Schism in the Western Church

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Recently, Christians have heard much about the split in the Eastern Orthodox Church, between the church in Istanbul (Constantinople) and the church in Moscow. In October 2018, the patriarch of Constantinople agreed to the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — independent from their allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Church rejects the patriarch’s action.

In an article in November 2018, Our Sunday Visitor reported on this developing story in the Eastern Church: “The move breaks sacramental union between the two leading Churches in Eastern Christianity, and it places the other … independent Orthodox Churches in the awkward position of being in union with two patriarchs who are no longer in communion with each other..” The situation in the Ukraine stems from the 2014 Russian occupation of the Crimea that alienated many Catholics from the church in Moscow. More than 600 years ago, the Western Church also experienced a split — a schism in Church unity.

Schism in the West

From 1378 through 1417, a great schism took place in the Church of Rome, and the divide resulted from the election of more than one pope. There were two popes from 1378 to 1409 and three popes from 1409 until 1417. How could this have happened?

Boniface VIII Public domain

The background to this unfortunate situation began in 1294, when Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303) was elected to the Chair of St. Peter. It was the intent of Boniface to return the papacy to the time of Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), who had dominated both the Church and secular rulers. However, times had changed, there was a growing sense of nationalism in many countries, and monarchs were not eager to allow the pope to meddle in affairs of state. This was particularly true of King Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307) and King Philip IV of France (r. 1285-1314).

When Boniface began his reign, both Edward and Philip were taxing the clergy in order to support their empires and, in particular, to maintain a strong standing army. Pope Boniface pointed out that the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had forbidden the taxing of clergy without the pope’s approval; consequently, he issued a papal bull threatening excommunication of monarchs implementing such taxation. Philip and Edward quickly acted to oppose Boniface. Edward confiscated the holdings of the clergy in England and discontinued protecting the clergy from common law, a protection that long existed. Philip stopped all Church contributions made by Catholics in France from being sent to Rome. Boniface soon backed down, amending his bull and saying that the clergy in certain circumstances could be taxed. This was the beginning of a series of continuous controversies between Philip and Boniface.

In 1301, Philip tried and incarcerated a French bishop, a protégé of Boniface, for alleged treasonous acts. Boniface took offense, claiming in a papal bull that a monarch did not have authority to try a member of the clergy without the pope’s approval. Boniface aggravated the issue further by withdrawing his previous decision regarding taxing of the clergy. Philip responded with a widespread effort to condemn Boniface, saying, among other things, that he was a heretic and was practicing nepotism. Eventually the pope indicated he was going to depose Philip and issued a papal encyclical, Unam Sanctam (“One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority”), in November 1302 in an effort to consolidate spiritual and temporal powers under the pope. It includes the statements, “… outside of her [the Church] there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins,” and the last line, “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Everyone including King Philip was subject to the pope. Boniface seemed to have pulled out all the stops.

Philip IV receives the homage of Edward I for Aquitaine in this 15th century painting by Jean Fouquet. Public domain

After more name-calling and accusations, King Philip conducted a deplorable act. He authorized the kidnapping of Boniface, which occurred Sept. 3, 1303, and tried to force the pope to resign. The pope was rescued but died within a few weeks. His replacement was Benedict XI (r. 1303-04), who excommunicated all those involved in the kidnapping except Philip. Within nine months, Benedict died as well. No disciplinary measure was taken against the French king. It took months before a new pope was elected.

During his reign, not only did Boniface alienate secular leaders, but he made enemies among the elite ruling families of Rome and Italy. Certain of these families began acting in a violent manner against the papacy and against other families. At the same time, there were warring factions in some of the papal states. The situation in Italy was not harmonious, and not having a pope only worsened the internal strife.

It took the cardinals 11 months to select a pope, a Frenchman, Clement V (r. 1305-14), who was not a cardinal but the archbishop of Bordeaux, France. King Philip was able to influence Clement to receive the papal crown at Lyons, France, in June 1305. Clement immediately lifted the excommunication of those involved with Boniface’s kidnapping, as well as annulling any of Boniface’s papal edicts that were at odds with Philip. He next appointed more French cardinals and, after several years of moving around France from place to place, decided not to return to Rome. He established the papacy in Avignon, France, where it remained for over 70 years.

Avignon papacy

Clement quickly fell under the domination of the French monarchy and appeared to the world to be the servant of the monarchy. The idea of the Bishop of Rome living in France was not well-received by the People of God. Originally it was considered a temporary location until the ongoing political struggles in Rome and Italy had receded. But, both motivated and pressured by French influence, it was not temporary; in 1309 the Curia relocated to Avignon, and soon there were new buildings being constructed to accommodate an ever-growing staff, who were predominantly French. The pope was French, the majority of cardinals were French (around 80%) and the staff was French.

Seven popes would rule from Avignon between 1305 and 1377, all Frenchmen. While the Avignon papacy was condemned by many, the popes were all legitimately elected. Any official Church list of popes includes those reigning from Avignon. Some were weak and had failings, but the Avignon papacy was not without its accomplishments, especially in the areas of governing policies, refinement of canon law and expanded missionary efforts. Most of the popes verbalized a desire to return to Rome, but nothing happened until Pope Urban V (r. 1362-70) went back to Rome for three years, only to return to Avignon because of problems between France and England. Five years later, it was St. Catherine of Siena who persuaded Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370-78) to make a permanent move to Rome (see sidebar on Page 12). Her petition to the pope included: “No longer resist the will of God, for the starving sheep await for you to return to the see of St. Peter. … Come without fear, for God will be with you. Do not wait, for time does not wait. Respond to the Holy Spirit. Come like a lamb who, unarmed, lays low his enemies, making use of the arms of love” (“How to Read Church History,” Vol 1).

The Palais des Papes served as the pope’s residence hosted six papal conclaves. Shutterstock


Permanent return to Rome

In 1377, after seven popes and nearly 70 years of being located and reigning from Avignon, France, the papacy returned to Rome. The Avignon papacy was a long and disturbing period in Catholic history, and there was expectation that resettlement in Rome would bring normalcy to the Church, but such was not the case. A major rift erupted following Gregory’s death in March 1378 — less than a year after returning to Rome — when the Italian populace demanded that a Roman, or at least an Italian, be selected as pope.

Pope Urban VI, left, and Clement VII, right. Public domain

At the time, 16 of the 26 cardinals constituting the College of Cardinals were in Rome and would select Gregory’s replacement. They included 11 Frenchmen, four Italians and one Spaniard. The dominance of the French cardinals was not lost on the Italian people, who publicly and angrily protested the possible election of another French pope and potential return of the papacy to Avignon. The cardinals elected an Italian, Urban VI (r. 1378-89) in April 1378. While the Italians rejoiced, the cardinals soon were disappointed with their selection. Urban was overbearing, autocratic and immediately condemned the lavish lifestyle that the cardinals had grown accustomed to in Avignon. According to the book “The Papal Princes: A History of the Sacred College of Cardinals” by Glen D. Kittle: “The new pope turned out to be a wild man. There were some doubts that he was completely sane. He whipped [lashed] out at the cardinals until none of them dared enter his presence. He swore to end the French influence.” No matter, Urban was fully recognized as the rightful pope.

The cardinals reacted by leaving Rome in August of that year, gathered at Fondi, Italy, and urged Urban to give up the papal crown. They claimed his selection was fraudulent because they had elected him under duress, intimidation and threats from the Italian people. When Urban refused, the same cardinals who had duly elected him deposed of Urban, and on Sept. 20, 1378, they elected another pope (antipope), Clement VII (r. 1378-94). But Urban, the legally elected pope, was not interested in giving up his role as the Holy Father. The Church now had two popes; the schism had begun.

Urban was supported by most of Italy, Germany, England, Portugal and Poland; Clement had followers in France, Spain, Scotland, Austria and a few states in Italy. Clement established his reign back in Avignon and thus began not only the saddest period in the Church’s history, but also a time that can only be described as a mess and prompted by “the one roaming about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

Crisis in the Church

The resulting situation was not a schism in that the membership rejected Church teachings or denied the authority of the pope. Rather, the Church was split into two groups, each with their own pope, and the laity followed one or the other. The pope is the head of the Church, and for Catholics, then as now, giving allegiance to an imposter is akin to siding with the devil. The People of God were put in an undesirable position not of their making: two popes (two lines of popes), two papal governments, two sources of direction. The unity of the Church and prestige of the papacy was severely damaged and would remain so even after reconciliation 40 years later. The Church of Jesus Christ was being torn apart, not from outside, but from within, as Clinton Locke wrote: “And so began the Great Schism, which for more than 40 years tore Christendom to pieces and dragged the banner of the Prince of Peace in the vilest mud, everywhere hateful words, lies and perjury, trickery, sinning and the grossest and most unblushing immorality on the part of those set highest in the Church” (“The Age of the Great Western Schism”).

During these chaotic years, there were five successors to Pope Urban (Rome) and four successors to antipope Clement (Avignon). While reunification often was discussed, the individual popes and their governments actively sought to consolidate and strengthen their positions rather than abrogate. They created separate bishops and abbots, as well as other required hierarchy. Both Urban and Clement appointed their own College of Cardinals, as would all their predecessors.

This confused situation was a gift to secular rulers. While there were some diplomatic difficulties among nations, each pope made concessions to the rulers that supported them, avoiding even the pretext of interference in national political issues, thus ensuring continued alliance. In order to protect their positions, the pontiffs began to create a standing army that, in turn, resulted in heavy taxation on their followers. It was a near debacle, as two popes were excommunicating each other and trying to secure their position — it all hardly fostered an image of the strong-willed Pope Innocent III as Pope Boniface VIII had hoped. The papacy, the Vicar of Christ, suffered a great loss of prestige. On the other hand, the role and rule of secular heads advanced.

Historians explain that there were ways out of this dilemma. Both popes could resign, and the cardinals from each side together would elect a new pope; unfortunately, resignation was not contemplated by either pope. The other possibility was for all the cardinals and bishops to meet in a general or ecumenical council focused on resolving the situation. But a general council was legitimate only if given full cooperation by a pope, and any resulting decrees or canons had to be confirmed by the Holy See in order to be effective. Neither pope was willing to call a council.

Council at Pisa

Despite the lack of papal cooperation, there were theologians and canonical lawyers convinced that the only solution was through a general council. So, in the spring of 1409, the cardinals took action and called for such a council to be held at Pisa, Italy. While the attendees (from both sides) included cardinals, bishops, abbots, canon lawyers, theologians and the laity, neither reigning pope — Gregory XII from Rome, nor Benedict XIII from Avignon — attended. Both were unanimously deposed, and the council bishops elected Alexander V (r. 1409-10) as pontiff over all the Church. Unfortunately, the two popes already in place protested that the council had no authority to make Church decisions, since it had not been called nor condoned by a pope. They refused to resign; now there were three popes: one in Rome, one in Avignon and one in Pisa. The schism had not been resolved but exacerbated. The confusion continued. The Council of Pisa has never been recognized by the Church as an ecumenical council.

Alexander V, reigning out of Pisa, died within a year and was replaced by John XXIII. (A note of clarification about the Pisa Pope John XXIII. In his book, “The Catholic Church Through the Ages,” Father John Vidmar explains: “One question lingered; ‘Who was the pope in the line of Peter?’ The Roman pope has always been regarded as the legitimate pope, though there remained a doubt about the Pisan pope. This was not resolved (in favor of the Roman line) until 1958, when Angelo Roncalli took the name John XXIII.”) In an effort to secure his position and at the urging of King Sigismund, emperor-elect of the Holy Roman Empire (r. 1433-37), antipope John called a general council to address and resolve the schism. Later Pope Gregory also agreed with convoking a council.

Ecumenical Council of Constance

The council was held at Constance, Germany, in 1414, and considered legitimate and ecumenical, in that it was promoted by both the emperor and pope. Council attendees numbered in the thousands, including over 500 bishops and cardinals, plus theologians, canon lawyers, abbots and clergy. What differed at this council was the method of voting on recommendations and proposals. Typically each bishop had a vote, but here the vote was given to each nation — specifically, Italy, France, Germany, England and Spain. All the attendees from each of these nations were grouped together and given one vote.

Eventually, antipope John and antipope Benedict XIII were deposed, and Gregory XII, the Roman pope, resigned. Technically a council could not depose a true pope, but John and Benedict were antipopes. The council members, many upset about the situation in the Church, issued a radical decree, Sacrosancta, stating that an ecumenical or general Church council receives its power from Christ, and every Catholic, including the pope, owes obedience to the council in matters of faith, Church reform and heresy. Another edict by the council, Frequens, required general councils be called at set intervals: five years following Constance, then seven years later and every 10 years thereafter.

The schism ends

On Nov. 14, 1417, Cardinal Oddone Colonna was elected pope and took the name Martin V (r. 1417-31). The schism was ended. Those at the council departed believing that future councils would have authority over the pope. Martin, however, confirmed all the council proposals except the one giving authority to the council. This concept, known as conciliarism, would surface more than once in the future, but by the middle of the 15th century, the idea of a council being superior to a pope had lost support. At first the idea of frequent councils was attempted. However, between the end of the Council of Constance in 1417 and Vatican I in 1869, only four councils were held.

While the crisis was ended, no other institution on earth would have survived what happened to the Church. These were tragic, scandalous internal events. Any government would have crumbled. The Catholic Church survived the schism and would continue to survive — although a weakened papacy and lack of needed Church reforms would spur criticism by those who, in the 16th century, were bent on breaking completely from the Catholic faith: the Protestant Reformation. Of all the negative aspects of the schism, perhaps the worst — or, at least, one of the worst — was the fact that people learned to live without knowing who the real pontiff was.

No crisis will ever destroy the Church, because of our Lord Jesus, born in a manger and later murdered on a cross 2,000 years ago. The Church continues to survive because, as Jesus told Peter, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

Catherine of Siena: The Woman who helped bring the papacy back to Rome
Catherine of Siena speaks to Pope Gregory XI at Avignon in this painting by Giovanni di Paolo. Public domain

In the 14th century, St. Catherine of Siena traveled Italy in hopes of reforming the clergy. She frequently wrote to Pope Gregory XI, encouraging him to move the papacy back to Rome and offering him advice. In her 74th letter she wrote:

Very loved and reverend father in Christ Jesus,
I Caterina, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ and your poor wretched unworthy daughter, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you the sort of true gentle shepherd who takes an example from the shepherd Christ, whose place you hold. He laid down his life for his little sheep in spite of our ingratitude. The hounding, the wrongs, the scorn, the insults of the people he had created and so greatly blessed did not keep him from working out our salvation. No, as one in love with the Father’s honor and our salvation he ignores his own suffering and conquers our malice with his wisdom and peace and kindness. Just so I am begging you, I am telling you, my dear babbo, in the name of Christ crucified, to conquer with kindness, with patience, with humility, with gentleness the wrongdoing and pride of your children who have rebelled against you their father. You know that the devil is not cast out by the devil but by virtue. Even though you have been seriously wronged — since they have insulted you and robbed you of what is yours — still, father, I beg you to consider not their wrongdoing but your own kindness. Don’t let this keep you from working out our salvation. And this will be their salvation: that you re-establish peace with them, for as long as a son is at war with his father he is dispossessed of his inheritance. Ah, father, peace, for love of God, so that all these children may not lose the inheritance of eternal life! For you know that God has placed in your hands the giving and the taking away of this inheritance as your kindness pleases. You hold the keys, and to whomever you open it is opened, and to whomever you close it is closed. This is what the good gentle Jesus said to Peter, whose place you take: “Whatever you shall loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, and whatever you shall bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”

D.D. Emmons

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.