From the Archives: Five Bulls of Pope Gregory XI Against Wycliffe
On May 22, 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls condemning the work of John Wycliffe. Three of the bulls were sent jointly to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, who held the ecclesiastical power in England, and to the Bishop of London, William Courtenay, who was eager to carry out the Pope’s wishes. Needing political support, the Pope issued a similar bull to King Edward III, who died before he received it. Wishing to put pressure on Oxford, Gregory sent the final bull to the university’s chancellor. The following is the bull sent to the chancellor:
“Gregory the Bishop, the Servant of God’s Servants, to his well-beloved Sons, the Chancellor and University of Oxford, in the Diocese of Lincoln, Greeting and Apostolical Benediction.
“We are constrained both to marvel and lament, that you, who—considering the favours and privileges granted to your university of Oxford by the apostolic see, and your knowledge of the Scriptures, the wide ocean whereof (through the favour of the Lord) you so successfully explore—ought to be champions and defenders of the orthodox faith (without which there is no salvation of souls), through negligence and sloth on your part allow cockle to spring among the pure wheat in the field of your glorious university aforesaid, and (what is worse) to grow up; and take no means (as we were lately informed) for rooting out of the same; to the great blemishing of your fair name, the peril of your souls, the contempt of the Roman church, and the decay of the orthodox faith. And (what grieveth us still more bitterly) the increase of the said cockle is perceived and felt in Rome before it is in England, where (however) the means of extirpating it ought to be applied. It hath, in truth, been intimated to us by many trustworthy persons (who are much grieved on the subject), that one John Wickcliff, rector of Lutterworth, in the diocese of Lincoln, professor of divinity (would that he were not rather a master of errors), hath gone to such a pitch of detestable folly, that he feareth not to teach, and publicly preach, or rather to vomit out of the filthy dungeon of his breast, certain erroneous and false propositions and conclusions, savoring even of heretical pravity, tending to weaken and overthrow the status of the whole church, and even the secular government. Some of these, with a change only in certain of the terms, seem to be identical with the perverse opinions and unlearned doctrine of Marsilius de Padua and John de Ghent of cursed memory, whose book was reprobated and condemned by our predecessor of happy memory, Pope John XXII. These opinions, I say, he is circulating in the realm of England, so glorious for power and abundance of wealth, but still more so for the shining purity of its faith, and wont to produce men illustrious for their clear and sound knowledge of the Scriptures, ripe in gravity of manners, conspicuous for devotion, and bold defenders of the Catholic faith; and some of Christ’s flock he hath been defiling therewith, and misleading from the straight path of the sincere faith into the pit of perdition.
“Wherefore, being (as in duty bound) unwilling to connive at so deadly a pest, for which if not at once checked, yea, plucked up by the roots, it would be too late to apply a remedy when it had infected multitudes—we strictly charge and command your university by our apostolic letters, in virtue of your holy obedience, and on the pain of forfeiting all the graces, indulgences, and privileges, ever grant to you and your society by the said see, that you never again permit conclusions and propositions to be asserted or propounded which bear unfavorably on good works and faith, yea, though the proposers of them may strive to defend them under some curious disguise of words or terms; and that by our authority you seize or cause to be seized the said John, and send him under trusty keeping to our venerable brethren the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, or either of them: and morever that any recusants* [* Those who refuse to obey established authority] in the said university, subject to your jurisdiction (if such there be, which God forbid!) who may be infected with these errors, if they obstinately persist in them, that you do (as in duty bound) firmly and anxiously proceed to a like or other seizure and transmission of them, so that you may supply your lack of diligence, which hath been hitherto remiss as touching the premises, and may obtain beside the reward of the divine recompense, the favour and goodwill also of us and the see aforesaid. Given at St. Mary’s the Greater, Rome, eleventh calendar of June, and the seventh year of our pontificate. (May 22, A.D. 1377.)”
To respond to the Pope’s bulls, Wycliffe appeared before the Archbishop at Lambeth Palace. He began his Protestatio with:
“I profess and claim to be by the grace of God a sound (that is, a true and orthodox) Christian and while there is breath in my body I will speak forth and defend the law of it. I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death. In these my conclusions I have followed the Sacred Scriptures and the holy doctors, and if my conclusions can be proved to be opposed to the faith, willingly will I retract them.”
He then continued:
“I deny that the Pope has any right to political dominion: that he has any perpetual civil dominion: that he can qualify or disqualify simply by his bulls.”
Later Wycliffe wrote:
“As they ought to be, the papal bulls will be superseded by the Holy Scriptures. The veneration of men for the laws of the papacy, as well as for the opinions of modern doctors … will be restrained within due limits. What concern have the faithful with writings of this sort, unless they are honestly deduced from the fountain of Scripture? By pursuing such a course, it is not only in our power to reduce the mandates of prelates and Popes to their just place, but the errors of these new religious orders also might be corrected and the worship of Christ well purified and elevated.”
Copyright © 1983 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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