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A Review by Jotham Parsons Burns and Izbicki, Conciliarism and Papalism

J. H. Burns and Thomas M. Izbicki, eds. Conciliarism and Papalism (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1997. ISBN 0-521-47674-7 (paperback). xxxiv+315 pp. $29.95.

This volume in the distinguished and tremendously useful series, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, presents the first full translation into English (or, as far as I know, any language) of four very important and influential texts from the later stages of the Conciliarist controversy. The first is a tract written by Tommaso de Vio Cajetan, general of  the Dominicans, which supported Papal authority against theself-styled Council of Pisa which had been summoned by Louis XII of Franceand his supporters. The second is the reply which the French government and the University of Paris commissioned from Jacques Almain, a newly-minted doctor of that institution, and the third is Cajetan's response to that reply. The final document in this collection is a selection from the commentary which Almain's teacher John Mair wrote a few years later on the Gospel of Matthew, which treats the authority of Peter and the Papacy. All four were intended primarily for an audience of trained theologians, and as technical products of late scholasticism they are not easy going for the modern reader. The mild abstruseness of their form and style should not, however, blind us to the fact that this was the cutting edge of thought about the organization of the Church and even of the human state at the dawn of the Reformation and of Renaissance monarchy. To properly understand ecclesiology and political thought-and, consequently, Church and secular politics-through the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth centuries, historians must come to grips with the tradition which these texts epitomize. The editors both of this volume and of this series have done scholarship a great service in making them readily accessible to a wide audience.

Producing a translation of late-scholastic Latin which is both accurate and readable is a nearly impossible task, but one at which this volume succeeds commendably. I would be inclined to think that in a few places elegance is too much sacrificed to the letter, but this is certainly preferable to the alternative. These are technical documents, and the technical language comes through clearly. The notes (mainly concerned with clarifying references) are helpful without being obtrusive. The introduction lays out the historical context of the texts well, and gives the reader some indications of what major issues and arguments can be found in the texts themselves. The index is brief, but useful. Altogether, the path of the non-specialist reader has been smoothed about as much as is humanly possible.

If I had one major problem with the presentation of these texts, it would be that the editors do not argue for their importance as forcefully as they deserve. Even in the history of Conciliarism, let alone in the history of religious reform, of politics or of political thought, this controversy and these texts have traditionally been accorded only secondary importance. This volume's bibliography, which is (as the back-cover copy promises) reasonably comprehensive, is less than two pages long. An article too recent to have figured in that bibliography points towards the broader significance of this controversy. Katherine Eliot van Liere has shown that Vitoria -- and presumably the Salamanca school in general -- was deeply influenced by Cajetan's Papalist theory, and in particular by his sharp distinction between secular and ecclesiastical modes of governance (1). She is doubtless correct in suggesting that Cajetan must be considered alongside Machiavelli at the theoretical origins of the modern, autonomous state.

Indeed, when reading these tracts one is struck by the great vigor of Cajetan as opposed to the Parisians. In part, this was surely a matter of personality. One did not become general of the Order of Preachers without a certain rhetorical talent, while Almain in particular displayed many of the defects typical of a newly-minted Ph. D. Beside the Dominican he sounds arcane and doctrinaire. He even fell into a very elementary trap set by his opponent, who had stressed the role of prayer in bringing errant Popes to heel: Almain duly made statements seeming to denigrate the role of prayer in the Church, which Cajetan gleefully attacked. More important than the skills and personalities of these two men, though, were the positions in which they found themselves. The Conciliarist argument, as Almain and Mair presented it, was in essence a very simple one. Christ had given jurisdictional power to the universitas of the Church as a whole, which could then distribute it to individuals (within the limits of the Apostolic/episcopal dispensation), or exercise it directly over any Christian including the Pope. For a Papalist, and particularly for the general of a regular order which relied on Papal privileges to counter the jurisdictional claims of bishops who might try to prevent Dominicans from preaching or administering the sacraments within their dioceses, it was important to hold up the Pope as the source of all jurisdiction.

Up to this point, the two positions are simple mirror images of each other, the obvious ecclesiastical precursors to (to quote the back copy again) "'absolutism' and 'constitutionalism'". It is important to realize, though, that the key term in this quarrel, 'jurisdiction', does not fit neatly into modern notions of political theory. In a society where modes of discipline and coercion were few and crude, power in public life was largely determined by whether individuals or social groups would accept the legitimacy of 'outside' interference in their disputes: that is, of jurisdictional claims. The term 'jursidiction' as it was used in the middle ages and the Renaissance, however, is not clearly assignable to the legislative, judicial or administrative spheres. Jurisdiction was a natural phenomenon (as opposed, for example, to the sacred, sacramental power of orders within the Church) and even if it was established by God it had to obey natural laws; it was thus fundamentally the same in the Church and in the state. It connoted a thorough-going relationship of hierarchical subordination (though always within the bounds of law), so that for example Cajetan, Almain and Mair could all take it for granted that "equal has no power [of jurisdiction] over equal." For this reason, and for obvious practical reasons as well, claims to jurisdictional authority tended to be or to become absolute. Thus, in the two great disputes over ecclesiastical jurisdiction, Boniface VIII and his school tended to reduce the secular power to minor appointees of the Church while Protestant and 'Gallican' jurists increasingly tended to reduce the Church to a Hobbesean arm of the state; while in the matter at hand in this volume, Papalists tended to portray the Council as a simple talk-shop for prelates, while Conciliarists often viewed the Pope as a weak, responsible minister of the Council. The most immediately striking thing about these tracts, as the introduction to this volume notes and as van Liere has confirmed, is the degree to which Cajetan rejected parallels between the political natures of Church and state. Papal jurisdiction was a direct divine institution and its grantor, the risen Christ, was living and present, so that the principal remedy for Papal misgovernment was appeal to Him through prayer. In later years much of this argument would be imported into secular political thought by divine-right theorists, so that this volume can stand as an introduction to the works of Filmer and Bossuet published in the same series. Indeed the controversy between Locke and Filmer, for example, was in many respect a continuation in a new register of these medieval disputes about the location of jurisdiction. By the second half of the seventeenth century, of course, the medieval idea of jurisdiction had begun to decompose, but this is a process which one can already see at work in Cajetan's Rube Goldberg attempts to explain how the Council can depose a doubtful or heretical Pope without infringing his divine institution.

Equally important, however, is the continuing political relevance which these tracts maintained. Their place in sixteenth-century life remains largely undetermined, though it was certainly not inconsiderable. They certainly enjoyed a return to currency at the beginning of the seventeenth century, largely at the hands of the Paris theologian Edmond Richer. They were included in his 1606 edition of the works of Jean Gerson which, as Francis Oakley has recently shown, played a major part in setting the terms of debate during the Venetian Interdict crisis (2). A 1611 dispute between Richer and some prominent Parisian robe officials, on the one hand, and the Dominicans, the Papal Nuncio and Cardinal du Perron (Grand Almoner of France and the most politically active prelate in the land) on the other essentially reiterated the polemical exchange between Cajetan and Almain (3). While the conciliarist controversy had in real terms been dead since Trent, its spectre continued to haunt Europe on the eve of the Thirty Years' War. What was at stake by then was no longer really the line of jurisdiction between Pope and Council, but between Church and State and, increasingly critically, between different organs within each state. While a new vocabulary was being developed to discuss these issues the old one retained its power and the ideas which Cajetan, Almain and Mair had brought to their final state of perfection continued to shape the way Catholics, at least, saw the problems of domination and obedience in their age. It is to be hoped that the publication of these texts in so accessible a form will encourage scholars to pursue further the task of tracing this influence, and of understanding early modern politics in the only terms possible -- its own.

Jotham Parsons
University of Delaware


(1) Katherine Eliot van Liere, "Vitoria, Cajetan and the Conciliarists," Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997), 597-616.

(2) Francis Oakley, "Complexities of Context: Gerson, Bellarmine, Sarpi, Richer, and the Venetian Interdict of 1606-1607," Catholic Historical Review 82 (1996): 368-396.

(3) See "Recit veritable de ce qui s'est passe a Paris, en la dispute publique du chapitre General des Religieux de l'Ordre de S. Dominique, le Vendredy 27 May, 1611," in Laurent Bouchel, La bibliotheque ou thresor du droict francois, 2 vols. (Paris: Eustache Foucault et al., 1615) 1:716-718, s. v. 'Concile'. The original of this anonymous proces verbal is in BN mss. Dupuy 37.