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The Church's Black Eye

As Europe moved into the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church’s power and influence reached far and wide across Europe. A Christian tradition began in the fifth and sixth centuries, when Clovis introduced Christianity to the Franks. Over the centuries, the Church in Rome sent missionaries to the farthest reaches of Europe to establish monasteries and spread its message. Charlemagne aided in this effort by lending his support to the construction of monasteries and monastic schools throughout his empire. Kings built beautiful cathedrals and other religious architecture, much of which still stands in Europe today. Pilgrims made religious journeys to holy places to show religious devotion, religious orders grew by leaps and bounds, and local churches played a major role in the everyday lives of common Europeans.

By the twelfth century, the Church had become such an integral part of European life that historians have nicknamed the Middle Ages the Age of Faith. Over a period of several hundred years, however, poor decisions, poor leadership, power struggles, and unfortunate events caused a serious decline not only in the prestige of the Church and the papacy but also in their power and influence.

The Crusades

Prior to the twelfth century, even though Muslims controlled the Holy Land, Christian pilgrims often visited sacred sites such as Jerusalem. As time wore on, relations between the Muslims and the Christians who traveled there grew unfriendly.

In the late twelfth century, the Muslims threatened the security of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, the home of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Byzantine emperor sent a plea for help to Pope Urban II. Pope Urban responded in 1089 by calling for a Crusade, or an organized Christian military expedition, to protect the Byzantine Empire. The pope then went a step further. He also called for the Christian crusaders to travel to the Holy Land to take back the holy places from the hands of the Muslims, or infidels, as they were called. Urban made numerous emotional appeals to European Christians. To further entice people to “take up the Cross,” as crusading was known, he said crusaders could keep whatever they captured. As icing on the cake, Urban promised that any who died while crusading would receive remission of their sins; in other words, their sins would be forgiven and their souls would go directly to heaven.

Urban received an overwhelming response to his call. Kings, nobles, peasants, and townspeople from across Europe sold their possessions or simply walked away from their lives to rid the Holy Land of infidels. For 200 years, Europeans crusaded very frequently; after that, crusading continued but not with the same frequency.

Much to the chagrin of Christendom, the Crusades never really worked out the way everyone imagined. Crusaders often bickered, argued, and fought amongst one another all the way to Jerusalem. Kings offended other kings and armies refused to cooperate. Expeditions ran out of food and supplies and resorted to stealing from towns along the way. Emotionally charged fighters routinely killed Jews they encountered; some crusaders even attacked the Byzantines when they passed through Constantinople. Only a few of the Crusades resulted in Christian control of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Worst of all, even the success of the “successful” Crusades was short-lived. Without exception, each time the crusaders scored a victory, the Muslims regained control of the Holy Land within a few years.

Would You Believe?

Overall, the Crusades were disastrous for Europe. However, Europeans did gain valuable knowledge in such areas as mapmaking, shipbuilding, and castle construction. Europeans also experienced new luxury goods like spices and silks as a result of the Crusades.

Rather than leaving the Catholic world triumphant, the Crusades caused many to lose heart. God had not delivered the holy places into Christian hands as the pope said He would. Kings—Richard of England and Philip of France, for example—resented one another after failing to get along on the Crusades. The relationship between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the western Catholic Church grew bitter and tense. Perhaps worst of all, though, tens of thousands of Crusaders and Muslims alike died in the historic clashes. The Crusades remain a relatively dark spot on the record of the Church.

Babylonians in Europe?

As the 1300s rolled around, Boniface VIII pushed papal the Church found itself in quite a quandary. Pope power to the limits and tried to increase his political power, angering France’s King Philip the Fair, among others. After a bitter feud, Boniface excommunicated Philip. Philip’s men then attacked and kidnapped the pope, who died shortly after being released. A Frenchman became Pope Clement V, who decided to break with tradition and choose a city other than Rome as his home. He settled in Avignon, France, at least partially to try to help end the feud between England and France. Clement also hoped to prevent Philip the Fair from trying the now-dead Pope Boniface for heresy.

Define Your Terms

Excommunication means being officially kicked out of or cut off from the Catholic Church. This is significant because, according to Catholic theology, one must go through the Church in order to receive 

Regardless of why Clement decided to move the papacy to Avignon, traditional Catholics, particularly those in Rome, were shocked. This had never been done before. Furthermore, Rome suffered terribly from the move. The papacy is big business. Many, many pilgrims and travelers from all over Europe visit the pope every year. Heads of state from across the continent have official ambassadors permanently assigned to the papacy. Writers and artists flock to the pope to employ their skills. The administrators and the entourage of the pope often numbered in the hundreds. All of these people generate revenue for the local economy. If all these sources of revenue were summarily removed from a city, that city’s economy faced serious hardships. Such was the case with Rome. Avignon, on the other hand, stood to gain tremendously from the move, especially considering that Clement’s administration and entourage was nearly triple the size of popes who had gone before him.

The Italian writer Francisco Petrarch articulated the frustrations of many people when he called the situation the “Babylonian Captivity of the papacy.” He compared the situation to the time when the Hebrews were exiled from their homeland and taken to Babylon as prisoners. Furthermore, the papacy appeared to most observers to be growing more and more eccentric, ostentatious, and concerned with wealth and extravagance. Many concerned Catholics, including pious women such as Catherine of Siena, urged the papacy to return to Rome. Despite the complaints and pleas, the papacy remained in Avignon for decades.

Finally, in 1377, Pope Gregory XI decided to take the papacy back to Rome, only to discover a city in shambles. The blow to Rome’s economy had far-reaching effects. The beautiful places in Rome had become run-down and crime had increased. It didn’t take long for Gregory to change his mind and head back to Avignon. Within a few months, though, Gregory was dead and the Church was left to choose a new pope.

The Great Schism and the Conciliar Movement

The cardinals charged with electing the next pope faced a monumental challenge. The Church needed a strong leader. However, the people of Rome were adamant that the cardinals choose an Italian pope so the papacy would return to its proper home. When a mob of Romans stormed the Vatican and threatened to do some real damage, the conclave of cardinals elected Urban VI, an Italian. Immediately Urban took a “holier than thou” attitude and called out many Church officials; in other words, he attacked many individuals for what he considered unholy behavior when his behavior hardly qualified as holy or righteous. Completely lacking in social skills, Urban alienated pretty much everyone who wasn’t a close friend of his. His ranting, raving, and fingerpointing cost him the support of most of those who initially favored him.

The French cardinals, put off by Urban, claimed they elected him under duress. They denounced Urban and elected a new pope, Clement VII, who returned to Avignon. The Church and the people of Europe faced an unimaginable dilemma: there were two popes. The magnitude of this problem hardly can be overstated. The pope is the official head of the Catholic Church, the mouthpiece of God on earth, the final authority on matters of spiritual significance and theology. Furthermore, the pope appoints clergy and weighs in on legal and political issues. The people of Europe were forced to make a decision: which pope was the true pope? Most people had no idea how to decide. What might be the consequences should people follow a false pope?

Finally, the nations and kingdoms of Europe picked sides, based more on politics than on religious conviction. The French and their allies supported Clement. The English, Germans, Poles, and most of the governments in Italy supported Urban. The division in Europe over who was the real pope did nothing to ease political tensions that already existed between many governments. This division of Europe is known as the Great Schism.

Would You Believe?

The Italian pope and his supporters referred to Clement as the anti-pope in an attempt to dissuade people from supporting Clement.

The crisis in the Church caused many to question its authority in worldly affairs and, more specifically, the nature of the authority of the pope. Those interested in reforming the Church hierarchy joined together in councils; thus began the Conciliar Movement. These councils applied great pressure on the papacy, in both Italy and France, to resolve the dispute. When no headway was made, a council of cardinals met, deposed both popes, and appointed a new pope, John XXIII. Rather than fixing the problem, the presence of yet a third pope complicated matters even more. The Conciliarists were beginning to realize that they couldn’t fix the problems in the Church. Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund called for a meeting of the general council of the Church, which came to be known as the Council of Constance. Constance, located in Germany, was an important city in the Catholic world because it had been given imperial status. Constance was subject only to the power and authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Council of Constance initially dealt with issues like heresy but later focused on the problem of the papacy. Finally, between 1415 and 1417, nearly 40 years after the Schism began, the Council deposed two popes, accepted the resignation of a third, and then appointed a new pope, Martin V. More importantly, the Council of Constance issued a decree in which it claimed that its power was derived directly from Christ and that all men, including the pope, were subject to its authority. A century earlier such a decree would have been unthinkable. Popes would now be forced to accept limits on their power and influence, limits like the Pragmatic Sanction of 1438 that severely limited papal authority in France. The conciliar threat to papal power was compounded by other European states that sought to decrease papal authority within their borders the way France had.

Why Didn't God Stop the Madness?

For the political powerbrokers of Europe, issues like the failure of the Crusades, the turmoil of the Babylonian Captivity, and the subsequent Schism affected them politically more than anything else. Furthermore, the heads of state viewed disasters like the plague and the Hundred Years’ War from a much different perspective than the common man.

For the common people of Europe, these crises represented perhaps a flaw or a weakness in the Church’s message and the Church’s power to save people. Life was plenty difficult already for medieval Europeans without the problems of disease, famine, warfare, and turmoil at the highest levels of the Church. The Church’s prestige wasn’t what it had once been, thanks in no small part to its inability to fix the problems that struck Europe during the High Middle Ages. Until this point, the Church had been able to explain away disasters and turmoil as the wrath of God, God testing His people, or simply the presence of evil in the world. These explanations no longer sufficed for Europeans and, in fact, spawned a new sense of curiosity that led many Europeans to look elsewhere for answers to questions that had been raised in light of recent events.

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