January 22, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: The Great Western Schism lasted for 39 years

John F. Fink(Twenty-second in a series of columns)

The Great Western Schism, which lasted for 39 years, had to be the most difficult period in the history of the papacy.

It started after Pope Gregory XI, who took the papacy back to Rome from Avignon, died in 1378. The Romans were so afraid that another French pope would be elected, since the College of Cardinals was dominated by Frenchmen, that crowds demonstrated in the streets of Rome and eventually invaded the palace.

By that time, though, the cardinals had elected an Italian, who took the name Urban VI. The cardinals soon realized they had made a mistake. Apparently, his election upset the balance of his mind, and he subjected the cardinals to violent abuse and tirades.

The cardinals met at Anagni and published a declaration that the pope’s election was invalid “as having been made, not freely, but under fear” of mob violence. They then elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who was neither French nor Italian. He took the name Pope Clement VII.

There were now two claimants to the papacy. The rivals excommunicated each other, and sought to persuade the world of the legitimacy of their rule. They also faced each other in Italy with armed forces. Urban was able to control Rome, and ruled from there. Clement eventually moved to Avignon.

The Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, England, Hungary and most of Italy accepted Urban as pope, while France, Spain, Scotland, Sicily and Savoy went for Clement. Men and women who eventually were canonized were divided in their allegiances.

When Urban died in 1389, he was succeeded by Boniface IX and then Innocent VII and Gregory XII. Clement died in 1394, and was succeeded by Benedict XIII.

In 1409, a council was convened in Pisa to try to settle the issue. The council found both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, the two men claiming to be pope at the time, guilty on 30-odd charges of schism and heresy, deposed both of them, and elected a new pope—Alexander V.

That didn’t work. Neither Gregory nor Benedict recognized the Council of Pisa since it wasn’t canonically convoked, i.e., by a pope. So now there were three men claiming to be pope at the same time. Alexander died in 1410, and was succeeded by John XXIII, who was later acknowledged as an antipope. During all this time, theologians and scholars suggested various solutions, but none of them seemed to be satisfactory to all sides.

The schism was finally ended by the Council of Constance, which met from 1414 to 1418. It, too, was convened irregularly, but acquired authority in 1415 when it was formally convoked by Pope Gregory XII. First this council deposed John XXIII, whose election was uncanonical anyway. Then, after Gregory convoked the council, he abdicated, and the council accepted the abdication. Finally, the council dismissed the claims of Benedict XIII.

This cleared the way for the election of a new pope. On Nov. 11, 1417, the cardinals elected Oddo Colonna, who was ordained a priest, consecrated bishop and finally crowned as Pope Martin V on Nov. 21. The Western Schism was finally ended.

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