This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Catholic Church Is Split.
So, what does “Pragmatic Sanction”mean, anyway? “No two words,” says Smedley, “convey less distinct meaning to English ears than ‘pragmatic sanction.’ Perhaps ‘a well-considered ordinance’ may in some degree represent them, i.e., an ordinance which has been fully discussed by men practiced in state affairs.” Carlyle defines “pragmatic sanction” as “the received title for ordinances of a very irrevocable nature, which a sovereign makes in affairs that belong wholly to himself, or what he reckons his own rights.” A dictionary definition calls it “an imperial edict operating as a fundamental law.” The term was probably first applied to certain decrees of the Byzantine emperors for regulating their provinces and towns, and later it was given to imperial decrees in the West.
There have been several “pragmatic sanctions” in European history. In the present case it is applied to the limitations set to the power of the pope in France. The larger issue was the power of the Bishops of the Church meeting in General Councils versus the power of the Popes. The conflict was not as pure as conflicts between Parliaments versus Kings as nationalist and dynastic considerations complicated the issue.
In all this confusion our historians, Jervis and Rohrbacher, distinguish the leading events, the most significant of which was the issuing of the Pragmatic Sanction by Charles VII of France. This ordinance is known, from the place of its promulgation, as the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges.
The selections are from:
- A History of the Church of France from the Concordat of Bologna to the Revolution by W. Henley Jervis published in 1872.
- Histoire Universelle de l’Église Catholique by René F. Rohrbacher published in 1853.
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There’s 2.5 installments by W. Henley Jervis and 2.5 installments by René F. Rohrbacher. We begin with W. Henley Jervis. He was an English cleric and ecclesiastical historian of France.
The position assumed by the Gallican Church* at this junction was peculiar and in some respects questionable. It declared decidedly in favor of the Council of Basel; many French prelates repaired thither, and ambassadors were sent by the King, Charles VII, to Pope Eugenius, to beseech him to support the authority of the synod, and to protest against its dissolution. The fathers stood firm at their posts, appealing to the principles solemnly asserted at Constance, that the pope is bound in certain specified cases to submit to an ecumenical council, and that the latter cannot be translated, prorogued, or dissolved without its own consent. The gift of infallibility, they affirmed, resides in the collective Church. It does not belong to the popes, several of whom have erred concerning the faith. The Church alone has authority to enact laws which are binding on the whole body of the faithful.
* [French Church. Gallican refers back to the Roman days when France was known as “Gaul”. – jl]
Now, the authority of general councils is identical with that of the Church. This was expressly determined by the Council of Constance, and acknowledged by Pope Martin V. The pope is the ministerial head of the Church, but he is not its absolute sovereign; on the contrary, facts prove that he is subject to the jurisdiction of the Church; for well-known instances are on record of popes being deposed on the score of erroneous doctrine and immoral life, whereas no pope has ever attempted to condemn or excommunicate the Church. Both the pope and the Church have received authority to bind and loose; but the Church has practically exerted that authority against the pope, whereas the latter has never ventured to take any such step against the Church. In fine, the words of Christ himself are decisive of the question — “If any man neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto you as a heathen man and a publican.” This injunction was addressed to St. Peter equally with the rest of the disciples.
The council proceeded to cite Eugenius by a formal monition to appear in person at Basel; and on his failing to comply, they signified that on the expiration of a further interval of sixty days ulterior means would be put in force against him. Their firmness, added to the pressing solicitations of the emperor Sigismund, at length induced the Pope to yield. He reconciled himself with the council in December, 1433; acknowledged that it had been legitimately convoked; approved its proceedings up to that date; and cancelled the act by which he had pronounced its dissolution.
Elated by their triumph, the Basilian fathers commenced in earnest the task of Church reform, and passed several decrees of a character vexatious to the Pope, particularly one for the total abolition of annates. A second breach was the consequence. Eugenius, under pretence of furthering the negotiation then pending for the reunion of the Greek and Latin branches of the Church, published in 1437 a bull dissolving the Council of Basel, and summoning another to meet at Ferrara. The assembly at Basel retorted by declaring the Pope contumacious, and suspending him from the exercise of all authority. Both parties proceeded eventually to the last extremities. The council, after proclaiming afresh, as “Catholic verities,” that a general council has power over the pope, and cannot be transferred or dissolved but by its own act, passed a definitive sentence in its thirty-fourth session, June 25, 1439, deposing Eugenius from the papal throne. The Pope retaliated by stigmatizing the Fathers of Basel as schismatical and heretical, canceling their acts, and excommunicating their president, the Cardinal Archbishop of Arles.
Meanwhile an energetic and independent line of action was adopted by the Government in France. The Crown, in concert with the heads of the Church, availed itself of a train of events, which had so seriously damaged the prestige of the papacy to make a decisive advance in the path of practical reform and to establish the long-cherished Gallican privileges on a secure basis. For this purpose Charles VII assembled a great national council at Bourges, in July, 1438, at which he presided in person, surrounded by the princes of his family and by all the most eminent dignitaries spiritual and temporal; and here was promulgated the memorable ordinance known as the “Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges.”
The French Church, it must be observed, did not recognize the deposition of Pope Eugenius, but adhered to his obedience, rejecting Felix V, whom the Council of Basel elected to succeed him, as a pretender. It continued, nevertheless, to support the council and to assert its supreme legislative authority. Hence there arises a considerable difficulty in limine as to the character of the proceedings at Bourges. For the deposition of Eugenius was either a rightful and valid exercise of conciliar authority or it was not. If it was not — if the council had wrongfully or uncanonically condemned the successor of Peter — how could it be infallible? and when should its legislation in any other particulars be indisputable? On the other hand, if the deposition was a valid one, with what consistency could the French continue to regard Eugenius as their legitimate pastor? It was a knotty dilemma.
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