Council of Constance: Wikis


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Council of Constance
Date 1414–1418
Accepted by Catholicism
Previous council Vienne
Next council Siena (Counciliarism)
Florence (Ecumenical)
Convoked by Antipope John XXIII, confirmed by Pope Gregory XII
Presided by Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor
Attendance 600
Topics of discussion Western Schism
Documents and statements Deposition of John XXIII and Benedict XIII, condemnation of Jan Hus, election of Martin V
Chronological list of Ecumenical councils

The Council of Constance is the 15th ecumenical council recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, held from 1414 to 1418. The council ended the Western Schism, by deposing the remaining Papal claimants and electing Pope Martin V.

The Council also condemned and executed Jan Hus and ruled on issues of national sovereignty, the rights of pagans, and just war in response to a conflict between the Kingdom of Poland and the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The Council is important for its relationship to the development of the Councilarism and Papal supremacy.


Origin and background

Emperor Sigismund and his second wife Barbara of Celje at the council of Constance

The council was called by the German King Sigismund (later Holy Roman Emperor), a supporter of John XXIII, the pope recently elected at Pisa (and later declared an Antipope). The council was held from November 16, 1414 to April 22, 1418 in Constance (currently known as Konstanz). Its main purpose was to end the Papal schism which had resulted from the confusion following both the Avignon Papacy and the Council of Pisa (which had sought to resolve the situation). The Council of Constance marked the high point of the Conciliar movement to reform the Church. According to Joseph McCabe, the council was attended by roughly 29 cardinals, 100 "learned doctors of law and divinity," 134 abbots, 183 bishops and archbishops.

At the time the council was called, there were three Popes (Benedict XIII, Gregory XII, and John XXIII) all of whom claimed legitimacy. A few years earlier, in one of the first blows to the Conciliar movement, the bishops at the Council of Pisa had deposed the two claimant popes and elected a third pope, claiming that in such a situation, a council of bishops had greater authority than just one bishop, even if he were the bishop of Rome.

An innovation at the Council was that instead of voting as individuals, the bishops voted in national blocs, explicitly confirming the national pressures that had fueled the schism since 1378.

Decrees and doctrinal status

Bishops debating with the pope at the Council of Constance

The famous Haec sancta decree on papal primacy and infallibility was promulgated in the fifth session, April 6, 1415. Its declaration that

Legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the Catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.

marks the high water mark of the Conciliar movement of reform [1]. This decree, however, is not considered valid by the Catholic Church, since it was never approved by Pope Gregory XII or his successors, and was passed by the Council in a session before his confirmation. The Church declared the first sessions of the Council of Constance an invalid and illicit assembly of Bishops, gathered under the authority of Emperor Sigismund and Antipope John XXIII.

The acts of the Council were not made public until 1442, at the behest of the Council of Basel; they were printed in 1500. The creation of a book on how to die was ordered by the council, and thus written in 1415 called Ars moriendi.

Ending the Western Schism

Imperia, a statue commemorating the Council

With the support of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, enthroned before the high altar of the cathedral of Constance, the Council of Constance recommended that all three popes abdicate, and that another be chosen. In part because of the constant presence of the emperor, other rulers demanded that they have a say in who would be pope.

Gregory XII then sent representatives to Constance, whom he granted full powers to summon, open and preside over an Ecumenical Council; he also empowered them to present his resignation to the Papacy. This would pave the way for the end of the Western Schism.

The legates were received by Emperor Sigismund and by the assembled Bishops, and the Emperor yielded the presidency of the proceedings to the papal legates, Cardinal Dominici of Ragusa and Prince Charles of Malatesta. On 4 July 1415 the Bull of Gregory XII which appointed Malatesta and Cardinal Dominici of Ragusa as his proxies at the council was formally read before the assembled Bishops. The cardinal then read a decree of Gregory XII which convoked the council and authorized its succeeding acts. Thereupon, the Bishops voted to accept the summons. Prince Malatesta immediately informed the Council that he was empowered by a commission from Pope Gregory XII to resign the Papal Throne on the Pontiff's behalf. He asked the Council whether they would prefer to receive the abdication at that point or at a later date. The Bishops voted to receive the Papal abdication immediately. Thereupon the commission by Gregory XII authorizing his proxy to resign the Papacy on his behalf was read and Malatesta, acting in the name of Gregory XII, pronounced the resignation of the papacy by Gregory XII and handed a written copy of the resignation to the assembly.

Former Pope Gregory XII was then created titular Cardinal Bishop of Porto and Santa Ruffina by the Council, with rank immediately below the Pope (which made him the highest ranking person in the Church, since, due to his abdication, the See of Peter was vacant). Gregory XII's cardinals were accepted as true cardinals by the Council, but the members of the council delayed electing a new pope for fear that a new pope would restrict further discussion of pressing issues in the Church.

By the time the anti-popes were all deposed and the new Pope, Martin V, was elected, two years had passed since Gregory XII's abdication, and Gregory was already dead. The council with great care to protect the legitimacy of the succession, ratified all his acts and a new pontiff was chosen. The new pope, Martin V, elected November 1417, soon asserted the absolute authority of the papal office.

Condemnation of Jan Hus

Painting of Jan Hus in Council of Constance by Václav Brožík

A second goal of the council was to continue the reforms begun at the Council of Pisa. These reforms were largely directed against John Wycliff, mentioned in the opening session, and condemned in the eighth, May 4, 1415 and Jan Hus, and their followers. Jan Hus, summoned to Constance under a letter of indemnity, was condemned by council and burned at the stake notwithstanding on 6 July 1415.

Polish-Teutonic conflict

During the council there were also political topics discussed, such as the accusation by the Teutonic Knights that Poland was defending pagans. Paweł Włodkowic, rector of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, presented there the theory that all nations, including pagan ones, have the right to self-government and to live in peace and possess their land, which is one of the earliest ideas of international law:

  • Communities have the right to determine to which nation they belong;
  • Peoples have the right to decide on their own future and to defend their nation;
  • Rulers are bound to respect the individual religious convictions of their subjects who cannot be denied their natural rights because of their belief;
  • Conversion through the use of force and coercion is invalid, sinful and deplorable;
  • Conversion can never be used as a pretext for war;
  • Maintenance of peace required an International Tribunal to judge contesting claims. No ruler, not even the Emperor or the Pope, should be able to declare war without submission to due process;
  • The principles of just war are always applicable and binding, regardless as to whether the state, nation or people against whom war is being declared is Christian or not;
  • Non-Christian and non-Catholic nations living at peace with their neighbors have the right to have their sovereignty and the integrity of their territories safeguarded;
  • Neither the Emperor nor the Pope could authorize anything that contradicts the principles of natural law;
  • Poland was bound to the Emperor only when he acted as Defender of the Faith;
  • The right of might erodes international relations like a cancer;
  • Exercising its right to self-defense, a Catholic state can also engage non-Christians or non-Catholics among its forces.

During the proceedings of the Council, John of Falkenberg accused Poles of being: “guilty of the abominable crime of using Pagan allies in their war against the German Order.” He proposed that “the Poles must be exterminated.”[1] In his Liber de doctrina, Falkenberg argued that “the Emperor has the right to slay even peaceful infidels simply because they are pagans; the Poles too should be killed for allying themselves with the infidels and resisting Christian Knights. The Poles deserve death for defending infidels, and should be exterminated even more than the infidels; they should be deprived of their sovereignty and reduced to slavery.” [1]


  1. ^ a b doctor John Cassar The Rights of Nations: Reflections on the Address of Pope John Paul II to the 50th Session of the United Nations General Assembly Center for Global Education, St. John's University 1997

External links

Popes of the Western Schism

Coordinates: 47°39′48″N 9°10′37″E / 47.66333°N 9.17694°E / 47.66333; 9.17694


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

COUNCIL OF. CONSTANCE This council, convoked at the instance of the emperor Sigismund by Pope John XXIII.- one of the three popes between whom Christendom was at the time divided - with the object of putting an end to the Great Schism of the West and reforming the church, was opened on the 5th of November 1414 and did not close until the 22nd of April 1418. In spite of his reluctance to go to Constance, John XXIII., who succeeded Alexander V. (the pope elected by the council of Pisa), hoped that the new council, while confirming the work of the council of Pisa, would proclaim him sole legitimate pope and definitely condemn his two rivals, Gregory XII. and Benedict XIII. But he was soon forced to renounce this hope. So urgent was the need of restoring union at any cost that even prelates who had taken an active part in the work of the council of Pisa, such as Pierre d'Ailly, cardinal bishop of Cambrai, were forced to admit, in view of the fact that the decisions of that council had been and were still contested, that the only possible course was to reconsider the question of the union de novo, entirely disregarding all previous deliberations on the subject, and treating the claims of John and his two competitors with the strictest impartiality. Feebly supported by the Italians, by the majority of the cardinals, and by the representatives of the king of France, John soon found himself in danger of being driven to abdicate. With the connivance of the duke of Austria he fled, first to Schaffhausen, then to Laufenburg, Freiburg, and finally to Breisach, in the hope of escaping in Burgundian territory the pressure exerted upon him by the emperor and the fathers of the council. His flight, however, only precipitated events. Sigismund declared war on the duke of Austria, and the fathers, determined to have their will carried out, drew up in their 4th and 5th sessions (30th of March and 6th of April 1415) a set of decrees with the intention of justifying their attitude and putting the fugitive pope at their mercy. Interpreted in the most general sense, these decrees, which enacted that the council of Constance derived its power immediately from Jesus Christ, and that every one, even the pope, was bound to obey it and every legitimately assembled general council in all that concerned faith, reform, union, &c., were tantamount to the overturning of the constitution of the church by establishing the superiority of the council over the pope. Their terms, however,could not fail to give rise to some ambiguity, and their validity was especially contested on the ground that the council was not ecumenical, since it represented at that date the obedience of only one of three rival popes. Nevertheless, John, who had been abandoned by the duke of Austria and imprisoned in the castle of Radolfzell, near Constance, was arraigned, suspended and deposed (May 29th), and himself ratified the sentence of the council.

Pope Gregory XII. was next required to renounce his rights, and this he did, with as much independence as dignity, through a legate, who previously convoked the council in the name of his master, and thus in some sort gave it the necessary confirmed authority. This was the regular extinction of the line of pontiffs who, if the validity of the election of Urban VI. on the 8th of April 13 78 be admitted, had held the legitimate papacy for thirtyseven years.

All that remained was to obtain the abdication of Benedict XIII., the successor of the Avignon pope Clement VII., but the combined efforts of the council and the emperor were powerless to overcome the obstinacy of the Aragonese pope. It was in vain that Sigismund journeyed to Perpignan, and that the kings of Aragon, Castile and Navarre ceased to obey the aged pontiff. Abandoned by almost all his adherents Benedict found refuge in the castle of Peniscola on an impregnable rock overlooking the Mediterranean, and remained intractable. At the council proceedings were instituted against him, which ended at last on the 26th of July 1417 in his deposition. In this sentence it is to be noted that the council of Constance was careful not to base itself upon the former decision of the council of Pisa. The action of the council of Constance in renewing the condemnation of the doctrines of Wycliffe pronounced at Rome in 1413, and in condemning and executing John Huss and Jerome of Prague, is dealt with elsewhere (see Wycliffe; Huss; Jerome Of Prague). Nor is it possible to mention here all the intrigues and quarrels that arose during three and a half years among the crowd of prelates, monks, doctors, simple clerks, princes and ambassadors composing this tumultuous assembly - perhaps the greatest congress of people the world has ever seen. From the outset, voting by count of heads had been superseded by voting according to nations, i.e. all questions were deliberated and settled in four distinct assemblies - the Italian, the French, the German and the English,' - the decisions of the nations being merely ratified afterwards pro forma by the council in general congregation, and also, if occasion arose, in public session. These four groups, however, were of unequal importance, and thanks to this arrangement the English, although weakest in point of numbers, were able to exercise the same influence in the council as if they had formed a fourth of the voters. - the same influence, for instance, as the Italians, who had an imposing numerical force. This anomaly aroused lively protests, especially in the French group, after the battle of Agincourt had rekindled national animosity on both sides. The arrival of the Spaniards at Constance necessitating the formation of a fifth nation, Pierre d'Ailly availed himself of the opportunity to ask either that the English nation might be merged in the German, or that each great nation might be allowed to divide itself into little groups each equivalent to the English nation. It is not difficult to imagine the storms aroused by this indiscreet proposal; and had not the majority of the Frenchmen assembled at Constance had the sagacity to ref use to uphold the cardinal of Cambrai on this point, the upshot would have been a premature dissolution of the council.

Another source of trouble was the attitude of the emperor Sigismund, who, not content with protecting by his presence and as far as possible directing the deliberations of the "Universal Church," followed on more than one occasion a policy of violence and threats, a policy all the more irritating since, weary of his previously assumed role of peacemaker between the Christian powers, he had abruptly allied himself with the king of England, and adopted an extremely hostile attitude towards the king of France.

The reform which the council had set itself to effect was a subject the fathers could not broach without stirring up dissension: some stood out obstinately for preserving the status quo, while others contemplated nothing less than the transformation of the monarchical administration of the church into a parliamentary democracy, the subordination of the sovereign pontiff, and the annihilation of the Sacred College. In view of these difficulties, the opinion which tended to assure the success of one at least of the great tasks before the council, viz. the re-establishment of unity by the election of a single pope, finally prevailed in despite of Sigismund. The general reform on which the council had failed to come to an understanding had to be adjourned, and the council contented itself with promulgating, on the 9th of October 1417, the only reforming decrees on which an agreement could be reached. The principle of the periodicity of the councils was admitted; the first was to assemble after the lapse of five years, the second within the next seven years, and subsequent councils were to meet decennially. In the event of a fresh schism, the council, which bound itself to assemble immediately, even without formal convocation, was to remain sole judge of the conflict. After his election the pope had to make a profession of the Catholic faith, and give guarantees against arbitrary translations. Finally, the council pronounced in favour of the pope's renunciation of the right to the movable property of deceased prelates (spolium) as well as of the right of procurations. The execution of the surplus of the general reform of the church in its head and members was left in the hands of the future pope, who had to proceed conjointly with the council, or rather with a commission appointed by the nations - in other words, once the new pope was elected, the fathers, conscious of their impotence, were disinclined to postpone their dispersion until the laborious achievement of the reform. They were weary of the business, and wished to be done with it.

In order to rebuild the see of St Peter on a basis now cleared of obstacles, an attempt was made to surround the election of 1 The English, who had hitherto been considered to form part of the German "nation," were recognized as a separate nation at this council for the first time.

the future pope with all the necessary guarantees. The authority of the cardinals, who were the only persons judicially invested with the right of electing the pope, emerged from the crisis through which the church had just passed in far too feeble and contested a condition to carry by its own weight the general assent. It was therefore decided that with the cardinals each nation should associate six delegates, and that the successful candidate should be required to poll two-thirds of the suffrages, not only in the Sacred College, but also in each of these five groups. The advantage of this arrangement was that the choice of the future pope would depend, not only on the vote of the cardinals, thus safeguarding tradition, but at the same time on the unanimous consent of the various nations, by which the adhesion of the whole Catholic world to the election would be guaranteed. There was, indeed, a danger lest the rivalries in the assembly might render it exceedingly difficult, not to say impossible, to obtain such unanimity. But at the end of three days the conclave resulted in the election of Cardinal Otto Colonna, who took the name of Martin V. (lath of November 1417), and the Great Schism of the West was at an end.

To conform to the decrees of the council, the new pope drew up a project of reform with the concurrence of the fathers still remaining at Constance, and subsequently made various reforming treaties or concordats with the nations of the council, which finally broke up after the 45th session, held on the 22nd of April 1418. To all seeming the pope had admitted the canonicity of several of the decrees of Constance - for instance, he had submitted to the necessity of the periodical convocation of other councils; but from his reticence on some points, as well as from his general attitude and some of his constitutions, it appeared that the whole of the decrees of Constance did not receive his unqualified approval, and without any definite pronouncement he made some reservations in the case of decrees which were detrimental to the rights and pre-eminence of the Holy See.

See H. von der Hardt, Magnum oecumenicum Constantiense concilium (Frankfort, 1700); Ulrich von Richental, Das Conciliumbuck zu Constanz, ed. by Buck in the Bibliothek des liter. Vereins (Stuttgart, 1882); H. Finke, Forschungen and Quellen zur Gesch. des Konstanzer Konzils (Paderborn, 1889), and Acta concilii Constantiensis, vol. i. (Munster, 1896); N. Valois, La France et le grand schisme d'Occident, vol. iv. (Paris, 1902). (N. V.)

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Simple English

The Council of Constance was a council in the 15th century. It was held between 1414 and 1418. It took place in Constance (today known as Konstanz) in Switzerland. The result of this ecumenical council by the Roman Catholic Church was a new Pope. His name was Martin V.


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