The Crisis in the Church


I. THE PAPAL SCHISM: 1378–1417

GREGORY XI had brought the papacy back to Rome; but would it stay there? The conclave that met to name his successor was composed of sixteen cardinals, only four of whom were Italians. The municipal authorities petitioned them to choose a Roman, or at least an Italian; and to support the suggestion a crowd of Romans gathered outside the Vatican, threatening to kill all non-Italian cardinals unless a Roman were made pope. The frightened conclave, by a vote of fifteen to one, hastily elected (1378) Bartolommeo Prignano, Archbishop of Bari, who took the name of Urban VI; then they fled in fear of their lives. But Rome accepted the compromise.1

Urban VI ruled the city and the Church with impetuous and despotic energy. He appointed senators and municipal magistrates, and reduced the turbulent capital to obedience and order. He shocked the cardinals by announcing that he proposed to reform the Church, and to begin at the top. Two weeks later, preaching publicly in their presence, he condemned the morals of the cardinals and the higher clergy in unmeasured terms. He forbade them to accept pensions, and ordered that all business brought to the Curia should be dispatched without fees or gifts of any kind. When the cardinals murmured he commanded them to “cease your foolish chattering”; when Cardinal Orsini protested the Pope called him a “blockhead”; when the Cardinal of Limoges objected Urban rushed at him to strike him. Hearing of all this, St. Catherine sent the fiery Pontiff a warning: “Do what you have to do with moderation… with good will and a peaceful heart, for excess destroys rather than builds up. For the sake of the crucified Lord keep these hasty movements of your nature a little in check.”2 Urban, heedless, announced his intention to appoint enough Italian cardinals to give Italy a majority in the College.

The French cardinals gathered in Anagni, and planned revolt. On August 9, 1378, they issued a manifesto declaring Urban’s election invalid as having been made under duress of the Roman mob. All the Italian cardinals joined them, and at Fondi on September 20 the entire College proclaimed Robert of Geneva to be the true pope. Robert, as Clement VII, took up his residence at Avignon, while Urban clung to his pontifical office in Rome. The Papal Schism so inaugurated was one more result of the rising national state; in effect it was an attempt by France to retain the vital aid of the papacy in her war with England and in any furure contest with Germany or Italy. The lead of France was followed by Naples, Spain, and Scotland; but England, Flanders, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, and Portugal accepted Urban, and the Church became the political plaything of the rival camps. The confusion reached a pitch that aroused the scornful laughter of expanding Islam. Half the Christian world held the other half to be heretical, blasphemous, and excommunicate. St. Catherine denounced Clement VII as a Judas; St. Vincent Ferrer applied the same term to Urban VI.3 Each side claimed that sacraments administered by priests of the opposite obedience were invalid, and that the children so baptized, the penitents so shriven, the dying so anointed, remained in a state of mortal sin, doomed to hell or limbo if death should supervene. Mutual hatred rose to a fervor equaled only in the bitterest wars. When many of Urban’s newly appointed cardinals plotted to place him in confinement as a dangerous incompetent, he had seven of them arrested, tortured, and put to death (1385).

His own death (1389) brought no compromise; the fourteen cardinals surviving in his camp made Piero Tomacelli Pope Boniface IX, and the divided nations prolonged the divided papacy. When Clement VII died (1394) the cardinals at Avignon named Pedro de Luna to be Benedict XIII. Charles VI of France proposed that both popes should resign; Benedict refused. In 1399 Boniface IX proclaimed a jubilee for the following year. Realizing that many potential pilgrims would be kept at home by the chaos and insecurity of the times, he empowered his agents to give the full indulgence of the jubilee to any Christian who, having confessed his sins and done due penance, should contribute to the Roman Church the sum that a trip to Rome would have cost him. The collectors were not scrupulous theologians; many of them offered the indulgence without requiring confession; Boniface reproved them, but he felt that no one could make better use than he of money so secured; even amid the acute pains of the stone, said his secretary, Boniface “did not cease to thirst for gold.”4 When some collectors tried to cheat him he had them tortured till they disgorged. Other collectors were torn to pieces by the Roman mob for letting Christians get the jubilee indulgence without coming to spend money in Rome.5 Amid the jubilee celebrations and solemnities the Colonna family aroused the people to demand the restoration of republican government. When Boniface refused, the Colonna led an army of eight thousand against him; the aging pope stood siege resolutely in Sant’ Angelo; the people turned against the Colonna, the rebel army dispersed, and thirty-one leaders of the revolt were jailed. One of them was promised his life if he would serve as executioner of the rest; he consented, and hanged thirty men, including his father and his brother.6

On the death of Boniface and the election of Innocent VII (1404), revolt broke out again, and Innocent fled to Viterbo. The Roman mob, led by Giovanni Colonna, sacked the Vatican, smeared the emblems of Innocent with mud, and scattered papal registers and historic bulls through the streets (1405).7 Then the people, bethinking themselves that Rome without the popes would be ruined, made their peace with Innocent, who returned in triumph and, a few days later, died (1406).

His successor, Gregory XII, invited Benedict XIII to a conference. Benedict offered to resign if Gregory would do likewise; Gregory’s relatives dissuaded him from consent. Some of his cardinals withdrew to Pisa, and called for a general council to elect a pope acceptable to all Christendom. The King of France again urged Benedict to resign; when Benedict again refused, France renounced its allegiance, and adopted an attitude of neutrality. Deserted by his cardinals, Benedict fled to Spain. His cardinals joined with those who had left Gregory, and together they issued a call for a council to be held at Pisa on March 25, 1409.

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