The Case of Two Councils: Institutional Adaptation in the Catholic Church, Part 1

I have written a bit recently about the shortcomings of the dominant institutional adaptation theories (here and here). In parallel to developing my theoretical framework, I have also been studying some institutional adaptation case studies.  Two that I find particularly interesting is the Catholic Church’s Council of Pisa (1409) and the Council of Constance (1414-1418).

In 1305, the conclave elected a French pope, Pope Clement V. Clement refused to move to Italy, and officially moved the curia to Avignon, France, in 1309.  What followed was a series of papacies in Avignon, accompanied by pervasive corruption.  Mysteriously, the papacy returned to Rome under Pope Gregory XI in 1376 – rumors include that he wanted to gain the political upper hand on his corrupt French cardinals, as well as that he was seduced by the nun Catherine of Sienna.  When Gregory died in 1378, parallel conclaves in Avignon and Rome elected their own popes, initiating the Papal Schism (also called the Western Schism). The Schism posed a serious threat to the Catholic Church as an institution.  Doctrinally, there could only be one true pope, and contestation about the true pope threatened to tear the Catholic world apart.  Different regions allied themselves with either Avignon or Rome (or sometimes switched back and forth, whichever was more politically pleasing at the time).  Others began to question the foundation of Church doctrine and authority – if there can be more than one pope, what else can be challenged within the Church?  The Church can no longer be relied upon for political support or credibility, so princes began to look elsewhere for political legitimacy. Furthermore, such public bickering severely damaged the Church’s credibility.  Personal documents from the time warn that the Catholic Church may cease to exist entirely.

Due to the serious nature of this threat, there were several attempts to reunite the papacy. One of the most serious attempts came in 1409, at the Council of Pisa. The objective of Pisa was to unite representatives of both papacies along with religious scholars and politically important persons and to depose of both popes (at the time, Pope Gregory XII of Rome and Pope Benedict XIII of Avignon).  It was strongly backed by King Charles VI, though he himself was not present at the Council, and theological scholars had strong rationales for the legality and legitimacy of the Council.  The two popes themselves initially supported the meeting, until the objective became clear.  Between May and June 1409, the Council found the two Popes illegitimate and declared them deposed.  They also elected a new pope, Alexander V.  He died under suspicious circumstances (though most scholars now believe it was simply coincidence), and a new pope was elected: John XIII.

While the goals of Pisa might have been lofty, their execution was lacking.  Neither Avignon nor Rome respected the ruling, and now the Catholic Church had three popes. To exacerbate the problem, the Council of Pisa would be hard pressed to find a worse man for the papacy than John.  John was a corrupt bully, allegedly coercing and blackmailing the cardinals at his election – it is unlikely he would have been elected otherwise, since he became an ordained priest less than a day before his election.  He was also supposedly an ex-Neapolitan pirate, who had broken out of jail and left his brothers behind to face their death sentence in his hurry to escape Naples. As such, John had difficulty assembling devoted national support.

Around this time, the neighboring Holy Roman Empire was facing its own political turmoil.  In 1411, Sigismund of Luxembourg won out against his brother and rivals to become the new King of the Romans. He set his sights on becoming Holy Roman Emperor, but to achieve that he required an uncontested Pope.  Therefore, as soon as he reached a respite from fighting, he began his campaign for the Council of Constance to determine the true pope.  He individually approached each of the three Popes – John of Pisa, Gregory of Rome, and now Benedict XIII of Avignon – and promised them that he would support their claim to the papacy if in return they agreed to crown him Holy Roman Emperor after the Council.  All three agreed – Benedict and John attended the Council in person, and Gregory sent representatives.  Shortly before the beginning of the Council, Gregory, perhaps suspecting Sigismund’s insincerity, proposed a counter-offer.  Gregory was terminally ill, and was willing to resign from the papacy, on the condition that Sigismund ensure that the successor was Italian and housed the curia in Rome.  Sigismund agreed.  Upon the arrival of Benedict and John in 1414, Sigismund locked them away in towers, allowing them to appear during the day for the jousting and feasts that were customary for such events but locking them back into the towers at night.  Sigismund unilaterally declared both Benedict and John deposed, and announced the resignation of Gregory, calling for a conclave to elect a new pope. The deliberations, which included agenda items on Church doctrine, the true papal succession, and the trial of an early Protestant Jan Hus, went on for four years, ending in 1418.  The time was not without drama.  John fled his tower in the middle of one night dressed in women’s clothes. Sigismund’s men hunted him down and brought him back, where he was sentenced to live the rest of his life under house arrest in the Black Forest.  He was freed again in 1418 and lived out the last few months of his life in Florence.  Benedict also fled from his house arrest to the Kingdom of Aragon, his last supporter.  There he died in 1423.  Sigismund kept his promise and muscled through the conclave Pope Martin V in 1418, a Roman cardinal, on the condition that the papacy now had to be accountable to a parliamentary body and could only act with its approval.

This story, although complicated and ripe for Hollywood, offers some food for thought on the nature of crises and institutional adaptation.  I will discuss these in the coming weeks.

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