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The Great Schism


In the year 1378, the Roman Catholic Church split when the King of France decided that he did not like the Italian Pope and elected one of his own. The Great Schism, as it has been called, lasted for about 68 years, during which time there were two popes claiming authority over the Catholic Church.

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The so-called "Babylonian Captivity" was one of the main factors Which caused the Great Schism. In 1309, Pope Clement V moved the papacy and his residence to Avignon, a city just outside French territory on the Rhone River. This allowed Phillip the Fair, King of France, to exert a great deal of influence over the pope. In 1377, Pope Gregory XI made a significant move and returned the papacy to Rome.

After Pope Gregory XI died, an Italian Pope was elected. However, the French did not like him. Therefore, they elected their own pope who ruled from Avignon where the pope had been during the Avignese Papacy. This was also regarded by many as a location that worked well in centralizing leadership. As a result of this, Western Christendom split, with two popes and two accompanying papal structures.

Now Western Europe was politically divided over which pope to support. Of course France supported the Avignon pope. Along with France were Sicily, Scotland, Castile, Aragon, and Portugal. On the other side, Rome supported the Roman pope, as did Flanders, Poland, Hungary and Germany. Many citizens were confused over this split, but those who were not decided to take advantage of it. The two popes were constant rivals. It was common to hear each calling the other the anti-pope and also trying to get him out of a position of leadership. Their main motive for these actions was to gain allies for themselves. There were very few people who actually took the claims of these so-called spiritual leaders seriously because of the fact that they were competing constantly with one another just like anyone dealing with worldly politics. The effects of this split on the general population can be summarized as follows, "The papal office suffered the most; the pope's authority diminished as pious Christians became bewildered and disgusted."

Following the split, the papal offices began to lose authority. For a time conditions improved, but they did not stay favorable. Finally, the cardinals of both popes decided that an ecumenical council of godly men could collectively possess more divine authority that just one pope. So, in 1409 they asked the church council in Pisa to elect a new pope that could unite the sides. The Pisian council did, but neither pope was willing to give up his power. Thus, three popes were vying for authority over the church.

Finally between 1414 and 1418, the Council of Constance was successful in healing the Schism. The deposition of the Avignon Pope induced the resignation of the Roman Pope. Therefore, the schism was healed and there was room for the election of a single pope, Pope Martin V, who reigned from 1417-1431.

Edited by: Meredith L. Berg
Researched by: Jelani N. Greenidge
Written by: Donita R. McWilliams
November 25, 1997

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