The Great Occidental Schism: Division in the Catholic Church, 1378-1417
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Western Schism, also called Papal Schism, Great Occidental Schism and Schism of 1378, was a split within the Catholic Church lasting from 1378 to 1417 in which two men (by 1410 three) simultaneously claimed to be the true pope, and each excommunicated one another. Driven by authoritative politics rather than any theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414–1418). For a time these rival claims to the papal throne damaged the reputation of the office.
The affair is sometimes referred to as the Great Schism, although this term is typically reserved for the more enduring East–West Schism of 1054 between the Western Churches answering to the See of Rome and the Greek Orthodox Churches of the East.
The schism in the Western Roman Church resulted from the return of the papacy to Rome by Gregory XI on January 17, 1377. The Avignon Papacy had developed a reputation for corruption that estranged major parts of Western Christendom.
Pope Gregory announced his intention to return to Avignon, just after the Easter celebrations of 1378. This was at the entreaty of his relatives, his friends, and nearly everyone in his retinue. After Pope Gregory XI died in the Vatican palace on 27 March 1378, the Romans put into operation a plan to ensure the election of a Roman pope. The pope and his Curia were back in Rome after seventy years in Avignon, and the Romans were prepared to do everything in their power to keep them there. They intended to use intimidation and violence (impressio et metus) as their weapons. On April 8, 1378 the cardinals elected a Neapolitan when no viable Roman candidate presented himself. Urban VI, born Bartolomeo Prignano, the archbishop of Bari, was elected. Urban had been a respected administrator in the papal chancery at Avignon, but as pope he proved suspicious, reformist, and prone to violent outbursts of temper. Many of the cardinals who had elected him soon regretted their decision: the majority removed themselves from Rome to Anagni, where, even though Urban was still reigning, they elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope on September 20 of the same year, claiming that the election of Urban was invalid because it had been done for fear of the rioting crowds. Elected pope at Fondi on 20 September 1378 by the French cardinals, unable to maintain himself in Italy, Robert took the name Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon, where he became dependent on the French court. Clement had the immediate support of Queen Joanna I of Naples and of several of the Italian barons. Charles V of France, who seems to have been sounded out beforehand on the choice of the Roman pontiff, soon became his warmest protector. Clement eventually succeeded in winning to his cause Castile, Aragon, Navarre, a great part of the Latin East, and Flanders. Scotland supported Clement because England supported Urban.
The pair of elections threw the Church into turmoil. There had been rival antipope claimants to the papacy before, but most of them had been appointed by various rival factions; in this case, a single group of leaders of the Church had created both the pope and the antipope.
The conflicts quickly escalated from a church problem to a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe. Secular leaders had to choose which claimant they would recognize:
- Avignon: France, Aragon, Castile and León, Cyprus, Burgundy, Savoy, Naples, Scotland and Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion in Wales recognized the Avignon claimant;
- Rome: Denmark, England, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, Ireland (English dominion), Norway, Portugal, Poland (later Poland-Lithuania), Sweden, Republic of Venice, and other City States of northern Italy, recognized the Roman claimant.
In the Iberian Peninsula there were the Fernandine Wars (Guerras fernandinas) and the 1383–1385 Crisis in Portugal, during which dynastic opponents supported rival claimants to the papal office.
Sustained by such national and factional rivalries throughout Catholic Christianity, the schism continued after the deaths of both Urban VI in 1389 and Clement VII in 1394. Boniface IX, who was crowned at Rome in 1389, and Benedict XIII, who reigned in Avignon from 1394, maintained their rival courts. When Pope Boniface died in 1404, the eight cardinals of the Roman conclave offered to refrain from electing a new pope if Benedict would resign; but when Benedict’s legates refused on his behalf, the Roman party then proceeded to elect Pope Innocent VII.
In the intense partisanship, characteristic of the Middle Ages, the schism engendered a fanatical hatred noted by Johan Huizinga: when the town of Bruges went over to the “obedience” of Avignon, a great number of people left to follow their trade in a city of Urbanist allegiance; in the 1382 Battle of Roosebeke, the oriflamme, which might only be unfurled in a holy cause, was taken up against the Flemings.
Efforts were made to end the Schism through force or diplomacy. The French crown even tried to coerce Benedict XIII, whom it supported, into resigning. None of these remedies worked. Eventually theologians like Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson, as well as canon lawyers like Francesco Zabarella, adopted arguments that equity permitted the Church to act for its own welfare in defiance of the letter of the law.
Eventually the cardinals of both factions secured an agreement that Benedict and Pope Gregory XII (successor to Innocent VII) would meet at Savona. They balked at the last moment, and both groups of cardinals abandoned their preferred leaders. A church council was held at Pisa in 1409 under the auspices of the cardinals to try solving the dispute. At the fifteenth session, 5 June 1409, the Council of Pisa attempted to depose both Pope and antipope as schismatical, heretical, perjured and scandalous, but it then added to the problem by electing a second antipope, Alexander V. He reigned briefly from June 26, 1409, to his death in 1410, when he was succeeded by antipope John XXIII, who won some but not universal support.
Finally, a council was convened by Pisan antipope John XXIII in 1414 at Constance to resolve the issue. This was endorsed by Pope Gregory XII, thus ensuring the legitimacy of any election. The council, advised by the theologian Jean Gerson, secured the resignations of John XXIII and Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415, while excommunicating the second antipope, Benedict XIII, who refused to step down. The Council elected Pope Martin V in 1417, essentially ending the schism. Nonetheless, the Crown of Aragon did not recognize Pope Martin V and continued to recognize Benedict XIII. Archbishops loyal to Benedict XIII subsequently elected Antipope Benedict XIV (Bernard Garnier) and three followers simultaneously elected Antipope Clement VIII, but the Western Schism was by then practically over. Clement VIII resigned in 1429 and apparently recognized Martin V.
The line of Roman popes is now recognized as the legitimate line, but confusion on this point continued until the 20th century. Pope Pius II (died 1464) decreed that no appeal could be made from pope to council, to avoid any future attempts to undo a papal election by anyone but the elected pope. No such crisis has arisen since the 15th century, and so there has been no need to revisit this decision. The alternate papal claimants have become known in history as antipopes. The Avignon popes were dismissed by Rome early on, but the Pisan popes were included in the Annuario Pontificio as popes until the mid-20th century. Thus the Borgia pope Alexander VI took his regnal name in sequence after the Pisan Alexander V.
In 1942, the Annuario listed the last three popes of the schism as Gregory XII (1406–1409), Alexander V (1409–1410), and John XXIII (1410–1415). However, the Western Schism was reinterpreted when Pope John XXIII (1958–1963) chose to reuse the ordinal XXIII, citing “twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy.” This is reflected in modern editions of the Annuario Pontificio, which extend Gregory XII’s reign to 1415. The Pisan popes Alexander V and John XXIII are now considered to be antipopes.
Gregory XII’s resignation (in 1415) was the last time a pope resigned until Benedict XVI in 2013.
After its resolution, the Western Schism still affected the Catholic Church for years to come. One of the most significant of these involved the emergence of the theory called conciliarism, founded on the success of the Council of Constance, which effectively ended the conflict. This new reform movement held that a general council is superior to the pope on the strength of its capability to settle things even in the early church such as the case in 681 when Pope Honorius was condemned by a council called Constantinople III. There are theorists such as John Gerson who explained that the priests and the church itself are the sources of the papal power and, thus, the church should be able to correct, punish, and, if necessary, depose a pope. For years, the so-called conciliarists have challenged the authority of the pope and they became more relevant after a convened council also known as the Council of Florence (1439–1445) became instrumental in achieving ecclesial union between the Catholic Church and the churches of the East.
There was also a marked decline in morality and discipline within the church. Scholars note that although the Western Schism did not directly cause such a phenomenon, it was a gradual development rooted in the conflict, effectively eroding the church authority and its capacity to proclaim the gospel. This was further aggravated by the dissension caused by the Protestant Reformation.
According to Broderick, in 1987:
Doubt still shrouds the validity of the three rival lines of pontiffs during the four decades subsequent to the still disputed papal election of 1378. This makes suspect the credentials of the cardinals created by the Roman, Avignon, and Pisan claimants to the Apostolic See. Unity was finally restored without a definitive solution to the question; for the Council of Constance succeeded in terminating the Western Schism, not by declaring which of the three claimants was the rightful one, but by eliminating all of them by forcing their abdication or deposition, and then setting up a novel arrangement for choosing a new pope acceptable to all sides. To this day the Church has never made any official, authoritative pronouncement about the papal lines of succession for this confusing period; nor has Martin V or any of his successors. Modern scholars are not agreed in their solutions, although they tend to favor the Roman line.
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- Cardinal Hugues de Montelais stated that he had a mental reservation against Bartolomeo Prignano, on the grounds that he was “unsuitable”, due to his temperament and temper: “dixit in vera conscientia sua quod ante ingressum conclavis nec post nunquam habuit in mente consentiendi in eum nec eligendi eum, nec etiam cum esset in conclave nominavit eum, quia agnoscebat eum quod esset melancholicus et furiosus homo.” Stephanus Baluzius [Étienne Baluze], Vitae Paparum Avinionensium Volume 1 (Paris: apud Franciscum Muguet 1693) column 1270.
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205. Gregorio XII, Veneto, Correr (c. 1406, cessò a. 1409, m. 1417) – Pont. a. 2, m. 6. g. 4. 206. Alessandro V, dell’Isola di Candia, Filargo (c. 1409, m. 1410). – Pont. m. 10, g. 8. 207. Giovanni XXII o XXIII o XXIV, Napoletano, Cossa (c. 1410, cessò dal pontificare 29 mag. 1415
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 03.22.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.