In 1378, several Popes claimed to be the true successor of St. Peter, in an event known as The Great Schism (1378-1417). This article examines the origins of the event that divided the Catholic Church for almost 50 yearsand the consequences of the schism on the Catholic Church.
The crisis ignited in 1377 when Pope Gregory XI decided to move his papal residency from Avignonto Rome. This angered the Roman nobility and some of Gregory’s own cardinals, which increasedduring the electionofhis successor, Urban VI (1378–1389),an Italian who had served at Avignon. Fear ofUrban’sviolent nature, combined with the disruption caused during the election, led people to question the validity of Urban Vl’s title. Accordingly, the cardinals in the French interest refused to accept him, declared his election void, and named Clement VII as pope. This meant that while Clement withdrew to Avignon, Urban remained in Rome, creating a divide in the Catholic Church.
The divide created two Popes and two accompanying papal structures which forcedthe surrounding European countries to divide in loyalties. Widespread administrative confusion occurred and led to an increase of spiritual anxiety. Consequently, in 1409 the Council of Pisa was established. However the councilproduced a third rival pope, John XXIII which served only to intensify the conflict. Accordingly, in 1414 the Council of Constance took the decision to depose the Avignonese Pope, Benedict XIII, as well as acceptingthe resignation of the Roman Pope, Gregory XII. This eliminated all three claims to the head of the Catholic Church, healing the schism by allowing the Council to appointPope Martin V (1417–31), the newly appointed leader to the entire Western Catholic Church.
The consequences of the schism were profound on the Catholic Church. While the Council of Constance ended nearly four decades of disruption in the church, it also asserted the belief that the Pope was no longer an absolute monarch. The pope was now accountable to the community of the faithful who had the power to judge, chastise, and even depose him. The dispute also demonstrated that leaders of the Church had become more interested in riches and politics than salvation. As a result of the disruption, many political and theological thinkers began to call for moral reforms in the Church during the 15th century.