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Decretists & Decretalists

Revised:  18 January, A.D. 2002
St. Peter's Chair at Rome
St. Prisca, Virgin & Martyr

Adapted from the Web-monk's M.A. thesis, 
Boniface VIII and the Decline of Papal Power.
The Church is capable of dealing with an heretical Pope. Removal is never automatic but with due process, perhaps the Church can remove him.

    It is tempting to think of the authority of the medieval papacy as a law unto itself, answering to no one on earth. In fact, Church law in the formal sense came into being between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. One of the questions often dealt with in the development of this law was the relationship of the pope to the rest of the Church. Boniface VIII inherited a body of law which freely admitted the possibility of deposing the pope himself. He did not have absolute authority.

    The word "Catholic" comes directly from the Greek word meaning "universal." Although the medieval Catholic Church perceived itself as a "universal" organization, it lacked a uniform code of canon laws until at least 1150. The decrees of the first seven ecumenical councils were recognized by almost all Christians -- eastern and western. But, for the most part, such decrees dealt with the more esoteric points of theology and had little to say about the day to day administration of the local church.

    Popes created some administrative law in response to specific, local problems. No mechanism existed for codifying decisions so as to make them available to answer the same questions in future situations. Decrees might be found only in the papal archives, or perhaps, only in the archives of the diocese that requested the ruling from the pope. Canon lawyers had no reliable mechanism for knowing the entirety of this law. There was no guarantee of consistency from one administrative decision to another, and it was rarely clear as to who was bound by what laws.

    Local bishops and metropolitan archbishops often made their own regulations, binding only in their territory, yet perhaps useful elsewhere if they contained some inherent wisdom. The influence of these laws outside of their proper domain depended principally on the importance of the diocese as a trade or mission center. The regulations of patriarchal sees like Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch exerted a major influence. No methods existed for standardization between the various dioceses. One early attempt at standardization, the Pseudo-Isidorian Collection, or "False Decretals," is now known to have been an ad hoc forgery. Attributed to one Isidore Mercator, it claimed to be a collection of papal decrees issued by the popes from St. Clement (88-97) to Melchiades (311-314) but appears not to have existed prior to the ninth century.1

    The earliest attempts at codification are found in the various Libri Poenitentiales -- Handbooks of Penance. Most of these were composed before 1100 by bishops trying to standardize the penances to be performed for various offences. Although there was some borrowing from one author by another the authority of a Handbook was generally limited to the territory of its author, a diocese or a metropolitan see.2

    Around 1150 a monk of the Benedictine family, probably a Camaldolese in the monastery of Sts. Felix and Nabor at Bologna, John Gratian, undertook the compilation of an organized code of law under the title "Concordantia discordantium canonum" -- "A Concordance of Discordant Canons." We have very little precise information concerning Gratian, or the years in which he was born, worked, and died.3

    Gratian assembled his compilation, usually referred to as the "Decretem Gratiani," in the dialectical fashion of the middle ages. He presented a problem, proposed various solutions (both correct and incorrect), and finally identified the most appropriate solution and the reason for preferring it. This is that same format adopted by Thomas Aquinas a century later for his Summa Theologiae. The best known canon law text in its time, the "Decretem Gratiani" remained an unofficial work. A more authoritative text would come later with Pope Gregory IX.4

    The unofficial nature of Gratian's work invited commentary by other scholars in a way that no papal codification ever would. From the standpoint of Church-State relations the significant commentaries include several Summae of unknown authorship and various texts by faculty members at Bologna including Rufinus, Alanus, and Huguccio. As might be expected, two schools of interpretation developed, one urging the authority of the pope over both temporal and spiritual affairs, and another, espousing two separate powers derived from God.5

    Gratian taught that the secular and spiritual powers are normally separate. "Jesus Christ," he said, "so distinguished between the offices of both powers according to their own proper activities."6  Yet, Gratian held a bias in favor of the pope, recalling that Pope Zachary removed the last Merovingian kings, Childerich III and Carloman, in the mid-700s. Gratian justified the Pope's actions, not by claiming that the imperial power came through the papacy, but by appealing to the papal power to absolve Christians from lawful oaths and, consequently, from their allegiance to the emperor.7 The bias in favor of papal authority included a statement that no one can rebuke or judge the pope -- to which he made an ambiguous exception in the case of a papal heretic.8 Gratian follows the theory of Justinian's civil codes, stipulating that power flows downward from a single source.

    About 1180, the anonymous Summa Et Est Sciendum pointed to the existence of emperors before there were popes in order to demonstrate the relative independence of the former.9 The opposing school, favoring papal supremacy, in Summa Imperatoriae Maiestate, commented on the same passage in Gratian to draw the opposite conclusion.10 The faculty at the University of Bologna carried on a similar exegesis. The Englishman, Alanus, generally held that the temporal power was received from the pope who could directly depose bad rulers. Huguccio disagreed but admitted that the pope could dissolve an oath of fealty.11 Together with Gratian, both appeared to support an appeal to a general council against an heretical pope.12 This is precisely the weapon contemplated by Philip IV against Boniface VIII. In the mid thirteenth century there arose a "second generation" of decretists -- the decretalists -- commenting on and codifying the earlier works. Pope Gregory IX issued an authoritative codification of Canon Law in 1234, the five volume Decretals of Gregory IX, actually written by Raymond of Peñafort, O.P. Boniface VIII, a canonist in his own right, added a sixth volume (appropriately, "Liber Sextus") in 1298.13 This collection included the important decrees of the popes of the preceding century, especially those of Innocent III. Being the work of popes, these decretals were much more authoritative than the writings of relatively obscure decretists.

    About 1250, Innocent IV published a commentary on the Decretals. It strongly asserted the authority of the papacy over the crowned heads of Christendom, claiming the right to arbitrate disputes between kings and to overrule royal jurisdiction when the king or emperor is negligent in performing his duties.14 He recognized the possibility of a legitimate government run by "infidels" but claimed the same right of arbitration and oversight as over Christian kings.15

    Henry of Segusio (12??-1271), also known as "Hostiensis," since he was bishop of [H]Ostia, wrote extensively on the decretals of Gregory IX. His Lectura in Decretales Gregorii IX treated the Church something like a modern corporation. He likened the pope and cardinals to the chairmen and officers of a company. For the most part, executive power was vested in the pope, who might and should seek advice from his officers, but whose routine decisions in running the corporate body were not questioned. However, were the pope to do things beyond the normal scope of his office and clearly detrimental to the corporation, the cardinals could remove him. Hostiensis included removal for heresy, citing Gratian as his authority.16 He offered the continued functioning of the Church after the death of a pope as evidence that the governing power reposed ultimately in the Church as a college or corporation and not in any one individual17 - -- the Church is indefectible, the Poppe is not. That Henry was known in life as "Monarcha juris, lumen lucidissimum Decretorum" -- "King of law, most lucid light of the Decretals," and was declared "Beatus" -- "Blessed" after his death, suggests that his theories were acceptable to the Church.18

    Throughout the middle ages, the question of a council deposing the pope remained unresolved. In 1324, after Boniface's death, Marsilius of Padua (127?-1342) vigorously insisted not only that popes could be deposed but that they did not have any coercive power over anyone and that only a king (preferably Christian) could exercise such power.19 Marsilius' position represented a radical departure from that held by any of the Decretists and was quickly condemned by John XXII.20

    The right of a council to depose a pope continued to be held, even after John XXII condemned this argument. In response to the Great Schism of 1378-1417, the Council of Constance declared itself empowered to discipline the pope and called for the regular summoning of future councils to oversee his behavior.21 It deposed or forced the resignation of all three men then claiming to be pope and elected Martin V.22 The Council of Basel (1439), claiming to be a continuation of the Council of Florence, removed Eugene IV although he was successful in refusing to recognize it as a legitimate council.23 In 1460, Pius II (who had been active in the conciliarist movement at Basel) declared future appeals to a general council invalid.24 Pius may have been more successful in resisting deposition than his predecessors because the advance of the Turks into Europe demanded a united Christendom. The current Code of Canon Law prohibits any appeal over the head of the pope to a general council -- and it does not deal with the manner in which the Church is to remove an heretical pope.25

    (1) T. Lincoln Bouscaren, S.J. and Adam C. Ellis, S.J. Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1946) pg. 2. Hereafter cited as Bouscaren, Canon Law.
    (2) John T. McNeil and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of. Penance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990)
    (3) The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Gratian."
    (4) The Catholic University of America Press has publised an English translation of the first twenty decrees and an the standard commentary as volume 2 in the series Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law.
    (5). Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pages 116-119.
    (6) Gratian, Concordantia discordantium canonum, Distinctio 96, capitulum 6. in Tierney, Crisis, 1989), Doc. No. 63; p. 121-122. All references to Gratian are from Tierney, Crisis, and given by "Distinctio," (or "Causa" and "quaestio,") and "capitulum"; hereinafter, "Dist. #, c. #" or "C. #, q. #, c. #."
    (7) Gratian, C. 96, q. 6, c. 3.
    (8) Gratian, Dist. 40, c. 6.
    (9) Summa Et Est Sciendum, Tierney, Crisis, Document 61, commenting on Gratian, Dist. 22, c. 1.
    (10) Summa Imperatoriae Maiestate, Tierney, Crisis, Document 60.
    (11) Alanus, Commentary on Gratian Dist. 96, c. 6. and Huguccio, Commentary on the same citation. Tierney, Crisis, Documents 65 and 64, respectively.
    (12) Huguccio and Alanus, both commenting on Gratian, Dist. 40, c. 6. Tierney Crisis, Documents 67 and 68.
    (13) Bouscaren, Canon Law, 3.
    (14) Innocent IV, On Decretals, 2.1.13, Novit [No. 76], and 2.2.10 Licet [No. 79], Commentaria Super Libros Quinque Decretalium. Tierney, Crisis, Documents 84 and 85.
    (15) Innocent IV, On Decretals, 3.34.8, Quod Super, Commentaria. Tierney Crisis, Document 86
    (16) . Gratian, Dist. 40, c. 6.
    (17) Brian Tierney, "A Conciliar Theory of the Thirteenth Century," The Catholic Historical Review 36 (January 1951): 415-440. A discussion of Hostiensis.
    (18) The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Henry of Segusio."
    (19) Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), Discourse II, Ch. IV. Hereafter cited as Marsilius, Defensor Pacis
    (20) Pope John XXII, Constitution Licet iuxta doctrinam, to the bishop of Worcester, 23 October 1327. Denzinger, 941-946.
    (21) Council of Constance, Decrees Sacrosancta, 6 April 1415 and Frequens, 9 October 1417, in Barry, Readings in Church History, 494- 495.
    (22) Constance forced the resignation of the Roman Pope Gregory XII, deposed the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII, and posthumously deposed Alexander V, the Pope elected at Pisa, in an earlier (abortive) attempt at ending the schism in 1409.
    (23) Council of Basel, Decree Sacrosancta, 7 July 1439, in Barry, Readings in Church History, 500-502.
    (24) Pius II, Bull Excerabilis, 18 January 1460. Denzinger 1375.
    (25) Benedict XV, Codex Iuris Canonici (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1917) canon 228.


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