Conciliar theory is an idea that exists solely within the Roman Catholic Church. Often referred to as simply “conciliarism,” it is a concept that suggests the general council of the Church has a greater authority than the Pope. Because the authority is greater, the general council would have the ability to depose of the Pope if that were deemed to be necessary.
The roots of conciliar theory come from discussions that the Church had in the 12th century. Canonists at the time were attempting to set certain limitations on the powers of the Pope. In that era, the Church was acting as a government and a religious authority, which meant the Pope often had ruling powers through the Middle Ages.
By the 14th century, the concerns that the Pope had too much authority within the Church grew to radical levels. Marsilius of Padua even suggested that the papacy didn’t even have a divine origin. William of Ockham went as far as suggesting that it was the Church, not the Pope, that was preserved from any errors in faith.
How Conciliar Theory Arose in the Middle Ages
As the 12th century turned into the 13th century, Europe had essentially become entirely Catholic. The teachings that came from the Church were that people were supposed to honor God before man. That meant the Church needed to come before royalty, especially if the kings or queens were not followers of the Church.
King Philip IV of France was especially critical of the authority of the church. His dispute with Pope Boniface VIII were often heated because Philip wanted to tax clergy that were within his country. As a response, Philip was excommunicated from the Church. That action caused Pope Boniface to be accused of sorcery, corruption, and worse.
The response from Pope Boniface was published in 1302. His piece, Unam Sanctam, stated that the Pope held power over temporal and spiritual worlds. “Only God can judge the pope.”
In response to the publication, Philip sent his knights down to Italy with a mission to arrest Pope Boniface. The end result was the death of the pope, reportedly from a high fever and stress.
To appease France, the papacy was moved to Avignon in 1309. Calls of corruption and favoritism followed close behind, mainly because the Pope, curial officials, and most of the Cardinals were all French while the papacy stayed in Avignon. By 1378, pressure mounted enough to cause the papacy to move, but this created a schism in the Church because two popes were deemed to have been legally elected: Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon.
Because of this schism, calls to evaluate the authority of the pope, the leadership, and even the Church itself grew louder. Out of those calls arose the idea of conciliar theory.
Putting Conciliar Theory into Practice
By the 15th century, the conciliar theories were being consolidated into specific actions. The Council of Constance formed in 1414 and invoked the deposition authority to the papacy, which then elected Pope Martin V. Although the council was not convened by a pope and its declarations were never officially approved in totality, these actions would become the foundation of modern conciliar theory thought.
Interestingly enough, one of the primary outcomes from the Council of Constance, which disbanded in 1418, was the condemnation of pre-Reformation efforts, including actions by John Wycliffe.
Conciliar theory has continued to survive, making brief appearances over the next 400 years in various ways, including the doctrine of Gallicanism that came out of France.
In 1870, the first Vatican Council felt threatened enough by the idea of conciliarism that it was rejected outright. The second Vatican Council, which convened in 1962, asserted that the papacy and the head of the college of bishops is an organic and unified structural component, especially when councils are gathered.
Many of the calls for conciliar theory to be put into practice today come from the United States. Teachings from the Church continue to maintain that the current Pope is the next successor of Peter, who was given the “keys of the kingdom” by Jesus. The Pope’s title is even sometimes referred to as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. That gives him the authority to issue infallible statements.
Two notable invocations of infallibility have arisen with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 and the dogma definition of the Assumption of Mary that was offered in 1950.
Concerns with Both Sides of the Conciliar Theory Debate
The issue with conciliar theory, whether one supports it or does not, is that it does not take into account the teachings of the New Testament. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” is written in Romans Chapter 3. Even the disciples of Jesus, the original 12, were a group of sinners that Jesus called upon to serve.
The authority to forgive sin is based on what humans see of what is revealed by God to be directed for forgiveness, as described in John 16. When God forgives sin, that forgiveness is considered to be complete. “If we confess our sins,” says 1 John Chapter 1, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, which is a prayer that is often repeated at Catholic mass, one phrase stands out quite poignantly: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
The concept of infallibility for the papacy is therefore not based on the human, but the actual position that is being held. Conciliar theory is also based on the position of council within the Church and not the actual people who hold it. The problem with the implementation of this theory, however, is that it was originally created to hold the individuals in those positions to a level of accountability while wanting to retain power.
Is the Pope or the Papacy Really Infallible?
Church doctrine on infallibility are based on the promise that Jesus offered to Peter. What many do not realize is that infallibility was not dogmatically defined until the 19th century. It was often defended within the church and existed during the Middle Ages as a concept, but only grew in the wake of the Counter-Reformation.
The Church also argues that traditions and magisterium, not just scripture, help to define the dogma of infallibility.
Conciliar theory, at its core, looks to shift the center of power of the Roman Catholic Church from the papacy to the general council. Although doctrine has been defined to prevent this from actually happening, calls to review conciliarism will likely continue for as long as the Church continues to exist.