Throughout the fourteenth century the Church suffered political humiliation and moral decay. She had begun with the profound sincerity and devotion of Peter and Paul; she had grown into a majestic system of familial, scholastic, social, international discipline, order, and morality; she was now degenerating into a vested interest absorbed in self-perpetuation and finance. Philip IV secured the election of a Frenchman to the papacy, and persuaded him to move the Holy See to Avignon on the Rhone. For sixty-eight years the popes were so clearly the pawns and prisoners of France that other nations gave them a rapidly diminishing reverence and revenue. The harassed pontiffs replenished their treasury by multiple levies upon the hierarchy, the monasteries, and the parishes. Every ecclesiastical appointee was required to remit to the papal Curia—the administrative bureaus of the papacy—half the income of his office for the first year (“annates”), and thereafter annually a tenth or tithe. A new archbishop had to pay to the pope a substantial sum for the pallium—a band of white wool that served as the confirmation and insignia of his authority. On the death of any cardinal, archbishop, bishop, or abbot, his personal possessions reverted to the papacy. In the interim between the death of an ecclesiastic and the installation of his successor, the popes received the net revenues of the benefice, and were accused of prolonging this interval. Every judgment or favor obtained from the Curia expected a gift in acknowledgment, and the judgment was sometimes dictated by the gift.

Much of this papal taxation was a legitimate means of financing the central administration of a Church functioning, with diminishing success, as the moral government of European society. Some of it, however, went to fatten ecclesiastical paunches, even to remunerate the courtesans that crowded Avignon. William Durand, Bishop of Mende, submitted to the Council of Vienne (1311) a treatise containing these words:

The whole Church might be reformed if the Church of Rome would begin by removing evil examples from herself... by which men are scandalized, and the whole people, as it were, infected.... For in all lands .... the Church of Rome is in ill repute, and all cry and publish it abroad that within her bosom all men, from the greatest even unto the least, have set their hearts upon covetousness.... That the whole Christian folk take from the clergy pernicious examples of gluttony is clear and notorious, since the clergy feast more luxuriously .... than princes and kings.1

“Wolves are in control of the Church,” cried the high Spanish prelate Alvaro Pelayo, “and feed on the blood” of the Christian flock.2 Edward III of England, himself an adept in taxation, reminded Clement VI that “the successor of the Apostles was commissioned to lead the Lord’s sheep to pasture, not to fleece them.”3 In Germany papal collectors were hunted down, imprisoned, mutilated, strangled. In 1372 the clergy of Cologne, Bonn, Xanten, and Mainz bound themselves by oath not to pay the tithe levied by Gregory XI.

Amid all complaints and revolts the popes continued to assert their absolute sovereignty over the kings of the earth. About 1324, under the patronage of John XXII, Agostino Trionfo wrote a Summa de potestate ecclesiastica in reply to attacks on the papacy by Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. The power of the pope, said Agostino, is from God, Whose vicegerent he is on earth; even when he is a great sinner he must be obeyed; he may be deposed by a general council of the Church for manifest heresy; but short of this his authority is second only to God’s, and transcends that of all earthly potentates. He may dethrone kings and emperors at will, even over the protests of their people or the electors; he may annul the decrees of secular rulers, and may set aside the constitutions of states. No decree of any prince is valid unless the pope gives it his consent. The pope stands higher than the angels, and may receive equal reverence with the Virgin and the saints.4 Pope John accepted all this as following logically from the generally conceded establishment of the Church by the Son of God, and acted on it with adamantine consistency.

Nevertheless the flight of the popes from Rome, and their subservience to France, undermined their authority and prestige. As if to proclaim their vassalage, the Avignon pontiffs, in a total of 134 nominations to the college of cardinals, named 113 Frenchmen.5The English government fumed at the loans of the popes to the kings of France during the Hundred Years’ War, and connived at the attacks of Wyclif upon the papacy. The Imperial electors in Germany repudiated any further interference of the popes in the election of kings and emperors. In 1372 the abbots of Cologne publicly agreed that “the Apostolic See has fallen into such contempt that the Catholic faith in these parts seems to be seriously imperiled.”6 In Italy the Papal States—Latium, Umbria, the Marches, the Romagna—were seized by condottieri despots who gave the distant popes a formal obeisance but kept the revenues. When Urban V sent two legates to Milan to excommunicate the recalcitrant Visconti, Bernabò compelled them to eat the bulls—parchment, silken cords, and leaden seals (1362).7 In 1376 Florence, quarreling with Pope Gregory XI, confiscated all ecclesiastical property in its territory, closed the episcopal courts, demolished the buildings of the Inquisition, jailed or hanged resisting priests, and called upon Italy to end all temporal power of the Church. It became clear that the Avignon popes were losing Europe in their devotion to France. In 1377 Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome.

When he died (1378) the conclave of cardinals, overwhelmingly French but fearful of the Roman mob, chose an Italian as Pope Urban VI. Urban was not urbane; he proved so violent of temper, and so insistent upon reforms uncongenial to the hierarchy, that the reassembled cardinals declared his election invalid as having been made under duress, and proclaimed Robert of Geneva pope. Robert assumed office as Clement VII in Avignon, while Urban persisted as pontiff in Rome. The Papal Schism (1378–1417) so inaugurated, like so many of the forces that prepared the Reformation, was conditioned by the rise of the national state; in effect it was an attempt by France to retain the moral and financial aid of the papacy in her war with England. The lead of France was followed by Naples, Spain, and Scotland; but England, Flanders, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Italy, and Portugal accepted Urban, and the divided Church became the weapon and victim of the hostile camps. Half the Christian world held the other half to be heretical, blasphemous, and excommunicate; each side claimed that sacraments administered by priests of the opposite obedience were worthless, and that the children so baptized, the penitents so shriven, the dying so anointed, remained in mortal sin, and were doomed to hell—or at best to limbo—if death should supervene. Expanding Islam laughed at disintegrating Christendom.

Urban’s death (1389) brought no compromise; the fourteen cardinals in his camp chose Boniface IX, then Innocent VII, then Gregory XII, and the divided nations prolonged the divided papacy. When Clement VII died (1394) the Avignon cardinals named a Spanish prelate to be Benedict XIII. He offered to resign if Gregory would follow suit, but Gregory’s relatives, already entrenched in office, would not hear of it. Some of Gregory’s cardinals abandoned him, and called for a general council. The King of France urged Benedict to withdraw; Benedict refused; France renounced its allegiance to him, and adopted neutrality. While Benedict fled to Spain his cardinals joined with those who had left Gregory, and together they issued a call for a council to meet at Pisa and elect a pope acceptable to all.

Rebellious philosophers, almost a century before, had laid the theoretical foundations of the “conciliar movement.” William of Ockham protested against identifying the Church with the clergy; the Church, he held, is the congregation of all the faithful; that whole has authority superior to any part; it may delegate its authority to a general council of all the bishops and abbots of the Church; and such a council should have the power to elect, reprove, punish, or depose the pope.8 A general council, said Marsilius of Padua, is the collected wisdom of Christendom; how should any one man set up his own intellect above it? Such a council, he thought, should be composed not only of clergymen but also of laymen chosen by the people.9 Heinrich von Langenstein, a German theologian at the University of Paris, applied (1381) these ideas to the Papal Schism. Whatever logic there might, be, he argued, in the claims of the popes to supremacy, a crisis had arisen from which logic offered no escape but one: only a power outside the papacy, and superior to the cardinals, could rescue the Church from the chaos that was destroying her; and that authority could only be a general council.

The Council of Pisa met on March 25, 1409. It summoned Benedict and Gregory to appear before it; they ignored it; it declared them deposed, elected a new pope, Alexander V, bade him call another council before May 1412, and adjourned. There were now three popes instead of two. Alexander did not help matters by dying (1410), for his cardinals named as his successor John XXIII, the most unmanageable man to mount the pontifical chair since the twenty-second of his name. Governing Bologna as papal vicar, this ecclesiastical condottiere, Baldassare Cossa, had permitted and taxed everything, including prostitution, gambling, and usury; according to his secretary he had seduced 200 virgins, matrons, widows, and nuns.10 But he had money, and an army; perhaps he could conquer the Papal States from Gregory, and so reduce him to impecunious abdication.

John XXIII delayed, as long as he could, the calling of the council decreed at Pisa. When he opened it at Constance on November 5, 1414, only a fraction had arrived of the three patriarchs, twenty-nine cardinals, thirty-three archbishops, 150 bishops, 300 doctors of theology, fourteen university delegates, twenty-six princes, 140 nobles, and 4,000 priests who were to make the completed council the largest in Christian history, and the most important since the Council of Nicaea (325) had established the trinitarian creed of the Church. On April 6,1415, the great gathering issued a proud and revolutionary decree:

This holy synod of Constance, being a general council, and legally assembled in the Holy Spirit for the praise of God, for ending the present Schism, and for the union and reform of the Church in its head and members... ordains, declares, and decrees as follows: First, it declares that this synod .... represents the Church Militant, and has its authority directly from Christ; and everybody, of whatever rank or dignity, including also the pope, is bound to obey this council in those things that pertain to the faith, to the ending of this Schism, and to a general reform of the Church in its head and members. Likewise it declares that if anyone .... including also the pope, shall refuse to obey the commands, statutes, ordinances... of this holy council... in regard to the ending of the Schism or to the reform of the Church, he shall be subject to proper punishment .... and, if necessary, recourse shall be had to other aids of justice.11

The Council demanded the abdication of Gregory XII, Benedict XIII, and John XXIII. Receiving no answer from John, it accepted the presentation of fifty-four charges against him as a pagan, oppressor, liar, simoniac, traitor, lecher, and thief; sixteen other accusations were suppressed as too severe.12 On May 29, 1415, it deposed him. Gregory was more pliant and subtle; he agreed to resign, but only on condition that he should first be allowed to reconvene the council on his own authority. So reconvened, the council accepted his resignation (July 4). To further attest its orthodoxy, it burned at the stake (July 6) the Bohemian reformer, John Huss. On July 26 it declared Benedict XIII deposed; he settled in Valencia, and died there at ninety, still holding himself pope. On November 17, 1417, an electoral committee chose Cardinal Ottone Colonna as Pope Martin V. All Christendom acknowledged him, and the Papal Schism came to an end.

The victory of the council in this regard defeated its other purpose—to reform the Church. Martin V at once assumed all the powers and prerogatives of the papacy. Playing off each national group of delegates against the others, he persuaded them to accept a vague and innocuous minimum of reform. The council yielded to him because it was tired. On April 22, 1418, it dissolved.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!