History 441/541
European Reformations

Schism, Conciliarism, and the Crisis of Papal Monarchy
Image: a procession of clergymen attending the Council of Constance, from the Chronicle of the Council of Constance by Ulrich Riechental. http://www.unesco.org.

1. Introduction: The Late Medieval Crisis of Papal Monarchy
2. Historical Outline: The Great Schism and Conciliarism
3. Popes of the Great Schism and the Conciliar Era
4. Restoration and Counter-Reformation Popes
5. Suggestions for Further Reading

Most people know that the unity of western Christianity ended with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. From the 1520s on, western Christianity would be permanently divided between Roman Catholicism and the various Protestant confessions or denominations—Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed (or “Calvinist”), and Anabaptist, just to enumerate the oldest of these.

1. Introduction: The Late Medieval Crisis of Papal Monarchy
Less well known is the fact that prior to the Reformation, the church experienced one of the most profound and transforming crises in its history—one which in many ways laid the groundwork for both the Protestant split and the revival of “Counter-Reformation” Catholicism. This was a crisis of power and authority within the church, brought on by the legal election of two popes in the year 1378. This division in the leadership of the church—called the “Great Schism”—would not end for nearly forty years.  Between 1378 and 1417, both popes—the one residing in Rome, the other in the city of Avignon in southern France—would claim the obedience of the entire church, and condemn anyone who obeyed his rival. Out of this impossible situation grew a fundamental challenge to the authority of popes in general. In their search for a solution to the Great Schism, leading church intellectuals and officials revived the ancient theory that a “General Council” of all the leaders of the church possessed an authority even greater than that of the pope himself. If so, then a “General Council” had the power to depose a legitimately elected pope and thereby restore the institutional unity of the church. This theory soon transformed into a powerful ideology and political movement, which historians refer as “conciliarism” and the “conciliar movement.”
        The crisis of authority in the church touched on virtually every aspect of cultural life in Europe. To give but one example: as long as there were two popes, one could not be sure who the “true” pope was; and because each pope had excommunicated his rival’s followers, one could not be certain that any church sacrament or ritual—baptisms, marriages, communion, last rites, or any other sacraments—had any validity. Furthermore, because the pope was considered to be the supreme judge in legal matters under the church’s jurisdiction, one could not be certain whether the decision of a church court was valid or not. To which pope should one appeal a verdict? All this confusion and uncertainty added many voices to the growing chorus of criticism against corruption in the late medieval church. As if this were not complicated enough, the “Great Schism” quickly got entangled in the dynastic rivalries and superpower ambitions of the western European monarchies—not to mention the unimaginably complex politics of Renaissance Italy. The kings of France tended to support the Avignon popes, for obvious reasons; France’s traditional rivals, the kings of England, endorsed the Roman succession—and for much of this period, England controlled most of northern France. The princes of Germany and Italy were largely autonomous and supported whomever appeared most advantageous politically; this resulted in a roughly even split. The Iberian peninsula included three Christian kingdoms, which were also inclined toward the Roman obedience.
        All this coincided with a massive, grass-roots movement for reform of the church in general, especially what many considered to be the popes’ excessive greed for power and money. Under the “Avignon Papacy,” in particular, the papal administration had acquired a reputation for unbridled greed. With this came accusations that by demanding heavy payments from nominees to high church offices, the papacy had made itself guilty of “simony”—the sin of attempting to purchase the spiritual benefits of the church. These accusations did not abate when the Avignon Papacy ended; rather they intensified when the Great Schism compounded the crisis of legitimacy.

2. Historical Outline: The Great Schism and Conciliarism
For most of the fourteenth century, popes did not reside in Rome, but at the papal palace at Avignon in southern France. Many in the church considered this to be an abuse: they argued that the pope should live in the city where he is bishop—Rome. In his absence from Rome, they argued, the pope’s moral authority had deteriorated, not to mention his many powers as a secular prince—for the pope was not only head of the church, but also the earthly ruler over a broad band of territories in central Italy. Proponents of reform therefore advocated an end to what historians call the “Avignon Papacy” (1309-1377).
        At long last, Pope Gregory XI decided to move the pope’s permanent residence back to Rome, but he died only a few months after arriving there in 1377. This move threatened the power of the College of Cardinals—church dignitaries who enjoyed the right to elect the pope—whose power within the church had grown during the Avignon years. After Gregory XI’s death, they convened in 1378 to elect a new pope, but the man they chose—Urban VI—proved too eager to restore the pope’s authority as monarch over the church. So the cardinals undid their first election and chose a different candidate—Clement VII (reigned 1378-1394)—who soon returned to Avignon. But Urban VI refused to relinquish his title, and continued to claim it throughout his reign (1378-89). Thus from 1378 on, there were two legally elected popes, two legitimate lines of papal succession, two papal courts, two church bureaucracies, two monarchs vying for the loyalty and obedience of every Catholic. Because everything depended on the unity of spiritual authority within it, the Great Schism undermined the integrity of everything the church said and did.
        What to do? The faculty of the University of Paris proposed three solutions or “paths” out of the crisis: in the first option, both popes might resign, which would permit the election of a single successor to both of them; a second option was that some independent tribunal might judge the dispute between the two popes, and decide in favor of one or the other. The third path was “conciliarism”—a proposal to defer the entire matter to a general council of the church, which could resolve the crisis on its own, superior authority.  The first of these “General Councils” met at the Italian city of Pisa in 1409. The Council of Pisa deposed the two existing popes and elected a third—Alexander V (1409-1410)—but because neither existing pope acknowledged the authority of a general council, neither would resign, and the result was three popes—one in Rome, one in Avignon, and a third in Pisa. When Alexander died, the Council of Pisa elected John XXIII—now there were three lines of papal succession. The challenge of solving this mess was left to the next council, which met in the southern German town of Constance. In order to resolve the Schism more effectively than Pisa had done, the Council of Constance (1414-1418) enacted bold changes in the structure of spiritual power in western Christianity: among many other things, it declared the that because councils represented the whole body of the Church, their authority was greater than that of popes. This was the central proposition of conciliarism. In order to safeguard this superior authority, the Council of Constance also tried to establish itself on a firm institutional footing. In its decree Frequens, the council announced that in the future, councils—until then considered an emergency measure—were to become a permanent, regularly meeting assembly, a kind of legislature for the church.
        For good or ill, the conciliar movement soon began to fall apart. Like its predecessor, the Council of Constance deposed both the Roman and Avignon popes, and—together with the College of Cardinals—elected its own candidate, the Roman noble Oddone Colonna, as pope Martin V, in November 1417. This time, however, the tactic worked: almost all the princes and bishops of western Europe transferred their allegiance to Pope Martin. The existing Avignon pope—Benedict XIII—continued to claim the papacy until the end of his life (1423), but after Martin’s election only Scotland continued to recognize Benedict’s claim. There remained a handful of pretenders (Clement VIII, Benedict XIV) but for all practical purposes, the papal schism was at an end.
        But this did not end the crisis of authority, for now there were two claimants to supreme authority within the church: Pope Martin V and the General Council. As the nominee of one General Council, Martin V was obliged by the decree Frequens to convene another—which he did in 1423, the Council of Pavia. But Martin resented its claim to superiority and managed to dissolve the council in 1424. But the crisis was still not over. Shortly before his death, Martin V was persuaded to call yet another council, which convened in the Swiss city of Basel in 1431. In 1433 the new pope, Eugenius IV, tried to dissolve it, but some delegates to the Council of Basel refused to disband. Instead, the Council reaffirmed the principle of conciliar supremacy within the church. In 1438, Eugenius IV transferred the council to the Italian city of Ferrara, and again to Florence in 1439.
        But not all the delegates were prepared to leave Basel, and the result was yet another schism, this time within the conciliar movement itself. The church was in for another round of reciprocal condemnations: in 1439, Eugenius IV excommunicated the Council of Basel, and the Council in Basel in return deposed him and elected the Duke of Savoy—Amadeo VIII “the Peaceful”—as his successor. As pope, Amadeus took the name Felix V. For ten years, the Council of Basel would continue in session at various sites. The crisis finally ended after Eugenius’ successor, Nicholas V (1447-1455), secured the abdication of Felix V and managed to disband the Council of Basel’s last remnant, now meeting in Lausanne (1449).
        For our purposes, the complex sequence of popes and anti-popes, councils and anti-councils is less important than the crisis of authority that lay at the core of this struggle. This crisis revolved around several basic problems: the relationship between spiritual and earthly authority; the question of whether the church should be governed as a monarchy; and whether a corrupt pope could lay claim to legitimate authority. The Great Schism intensified more general criticisms of church power in the West. There had been critics of corruption in the church and the monarchy of popes throughout the Middle Ages, of course. But the collapse of church unity and the forty-year cycle of mutual condemnations among popes and councils confirmed many in the belief that salvation could not depend necessarily on the priesthood and obedience to the institutional church—especially if that priesthood and church were seen to be preoccupied with power.

3. Popes of the “Great Schism” and the Conciliar Era

Gregory XI [Pierre Roger de Beaufort] 1370-1378
The Roman Succession

Urban VI [Bartolomeo Prignano] 1378-1389
Boniface IX [Pietro Tomacelli] 1389-1404 
Innocent VII [Cosimo de' Migliorati] 1389-1404
Gregory XII [Angelo Correr] 1406-1415

Conciliar Popes

Council of Pisa:
Alexander V [Pietro Philarghi] 1409-1410
John XXIII [Baldassare Cossa] 1410-1415

Council of Constance:
Martin V [Oddone Colonna] 1417-1431

Council of Basel:
Felix V [Amadeo VIII of Savoy] 1439-1449

The Avignon Succession

Clement VII [Robert de Geneve] 1378-94
Benedict XIII [Pietro de Luna] 1394-1417/1423
Clement VIII [Gil Sanchez Muñoz] 1423-1429
Benedict XIV [Bernard Garnier] 1425-1430

4. Restoration and Counter-Reformation Popes
Eugenius IV [Gabrielo Condolmieri] 1431-1447
Nicholas V [Tomasso Parentucelli] 1449-1455
Calixtus III [Alphonso Borgia] 1455-1458
Pius II [Enea Silvio Piccolomini] 1458-1464
Paul II [Pietro Barbo] 1464-1471
Sixtus IV [Francesco della Rovere] 1471-1484
Innocent VIII [Giovanni Battista Cibò] 1484-1492
Alexander VI [Roderigo Borgia] 1492-1503
Pius III [Francesco Piccolomini] 1503
Julius II [Giuliano della Rovere] 1503-1513
Leo X [Giovanni de Medici] 1513-1521
Adrian VI [Adriano Florentino] 1522-1523
Clement VII [Giulio de Medici] 1523-1534
Paul III [Alessandro Farnese] 1534-1549
Julius III [Giammaria Ciocchi del Monte] 1549-1555
Marcellus II [Marco Cervini degli Spannochi] 1555-1559
Paul IV [Gian Petro Caraffa] 1555-1559
Pius IV [Giovanni Angelo de Medici] 1559-1565
Pius V [Michaele Ghisleri] 1566-1572
Gregory XIII [Ugo Buoncompagni] 1572-1585

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