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.