A long line of research, stretching back to the German sociologist Max Weber’s seminal work, identifies Protestantism as the sledgehammer that broke down autocratic barriers, giving rise to modern liberal societies. A good example is work by American political scientist Robert Woodberry, which demonstrates that Protestants pioneered a series of innovations that eased the advent of modern representative democracy, including religious pluralism, voluntary associations, printing, and mass education. More generally, the Weberian notion of Protestantism as the midwife of modernity received a great deal of attention during the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. Often as an accompaniment to these views, writers like Samuel Huntington have portrayed either the Catholic Church itself or aspects of Catholic culture as historical impediments to modern liberalism and modern democratization. But the story about the origins of our political institutions, and the way religious institutions affected it, is much more interesting and complicated than implied by this conventional narrative. In fact, modern representative democracy is well-nigh unthinkable without constitutionalist practices and doctrines pioneered by the medieval Catholic Church.
It is perfectly correct to say that many 18th– and 19th-century leaders of the Catholic Church—including several Popes—were openly hostile to liberalism and democracy, which they associated with the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. The best example is probably Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors from 1864, which openly denounced modern liberalism. But the political conservatism of the Catholic Church up until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) does not alter the fact that modern representative government owes its origins to Catholic innovations that grew during the period from approximately 1100 to 1500. This thesis was first defended by the American medievalist Brian Tierney in 1955, it has been corroborated by several generations of later historical research, and it is today part of the consensus among medieval historians.1
If this sounds surprising, it is because students of democracy have largely ignored the Catholic origins of these core elements of representative government. However, this story is worth revisiting for several reasons. First, it helps explain why representative government (and later modern democracy) came into being in the Latin West and not elsewhere. Second, it testifies to the intimate historical connection between religious institutions and teachings and politics. Third, it shows how quickly norms and institutions could diffuse from the religious to the lay sphere due to what Tierney termed the numerous “areas of interaction” in medieval and early modern Europe.
This tangled relationship holds a lesson for an age where religion and politics are again interacting in ways that secularists had not anticipated one or two generations ago, and that many are uncomfortable about. We have recently seen several examples of the political flexibility of religion. One of the more spectacular is how, since the 1970s, many North American Protestant churches have moved from quietly bolstering liberal political principles to vocally supporting conservative ones—whereas mainline Protestants have, broadly speaking, moved in the opposite direction. A more general example is how political Islamism—inside and outside of the Middle East—has been leveraged as an attack on democracy and modernity in a way that resembles what happened in the certain quarters of the Catholic Church after the French Revolution.
To understand these present-day political uses of religion, we first need to jettison the idea that religious doctrines are inherently supportive of certain political principles. As the English sociologist John A. Hall puts it when describing the great universalist world religions, “These belief-systems are loose and baggy monsters, full of saving clauses and alternatives that can be brought by an interested group when occasion demands.” The story about the Catholic invention of representative government reminds us that religious doctrines are multivocal: Catholicism contributed both to constitutionalist theories and to theories about absolute monarchy, just as Protestantism was later to do.
To see how this is so, let’s turn all the way back to 1414. In this year, a great church council met in the south German city of Constance to solve what we now call the “Western Schism.” Since 1378, there had been two rival Popes, one residing in Avignon in southern France and one in Rome. Indeed, for five years up until the gathering at Constance there had been three rival Popes, as a prior council in Pisa in 1409 had added to the confusion by appointing a third. Led by the great theologian and chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean (or John) Gerson, the Council of Constance deposed two Popes and persuaded the third to resign. The council then appointed a new Pope, Martin V, who was recognized throughout the Latin west. To justify these acts, the council—which sat until 1418—passed the decree Haec sancta (1415), declaring church councils to be superior to Popes in matters of faith, unity, and reform. The decree Frequens (1417) further required that future church councils should be called according to a fixed schedule. These decrees were justified by the theological work of a string of “conciliarists,” including Gerson himself. Conciliarists held that God had intended his church to be led not by infallible Popes but by the Christian community via broad councils with representatives from ecclesiastical institutions across Western and Central Europe. They thereby formulated the first systematic theory about representative government.
This was only fitting, as the core practices of medieval representative institutions or parliaments—political representation and political consent—had been developed and put in practice within the Catholic Church in the preceding centuries. Political representation meant that a corporate group such as a town or a cathedral chapter appointed an agent (a proctor), gave him full powers to act on its behalf, and sent him to a council or assembly, the decisions of which were binding for this group. Political consent meant that towns, cathedral chapters, or other corporate groups had to be consulted if decisions made in a council or assembly affected, for example, their property rights (the best example is taxation). The combination of representation and consent made medieval assemblies a place where taxpayers could be committed to cough up, often against a promise that the rulers would respect their rights or address their grievances. We find a famous echo of this quid pro quo understanding in the American revolutionary slogan, “no taxation without representation.”
These practices, which in altered form remain the core principles of representative democracy even today, are commonly associated with the Magna Carta of 1215 and the English parliament in Westminster that developed in the 13th and 14th century. The first English summoning of townsmen as representatives occurred at Simon de Montfort’s famous parliament in London on January 20, 1265. In 1295—convening what is today known as the “Model Parliament”—King Edward I inserted into summons to parliament the clause that designated political consent to the medieval mind: quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur (“that which affects all people must be approved by all people”).
However, the story about representation and consent does not begin in the British Isles with Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort, or Edward I. It begins in Rome. The first documented use of the Roman Law concept of representation at councils or assemblies thus date to the pontificate of the great lawyer-Pope Innocent III between 1198 and 1216. The prime example is Innocent’s summons for the Fourth Lateran Council, which went out in April 1213. The council, which met in November 1215, was one of most important Church Councils of the high middle ages. More than 400 bishops from dioceses all over Europe attended, as did abbots, deans, and even agents of lay rulers such as Frederick II of Sicily (the later Emperor Frederick II) and the Kings of France and England. But so did representatives of cathedral chapters all over Western and Central Europe, based on the Roman Law notion of proctorial representation. Not long after, the notion of political consent (in the form of quod omnes tangit) also began to be used at councils within the Church. The first conclusive evidence comes from the French church council at Bourges in November 1225, where representatives of cathedral chapters rejected a tax that was designed to finance papal government.
These events marked the culmination of a gradual—and fascinating—process. The principles of representation and political consent had been formulated via an extremely flexible interpretation of the Roman Law that had been revived in the 11th and 12th centuries. According to tradition, the medieval study of Roman Law began in earnest when a copy of the fifth-century Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s Law Code, the Digest, was found in an Italian monastery in 1070. In the subsequent centuries, lawyers would study Roman Law in new centers of learning such as the famous law school of Bologna in Northern Italy.
Roman public law had nothing to say about representation and consent; both notions were found in Roman private law. The principle of representation hailed from a clause to the effect that a private corporation could appoint an agent who could negotiate on its behalf with full powers. Political consent was based on an otherwise unremarkable section of Roman private law that concerned co-guardianship. This included the aforementioned expression quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur (“that which affects all people must be approved by all people”).
How could these private law clauses transform into political principles used for broader communities at councils or assemblies? The first step in this process was that church legists started treating ecclesiastical institutions such as monasteries and cathedral chapters as corporations in the Roman Law sense. This was useful because the church centralization that had begun in the late 11th century raised the problem of how to govern an international organization that spanned an area from Trondheim to Palermo and from Dublin to Riga—in a period where long-distance travel was extremely cumbersome. Canon Law, that is, the law of the church, had to be constantly interpreted in ecclesiastical courts to determine the rights of, for example, cathedral chapters and monasteries. Often this would occur in Rome, far away from the Franco-German heartlands of Latin Christendom. In this situation, the use of representatives with full powers provided a great advantage, as this meant that distant groups and institutions could be present in court or councils, and that they would be bound to recognize the decisions made there.
This process was well under way by the late 12th century. The next step was to construe the entire Catholic Church as a corporation in the Roman Law sense. This meant that representation and political consent could be used at general Church councils, which could therefore make decisions that bound everyone. As American legal scholar Harold J. Berman puts it in his magisterial Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, church councils such as Innocent’s Fourth Lateran of 1215 and the Council of Bourges in 1225 were thus the first medieval parliaments.
Once this leap from legal delegation to constitutional principle had been made, the practices of representation and consent spread like wildfire across the Latin West. This was possible because Catholic Europe was in many ways a borderless society around 1200, and because the primitive lay administrations of the day were mainly staffed by churchmen, who had a monopoly on education until universities (themselves developed within the church) secularized in the late middle ages. The use of clergy in lay government facilitated the spread of administrative and political models developed within the church. This was further eased by the fact that revived Roman Law and Church Law principally applied in all of the Latin west.
It was due to these “areas of interaction” that representation and consent could quickly leap to lay politics. Medieval parliaments soon cropped up across Western and Central Europe. The Iberian Peninsula and England led the way, followed by France, Hungary, and a number of different German states. This marked a completely new regime form in which monarchs would rule together with elites via assemblies (the model that has become known as “king-in-parliament” in English). As the British historian Lord Acton put it, with his penchant for exaggerating to make a point, “Representative government, which was unknown to the ancients, was almost universal” in Europe by the late middle ages.
However, the development of a corresponding ideology or theory of representative government lagged behind. Medieval political theory was lofty rather than empirical. It revolved around the writings of Aristotle, which centered on the pure regimes, democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, as well as the “mixed regime” that combined elements from several of these, but had nothing to say about representative institutions, which did not exist in Aristotle’s day.
It therefore fell to churchmen to provide the theoretical defense of representative government, just as they had earlier developed the practices of representation and consent. As mentioned earlier in this article, the trigger for this was the “Western Schism” that began in 1378. The papacy had gone from strength to strength in the high middle ages and had successfully humbled the greatest secular rulers of Latin Christendom, the Holy Roman Emperors of Germany, during the 11th- and 12th-century “crisis between church and state.” But in the early 14th century the Popes had overplayed their hand in an attempt to similarly bring to heel the French kings. The result was the so-called Babylonian Captivity from 1309 to 1376, in which the Popes resided not in Rome but in the southern French city of Avignon. In 1376, Pope Gregory XI finally decided to return to Rome, where he arrived the next year. But Gregory died in 1378 before this move had been consolidated. The Italian party within the church elected Urban VI, who stayed in Rome, whereas the French cardinals elected Clement VII, who took up residence at Avignon.
There had been several earlier instances where there had been more than one Pope. What was unusual this time was that the two camps developed into rival lineages, with new Popes succeeding deceased Popes in both Avignon and Rome, supported by different parts of the Church and different coalitions of secular monarchs. The result was an intolerable situation in which the Church—a community that is by definition “catholic,” namely, of universal reach—was torn apart not only by a vicious struggle for power but also by constitutional crisis and administrative disorder, with dire spiritual effects on believers.
As often happens, chaos on the ground had creative consequences for political theory. Theologians now formalized ideas about conciliar government of the Church that had been germinating for centuries. I have so far focused on Roman Law, but this body of legal rules was constantly cross-fertilized by notions drawn from the other great legal system of the middle ages, Canon Law, or the law of the Church. The most important compilation of Church Law had been accomplished by the monk Gratian around 1140. This compilation—popularly known as the Decretum—included a clause to the effect that a heretic Pope could be deposed. Fused with the Roman Law principles of representation and consent, this provided an argument that implied the church should be governed not by its papal head but by broad councils embodying the Body of Christ—that is, by the community of believers or at least by the those with positions within the Church.
Conciliarists had a venerable tradition to draw on. In the first centuries of the Christian era, bishops had been each other’s equals, and church councils had been used to legislate about important matters of faith and church organization. Perhaps the two most famous are the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in the fourth century. The conciliar mode of governance of the early church had been preserved in several of the texts that were included in Gratian’s Decretum. Conciliarists also drew on certain places in scripture, including Galatians 2:11-15, where Paul goes to Antioch to correct Peter, who had insisted that gentiles should follow Jewish customs such as circumcision to enter the Christian community. This episode was interpreted by Gerson and other conciliarists as an example of the community of believers (represented by Paul) correcting the papal head of the church (represented by Peter).
The conciliarist position crystallized after the beginning of the Schism in 1378. The hotbed of intellectual development was the famous Parisian Faculty of Theology at Sorbonne, hence the common name of “Sorbonnists” for conciliarists. Most prominent among these was Jean Gerson. But Gerson was to be followed by a number of other Sorbonnists, including the 16th-century Scottish theologian John Major (or Mair), to whom we shall return.
Some conciliarists went further down the path of radical political thinking than others. But they all subscribed to the position that the Pope was not an absolute ruler; rather, he was seen as a form of Prime Minister subject to constitutional limits. These limits would be enforced by representative church councils that could restrain and even correct miscreant Popes. This is where we find the first systematic defense of representative government, which would soon make its way into secular political theory.
Conciliarists were also among the first to theorize another important prerequisite of modern representative government, namely the division of society into a secular and a religious sphere. This, too, had been a reality on the ground for quite a while as the 11th century “crisis between state and church” had undermined the religious pretentions of Emperors, Kings, and Princes. But theologians and political theorists had remained loyal to the older notion of a universal Christendom, headed by Pope and Emperor in unison. High papalists continued to defend this position even after the 15th century. But the conciliarists’ notion of two separate realms, each with its own political institutions, was set to triumph and to take Europe in a different direction than the many civilizations where we do not find a clear distinction between religion and politics, including much Orthodox Christian and Islamic thinking down to the present age.
Conciliarism climaxed at the Council of Basel (1431-49), which was called due to the timetable set out in Frequens at Constance in 1417. But it is also fair to say that it was at Basel that conciliarism suffered its first major defeat at the hands of the Pope, who in 1448 called a rival council at Ferrara (later moved to Florence) to delegitimize Basel. From then on, the high papalists were in the driver’s seat in church governance.
While conciliarism was never to regain the dominance it had exerted at the Council of Constance and in the first phases of the Council of Basel, conciliar ideas, as English historian of ideas Francis Oakley has convincingly shown, would have an important afterlife north of the Alps for centuries after the spectacle at Basel. As late as 1818, the English historian Henry Hallam could note that the conciliar “Whig principles of the Catholic Church . . . [are] embraced by almost all laymen and the major part of ecclesiastics on this side of the Alps.” Not until the proclamation of the twin principles of papal primacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870-71 was conciliarism conclusively defeated within the Church.
This provides us with an interesting connection to the literature on Protestantism and democracy. As Francis Fukuyama has emphasized, the teaching of the two key Protestant figures, Martin Luther and John Calvin, were “were anything but liberal in the sense we understand that doctrine today.” Both Luther and Calvin held that Christians had no right to rebel against lay authority. Indeed, they held that resistance against the powers-that-be was sinful, because rulers’ actions were also part of God’s design. Bad rulers would simply be doing God’s work in the form of just punishment.
Persecuted Protestant minorities in the Low Countries, France, and on the British Isles in the 16th and 17th century came to find this teaching of non-resistance intolerable. Unlike the dynastic wars that had hitherto ravaged Europe, the religious wars unleased by the Reformation and the Counterreformation were life and death struggles—comparable to the way the Crusades had been fought in previous centuries within and beyond Europe. It was in these circumstances that persecuted French Calvinists formulated theories about the right to rebel against unjust government. This happened in particular under the protracted civil infighting from 1562 to 1598 that we know as the French Wars of Religion. Resistance theories spread to other Protestants and to Catholics, and they were integrated into modern liberalism, for example, through the work of John Locke. Later, they were to provide important intellectual ammunition for the American independence struggle, in turn infusing the political precepts of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
As Francis Fukuyama points out, modern liberalism—including the liberal argument for representative government—hence emerged “out of sectarian conflict.” But the part of the story left out here is that the new liberal theories of resistance against unjust government mark a return to medieval ideas in general and to conciliar ideas in particular. As Oakley puts it in The Watershed of Modern Politics, with the resistance theories, Protestantism “began to find its way back to the familiar and broader medieval channel from which it had earlier departed.” More particularly, historians have documented how Sorbonnists such as John Major directly influenced some of the Protestants who would develop resistance theories.
The volte-face from Luther’s and Calvin’s principle of non-resistance to 16th– and 17th-century Protestant theories of resistance is further evidence that religions are multivocal. They contain different teachings that, depending on the circumstances, can be used to defend both rule by one (or a few) and rule by many—or absolutism and representative government, if you prefer. This was also the case for Catholicism. Placed on the defensive by the conciliarists, the 15th-century papacy tried to enlist secular support—and to divide the supporters of conciliarism—by construing conciliar ideas about representative government as a threat to papal and monarchical rule alike. Meanwhile, papalist theologians further elaborated already existing theories of papal primacy with respect to doctrine, legislation, and jurisdiction.
High papalists here resorted to the very same sources of authority as the conciliarists. Justinian’s Roman Law dated from an age where the Emperor was the autocrat, placed above the law, and Roman public law therefore contained clauses such as “what has pleased the Prince has the force of law.” The notion that the Pope possessed absolute jurisdictional powers within the Church was based on the fourth-century idea of the Petrine Commission—that is, the Pope as the heir of St. Peter (later as the Vicar of Christ). This, in turn, was justified by the famous formulation in Matthew 16:18 that “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” These ideas had a long and prominent place in Canon Law, and they could easily be enlisted to defend the notion of the Pope as the supreme ruler of the church. As Francis Oakley has noted, the obvious parallel between Popes and Kings meant that these theories of absolute monarchy could quickly diffuse from the church to lay circles, just as practices and doctrines of representative government had earlier done.
The historical irony is glaring. Among Protestants, constitutionalist currents had come to dominate on the eve of the birth of modern democracy after 1800; among Catholics, the situation was the exact opposite, as these ideas were on the verge of defeat. This defeat was then sealed by the anti-clerical stance of most of the French revolutionaries of 1789 and the fact that this revolution dealt a deathblow to the most important bastion of conciliarism, namely the French Catholic Church (also known as the “Gallican” Church).
The passing away of conciliarism at the very point in time where modern democratization began has made students of democratization ignore an important historical lesson: Representative democracy is all but inconceivable without the 12th– and 13th-century Catholic practices of representation and consent and the 15th-century conciliar doctrines about representative government. This fascinating story remains relevant not only for those who wish to understand the origins of our political institutions; it also sheds light on current interactions between religion and politics. In that sense, it is a story worth revisiting for those who are interested in the political dynamics of the 21st century.
1See Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1983); Antony Black, Political Thought in Europe 1250-1450 (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Richard Kay, The Council of Bourges, 1225: A Documentary History (Ashgate, 2002); Francis Oakley, The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (Oxford University Press, 2003); Francis Oakley, The Mortgage of the Past: Reshaping the Ancient Political Inheritance (1050-1300) (Yale University Press, 2012); Francis Oakley, The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650) (Yale University Press, 2012).