The Western Schism

In the previous posts we had raised the investiture controversy, one sign of the interplay of civil and ecclesial authority, power, and mission. Even with the investiture controversy “on the back burner” for the moment, the siren’s call of power and influence revealed its presence. By the start of the 14th century, the papacy was firmly ensconced in the mix of European politics. Pope Boniface VIII famously claimed all spiritual and temporal power, i.e., all kings ruled at the good pleasure and grace of the pope. It was an age of expanding national powers and the decline of the Holy Roman Empire. Pope Urban locked horns with Phillip IV of France. Phillip was a major proponent of separation of church and state, immediately taking the initiative to remove all priests from civil positions and to tax them as citizens of the realm.

Boniface excommunicated Phillip who responded by decreeing laws prohibiting the export of gold, silver, precious stones, or food from France to the Papal States. These measures had the effect of blocking a main source of papal revenue. Philip also banished from France the papal agents who were raising funds for a new crusade in the Middle East.

Money ever an ingredient in the stew pot of civil and ecclesial life; ever incendiary at their intersection.

When Pope Boniface formally issued Unam Sanctum, declaring all kings subject to the pope, that was the last straw. A key supporter and counselor of King Phillip, Guillaume de Nogaret, aided by the Roman Colonna family, lead a small army and surprised Pope Boniface at the papal retreat in Anangi (central Italy). The pope was arrested, seemingly beaten and nearly executed, but was released from captivity after three days. He died on 11 October 1303.

The counselor reported Boniface died by suicide from “gnawing through his own arm” and bashing his skull into a wall. Tensions were high when the papal conclave meet. They elected Benedict XI a friend of the French court – except that he excommunicated Nogaret for his role at Anagni and in the death of Boniface.

Rumor has it that Nogaret arranged the poisoning of Benedict who died in late 1304.

The Western SchismThe papal enclave meet in Rome and were deadlocked for months. In June, 1305 they finally elected Clement V, a Frenchman, as pope. Clement declined to move to Rome, remaining in France, and in 1309 moved his court to the papal enclave at Avignon. Thus started the “Avignon Papacy.” A total of seven popes reigned at Avignon; all were French, and they increasingly fell under the influence of the French Crown. Finally, on September 13, 1376, Gregory XI abandoned Avignon and moved his court to Rome (arriving on January 17, 1377), officially ending the Avignon Papacy.

Move the clock ahead. After Pope Gregory XI died (in 1378), a mob surrounded the papal conclave – meeting in Rome – to demand a Roman pope, but there was no native born Roman who was a serious option. The cardinals elected Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari in Southern Italy, who took the name Urban VI; he was originally from Naples. 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.

Immediately following his election, Urban began preaching to the cardinals of the Roman Curia, insisting that the business of the Curia should be carried on without gratuities and gifts, forbidding the cardinals to accept annuities from rulers and other lay persons, condemning the luxury of their lives and retinues, and the multiplication of benefices and bishoprics in their hands. Nor would he move the papacy back to Avignon, thus alienating King Charles V of France.

The French cardinals, their life of luxury threatened and saying no to the reform most needed in the Church, took action. This portion of the College of Cardinals claimed the election of Urban invalid because of threat of the Roman mob, voted to excommunicate Urban, and voted to elect a French priest as “Clement VII.” Thus began the Western Schism. Clement is known as an anti-pope and “ruled” from Avignon.

The period from 1378 to 1417, when there were rival claimants to the title of pope, is referred to as the “Western Schism.” Parties within the Roman Church were divided in their allegiance – mainly along national lines – among the various claimants to the office of pope. The Council of Constance finally resolved the controversy in 1417 when the election of Pope Martin V was accepted by all.

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