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§ 15. The Council of Pisa.

The three councils of Pisa, 1409, Constance, 1414, and Basel, 1431, of which the schism was the occasion, are known in history as the Reformatory councils. Of the tasks they set out to accomplish, the healing of the schism and the institution of disciplinary reforms in the Church, the first they accomplished, but with the second they made little progress. They represent the final authority of general councils in the affairs of the Church—a view, called the conciliary theory—in distinction from the supreme authority of the papacy.

The Pisan synod marks an epoch in the history of Western Christendom not so much on account of what it actually accomplished as because it was the first revolt in council against the theory of papal absolutism which had been accepted for centuries. It followed the ideas of Gerson and Langenstein, namely, that the Church is the Church even without the presence of a pope, and that an oecumenical council is legitimate which meets not only in the absence of his assent but in the face of his protest. Representing intellectually the weight of the Latin world and the larger part of its constituency, the assembly was a momentous event leading in the opposite direction from the path laid out by Hildebrand, Innocent III., and their successors. It was a mighty blow at the old system of Church government.

While Gregory XII. was tarrying at Rimini, as a refugee, under the protection of Charles Malatesta, and Benedict XIII. was confined to the seclusion of Perpignan, the synod was opened on the appointed day in the cathedral of Pisa. There was an imposing attendance of 14 cardinals,—the number being afterwards increased to 24,—4 patriarchs, 10 archbishops, 79 bishops and representatives of 116 other bishops, 128 abbots and priors and the representatives of 200 other abbots. To these prelates were added the generals of the Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite, and Augustinian orders, the grand-master of the Knights of St. John, who was accompanied by 6 commanders, the general of the Teutonic order, 300 doctors of theology and the canon law, 109 representatives of cathedral and collegiate chapters, and the deputies of many princes, including the king of the Romans, Wenzil, and the kings of England, France, Poland, and Cyprus. A new and significant feature was the representation of the universities of learning, including Paris,274274    Schwab, p. 223 sq. The address which Gerson is said to have delivered and which Mansi includes in the acts of the council was a rhetorical composition and never delivered at Pisa. Schwab, p. 243. Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, Montpellier, Toulouse, Angers, Vienna, Cracow, Prag, and Cologne. Among the most important personages was Peter d’Ailly, though there is no indication in the acts of the council that he took a prominent public part. John Gerson seems not to have been present.

The second day, the archbishop of Milan, Philargi, himself soon to be elected pope, preached from Judg. 20:7: "Behold, ye are all children of Israel. Give here your advice and counsel," and stated the reasons which had led to the summoning of the council. Guy de Maillesec, the only cardinal surviving from the days prior to the schism, presided over the first sessions. His place was then filled by the patriarch of Alexandria, till the new pope was chosen.

One of the first deliverances was a solemn profession of the Holy Trinity and the Catholic faith, and that every heretic and schismatic will share with the devil and his angels the burnings of eternal fire unless before the end of this life he make his peace with the Catholic Church.275275    Mansi, XXVII. 358.

The business which took precedence of all other was the healing of the schism, the causa unionis, as, it was called, and disposition was first made of the rival popes. A formal trial was instituted, which was opened by two cardinals and two archbishops proceeding to the door of the cathedral and solemnly calling Gregory and Benedict by name and summoning them to appear and answer for themselves. The formality was gone through three times, on three successive days, and the offenders were given till April 15 to appear.

By a series of declarations the synod then justified its existence, and at the eighth session declared itself to be "a general council representing the whole universal Catholic Church and lawfully and reasonably called together."276276    Mansi, XXVII. 366. It thought along the lines marked out by D’Ailly and Gerson and the other writers who had pronounced the unity of the Church to consist in oneness with her divine Head and declared that the Church, by virtue of the power residing in herself, has the right, in response to a divine call, to summon a council. The primitive Church had called synods, and James, not Peter, had presided at Jerusalem.

D’Ailly, in making definite announcement of his views at a synod, meeting at Aix, Jan. 1, 1409, had said that the Church’s unity depends upon the unity of her head, Christ. Christ’s mystical body gets its authority from its divine head to meet in a general council through representatives, for it is written, "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." The words are not "in Peter’s name," or "in Paul’s name," but "in my name." And when the faithful assemble to secure the welfare of the Church, there Christ is in their midst.

Gerson wrote his most famous tract bearing on the schism and the Church’s right to remove a pope—De auferibilitate papae ab ecclesia — while the council of Pisa was in session.277277    See Schwab, p. 250 sqq. In this elaborate treatment he said that, in the strict sense, Christ is the Church’s only bridegroom. The marriage between the pope and the Church may be dissolved, for such a spiritual marriage is not a sacrament. The pope may choose to separate himself from the Church and resign. The Church has a similar right to separate itself from the pope by removing him. All Church officers are appointed for the Church’s welfare and, when the pope impedes its welfare, it may remove him. It is bound to defend itself. This it may do through a general council, meeting by general consent and without papal appointment. Such a council depends immediately upon Christ for its authority. The pope may be deposed for heresy or schism. He might be deposed even where he had no personal guilt, as in case he should be taken prisoner by the Saracens, and witnesses should testify he was dead. Another pope would then be chosen and, if the reports of the death of the former pope were proved false, and he be released from captivity, he or the other pope would have to be removed, for the Church cannot have more than one pontiff.

Immediately after Easter, Charles Malatesta appeared in the council to advocate Gregory’s cause. A commission, appointed by the cardinals, presented forty reasons to show that an agreement between the synod and the Roman pontiff was out of the question. Gregory must either appear at Pisa in person and abdicate, or present his resignation to a commission which the synod would appoint and send to Rimini.

Gregory’s case was also represented by the rival king of the Romans, Ruprecht,278278    The electors deposed Wenzil in 1400 for incompetency, and elected Ruprecht of the Palatinate. through a special embassy made up of the archbishop of Riga, the bishops of Worms and Verden, and other commissioners. It presented twenty-four reasons for denying the council’s jurisdiction. The paper was read by the bishop of Verden at the close of a sermon preached to the assembled councillors on the admirable text, "Peace be unto you." The most catching of the reasons was that, if the cardinals questioned the legitimacy of Gregory’s pontificate, what ground had they for not questioning the validity of their own authority, appointed as they had been by Gregory or Benedict.

In a document of thirty-eight articles, read April 24, the council presented detailed specifications against the two popes, charging them both with having made and broken solemn promises to resign.

The argument was conducted by Peter de Anchorano, professor of both laws in Bologna, and by others. Peter argued that, by fostering the schism, Gregory and his rival had forfeited jurisdiction, and the duty of calling a representative council of Christendom devolved on the college of cardinals. In certain cases the cardinals are left no option whether they shall act or not, as when a pope is insane or falls into heresy or refuses to summon a council at a time when orthodox doctrine is at stake. The temporal power has the right to expel a pope who acts illegally.

In an address on Hosea 1:11, "and the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together and shall appoint themselves one head," Peter Plaoul, of the University of Paris, clearly placed the council above the pope, an opinion which had the support of his own university as well as the support of the universities of Toulouse, Angers, and Orleans. The learned canonist, Zabarella, afterwards appointed cardinal, took the same ground.

The trial was carried on with all decorum and, at the end of two months, on June 5, sentence was pronounced, declaring both popes "notorious schismatics, promoters of schism, and notorious heretics, errant from the faith, and guilty of the notorious and enormous crimes of perjury and violated oaths."279279    Eorum utrumque fuisse et esse notorios schismaticos et antiqui schimatis nutritores ... necnon notorios haereticos et a fide devios, notoriisque criminibus enormibus perjuriis et violantionis voti irretitos, etc., Mansi, XXVI. 1147, 1225 sq. Hefele, VI. 1025 sq., also gives the judgment in full.

Deputies arriving from Perpignan a week later, June 14, were hooted by the council when the archbishop of Tarragona, one of their number, declared them to be "the representatives of the venerable pope, Benedict XIII." Benedict had a short time before shown his defiance of the Pisan fathers by adding twelve members to his cabinet. When the deputies announced their intention of waiting upon Gregory, and asked for a letter of safe conduct, Balthazar Cossa, afterwards John XXIII., the master of Bologna, is said to have declared, "Whether they come with a letter or without it, he would burn them all if he could lay his hands upon them."

The rival popes being disposed of, it remained for the council to proceed to a new election, and it was agreed to leave the matter to the cardinals, who met in the archiepiscopal palace of Pisa, June 26, and chose the archbishop of Milan, Philargi, who took the name of Alexander V. He was about seventy, a member of the Franciscan order, and had received the red hat from Innocent VII. I. He was a Cretan by birth, and the first Greek to wear the tiara since John VII., in 706. He had never known his father or mother and, rescued from poverty by the Minorites, he was taken to Italy to be educated, and later sent to Oxford. After his election as pope, he is reported to have said, "as a bishop I was rich, as a cardinal poor, and as pope I am a beggar again."280280    Nieheim, p. 320 sqq., gives an account of Alexander’s early life.

In the meantime Gregory’s side council at Cividale, near Aquileja, was running its course. There was scarcely an attendant at the first session. Later, Ruprecht and king Ladislaus were represented by deputies. The assumption of the body was out of all proportion to its size. It pronounced the pontiffs of the Roman line the legitimate rulers of Christendom, and appointed nuncios to all the kingdoms. However, not unmindful of his former professions, Gregory anew expressed his readiness to resign if his rivals, Peter of Luna and Peter of Candia (Crete), would do the same. Venice had declared for Alexander, and Gregory, obliged to flee in the disguise of a merchant, found refuge in the ships of Ladislaus.

Benedict’s council met in Perpignan six months before, November, 1408. One hundred and twenty prelates were in attendance, most of them from Spain. The council adjourned March 26, 1409, after appointing a delegation of seven to proceed to Pisa and negotiate for the healing of the schism.

After Alexander’s election, the members lost interest in the synod and began to withdraw from Pisa, and it was found impossible to keep the promise made by the cardinals that there should be no adjournment till measures had been taken to reform the Church "in head and members." Commissions were appointed to consider reforms, and Alexander prorogued the body, Aug. 7, 1409, after appointing another council for April 12, 1412.281281    Creighton is unduly severe upon Alexander and the council for adjourning, without carrying out the promise of reform. Hefele, VI. 1042, treats the matter with fairness, and shows the difficulty involved in a disciplinary reform where the evils were of such long standing.

At the opening of the Pisan synod there were two popes; at its close, three. Scotland and Spain still held to Benedict, and Naples and parts of Central Europe continued to acknowledge the obedience of Gregory. The greater part of Christendom, however, was bound to the support of Alexander. This pontiff lacked the strength needed for the emergency, and he aroused the opposition of the University of Paris by extending the rights of the Mendicant orders to hear confessions.282282    The number of ecclesiastical gifts made by Alexander in his brief pontificate was large, and Nieheim pithily says that when the waters are confused, then is the time to fish. He died at Bologna, May 3, 1410, without having entered the papal city. Rumor went that Balthazar Cossa, who was about to be elected his successor, had poison administered to him.

As a rule, modern Catholic historians are inclined to belittle the Pisan synod, and there is an almost general agreement among them that it lacked oecumenical character. Without pronouncing a final decision on the question, Bellarmin regarded Alexander V. as legitimate pope. Gerson and other great contemporaries treated it as oecumenical, as did also Bossuet and other Gallican historians two centuries later. Modern Catholic historians treat the claims of Gregory XII. as not affected by a council which was itself illegitimate and a high-handed revolt against canon law.283283    Pastor, I. 192, speaks of the unholy Pisan synod—segenslose Pisaner Synode. All ultramontane historians disparage it, and Hergenröther-Kirsch uses a tone of irony in describing its call and proceedings. They do not exonerate Gregory from having broken his solemn promise, but they treat the council as wholly illegitimate, either because it was not called by a pope or because it had not the universal support of the Catholic nations. Hefele, I. 67 sqq., denies to it the character of an oecumenical synod, but places it in a category by itself. Pastor opens his treatment with a discourse on the primacy of the papacy, dating from Peter, and the sole right of the pope to call a council. The cardinals who called it usurped an authority which did not belong to them.

But whether the name oecumenical be given or be withheld matters little, in view of the general judgment which the summons and sitting of the council call forth. It was a desperate measure adopted to suit an emergency, but it was also the product of a new freedom of ecclesiastical thought, and so far a good omen of a better age. The Pisan synod demonstrated that the Church remained virtually a unit in spite of the double pontifical administration. It branded by their right names the specious manoevres of Gregory and Peter de Luna. It brought together the foremost thinkers and literary interests of Europe and furnished a platform of free discussion. Not its least service was in preparing the way for the imposing council which convened in Constance five years later.


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