remedy until the papal schism occurred in 1378. Such a schism as this, so intolerable to the ecclesiastical sense of the middle ages, necessitated the discovery of some authority superior to the rival popes, and therefore able to put an end to their quarrelling. General councils were now once more called to mind; but these were no longer conceived as mere advisory councils to the pope, but as the highest representative organ of the universal Church, and as such ranking above the pope, and competent to demand obedience even from him. This was the view of the Germans Conrad of Gelnhausen (d. 1390) and Heinrich of Langenstein (d. 1397), as also of the Frenchmen Pierre d’Ailli (d. 1420) and Jean Charlier Gerson (d. 1429). These all recognized in the convocation of a general council the means of setting bounds to the abuses in the government of the Church by an extensive reform. The council of Pisa (1409) separated without effecting anything; but the council of Constance (1414–1418) did actually put an end to the schism. The reforms begun at Constance and continued at Basel (1431–1449) proved, however, insufficient. Above all, the attempt to set up the general council as an ordinary institution of the Catholic Church failed; and the Roman papacy, restored at Constance, preserved its irresponsible and unlimited power over the government of the Church. (See Papacy; Constance, Council of, and Basel, Council of.)
Thus the attempt to reform the Church by means of councils failed; but this very failure led to the survival of the desire for reform. It was kept alive by the most various circumstances; in the first instance by the attitude of the European states. Thanks to his recognition by the powers, Pope Eugenius IV. (1431–1447) had been victorious over the council of Basel; but neither France nor Germany was prepared to forgo the reforms passed by the council. France secured their validity, as far as she herself was concerned, by the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (July 7, 1438); Germany followed with the Acceptation of Mainz (March 26, 1439). The theory of the papal supremacy held by the Curia was thus at least called in question.
The antagonism of the opposition parties was even more pronounced. The tendencies which they represented had been present when the middle ages were yet at their height; but the papacy, while at the zenith of its power, had succeeded in crushing the attacks made upon the creed of the Church by its most dangerous foes, the dualistic Cathari. On the other hand it had not been able to overcome the less radical opposition of the “Poor Man of Lyons” (Waldo, d. c. 1217), and even in the 15th century stray supporters of the Waldensian teaching were to be found in Italy, France and Germany, everywhere keeping alive mistrust of the temporal power of the Church, of her priesthood and her hierarchy. In England the hierarchy was attacked by Luther. Starting from Augustine’s conception of the Church as the community of the elect, he protested against a church of wealth and power, a church that had become a political institution instead of a school of salvation, and against its head, the bishop of Rome. Wycliffe’s ideas, conveyed to the continent, precipitated the outbreak of the Hussite storm in Bohemia. The council of Constance thought to quell it by condemnation of Wycliffe’s teaching and by the execution of John Huss (1415). But in vain. The flame burst forth, not in Bohemia alone, where Huss’s death gave the signal for a general rising, but also in England among the Lollards, and in Germany among those of Huss’s persuasion, who had many points of agreement with the remnant of the Waldenses.(d. 1384), its greatest opponent before
This was open opposition; but there was besides another opposing force which, though it raised no noise of controversy, yet was far more widely severed from the views of the Church than either Wycliffe or Huss: this was the Renaissance, which began its reign in Italy during the 14th century. The Renaissance meant the emancipation of the secular world from the domination of the Church, and it contributed in no small measure to the rupture of the educated class with ecclesiastical tradition. Beauty of form alone was at first sought, and found in the antique; but, with the form, the spirit of the classical attitude towards life was revived. While the Church, like a careful mother, sought to lead her children, never allowed to grow up, safely from time into eternity, the men of the Renaissance felt that they had come of age, and that they were entitled to make themselves at home in this world. They wished to possess the earth and enjoy it by means of secular education and culture, and an impassable gulf yawned between their views of religion and morality and those of the Church.
This return to the ideals of antiquity did not remain confined to Italy, but the humanism of the northern countries presents no close parallel to the Italian renaissance. However much it agreed in admiration of the ancients, it differed absolutely in its preservation of the fundamental ideas of Christianity. But neither Reuchlin (d. 1522), Erasmus (d. 1536), Faber d’Étaples (d. 1536), Thomas More (d. 1535), nor the numerous others who were their disciples, or who shared their views, were in the least degree satisfied with the conditions prevailing in the Church. Their ideal was a return to that simplicity of primitive Christendom which they believed they found revealed in the New Testament and in the writings of the early Fathers.
To this theology could not point the way. Since the time of Duns Scotus (d. 1308) theologians had been conscious of the discrepancy between Aristotelianism and ecclesiastical dogma. Faith in the infallibility of the scholastic system was thus shaken, and the system itself was destroyed by the revival of philosophic nominalism, which had been discredited in the 11th century by the realism of the great schoolmen. It now found a bold supporter in William of Occam (q.v.), and through him became widely accepted. But nominalism was powerless to inspire theology with new life; on the contrary, its intervention only increased the inextricable tangle of the hairsplitting questions with which theology busied itself, and made their solution more and more impossible.
Mysticism, moreover, which had no lack of noteworthy supporters in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the various new departures in thought initiated by individual theologians such as Nicolaus Cusanus (d. 1464) and Wessel Gansfort (d. 1489), were not competent to restore to the Church what she had once possessed in scholasticism—that is to say, a conception of Christianity in which all Christendom recognized the convictions in which it lived and had its being.
This was all the more significant because Western Christendom in the 15th century was by no means irreligious. Men’s minds were agitated by spiritual questions, and they sought salvation and the assurance of salvation, using every means prescribed by the Church: confession and the communion, indulgences and relics, pilgrimages and oblations, prayers and attendance at church; none of all these were contemned or held cheap. Yet the age had no inward peace.
After the failure of the attempts at reform by the councils, the guidance of the Church was left undisturbed in the hands of the popes, and they were determined that it should remain so. In 1450 Eugenius IV. set up in opposition to the council of Basel a general council summoned by himself, which met first at Ferrara and afterwards at Florence. Here he appeared to score a great success. The split between East and West had led in the 11th century to the rupture of ecclesiastical relations between Rome and Constantinople. This schism had lasted since the 16th of July 1054; but now a union with the Eastern Church was successfully accomplished at Florence. Eugenius certainly owed his success merely to the political necessities of the emperor of the East, and his union was forthwith destroyed owing to its repudiation by oriental Christendom; yet at the same time his decretals of union were not devoid of importance, for in them the pope reaffirmed the scholastic doctrine regarding the sacraments as a dogma of the Church, and he spoke as the supreme head of all Christendom.
This claim to the supreme government of the Church was to be steadily maintained. In the year 1512 Julius II. called together the fifth Lateran general council, which expressly recognized the subjection of the councils to the pope (Leo X.’s bull Pastor Aeternum, of the 19th of December 1516), and also declared the constitution Unam Sanctam (see above) valid in law.