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The Great Schism

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At the death of Gregory XI in Rome, the cardinals were forced by a Roman mob to elect an Italian pope. They chose Urban VI in hopes that he would be compliant to their advice. They were mistaken in this hope. Urban decided that both pope and papal administration should resume its residence in Rome, and threatened to reform the college of cardinals to increase Italian representation up to a majority in the body. Unable to control their new paper as they had hoped, the French cardinals fled Rome. The Italian cardinals, naturally, remained with Rome's new champion. When the French cardinals reached a point where they were same from the pope's power and the pressure of the Roman mobs, they assembled and declared that the election of Urban was invalid and void because they had acted under duress. They held another, rump, election, chose a Frenchman and returned to Avignon.

This created a knotty problem. The clergy had worked long and hard to establish the principles that the Church was independent of the State and immune from secular sanctions for its actions, and that the pope, once selected as bishop of Rome by the College of Cardinals, held absolute and supreme power within the Church. Since there was no secular power or person superior to the pope in churchly affairs, it followed that there was no power or person competent to judge the pope's actions. This meant that neither was there any power or person qualified to determine which of two claimants to the bishopric of Rome, was the true Vicar of Christ.

The financial situation of the Church as a whole grew even worse than it had been during the Avignon papacy. There were now two papal capitals for which it was necessary to provide upkeep; there were two entire papal administrations to be maintained in a style befitting their dignities. When the two papal claimants began competing with each other in matters such as pomp, lavish gifts, patronage, and bribery, the drain on ecclesiastical resources increased still further.

There were other forms of competition available and the rivals soon made use of them. Not only did each papal administration declare the other and its clergy to be heretical, but they reached the point of declaring that anyone accepting sacraments from a heretical - for which you may read "rival" - cleric would be considered excommunicate. It didn't take a genius to figure out that, since the rival popes each enjoyed the support of about half of Europe, half the population might be receiving the sacraments from a true priest, but the other half were being attended by a heretic, were dying excommunicate. While all of the population were making perfect acts of contrition, being absolved of their sins, receiving the sacrament of Extreme Unction and dying in certain hope of a Glorious Resurrection and Life Everlasting, the souls half of them were descending directly into the first of Hell to suffer the unspeakable torments of the damned for all eternity.

This was obviously a difficult matter for the faithful to accept, and it was clear that the true pope, whichever of the claimants he might have been, was powerless to save many thousands of believing Christians from being cast into Hell. As a matter of fact, it was at the command of the true pope that they were being so cast. There were two ways to solve the dilemma. One was to have the real pope stand up and so be able to reunify the Church. The other was to conclude that the Church was an ineffective institution as it had been operating and to reorganize it, or, if that proved impossible, to toss the Church hierarchy and established doctrine aside as being unnecessary for individual salvation. Naturally enough, the established leaders of society chose to pursue the first option and to find the real pope.

Several secular rulers were asked to exert their power and influence in settling the matter, but the secular rulers had already entered the game and chosen to support whichever of the claimants it was more advantageous for them to support. They were in no mood to support their opponents' man, and so did nothing to solve the problem. Distinguished figures called upon both popes to abdicate for the good of Christendom, but failed to persuade the rivals.

The theological faculty of the University of Paris was asked the decide the issue, but could come to no clear decision. One must note, however, that the realization that, if they opted for either one, the other would excommunicate them collectively and individually may have affected their logical powers. The question they had to decide, though, was not really which of the claimants to the Throne of Saint Peter was truly God's choice as exercised through the College of Cardinals but whether they had any right to pass upon the qualifications of the Vicar of Christ. One of the claimants, you see, must have been the true pope, and for the theology faculty to have presumed to pass judgment on his worthiness would have been a grievous sin.

Some people went so far as to poll those people - and it was not all that small a body - who were generally considered to be saints in all things save the final requirement of being dead. Unfortunately, of those who were willing to offer an opinion, there was not clear majority for either claimant. The pope himself, the king and princes, the wealthy and famous, the learned, and the holy - none of them provided the leadership needed in what was far from a minor difficulty.

While members of the establishment were trying, and failing, to distinguish the true pope from the false claimant, others were approaching the matter in more basic ways. On the principle that the bishopric of Rome would not be such a bone of contention were it not for the wealth and taxes that accrued to the position, some people revived the call for the Church to accept "apostolic poverty," in emulation of Jesus and his disciples. Influential thinkers and writers began to claim that the authority of the monarchs was superior to that of the pope and, in its role as protector of the people, the state had the responsibility of overseeing the Church's discharge of its functions. Generally speaking, the radical reformers of the Avignon period regained strength, but at too slow a pace to suggest to anyone that their resolution of the problem could be expected in the near future.

Popular responses to the situation arose -- critics of the Church and its practices that neither papal administration found easy to silence. Some of these critics addressed some of the basic beliefs that underlay the power and prestige of the Church. Wyclif and Hus, after all, claimed that the sacraments - which the ecclesiastical administrations recognized as essential to the Church's continued existence - were simply memorial rituals --

"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me" (1Cor.11:23-24).
without supernatural power.

The response of many members of a population that found itself without leaders and, to a certain degree without restrictions, was to embrace mystic movements such as the Rhineland Mystics of Meister Eckhardt. The "Pietist" movements that spread among the peasantry stimulated a new sense of personal religiosity. All of these movements were similar in their tendency to circumvent - even without intending to do so - the entire Church hierarchy by placing priestly powers in the hands of the individual. In many ways, this was the foundation of the concept of "the universal priesthood of all true believers" that would form an important element in the Protestant Reformation of the next century.

Over time, the situation only grew worse. There were still two papal claimants, and their rivalry led to increased corruption within their administrations and a decrease of interest in anything other than gaining advantage over their opponent. As time passed, the various reformers managed to settle on common principles and upon the way in which those principles might be put into action. They agreed upon the principle that the sovereignty of the Church rested in a body representative of its members. On this basis, they claimed that a general council would have the power to depose popes and address the other problems facing the church. Because of their insistence on the power of a council, they were known as the Conciliarists, and the group soon included virtually everyone committed to ecclesiastical reform.

They supported their position that general councils held supreme power within the church by numerous arguments:

1. Scriptural: In order to gain approval of his conversion of non-Jews to the Christian faith, Paul felt it necessary to gain approval of the Council of Jerusalem.
2. Historical: When the Emperor Constantine wanted Christians to formulate their common set of beliefs, he called the Council of Nicaea into session.
3. Parallels: Other monarchs, even though claiming supreme authority "By the Grace of God, shared their power with representative assemblies on matters of general import.
4. Philosophical: Nominalism, acceptance of which was growing, held that truth is what has been established and accepted by common will -- that justice is superior to law and that justice is a social construct.


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