The Voice of Theologians in General Councils from Pisa to Trent

By Minnich, Nelson H. | Theological Studies, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Voice of Theologians in General Councils from Pisa to Trent


Minnich, Nelson H., Theological Studies


THEOLOGIANS DURING the Renaissance acquired and then lost voting rights equal to those of bishops in the general councils of the Church. In this article I trace the changing status of theologians and suggest reasons for these developments.(1)

That there are two teaching offices in the Church, the one entrusted to bishops, the other to doctors of theology, has been commonly taught on the basis of Scripture and tradition. Two classical scriptural texts are often cited to illustrate this: 1 Timothy 3:2, where it is required that a bishop be an apt teacher, and Ephesians 4:11, where among the offices in the Church those of apostle and of teacher are enumerated. The "successors to the apostles" (successors to those commissioned emissaries who had witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus) came to be considered episcopi, that is, "overseers," or bishops.(2) One of the classical expositions on the topic of teaching offices in the Church is Gratian's Decretum (ca. 1140), the notable medieval textbook of canon law, where the distinction is drawn between rendering an authoritative judgment in a case and expounding the meaning of Sacred Scripture. After stating that St. Peter needed the keys of knowledge and power to render a judgment, Gratian's dictum concludes: "It is evident that writers on the Sacred Scriptures, although they surpass pontiffs in knowledge and so are to be preferred to them in questions of scriptural interpretation, take second place to them in deciding cases since they have not been elevated to the same high dignity."(3)

On the eve of the period under consideration, one of the leading theologians and later a prominent churchman, Pierre d'Ailly (1350-1420), addressed the question of the respective roles of theologians and bishops in defining doctrine. In his Treatise on Behalf of the Faith against a Certain Dominican Friar Giovanni di Montesono, dated about 1388, d'Ailly asserts that "it pertains to doctors of theology to define by a doctrinal and Scholastic determination those things which are of the faith."(4) They can render their determinations separately and independently of bishops.(5) Indeed, the determinations of theologians should precede the decisions of prelates and others in order to keep them from error. Thus, the proper procedure is that "neither the pope nor doctors of canon law, if they are not theologians, should discuss in a Catholic way or determine authoritatively (authentice) anything regarding those things that are of the faith without the previous doctrinal determination of the theologians."(6) D'Ailly argued that bishops have a role in defining doctrine because they have been set de jure divino over the Church to rule it and determining questions of faith is central to ruling the Church. It is by judicial authority that bishops "define Catholic truths" and "condemn [heretics]."(7) Should a bishop lack personal expertise in theology, however, he would act irrationally were he to go against the opinions of the doctors of theology,(8) Perhaps it would be fair to conclude from d'Ailly's remarks that it is the role of theologians to determine what is true and of bishops to decide what truths are so important that to deny them will incur a penalty.

The one forum in which the two offices of episcopi and doctores came together to collaborate on the highest level in the Church was a general council. Historically, over the centuries bishops have come to councils with their theological advisers to help them define doctrine. In the early centuries of the Church, bishops at times shared with priests and deacons the power to define doctrine judicialiter. By the eighth and ninth centuries in the West abbots were increasingly given a deliberative voice in councils. Later on this voice was also extended to cardinals and generals of religious orders.(9) During the period I am considering, doctors and masters of theology came to enjoy this same deliberative voice, but then lost it. …

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