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Marsilius of Padua

Physician and theologian, b. at Padua about 1270; d. about 1342

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Marsilius of Padua, physician and theologian, b. at Padua about 1270; d. about 1342. Contrary to the assertion of several authors, he was only a layman and neither a religious nor the legitimate Archbishop of Milan, though he was a canon of his native city. He served at first in the army of the emperor, and afterwards, on the advice of Mussato, began the study of medicine at the University of Padua. To complete his medical studies he proceeded to Paris, and before December 25, 1312, became rector of the university there. A little later he went to Avignon and obtained from John XXII letters appointing him to one of the canonries of the Church of Padua (Reg. Vat., a. I, p. 2, n. 1714). It was at this time that Louis of Bavaria was about to reopen against the pope the struggles of Philippe le Bel against Boniface VIII. John XXII had just denounced Louis as a supporter of heretics, excommunicated him, and ordered him to cease within three months administering the affairs of the Empire. The emperor was looking for help, and Marsilius, who had now begun the study of theology, joined with Jean de Jandun, canon of Senlis, in offering him his assistance. Together they composed the “Defensor pacis” at Paris, and, about 1326, setting out for Germany, presented their work to the emperor. They became his intimate friends, and on several occasions expounded their teaching to him. What were the doctrines of these two Parisian doctors, the very audacity of which at first startled Louis of Bavaria? They recalled the wildest theories of the legists of Philippe le Bel, and Caesarian theologians like Guillaume Durand and the Dominican John of Paris. The teachings of these last mentioned had been proposed with hesitation, restrictions, and moderation of language which met with no favor before the rigorous logic of Marsilius of Padua. He completely abandoned the olden theocratic conception of society. God, it is true, remained the ultimate source of all power, but it sprang immediately from the people, who had in addition the power to legislate. Law was the expression, not of the will of the prince, as John of Paris taught, but of the will of the people, who, by the voice of the majority, could enact, interpret, modify, suspend, and abrogate it at will. The elected head of the nation was possessed only of a secondary, instrumental, and executive authority. We thus arrive at the theory of the “Contrat Social”. In the Church, according to the “Defensor Pacis”, the faithful have these two great powers—the elective and the legislative. They nominate the bishops and select those who are to be ordained. The legislative power is, in the Church, the right to decide the meaning of the old Scriptures; that is the work for a general council, in which the right of discussion and voting belongs to the faithful or their delegates. The ecclesiastical power, the priesthood, comes directly from God and consists essentially in the power to consecrate the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and remit sins, or, rather, to declare them remitted. It is equal in all priests, each of whom can communicate it by ordination to a subject legitimately proposed by the community. Luther would have recognized his theories in these heretical assertions, and the Gallicans of later times would willingly have subscribed to such revolutionary declarations. The two writers are just as audacious in their exposition of the respective roles of the Empire and the Church in Christian society and of the relations of the two powers.

According to the idea of the State propounded by Marsilius all ecclesiastical power proceeded from the community and from the emperor, its principal representative, there being no limit to the rights of the lay State (cf. Franck, “Journal des savants”, March, 1883; Noel Valois, “Histoire litteraire de la France“, XXXIII). As to the Church it has no visible head. St. Peter, he goes on, received no more power or authority than the other Apostles, and it is uncertain that he ever came to Rome. The pope has only the power of convoking an ecumenical council which is superior to him. His decrees are not binding; he can impose on the people only what the general council has decided and interpreted. The community elects the parish priest and supervises and controls the clergy in the performance of their duties; in a word—the community or the state is everything, the Church playing an entirely subsidiary part. It cannot legislate, adjudicate, possess goods, sell, or purchase without authorization; it is a perpetual minor. As is clear, we have here the civil constitution of the clergy. Marsilius, moreover, shows himself a severe and often unjust censor of the abuses of the Roman curia. Regarding the relations between the emperor and the pope, it is maintained in the “Defensor Pacis”, that the sovereign pontiff has no power over any man, except with the permission of the emperor; while the emperor has power over the pope and the general council. The pontiff can act only as the authorized agent of the Roman people; all the goods of the Church belong by right to Caesar. This is clearly the crudest concept of the pagan empire, an heretical assault on the Church‘s constitution, and a shameless denial of the rights of the sovereign pontiff to the profit of Caesar. Dante, the Ghibelline theorist, is surpassed. Arnold of Brescia is equalled. William Occam could never have proposed anything more revolutionary.

The pope was stirred by these heretical doctrines. In the Bull of April 3, 1327, John XXII reproached Louis of Bavaria with having welcomed duos perditionis ftilios et maledictions alumnos (Denifle, “Chart”, II, 301). On April 9 he suspended and excommunicated them (“Thesaurus novus anecdotorum”, ii, 692). A commission, appointed by the pope at Avignon, condemned on October 23 five of the propositions of Marsilius in the following terms: “1) These reprobates do not hesitate to affirm in what is related of Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew, to wit that He paid tribute that he did so, not through condescension and liberality, but of necessity—an assertion that runs counter to the teaching of the Gospe1 and the words of our Savior. If one were to believe these men, it would follow that all the property of the Church belongs to the emperor, and that he may take possession of it again as his own; 2) These sons of Belial are so audacious as to affirm that the Blessed Apostle St. Peter received no more authority than the other Apostles, that he was not appointed their chief, and further that Christ gave no head to His Church, and appointed no one as His vicar here below—all which is contrary to the Apostolic and evangelic truth; 3) These children of Belial do not fear to assert that the emperor has the right to appoint, to dethrone, and even to punish the pope—which is undoubtedly repugnant to all right; 4) These frivolous and lying men say that all priests, be they popes archbishops, or simple priests are possessed of equal authority and equal jurisdiction, by the institution of Christ; that whatever one possesses beyond another is a concession of the Emperor, who can moreover revoke what he has granted, which assertions are certainly contrary to sacred teaching and savor of heresy; 5) these blasphemers say that the universal Church may not inflict a coactive penalty on any person unless with the emperor’s permission.” All the pontifical propositions opposed to the declarations of Marsilius of Padua and Jean de Jandun are proved at length from the Scriptures, traditions, and history. These declarations are condemned as being contrary to the Holy Scriptures, dangerous to the Catholic faith, heretical, and erroneous, and their authors Marsilius and Jean as being undoubtedly heretics and even heresiarchs (Denzinger, “Enchiridion”, 423, ed. Bannwart, 495; Noel Valois, “Histoire litteraire de la France“, XXXIII, 592).

As this condemnation was falling on the head of Marsilius, the culprit was coming to Italy in the emperor’s train and he saw his revolutionary ideas being put into practice. Louis of Bavaria had himself crowned by Colonna, syndic of the Roman people; he dethroned John XXII, replacing him by the Friar Minor, Peter of Corbara, whom he invested with temporal power. At the same time he bestowed the title of imperial vicar on Marsilius and permitted him to persecute the Roman clergy. The pope of Avignon protested twice against the sacrilegious conduct of both. The triumph of Marsilius was, however, of short duration. Abandoned by the emperor in October, 1336, he died towards the end of 1342. Among his principal works, the “Defensor Pacis”, which we possess in twenty manuscripts, has been printed frequently and translated into various languages. The “Defensor Minor“, a resume of the preceding work compiled by Marsilius himself, has just been recovered in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Canon. Miscell., 188). It throws light on certain points in the larger work; but has not yet been published.”De translatione Imperii Romani” has been printed four times in Germany and once in England.”De jurisdictione Imperatoris in causa matrimoniali” has been edited by Preher and by Goldast (Monarchia Sancti Rom. Imperii, II, c. 1283). The influence of the “Defensor pacis” was disastrous, and Marsilius may well be reckoned one of the fathers of the Reformation.


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