The Great Schism

The Great Schism is the name given to the division of the Roman Catholic Church in which rival popes sat in both Rome and Avignon. It is also called the Great Schism in Western Christendom and the Great Western Schism. This is to help identify between this rift in the church and an earlier schism which occurred in 1054. This divide within the church started in 1378 and ended in 1417.

The Backdrop on Which the Great Schism Played Out

At the time of the Great Schism France was enjoying an interim period of peace, which was during the span of the Hundred Years War. Prior to this, France had been at war with England for a number of years. As well as suffering with war and financial hardship, France had suffered huge losses from the Black Death, and there had been a number of civil uprisings and murders.

Religion would have been particularly important at the time to all levels of the class system and to citizens of a number of western countries. The Catholic Church could be a powerful ally, providing of course you had the ear of the cardinals and the pope.

The Causes of the Great Schism

In 1309, Pope Clement V moved both the papacy and his residence to Avignon, a city located just outside of French territory on the Rhone River.

Pope Clement V’s move to Avignon allowed Philip the Fair, the King of France at the time, to exert a great deal of influence over the pope and the church. The French monarchy enjoyed a number of benefits from having the Pope and the Church within their reach.

In 1377, after nearly 70 years of the papacy residency at Avignon, Pope Gregory XI made a significant move and returned the papacy to Rome. The move created a great amount of hostility towards Gregory XI from both Roman nobility and some of his own cardinals.

A year later this controversial pope died, leaving the church in a very difficult position. At the time of his death, six of the twenty two cardinal had remained in residence at Avignon and a considerable amount of the papal bureaucracy was carried out at Avignon.

Gregory XI’s death created a real and genuine sense of concern for the Romans. The religious figures there were worried that the recent move of the papacy to Rome would be undone, and that the papacy would be returned to Avignon with the election of a French pope. These concerns were intensified with the knowledge that a number of cardinals still resided and worked from Avignon.

As a result of this threat and fear, the papal election that took place in April 1378 did not go smoothly. There was a considerable amount of confusion, from rioting citizens outside the conclave to dissension of the cardinals within.

The Start of the Great Western Schism

Through the process of elimination and election the Roman Catholic Church elected a new pope. Their choice was to elect an Italian cardinal, who became Pope Urban VI. At the time, the papal court was based in Rome, and this influenced the decision to elect and Italian cardinal as the new pope.

It ended with the election of a compromise candidate, Urban VI (1378–1389), an Italian who had served at Avignon.

However, Pope Urban VI’s quickly demonstrated violent and abusive qualities that caused fear within the cardinals. Many questioned the newly elected pope’s sanity. The violence and the fear combined with the confusion and disruption caused during the election created questions regarding the validity of Urban Vl’s title.

The King of France, King Charles V the Wise, decided with a number of the cardinals that they did not approve of the newly elected Italian Pope. The French declared the election of Pope Urban VI as void, and they took the decision to elect a pope of their own. The cardinals and the French monarchy took an incredible decision and elected Clement VII to be the pope.

During the summer of 1379, Clement VII failed to capture and take over Rome. Reluctantly, Clement withdrew and took up residence at Avignon, leaving Pope Urban VI to reside in Rome, thus setting the stage was set for two rival papal systems, one Roman and one Avignonese.

Although Rome was considered the true home of the papacy many regarded and acknowledged that Avignon was as an effective location that could be used to centralize leadership.

This divide created two popes and two accompanying papal structures, and the surrounding European countries were forced to decide which pope and papal system that they would choose to acknowledge and follow.

The decisions and actions taken by the French king and his men created what a period of religious and sociological disruption which is known today as the Great Schism. This divide within the Catholic Church lasted for nearly 40 years, during which time two popes opposing popes claimed authority.

The Creation of a Divided Church

Many countries within the Western Christendom could not decide which pope to follow and obey. Some countries declared their commitment to Pope Urban VI, while other countries accepted Clement VII as their pope. Both popes believed and promoted themselves to be the one true successor of St. Peter. Western Europe was politically divided over which pope to support.

Obviously France supported the Avignon pope, as they had helped Clement VII rise to the title of pope. A number of other countries joined France in the support of Clement VII as pope, and these include Sicily, Scotland, Castile, Aragon, and Portugal.

Again, Rome obviously supported the Roman pope Urban VI, as did Flanders, Poland, Hungary and most of the German Empire.

Many citizens were confused and concerned about the divide in the Catholic Church, but those who were not perplexed decided to make an opportunity out of this disagreement.

As a result of this split share of support, neither of the rival popes could claim to have a decisive edge of power. Neither of the popes could remove his opposite from the power that he held, and neither pope was willing to relinquish his claim or power to his rival, creating one of the most serious and damaging schisms ever to have occurred. This stalemate situation had a great impact on the influence and unity of the Catholic Church.

The two popes were rivals locked in a bitter and all too public feud. Over time, loyalties and relationships hardened, and more and more individuals were drawn into the feud; creating reinforcement in the divide and not in the unity of the church.

  • At Rome a number of individuals were elected to succeed Pope Urban VI, including Boniface IX (in 1389), Innocent VII (in 1404), and Gregory XII (in 1406).
  • At Avignon just one individual was elected to succeed Pope Clement VII, and this was Benedict XIII (in 1394).

Understandably the results of this reinforcement in the divide created widespread administrative confusion and conflict. The most important impact of this reinforced divide was the spiritual anxiety that was crippling both the church and the population.

The Impact of a Divided Church

Very few were able to take either man seriously at his role as head of the Catholic Church. Rather than being perceived as spiritual leaders by which one could follow as an example, they were instead perceived more like politicians, bickering and arguing for yet another commodity, faith.

The effects of the divide and the subsequent bickering between the two religious leaders had a damaging effect on both the population and the church itself. Many believed that it was the papal office that suffered the most.

With the divide and the rivalry established the papal offices began to lose both authority and influence with all classes. Eventually, the cardinals of both popes agreed that an ecumenical council of godly men could collectively possess and provide more divine authority that just one pope.

In 1409 the Council of Pisa was established and asked to attempt to resolve the divide between Urban Vi and Clement VII. The resolution of this conflict would once again reaffirm the strength and unity of the church.

The idea behind the council was to relieve the two popes of their owner and to elect a third pope (John XXIII) that would take over as the sole leader and would unify the church once again. However, the Council of Pisa served only to intensify the problem by producing a third rival pope.

A few years later the Council of Constance (1414) was called to attempt to do what the Council of Pisa had failed to do.

This public divide was incredibly damaging to the Papacy and it took a great deal of effort to restore order to the Catholic Church.

The Council of Constance

The Council of Constance may not be well known in history, but it had a phenomenal impact on the Great Schism and as such it had an incredible impact on the shaping of the Catholic Church. The Council of Constance is by far one of the greatest general assembly’s held by the medieval Western church.

The Council of Constance assembled at a time of great crisis for the church. The impact of the Great Western Schism was having dramatic effects on the influence of the church. Something urgent needed to be done to end the dispute that had lasted nearly four decades, crippling the influence the church had on members of society, from the monarchy right down to the peasants.

Previous attempts to end the Great Schism had failed, including the Council of Pisa, which at the time had been seen as the best opportunity to save the situation and rectify the problems which the divide had caused. Instead of solving the problem, the Council of Pisa served only to create a third candidate who was just as convinced as the other two popes in their claim to the title of head of the church.

The situation of three rival popes all arguing for the same position was both intolerable and ultimately damaging. The Council of Constance was put together to resolve the matter in a manner that suited all parties involved.

The Council of Constance was summoned by the Pisan pope, John XXIII (1410–1415), who was elected as part of the Council of Pisa.

However, the Council of Constance was far more determined to end the Great Schism than previous councils, and it took the decision to depose the very pope that had hired them, and they decided to depose the Avignonese pope Benedict XIII.

The Council of Constance then accepted the resignation of the Roman pope, Gregory XII. This eliminated all three claims to the head of the Catholic Church, allowing the Council to appoint a new successor, Pope Martin V (1417–31). Pope Martin V was the first pope in forty years that could claim that he was the leader to the entire Western Catholic Church.

The Council of Constance achieved what many thought was the impossible. Not only did the council successfully end nearly four decades of disruption in the church, but it also asserted tree strong beliefs that have helped to shape the Catholic Church that we know and recognize today. These include the following beliefs:

  • The pope is not an absolute monarch; rather a constitutional ruler.
  • The pope possesses a ministerial authority that is delegated to him by the community of the faithful. His appointment is for the good of the entire church.
  • The community of the faithful can (and have) exercise the necessary power via its chosen representatives to judge, chastise, and even depose a pope if required.

Finally between 1414 and 1418, the Council of Constance was successful in healing the Schism. The deposition of the Avignon Pope and the Pisan Pope led to the resignation of the Roman Pope.

The Great Western Schism had weakened the papacy, but it later strengthened the view that the individual pope should be guided by a group of people in the form of a church council.

1 thought on “The Great Schism”

Leave a Comment