Was there any Catholic figure who might have led a much-needed reform prior to the emergence of Martin Luther in 1517? One would be hard-pressed to find a prominent figure who worked more effectively to change the trajectory of the late medieval Church than the French priest Jean Gerson (1363-1439). It is little wonder that Brian McGuire titled his 2005 biography Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation. I reviewed this work for Amazon in 2008—I am the only reviewer, sadly—and in rereading McGuire’s introduction I realized how much I missed on the first pass. McGuire speaks of Gerson’s era as the cusp between the medieval and modern era, and with a touch of melancholy speaks of Gerson’s time where the reader can catch a glimpse of “a world that might have been, had the reform program of men like Gerson been given the chance it deserved.”
Gerson is cited in any standard historical text for his leadership in solving the Rubik’s Cube of Church division, the Great Schism (1378-1417), which by 1405 saw three different men claiming to be legitimate popes. The man himself, though, is a thought-provoking study of the clash of cultures taking place in the emergence of a new world order. Gerson is the personification of the medieval Church; he did not feel a need to join a religious order, a monastery, or a new movement of spirituality because he felt at home in the womb of the Church itself, as McGuire puts it. On the other hand, he arrived at and defended concepts of reform that would have rocked Pope Innocent III of a century earlier: a powerful conciliar [bishops’] participation in papal governance, a reform of the Church starting with the bishops themselves; the role of civil order and just princes in the reform and stability of the local Church; the legitimacy of popular mysticism (to a point).
To understand Gerson’s influence, it is necessary to grasp the importance of the European universities, all of them Catholic institutions which had produced several saints in the medieval era, including Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. It is not a stretch to say that universities served as the Church’s magisterium or teaching arm, a role that in later times has passed to the Roman Curia. Gerson’s family encouraged young Jean toward the prestige of college life, where he became a professor of theology at the esteemed University of Paris. His “breakout moment” occurred when he was asked to represent the university before the pope in Avignon on a matter of professorial tenure (what else?!). Gerson argued the university’s right to expel several Dominican professors who denied the theory of the Immaculate Conception, not yet a doctrine of the Church. Gerson’s victory was pyrrhic; the Dominicans withdrew entirely from the university, with an attendant decline in morals and preaching in the school community. Many sources identify this episode in the papal court as Gerson’s inspiration to reform the Church.
Gerson’s professional life is a tribute to duty over desire. Left to his own inclinations, he would have preferred the solitude of the study, but he eventually became chancellor of the University of Paris, a position of exquisite balance. By virtue of his office Gerson was the official preacher of the royal court and thus an intimate with civil powers, a necessity given that the university was dependent upon royal financial support. Complicating matters was the Great Schism, during which the French, not surprisingly, supported the papal claimant in Avignon. From his catbird seat of the royal pulpit Gerson came to understand that any solution to the schism, and to any understanding of the Church in a modern world, would need to include a place for civil authority. A reform theology of the future would place greater demands upon kings and princes, a point that Luther and Calvin would both include in their theologies down the road.
As a scholar and historian, Gerson realized that with the division of the papacy running into its third decade, the disunity within the Western Church could very well become an established fact, much like the Schism of East and West. The University of Paris put forward propositions of settlement that were well-received by French clergy, not to mention many monarchs around the world. The original plan recommended as first choice a cession, i.e., that both popes would voluntarily resign. Failing that, the university recommended a Church Council, which was eventually convoked in Pisa (Italy) in 1409.
Pisa brought the Catholic Church into uncharted waters. Until now reasonable heads like Gerson held that persuasion and retirement were adequate and appropriate strategies for prompting papal claimants to retire. But did a council of the universal church (like Vatican II, for example) have the power to remove a pope against his wishes? The technical term for this debate is Conciliarism. At the Council of Pisa neither pope agreed to step down, and the Council then expelled them, though neither complied and both remained in their respective courts. The Council then elected a new pope—which simply expanded the division to three distinct candidates. Gerson gave the introductory keynote address to this Council, but his conciliatory efforts were not successful amidst heated tempers on multiple sides.
Gerson, as noted above, came to realize that the mission of reuniting and renewing the Church would require more than “thoughts and prayers,” and he actively lobbied for greater civil involvement. After returning from Pisa he immediately set upon the convocation of another reform council, this time with more juridical and civil support. He recommended that the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund convoke the next Council, on the shore of Lake Constance, on the grounds that only some sort of civil reinforcement of order would insure a spiritual and edifying council. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) would address three issues: (1) the matter of restoring a unified papacy; (2) the heretical teachings of Jan Hus of Czechoslovakia; and (3) a reform of the world’s bishops.
But before the Council of Constance convened, the King of France’s brother, the Duke of Orleans, had been killed by the Duke of Burgundy. This act of “tyrannicide” as Gerson termed it seems to have impacted him personally and theologically. The fact of “princes behaving badly” may have been seen by Gerson as a grave impediment to internal Church order. In any event, Gerson proceeded to Constance—which should have been the crowning of his life’s work—in a preoccupied state of mind. The Council was able by various means to unseat the three papal claimants and to elect Martin V, but Martin was forced to promise a convocation of a reform council at intervals of five and ten years.
Gerson himself behaved badly at this Council. He prosecuted the Czech reformer Hus, revoked his safe passage, and had him burned at the stake. He then proceeded to harangue the Council on the need to publicly condemn justification for the murder of civil rulers such as the Duke of Orleans. He seems to have lost credibility with the Council fathers for his rabid preoccupation with violence among civil rulers. He also drew the ire of the Duke of Burgundy, making it unsafe for him to return to Paris. He devoted the final portion of his life to writing and pastoral work in Constance; he was consulted to review the case file against Joan of Arc in Rouen and recommended that Church authorities recognize the validity of the “voices” of Joan that ordered her to take up the sword against the English in the Hundred Years War. His counsel was ignored, and Joan herself was burned at the stake.
Gerson is something of a “non-person” in Roman Catholic circles, despite his role in having restored the lineage of the papacy to Peter. The one chapel on earth dedicated to him, near Paris, is described by his biographer McGuire as “a freezing waste of discarded spirituality.” There is confusion even today about where he is buried. Not surprisingly, the Great Schism is an enormous embarrassment even today within the walls of the Vatican, and any recognition of Gerson involves recognition of a time the Church would rather forget.
I will be addressing the Council of Constance shortly, for while it restored the papacy, it did not address the issue of Church reform and indeed executed one of the age’s early reformers, Jan Hus. Subsequent popes did much to quell the concept of “Conciliarism,” and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) condemned it. In this post I have not done justice to the full character of Gerson but taking time to read McGuire’s text (one of few in English) will bring a full immersion into a complex man and a Church laboring to hold itself together in the advent of modernity.
To stay a few steps ahead of the class, so to speak, I have been listening to Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2017) on Audible.com on my daily four-mile walk. If you are planning to read a biography of Luther in conjunction with our Thursday Reformation stream, you could do a lot worse. The anniversary of the Reformation—not to mention the vast amount of historical data and writing now available on this era—makes it necessary to select a very recent work on just about every facet of the Reformation. Although I am less than halfway through the work, it is becoming clearer that disenchantment and distaste for the office of the papacy had significant impact upon the move to disunion in Luther’s day. This unfortunate state of affairs became more pointed with the prolonged absence of the pope from Rome (1309-1377) and his residence in Avignon (France.)
One man who lived in Avignon at the time of the Avignon papacy was the writer and thinker Petrarch, whose summary of the Avignon popes and their city was by no means flattering: “Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites.” Modern historians are more nuanced in their assessments, and in general Catholics tended to view the Avignon papacy as an aberration, as did even some of the popes themselves. The arrangement was understood by many as an encroachment of the French The Church had lived through “bad popes” before. The office of the papacy was tarnished, but at least not to the point where the damage could not be repaired. The most aggrieved, not surprisingly, were the Roman families whose cardinals had been electing popes for several centuries before Avignon and the French dominance of the college cardinals.
However, the resolution of the Avignon problem brought with it a greater problem that few people foresaw in 1377, the year that Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370-1378). Gregory’s return to the Eternal City was prompted by a complex number of political, military, and trade considerations. Theology, ironically, was not an overarching factor, although St. Catherine of Siena and others argued strenuously for the pope’s return to the site of the bones of Peter. Gregory, a Frenchman, made the determination of his own accord. He could not claim a strong political backing for his move. The Romans took the attitude that Gregory belonged in Rome; the French remained committed to the idea that the papacy belonged within its borders. Complicating matters was the death of Gregory XI shortly after his return.
In the vacuum of the papacy, Roman Cardinals quickly elected a successor, Urban VI (r. 1378-1379) in a conclave conducted under constant threat of violence from Roman mobs. The irony here is that Urban was neither French nor Roman. His loyalties rested with Queen Joan of Naples, and the cardinals at this conclave are said to have “fled to the hills” before the mobs in Rome learned of “their” new pope’s true lineage. The new pope immediately demonstrated significant defects of character (Madigan even suggests “madness.”) The cardinals, except for the Italian cardinals, gathered in Anagni, southeast of Rome, where the French king had captured Boniface VIII a century earlier. Claiming that the recent election of Urban VI had been coerced due to mob threats, the college of cardinals without the Italians but with plenty of French ones, elected the first of the “anti-popes,” Clement VII (r. 1378-1394), while Urban VI remained in office. The Great Schism had begun.
Clement tried for several years and various means to gain control over the Church in Rome and his seat upon the throne of Peter, but the Italians continued to elect popes to succeed Urban VI, who died quickly in 1379. Having despaired of winning the Roman See, Clement VII returned to (where else?) Avignon, where French cardinals continued to elect his successors. The nations of Europe lined up between the Avignon or the Roman popes. For Avignon: France, Spain, Scotland, Naples, and Sicily. For Rome: most of Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Scandinavia, and England.
Kevin Madigan explains the dimensions of the problem well. “The same College of Cardinals had properly elected two different popes. Now both popes proceeded to appoint rival colleges of cardinals and curiae [administrative agencies]. Churchmen and secular leaders pleaded with both to resign individually or at the same time, but to no avail…. Existing resentment was deepened when taxes had to be increased to support two colleges of cardinals and two popes. Again, the damage to the papacy’s popular reputation was considerable.” The only thing that could prove worse was a third line of popes. Madigan brings us the bad news: “The tragedy took on elements of farce when the Council of Pisa , called to heal the schism, created yet a third line of popes.
It would take forty years to untangle this Gordian knot; the most critical question being the identification of who had the jurisdiction to decide on the precise exercise of the Church’s authority when there was no pope recognized by the universal Church. I hinted last week that the answers would be found in in the great universities and the force of an ecumenical council. I had hoped to get that far today, but we will look at that the next time around.
For an overview of today’s material, I again recommend Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015), particularly Chapter 18. This work is a little pricey, so you might be better off borrowing it where you have privileges. For next week you can outpace our output by thumbing through Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation (2005). Gerson was Chancellor of the University of Paris and very much at the heart of the solution of the Great Schism. It may be easier to just look at my review of this text here.
I missed last week’s Reformation post as I was participating in a diocesan educational event last weekend. So, getting back into the groove, I reread the post of two weeks ago and realized that I had not sufficiently explored the role of the papacy in the fourteenth century and on to the Reformation. I had pointed out that for the entire span of the 1300’s the papacy resembled nothing of what it is today. The century opened with the anti-French pope, Boniface VIII, issuing his controversial bull Unam Sanctam (1302) (from the Latin bulla, a lead seal applied to the end of a solemn papal pronouncement.) Unam Sanctam claimed ultimate authority over all peoples and things of the earth—including his intrusive enemy King Phillip IV of France.
Phillip’s brief seizure of Boniface himself, which led to the pope’s imminent death, obviously gave pause to the cardinals who gathered in Rome to elect Boniface’s successor, Clement V, whose tenure as successor of St. Peter is probably one of the best narratives that no one knows. Clement was French (no surprise there) and was elected in conclave when Phillip appointed a number of French cardinals to swing the vote. Clement would soon “francophonize” the full college of cardinals, to borrow Kevin Madigan’s phrase, making it fully French and thus determinative of outcomes for the near future.
Clement V did not renounce Unam Sanctam; for all practical purposes he simply passed it on to King Phillip, allowing him to exercise the unrestrained authority Boniface had claimed. I need to add a personal note here—I do not take pleasure in airing the dirty laundry of the Church; in fact, it disturbs me significantly. The theme of the Thursday post is the stream of events that led to a permanent division known today as the Reformation. One of the main divisions of the Reformation involves Church authority—its limits and, alas, its abuses over history. At the same time, the recovery of the Roman Catholic Church from its collective sins and its significant works of reform is one of the reasons I remain Catholic today. I also concur with the philosopher Santayana that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
That said, I must report that King Phillip ordered Pope Clement V to convoke the fifteenth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, the Council of Vienne (1311-1312) for the express purpose of suppressing the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar was an independent religious order of knights which grew in wealth and influence from its founding in the First Crusade. History is divided on Phillip’s motives for destroying the Templars; he obviously sought their reputed wealth and would torture many knights to obtain it, but the existence of a free-standing militia—religion notwithstanding—would be a matter of concern for any monarch.
The theological question is why a council was required for this dirty work in the first place. The most likely answer is that the Knights were independent and international in scope, and second to that, the Knights Templar were contrasted to another “safer” order at the time, the Knights Hospitaleers, which survives today as the Knights of St. John. The Council of Vienne was called to give “religious cover” to an overt act of aggression. Ironically, Vienne turned into a good example of why neither lawyers nor prosecutors like to take a case before a jury. As Wikipedia relates about Vienne, “a majority of the cardinals and nearly all the members of the commission believed the Order of Knights Templar should be granted the right to defend itself, and that no proof collected up to then was sufficient to condemn the order of the heresy of which it was accused by Philip's ministry…”
The fathers of Vienne—most French at that—voted for due process in examination of the Knights for heresy. The Council then turned to a condemnation of heresy against the Beguines, a prolific cluster of mystics (mostly women) whose “crimes” seemed to be mobility and independent experiences of mysticism. Such groups were quite numerous in later medieval times. The most famous Beguine, Marguerite of Porete, was burned at the stake in 1311 but her work The Mirror of Simple Souls is popular to this day; I have a picture below of my own copy, available today from Paulist Press. Needless to say, Phillip IV was not happy with the Council’s deliberations on the Templars, and he pressured Clement to override the Council with his (Clement’s) own declarations authorizing full-scale interrogation and disbanding of all the Knights Templar throughout the Church.
Clement settled in Avignon—after brief sojourns elsewhere--in the south of France after the Council. Southern France was somewhat more removed from political flux, and a return to Rome was probably not possible given the physical and political deterioration of the Eternal City. Clement did not expect the papacy to remain in Avignon forever. It was Benedict XII (r. 1334-1342) who reconciled the Church to an indefinite papacy in France.
How did the Church respond to the relocation of the papacy to Avignon? As I wrote in the last post, the Christian citizenry had much to deal with during the century, and the effects of a relocated papacy did not much impact parochial life. What all levels of Catholics objected to was the pressure of papal taxes, with many suspecting that the money was actually enriching France. Those late in their taxes could be excommunicated. As Madigan writes, “The apostolic see of Peter had become an immense bureaucratic and fiscal machine. Once viewed as the leader of reform, the papacy came to be seen as the religious institution most in need of reform. Most thoughtful observers sincerely believed that reform could be accomplished only if the papacy returned to Rome.
Among those advocating for a return of the pope to the Holy City was St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). In 1377 Pope Gregory returned to Rome, a move that was opposed by French Cardinals and different factions of the Roman body of Cardinals. Gregory did not feel safe in Rome and planned to return to France, but he died before he could leave Rome. The Romans quickly elected one of their own, Urban VI (r. 1378-1389), the first non-French pope in over fifty years. Urban proved to be a bit mad, and French cardinals, claiming intimidation, elected in a separate conclave Clement VII (anti-pope, 1378-1394). After attempting to seize Rome, Clement VII retreated to Avignon. Thus began “The Great Schism” of multiple popes, which would last forty years. Madigan comments that “the tragedy took on elements of farce when the Council of Pisa (1409), called to heal the Schism, created yet a third line of popes.
The theological dilemma here was (and remains today) the question of who in the Church has the power to reform the papacy. In fact, two bodies did step forward to end the Schism, but having been rescued in this fashion, the Church today is cautious of these two institutions, and their work in restoring the papacy was a cause for significant discussion at Vatican II, six hundred years later.