January 8, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Turmoil in the 14th-century papacy

John F. Fink(Twentieth in a series of columns)

If the first half of the 13th century was the golden age of papal power, especially while Innocent III was pope, the 14th century could be called the period of papal decline. During almost 70 years of that century popes lived in Avignon, France. Then, after they returned to Rome, there was the beginning of the Western Schism.

The papal turmoil actually began in 1292 with the death of Pope Nicholas IV. There was no pope for 27 months because the 12 cardinals who elected a pope were so split that they couldn’t reach the two-thirds majority required. Finally, they agreed on a hermit highly regarded for his holiness, Pietro del Morrone, who took the name Celestine V.

Celestine was already 85 years old. He never moved to Rome, living instead in Naples. He showed signs of senility, assigning the same Church appointments to more than one person. Five months after his election in 1294, Cardinal Benedetto Caetani convinced him that he should abdicate, which he did on Dec. 13. He was the last pope to resign until Pope Benedict XVI did so.

As you probably guessed, the cardinals then elected Cardinal Caetani pope. He took the name Boniface VIII. He had the former Pope Celestine confined in a castle until his death in 1296.

Boniface wanted to be a strong pope like Innocent III, but he managed to make enemies of both King Philip IV of France and the powerful Colonna family of Italy. When he deposed the two Colonna cardinals, the family called for a council to investigate the alleged murder of Pope Celestine. Pope Boniface struck back by seizing Colonna lands, and the two cardinals took refuge in King Philip’s court.

When Pope Boniface issued a bull that asserted the supremacy of spiritual over temporal power, King Philip demanded a general council that would depose the pope. On Sept.7, 1303, a band of mercenaries led by the head of the Colonna family stormed the papal palace and seized Pope Boniface. He was rescued, but he died five days later.

Boniface was succeeded by Pope Benedict XI, a Dominican who promoted reconciliation. He removed the excommunication that Boniface had imposed on the two Colonna cardinals and King Philip. But he died after less than eight months as pope.

When the cardinals met to elect Benedict’s successor, they were almost equally divided between an anti-French faction and a pro-French group loyal to King Philip IV. They couldn’t agree on one of themselves so, after 11 months of sometimes-bitter debate, they elected Archbishop Bertrand de Got, who took the name Clement V.

It was a victory for the pro-French cardinals. How much of a victory was shown when Clement created 10 new cardinals, nine of them French (including four nephews). The French now dominated the College of Cardinals.

Clement seriously intended to move to Rome. But he was crowned in Lyons, France, to meet King Philip’s wishes, wandered about Provence and Gascony for several years, and finally succumbed to Philip’s request that he remain in France. He settled in Avignon. †

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