Captivity and Schism

A. Burt Horsley, “Captivity and Schism,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 91–101.

Captivity and Schism​

The entire fourteenth century and the first two decades of the fifteenth century turned out to be a period of great confusion for the papacy as well as for all who looked to it for direction. Having reached its highest level under Innocent III, when the Lateran Council affirmed that princes might be removed from their possessions by papal fiat, the tide of papal power ebbed and then declined even more abruptly with the turn of the fourteenth century.

Some of the causes of this decay have already been examined, but a growth of nationalism, closely coupled with a natural feeling opposed to increasing concentration of power in Rome, might well have been the most compelling force at work.

National monarchs gained popularity and increased loyalty among their own people. This developing sense of nationality contributed to a breakdown of feudalism and a resentment of papal interference in political affairs on the part of both rulers and countrymen. The pope no longer refereed the disputes between sovereigns, and what had formerly been regarded as arbitrage came to be considered papal meddling.

The very targets of the former Hildebradine reforms, simony, lay investiture, and clerical laxity, weakened the church again from within. To these debilitating elements were added sale of indulgences and excessive tithes.

To counter such measures and meet his own heavy expenses, King Phillip IV of France taxed the clergy in spite of the traditional tax exemption for the church. Not only were the rich estates of the bishops heavily assessed but the personal property of all clergy as well.

In the ensuing years, from 1296 to 1303, retaliatory measures were exchanged back and forth, first by Pope Boniface VIII against the French king and then by King Phillip IV against the pope. Failing to read the handwriting on the wall, Boniface did not realize that he was fighting a losing battle against Phillip, who was the darling of the French people (dubbed Phillip the Fair) and champion of their nationalism.

When the pope issued the bull, clericis laicos, forbidding the clergy to pay taxes in France, Phillip forbade the exportation of all gold and silver out of the country, thus cutting off the French source of Vatican revenue. In blundering tyrannical fashion, Boniface countered with a reassertion of the doctrine of the two powers in a papal bull, Auscultafili, clumsily worded in exaggerated terms and destined to stir the indignation of the entire States General of France. The bull was burned in public and the pope accused of heresy, tyranny, and, with probable justification, unchastity.

As a final gesture of power, the aging pope, now in his mid-eighties excommunicated Phillip, only to suffer the humiliation of being seized by the king’s emissaries and left to die in solitude before he could be whisked off to France, where it no doubt was intended he should be even more impotent without his immediate aides and loyal supporters. For all practical purposes, the death of Boniface VIII, in 1303, marked the demise of medieval papal political power.

Much has been written about the treachery and captivating power of France in controlling the papacy during the following seventy years. However much this may have been overstressed historically, there seems little reason to doubt that by a mixture of intrigue and violence some French kings did obtain and exert a powerful influence over the papacy for at least part of the seven decades during which the popes resided not in Rome but in Avignon.

The short pontificate of Benedict XI, which lasted less than a year, marked the transition period of the papacy and the beginning of what came to be known during the exile in Avignon as the “Babylonish Captivity.”

Since the earliest recognition of the bishop of Rome as metropolitan, the papacy had been identified with that city. The title Roman pontiff had been used synonymously with the term pope, and the claim of Roman supremacy was linked by traditionalists almost inseparably with the concept of Petrine primacy and priority. Indeed, the basis of Roman Catholic assertion of papal authority had rested, at least partly, on the fact of Peter’s residence in Rome, with Rome as the hub of the church. The bishop of Rome claimed unique apostolic succession as successor of Peter, not the bishop of Lyons, neither of Carthage nor of Avignon.

Consequently, the decision of Benedict’s successor, Clement V, to stay in France and establish papal residency there must have stirred considerable confusion in the minds of clerics and laity alike throughout Europe. It was true that in times past, an occasional pope had resided in places other than Rome, but it had usually been assumed that Rome was the official home residence even though the pope may have been absent and lived elsewhere for years at a time.

In 1305 a Frenchman, Bertrand de Got, archbishop of Bordeaux, was elected pope with the collusion of the French king and French cardinals. Although certain of his contemporaries and some historians have insisted that the new pope, Clement V, had every good intention of eventually crossing the alps to take up residence in Rome, the fact remains that during the nine years of his pontificate he never set foot in Italy. Out of deference to the French cardinals, he convened the College of Cardinals in Lyons for the coronation rites, which took place in the nearby Church of St. Just. Thereafter, until he established permanent residence, March 1309, in Avignon, he wandered about like a minstrel from Lyons to Cluny to Languedoc, spending almost a year in the Bordeaux area because of ill health. He had, in those years, never left French soil.

Technically, Avignon was not French but rather part of the kingdom of Naples, a vassalage of the church. It was situated just across the Rhone river from French territory, however, and was more under French influence than Neapolitan.

Having come to the papal office as a relatively weak figure politically, Clement sought to strengthen his power by packing the College of Cardinals with supporters of his own choosing. Twenty-three of the twenty-four cardinals appointed by him were Frenchmen. He further compounded the humiliation of the Italians by lending an estimable amount of the accumulated church treasury to the kings of France. More than a proportionate amount of the church’s money had been amassed by assessing the Italians, as well as the rest of the church, exorbitant payments for services at the Curia and for every benefice conferred by the pope, in addition to increased general tithes and taxes.

Clement, who had lived extravagantly, wasting the church’s money and benefices excessively on his own family and friends, set a precedent for the other popes in Avignon, with few exceptions. His successor, Pope John XXII (1316–34), however, was not elected until after a vacancy in the office of more than two years. The intervening time was punctuated with outbreaks of violence and disorder as the opposing French and Italian cardinals sought to strengthen their respective positions.

A former pope, Gregory X (1274), had left instructions that in the event of an impasse in the conclave of the Sacred College called to elect a new pope, secular authorities should intervene, confine the cardinals if necessary and compel them to resume the election process until a pope was chosen. Clement had sought to soften this provision to some degree before he died, in his constitution, NeRomani, suggesting that disagreeing cardinals might be excused to leave the conclave.

However, when the cardinals, ignoring the Roman tradition, met again in France to choose Clement’s successor, they had hardly allowed themselves to be shut up in the Episcopal palace before it was apparent that the French and Italian Factions were implacable opponents. During the ensuing two months, the French populace grew impatient with the delay. Roving groups looted and plundered. Italian nationals, who were part of the delegation to the conclave or who were employed by the Curia during the conference, were threatened and abused. Some were attacked and killed. Consequently, the conclave broke up without having accomplished its purpose.

Almost two years later in March 1316, the conclave was reconvened in Lyons with the guarantee of protection from violence and freedom of movement for the cardinals. In spite of this assurance, impatient secular authorities adopted severe measures when no agreement had been reached by the end of June. French troops surrounded the Convent of Comfort, where the cardinals were meeting, and closed it off. The cardinals were told that they would remain imprisoned there until they had elected a pope. By coercion and necessity—and after another month’s time had taken its toll—dissidence and opposition subsided enough to bring about the election of John XXII.

Thus, after a long vacancy, a man with simple habits and an unpretentious life style came to govern the Catholic church. In contrast to the extravagant living and imprudent luxury indulged in by Clement V, John disdained such things for himself as sinful waste. There was, indeed, much to admire in the character of this pope. However, he had the disposition of a governor and was inflexible in many of his decisions. Moreover, before his death he had, through nepotism and favor, endowed his entire family, including nieces and nephews and even neighbors from his home town, with every conceivable benefice, office and dignity, and the necessary wealth to enjoy it. One exception to such extravagant nepotism was demonstrated in the policies and practices of John’s successor, Benedict XII (1334–42). This pope, nevertheless, was responsible for the erection of the famous papal castle at Avignon whose splendor and magnificence could not be matched by the nearby small and unimposing cathedral. The contrast, it was said, typified the spirit and policy of the Avignon captivity.

A new level of nepotism and extravagance was reached by the next pope, Clement VI, but historians have credited his successor Innocent VI with keeping his nepotism within very limited bounds.

For a brief period Urban V (1362–70) went to Rome but returned to Avignon. It was left to his successor Gregory XI, the last of the French popes, to return to Rome with the sincere intention of re-establishing the papal residence there. Credit has been given to Catherine of Siena, a young woman of great piety and equal persuasion, for her role in encouraging the pope to bring the papacy back to Rome.

After a long and trying journey by boat and galley, prolonged in part because of the delicate health of Gregory XI, the papal entourage arrived in Rome on 17 January 1377. His Italian experience was destined to last a little more than a year. Although he enjoyed the cheering and jubilation of the crowds who welcomed him at first, he was eventually remembered for former alleged incidents and events of infamy by the Italians, and he died in March 1378 feeling that he had not accomplished the reforms he had intended nor that he was understood by the Romans.

The death of Gregory XI in 1378 brought about a disorder in the papal tradition far more confusing even than was the foreign residency of the popes. The next few months after the return of Gregory to Rome, including the election of his successor Urban VI, proved to be but a brief interlude between “captivity” and schism. Within five weeks after Urban, an Italian, came to power his blundering and tyrannical efforts so offended the French cardinals that they fled from Rome and elected Roger of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII, with residence back in Avignon. Thus began another extended period of forty years of indiscriminate embarrassment for the church which would eventually see not only two, but three popes ruling simultaneously from three separate locations in Europe.

The circumstances promoted new political alliances. The more powerful nations divided over support of a series of rival popes, who held their ground tenaciously. Bishops and secular leaders in England, Germany, Poland and Scandinavia supported Urban VI and his successors in Rome, while the churches and states of France, Spain, Scotland, and the Saxon areas of Germany supported the pope in Avignon.

Eventually the two papacies, requiring double expenditures to maintain two systems of ecclesiastical government, angered by the disrepute and shame of division, resorted to denouncing each other as Antichrist. The remedy decided upon by the cardinals of both parties resulted, however, in an even greater scandal. Abandoning their support of either pope, they called a council at Pisa in 1409, where they deposed both the Roman and Avignonese claimants and elected a third, Alexander V, who established the papal throne at Pisa.

England, France, and some of the German bishops offered their support to the pope at Pisa—only to have him die within a year’s time. It was rumored that he had been poisoned by one of the opposition.

Alexander was succeeded by a gifted but impious and ambitious ecclesiastic who came to office under the stigma of both simony and bribery.

Baldassar Cossa, who took the name John XXIII, was not unsuited to the times. Many rumors and legends spread abroad concerning his earlier life. It was said by some that he kept his waking hours in the night and slept by daylight. His enemies claimed that as an adventurous seafarer and soldier of fortune he had one time been a pirate and that more than two hundred widows and virgins of the seaport at Bologna could trace their syphilitic miseries to him. Biographical evidence supports the fact of his Neapolitan seafaring ancestors and the indiscretions of his later student days in Bologna, but the details and number are no doubt exaggerations.

The unsettled situation was further complicated by a general political unrest in what remained as but a shell of the former Holy Roman Empire in the West. The coincidence of three pretenders to the long vacant imperial throne seemed to portend something ominous. Of the three imperial aspirants, Sigismund, King of Hungary, had finally succeeded in gaining at least token recognition as emperor, having outmaneuvered his brother Wenzel of Bohemia and his cousin Jobst of Moravia. He was not officially crowned, however, until 1433.

Nevertheless, invoking his assured imperial authority, Sigismund finally took matters into his own hands and requested the popes to call a council to settle the issue. The Roman and Avignonese popes declined, but John XXIII in Pisa, although reluctant at first, no doubt anticipated some advantage from the maneuver and summoned the Council of Constance to convene in 1414 in the resort town of that name situated on the shore of Lake Constance in Southern Germany. He may have derived comfort from the fragile tradition which assumed that only a true pope may call an ecumenical council, hoping to be recognized and supported by the assembled bishops.

Actually, the council, when it did convene, took on the unprecedented dimension of an international congress, involving more than just ecclesiastical leadership, and combining European political as well as religious matters for conciliar consideration.

The challenge was formidable enough to deter many from approaching such an undertaking without some urging, and the matter was further hindered by a general disagreement over priorities on the agenda. It was thought by many that the obvious and overwhelming disgrace of the schism itself would take precedence over any other matter, but it soon became apparent that many bishops were even more disturbed over the aftermath of the teachings of Wycliffe, long since dead and buried in England. It was contended that there existed a renewed immediate threat to orthodoxy in the revival of Wycliffe’s teaching in the heresies and rebellion of John Huss of Bohemia. Still others felt that the most pressing order of business was the general reform of the church.

The council was opened with a speech by the emperor in which he exposed his ignorance of Latin and Greek grammar, but otherwise gave the assembly official charge and status. A second innovation beyond the international composition of the conference was the introduction of nearly three hundred learned professors from fourteen universities of Europe, representing the academic community in the discussions.

From the outset, the council wasted valuable time debating whether the question of reforming the church or choosing a bonafida pope should be taken up first. Failing an agreement on this point, they then turned to the question of heresy and disposed of it rather hastily when John Huss, who had been promised safe conduct by both emperor and church, was condemned and burned in 1415. The case of Huss provoked a fierce war in Bohemia, where his followers swore to avenge his fate. In England, the bones of Wycliffe were cast out of consecrated ground by order of the council, reduced to ashes, and scattered in the Thames River.

The attempt to reform the church bogged down in three years of deliberations with little accomplished. Attention was finally diverted to the problem of the three popes. It was clear that under the circumstances of confusion and schism, the authority of councils must necessarily be superior to papal decrees. To further assure future conciliar power and influence, the council decreed the calling of a general council every ten years on a regular basis.

After deposing John XXIII and Benedict XIII, the council accepted the resignation of Gregory XII, thus leaving the papal throne vacant. A new pope, Martin V, an Italian, was elected in November 1417, bringing an end to the “Great Western Schism.”

The former Baldassare Cossa, who had reigned briefly as Pope John XXIII and had called the council at the instigation of the emperor, now found himself not only deposed but threatened with the exposure of his past. Charges were being drawn up by many who had suffered from his exploitations and fraud. The fifty-four charges brought against him before the council included bribery, paganism, lechery, and robbery. After being confined for the duration of the council, he was released to spend most of the remainder of his life in asylum and retreat. His title, John XXIII, was put on the shelf, shunned and unwanted until retrieved more than five hundred years later, when that name would be chosen again by Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who became “Good Pope John XXIII” in the twentieth century.

Looking back from a fourteenth century vantage point, an analyst of the time might well have sensed something sadly dispiriting in much that transpired during those decades in Avignon and the ensuing years of confusion and disunity. Indeed, the poet Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, may have expressed the sentiments of many when he lamented in the twenty-seventh canto of that portion of his work called Paradiso, “Must that which began so loftily, end so shamefully?”

Although there had been a vast reorganization of the various offices and agencies of the church at all levels and serious effort had been made to reform the clergy, still those occasional attempts at remedy had produced but little cure for the church as a whole. Even the fact that an increased missionary zeal had taken Christianity to the Far East was overshadowed by the dissolution of spirituality and internal strife on the home front.

The religious fervor of the people might have been revived had it not been for the dissolute character and conduct of popes, bishops, and priests. Instead, Christians throughout the West expressed disgust with the mode of life characterized by the material abundance and free indulgence in pretentiousness and luxury at the court of Avignon, with the accompanying political maneuvering and patronage.

There was widespread resentment over the papal residency in Avignon, especially in Germany and England, resulting in irreparable damage to the prestige of the institution of the papacy. The College of Cardinals began to acquire more power in the leadership of the church, which might have produced a more representative governmental structure had not the increased power and prestige resulted in inflated ambition and the development of factions within that body.

Despite factional weakening of the college, conciliar authority did, for a short period, dominate the papacy both during and immediately following the Council of Constance, and no doubt, its greatest contribution was the healing of the schism. Nevertheless, it did fail to reform the church and its efforts to stem the tide of heresy were futile. When all was finally said and done, the theory of conciliar authority lost its appeal and, although the papacy was given new life, it would never again be restored to its former majesty and sovereignty. Indeed, it might be said that the great structure of power dreamed of and partly begun by the resolution and courage of a Hildebrand, and more firmly established by the transcendent ability of Innocent III, collapsed under the burden of the contriving and scandalous devices of the popes themselves. The confidence and trust of the whole Christian world had been strained.