papal delegates” conferring a status on them reflective of the council’s estimation of who they were representing.  The final point in regard to the papalist claim here described is that all of the Fathers at Constance had accepted the decision of the Council of Pisa which deposed both the Roman and French popes.
  2. The third issue is “conciiliar theory itself”.  The papalist claims have been that conciliarism was an accident in history that sprung up quickly and receded in a similar manner.  I find it interesting that no less an historically vibrant character as Torquemada advanced just such a theory!  (Anyone want to side with the Inquisition?)  But Dr. Oakley cites the work of Brian Tierney as having documented the bona fides of conciliarism back to the early church.  It turns out that conciliarism has “deep (and impeccably orthodox) roots in history.”

Professor Oakley’s conclusion is that after centuries of censorship and avoidance the time has come for the Roman Church to own it’s history:

…what is not in doubt is the urgent need for contemporary Catholic theologians to accept the fact that doctrinal rupture or radically discontinuous change has in the past been an unquestionable reality in the life of the church and that condeded, to undertake the bracing challenge of coming to terms with that intractable fact.[xvi]

I will end here with a quote used by Dr. Oakley near the beginning of his wonderful essay.  It succinctly captures the dilemna posed by the councils of Pisa, Constance, Basel and Vatican I.

The past isn’t what it used to be.  – Yogi Berra


[i] Dr. Garry Wills prefers the term “Stuctures of Deceit” which may be nearer the truth.  See Wills, Garry: Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.  New York, Doubleday Books, 2000.

[ii] See Calvin’s “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Might and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French, His Sovereign” which were included as introductory to the Institututes of the Christian Religion. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.ii.viii.html

[iii] First Dogmatic Constitution of the Church(Decrees of Vatican I).  Session IV, Chapter 2.  July 18, 1870.  http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum20.htm#Chapter 1 On the institution of the apostolic primacy in blessed Peter

[iv] Lacey, Michael J. and Francis Oakley.  The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. New York, Oxford University Press; 2011

[v] Oakley Francis. “History and the Return of the Repressed in Catholic Modernity: The Dilemma Posed by Constance” in Lacey and Oakley op. cit., pages 29-58.

[vi] De fide or “of the faith” represents a level of commitment that Roman Catholics must make to teachings so described.  To question or modify a “de fide” doctrine is to place oneself outside of the Catholic faith.

[vii]  Oakley, op. cit., kindle location 621

[viii] Noonan, John T. A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. (Notre Dame; University of Notre Dame Press, 2005; as quoted in Lacey and Oakley op. cit.  Noonan is undoubtedly referring to the matter of “natural” family planning which is now acceptable but historically had been prohibited in the Roman communion.

[ix] Oakley, op. cit. kindle location 677.

[x] Oakley, op. cit. kindle location 689.

[xi] Oakley, op. cit. kindle location 765.

[xii] Oakley, kindle location 788.

[xiii] Oakley, kindle location 789.

[xiv] Oakley, kindle location 819

[xv] Oakley, kindle location 855

[xvi] Oakley, kindle location 1041