The Council of Constance was the sixteenth ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church held from 1414—18 in Constance, which is in present-day Germany. The council had two primary purposes.
The first purpose of the Council of Constance was to resolve the issue of who the rightful pope should be. Two rival popes had been elected in 1378, Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon, France. Each man was supported by various religious and political factions. The Council of Pisa had been called in 1409 to resolve the issue. At that council a new pope was elected, but, instead of solving the problem, it simply added a third pope, Alexander V, to the mix. Under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor, the Council of Constance was called to solve the problem once and for all.
To help resolve the matter, the Council of Constance declared as a general rule that church councils are superior to popes. The council then deposed two of the popes, and the third agreed to abdicate. A new pope, Martin V, was elected.
The second issue addressed at the Council of Constance was the teaching of John Wycliffe and Jan Huss. Wycliffe, today called the Morning Star of the Reformation, held several points of doctrine contrary to the Roman Church, namely, that confession to a priest was unnecessary, the selling of indulgences was wrong, and one could be saved by the righteousness of Christ alone. By the time of the Council of Constance, Wycliffe had been dead about 30 years, but his followers, called Lollards, were still active. The Council of Constance condemned Wycliff as a heretic on 260 counts, causing his followers to go into hiding.
Jan Hus was influenced by the teachings of Wycliffe and was present at the Council of Constance to defend his teachings. Hus had been considered a trouble-maker because he called for independence of the church in his native Bohemia. (Hus was from Prague, present-day capital of the Czech Republic.) He denounced immorality and drunkenness among the priests, denied that the pope had the right to take up arms in the name of the church, and said that sins are forgiven based on true repentance, not the payment of money to the church. Hus had been guaranteed safe passage to the council, but, when he arrived, he was arrested, imprisoned, and tried. In total, the Council of Constance condemned 30 specific teachings of Hus, branding him as a heretic.
On July 6, 1415, the Council of Constance ordered that Hus be burned at the stake. Later, in 1428, Wycliffe’s remains were exhumed, his bones were burned, and his ashes were scattered into the nearby River Swift.
Much of the rest of the Council of Constance was spent in trying to sort out various European political conflicts, but these efforts were largely unsuccessful.
While the Council of Constance attempted to create unity by resolving the issue of multiple popes and suppressing what it deemed to be heresy, it also fed the fires of the Protestant Reformation, especially among the Hussites. The political and religious unrest eventually caused a significant portion of Europe to break from the Roman Catholic Church and to embrace the Word of God as the final authority over all popes and councils. When Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic about a hundred years later, he was accused of being a follower of Jan Hus. Luther countered that Augustine and the apostle Paul were also “Hussites.”