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William of Ockham on Papal Power - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 345
Papal power/fullness of power/Ockham/Kilcullen: Ockham (see McGrade, 1974(1); Knysh, 1996(2)) disagreed with Marsilius at many points, though he seems to have taken over from him the idea that the doctrine of fullness of power (or a certain version of it) was the root of much of the trouble in the Church. Ockham's earliest political writing was the Work of Ninety Days (c. 1332), in which he defends the Franciscan theory of voluntary poverty as a religious ideal against Pope John XXII's thesis that no one can justly consume without owning (William of Ockham, 2001(3)).
Gaus I 346
Fullness of power: In his Contra benedictum (c. 1335) Ockham began his preoccupation with the Marsilian theme of fullness of power, which he continued in other works written in the later part of his life.
William of OckhamVsMarsilius: Ockham rejects two versions of the doctrine of fullness of power.
A) He denies that the pope has power from Christ to do whatever is not contrary to divine or natural law: against this he argues that a pope must respect not only rights and liberties under natural law, but also rights and liberties existing under human law, including those conferred on rulers by the law of nations and the civil law and custom, and that he must refrain from imposing excessive burdens (1992(4): 23-4, 51-8).*
B) He also rejects a weaker version of the doctrine of fullness of power, according to which the pope has all power necessary to secure the good government of the Christian people. Against this he maintains that securing good government in temporal matters is the concern of the laity, not of the clergy (1974(1): 70—1). However, there is some sense in which Ockham agrees that the pope has fullness of power: in spiritual matters (i.e. matters relating to eternal salvation and peculiar to the Christian religion) that are of necessity (not just useful), the pope regularly has full authority over believers (not unbelievers); in temporal matters he regularly has no authority, but on occasion, in a situation of necessity, the pope may do, even in temporal matters, whatever is necessary if it is not being done by whoever is normally responsible to do it (1992: 62-3; Kilcullen, 1999(5): 313-14). (Note the distinction between what is regularly or ordinarily true and what is true on occasion or extraordinarily; see Bayley, 1949(6).)
OckhamVsMarsilius: If Marsilius was the first exponent of the doctrine, later held by many others, notably Hobbes, that in any well-ordered community there must be a single locus of coercive power, Ockham was its first opponent. Ockham argues, as Locke would argue later, that if the community were subjected to one supreme judge in every case, then the supreme judge could do wrong with impunity. To prevent tyranny, it must on occasion be possible for the regularly supreme judge to be coerced by others. At the same time, it does no harm if there are some (for example pope and clergy, or cities or princes) who are regularly exempt from the jurisdiction of the supreme judge provided they can be coerced on occasion, and it does no harm if there are some who have coercive power that they have not received from the supreme judge — again, provided they can be coerced when they do wrong.
Secular and spiritual power/Ockham: An emperor coercing a pope for temporal wrongdoing would be exercising his ordinary power, whereas a pope coercing an emperor for temporal wrongdoing would be acting extraordinarily (William of Ockham, 1995(7): 310-31)

*As Tierney points out (1997(8): 1 19—20), Ockham did not address the distinction between the subjective sense and other senses of 'right', but like many of his contemporaries he sometimes used the term in its subjective sense (the rights of a person), without confusion with other senses. John of Paris does not use the term, but he uses the concept (1971(9): 102, 213), also to say that the pope must respect the rights of lay people.


1. McGrade, Arthur Stephen (1974) The Political Thought of William of Ockham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Knysh, George (1996) Political Ockhamism. Winmpeg: WCU Council of Learned Societies.
3. William of Ockham (2001) Work of Ninety Days, trans. John Kilcullen and John Scott. Lewiston: Mellen.
4. William of Ockham (1992) A Short Discourse on the Tyrannical Government Usurped by Some Who Are Called Highest Pontiffs, ed. Arthur Stephen McGrade, trans. John Kilcullen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. Kilcullen, John (1999) 'The political writings'. In Paul Vincent Spade, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ockham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
6. Bayley, C. C. (1949) 'Pivotal concepts in the political philosophy of William of Ockham'. Journal of the History ofldeas, 10: 199-218.
7. William of Ockham (1995) A Letter to the Friars Minor and Other Writings, ed. Arthur Stephen McGrade, ed. and trans. John Kilcullen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
8. Tierney, Brian (1997) The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Chumh Law 1150-1625. Atlanta: Scholars.
9. John of Paris (1971) On Royal and Papal Power, trans. John Watt. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

Kilcullen, John 2004. „Medieval Politial Theory“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.

Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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