I recently took a trip to the German city of Constance, site of an important medieval Latin Church council that established the right to remove incorrigible popes. Some reflection on the city and its council may be of interest, given the news today that Pope Francis has apparently decided to endorse same-sex civil unions.

Crossing from the Swiss town of Kreuzlingen into Constance last Saturday was hassle-free, even in these trying Corona times. A half-mile before the border, the autobahn from Zurich narrows to a single zig-zagging lane. I drove slowly up to the border police-checkpoint, an officer took a look at me, my car, and my companion, and waved us through. His Swiss counterpart did the same on the way back. Having the right kind of license plate and appearance certainly helps. These fellows profile everyone, all the time, and good for them.

1_It was good to be back in Constance, my favorite German town. This nook of southernmost Württemberg is one of the sunniest and warmest spots in all of Germany, which is a matter of some import to those of us who are familiar with the interminable, wind-driven, Westphalian or northern Rhenish drizzle. True to form, on Oct. 17 Constance was radiant on a balmy Indian summer afternoon. With the weeping willows and ancient towers reflected in the calm waters of the lake, with well-behaved children playing while their parents enjoyed coffees and beers outdoors, for a fleeting moment the world felt right.

This late-medieval gem is exquisite and cozily pleasant (gemütlich) without being pretentious. It is perched on the northwestern shore of the lake that bears its name in English (its German name is the Bodensee). Many of its half-timbered town houses have elaborately painted façades (above) dating back to the time of the church council (1414-18) which made the town famous. The building in which the massive gathering was held still stands. (below)

2_The council was the most memorable of the general assemblies of the medieval Latin Church, a truly grand affair. Ulrich Richental’s Chronicle of the Council of Constance listed, in addition to Popes John XXIII and Martin V, five patriarchs, 33 cardinals, 47 archbishops, 238 bishops, 287 abbots and priors, 578 doctors “of theology and both laws,” 5,300 “simple priests and scholars,” 3,000 merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, musicians and players, and over 700 “harlots in brothels… who hired their own houses”—these last to be distinguished, Richental hastens to add, from those “who lay in stables and wherever they could.”

The Council’s importance to the European civilization and Western political institutions has been peculiarly overlooked for over 500 years now. This may be due in part to the condemnation as a heretic and subsequent burning at the stake of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus. That infamous affair has long overshadowed the Council’s accomplishments. It was held at a time of acute crisis in the Church of Rome which subsequently came to be known as the Great Schism of the West. The assembly boldly deposed two papal claimants, John XXIII (of the Pisan line) and Benedict XIII (Avignonese), accepted the resignation of the third, Gregory XII (Roman), and elected a new pope, Martin V—the first in half a century to command the allegiance of the whole Latin Church.

As Francis Oakley pointed out 33 years ago, if the Council was able and willing to take those critical steps, it was so precisely because it had committed itself to the ecclesiological position which has come to be called “Conciliarist”:

It postulated that the pope, however divinely instituted his office, was not an absolute monarch but in some sense a constitutional ruler; that he possessed a merely ministerial authority delegated to him by the community of the faithful for the good of the whole Church; that that community had not exhausted its inherent authority in the mere act of electing its ruler but had retained whatever residual power was necessary to prevent its own subversion or destruction; that it could exercise that power via its representatives assembled in a general council, could do so in certain critical cases even against the wishes of the pope, and, in such cases, could proceed if need be to judge, chastise and even depose the pope.

The high point of the Council came on April 6, 1415, when it approved the decree Haec sancta synodus (aka Sacrosancta). It declared, in the first place, that the Council formed “a general council, legitimately assembled in the Holy Spirit and representing the Catholic Church Militant.” It further claimed that all men, of every rank and position, including even the pope himself, are bound to obey it in those matters that pertain to the faith, the extirpation of the schism, and the reformation of the Church in head and members:

It declares also that anyone, of any rank, condition or office—even the papal—who shall contumaciously refuse to obey the mandates, statutes, decrees or instructions made by this holy synod or by any other lawfully assembled council on the matters aforesaid or on things pertaining to them, shall, unless he recovers his senses, be subjected to fitting penance and punished as is appropriate.

Under certain conditions, then, the general council—acting alone—asserted an authority superior to that of any of the faithful, including the pope himself. That is in itself a very dramatic claim, which applied not just to Constance but to all legitimately assembled general councils.

English historian John Neville Figgis first drew attention, over a century ago, to the importance of the Conciliar movement as “the culmination of medieval constitutionalism.” He considered it “the watershed between the medieval and the modern world.” The Conciliar theorists of Constance “appear to have discerned” Figgis says, “that arguments applicable to governments in general could not be inapplicable to the Church. In a word, they raised the constitutionalism of the past three centuries to a higher power, expressed it in a more universal form, and justified it on grounds of reason, policy and Scripture.” The principles of Constance were expressed “in a form in which they could readily be applied to politics,” and thus “helped forward modern constitutional tendencies.”

There was but one step, in other words, from the doctrine of the Council’s superiority over the pope to the doctrine of the supremacy of the Estates over the King. Indeed, Constance in 1415 provided “the real watershed between medieval and modern politics,” as Harold Laski explains, by asserting that the right of the Church to remove an incorrigible head was not simply based on ecclesiastical custom or the canon law, but was an inalienable right pertaining to all “free communities” and grounded in the strictures of the natural law itself.

As Figgis correctly concludes, the aftermath of the Conciliar movement involved more than the recovery of papal power, the growth of national state churches, and the dashing of reformist hopes. In matters political, “that legacy remained faithful to its origins, and the role it played in the rise of modern forms of limited government should serve to remind us of the true thrust of Conciliar thinking in the age of the Council of Constance.”

Four centuries and three decades later Constance escaped the tender mercies of the RAF and the USAAF, unlike most historic towns and cities west of the Elbe which had to be painstakingly rebuilt as per old plans and photos. Many of them—Nuremberg, Dresden, and Freiburg, for instance—look genuine enough today, but unlike Constance they feel like replicas.  

3_It is believed that Heidelberg escaped destruction because General Dwight Eisenhower had decided as early as 1943 to make the venerable university town his German headquarters after the war. It is not widely known, though, that Constance dodged the bombs not because of its historical significance but thanks to its proximity to Switzerland. The story of its salvation starts on April 1, 1944, when the USAAF mistakenly bombed Schaffhausen, Switzerland’s northernmost city surrounded on three sides by the Reich.

The skies were clear that night, and the city brightly lit (unlike all surrounding German locations), yet the flying fortresses dropped some 400 bombs on the city center. Apparently, the navigators thought they were hitting the industrial town of Friedrichshafen, which lies almost 50 miles further southeast. Sixty Swiss civilians were killed, hundreds wounded, and 500 families were left homeless.

To avoid future mishaps, people living near Germany’s borders started painting big Swiss flags on the roofs of their houses. Many Americans did not know the meaning of the symbol, however. To wit, a squadron leader wrote in his report that he had seen red squares with white crosses on the roofs of houses in the German town of Ebingen (in reality the Swiss town of Stein am Rhein). “What are they?” he asked in the report.

The bombing of Schaffhausen was eagerly exploited by the German propaganda. Some Swiss suspected at the time—and for many years after the war—that the Allies had deliberately targeted it because a factory in the city supplied the Germans with industrial products, but no evidence of foul play has been found in U.S. archives. The Roosevelt administration formally apologized to the government in Berne and paid compensation.

For the remaining 13 months of the war, which brought utter ruin to dozens of hitherto intact German cities, American and British bomber crews were ordered to take special care to avoid similar mishaps. In addition, Swiss fighter planes started shooting down stray Allied bombers without warning, rather than escorting them away as before.

This was a boon to Constance. Taking note of the Allies’ evident circumspection, its authorities decided to stop enforcing the blackout. Electric power was supplied without interruption, public lights were kept switched on after dusk, and citizens were told not to draw the curtains at night. From the air the city looked like a seamless part of Kreuzlingen, in contrast to the sea of darkness further east.

The ruse worked wonderfully. Constance was saved, Gott sei Dank! Whether it will survive the current twin ravages of multiculturalism and rampant immigration which plague Germany is by no means certain, however. This reminds us that ideas are more powerful than bombs, both for good and evil.

*Correction: an earlier version of this article in the 15th paragraph incorrectly named a town as Ludwigshafen rather than Friedrichshafen.