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Council of Pisa

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Pisa, COUNCIL OF. Preliminaries.—The Great Schism of the West had lasted thirty years (since 1378), and none of the means employed to bring it to an end had been sdccessful. Compromise or arbitral agreement between the two parties had never been seriously attempted; surrender had failed lamentably owing to the obstinacy of the rival popes, all equally convinced of their rights; action, that is the interference of princes and armies, had been without result. During these deplorable divisions Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII had in turn replaced Urban VI (Bartholomew Prignano) in the See of Rome, while Benedict XIII had succeeded Clement VII (Robert of Geneva) in that of Avignon.

The cardinals of the reigning pontiffs being greatly dissatisfied, both with the pusillanimity and nepotism of Gregory XII and the obstinacy and bad will of Benedict XIII, resolved to make use of a more efficacious means, namely a general council. The French king, Charles V, had recommended this, at the beginning of the schism, to the cardinals assembled at Anagni and Fondi in revolt against Urban VI, and on his deathbed he had expressed the same wish (1380). It had been upheld by several councils, by the cities of Ghent and Florence, by the Universities of Oxford and Paris, and by the most renowned doctors of the time, for example: Henry of Langenstein (“Epistola pacis”, 1379, “Epistola concilii pacis”, 1381); Conrad of Gelnhausen (“Epistola Concordiae”, 1380); Gerson (Sermo coram Anglicis); and especially the latter’s master, Pierre d’Ailly, the eminent Bishop of Cambrai, who wrote of himself: “A principio schismatis materiam concilii generalis primus . instanter prosequi non timui” (Apologia Concilii Pisani, apud Tschackert). Encouraged by such men, by the known dispositions of King Charles VI and of the University of Paris, four members of the Sacred College of Avignon went to Leghorn where they arranged an interview with those of Rome, and where they were soon joined by others. The two bodies thus united were resolved to seek the union of the Church in spite of everything and thenceforth to adhere to neither of the competitors. On 2 and July 5, 1408, they addressed to the princes and prelates an encyclical letter summoning them to a general council at Pisa on March 25, 1409. To oppose this project Benedict convoked a council at Perpignan while Gregory assembled another at Aquileia, but these assemblies met with little success, hence to the Council of Pisa were directed all the attention, unrest, and hopes of the Catholic world. The Universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cologne, many prelates, and the most distinguished doctors, like d’Ailly and Gerson, openly approved the action of the revolted cardinals. The princes on the other hand were divided, but most of them no longer relied on the good will of the rival popes and were determined to act without them, despite them, and, if needs were, against them.

Meeting of the Council.—On the feast of the Annunciation, 4 patriarchs, 22 cardinals, and 80 bishops assembled in the cathedral of Pisa under the presidency of Cardinal de Malesset, Bishop of Palestrina. Among the clergy were the representatives of 100 absent bishops, 87 abbots with the proxies of those who could not come to Pisa, 41 priors and generals of religious orders, 300 doctors of theology or canon law. The ambassadors of all the Christian kingdoms completed this august assembly. Judicial procedure began at once. Two cardinal deacons, two bishops, and two notaries gravely approached the church doors, opened them, and in a loud voice, in the Latin tongue, called upon the rival pontiffs to appear. No one replied. “Has anyone been appointed to represent them?” they added. Again there was silence. The delegates returned to their places and requested that Gregory ‘and Benedict be declared guilty of contumacy. On three consecutive days this ceremony was repeated without success, and throughout the month of May testimonies were heard against the claimants, but the formal declaration of contumacy did not take place until the fourth session. In defense of Gregory, a German embassy unfavorable to the project of the assembled cardinals went to Pisa (April 15) at the instance of Robert of Bavaria, King of the Romans. John, Archbishop of Riga, brought before the council several excellent objections, but in general the German delegates spoke so blunderingly that they aroused hostile manifestations and were compelled to leave the city as fugitives. The line of conduct adopted by Carlo Malatesta, Prince of Rimini, was more clever. Robert by his awkward friendliness injured Gregory’s otherwise most defendable cause; but Malatesta defended it as a man of letters, an orator, a politician, and a knight, though he did not attain the desired success. Benedict refused to attend the council in person, but his delegates arrived very late (June 14), and their claims aroused the protests and laughter of the assembly. The people of Pisa overwhelmed them with threats and insults. The Chancellor of Aragon was listened to with little favor, while the Archbishop of Tarragona made a declaration of war more daring than wise. Intimidated by rough demonstrations, the ambassadors, among them Boniface Ferrer, Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, secretly left the city and returned to their master.

The pretended preponderance of the French delegates has been often attacked, but the French element did not prevail either in numbers, influence, or boldness of ideas. The most remarkable characteristic of the assembly was the unanimity which reigned among the 500 members during the month of June, especially noticeable at the fifteenth general session (June 5, 1409). When the usual formality was completed with the request for a definite condemnation of Peter de Luna and Angelo Corrario, the Fathers of Pisa returned a sentence until then unexampled in the history of the Church. All were stirred when the Patriarch of Alexandria, Simon de Cramaud, addressed the august meeting: “Benedict XIII and Gregory XII“, said he, “are recognised as schismatics, the approvers and makers of schism, notorious heretics, guilty of perjury and violation of solemn promises, and openly scandalising the universal Church. In consequence, they are declared unworthy of the Sovereign Pontificate, and are ipso facto deposed from their functions and dignities, and even driven out of the Church. It is forbidden to them hence-forward to consider themselves to be Sovereign Pontiffs, and all proceedings and promotions made by them are annulled. The Holy See is declared vacant and the faithful are set free from their promise of obedience.” This grave sentence was greeted with joyful applause, the Te Deum was sung, and a solemn procession was ordered next day, the feast of Corpus Christi. All the members appended their signatures to the decree of the council, and every one thought that the schism was ended forever. On June 15 the cardinals met in the archiepiscopal palace of Pisa to proceed with the election of a new pope. The conclave lasted eleven days. Few obstacles intervened from outside to cause delay. Within the council, it is said, there were intrigues for the election of a French pope, but, through the influence of the energetic and ingenious Cardinal Cossa, on June 26, 1409, the votes were unanimously cast in the favor of Cardinal Peter Philarghi, who took the name of Pope Alexander V (q.v.). His election was expected and desired, as testified by universal joy. The new pope announced his election to all the sovereigns of Christendom, from whom he received expressions of lively sympathy for himself and for the position of the Church. He presided over the last four sessions of the council, confirmed all the ordinances made by the cardinals after their refusal of obedience to the antipopes, united the two sacred colleges, and subsequently declared that he would work energetically for reform.

Judgment of the Council of Pisa.—The right of the cardinals to convene a general council to put an end to the schism seemed to themselves indisputable. This was a consequence of the natural principle that demands for a large corporation the capacity of discovering within itself a means of safety: Salus populi suprema lex esto, i. e., the chief interest is the safety of the Church and the preservation of her indispensable unity. The tergiversations and perjuries of the two pretenders seemed to justify the united sacred colleges. “Never”, said they, “shall we succeed in ending the schism while these two obstinate persons are at the head of the opposing parties. There is no undisputed pope who can summon a general council. As the pope is doubtful, the Holy See must be considered vacant. We have therefore a lawful mandate to elect a pope who will be undisputed, and to convoke the universal Church that her adhesion may strengthen our decision”. Famous universities urged and upheld the cardinals in this conclusion. And yet, from the theological and judicial point of view, their reasoning might seem false, dangerous, and revolutionary. For if Gregory and Benedict were doubtful, so were the cardinals whom they had created. If the fountain of their authority was uncertain, so was their competence to convoke the universal Church and to elect a pope. Plainly, this is arguing in a circle. How then could Alexander V, elected by them, have indisputable rights to the recognition of the whole of Christendom? Further, it was to be feared that certain spirits would make use of this temporary expedient to transform it into a general rule, to proclaim the superiority of the sacred college and of the council to the pope, and to legalize henceforth the appeals to a future council, which had already commenced under King Philip the Fair. The means used by the cardinals could not succeed even temporarily. The position of the Church became still more precarious; instead of two heads there were three wandering popes, persecuted and exiled from their capitals. Yet, inasmuch as Alexander was not elected in opposition to a generally recognized pontiff, nor by schismatic methods, his position was better than that of Clement VII and Benedict XIII, the popes of Avignon. An almost general opinion asserts that both he and his successor, John XXIII, were true popes. If the pontiffs of Avignon had a colorable title in their own obedience, such a title can be made out still more clearly for Alexander V in the eyes of the universal Church. In fact the Pisan pope was acknowledged by the majority of the Church, i.e. by France, England, Portugal, Bohemia, Prussia, a few countries of Germany, Italy, and the County Venaissin, while Naples, Poland, Bavaria, and part of Germany continued to obey Gregory, and Spain and Scotland remained subject to Benedict.

Theologians and canonists are severe on the Council of Pisa. On the one hand, a violent partisan of Benedict’s, Boniface Ferrer, calls it “a conventicle of demons”. Theodore Urie, a supporter of Gregory, seems to doubt whether they gathered at Pisa with the sentiments of Dathan and Abiron or those of Moses. St. Antoninus, Cajetan, Turrecremata, and Raynald openly call it a conventicle, or at any rate cast doubt on its authority. On the other hand, the Gallican school either approves of it or pleads extenuating circumstances. Noel Alexander asserts that the council destroyed the schism as far as it could. Bossuet says in his turn: “If the schism that devastated the Church of God was not exterminated at Pisa, at any rate it received there a mortal blow and the Council of Constance consummated it.” Protestants, faithful to the consequences of their principles, applaud this council unreservedly, for they see in it “the first step to the deliverance of the world”, and greet it as the dawn of the Reformation (Gregorovius). Perhaps it is wise to say with Bellarmine that this assembly is a general council which is neither approved nor disapproved. On account of its illegalities and inconsistencies it cannot be quoted as an ecumenical council. And yet it would be unfair to brand it as a conventicle, to compare it with the” robber council” of Ephesus, the pseudo-council of Basle, or the Jansenist council of Pistoia. This synod is not a pretentious, rebellious, and sacrilegious coterie. The number of the fathers, their quality, authority, intelligence and their zealous and generous intentions, the almost unanimous accord with which they came to their decisions, the royal support they met with, remove every suspicion of intrigue or cabal. It resembles no other council, and has a place by itself in the history of the Church, as unlawful in the manner in which it was convoked, unpractical in its choice of means, not indisputable in its results, and having no claim to represent the Universal Church. It is the original source of all the ecclesiastico-historical events that took place from 1409 to 1414, and opens the way for the Council of Constance.


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