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, since 1410 even three, men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope, having excommunicated one another. Driven by 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 Orthodox Churches of the East.
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The schism in the Western Roman Church resulted from the return of the papacy to Rome under Gregory XI on January 17, 1377, ending the Avignon Papacy, which had developed a reputation for corruption that estranged major parts of Western Christendom. This reputation can be attributed to perceptions of predominant French influence and to the papal curia's efforts to extend its powers of patronage and increase its revenues.
After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, the Romans rioted to ensure the election of a Roman for pope. 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. Robert took the name Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon. The second election 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.
Sustained by such national and factional rivalries throughout Catholic Christianity, the schism continued after the deaths of both the Pope and the initial antipope claimant; Pope Boniface IX, crowned at Rome in 1389, and antipope 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, because they were Urbanists and thus viewed by the French as schismatics.
Efforts were made to end the Schism through force or diplomacy. The French crown even tried to coerce antipope Benedict XIII, whom it nominally supported, into resigning. None of these remedies worked. The suggestion that a church council should resolve the Schism, first made in 1378, was not adopted at first because canon law required that a pope call a council. 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 - this seems to be an error: John XXIII was a pope in the 20th century... who won some but not universal support.
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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 19th 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. Those of Avignon were dismissed by Rome early on, but the Pisan popes were included in the Annuario Pontificio as popes well into the 20th century. Thus the Borgia pope Alexander VI took his regnal name in sequence after the Pisan Alexander V.
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.
- "Western Schism". britannica.com. December 2014.
- J.N.D. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, p. 227
- Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 1924:14
- J. P. Adams, Council of Pisa: Deposition of Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, with additional references. Retrieved 02/26/2106.
- Bausch, William; Cannon, Carol Ann; Obach, Robert (1989). Pilgrim Church: A Popular History of Catholic Christianity. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications. p. 211. ISBN 0896223957.
- Bausch, Cannon, & Oback, p. 211.
- O'Connor, James Thomas (2005). The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. p. 204. ISBN 1586170767.
- Coriden, James (2004). An Introduction to Canon Law. New York: Paulist Press. p. 21. ISBN 0809142562.
- Broderick, J.F. 1987. "The Sacred College of Cardinals: Size and Geographical Composition (1099–1986)." Archivum historiae Pontificiae, 25: p. 14.
- The Three Popes: An Account of the Great Schism, by Marzieh Gail (New York, 1969).
- The Great Schism: 1378, by John Holland Smith (New York 1970).
- The Origins of the Great Schism: A study in fourteenth century ecclesiastical history, by Walter Ullmann (Hamden, Conn: Archon Books, 1967 (rev. of 1948 original publication)) [strongly partisan for Urban VI].
- A Companion to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), ed. Joëlle Rollo-Koster and Thomas M Izbicki (Leiden: Brill, 2009).