Amid generalized confusion, Blessed John Dominici was the man sent by Heaven to resolve a calamitous situation for the Church, of which the complex juridical aspects were only the tip of the iceberg.
Blessed John Dominici, by Fra Angelico, detail from the Crucifixion and the Saints – Convent of San Marco, Florence (Italy)
The bitter cold that assailed Rome in November of 1406 was merely a reflection of the dreadful tempest that had been unleashed upon the Holy Church. The most painful schism experienced by the Bride of Christ until that time – for it involved His Vicar on earth – was already almost three decades old. Never in her history had there been such a scandal: thirteen of the Cardinals who had elected Pope Urban IV in April of 1378 recanted a few months later and convoked a new Conclave, in which the antipope Clement VII was elected. Thus began the Great Western Schism (1378-1417).
What at first seemed to be a simple misunderstanding that would be easily resolved with a little good will from both sides, soon deteriorated into a labyrinth of human interests, in which the absence of Heaven’s blessings became increasingly evident. The storm intensified and even shook the foundations of the Holy See.
Conversation with the Pope by the hearth
At the close of 1406, before a hearth in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, the elderly Angelo Correr, recently elected Pope Gregory XII, conversed with a man of his fullest confidence, the priest John Dominici, a member of the Order of Preachers, regarding the doubts hovering over his Pontificate.
— Fr. Dominici, over the course of the Conclave, I noted your fine diplomatic skills. As you know, I, along with the other Cardinals, took the oath to strive to bring the schism to an end and to initiate, for this purpose within three months, the necessary negotiations to obtain a personal meeting with the antipope of Avignon. This will not be possible without the help of a skilled diplomat. For my part, I am ready to renounce the Papacy, if it be necessary, to put an end to the schism. But I ask you to remain in Rome, for I need your help.
— Holy Father, I am at your service. The schism has indeed become an interminable nightmare for all of Christianity. Nevertheless, since you have honoured me with your confidence, allow me to make an observation. Your readiness to abdicate, if it be necessary, for the good of the Church, is undoubtedly very important; but much more important is that this possible abdication be presented at the right moment, neither before or after.
While the Pope pondered the words of that Dominican whom Providence had given him as an aid in such trying circumstances, the words of the Gospel came to his mind: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (Jn 1:6).
The only solution for the schism
Gregory XII, by Joos van Wassenhove –
Palazzo Barberini, Rome
How to solve this situation which had been drawn out for nearly three decades and, contrary to the forecasts and desires of all, would continue for several more years? After a detailed study of the complex problem, the doctors of the University of Paris concluded that there were three possible solutions.
First, the via cessionis, in which each of the Pontiffs would voluntarily renounce his rights.
Second, the via iustitiæ, or via conventionis. This would consist in determining who was the legitimate Pope by juridical means, in a colloquy between the concerned Pontiffs, accompanied by their respective Cardinals.
Third, the via concilii, by which a universal Council would be invested with the power of deposing the Pontiffs in question, including the legitimate one. However, recourse to this means would necessitate the acceptance of the supremacy of the Council over the Roman Pontiff.
The followers of the legitimate Pope, Gregory XII, had always maintained that the via cessionis was the sole solution for the crisis. However, with the passing of time, dissension grew and no one found a solution by this means, which allowed the supporters of the via concilii to continue to gain ground among a public opinion wearied by the prolonged confusion.
Three “popes” instead of two
The consternation provoked by this complex situation was further aggravated by the indecisiveness of Gregory XII when the moment came for realizing the anticipated meeting with the antipope Benedict XIII. The impatience of the Cardinals of Rome and of Avignon grew in face of the endless negotiations. And when, at last, the date and place for the meeting had been fixed, Gregory XII changed his mind at the last moment, yielding to pressure from certain relatives and advisers.
At almost the same time, he decided to create four new Cardinals – one of whom was Fr. John Dominici –, for he distrusted some members of the Sacred College who had made outward displays of inconformity with his decisions. The fact that two of the new Cardinals were nephews of the Pope only served to increase the discord.
Statue of antipope Benedict XIII, Peñíscola (Spain)
At this point, seven Cardinals who were disillusioned with the steps taken by Gregory XII joined forces with seven others faithful to the antipope Benedict XIII, with whom they were equally disillusioned, and decided to take action to bring an end to the schism: in March of 1409, they gathered in Pisa and convoked a Council to excommunicate and depose – evidently in an invalid manner – both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. Claiming to have thus put an end to the schism, they convoked a conclave in which they elected another antipope, Alexander V.
Instead of two, there were now three “popes”! This provoked deep dismay in all those who, like John Dominici, realized what was at stake – not just the peace and unity of the Church, but also, and above all, the integrity of Papal authority.
If the principle that a universal Council had power to depose the legitimate Supreme Pontiff was established, a precedent contrary to Tradition and true Catholic doctrine would be set. And the tares for producing future schisms would be sewn. The primacy of Peter being denied, the Church would cease to be the Church.
The antipope John XXIII and the Emperor Sigismund
On the night of December 24, 1414, the majestic entourage of Sigismund of Luxembourg, head of the Holy Roman-Germanic Empire, reached the city of Constance, Germany. The Supreme Pontiff awaited him in the Cathedral for the solemn Christmas Mass.
Following tradition, the emperor, clothed with a diaconal dalmatic of red brocade and with a crown on his head, chanted the Gospel of the solemnity: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” (Lk 2:1). This passage of Scripture evoked for everyone present the recent pontifical decree convoking the Council in Constance, at the request of the emperor. Amidst the climax of Christmas graces, this association of ideas contributed to a presentiment that the blessings of Heaven were at last beginning to be poured forth over humanity to bring the Great Schism to an end.
Cathedral of Pisa (Italy)
The aforementioned “pontiff” was actually Baltassar Cossa, antipope John XXIII, successor of Alexander V in the schismatic See of Pisa. Sigismund, who held great prestige throughout Christendom, had secretly received instructions from Pope Gregory XII to solicit from this antipope the convocation of the Council for, as surprising as it may seem, John XXIII held the most power to convoke at that time. In fact, partly due to his capriciousness, Pope Gregory XII had lost all credibility before the princes and Christian people in general.
A secret parchment
When the Council convoked by the antipope John XXIII was inaugurated, on November 4 of 1414, Cardinal Dominici was by that time the confessor and councillor of Gregory XII. He had also shown abundant proofs of his fidelity and diplomatic tact, whence the Roman Pontiff had decided to send him to Constance as Pontifical Legate.
At this juncture, almost no one doubted that the voluntary abdication of the legitimate Pope was an indispensable condition for the termination of the Great Schism. Only one question remained: when and in what way should it be effected?
Cardinal Dominici prepared to leave, but beforehand he asked Gregory XII to sign and seal with the Ring of the Fisherman a parchment he himself had prepared, whose existence must remain a secret until the moment it would be presented to the great assembly.
Twofold concern of the Pontifical Legate
Cardinal John Dominici arrived at Constance on January 4, 1415, beset with a twofold concern.
Firstly, that of taking care to avoid an attitude that could be seen to convey that Pope Gregory XII was giving legitimacy to any of the antipopes or the Council itself, which was not convoked by the Roman Pontiff and, therefore, could not be considered universal.
Palace of the Popes, Avignon (France)
Secondly, it was necessary to clearly affirm the absolute supremacy of the legitimate Pope over any Council, in any circumstance. Now, the atmosphere in Constance was strongly vitiated by the presence of conciliarists, who vied at taking the conclusions of that great assembly as an official confirmation of their spurious theses.
With the goal of removing Gregory XII from the state of discredit into which he had fallen, Cardinal Dominici began by stating that the Pope was disposed to abdicate, as long as the antipope of Avignon, Benedict XIII, and of Pisa, John XXIII, did the same. He went on to say that the document of abdication would come from Rome at an opportune moment, with the condition that it would not be revealed in a session at which the antipope of Pisa presided.
Some days later, John XXIII read his own abdication in a plenary session, however it would only take effect when Gregory XII and Benedict XIII did the same. In reality, the action of the antipope of Pisa was an effective stroke, and attained its desired objective: Sigismund immediately arose from his throne and, kneeling, kissed the pontiff’s feet. Following this, a Patriarch pompously presented him with the gratitude of the entire Council.
The episode placed Cardinal Dominici in a difficult situation. Under these circumstances, sending for the document of abdication of Gregory XII from Rome might be interpreted as giving legitimacy to the Council and to the antipope. On the other hand, to delay the document’s arrival without a serious motive would seem to justify the detractors of the legitimate Pope. How to escape this dilemma? Divine Providence came to his aid.
The Council deposes the two antipopes
On March 20 of 1415, John XXIII decided to flee from Constance, seeing that the great assembly, at that point dominated by conciliarists, was taking a course contrary to his plans.
In the fifth solemn session, held on April 6, the decree Hæc sancta was promulgated, containing five articles with the most radical formulations of conciliarism. It was a violent and direct attack on the authority of the Pope, but devoid of juridical validity: in addition to sustaining an erroneous doctrine, it had been promulgated in an illegitimate manner. It is important that this point be very clear, for in the future many ill-informed or ill-intentioned authors would attempt to present it as part of the authentic Magisterium of the Church.
Throughout the following sessions interest was essentially focused on the episode of John XXIII’s flight and the negotiations for his deposition, which was executed on May 29. On the other hand, the blatant obstinacy of antipope Benedict XIII eventually discredited him in the eyes of Christendom, so that he ceased to be an obstacle to the termination of the schism. Even so, he too was the object of a canonical process on the part of the Council, resulting in his solemn deposition.
An unexpected intervention
On June 15, Prince Charles Malatesta arrived in Constance, as the plenipotentiary minister of the Roman Pontiff. He had come with instructions from Gregory XII to place himself at the service of Cardinal Dominici, and he brought the awaited declaration of abdication, whose official reading was scheduled to be made at the first solemn session. The conciliarists could already taste the sweet joys of victory.
Two weeks later, on July 4, the XIV Solemn Session began, under the presidency of the Cardinal of Cambray. Blessed John Dominici had requested to make an intervention which was not scheduled on the agenda and was authorized do to so. Accordingly, before Prince Charles Malatesta, whom he had meticulously prepared, read the formula of abdication, Cardinal Dominici arose with a parchment scroll in his hands. It was the same one that had been signed and sealed by Gregory XII before his departure for Constance.
It was no less than a decree of convocation for the Council of Constance. The Cardinal of Cambray immediately understood the importance of the words being read by Cardinal Dominici. The most radical conciliarists, who also understood, immediately set about creating a tumult in the sacred precinct, demanding that the session be annulled, as this intervention was not previously scheduled on the agenda.
When Cardinal Dominici had finished speaking, Charles Malatesta immediately stood up and, unperturbed by the commotion, began the official reading of the formula of renunciation of Pope Gregory XII. With this completed, if the session were annulled, as the conciliarists wished, the renunciation of the Pope of Rome would also be considered null and void.
The diplomatic manoeuvre of Cardinal Dominici had been precise and efficacious. The legitimate Pope had officially abdicated before a Council which was ultimately declared legitimate by his pontifical authority. The Great Schism was essentially vanquished. And the doctrine of the supremacy of the Pope over the Council was also preserved by means of the events; not only that of Gregory XII over the Council of Constance, but that of any legitimate Pope over any universal Council.
Conciliarism and Gallicanism
What had taken place on July 4 of 1415 in the Fourteenth Session of that great assembly decisively marked the history of the Church, but did not impede the ongoing influence of conciliarism in some form on the life of the Bride of Christ and Christian nations.
In treatises of Ecclesiology or Canon Law, conciliarism is often defined in a technical and sterile form as an “ecclesiological error,” the fruit of an egalitarian vision of the Church, which postulates that the plenitude of power falls to the Bishops gathered in universal Council, and not the Roman Pontiff. According to these manuals, conciliarism would be part of a much more widespread phenomenon that affects not only the spiritual realm, but also the temporal, and which is generally called Gallicanism, due to its birth and development in France, formerly Gaul of the Roman Empire.
St. Peter’s Squre
By its twofold sphere of action, Gallicanism has two sides: one political, which aims to restrict the authority of the Church in face of the State; and the other ecclesiastical, which seeks to limit the authority of the Roman Pontiff in face of the universal Councils and the College of Bishops. This ecclesiastical side of Gallicanism can be equated with conciliarism.
Not without reason, one can read in one of the articles of the decree Hæc sancta, which constitutes the doctrinal foundation for conciliarism,1 this arrogant attack against the Papacy: “Whoever does not obey the decrees of this Holy Synod, or of any other general Council […], even if they be of papal dignity, must be duly punished.”2
A heresy reborn in the Council of Basel
Twenty years after the Council of Constance, in 1438, the Pragmatic Sanction, containing the deliberations of the Assembly of the Clergy of France, convoked by the king, was promulgated in Bourges by Charles VII, King of France. The Assembly’s decisions were inspired in the decree Hæc sancta of the Council of Constance and were the foundation for the so-called Gallican Liberties against the authority of the Pope.
Thus, we see the conciliarist principles, formulated in the spiritual sphere, giving rise to the measures taken by the Gallicans in the temporal ambit, and not the contrary, as is often supposed.
This same decree was invoked in 1439, in the schismatic phase of the Council of Basel, as the basis to attempt to depose Pope Eugene IV and elect the antipope Felix V. However, on this occasion, boldness reached the point of declaring excommunicated those who did not adhere to the conciliarist theses: “It is a truth of the Catholic Faith that the general Holy Council has power over the Pope and anyone else. The Roman Pontiff, of his own authority, cannot dissolve, transfer, or delay the general Council that has been legitimately convoked, without the consent of the latter, which makes up part of the same truth. Anyone who remains steadfast in denying these truths must be considered a heretic.”3
The definitive solution for the problem of conciliarism
There is still much that could be said about Gallicanism in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Louis XIV. Nevertheless, limited space obliges us to leave the narration of this very interesting historical period for another opportunity, and to jump directly to July 18, 1870, a splendorous day for the Holy Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church, on which the Successor of Peter solemnly defined, in the dogmatic Constitution Pastor Æternus, the dogmas of the primacy of universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff and the infallibility of the Pontifical Magisterium, by force of which the conciliarist doctrines were formally declared heretical.
Vatican Council I painted by a contempary
In this Constitution proclaimed during the First Vatican Council, Blessed Pius IX affirms: “If, therefore, anyone says that to the Roman Pontiff falls merely the office of inspection or direction, but not the complete and supreme jurisdictional power over the universal Church, not only in matters concerning Faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; or that he only has the principal part of this power and not its entirety; or that this power of his is not episcopal and immediate, over both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively: let him be anathema.”4
A little further on, he adds: “Therefore, faithfully adhering to the Tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our Saviour, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. If, however – may God forbid –, someone dares to contradict this definition of ours, let him be anathema.”5
We can well imagine that Blessed John Dominici from Heaven contemplated this splendorous triumph of the Holy Church with immense joy. ◊
1 Cf. LLORCA, SJ, Bernardino; GARCÍA VILLOSLADA, SJ, Ricardo; MONTALBAN, SJ, Francisco Javier. Historia de la Iglesia Católica. Edad Nueva. Madrid: BAC, 1960, v.III, p.253.
2 Idem, ibidem.
3 O’DONNELL, C.; PIÉ-NINOT, S. Diccionario de Eclesiología. Madrid: San Pablo: 2001, p.100.
4 Dz 3064.
5 Dz 3073-3075.