The Papal Schism

As was stated, in 1305 Clement V, being a Frenchman, was elected pope, and chose Avignon, a city surrounded on all sides by France, as his place of residence. Here, as was stated, the popes remained for seventy years. As this period so closely corresponds in its duration with the span of years of Judah’s exile, it is known in history as the Babylonian captivity of the papacy. It included, as was said, the successive reigns of seven popes, all of whom were Frenchmen. As was also stated, this absence of the papacy from Rome did the papal system much harm. The papacy threatened to become a French institution, and its corrupt morals became notorious throughout Europe. The last of these seven Avignon popes was Gregory XI. By him the papacy was re-established in Rome in 1377 but the next year he died there.

As we shall now see, still greater calamities were in store for the papacy than those that thus far had befallen it. Pope Gregory XI having died, the college of cardinals, whose task it was to elect a successor for the deceased pope, assembled in the Vatican chose Bartholomew Prignano, archbishop of Bari, who took the name Urban VI. This Urban was an Italian, his election spelled the triumph of the Roman people, who had resolved to keep the papacy in Rome. Urban acquired the reputation of being a tactless pope; but if admonishing cardinals for their worldliness and want of devotion to the duties of their office and if rebuking such men for holding more than one appointment and for accepting bribes from princes, is tactlessness, Urban was a tactless pope. True, he also resisted the demands of the French cardinals that the papacy return to Avignon; but this cannot be held against him, as it was generally agreed that the absence of the popes from Rome had done the papacy much harm. Urban’s position was that Rome and the papacy belonged together and could be separated only with disastrous results to both. Nevertheless, four months after his election, the French cardinals, as incensed by his attacks, demanded his resignation. Shortly thereafter, they denounced him as an apostate and declared his election void on the ground that it had been dictated by mob violence. True, it had. While the election of Urban was in progress, an Italian mob, determined to keep the papacy in Rome, had made the air ring with angry shouts and threats. “We will have a Roman pope or at least an Italian.” In the room underneath the compartment, where the cardinals were met, soldiers thrust their spears thru the ceiling. But Urban would not resign; and the French cardinals elected Cardinal Robert of. Geneva as pope Clement VII, 1378. This was a new phenomenon in the history of the papacy. Not that there had been no rival popes before. There had been many such popes, chosen however by opposing parties. But these two popes had been duly elected by the same cardinals. The argument that Urban VI had been elected under the pressure of mob violence had little validity since the cardinals had accepted his jurisdiction for four months without a protest. Europe had now two popes, each denouncing the other. Clement VI was not a good man. His hands were full of blood from the massacre of Cesena, and he was known as given to riotous living. After a vain attempt to unseat Urban VI in Rome, he retreated to France and took up his residence in Avignon. The papal schism was complete. Northern and central Italy, most of Germany, Scandinavia, and England declared in favor of the Roman pope, Urban VI. France Spain, Scotland, the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily adhered to the pope in Avignon. The papal schism was the greatest calamity that could befall the Roman hierarchy. It was an heretofore unknown scandal in the Western Church. There were two papal courts that now had to be maintained, and the result was that taxations were augmented as well as papal abuses. Popular regard for the papacy was nearly gone. Men began to doubt whether the papacy was a divine institution.

The dates of this Schism are 1378-1417. It thus lasted thirty nine years. In Rome the period included the successive reigns of four popes: Urban VI (1378), Boniface IX (1389-1404), Innocent VII (1404-1406), Gregory XII (1406-1415).

The election of Boniface IX took place in his thirty-eighth year. He was a man of fine appearance and an able ruler but could not even write. Innocent VII was only thirty five years old at the time of his election. Because his nephew slew in cold blood eleven of the principal men of the city, he was expelled from Rome but later recalled. After the example of his two predecessors he pronounced sentence of excommunication on the popes in Avignon. The last pope of the Roman line was Gregory XII.