Appeared in Winter 1978, Vol. 4, No. 4

In an age of decentralization in ecclesiastical government, the question of the practical results of recent experiments ought to come more frequently to the fore. Much is argued and rightly so about the structure of ecclesial affairs dictated by this or that theological consideration, but not so much is heard about what will actually happen if certain new structures are introduced. So it was in the great conciliar controversy of the fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Then too the argument was primarily theoretical, but at least one pro-papal writer did focus on the likely practical consequences of conciliarism. The article that follows details the work of this writer, and, with a little imagination, the conclusions may be applied to the current controversy.

The recent deaths of Popes Paul VI and John Paul I have necessarily focused attention on the office of that papacy. At the same time, many would still prefer a Church freed from papal control, democratic, decentralized, and identified above all with “reform”. The common linking of the ideas of decentralization and reform–in which it is assumed that the reduction of papal control will inevitably create more favorable conditions for the Church’s effectiveness at the local level–has its origins in a conciliar movement which began opposing papal primacy as early as the 14th century. A study of the arguments of those who defended the popes at that time sheds much light on the question as currently argued, and in our pragmatic age a consideration of the practical, rather than theological, side of the question is of special interest.

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